Tuesday 27 March 2012

Bueno, Buenos Aires

It is 3am on a Tuesday, 90% humidity, and we are in a sweaty crowd of Portenos (locals) dancing like crazy. The smell of weed is everywhere. But it’s the sound from the stage that has us spellbound.  A dozen drummers, kitted out in red and black dungarees, are throwing down beats like it’s a drum ‘n’ bass club. Hands blur over bongos, drum sticks slice the air, dreadlocks bounce in time. In charge is a conductor, a true maestro, who elicits drum rolls that pass from one musician to the next, like claps of thunder moving across the stage. The beat pulses through my chest like I’m standing in front of a speaker and we all jump in time. It is Carnivale in Buenos Aires – and La Bomba de Tiempo is the hottest ticket in town.

I keep telling Dan this trip is our last hurrah. That soon enough, the bubble of youth we’ve been clinging on to will burst, and we’ll be sitting in a weatherboard house in suburban New Zealand with a few sprogs running around, wondering how we’re going to pay for it all. And so, while we can, we must party like we are 21. And Buenos Aires is party central. This is our last chance to live it up. Our 30-something bodies may not like it, but we will push through it. And so we do.

La Bomba de Tiempo is just the start. On Friday night, we drag two young Kiwi boys and some even younger Americans out in the posh part of BA, Palermo, where we drink the local mix of Fernet and Coke (a foul mix of herbal cough mixture and rat poison) and dance to Reggaeton until we can’t stand up.  The next night Dan and I push on alone to Milion, a lush cocktail bar in a gorgeous colonial mansion, before descending into a club hidden below a dank Irish pub, which cranks out unexpectedly brilliant tunes. By 4am we’re exhausted – and most Portenos are only just hitting the dance floor. It takes some time to get used to this lifestyle: most people in Buenos Aires wouldn’t dream of heading for dinner before 10 or 11pm, and go clubbing around 3am.

Still, this is a city I could live in. Partying aside, it has a very modern, European feel to it. The architecture is stunning, with a centre full of gorgeously ornate apartment buildings.  Even every grave in the famous Recoleta cemetery is a small architectural marvel.  

There are fabulous art museums: we spend hours in MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires) marvelling at the optical illusions created by the kinetic artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, and we might have spent longer in Fundacion Proa had its special exhibition not been Mexican art (we’d had our fill!)  

The shopping is world class – and everyone in Buenos Aires looks like they part with a large amount of cash to look good. It’s a pretty stylish place.  Dan is by now so tanned he looks like he comes from this continent – so he spends his time deflecting friendly shop assistants who assume he speaks fluent Spanish and keep offering help. Our Sunday shopping in San Telmo’s antique market even turns into an impromptu party with another group of Carnivale drummers making everyone stop and dance. 

And the food - the whole of Buenos Aires smells like a parilla (grill). The steak really does melt in your mouth. But truly, this is the only thing that Argentinians do consistently well on the cooking front. Don’t even think about ordering a salad, unless you want it to accompany a slab of meat (you’ll just end up with a bowl of onions, tomatoes and cheese… wholly unsatisfying.)

A few warnings if you’re visiting this way:

1)   -  Don’t look up at those fabulous buildings for too long – or you’ll forget to look down at the dog shit. It’s everywhere. For a highly cultured city, Buenos Aires has a very crappy problem to deal with.  

2)  -  Watch your stuff.  That Friday night out in Palermo began with dinner at a flash steak restaurant. Dan and I pulled up in a taxi as all hell broke loose at the tables on the pavement: glass shattered, people screamed, tyres squealed. A man had tried to take a woman’s handbag from the back of her chair. She’d stood up yelling, knocked red wine all over the table, and a heroic waiter had run out of the restaurant, picked up a chair, and smashed the back window of the getaway car with it. The robbers escaped, but without the bag. Waiter 1, robbers 0. We toasted him all night. 

- Hangovers and humidity are hard work. And so we moved on to Mendoza, for some civilised wine tasting instead…. (ahem.)

Cess in the City

Mexico City spread out before us like its own galaxy, valley after valley filled with the flickering gold lights from the homes of its whopping 21 million inhabitants. This was by far the biggest place we have ever set foot in, and Dan and I were a little nervous about this giant city’s notoriety for kidnappings, muggings and taxi crime (never read the Lonely Planet’s “Dangers and Annoyances” section on the way into a place!)

