Werewolf Country

•02/22/2011 • Leave a Comment

More Oaxacan Mountains.

The drive through the mountains to the north leaving Oaxaca city is great fun. Steep, twisting roads make it impossible to speed through and miss the scenery. The fog is so thick at times that it’s almost rain. Small waterfalls litter the roadside cliff walls. Wet and green are the two words that best describe the drive. We kept seeing signs promising camping, hiking and waterfalls. We drove for hours with nothing but those signs egging us on. Finally, near dusk, we found one of the sites.  A dirt road split from the main road and wound its way through a meadow and across a small stream into what looked like mining operation or logging outpost. There were a few deserted buildings that looked like barracks, one or two smaller sheds, an open-air storage area with a metal roof, an outdoor basketball court, and huge piles of telephone-pole sized logs.

As we pulled up, a man came out of one of the small sheds close to the road to greet us. His name was Roberto Lucas and he wanted 40 pesos ($3.50 usd) to let us camp in the area. We parked up near the basketball court and unloaded the van for sleeping. There was a constant light rain going on so that you didn’t really feel the drops, but after a bit you were definitely wet. We made dinner and drank a few beers until dark.

It was eerie at night. We were surrounded by a wall of tall pine trees that were constantly swaying back and forth under their great height. The fog rolled out of the trees in waves that blanketed the lowlands of the grassy meadow and stream. This, I thought, is werewolf country. So, that night Emily and I curled up in the bed of the van and watched the Benicio Del Torro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins, and Hugo Weaving version of the Wolfman.  It was ok. The sets and setting looked great, and Emily Blunt did a good job, the wolfman incarnations were pretty bad, and although I like Benicio Del Toro, I just don’t buy him as an Englishman. Afterwards, Emily (Tarpley, not Blunt) had to go out into the foggy, werewolfy night and pee. She can move pretty quickly when properly motivated.

The next morning we slept late. This will come as no big shock to those of you who know Emily, so I guess I should say that I slept late. It was very foggy and we figured on spending the day right where we were instead of braving the mountain roads in low visibility. That morning as we had our coffee, another man approached us from the little shed area. His name was Romero and this was his place. He asked us where we were from, our names, and where we had been so far. He wrote all of this information down in a sparkling spiral notebook with female wrestlers on it. He was a very interesting and interested fellow. We liked him very much, as did Luna.

I threw the Frisbee for Luna a bit while Emily changed clothes. Luna was jumping and running and looking as if she had somehow made a full recovery from her flea and tick infestation sickness. Romero had told us that up on the road the fog wasn’t bad and it would only get worse if we waited till later in the day. We weighed our options and decided to try and head towards Vera Cruz and Robert Kruger. I had send him an email and a facebook friend request while in Oaxaca City. He accepted my facebook friending, but I hadn’t heard back as to a good time/place to connect in Vera Cruz. According to my Spanish teacher, Anna Maria Alcaron, Prof. Kruger is an expert on all things Mayan and could talk your ear of about ancient civilizations, etc. He sounded like an invaluable resource for Cleversley’s documentary. The quicker we got to Vera Cruz, the quicker we got to Robert Kruger, so we hit the road once again, this time we were actually going to purposefully head towards a coast with no surf to meet up with a man we had never met. What could possibly go wrong?

Next in the Pilgrimage de Kruger: we descend into the fiery pit of Hell itself as we attempt to make contact with the lone sage known only as: the Kruger.

Advertisements

Oaxaca City

•02/22/2011 • Leave a Comment

Oaxaca City

It was hard to leave San Jose, but it was time to move on. Luna seemed to be feeling better after the high altitude and cool air. We left by mid morning and made Oaxaca city in the late afternoon. Oaxaca city is beautiful and I was happy to be back, but after a tranquil week sequestered up in the mountains, the big city was overwhelming. Driving in the larger cities of Mexico is always intense and never the same. This time around, the drivers of Oaxaca seemed very much to like to honk. They like to honk at anything, anytime. Sometimes they honk for no reason at all, maybe just to check to see if their horns still work. They probably go through a lot of horns in that city.

