Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Aztec Adventures

Mexico City. Ciudad de Mexico or El Distrito Federal to the locals… A sprawling metropolis with a population of around 21 million… Yes, you read correctly- there are almost as many people living in this capital than there are in the whole of Australia!

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This is just one of the things I learned which I had no idea about before I visited Mexico City… I didn’t know the city sat at an altitude of 2,240 metres. But I sure noticed when climbing up the five flights stairs to the rooftop of my hostel for breakfast on my first day! I also didn’t know the city was initially built on an island surrounded by lakes. The legend goes that the gods told the Aztecs they were to build their new city at the site where they found the sign of an eagle perched on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak. When they came to this island on Lake Texcoco, they saw this sign and it was here that the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was built in the 1300s (and the eagle, snake and cactus is now the symbol which decorates Mexico’s flag). When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, Tenochtitlan was destroyed and the colonial capital which is now Mexico City was built over the top of it. As a consequence of the city expanding over the soft ground which was once underwater, there are far more leaning towers here than in Pisa!

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Despite what I’d heard, Mexico City appeared far more clean and felt a lot more safe than the reputation which proceeded it. Although its population is enormous, while I was there the city streets never seemed to be overly crowded or bunged up with traffic or full of exhaust fumes- but maybe I was hanging in quieter parts of town. Mexico City is the home of more old skool VW beetles (aka. Punch Buggies) than I’ve seen in a long time, but also has electric taxis, electric buses (they operate just like trams from an overhead cable) and they have a free bike hire scheme as well as several bike routes too.

The city is also pictureque, with wide, tree-lined streets and beautiful colonial buildings, though for some reason all the streets seem to be made of the slipperiest stones known to man, which makes wandering around  in thongs particularly hazardous (especially after the rain!). You will also never be without a toilet here- every street has numerous sanitarios, obvious by their giant ‘WC’ signs out front. I have never seen such a concentration of public loos! It seems to be quite the business here… Often you pay a few pesos to use them but the standard is leaps and bounds above the average Asian public toilet. Mexico City is not only memorable for its quality public amenities, but it is also a haven for museums, galleries and cultural activities. You could probably visit a different museum every week of the year, there are that many around- it seems like there’s one every block! There is art everywhere, not just in galleries but in the streets and underground in the metro stations, pretty much any surface that can be painted on…

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The fact that Mexico City has a vast and super-efficient metro system is something else I didn’t know before I arrived. It is SO cheap to get around at 3 pesos per trip (~25c!). You can change lines as many times as you want and cross the entire city for that price! Which is great because with the city being so big, it isn’t really easy to travel between boroughs by foot.

Taking the metro is an experience in itself. It’s here that you tend to notice the crowds more- being so cheap, it really is accessible to everyone and is well utilised. No matter if the carriage is bursting at the seams, there are always vendors selling all kinds of things on board. They really are talented, somehow managing to get on during the generous 10 second window that the doors are open (with hoards of people pushing in opposite directions), then they somehow shuffle their way through the packed carriage spruiking their wares in a sing-song voice. They sell anything from gardening gloves, to razors, to pocket mirrors, to chewing gum or candy, or my favourites, the compilation CDs. These vendors come in wearing a backpack decked out with a speaker attached to a discman (remember those?!) playing a snippet of each song on their CD full bawl. Depending on the day, a segment of your trip could be accompanied by traditional mariachi music, electro beats or English pop tunes from a range of eras sung in Spanish. And all could be yours for the bargain price of 10 pesos or less (<$1)! There were people selling stuff everywhere in the metro, even setting up on the stairs from the street down to the trains, or on the 10cm wide bit of railing between the stairs and escalators!

I stayed in a hostel in the Centro Historico just a couple of blocks from the Zócalo (Main Square), which is encircled by several impressive buildings including the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace and the City Hall.

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The cathedral is apparently the oldest and largest Roman Catholic cathedral in the Americas. On my first day, I roamed around inside, which is lovely, and also climbed up the bell tower (unfortunately on a Spanish speaking tour, so I understood little more than random words here and there!) but the view from the cathedral rooftop was well worth it.

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We also went to visit the Templo Mayor, which was the main temple of Aztec Tenochtitlan, part of which has been excavated just beside the cathedral.

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Sadly, the National Palace, formerly the presidential residence, but now a government building, was closed for renovations the whole time I was there. There are some Diego Rivera murals depicting significant scenes from Mexico’s history which I really wanted to see, but not to be.

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The next day however, a group of us- Joe, Sarah and I from Oz and Matt from England, went to the Ministry of Education building (which we later discovered was actually the building adjoined to our hostel!) which Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint in the 20s. He spent 6 years (1923-1929) painting murals around the walls of 3 levels of this huge building, which gave us plenty to see for free! He painted a range of images, depicting various types of labour carried out in Mexico, different Mexican celebrations, intellectual sciences, and the most impressive for me- a large series of images about the people’s struggles during the revolution, which quite clearly expressed his socialist and anti-capitalist point of view.

