Climbing Cerro de las Culebras

Richard M and Colleen use a laundry service here in Coatepec. For approximately $1.40 CAD per 2 kilograms of laundry, you drop it off one morning and pick it up the next afternoon washed, dried and neatly folded! When Colleen and I were on our way to pick up the laundry yesterday she pointed out a green hill in the distance. On top was a bright yellow circular tower of some sort with a cross its side. I immediately wondered if there was a trail leading up to it.

A quick internet search was all it took to discover that Cerro de las Culebras (Snake Hill) and the lookout tower on its top are easily accessible from the centre of town. This morning was warm and sunny, so after a hearty breakfast the four of us set out to find the trailhead and climb to the top. Forty-five minutes later we were at the bottom of a series of steep cobbled steps leading up the hillside.

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The lush greenery on either side made it a beautiful climb and soon we began to catch glimpses of the town spread out below.

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Before we knew it, we were at the top where the lookout tower with a white statue of Christ at its top stands in the middle of a grassy clearing. The views of Coatepec and the surrounding mountains were spectacular. In the distance, we could even see the snow covered peak of Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest mountain and a dormant volcano that last erupted between 1545 and 1566. It is the third highest mountain in North America and the world’s second highest dormant volcano, behind only Kilimanjaro in Africa.

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If you can’t spot Pico De Orizaba in this photo, I’ve circled it in the next one which was taken from the top of the observation tower.

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Grocery shopping Mexico style

As we were preparing for our latest travel adventure, many people back home on the cold Canadian prairie had a hard time understanding why we would go to Mexico and not spend our time at a beach resort. To me, the answer is easy. First and foremost, the friends that we’re visiting don’t live at the coast. Secondly, this trip is giving us a rare opportunity to see “real” Mexico and to learn how the people of this country live.

Shopping here is absolutely nothing like shopping in Tijuana or on 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen. Market areas aren’t inundated with cheap trinkets and we aren’t constantly accosted by aggressive hawkers. Everything here has set prices, so there’s no need to barter.

Wherever I go in the world, I like to see how and where the locals buy their groceries. Here in Coatepec there’s a Chedraui supermarket within walking distance that sells groceries, clothing, and household items; much like Walmart or Superstore back home. Chedraui is a huge Mexican supermarket chain that originated in nearby Xalapa. A person could easily do all their grocery shopping there, but Richard M and Colleen buy most of their food from small street side vendors and marketplaces that remind me of how we shopped in China. They also shop at tiny hole in the wall family run shops like the one just up the road from here. With it’s rough cement floor, shelves lining the side walls and a meat counter at the back, it’s smaller than our single car garage at home. In all of these places, the products are fresh and locally grown or produced. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy this kind of shopping!

So, let’s go grocery shopping…

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There are also vendors who regularly come through the neighbourhood or to the gate selling foodstuff. Today we had delicious tamales for lunch that were purchased from one of these pedlars. Yum!

Hello Xalapa!

We first woke up at 4 o’clock this morning because the house was shaking and the windows rattling. The 4.4 magnitude earthquake with its epicentre beneath the ocean less than 150 km east of here, was not something I had expected to experience during our stay in Mexico. After living for a year in Japan where the earth moves almost every other week, we’re pretty blasé about such things though and soon went back to sleep.

Later in the morning, we took a 20 minute bus ride into Xalapa (pronounced Halapa), a city of approximately 400 000 people that is the capital city of the Mexican state of Veracruz. Xalapa is also known as a centre of arts and culture.

We enjoyed strolling around the central part of the city including Parque Jaurez, one of the city’s most popular attractions. The park, located next to the provincial government building, is home to an amazing dragon play structure; it’s tongue a two sided slide, its body a climbing wall and its tail a rope climbing apparatus. I could imagine my five grandchildren having a blast playing on it.

We also enjoyed the Greek inspired statues of the four muses, especially this one!

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Across the street from the government building stands the impressive Xalapa cathedral, beautiful both inside and out.

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As we walked the nearby streets stopping into a few little shops, we joked that this one must be part of the empire owned by the newly elected president of a certain country to the north!

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Clearly it was a fun filled morning! After a fabulous lunch in one of Xalapa’s finest restaurants, we returned to Coatepec but we’ll be back in Xalapa on Friday evening to hear the city’s symphony orchestra in concert.

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To Xico for lunch

After starting my day with a zumba class, I was ready for a hearty lunch. We caught a taxi in Coatepec and headed for Xico, a smaller town about 9 km away. Here’s the sight that greeted my eye as I stepped out of the car!

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Turning around, we crossed the street and headed down the newly restored pedestrian avenue lined with colourful homes and shops. It felt a bit like a step back in time.

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Toward the end, road construction was still underway.

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The restaurant that was our destination was located near the end of the street. Fortunately, shortly after we arrived, it was time for the construction crew to take their afternoon siesta. The machines shut down and the workers gathered in the shade across the street from where we sat in the sunshine on the outdoor patio. Again, I had to remind myself that it’s the middle of February!

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There’s very little English in use in this part of Mexico. Richard M and Colleen function fairly well in Spanish and are able to help us order from the Spanish only menus. There have been a couple of surprises, but they’ve both turned out rather well! On our first morning in Coatepec we went out for breakfast. I thought I’d ordered an omelette, but it was actually fried eggs in a very tasty sauce. Today, I was expecting a shrimp sandwich, but it turned out to be an absolutely delicious omelette! If the surprises continue to be this yummy, I hope there are a few more of them!

Welcome to Coatepec!

great-wallWhen we climbed the Great Wall of China with fellow Liaoning Normal University English teacher, Richard M, and his wife, Colleen, almost four years ago, we had no idea that someday we’d walk the streets of Coatepec, Mexico with them! Richard and Colleen are now enjoying  retirement in this colourful town of approximately 50 000 people located about 300 km east of Mexico City. We arrived the day before yesterday and after talking until almost one o’clock in the morning, decided that we didn’t have to do all our catching up in one night!