We made it to a small little hotel near the center of town that had parking, internet, and accepted mascotas. Hotel Del Pacifico at 420 Trujano. The owner was really nice and we ended up staying two nights. The first night, right after we checked in, a drunk guy staying at the hotel decided to come say hi. He sort of came in the room while the door was open as we put our things away. Emily talked to him for a bit since I don’t speak Spanish well-enough to deal with slurred speech. Plus, for some reason, drunken Mexican guys usually prefer Emily to me, when given the choice. Finally, I said we were going to eat and it was time to go. He reluctantly left, but came back knocking on the window at 11pm. I opened the curtains and he asked what Emily was doing. I told him to go to bed and closed the curtains. We locked the windows and put Luna’s bed-roll in front of the door that night. I went to sleep secretly wishing that Luna lived up to some of the more aggressive pit-bull stereotypes. He seemed harmless enough, but you never know how crazy some drunk guy is gonna get if there’s a Tarpley woman involved.

We spent the next day walking around Oaxaca City. We went to the Oaxaca Cathedral and the Templo de Santo Domingo. The cathedrals in Oaxaca city are mind-boggling. I don’t know where to even begin describing how massive and detailed with ornamentation these places are. The pictures do a much better job. We visited the art district and spent way too long in a cool bookstore. I followed Emily around for much of the day as she tried to find a gift for everyone she knows back in the states. I bought my mom a neat hand-painted coffee mug and called it a day. Those cobblestone streets are hard on the feets.

That night, we had a nice dinner and then went for mescal at the House of Mescal. The mescal was good, but I was tired and antsy at the same time. I wanted out of the bar, plus mescal ain’t cheap and we were leaking money.

Oaxaca city was getting expensive, and besides we wanted to head towards Vera Cruz to try and meet up with a professor friend of my Spanish teacher from Cuernavaca’s. We were on a mission and needed to get on the road…

Next: The portion of our trip known as the Kruger Pilgrimage, in which our protagonists go in search of a mythical professor in the land of Vera Cruz.

San Jose Del Pacifico

•02/17/2011 • Leave a Comment

San Jose Del Pacifico…cloud city

San Jose Del Pacifico is nestled in the mountains on Rt.175 that runs from the coast at Puerto Angel to Ciudad Oaxaca. Mushrooms are their specialty, and not just the psychoactive variety. They have everything mushroom-related here: keychains, Maria Sabina pictures, novelty door-stops, tea, soup, suspended in honey, posters, parkas and you can get mushrooms added to almost any dish you desire. Its elevation is at the cloud line; the air cool, clean and wet. Mushrooms thrive here in the high altitude and rich soil. As clouds move through the town it can seem like dusk at 2 in the afternoon. Our cabana is up high on the side of the mountain. The mountains in the distance fade from green to light blue as they move further towards the coast. If the clouds cooperate you can see the ocean, which, we have been told, is the reason behind the “Del Pacifico” added to the name of a town a long way from the Pacific Ocean.

On the way into town we came upon an older native woman with one eye and her grandson who was about 4 walking on the road. She was carrying a huge pack full of things to sell in town and was now dragging herself, the pack, and her grandson up the steep hillside road back home. We offered them a ride. Emily got in the back so the woman could ride in the front seat with the boy in her lap. The little boy immediately spotted our toy rubber chicken, which used to belong to Emily’s Great Grandmother Needham, hanging behind the driver’s seat. It’s a pretty gross trick, you squeeze this limp, rubber chicken and out of its butt pops a still-connected, yolky egg. That kid played with that chicken with a non-stop smile on his face for the entire drive home. We finally reached their spot and let them out. It was probably a good 2 miles up some really steep roads in the thin mountain air from where they had started walking. This lady does this walk everyday apparently, because we saw her in town with her pack everyday of our visit to San Jose Del Pacifico. There are some pretty tuff people up here.

We are staying at Cabanas el Cumbre, which is up the hill from town about 2 blocks up a very steep and narrow brick road. If you ask the people in town where to find Cabanas el Cumbre, they don’t know what you’re talking about. But, if you ask for Alfredo’s place, everyone knows in which direction to point you. Alfredo and his wife Catrin are pretty young, probably in there mid twenties. They have a couple of kids, a dog, some chickens, and the Cabanas. They are both really nice and don’t seem to mind all the crazy kids running around wanting mushrooms. The Cabanas are basically a collection of 6 habitation rooms, 1 bathroom and a long deck superimposed on the side of a mountain. We paid 100 pesos ($8 usd) per night for a room with a bed, a small table, 1 chair, 5 thick blankets, one window, and an incredible view. The bathroom was tricky as there was no toilet seat and no shower area. There was however, a bucket and a drain in the floor that served as the shower. The problem wasn’t the mechanics of the bucket-shower, it was the fact that it was freezing cold up in the mountains. You could always hear the gasps for breath of anyone attempting a shower in the early morning.