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We were very excited to find this place, as our day though turning out well, had started a little disappointingly. We were all waiting in the foyer of the hostel for a free market tour, when the guide (who had been at the hostel just ½ an hour earlier) called to say he had a family emergency and couldn’t make it. So we decided to conduct our own self-guided market tour. We jumped on the metro out to Mercado Jamaica, which had a bit of everything- food, produce, and finally came to the section they were famous for- the flowers. And they were amazing! I was kind of expecting some nice big bunches, but they had crazy elaborate arrangements shaped like Elmo, the Cookie Monster, frogs or lions, holding hearts saying ‘I Love You’. Insane.

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After Matt had bought some crickets and I’d tried and not enjoyed the second cricket of my lifetime, we trekked along to find Mercado Sonora, which was known as a market for ‘witchcraft’. They had a whole bunch of stalls with freaky looking dried snakes and other creatures, as well as an assortment of herbs, incense and candles, so I guess this was the part that got it the reputation. We also found a guy selling peyote under the table, though didn’t buy any! The rest of the market was a close knit maze of knick-knacks- toys, costumes, handicrafts. The find of the day was the Luche Libre wrestling masks for a fraction of the price of what we’d been told they were at the arena, so I bought up in preparation for the following evening!

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The rest of our afternoon was spent eating a ridiculously large but super cheap meal at Mercado Merced and later wandering to several museums and galleries in town which were all shut because apparently Monday is Mexico City’s day off for museums. When asking directions for one, we were told to ask the police, which we thought was a bit funny, but turned out to be a good tip as they actually did seem to know more than the average local! Mexico City has a lot of green space too, so despite not getting into any of the buildings we wanted to, we were able to wander through Almeda Central, a massive park with many water features, and also checked out Plaza Garibaldi, known for its many Mariachi bands, but it was a little early for much action (clearly it does get some action though, judging from the sign we saw below…)

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We then ended up walking through a part of town that appeared to be dedicated to fiestas,  but predominantly Quinceaños, which is the 15th birthday and ‘coming of age’ for a Mexican girl. There were stores overflowing with full-length puffy princess dresses, in all colours with frills, sparkles, diamantes, you name it! And stores filled with fancy invitations saying ‘15’ on metallic paper with ribbons and more sparkles… It would have been pretty cool to attend one of these parties, as it seems like they are a big deal! Each area in Mexico City seems to have a theme- there’s the shoe street, the jewellers street, and the floral leggings street (seriously, you would not believe what a popular fashion item this is here)… you really need to know where to go for what you want as you can’t just hope to stumble upon it in the sprawling expanse of Mexico City!

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We spent the evening at the hostel, where the Aussies were delighted to meet a French guy who looked exactly like Guy Sebastian (and introduce everyone else who was not acquainted with Guy Sebastian to both his picture and his music- the classic ‘Angels Brought Me Here’ Aus Idol era of course). It was uncanny. But then I got ‘Angels Brought Me Here’ stuck in my head for days…

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The next day was a revisit to the Diego Rivera Mural Museum, which was now open and definitely worth going back for- there was an amazing photo exhibition by a guy called Leo Matiz featuring musicians from all over Latin America and of course the feature piece, Rivera’s Sueño de la tarde de un domingo en la Alameda Central (Dreaming in the afternoon on a Sunday in Alameda Central). It’s a massive piece featuring lots of famous faces of Mexico’s present (as per the 70s) and past. There is so much going on you can look at it for ages.

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Later we took the metro out to Coyoacán (‘Place of the Coyotes’), the town of Frida Kahlo. Well, it used to be a town, but has now been swallowed by Mexico City and is more of a suburb… It still retains somewhat of a village feel however, and was very pleasant to walk around. The main attraction here is Frida’s Casa Azul (Blue House) where she was born, spent much of her life and also died. Unfortunately, you couldn’t take any pictures in the house, but there was a great exhibition of her clothing which had just recently been discovered locked away in a bathroom in the house, and you could also see her studio and bedroom (with the mirror above her bed) and all her things still in there. Personally, I found learning about Frida fascinating. I didn’t know much about her prior to coming to Mexico City, other than she was an artist from Mexico who painted a lot of self-portraits. However, after being here, seeing her and her art everywhere, reading a bit more about her and visiting her house, I’ve found her quite an intriguing character.

