The next day we took a 16-seater plan for 15 minutes to Corozal, a little further north up the Belize coast. Here we were met by the local ‘Arthur Daley’ of transport, Mr George Moralez, and conducted safely to the Mexican border at Chetumal. This was smooth and pleasurable, compared to the checkpoint at Guatemala. Strangely, it is a privatised concern, apparently allowing the owner to charge whatever emigration fee they fancy – in this case $30 Belizean as the base price, plus $7.50 for PACT (a Preservation and Conservation Tax). Fair enough. We were met by “our man in Mexico” and driven west for 45 minutes to the Explorean at Kohunlich. I had been to an Explorean before, at Salto Chico, in Torres del Paine, Chile, possibly the most interesting hotel in the world, so I was hoping for the best. Initially, I didn’t get it. First of all, the situation of the hotel and the view from it was unremarkable. Granted, it was in the middle of nowhere and overlooked unspoilt rainforest, but there was nothing particularly unusual about the landscape. 1 – 0 down.
Our villa was basic but pleasant enough in design and amenities. But it smelt of mould, which no amount of air conditioning, candles and window opening seemed able to shift. 2 – 0 down. We were then enticed to go on a “kayak adventure, see the sunset, cruise the lake at dusk, see the wildlife, have dinner under the stars” at 4.30pm. This was a disaster. Twenty of us were herded into 5-litre Chevrolet cans with a massive kayak-laden trailer and driven for an hour, down a seemingly impossible track for an hour to the shore of a lagoon. Here we were subjected to a safety briefing and warm-up exercises in Spanish, not dissimilar to a scout’s away day or a clandestine coven meeting deep in the woods. There was no sunset. It was also pretty clear to me that there was no wildlife either, but we nevertheless launched into the lake as the last light faded. One guy led off. Twenty of us followed uncomfortably seated in our kayaks. A few had been given lamps to strap to their heads, but most of the time we couldn’t see where we were going. Then came several hundred yards of dense reeds. Out paddles were slopping piles of wet vegetation all over us. Sure enough, there was no wildlife. The sum total of our discovery was two herons roosting, a handful of fireflies blinking in the dark, and one pair of red reflective alligator eyes in the distance. It started to rain. We paddled back in the pitch black and towelled down. By now the van was full of midges and to add insult to injury we were stopped by the Mexican army on the way back and searched for drugs and guns by torchlight.
After four futile hours, we were back where we started in the hotel, soaked through and gagging for a drink. This was one of the most pointless things I can ever remember doing. 3 – 0 down. In the morning we declined the proposed 20-mile bike ride to a 16th century Franciscan monastery and had a lie-in instead. We needed a new plan to turn this experience around.
The master plan the next day involved borrowing a pair of mountain bikes from the hotel and cycling for 15 minutes to Kohunlich, some relatively little known Maya ruins nearby. The place was charming. Very, very quiet, compared to the highly popular Tikal. No gift shop. A fat Mexican charges you four dollars to get in, a couple of quid. There were, admittedly, a couple of coaches, but we easily circumnavigated them by going to all the bits where they weren’t. The guides always hold large parties long enough at each item to allow individuals to time their run. The place was built in around 600AD. It’s bigger than it first appears, because it is totally encased in jungle. There are pyramids, temples and a plaza. The acropolis and living quarters disappear off into the jungle. No guides. No other people in sight. Bliss. 3 –1. Kohunlich had pulled one back. We cycled back in time to grab a superb lunch of tuna carpaccio, lime soup and chilli chicken. 3 – 2. It was then that a coach-load of twenty Spaniards arrived. Actually they were perfectly behaved. One pair of love birds spent the whole evening in the outdoor hot-tub, probably for about four hours, massaging each others feet and drinking cocktails. By the end it was dark and they emerged like dried prunes. We declared it a 3 – 3 draw, and went to bed.
Next day was a return to Chetumal airport, where Mexican Air revealed their colours again as being fairly shambolic. My airport tax hadn’t been paid. $45 dollars down. On board I was approached and asked for my ticket. They had failed to retain the right part. But the flight was decent enough – 1hr 40 minutes- and we touched down smoothly in Mexico City. With a population of 30 million, we were expecting chaos and depravation. What we got was way, way better. Mexico City is quite wonderful: sweeping wide boulevards, fringed with palm trees, good roads, interesting novel architecture both old and new, and very ,very clean. We kept expecting to come across the shitty bits but it didn’t happen. We checked into our hotel, the Habita, in the chic area just north of the lovely Bosque de Chapultepec woods. It’s a designer hotel with minimalist décor, nouvelle cuisine and a trendy bar and pool on the roof that chugs to the sound of house music into the small hours. A bit of modern urban fun after the ethnic venues and jungle lodges. The afternoon beckoned and we devoted it to art, visiting four museums in three hours. First up, the Palacio de Belles Artes, a large art nouveau building in the historic centre, with a yellow dome and marble interior. The architecture proved to be more to our taste than the art, which mainly consisted of enormous murals devoted to various ways to die: strangulation, decapitation, arson and rape. Not very edifying and actually quite disturbing.