It was 11pm by the time we got into a cab. The driver quickly locked the doors as we passed through low-lit neighbourhoods, where locals lurked amidst crumbling buildings, and piles of rubbish littered the streets.“Peligroso?” I asked. Yes, he nodded, it’s dangerous. Ten minutes later he pulled up at a road block and pointed us down a street so dark Satan himself would get lost. Road works had knocked out every light. “No way,” Dan said. But with no choice, we hitched our packs up and ran for the hostel door.  We braved a trip to a nearby 7/11, where stoned locals eyed us up. The place was robbed soon after we left.

It was with some surprise come daylight that we found a city that was, in many parts, very beautiful, with European style plazas, colonial buildings, and a government who’d decorated as many walls as possible with elaborate murals. For the rest of our time there, we also felt very safe. Some countries have travel warnings out for Mexico City, but it would be a shame to miss these highlights:

·         MURALS :  So prized are the murals of the legendary Diego Rivera that we were stripped of any pens we had on entering the presidential palace – I guess on the chance we were so inspired by his storey-high work charting Mexico’s history that we felt obliged to add our own doodles?  Many more murals by him and other artists also lined the top floors of the Palacio de Belles Artes – not really my cup of tea, but impressive none-the-less.

·         FRIDA:  There was a long queue outside the Blue House in Coyoacan where Frida Kahlo was born, lived, and died – with just as many Mexicans as international travellers waiting in line. I expected to be enormously touristy, but it was a beautiful place, full of incredible indigenous art and sculpture that she and Diego had collected.  There was something quite affecting about seeing her possessions:  her wheelchair still in her studio, beside paintbrushes dried hard. Her hated back brace in her bedroom, her death mask on her bed. Well worth a visit.

·         MUSEUMS:  Even though we’d visited half a dozen ruins and their onsite museums, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia was still breath-taking, with a fricking overwhelming collection of Mayan and Aztec art. Upstairs, its selection of indigenous art from various villages made us realise how much more of the country there is to see. Less worthy but just as fun was the Museo de Arte Moderno, particularly its design section where I had to be stopped from taking photos of cool bits of furniture that I was inclined to steal...



·         THE TUBE:  Mexico City’s metro is a pretty efficient way to get around, and a tourist attraction in itself. This is not a place English commuters hoping to read their books in silence would tolerate. It is loud: every carriage has at least one local with a backpack on, and a stereo inside, blaring inevitably rubbish tunes from the CD they are selling. Others sell chocolate, chewing gum, books. They hand them out for every to take a look at, and then collect them up again from everyone who doesn’t want to buy. Some are supposedly blind, though most navigated the trains with spectacular ease behind their very dark glasses. Good people watching.

      NIGHTLIFE:  Extremes of wealth abound here. We found ourselves partying with the city’s loaded youth in Condensa on a Saturday night. They rocked up in spanking new cars, handed the keys to the valet, and disappeared into a range of funky European-style bars, many inspired by English pubs.  The number of iphones on display at a bar pumping out Western hits was unbelievable: we slunk home when we got kicked off our table for not purchasing a bottle of spirits to sit there. A surreal experience – we could have been anywhere in the world.

·         LUCHA LIBRE WRESTLING: Yes, it’s all fake, yes, it’s cheesy, and yes, there are dwarves involved: but we decided to head to Arena Mexico on a Friday night to check out the luchadores battling it out. And Mascara Dorada, Tiger, Blue Panther and their friends put on an unexpectedly good show.  For a start, there were very few tourists there – but a load of enthusiastic Mexicans treating each fight like it was un-choreographed, and anyone could win. Through their Lucha Libre masks, the cheered, boo-ed, ate popcorn and drunk copious amounts of beer. A group behind us pounded bongo drums, particularly when their favourite female wrestler, the Barbie-styled Estrellita, came on. The wrestlers themselves were pretty darn talented: sure, it’s scripted, but it takes a bit of skill to be thrown out of a wrestling ring and land in the front row of the crowd without injuring yourself or your fans (thought the security sprinting past on a few occasions indicated this didn’t always go to plan.) There were no photos allowed inside, but we re-enacted a little for you:

We were pretty sad to leave Mexico: a month wasn’t enough to do this big country justice. But we’ll definitely be back – after all it was the place we got engaged. Despite all the talk of how dangerous the country is, the parts we travelled to felt very safe. (And the police presence was enormous…. not to mention the guy with the shotgun somewhat unnecessarily guarding Burger King.) The people were awesome: aside from one crazy taxi driver (see earlier post), most Mexicans were very humble, keen to engage, and incredibly kind.