For those of you who aren’t interested or who are already Frida buffs, forgive me, but I will tell a little about her here from what I’ve heard and read for those who don’t know… She was born in 1907 in Coyoacán to a Hungarian father and Mexican mother. She had polio when she was 6 which left her with a deformed left leg which was shorter than her right leg. She originally wanted to be a doctor, but when she was 18, she was in a tramcar accident where she was pretty much impaled on a metal pole. It sounded horrific, and it’s actually amazing that she survived it at that time, but it did her a lot of internal damage, leaving her unable to bear children and also needing to wear external braces to supprt her pelvis and spine. Her trademark outfits were therefore chosen specifically to hide her physical defects. She wore long skirts, elaborate headdresses and detailed blouses to draw attention upwards. She started painting while she was recovering in the hospital from her accident. A lot of her paintings depict her physical and emotional pain. Later, she married the famous painter Diego Rivera, but it seems they had quite a tumultuous relationship, both having numerous affairs. Diego’s affair with Frida’s younger sister caused them to get a divorce, although they then remarried a year later! It sounds like their second marriage they lived in separate homes and were happier that way. She still had a lot of trouble with her health throughout her life and had something like 22 operations, including the amputation of one of her feet, and sadly died quite young, at the age of 47. So quite an interesting and also a tragic life, I thought!

The rest of our afternoon in Coyoacán was spent lazing around the main square which was full of couples and ice-cream shops. Here in Mexico the PDA is rife, seeing people making out is commonplace in any area with a bench, tree or even a wall to lean on. Though I guess for a country where people you’ve just met greet you with a kiss on the cheek this is somewhat understandable…

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That evening a group of us from the hostel headed out to the Lucha Libre- Mexican wrestling! We picked up an additional Aussie couple on the metro so ended with a crew of 11 people. Arena México is pretty big, but wasn’t full, I guess because it was a Tuesday night, which probably isn’t as popular as the Friday night matches. Dressed in our masks we took to our seats and ordered massive paper cups of beer (2 bottles in one cup) and as the action started, we picked random wrestlers to cheer for. The first fight was probably more amateur, as you could see a lot of the moves coming a mile off, and often it looked a bit fake; but as the night went on, the tricks got more and more impressive. It was really entertaining, watching El Felino play dirty and rub his armpits in his opponents’ faces, seeing massive dudes flying off the top of the ropes and flipping opponents using their legs, finding out the bitch slap is employed regularly as a legitimate move in this sport and also seeing an ex-Aussie Gladiator take to the ring (so that’s where they end up…).

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The boys really got into it, and for the rest of the night, the masks were never far away, with Joe and Martin street-fighting, bar-fighting and Joe just generally enjoying his beer more with his mask on…

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After quite a late but fun-filled night, Sarah and I dragged ourselves out to the tour bus the next morning to visit Teotihuacan. First we stopped at an Aztec site called Tlatelolco, still in Mexico City, where we saw the ruins of temples and human remains, as well as the colonial church, Templo de Santiago, and the Plaza de Tres Culturas (Plaza of Three Cultures). The three cultures referred to are the indigenous, Spanish and Mestizo (mixed European and American Indian), represented by the buildings from different eras around the square. This site is infamous for a massacre which occurred in 1968, where hundreds of student demonstrators were sadly killed by the Mexican government.

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We then visited the Guadalupe Shrine, a few kilometres outside Mexico City, to see the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legend goes that in 1531, the Virgin appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego, and asked him to tell the bishop to build her a church. So he went and asked, but the bishop didn’t believe him and wanted proof. When Juan Diego was returning home, the Virgin appeared again, and gave him some roses to take to the bishop as proof. He gathered them and put them in his blanket, and when he went back to the bishop and opened it, the roses fell out the famous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was inside. So then the bishop believed him a built a church. There are two churches at this site now, the original colonial one and a new modern one where the image is currently housed.

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There were soooo many people in there! It looked like Christmas Eve mass or something, not a random Wednesday morning in June… Anyway, they had thought up this neat system where the image was placed so that it could be seen by the whole congregation, but behind the pulpit was a little escalator which went past the image so all the tourists could get up close to it and take their pictures.

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From there, we had a little nap on the bus before arriving to a mezcal factory just outside Teotihuacan. Here we got to try several liquors made from the maguey (agave) plant including pulque (a nice sweet syrupy one) and mezcal (the close cousin of tequila, and a real difficult tasting to do the morning after!). The difference between mezcal and tequila is that tequila is made by steaming the agave and mezcal is made by roasting it, so mezcal tastes more smokey. Tequila is technically a type of mezcal I think. We were also shown several other things that the maguey is traditionally used for- the outer part of the leaf can be peeled off to make paper, the liquid that is on the surface of the leaf after the outside is peeled can be used as soap or shampoo, and lastly, the spiky tip of the leaf can be pulled out with the strong fibres from the centre of the leaf attached- an ancient needle and thread! They often make clothes and bags with this thread, though these days it is often combined with another textile such as cotton to make the end product softer. A pretty impressive plant!

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And then, we got to the main event- Teotihuacan. It is actually a huge site, quite a lot bigger than I expected. We were shown around one of the palaces by our guide and then had a couple of hours to wander on our own. First, we climbed the Pyramide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), the second biggest structure on the site. You can only climb part of the way up but you still get a great view down the main avenue. We climbed some little side pyramids too, which seemed like a good photo op as no-one else was doing it (and you were allowed to, don’t worry, we weren’t being crazy rebels).

