Sunday, March 20, 2011

End of Week 33 - A Visit from Home: Puebla, Veracruz, Catemaco and Las Tuxtlas, Teotihuacan, and Mexico City

The cathedral in Puebla on the first evening.
My younger brother decided to ignore all of the warnings about spending spring break in Mexico this year and bought airplane tickets anyways. Aside from a hand-delivered bottle of Franks Red Hot - the perfect blend of flavor and heat - from a fellow volunteer that visited the states earlier this year, my brother’s visit was our first real connection to home in almost eight months.

Ana and I arrived at the Mexico City airport in the late afternoon on Saturday to meet my brother there. In Mexico, Mexico City is called the "DF", short for distrito federal or federal district. We have a similar system in the US. We call Washington, our capital city, DC for short although DC doesn't stand for anything logical like federal district. I know some of you back home are probably pronouncing DF to yourselves as you read this, but I'm sure you’re saying it wrong because it's Spanish not English. DF is pronounced "de efe" in Spanish. In Mexico, if you are traveling to the state of Mexico that surrounds the DF or to the DF itself, you would say that you are traveling to Mexico. Highway directional signs throughout Mexico (the country) have arrows labeled "Mexico" pointing to the state or the city.

The vacation began with an incredible coincidence. We live in Puebla, a city two hours east of the DF. Our landlord in Puebla, who also lives above our apartment, had been away the entire week before my brother's trip. As we were waiting for my brother to come out of the customs area, the glass doors slid open and our landlord stepped out. My brother came out a few minutes later. Apparently, our landlord had been in New York City all week and was on the same plane coming to Mexico as my brother. My brother and the landlord started their trip that day together at JFK, four thousand miles from Mexico, and ended their trip together at our little blue house near Colonia La Paz in Puebla. I'm not sure I'll ever be on speaking terms with our landlord again though, because he didn't even offer us a ride from the airport (and because I'm afraid of his little yelping, nipping white rat-poodle named fifi).

On the second day we left early from our apartment to the bus terminal in Puebla for our day-trip to Teotihuacan, a 2,000 year old city north of the DF. At its height, it was the largest city in Mesoamerica, and one of the largest in the world, covering 83 square kilometers and holding a population of 200,000 people. This day-trip was the first time that I felt like a tourist since arriving in Mexico.

The Avenue of the Dead and Temple of the Sun from
the platform on the Temple of the Moon.

The bus had signs on the outside obscuring our view through the windows. At first I thought it was silly; who wouldn't want to see the scenery? But later I realized it was probably intentional, keeping the tourists oblivious to their surroundings as they were driven around from stop to stop. After about two hours the bus came to a halt. I thought we were at the ruins, but as I got off the bus and looked around I realized we were in a parking lot on the side of a highway. Maybe it was just my bad Spanish, but I thought Teotihuacan would be more interesting than this. I soon realized, as we were being herded into a German speaking tour group, that we had stopped at a shop that sold souvenirs. I thought I had purchased transportation to the ruins, not a cheesy packaged tour. I was disappointed until the shop owners started serving us free samples of liquor in an effort to get us to buy things by softening us up; a shot of tequila, followed by a shot of mezcal, followed by a glass of pulque. Pulque is fermented agave juice. I won’t try to describe its flavor, but, to say the least, it's different. By the time we had finished boozing it was getting late, almost 9am, and we were rushed back onto the bus and finally on our way to the ruins.

The second time we stopped we really were in Teotihuacan. We walked down the Avenue of the Dead - a broad roadway surrounded by low-standing structures and angled walls - all the while being accosted by vendors selling flutes, jewelry, and cowboy hats. We walked to the Pyramid of the Moon and climbed to the platform about half way up. We climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, the second largest pyramid in the Americas after the one in Cholula (a suburb of Puebla). We sat on top, looking out over the valley that was once the center of Mesoamerican life, wealth, power and religion, and that was now filled with thousands and thousands of tourists like us.
Pyramid of the Sun

We met the tour bus again at 2pm to head to lunch. We were taken to "El Jaguar" - again, pronounced in Spanish not English - where we were treated to authentic indigenous dancers, mariachi bands, cliff divers (the last part isn't true) and a really expensive buffet. This is when I realized why our tour bus windows were opaque; while there were several taco vendors on the street outside, with normal prices and better food, our restaurant was really expensive and probably paid the bus company to take us there. Although we drove right by the street vendors, we never knew it because we couldn’t see out of the windows. So, after discovering this, we decided to eat on the street instead. I started with a michelada; a beer served with chili powder, lemon juice, hot sauce, and “ salsa ingles” (translated as “English Sauce”, or, what we would call Worcestershire Sauce). We ate sopes, tlacoyos, and chicharron quesadillas.