We caught a taxi to the airport with a girl from San Francisco. Her mother had made her call her every single day of her holiday to make sure she was safe. Our taxi driver cracked up laughing. Yes, you need to pick your destinations within Mexico very carefully. But don’t let events in a few places stop you from visiting the rest of this vast, incredibly diverse, beautiful country.

Monday 19 March 2012

Cess on the Market

The food hall was thick with veils of smoke, billowing up until it hit the blackened roof beams. Old women fanning glowing charcoal grills were visible through the haze. The aroma of charring meat besieged our noses. Plump ladies beckoned to us from behind garlands of raw carne: balls of chorizo, terraces of flank steaks, strings of black pudding and pork sausage, cascading intestines. Young men holding bamboo baskets of spring onions, green peppers and red chillies hustled for our attention. Locals jostled for space on long communal benches. This was the asado aisle, at the heart of Oaxaca’s chaotic market, and carnivore heaven.  


The process was this: you randomly picked a man with a basket, selected your vegetables, and then chose the friendliest meat merchant you could see. “Medio kilo?” a smiling lady in a smock asked. “Por que no,” we said, why not. Then you were ushered to a bench space, and soon a platter of flame-grilled goodness, seared veges, fresh tortillas and hot salsa was plonked in front of you. Simple, cheap, and incredibly tasty.

I love wandering through markets, and Mexico has some of the most vibrant, colourful markets I’ve seen. Food makes this country tick, and the market is the best place to shop for it. We passed pig’s heads hung from spotlessly clean butchers’ shops. Chickens’ feet, like claws, threatened to grab you as you walked by. Round-faced, red-cheeked women offered a selection of chapulines – the local delicacy - grasshoppers. Dan tried a few of the wee blighters cooked to a crisp in chilli, lime and garlic. He reported they were pretty tasty. I couldn’t get past the brittle eyes, wings and legs.



Mexico’s markets are the kind of places where you can buy everything:  need a new tap fitting? Head past the cellphones, turn left at the dusters, right at the kid’s toys and they’re beside the cosmetics.  In Oaxaca an entire block was taken up by the Mercado de Artesanias, or craft market. We got lost for hours, immersed in a world of alebrijes - delicately painted wooden fantasy animals inspired by the toys that Oaxacans have been building their kids for centuries. We now own a slightly pointless collection of tiny snails, turtles, cats and owls. Oh, and a large armadillo.

San Cristobal’s market was my favourite, a feast for the eye, from the perfectly arranged fruit and vegetables, to the colourful hill tribe families who’d bought them there. Women in bright silk shirts and woollen skirts sold their wares with children slung haphazardly on their backs. Others walked around with babies stuck to their breasts, shopping as they went. A man in a traditional white tunic, embroidered belt and cowboy hat started intently at the 1980’s style video game parlour. Grubby children offered wooden animals and weaved blankets.

The best thing was always the food section somewhere in the middle:  loud, disorderly, and smelling fantastic, and that’s where you’d find all the locals eating.  We quickly learnt to get over any concerns we had about eating street food: it was the only “cleaner” restaurants which gave us food poisoning. We ate some of the tastiest food on our trip crammed onto long tables surrounded by Mexicans: crispy tostadas piled high with ceviche or shrimps, tlayudas - flat tortillas with beans, string cheese, salsa, and pork strips, the best beef tacos laced with a simple salsa, sopa de pollo served with a chicken leg and flavoured with chilli, beef Milanese - all washed down with horchata, an iced rice drink.

Our cooking course in Oaxaca began as all good cooking courses should, with a trip to the market to find fresh ingredients: specially smoked pasilla chillies, stringy Oaxaqueno cheese, organic eggs. We concocted chillies stuffed with black beans and cheese, dried chillies stuffed with picadillo in tomato sauce, eggnog gelatine, hand-pressed tortillas. Impossible to replicate from a New Zealand supermarket, but absolutely delicious.

P.S Our class of Americans had 30 years on us – and dished out marriage advice as we sat down to eat. Later, browsing yet another craft market, we ran into two of them, who seemed to find us somewhat glamorous company. “We were just saying, ‘It was like having lunch with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman!’” they said enthusiastically. Wrong country, but we’ll take that.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Don't drink and drive

I knew we were in trouble as soon as I was handed a neon pink sticker to put on my t-shirt, branding myself as part of a dreaded tour group. As I general rule, I avoid tours like I avoid canned fish. Sure, there are some guides – usually those who only work with small groups - who are brilliant (see previous post) – but usually I find making my own way around a country, chatting to locals and taking local transport, is much more rewarding.