There were some giggly backpackers from Mexico City, Carlos and Mario, staying in the room a few doors down from us. They were very sociable and a bit frantic in a stoner-sort of way. A few people came and went during our stay. We met Americans, Argentines, Mexicans, Frenchies, and Germans. It wasn’t touristy; I would call it “traveled”.

A good place to eat, we found, was the Rellito Del Sol. It’s on the main road into town and is probably the biggest commercial building in San Jose. Rellito Del Sol is a restaurant, hotel, gift shop, and tourism guide all-in-one. The guy behind the bar spoke English and was very helpful answering any questions we had. The food was good and there were lots of things to look at inside.  There are only two internet cafés in town and one didn’t allow facebook access for some reason. Specifically facebook. Obviously these people had invested a lot of time and money into Myspace and weren’t going down without a fight. This really cramped Emily’s style for a bit, until we found the second internet spot.

Emily, Luna and myself spent our days relaxing in our room with the door and window open to admire the view. We went on a few hikes and did lots of writing and drawing as it was very creatively inspiring. The sky would change dramatically every hour or so. You could watch thick storms roll in and feel the air get considerably cooler. I’ve never spent so much time just watching the sky. Being that high up, you didn’t have to strain your neck, because you are on the same level as all the action. Yes, I am that lazy.

The last night we went outside and watched the night sky. Each star would draw your attention with its twinkle. We noticed that every time you fixed your attention on one star that had drawn you in, it would cease to sparkle. You had to sort of relax your focus in order to appreciate them all together as one entity instead of trying to view them each individually…sort of like Arcade Fire. A bat was feeding on the insects drawn in by the deck light. He would perform his acrobatics only a few feet away from where we were seated. I had way too much fun picking bugs off our window and throwing them into the air. Out of the darkness, the bat would swoop in and snatch them up before they could fly back to the safety of the deck’s overhang. I probably fed that bat for hours. The precision of their flying and accuracy of their sonar is amazing. Even the insects were honored to be part of the act, I’m sure of it.

We constantly moved in and out of our little room. After being outside for a while we would realize we were cold and go inside. Then, after a bit of candle lit room time, we would feel drawn out of doors again. We did this for a while and eventually settled into bed. I was tired and giddy, but not quite sleepy.  There was a moment of uncontrollable laughter I feared might not stop, and that is the last thing I remember. I woke up the next morning feeling good and very much needing to pee. It was a good night and a beautiful morning. The clouds are sparse today and I think I can see the ocean.

Puerto Angel…and Playa Zipolite

•01/25/2011 • 1 Comment

A week-long overnight stay…

We pulled into the Playa Zipolite area near Puerto Angel about midday. With not much trouble at all we found the RV spot we were looking for: Fernando’s RV park. Fernando had a huge spread about a block from the water. There was no one else staying there, so we had the place all to ourselves. We had use of the bathrooms, showers and electricity. There were lots of chickens roaming around and 1 lucky rooster. Every morning he would gently coax us from our slumber starting at about 4:30am.

Fernando’s property was surrounded by a chain-link fence, so Luna was allowed to roam free. After the first night, Luna began spending her days sleeping under the van. Emily had removed all the fleas and ticks and given her the flea medicine. We thought maybe she was just exhausted and beat-up. A few days rest and she’ll be good as new. The next day, Luna seemed worse and was very hot to the touch. We began to get worried. Fernando had taken some veterinary courses and prescribed Luna some anti-biotics. We were to give her one pill a day for three days and check her progress. We decided to spend the week at Fernando’s to give Luna a chance to heal. Besides, it was nice there and cheap to boot.