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From there we wandered down the avenue, where many, many people shouted at us to buy things for 10 pesos. But apparently, it’s not like on the metro where everything is actually 10 pesos… one of the guys at our hostel discovered this call is just a hook to get you in! He thought, ‘10 pesos? Sure, I’ll get one!’ Then went up to the dude who said ‘40 pesos’, which resulted in no sale for him…

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One of the most annoying things they sold there were these little jaguar noise makers that you blow into and they make an artificial sounding roar. On top of all the people selling them and kindly demonstrating what they do, it seemed like every kid in the joint had gotten a hold of one and was consistently blowing into it, so our climb up the Pyramide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) was somewhat less tranquil accompanied by incessant grainy roaring… The Pyramide del Sol was really awesome though, unlike the Pyramide de la Luna, you had 360 degree views and could look over the whole site and the surrounding valleys.

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After that we tried to go and see a temple in the citadel which was meant to have some great paintings in really good condition. After walking for what seemed like kilometres we finally made it to the citadel but there were no real signs to direct us, just random ones in Spanish about topics such as ‘What did the people of Teotihuacan eat?’. We wandered around and climbed up a platform in the centre of the plaza to see if that was it, but no dice. There was only one other platform that was covered in scaffolding and looked fenced off, so we  gave up and headed back.

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On the way, one of the sellers who had spoken to us on the way past came up to us again and offered me some gemstones for free. I was a bit wary but he came up and put them in my hand. Then he proceeded to give each of us a little massage with a spherical polished stone while he chanted something. Felt good on the back, but then he did your stomach too which was not as pleasant! We wandered if he was casting a spell on us to buy stuff, but we managed to leave with nothing but my free gemstones- seems like he was just a friendly guy who liked to massage foreigners with stones. We trekked all the way back to the Pyramide del Sol, whizzed through the museum, then met our group again. When our guide asked if we’d seen the paintings and we said we couldn’t find it, he said it was in the platform with the scaffolding- apparently it was still accessible! Boo!

On my last day in Mexico City, Sarah and I decided to tackle the giant Anthropology Museum. It had been raining a lot, so wasn’t a bad day to hole ourselves up inside learning about the ancient civilisations of Mexico. It was a really interesting museum, but intense as there was so much stuff! I spent 5 hours there and only made it around the ground floor and there was a whole second level! Epic.

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There were some really awesome displays and I also learned some fun facts like:

-The ball game played by the Aztecs was actually of religious significance, representing the cycle of life and death and movement of the cosmos. If a team made a play in opposing direction to the movement of the sun/ moon or other relevant celestial body, they were sacrificed (either by decapitation or the cutting-out-their-still-beating-heart technique of ‘Apocalypto’ fame).

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-3 months of the 18-month Aztec calendar (each 20 days long) were dedicated to worshipping maize. And the sacred foods for all the other months were always made of maize… It was believed that corn was a gift from the gods themselves to man, and that the first humans were made of corn dough. It’s still a Mexican staple.

-The famous image of the Aztec Stone of the Sun (commonly called the ‘Aztec Calendar’, which everyone thought foretold the end of the world last year…) is not actually a calendar! It does contain symbols depicting the names of days and cosmogonic suns which is probably where this thought came from, but the stone was actually a large sacrificial altar… the central image is of one of the gods holding two human hearts with his tongue represented by a sacrificial knife…

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Anyway, after a long day in the museum, and a chance meeting with a Kenyan marathon runner in town for the Mexico City Marathon that weekend (Hillary Kipchirchir Kimaiyo- really friendly guy!) on the way back, Sarah and I went to the opera. The performance was at the Bellas Artes, Mexico City’s stunning opera house.

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In this area of town, they randomly have traffic police at intersections with working traffic lights who direct traffic in opposition to what the lights say! Crazy! Crossing the road there is always fun… Anyway, I digress… Sarah and I decided we’d check it out the opera as we’d never been before and could get some cheap tickets (~AU$15) to test the waters and see if we liked it. Also we got the see inside the theatre… 🙂

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The show we went to was called El Trovadore (or Il Trovatore in its original Italian). It was performed in Italian, but had subtitles projected in Spanish. My Spanish was enough that together with the acting I had an idea of the major events going on, but consequently missed a lot of the finer details in the convoluted plot! I really enjoyed it despite being a little confused at the end, but got home and Wikipedia shed light on everything for me… ‘Ohhhhh she wasn’t really betraying him, she was trying to save him!’ and ‘Ohhhh, so she didn’t just drop dead randomly… she drank poison beforehand!’ So, in closing, I would go to the opera again one day, but it might help me to buy a program in English… shame it’s so expensive in Australia though!

It was a bit sad saying bye to everyone when I left the next day- I met some amazing people in Mexico City and had some great times. But for now it was adios big city, I was off to test out the village life in Puebla!

