MY ROUGH GUIDE: Where the rebels didn't want to break the law
Sunday 10 August 1997
The Dr. Alfredo Barrera Marin Botanical Garden, at Puerto Morelos, just south of the tourist hotspot of Cancun, is the only protected land in the rapidly developing Cancun-Tulum corridor of Mexico's gorgeous Caribbean coast. Plans to take one third of the garden, which features original coastal forest and mangroves, to build a resort, have been thwarted largely due to the efforts of two determined women: Silvia Torres Pech, a Maya biologist who grew up in the forest with a vision to preserve her people's heritage, and who is now the garden's Director, and Sandra Dayton, a long- time resident, originally from the US. Trees and plants, many with cultural and medicinal significance to the Maya, are labelled in Spanish, English, Mayan and Latin, and there are some astonishing ruined temples in a forest glade. This is a treasure not to be missed. For information on how to visit and stay in quiet Puerto Morelos email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hotel Majestic, overlooking Mexico City's main plaza, the Zcalo. Although not a budget option, the price of about pounds 55 for a double gives you a chance to stay in a beautiful old building, typically decorated with azulejos (white tiles with a blue design) and with turn of the century photographs on the walls. Perhaps the best feature is the location, at the heart of the historic district, with views of the cathedral and national palace from the rooftop restaurant. In San Cristbal de las Casas, the former colonial capital of Chiapas, in the south-east of Mexico, budget travellers, especially women, find a warm welcome from Amparo Aguilar Salazar, who runs the Posada Casa Real on Real de Guadalupe. She always tells me off for not writing to her when I'm travelling, so I hope this will make up for past transgressions.
The present edition was written and ready for press in early 1994, at the same time as the Zapatistas burst out from the Lacandon jungle, but clearly we couldn't go ahead and publish without a full account of the effects of the uprising. So I (and the other researchers) were persuaded to go back and cover the entire country again. Once more I travelled the Frontier Highway with Guatemala by third-class bus, through the mountains and forests of one of the most remote regions of Mexico, passing this time through numerous Mexican army checkpoints, until I reached the area controlled by the Zapatista rebels. There, at a pole barrier across the road, I was faced with two teenage guerrillas armed with sticks and an old rifle. They didn't really want to let me go any further but I showed them my passport, tourist card, and my formal letter of introduction from the Minister of Tourism in Mexico City, informing them that since I had all the correct documentation, it would in fact be illegal to prevent me. Despite the fact that they were at least technically at war with the Mexican government, this seemed to convince them, and I was allowed to proceed. I was somewhat disappointed by the fact that they were not wearing their trademark balaclava masks.
In a country bursting with amazing crafts and folk art it's hard to pick just one. But if I had to, I'd willingly settle for the unglazed clay replica of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god of Mexico - Kukulkan in Mayan - which I'd bought from a small boy on my first visit to Chichen Itza, the great Maya site in Yucatan, almost 20 years ago. I'd camped at the ruins then, something impossible today with fleets of tour buses and uniformed security guards.
A visit to the 43rd floor of the Latin American Tower in Mexico City to enjoy the view and a superb cappuccino and cream cake. The whole thing costs about pounds 3.75 ( and you can skip the cafe if you want to save money). The tower was until recently the tallest building in Latin America and has survived numerous earthquakes - including the disastrous one in 1985 - due to it's design. Based on the principle of an angler's float, with enormously heavy foundations bobbing about in the soft subsoil, the act of bravado in actually daring to go to the top of the thing is possibly a greater thrill than the view of the world's largest city stretching endlessly to the hazy horizon. Definitely something not to be missed.
8 Peter Eltringham did research for 'The Rough Guide to Mexico'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
British Airways operate direct non-stop flights from Heathrow three times a week, from pounds 386. Iberia flies daily (via Madrid), from pounds 426. The major US airlines flying out of the UK offer connections to several destinations inside Mexico. As always contact Journey Latin America (0181 747 3108) for the answer to any travel question in the region.
Buses are the best way to get around. Companies all have computerised ticketing, reclining seats, air conditioning, and most have a premium service with added extras like free drinks, videos, and toilets. Cost: about pounds 8 for the five-hour journey from Cancun to Chetumal.
With over 12 pesos to the pound, Mexico is a bargain now. An average meal is about pounds 2; a double room in a two/three-star hotel costs between pounds 18 and pounds 28. UK issued debit or credit cards (with PIN) work in the vast number of ATMs.
No visa required for British/EU citizens.
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