But here we were, me and English Tristan, 9am on a Sunday morning, both horribly hungover, being handed stickers. Dan was in bed with food poisoning (no, no, not a worse hangover – actual food poisoning.) He was gutted. He shouldn’t have been. We’d signed up for this trip thinking it was just a minibus transporting us between a few sights in the Valles Centrales around Oaxaca, where public transport can be difficult. The hostel recommended it. But somehow, from the minivan, we were transferred into a bus with a bunch of middle-aged Mexican holiday-makers, and an enthusiastic guide at the helm with a microphone. Hell on earth.

We were too worse-for-wear to protest. The first stop was Teotitlan de Valle, a weaving village, which I’m sure was quite picturesque, but I wouldn’t know, as we were transported straight to a weaving factory. “I thought we were going to a waterfall?” said Tristan, looking alarmingly green, as he made straight for the toilets. I was left pretending to be as interested as the rest of the group in the endless balls of wool, dyed in various colours, handed around for us to feel and smell. I’m from New Zealand – I know what wool feels like. Meanwhile Tristan, not wanting to admit he was hungover, spun an increasingly elaborate yarn in Spanish to the concerned tour guide about how he had food poisoning but was ok to go on.

The rest of the group emerged, shopping bags in hand. The tour bus hell continued. Admittedly, the retired teacher from Mexico City sitting next to me was a great chat. But I had to stop talking and shut my eyes as the straight road turned into endless curves and the Saturday night tequila shots shouted from the pit of my stomach once again.

Finally, we reached Hierve El Agua, the place we’d been hanging out for. High in the mountains, with panoramic views of brush-clad peaks, and fields of cactuses below, were a series of bathing pools. Over time, water dripping over the cliff edge had calcified, creating frozen waterfalls that cascaded down the valley in ribbons of grey, white and green. It was spectacular:  worth every cent of the overpriced tour, every throb of my pounding head.  “Be back on the bus in 45 minutes,” the guide said. No chance. There were 3 more stops on the tour: a big tree, some ruins and a Mexcal factory. We ditched the bus, and stayed.

We spent hours soaking in the baths, taking in the view, and then somehow we were back drinking again, as a Mexican guy and some young American exchange students handed round a bottle of Mexcal. Better than any factory, I’m sure. And then we did what we should have done in the first place – we caught a cheap local pickup truck back over the winding hills, where, with the wind in my hair, a bunch of locals laughing opposite me, and a picturesque landscape whizzing by, I felt like a real traveller again.  Tristan summed it up perfectly.  “I feel like I’ve got my soul back,” he said.

The villages of Chiapas

A wrinkled medicine man in a white woollen tunic is waving a live chicken over the flames of a dozen candles, muttering prayers in Tsotsil. Next to him, a thin old woman sits hunched on pine needles, her long grey hair plaited with bright ribbons, her eyes melancholic. The medicine man turns to her and rubs the chicken slowly over her body. The bird gives one last squawk, before he twists its neck until it stops moving, and continues with his chant. The woman starts to cry. 

All around me the same ancient ritual is being repeated by other medicine men and women. I realise I am standing with my mouth wide open, as I count half a dozen chickens on their last legs. For we are in a church – the most extraordinary church I’ve ever been in – just 10 kilometres from one of Mexico’s most modern cities, San Cristobal de las Casas, where you’ll find a Burger King, crepe stands, and tapas bars. But circling the city are Mayan villages like no other, fiercely independent, staunchly traditionalist – and our guide Alex was leading us on one of the most enthralling journeys we had in Mexico. “Sometimes I close my eyes here and I can just imagine a Mayan temple,” he says.

From the outside, San Juan Chamula’s church looked like any other in Mexico:  a Spanish-built whitewashed building, 3 bells set high into its fa├žade, a white cross crowning the top. Technically, this is a Catholic church, but the Chamulans have only ever paid token respect to their Spanish conquerors. Passing through the heavy oak door was truly like entering another world.