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Surfing the couch in Baja California Sur

So here I am in Baja California Sur, the southern part of the western peninsula in Mexico.

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What I discovered when doing my research in Ensenada is that the Baja peninsula is not really a solo traveller’s friend. It is much more geared towards road tripping, hence transport is crazy expensive (a 12hr bus ride halfway down cost about US$100!) and the only cheap accom is in RV parks (if you have a tent or caravan) with hotels starting at ~US$40/night… That kinda price probably sounds cheap to some, but really doesn’t fit in with my backpacker’s budget which needs to get me through 6 more months on the road! Where are all the hostels?! Even one would do. The thought of paying that much per night when I could get away with AU$7-10/night in a dorm Asia made me want to cry. So then I thought, ‘Maybe I could buy a tent…?’ but that was soon followed by, ‘Hmmm, that would mean all of my worldly possessions would be left in a piece of fabric with a zip… Out in the open… In the middle of the Mexican desert…’ and I decided against that idea.

Then I though of couchsurfing! Most people have heard of it these days, but it’s a great concept- basically a reciprocal system based on people’s goodwill. There are members from all over the world offering up free hospitality and in exchange learning people’s stories, making new friends and guaranteeing themselves a couch to stay on when they next travel! Couchsurfing made my visit to Baja California Sur (BCS) possible, and all the more memorable.

First up was Carlos in La Paz (the one in Mexico, not the one in Bolivia). He is a doctor by day and couchsurfing host extraordinaire on the side.

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I ended up flying in from Tijuana- due to the aforementioned crazy expensive buses; this actually cost less and saved me 22 hours in travel time! From the moment I first arrived Carlos was the host with the most, picking me up from the airport on his motorbike, carefully balancing my small pack in front of him whilst I clung on the back loaded up with my big pack. What a way to get introduced to the vast desert landscape of BCS! It is stunning with the dusty plains, trademark cacti and rocky mountains stretching off to the horizon.

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Carlos invited me not only into his home, but right into his room- he and his awesome roomie Miguel actually donated me one of their mattresses for the duration of my stay (sometimes also utilised by Olga the dog). On my arrival, Miguel was busy preparing ceviche– I watched on as he marinated some raw fish in lime with diced onion, coriander and tomato which he then served up on tostadas with a selection of chili sauces. So I was welcomed with fresh and delicious food (sure-fire way to a dietitian’s heart), friendly smiles and a lot of quickly spoken Spanish that I couldn’t quite keep up with! Carlos also speaks perfect English so was able to help translate bits and pieces to me which was great. Afterwards I brought out one of my giant family size blocks of Cadbury Marvellous Creations to share (thanks nan!) which was a massive hit. Ahhh Cadbury, transcending language barriers all over the world… :-p

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That evening once the sun was going down, and the severe heat of the day was starting to dissipate, we all went down to the Malecón, which is the long waterfront esplanade. It was beautiful, looking out onto the bay with the sun setting. Naturally, this occasion called for ice-cream, which we duly purchased and enjoyed as we wandered around until dark.

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The following morning Carlos took me out to Ballandra, one of the iconic beaches in La Paz, home of La Piedra de la Bahía Balandra (‘The Rock of Balandra Bay’). This rock, which looks kind of like a mushroom, is featured on every postcard, fridge magnet, poster and brochure you can find in La Paz. The people love it so much, that when it fell down (I heard a wide variety of stories as to how this happened, ranging from someone climbing on it, to a boat crashing into it, to simple erosion) but however it happened, the rock was rebuilt and reinforced with metal and concrete!

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We lazed the morning away in Ballandra, seeing only one other person on our stretch of beach the whole time we were there. It was so serene, with the white sand, crystal clear, cool blue water and birds flying overhead. Eventually we had to make a move, as Carlos usually works from 2pm til 8pm, and we were getting roasted by the desert sun! On the way back, we were stopped by the feds who asked Carlos a few questions. One of them was ‘Is your wife pregnant?’, to which Carlos answered ‘She’s not my wife and no, she’s not pregnant!’ Kind of understandable, as I was sitting on the back of the bike in a purple dress with a purple bag on my lap, so I picked up the bag and showed them it was not a pregnant belly, and we were sent on our way!

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The next day I went to the natural history museum in town. I only had a 200 peso note when I arrived, and the lady didn’t have change so let me in for free! The first level was sculptures of scenes from pre-Hispanic times and the second some paintings and artefacts, but neither had any signs so I thought, maybe I won’t be here for long anyway… But the third level had a lot of signage, only in Spanish, so I stood up there forever deciphering a few to practice!

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The rest of the afternoon I wandered around the historic centre of La Paz, seeing sites like the cathedral, theatre, cultural centre, and town hall, and looked at a lot of art and photography.

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One of my favourites was an art exhibition by an illustrator who depicted many traditional Mexican games which was really interesting.