The bus made a final stop at a mission church on our way back to Puebla. Rather than pay to go into the church, we decided to grab a comida corrida at a local restaurant. A comida corrida is a four course meal that includes a soup, rice or pasta, a main course, a desert, agua (juice water) and all-you-can-eat tortillas and costs less than three dollars. But seeing as how we were just tourists, they kept forgetting to bring the full meal. After much prying we did get our complete comida corrida and headed back to the bus for Puebla.

That night we took an overnight bus from Puebla to Catemaco, a tropical volcanic crater lake in southern Veracruz. Even in the dark I knew when we had left the high plains of Puebla and entered the coastal plains of Veracruz below. The bus leaned forward as we raced down into the valley below Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's highest mountain. My ears began to pop with the pressure change. The temperature on the bus began to rise. I could see the mountains where we had come from, now high above us, sparkling with street lights.

At 6am we arrived in Catemaco on the side of the lake and ate breakfast; fried eggs, salsa, bananas, and refried beans. Catemaco is part of Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve in southern Veracruz. The Reserve has been almost 90% deforested since 1960, and along with its forests has lost its jaguars, scarlet macaws, and manatees, to name a few. It is still rich in flora and fauna though, with an incredible diversity of birds and Mexico's highest diversity of butterflies. It has remnant tropical rainforests, montane cloud forests, mangrove-lined lakes, and miles of pristine beaches.
Fishing on Lago Catemaco at dawn.

Mangroves on Sontecomapan
We took a taxi to our first hotel, Ecobiosfera, between Catemaco and the Gulf of Mexico. We met with the owner and immediately headed to Laguna Sontecomapan where we had arranged a boat tour of the lagoon. We spent the next five hours exploring its open waters, lily covered shores, and wetland forests. We floated into broad, slow moving rivers flowing into the lagoon, sometimes thickly shaded by red and black mangroves, sometimes bright and lined by colorful floating flowers and tall reeds. We saw thousands of birds, including a pair of courting Bare-throated Tiger Herons, a single shy Sungrebe, and several panicky Northern Jacanas. We heard a Laughing Falcon calling in the distance as an Aplomado Falcon sat perched on a tree above us. We had to slow down as we passed through a flock of coots too heavy from feeding all winter to fly away. Kingfishers, cormorants, herons, and egrets were easy to find. A single Violaceuous Trogon, with its yellow chest, blue head, and green back, flew into the trees on the side of the lagoon. We motored out of the mouth of the lagoon into the Gulf of Mexico, bobbing up and down with a lone Brown Pelican on the waves blowing in from the storm far in the distance.

Gulf of Mexico

Laguna Sontecomapan

The next morning we went to the UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico) Biological Research Station in the mountain rain forests further north. We heard howler monkeys in the distance, growling like dinosaurs loud enough for everyone in the forest to know whose forest it really was. We saw and heard the soft cooing of numerous emerald green and ruby red Collared Trogons, as well as large Squirrel Cuckoos, the rainbow-colored Keel-billed Toucan, and iridescent blue Morpho butterflies.

We spent the next two days at Hotel Los Amigos on the shore of Laguna Santecomapan. We had to take a water taxi to-and-from the hotel, and to the nearby beach called La Barra, because neither was connected to any roads. We ate locally caught seafood and mostly just sat at the beach. I woke up early every morning and walked around the hotel's trails, watching orioles and warblers eat out of the trees. Large brown Plain Chachalacas, or pheasant-like birds, called loudly in the nearby marsh. On my last morning hike, a curious Roadside Hawk followed me from tree to tree, calling loudly as it sat watching me.

La Barra from Hotel Los Amigos
La Barra

To end the trip we returned to the DF to explore it a little. We walked around the central zocalo surrounded by the presidential palace, the main cathedral, and other government buildings. We saw some of the remains of Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs that was once located on an island in the middle of a large lake, criss-crossed by Venice-like canals and connected to the mainland by long causeways. The Spaniards drained the lake, built the DF on top of Tenochtitlan, and now have crooked buildings as the city is sinking back into the wet soils. The DF is now the second largest city in the world, behind Tokyo.

The trip had a great mix of new and old, authentic and touristy, urban and natural. The bus system, as always, got us where we needed to go quickly, cheaply, and comfortably. We stayed away from the dangerous areas in Mexico, like Cancun with all of its drunken, obnoxious American college students. Although my brother didn't bring any hot sauce from Buffalo - or real maple syrup - I managed to forgive him and we still had fun.

The curious Roadside Hawk

Laughing Gulls

Royal Terns

A happy puppy

Yellow-faced Grassquit

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