Mexico City

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Last but not least, the capital itself. It was quite a contrast going from an island with 16,000 inhabitants, to a city with a population at least five times as great as my home country.  I wasn’t sure what to expect; like most people, mention the nation’s capital and I conjured up thoughts of pollution and traffic. My flatmate in Italy, Hector, was from Mexico City, and I was so excited to see him again and to be shown around this gigantic city with a local’s perspective.

A fascinating piece of history is that Mexico City has been colloquially dubbed the ‘sinking city’. It was built in a valley many years ago, and since it has been slowly sinking. This is really highlighted in some of the cathedrals; you actually have to walk down stairs to enter the cathedral, and the floors are definitely on slants. Mexico City is split up into a number of districts, each distinct with its own reputation. Hector worked in the Federal District, which was hustling, bustling and full of important looking people wearing suits. Our first meal took place here, and we were pretty excited to have a local ordering for us. At Oaxaca Bistro we launched ourselves into the thick of delicious, authentic Mexican food; and this was just the beginning. We ordered from a set lunch menu, which apparently is the done thing. Also nearby is La Casa de los Abuelos, basically an institution when it comes to classic Mexican food.

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Not far from Hector’s office is La Reforma, the equivalent to Barcelona’s Las Ramblas: it is an incredible boulevard that stretches for 12 kilometres, and is lined with hotels, greenery, office buildings, protests and the famous Latinoamericana Tower (once the tallest building in the city). It terminates in the Centro Historico; cobblestone pedestrian streets crammed with taco carts, street vendors and extremely cheap clothing stores. One of the prettier buildings is the Palacio de bellas artes; an art gallery/opera house that is white with a gold roof. Running parallel to Reforma is Alamadas – the oldest public park in the city, and if you need food Café de Tacuba is not too far away (Mexico City’s longest established café). If I had to recommend somewhere to stay, I would suggest somewhere close to the Reforma (although the closer you get, I expect the more expensive it would be), or in the bohemian Condesa neighbourhood; wide boulevards lined with trees and littered with funky bars and cafes, it was described as Mexico’s East Village (New York), or Notting Hill (London).

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The most obvious downfall to a city with so many people is the traffic problems it causes. It took so incredibly long to get anywhere. Thankfully Uber was were cheap, as I couldn’t imagine having to bus everywhere. As all of the people in Hector’s suburb have their own cars, there is no need for the subway to extend out that far. The taxis around the city are all either pink and white, or red and gold. A great way to see the most impressive sights of the extensive city, without having to drive or taxi everywhere is to buy a ticket for the “Hop on, Hop off” bus. Through this means we saw the Castillo de Chapultepec; a once royal residence, that transformed into a presidential dwelling, and now a museum (65 peso entry, unfortunately everything is written only in Spanish), the Monument of Independence, the Revolution Monument, and of course, the Anthropology Museum. This is Mexico’s most popular museum, and I loved it just as much as the next person. The history of the Mayan’s and Aztecs is absolutely fascinating, and you could lose yourself in the incredibly displayed warren of artefacts. We were fortunate in that a man at the help-desk gave us a ‘highlights’ tour, so we got to see the best of it in about 2 hours.

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On our last day in Mexico City we took a day trip from the Audacio to the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. We left at about 8am, and made a few stops on the way. First up was Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, Mexico’s most important religious site.  We drove through Tlalnepantla City, which consisted of hundreds of concrete houses covering the hill-side, all painted bold block colours; orange, green, yellow, purple, pink – you name it! At the pyramids we learnt how the Mayans used to obtain pigments to colour their paintings. Climbing up the pyramids was no mean feat; the steps were almost vertical, and there was a fair few of them. The souvenirs sold here were all pretty unique; various ornaments made from obelisk (the mineral that used to be mined in the area), as well as whistles that sounded like wild animals and birds. From here we visited a workshop where we learnt the various uses of the agave plant: soap, paper, needles and thread are just a few of the many uses. We were then given shots of mezcal and tequila, before taken to a buffet lunch where we were entranced by performances of miriacha and cultural Aztec dancers. We then got taught how to play Aztec ball – the throwing up of a round ball and hitting it back and forth to each other through a hoop, using the back-side of ones biceps as a bat.