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In the evening I hit the supermarket as I was going to cook dinner for the house- pad thai- and I managed to find most of the ingredients, except strangely enough, the noodles! I had thought they would be easier to find, but no, I got rice wine vinegar and fish sauce, but had to settle with ‘rice vermicelli pasta’ instead of stick noodles. The resulting dish was unfortunately more like a mush as the pasta was too soft to stir-fry, but it still tasted nice!

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In the morning I took a day trip to the nearby town of Todos Santos, a pueblo mágico (magic village), which is a designation given to lots of small historic towns in Mexico. It was very quiet (aside from numerous couples making out on benches, there didn’t seem to be many people around); but the locals were so lovely and friendly that in every shop or gallery I went into, the vendor would want to chat. The town was full of beautiful buildings, so was lovely to walk around.

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The highlight of my day was meeting a painter called Luis Angel, who goes by ‘Angelito’. I was speaking to a lady at an opal shop for ages and then noticed these cool painted spoons and shells out front. I’d asked if the artist had a website or something as I was impressed by his work and the lady was devastated because he was usually there but had gone home for a bit. She insisted, ‘You have to see him paint! It’s an amazing experience! Do you have time?’ So she rang him and in a few minutes he was at the shop. He painted a tiny painting with oils, just using his finger and one tiny brush in front of me as we chatted, and got such detail in, it really was incredible to see. He ended up giving me the gorgeous little painting to remember the day.

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I went for dinner across the road at a place called ‘Bob Marlin’, a bar/restaurant which served tacos and of course played Bob Marley all day. I ordered a pork taco and a shrimp taco, but later was told there was no pork, is fish ok instead? And I said yes. Later out came two fish tacos. Then the owner of the bar René came and apologised to me as they had also run out of shrimp and said the tacos were on the house! Another guy Pablo who worked there also bought me a beer, so I had a very cheap night out, and was again amazed by the friendliness of everyone… Despite the crowd at Bob Marlin’s encouraging me to stay longer in Todos, I eventually had to leave to catch my bus. I thought I’d booked for 8pm but when I got to the station and looked at my ticket, I realised I’d booked for 11pm and my seat number was 8! The next bus was at 8.15, and the lady said I’d just need to ask the driver if I could use that ticket for it. All was fine when the bus arrived and thankfully I didn’t have to wait 3 more hours to get back to La Paz. The day in Todos Santos did feel magical in a way, luck was really on my side the whole time!

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The following evening I went out in town with Carlos. I tried a Mexican hot dog, where the sausage is wrapped in bacon (!), then topped with fried onions and smothered in salsa, mustard and mayo. It was AMAZING! We then went to a little hole-in-the-wall bar that used to be a corner store, where I tried a ballena loco (crazy whale), which is a giant bottle of beer (the ballena– almost a litre!) which you drink a bit out of and then you take back to the bar where the bar dude mixes some stuff into it (you don’t know what exactly, cos he does it under the bar!) but it includes clamato juice, and then the bottle is rimmed with chilli powder and topped with a salted apricot. After that one huge drink I already felt a bit tipsy! We then went to an Americano place for buffalo wings and cheese sticks, and later met up with Miguel and his friends for more beers, which ended up being a bit of a late night.

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On my last day in La Paz, armed with a powerade; I set out on a snorkelling tour to the nearby island of Espíritu Santo (Holy Spirit). I had been waiting all week to see if there would be a kayaking tour, but as it was so quiet, none were going (they need a minimum of 4 people) so I settled for snorkelling. On the way we saw heaps of dolphins who frolicked all around the boat before we approached the island to admire the impressive rock formations and caves.

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Our first stop was at the Los Islotes sea lion colony, where we got to have a snorkel with the sea lions. That was amazing, as they swim quite close to you. We had lunch of sandwiches and ceviche at a small beach and had a second snorkel along the rocks there before heading back. On the return trip, a little girl from the US told me I had a nice accent- first time I’ve ever heard that!

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That evening my next host, Ryan from Los Barilles was in La Paz to do some errands and was able to pick me up which was awesome. I said a fond goodbye to Carlos and Miguel- such awesome guys, I will never forget! Ryan and I went for dinner in La Paz, and tried the local almejas chocolata (clams). They were so fresh they still moved when you put the lime on them! That creeped me out quite a bit at first, but after a long while psyching myself up to eat one, I discovered they were delicious and got over it! We then visited a little boutique beer place called ‘The Beer Box’ which could easily have been a bar in Melbourne. It featured brews from all over Mexico and the world. We had a guava-infused beer from near Mexico City before hitting the road to Los Barilles.

