Christmas Travels: Oaxaca, Chiapas and Mexico City

Christmas 2015 was quite different to how I’d spent Christmas last year: no Christmas dinner with the uni housemates, no huge, loud and slightly intoxicated family meals, and definitely no snow. This year it was spent with the other Southampton-ers living out here in Mexico, going whale-watching, spending the early hours of Christmas morning on the beach and spending the first day of 2016 under a waterfall in a canyon.

My trip started alone with an overnight 12-hour coach journey to Mexico City, grabbing the Metro, freshening up in a hostel and dumping my backpack there so I could wander the busy streets. After only a few hours there, meandering through a few artisan and book markets, I knew I’d have to leave a few days at the end of my travels to spend more time in the city.

Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

I met my three other travel buddies (the ones who I’d be with the majority of the time) at the bus terminal later that day to then move on to Oaxaca City.

Only a short walk from our hostel in Oaxaca was the main centre, with beautiful architecture, artisan stalls around the colonial style cathedral, cute brightly coloured buildings and a host of coffee and chocolate shops.

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From the city there are two main tours that people go for: Hierve el Agua and Monte Albán. We headed to the former with the rest of the Southampton group, braving an open-back truck winding up dirt tracks through and up the mountains. The whole experience reminded me of previous travels in India: the rustic roads, beautiful mountain scenery, and even a few rickshaws. The natural platform on the rock formations has a few springs of blue water in which you can swim overlooking the mountains. A truly great experience realising just how high up you are.

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Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca

Puerto Escondido is an extremely touristic beach town, which was definitely not what I had expected. The hostel we stayed in was great, with friendly staff, a pool, a bar with some great cocktails and mezcal shots, but it was clear that people were here to get smashed and high. The beaches were quite lovely but overcrowded and I couldn’t help but think I’d seen much better beaches before.

However, we still had a great time. We spent the early hours of Christmas Eve on the beach swimming and gazing up at the huge host of stars. We also made it to a very early boat tour to dolphin and whale-watch which was truly breath-taking.

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Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas

Tuxtla isn’t the nicest of cities – it’s big, grey and a bit like Mexico City in that sense. But this was our base for a couple of tours: Cañón del Sumidero and Aguacero. New Years Eve saw us sitting on a lancha going through the deep and narrow canyon spotting a host of wildlife and admiring the canyon’s wonderful scenery.

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Spending the first day of 2016 under the Aguacero waterfalls was quite surreal. Over 700 steps down to the base of the waterfall (with the knowledge that we’d have to walk/struggle back up) was hard work but 100% worth it.

San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas

Just an hour away from Tuxtla is the charming colonial style San Cristóbal de Las Casas with a host of vegetarian restaurants, bars, quirky shops, artisan markets where all four of us bought matching jumpers (a must as the climate is quite the opposite to Colima).

Unfortunately I ended up a bit bed-ridden for a little while and on antibiotics for the majority of the time we were there. But I was still able to do what I had planned: visit CIDECI-UniTierra, an autonomous non-government community. The university, situated just outside of the attractive touristic centre of San Cristóbal, is based on the ideology of the Zapatistas, a very important leftist political group that aimed to overturn antiquated rules over land ownership, resources and power and improve the living standards of Mexico’s indigenous people.

We were shown around the site by an 18-year-old student who explained the different workshops available to students including working with leather, working in the bakery and a number of others that aim to give the students skills that they can take back to their communities. The whole set-up is really interesting and demonstrates just how much of a negative and oppressive impact the government has had on communities; CIDECI have no connection with the government, they are completely separated from that political side and fortunately are not hassled very much by them or by the police.

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Palenque, Chiapas

Yet another change of climate: the hot and humid jungle town of Palenque. Here we stayed in cabins in the jungle surrounded by the sound and smells of real nature. Our accommodation was extremely hippy, with guests mainly there for the jungle tours that let them experience Mexico’s (supposedly) finest magic mushrooms.

The two main tours in Palenque are the Misol-Ha and Agua Azul waterfalls, and unluckily for us we’d decided to go on the day it absolutely chucked it down. Although the latter was full of tourist-catering vendors selling the usual tat, the waterfalls and pools were beautiful and the lack of visitors due to the weather gave us a more relaxed experience.

We also headed to the ruins which were really fascinating. A huge site scattered with temples, some covered with carvings and inscriptions. They are surrounded by – and also covered with – lots of green, leafy vegetation in the jungle.

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Mexico City

Mexico City saw the last two travellers prolong their trip: myself and Alice who’s spending her year abroad in Toluca, very close to Mexico City. We were able to do a few of the things that I’d been wanting to do since my first day in the city back in September when we all first arrived. We spent one day in Coyoacán at the Frida Kahlo Museum which is probably the best museum I’ve been to. Kahlo was an incredibly complex and talented woman who had suffered a tough life full of pain and illness. Her art is full of a host of emotions which really spoke to me.

We also spent a couple of hours up the Torre Latinoamericana admiring the views of such a bustling, overcrowded but charismatic city. We caught the city in sunlight, during sunset and also lit up in the night sky. Looking over Mexico’s capital on the last night of my travels made me realise just how diverse and culturally rich Mexico is as a country. That you can travel just one hour away and you’re in a completely different climate, with a different cuisine, with inhabitants who have different beliefs and customs.

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The trip did have both ups and downs – getting ill, feeling homesick on NYE, and getting a bit stressed – but the ups definitely outweigh the more difficult times. It gave me a good idea about what I need to do and remember for when I next go travelling for a long period of time.

Lessons learnt: having at least one travel companion for part of the trip is a blessing, you’re bound to get ill so be prepared, and having a balance of culture, nightlife and relaxation is key.

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