Next we moved one block round the corner to the Museo Nacional de Arte. This was immaculately kept and contained mainly old masters, as usual obsessed with large, sombre images of Jesus. But every now and then these were interspersed with ultra-modern pieces. One in particular was a narrow ten-foot alcove with a descending photo of a street going down one side, creating the effect that the floor sloped down, away from you. In fact it was completely level. Very clever. We then took one of the city’s highly distinctive VW beetle green and white cabs across town to the Museo de Arte Moderno, on the edge of the Chapultepec woods. As with the Tate Modern and any other modern art museums, there was a fair proportion of weird stuff in here, but also some very clever pieces. Finally, we walked along Paseo de la Reforma to the Museo Nacional de Anthropologic. This place is truly massive and beautifully done. It introduces the layperson to the discipline of anthropology, and charts the ascent of man through the millennia.
There are then ten separate exhibition halls dedicated to pre-classical times, Teotihuacan, the Toltects, Oaxaca, the Gulf region, the Maya and all the other 20 main Mexican sites. The scale of this is staggering. It is not uncommon here to walk into a hall and be confronted with a frieze 50 feet high and 100 feet long, hewn out of volcanic rock and depicting jaguar heads painted red and green, exactly as though you were being transported back to that era. If you had the stamina, it would take a solid day to take it all in, and, like the Natural History museum in London, it would definitely bear repeated visits and keep rewarding you each time you returned. All these museums had been immaculately kept, with lots of original presentation ideas, and great value throughout. Well done, Mexico City!
We took a pleasant 15 minutes stroll back to the hotel, feeling very safe and at home, to take a drink on the 6th floor overlooking the city, watching the planes come in, followed by an excellent meal of sushi and risotto. But the city had much more to offer. In the morning we took the 45 minutes drive to Teotihuacan, “the place where men become gods”. This 8-mile square site represents only ten percent of a pre-Columbian city that housed 125,000 people. It was missed by the Spanish because the huge temples just looked like small versions of the surrounding volcanoes covered as they were in vegetation. The Aztecs had discovered and revered it before them, but they didn’t build it and nobody knows who did. There are many confusing signals to be found here. There are two dominant pyramids reaching hundreds of feet high, but they aren’t Egyptian. There are flushing toilets that can be found in early China, together with dragon-head metre-square gargoyles that would match those origins. There are motifs and immaculate pink stucco walls that would grace any Roman city. But no-one really knows.
The Avenue of the Dead is so enormous you could easily land a jumbo jet on it. There are living quarters, sauna areas, cloisters, and a musical auditorium with amazing acoustics that would allow a person to speak normally and still be heard by 100,000 people. Truly mind-blowing. We ascended the Pyramid of the Moon and were rewarded with a fantastic view of the city and its surrounding valley. Given the amount still to be uncovered here, it wouldn’t surprise me if a couple of the nearby “volcanoes” actually turn out to be more pyramids (pyramids are something of a misnomer because strictly pyramids are burial tombs, which these structures are not). In their prime, around 300 AD, the whole thing would have been covered in smooth pink stucco. They made this by grinding volcanic rock into a fine ash, adding cactus juice and a bit of egg. When it’s dry you crush the larva of the cochineal beetle to create red paint, or use the sap of a local plant for yellow, and so on. The effect must have been truly brilliant.
You could stay all day in a place like this, but we had deliberately come early to avoid the coach parties, which were now starting to invade. On the way back into town on the Avenida Insurgentes (in honour of independence insurgent revolutionaries) we stopped off at the Basilica de Guadalupe, the most visited catholic shrine in the Americas. The story goes that in 1531 a converted Indian called Juan Diego saw a vision on the hill of a brown-skinned Virgin Mary, telling him to build a church there. The bishop wouldn’t let him unless he provided proof, which the lady duly did in the form of a bunch of roses which, when opened, turned into a full colour painting of her on a piece of cloth. This hung reverentially in various churches on the hill over the centuries. Three of them are now fairly knackered and sinking, so they have built a massive auditorium that runs non-stop services and can cater for mass rallies of 100,000 or more. The lady herself is on the wall in front of a series of moving walkways, that enable people to view her back and forth, out of sight of the congregation. Another revered item here is the bent 4-foot golden cross, which prevented the obliteration of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s image when a nutter tried to blow it up with dynamite. Another miracle, naturally. The whole area is awash with religious artefacts, and some people crawl on their knees for 4 kilometres to offer their allegiance, prayers, thanks or whatever. So if you ever want to organise a highly successful propaganda campaign, call the Vatican for advice.