There were no pews:  the marble floor was entirely blanketed in pine needles, the smell of Christmas in the air. There was no silence: dozens of Chamulan families sat cross-legged: sitting, talking, eating, praying, crying, laughing, singing. Women dressed in purple silk shirts and heavy woollen skirts breastfed babies in their laps.  A row of men, in black wool tunics with rainbow belts, prayed on their knees, crates of Coke and Sprite beside them. Hundreds of candles flickered from wooden altars which thronged every side of the church, hundreds more were pressed to the floor. Floral sheets were draped like teepees from the arched wooden rafters.  Glass boxes lined the walls, bromeliads cascading over them, each one holding a large (somewhat tacky) plastic figure of a saint. No one seemed bothered by the tourists wandering, agog, amongst them – but there were strictly no photos allowed.

We were lucky to have Alex, an irrepressible guide from San Cristobal, to explain what was going on. He said the Mayans believe they have two souls. If you get sick, there’s something wrong with your animal soul. So you take an animal – like a chicken – to the medicine man, who transfers the illness from your body to the animal. The illness will die when the animal does.  Alex explained that after people pray, they drink alcohol or fizzy drinks to make them burp to release their evil spirits. (Coke could be on to a marketing trick here...)

Stunned, we travelled on, over pine-clad hills, to Tenejapa, where the locals there had kept the pews in their church, but not much else in the way of Catholic tradition. We watched as a dozen men, the major domos, or leaders of the town, paraded up the isle in colourful embroidered shorts, black tunics, and thick-soled roman sandles. They wore stiff straw hats covered in silk ribbons of pink, orange, green and blue. Brilliant pink pom poms and chains of gold coins were draped around their necks. Each had an ox’s horn on a string slung over his shoulder. (Their prayers involve toasting each other with harsh liquor, more burping, and if they’re getting too hammered they tip the extra in their horns for later.) The major domos stopped to say hi as they filed out. Alex exchanged numbers with one of them, who pulled an iphone out of his tunic. Tradition and technology all in one.

We were ogled at as we went through the town market: amazingly I was a good head taller than anyone else, and Dan was a comparative giant. Alex led the way, buying roasted peanuts, sweet potatoes, tamales (meat and maize wrapped in a leaf) for us to try. We stopped to listen to a travelling salesman selling wood to add to tea to treat a sore throat. He had the full attention of a cluster of locals. As we left, they all started laughing. “What did he say?” we asked. “He said ‘Chicken Legs and the Germans are leaving’”, Alex replied, smiling. Alex, being a skinny Latino, was known as Chicken Legs. All foreigners were known Germans – thanks to some Germans being stationed on a farm near here during the war. Foreigners who wore sun glasses were dubbed ‘blind’ – no one has glasses here. We pushed ours back on our heads.

There was nothing familiar in the Mayan cemetery either, set right beside a soccer pitch where children played and sheep grazed. No one was buried in coffins. Each grave was a simple mound of dirt, covered in pine needles, with a wooden “door” on top, so the dead could make their way to the Underworld. In Mexico, death is not a time for mourning, but a celebration. Wooden crosses at each grave were not marked with birth dates – only the day someone died.  On November 2, the Day of the Dead, people believe the spirit comes back. Locals celebrate at the graves with picnics, music, and partying. It was almost impossible to get your head around. Birth here is different too – the woman gives birth on a bed of pine needles, surrounded by all her family, with a local band playing, and fireworks! Then she gets up and makes a feast for everyone…  no Birth Care for these mums.

The last village we visited, Zinacantan, felt totally different again. Known as the village of the flower people, there were green houses as far as the eye could see, producing roses, geraniums, bromeliads for export. The people had adopted the theme in their dress: they were distinguished by richly embroidered floral tunics, shawls and skirts. We ate lunch with a local woman, Maria, who pressed fresh tortillas from corn dough and cooked them on a fire in her small hut. Eaten with beans and crushed pumpkin seeds, they were delicious. There was just one room, and 9 people living there: I’m not sure how her newlywed son was getting on.

These were villages of simple beauty – but they were not without their problems. Alcoholism is rife here, thanks to the cheap liquor everyone produces. Despite government attempts at introducing medical advances, most women can’t be convinced to go to hospital if they need caesareans, so child mortality is still an issue. And then there are those who have rejected traditional religion. Many Chamulans have converted to other forms of Christianity, thanks to missionaries at work in the area. Those who do are expelled from the villages.  A remarkable 40,000 of them – known as Los Expulsados - now live in shanty towns on the outskirts of San Cristobal. We saw many basic huts built into deforested hillsides that looked as if they were about to collapse. It was a sobering sight on our way back into town – after one of the most phenomenal days of the trip.   