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Ryan had recently bought an old van in the states, and is in the process of fitting it out. It’s a pretty pimpin’ old thing, and tough enough to withstand the bumpy desert roads. It was dark on the way, so I couldn’t see too much of the mountains and desert landscape, but the stars were out in force. And we did see some wildlife (a poor little bat which flew into the windscreen:-/…)! I was in awe when we arrived at the house. It turned out Ryan’s parents, Ben and Harriet, have retired to Los Barilles from Oregon, and have built a beautiful house there with ocean views. I had a plush room all to myself which was very luxurious! Ryan lives and works from there in online marketing- pretty sweet! :-p

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Los Barilles held lots of new adventures. The first was driving out to a canyon where we walked out to some waterfalls and rockpools in the desert sun. The water was deliciously cold, but the sun was pretty fierce and I burnt my feet on the thousand degree rocks trying to work up the courage to jump into this deep pool!

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We finished the afternoon at the beautiful hot springs at Santa Rita with a couple of cold beers. It was so quiet and peaceful and the landscape was amazing. On the way home we stopped for dinner at Hotel Palomar in the small town of Santiago. We had some beautiful fish in garlic and a shrimp quesadilla. Mmm!

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One day I went out fishing with Ben and a family friend Janet. I have never really been fishing before unless you count fish farms as a kid… So this was a whole new ball game- sport fishing, out on the sea in a boat, trawling through the waves with 3 lines dangling out behind us. We passed the time watching manta rays splashing and flipping out of the water and admiring dolphins frolicking in front of the boat.

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Whilst Janet and I were up on the bow admiring said dolphins, Ben, who was driving the boat at the time, yelled ‘FISH ON!’, so we scrambled back to the rods. I jumped in the chair and was given the catch and a 10 second run-down on how to reel it in. I started reeling away while the others brought in the other lines, and after what seemed like a while finally had the fish alongside the boat (quite a decent workout for arms which have done nothing in months!)

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We had caught a big dorado, which in the water was a vibrant yellow-green colour. It was strong and fighting hard. Ben had to hook it and bring it into the boat- it was pretty heavy, I could barely pick it up with two hands! It was a bit sad to kill it, as soon as it came out of the water its colour started to fade. But later that morning after we got back, Ben sliced it up, some was vacuum packed and frozen, and much was taken down to a local restaurant which cooks your catch for you in several different ways.

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Dinner that night was an absolute feast- the usual corn chips and salsa for starters, then 4 courses of fish! We had ceviche (my favourite course, mixed with apple on little tortilla chips), sashimi with soy and sesame, a crumbed fillet served with potato, veggies and frijoles (the Mexican touch) and lastly, Veracruz style- in a tomato sauce with capsicums and onions. It was all amazing and I was so full at the end of it. So at least our fishy went to good use, none was wasted!

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On my last day surfing with Ryan, he drove me out to Cabo Pulmo, a little town only accessible by car on dirt roads- no buses go down this way. The main draw here is the National Marine Park- the only living reef in the Sea of Cortez, which around here is often referred to as ‘The World’s Aquarium’.  I wanted to dive there, and without Ryan’s generous lift, I wouldn’t really have been able to make it there on my own! The diving was good, very different from any of my previous dives. For starters, all the measures were imperial instead of metric, so worked in feet and PSI instead of metres and Bar… It was also much, much colder than anywhere I have dived before ~19 degrees down at about 15-20m compared to the usual 30 degrees in Thailand and Malaysia! I had a full 5.4mm wetsuit (vs just a rashie in Asia!) and was frozen after our first dive, even though we were only down for 35 minutes! There was some intense current too which I hadn’t been warned about – our briefing was very, well… brief. ‘We’re going to go down all together and swim to the end of the reef. Let me know when you have 700PSI and we all go up. Listos? (Ready?)’ Got some good impromptu drifting practice in!

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We saw some pretty reef and beautiful fish plus big moray eels and groupers on our first dive. The second dive it was even more freezing than the first when we initially descended and one of the girls in our group actually had to go back up. We had to wait in the current for the instructor to come back down after taking her back to the boat, and it was like being in one of those tiny swimming pools with the current, where you swim on the spot! We just had to face into the current and keep kicking otherwise be whizzed away in the drift. Thankfully we managed to keep our position and the instructor found us again. When he came back we ascended a little and it was significantly warmer and the current was a lot less noticeable. We swam with a giant school of big eye jacks for ages which was pretty amazing- there were so many of them all around you, and they didn’t seem to mind that there were some strange big fish who had joined their posse!

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My final destination in Baja was Cabo San Lucas, at the very bottom of the peninsula. It’s a pretty touristy town, mostly families and groups on package holidays from the States, so is more expensive too. It is known as a party town mostly, but I thought I’d check it out for a few days. Here I couchsurfed with Hagai, a diving instructor who is managing a dive shop. His work kept him pretty busy while I was there, but he was incredibly accommodating, and again I lucked out and got my own room at his place!