We asked to be dropped off in the centre of town, and couldn’t have chosen a better spot. The top floor of the Majestic Hotel on a terrace overlooking the huge Zocalo Square, the Plaza de la Constitucion. Enjoying a Victoria beer 200 foot up, we could survey this vast area, third only in scale to Tiananmen and Red Square. The biggest flag imaginable, probably 30 foot by 200 on a 150 foot pole, stands in the middle in front of the imposing Palacio Nacional. A neat line of tourists sit in the shade it gives. To the left on the northern side, the Catedral Metropolitana, which easily obscures the view of the Templo Major, Aztec remains discovered right in the city centre in the 1970s. The Catedral still looks grand, but has suffered, along with many other buildings here, from subsidence – a consequence of building on what was originally a swampy lake filled in by the invading Spanish. It’s a beautiful day, and a perfect one to enjoy the view and the atmosphere whilst rather strangely hearing an audio backdrop of Coldplay and Avril Lavigne, which is being tannoyed into the square. Mexico City has proven to be an unexpected gem. The scale suggested chaos but this delivers quality and charm on a par with Madrid and Barcelona. Ten out of ten.
And so to the pleasurable but somewhat daunting task of drawing together the strands of the last month spent on the road or in the air. Six countries, thirty days, and just under 20,000 miles. A lot of exhilaration for not very much aggravation. Assembling a greatest hits of the trip is easy, but not concise, because of the huge number of memorable events. In Venezuela: flying in a tiny plane and seeing the gargantuan tepuis for the first time; flying up to the Salto Angel, the largest waterfall in the world; staring at the multiple Hacha Falls; walking under Salto Sapa; swimming in the grotto at Kavak; watching the sunset on the Orinoco; seeing jaguar, tapir, puma, toucan and macaw close up, and fishing for piranha.
In Cuba, watching the light change over the mogotes in Vinales, and delving into the caves at Santo Tomas. In Costa Rica: being winched up into the rain-forest canopy; watching the sunset on the beach at Corcovado; being surrounded by thirty coati on my own in the forest; enjoying an outstanding meal at the Grano de Oro in San José, and watching Volcan Arenal erupt at night.
In Guatemala; the prettiness of the town of Antigua; watching Christmas fireworks explode all around from the roof of the Santo Domingo on Christmas Day; climbing up the San Pedro volcano on Lake Atitlan; the awesome scale of the Mayan ruins at Tikal from 220 foot up; and the charming people. In Belize the picturesque scenery of Victoria House; cuddling stingrays; swimming with nurse sharks; being privileged enough to watch manatee and see seahorses; and the strange sensation of saving an Italian from drowning on the reef.
In Mexico: the peace and charm of the near-deserted Kohunlich Maya town; the thrill of discovering how brilliant Mexico City is; its wonderful museums and the grandeur of the outstanding Teotihuacan. That’s pretty much a top thirty – about a thrill a day, which is a bit more than staying at home.
For those would-be-travellers who want to learn from my experiences and who enjoy similar things, I would offer these suggestions. Don’t bother to go to Cuba unless you have a very good reason. There is very little to see in Havana and it is hugely over-hyped. By all means go on an expensive stag week, if you just want to get pissed on rum and jiggle to latin music all night. If you are a budding speleologist, seek out Vinales, but only for that purpose. If you fancy Venezuela, and I strongly recommend it, head south and witness the tepuis and waterfalls. Get to the Orinoco and see how big it is. And only use Caracas as a pit stop – it is not an appealing city otherwise. Everything about Costa Rica is excellent. Go to the rainforest and visit at least one volcano.
In Guatemala, go to Antigua. Lake Atitlan is majestic but Panajachel is touristy and you’d be way better off in a posh hotel somewhere else on the lake. Go to Tikal – there’s nothing else like it anywhere. If you go to Belize, ignore the interior, it is bland and ordinary. Instead head straight for the coast and experience a barrier reef that is the equal of what Australia has to offer. In Mexico, go to Mexico City urgently – it is wonderful and combine it with a day trip to the massive Teotihuacan. On the Yucatan peninsular choose carefully to suit your style between the more popular and thus crowded sites such as Chichen Itza, or the more empty and less excavated ones like Kohunlich. It’s a fantastic part of the world, and I have not been paid to endorse it, so take my word for it.