Saturday 3 March 2012

Cess in Ruins

Dan wanted to call this website Cess in Ruins. He cracked himself up with the hilarious double entendre – even when I pointed out we’d have to spend our entire trip checking out ancient sites (not a problem for me, more so for him: “they’re just old rocks.”)

But it seemed like a particularly apt title when we turned up at one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Mexico’s ruins of Chichen Itza, to discover I’d forgotten to bring any of our cash. We’d woken up at 6am, and travelled for an hour, to arrive bang on opening time to avoid the crowds. And now we couldn’t pay for our collectivo taxi, let alone the entry fee. Woops.  

But the thing I love most about travelling is that in times of (moderate) crisis, someone always comes to the rescue. Peter, a kindly 50-something Englishman who was also in our van, was trusting enough to lend us some money. It saved the day, but it did mean we couldn’t afford the guide we’d planned to take, so we were slightly less informed about said Wonder than we’d hoped. And it took a little bit of time for Dan to forgive me…

Regardless, Chichen Itza was quite something.  I have a thing for ruins: I love trying to imagine what they looked like in their heyday (when the rulers had awesome names like Kan Balam –“Snake Jaguar” and Ahkal Mo Nahb  – “Lake of the Turtle and the Macaw”), and I love trying to get my head around what people managed to construct, a millennia before anyone even thought about building a dirt hut in little ol’ New Zealand.

We walked in almost alone, the grass still wet with dew, to be greeted by El Castillo, an enormous stone pyramid. At its height around 900AD Chichen Itza was one of the largest, most powerful Mayan cities, and this temple to the serpent-god Kukulcan was the centre of their world. 

At its foot I met a local guide, who despite knowing I had no money to pay him, was passionate enough about the genius of the Maya to spend a long time telling me about the site. He explained they were brilliant mathematicians and astronomers. On the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, the sun produces a series of shadows on the staircases which look like a serpent moving down them. What they understood about the way the planet works is quite phenomenal.

But the thing which set Mexico’s pyramids apart from any other ruins I’ve visited was the obsession with human sacrifice. The enormous Ball Court was reminiscent of the Quidditch pitch from Harry Potter, with viewing platforms high up in the air, and stone hoops fixed on the walls. But this was no place for innocent games. Two teams would battle it out, and the losing captain, or the whole team, was sacrificed to the sun god. Carvings around the side showed their demise, and the Platform of Skulls held the heads of the victims. Nice.

Things were no less macabre at Palenque, despite the sublimely peaceful setting in lush jungle.  We arrived to the sound of howler monkeys crying out from the hills around a series of spectacular palaces, temples and tombs.  Here our guide Raul, who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a hippie commune (he told me I was sucking his Mayan soul out by taking his photo), told us about the practise of cranial deformation. The skulls of children who would be future rulers were flattened out using wood, probably in secret, to make them appear of a higher social status. The Maya also practised blood-letting to communicate with gods. Using sting ray spines, they extracted their own blood, and burned it with copal incense. It released smoke curls like snakes, from whose mouths their ancestors were said to emerge – a link to the gods.

Despite the subject matter, Palenque was my favourite site.  It was overgrown by jungle until the 1800s, and is still being uncovered.  It is a beautifully peaceful place to wander, with waterfalls, little glades, and gorgeous jungle.  As we left, we saw howler monkeys up close, springing through the trees (We thought one was throwing rocks at us, until we realised he was just taking a bathroom break…)

The little museum nearby gave an insight into how it would have looked at its height: with incredible carvings on every surface, and in every room. I liked the sense of humour in the clay pots they used which they quirkily decorated with animals and men.

We went to two other Mayan ruins in Mexico. Tulum, picturesquely perched on a cliff-edge on Mexico’s east coast, didn’t live up to the others in stature or detail. But they’re probably the only ruins I’ll ever visit where I could swim in the sea as a spectacular storm rolled in, and iguanas pose for photos.

Ek Balam - "Black Jaguar" - was more off the beaten path, and the better for it, without the throngs of tour groups at the other sites.  We climbed the steepest steps in Mexico to reach the top of the Acropolis, for incredible views over the jungle.  It was pretty amazing looking out at a series of other hills, knowing unexcavated temples lay underneath them. There’s so much more to be discovered here.

And with those four, Dan got well and truly “ruined out”.  And so it transpires it was a wise decision not to listen to him when naming the blog…