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Tulum

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A $7 bus ride and approximately an hour from Playa del Carmen lies Tulum. If you are after a holiday destination that incorporates a pristine beach, a laid-back atmosphere, ancient Mayan ruins (Tulum means “wall” in Mayan) and of course, authentic Mexican food, then Tulum will probably fit the bill. Better still, it’s warm all year around (although rainiest in June, September, and October).

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We stayed at the Lobo Inn, which was about 200m from the entrance to the ruins. The hostel has the potential to be awesome – however it was quite a way out of town, lacked power-points and lights in general (which reflects Tulum’s lack of a community power supply), and the bathrooms were sub-par. It did offer a delicious free breakfast, as well as the opportunity to borrow bikes – we claimed two straight away and used them to ‘xplore the ‘burbs.

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La Coqueta = top notch. Near the supermarkets (Charmani is the better quality of the two), we were told to expect a wait but that it would be worth it. We crept in to get the last available table. Here I experienced my first Mexican Coca-Cola (they use palm sugar instead of the artificial stuff that America puts in) and a delicious vegetarian wrap. It was so good, had there been time we definitely would have come back.

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Move

Cycling: Unlike New Zealand, helmets are considered a mere accessory – therefore no one wears them. Cycling round the ‘burbs are an inexpensive, fun way of seeing the area and gives you freedom an ability to explore in a way walking and taxi’s do not. The houses in the area were minimalistic, with cheaply constructed washing lines and beaten-up cars outside, often guarded by a dog – probably a stray.

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Beach: Tulum’s biggest draw card. White sand that stretches for miles, clean blue water, and for once, more palm trees than people – it was a stereotypical beach-lovers paradise. Cabanas dot the dunes, and occasionally vendors wander past with fresh fruit for sale (to my dismay no-one seemed be selling mango).

Ruins: Dating from the thirteenth century, it doesn’t take long to see why the Mayan’s chose this picturesque spot for their temples. Big grassy spaces dotted with palm trees (it reminded me of a golf course), private beaches (but open to the public within the ruins) and lots of stone ruins. The ruins cost 650 pesos, and are an afternoon well spent.

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Cenotes: A must-do whilst in Mexico. Natural freshwater pools in caves, there are two main ones near to Tulum; Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos. We opted for the latter and for 400 pesos caught a collectivo (about a 25 minute drive from the entrance to the ruins) where we got dropped at the entrance, with a piece of paper that had someone’s name on it. It was all very confusing, but in the end, a driver collected us, drove us through the entrance to the cenote where we got given snorkels, flippers and directions to the ‘baby’ cave. We thought it was strange to be offered wetsuits in Mexico, but after jumping into the water we soon realised why: it was ICY cold. We snorkelled through the cave until we were comfortable, then we headed back up to the equipment area, where we were taken to the more advanced cave. A guide led us through a long cave – it was really dark (we had underwater torches) with stalactites, bats, and lots of beautiful scenery.

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Akumal: A collectivo ride later we found ourselves dropped off at an exit point on the side of the highway. We were unsure where to go, so we thought logically and walked back along the road to the entrance of the Akumal Resort, only to be denied entry, and told to walk back where we came from. Feeling very uncertain we walked along the highway exit, but thankfully it evolved into a commercial boulevard (for the general public). It is about a ten minute walk. A Mexican man latched onto us as we walked and miraculously convinced us into signing up for his snorkelling tour.

Seventy minutes and 300 pesos later we had our own private guide who pointed out eel rays, fish, squid and sea turtles. And not just one sea turtle, we saw several. They were enormous, and were not at all afraid of humans. Every so often they need to come up for air, and when they mission it to the surface, you almost feel that if you don’t get out of their way they will swim straight through you. It was fascinating, and the water was so warm I could have stayed in there forever.  We left all of our clothes and valuables in plastic containers on the beach, and although they were ‘supervised’ we were still pretty relieved to see everything there upon our return.

After returning our snorkel gear, and being given a sea urchin as a gift from our guide, Hailee and I went and found a spot in the sun. It started raining and Hailee went for lunch; I accidentally fell asleep and somehow got really sunburnt (which sure makes carrying a backpack painful). My day was made when I found a man selling fresh mango on sticks with chilli and lime for just $3.

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