After walking all the way across town from the bus stop to Hagai’s dive shop at the marina, I dumped my bags and headed out to explore. I first of all ended up in a bazaar, and the vendors at each stall asked ‘Hablas Español? (Do you speak Spanish?), then when I replied ‘Un poco’ (A little), they would respond ‘Mas barato para ti!’ (More cheap for you!). When they asked where I was from, the reply of ‘Australia’ was mostly greeted with surprise, and exclamations of ‘Ohhh Australia? Muy lejos!’ (Very far!). People were very friendly, happy just to chat if I didn’t want to buy anything. I actually got asked by one of the vendors if we have cactus in Australia, and it struck me that I wasn’t sure! Google fixed that, and I discovered that yes, Australia does have native cacti. In fact, Australia also has its very own Cactus and Succulent Society. True story, you can google it yourself…

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Anyhoo, Cabo is a nice town. It still has a historic centre with beautiful buildings and a leafy main square by the museum, but together with cute little shops, cafes and boutiques, has a whole lot of franchises, souvenir shop after souvenir shop selling piles of all the same stuff and a giant mall and marina which could be anywhere in the world. The highlight of my day was whiling away the afternoon at the Baja Brewing Co on the rooftop at one of the swanky villas. I watched over all the watersports and craziness happening on Medano Beach with a cold raspberry infused beer, mmm!

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One day I decided to take a trip out to San Jose del Cabo, the mature and artsy older sister of Cabo San Lucas who lives half an hour up the road (though longer if you take the bus…). I started the day by catching a collectivo (small bus) from near Hagai’s place into Cabo. The bus stop was a little rotunda thing which appeared to be draped with pieces of old sheets, just beside my favourite landmark, the roundabout decked out with a huge tinsel Christmas tree.

Luckily I asked a guy where to catch the bus to el centro, otherwise I would’ve instinctively gone to wait on the wrong side of the road (the collectivo takes a long random way through the estate to town instead going directly). Anyway, made it to town and then got on another bus to San Jose. This one I managed to get off just before it left town to go to the airport! These buses kind of operate on a system where if you are waiting by the roadside anywhere on the route, they will stop to pick you up. And if you stand up or yell out while on the bus, they will stop and drop you wherever. It was lucky I spotted a sign to the zona historico and quickly got up!

San Jose is a beautiful old town filled with galleries and handicraft shops, but still has its share of souvenir outlets too.

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My first stop was the municipal market where I had my first try of nopal (a type of cactus) and when I walked out noticed a minimart called Mandy two doors down from a salon called Laura. BFFs Mandaura reunited in Mexico! That put a smile on my face.

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Again I found the people to be super friendly, one guy called Jose from a glass shop kept calling me ‘my beautiful friend from Australia’ at the end of every sentence. In the evening they had the weekly Art Walk where the galleries stay open late, some have artists in residence there to chat to, and some offer free drinks- wine tastings or free mini margaritas. The main square fills up with artists selling their works on every surface, so it was a really nice day to visit.

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My last full day in Cabo was spent out at the beach. I took a glass-bottomed boat to Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach) where we cruised out from the marina, got to view the famous arch (like the mushroom rock in La Paz, the arch is on all the postcards and tacky souvenirs in Cabo), checked out the pacific side of the beach, named Playa del Divorcio (Divorce beach) and then got dropped on Playa del Amor to stay til we told the boat to come back and get us.

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After walking out to the arch, I divided my time between snorkelling around ‘Pelican Rock’ and defrosting on the beach. It was beautiful snorkelling with some colourful corals and a lot of cool fish, but it was soooooo cold! So when I was kind of a bluey colour and covered in goosebumps, I’d have to relent and go back to the baking sand. There was no happy medium- it was either burning hot, or really cold!

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That evening Hagai and I went out for lobster and shrimp, and I was told to try the ‘Bulldog’- a combo of tequila, lemonade and beer… Sounds weird, but went down pretty easily! They also made both of us do a shot of tequila and lemonade which was something new… they covered the top of the shot with a serviette, banged it on the table 3 times so it fizzed up and then you took it. Much nicer than straight tequila, I’m bringin’ this method home!

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Unfortunately this was the evening I also discovered I had made quite the boo-boo when booking my flight to Mexico City the next day… Instead of booking from San Jose del Cabo in Mexico, I had booked from San Jose in COSTA RICA! Ahhhh! So silly. I called the airline and because it was an international fare, they couldn’t change it to a domestic one. However, for US$25, I could change the date and also change it to any other international route, so I managed to save it and use the flight to get back to the states later on. As for getting to Mexico City, I had to buy a whole new flight. And guess who tried to put it through on PayPal? Yep…

So just as I was breathing a sigh of relief to have everything sorted, I got an email from PayPal saying since the flight I’d booked leaves within 72 hours, PayPal was not accepted and the transaction had been cancelled! So I jumped back online and booked the flight for the THIRD TIME (noticing this time the bold red print saying you can’t pay with PayPal within 72 hours of flying…) and finally had a confirmed booking- the last available seat on the flight!! Phew!

So after a day of doing laundry, a 2 hour bus trip to the airport, curing a burger craving with a ‘Whopper Furioso’ at the airport Burger King and a middle of the night stopover in Tijuana, I was finally off to Mexico City for a bright and early 5.30am arrival!

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