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After being out and about exploring Coatepec yesterday and then again today, we can easily see why Richard and Colleen love it here! Dressed in shorts and t-shirts, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s still February, but climate isn’t the only reason to like this place.

The people are warm, friendly and very welcoming; the food is fresh and delicious; and the architecture is gorgeous. A beautiful park at the centre of town is a vibrant gathering place.

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Come take a look around with me…

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Tulum

One of the reasons that we chose a resort on the Riviera Maya for our Mexican getaway was its close proximity to the Mayan ruins at Tulum. Visiting this historic site was definitely one of the highlights of our vacation.

I was awed by its location high on a limestone cliff overlooking the beautiful turquoise waters of the Caribbean. The original Mayan name for the settlement was Zama meaning dawn, very apt considering it’s eastern exposure facing the rising sun. It was early explorers who gave the place it’s current name which simply means wall, referring to the stone barricade surrounding it on three sides. The ocean provides protection on the fourth. Tulum was the only Mayan city built on the coast and one of few that were walled.

Within those walls are found the imposing Castillo, or castle, Tulum’s tallest and most famous building. Standing atop the 12 metre bluff, it has a commanding view of the ocean and many miles of coastline. Other buildings that remain today formed the city’s centre where ceremonial and political activities took place. They include the king’s palace, a meeting hall and several temples. Stone outlines are all that remain of lesser buildings that were mostly built of wood.

Tulum was a seaport and a centre of trade. A grassy expanse in front of the palace was once a bustling marketplace. Below, an opening in the offshore reef leads directly into a small cove, its sandy beach a perfect parking lot for trading canoes.

The earliest date found at the site is A.D. 564, inscribed on a stelae, but its heyday is thought to have been between 1000 and 1600 A.D. Looking at the heavy stone structures, the graceful columns and the intricate carvings that can still be seen on some of the walls, one can only wonder at the architectural achievements of the settlement’s early inhabitants and ponder what might have brought about the demise of such a civilization.

El Castillo

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King’s Palace

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‘Parking lot’ with lighthouse in the distance

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Other structures

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Present day inhabitants!

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We didn’t actually have to leave our resort to see ruins. Remains of a small temple to the Mayan goddess of fertility are located on the grounds and next to them, parts of a much larger Spanish chapel where some 120 bodies were found interred. Overlooking the ocean near the beach stands a Mayan lighthouse very similar to the one at Tulum.

Mayan Temple

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Remains of the Spanish chapel

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 The lighthouse

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She said yes!

During our ten days in Mexico, we intentionally cut ourselves off from the rest of the world. It was a time to unwind and forget about the pressures of life. We left our laptops at home and the cell phone was turned off. I wasn’t sure how well I’d handle being completely out of touch but it was great! I didn’t worry about anything. We’d left the phone number of our resort with our three grown children and with my sister so we knew that they could get in touch with us if they really needed to.

On Monday afternoon when we got back to our room after a long day of relaxing on the beach and doing a bit of snorkelling, we discovered that someone had slipped a tiny note under our door. My heart skipped a beat when I realized that we had a phone message!

Was it my father? At 91 years old and following a stroke in September, he’s quite frail. He’d been doing exceptionally well but had he taken a turn for the worse?

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It only took me a moment to unfold the message and learn that something else had happened, something very exciting, something that couldn’t wait for us to get home to be shared!

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The note needs a bit of interpretation but I knew in an instant that our youngest son, Nathan, had proposed to his girlfriend, Colleen, and she’d said yes!

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We are absolutely delighted!

Welcome to the family, Colleen!

A different way to travel

We arrived home a few days ago after spending Christmas with family on the BC coast but we aren’t here for long! It seems we dropped in just long enough to experience some of the coldest days this winter has had to offer. Is it any wonder that I’m happily digging out our summer wardrobe and exchanging the contents of our suitcase for beach wear?

Much of our international travel has been done by the seat of our pants with a Lonely Planet guide in hand. Before each trip, I did lots of research. We always had a general idea where we were going and what we wanted to do when we got there but the details unfolded as we went along. This has led to many adventures and unforgettable moments including traveling the length of Vietnam by overnight bus and arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) late on New Years Eve without a hotel reservation, being caught up in local celebrations and even accepting a ride with a total stranger in China. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything but this time I decided that I wanted something easier, a stress-free vacation that I didn’t have to plan myself. After the year we’ve just been through, all I want to do is kick back and relax in the sun!

In late November, we did something we’ve seldom done before. We sat down across the desk from a travel agent and told him that we didn’t really care where we ended up; we simply wanted to go somewhere warm with a beach! We also favoured an all-inclusive vacation; one where we didn’t have to find our own way around or wonder where our next meal was coming from. We gave him the window of time available between my various medical appointments and let him do the searching.

“Let’s find you a non-stop flight,” he suggested. Thinking back to the many hours we’ve spent in airports and our unplanned 24 hour layover in Houston on the way home from Costa Rica three years ago, I readily agreed. He gave us some options to think about and we settled on a resort on Mexico’s Caribbean coast near Playa del Carmen.

We won’t have internet and our cell phone will be turned off. We’ll have TV, of course, but I’m not sure that we’ll bother to turn it on. For a little while, the world will get along without us. I’ve told a few family members how to reach us in case of an emergency but I’m praying that there won’t be any crises while we’re gone.

I’m going to immerse myself in the moment, soak up some sunshine and enjoy time with my hubby who, by the way, officially became a senior citizen earlier this week! Hopefully I’ll have lots to blog about when we get back.