It was hot in Playa Zipolite. Very hot. We would leave the doors to the van open at night to get any sort of breeze we could. This required us to employ our mosquito net, because they (the mosquitoes) were definitely aware of us. Nighttime saw all kinds of crazy bugs. We would burn citronella candles and smoke some coconuts until we retired to the safety of the netting over the bed. The flashlight would reveal a blanket of bugs attaching themselves to the outside of the net. It was usually better to leave the light off and remain blissfully unaware as to what was lurking only a few inches away.

We were burnt out on the beach, so we spent most of our days reading, writing and in general catching up on things. We had electricity, so we were able to get some computing done and charge up all of our ipods, cameras, etc. We did venture out to Zipolite a couple of times. Not much in the way of surf, but it was beautiful. We also saw a few nakeds. Apparently this beach is sort of known as a nudist beach. But, Zipolite seems to have the same problem as Black’s Beach in San Diego and Hippy Hollow in Austin…There were only a few naked people, and as usual, it was just a couple of old men. Why is it that only old men seem to want to get naked at the drop of a hat? I have yet to see a flock of beautiful, young, naked women at a nude beach. What can you do?

Puerto Angel proper was just a short drive away. We would go into town to get water and beer. One evening we decided to cook up some fresh fish. Puerto Angel is a small fishing town and lots of shops had fish for sale that had been swimming around just a few hours before. I wanted some pulpo (octopus). Last time in Chacahua, Bertha had made pulpo for me a few times and I was craving it. We went to the local fish market and told the guy we wanted a kilo of pulpo. I thought it would be a bag of cut up tentacles. Nope, it was a bag full of about 3 small, whole octopus. Cooking octopus is quite a process. First you have to boil them so that their tendons begin to break up and ooze from the skin in a gelatinous secretion. You then rinse off the goo, chop off the head and beak, and begin a slow, two hour or so simmering process. The trick is to cook them long enough to make them tender, but not so long that they get burnt and tough. My first batch was delicious but still too chewy. A few of the smaller tentacles came out just right, but the majority of them made your jaw tired trying to eat them. The second batch got a bit burnt and crispy. There were a few good, salvageable pieces, but most of it was inedible. Out of 3 tries, we had enough for 1 serving each. It worked out ok and the parts that we did eat were really good.

Luna was doing better by the end of our 6th day, so we decided to head out. We were hoping to hit San Jose Del Pacifico in the Oaxacan mountains by nightfall. On the map it looked to be a fairly short drive, but by now we knew not to take anything for granted. We readied ourselves the night before and got up early the next morning to start or trip. We thanked our new friend Fernando for all his help with Luna and hit the road.

Chacahua in Oaxaca

•01/24/2011 • Leave a Comment

Back to Bertha’s.

After the long, expensive toll-road drive (probably about $100 USD in tolls) from Cuernavaca to Acapulco we spent one night in Playa Ventura. It was relatively expensive to park at an ocean front restaurant palapa and sleep in the van. But, since we arrived after dark, there weren’t a lot of options available to us. The next day was to be Chacahua.

We woke up early and headed for the little boat launch village that Joe, Steve and I had used in March. I found it by memory with little trouble. Once in the village, however, it got a bit more confusing. There was some sort of festival going on, complete with a stage and a few small carnival rides. This whole set-up was smack dab in the middle of the area where we had parked Joe’s car and secured our boat last time. We were directed to park a little ways down the small, dirt road. I asked the guys offering us boats to Chacahua if Cristo (our boat driver last time) was around. They all said he had moved out to Chacahua. I don’t know if this was true, but it was madness in the village and dusk was approaching quickly. We arranged for a boat and began dragging everything we thought we might need for the next 6 days out of the van. This included 3 surf boards, our tent, pillows, a blanket, towels, snorkeling gear, first aid kit, video camera, Luna, swim trunks, food for Luna, and a shirt or two. We locked up the van, pulled the curtains closed and left it parked were they had indicated. The ‘secure’ parking spot the gave us was in somebody’s front yard and at the water’s edge. So close to the edge in fact, that when a boat would drive by, their wake would sent ripples that would lap up against the left front tire. I hoped it was currently high tide.  As we climbed into the boat to head to Chacahua I looked at the van for what I was almost positive would be the last time.

Our driver, Alfredo was a nice kid and really hauled ass through the mangrove tunnels. As usual, the boat ride just to get there is one of the best parts about visiting Chacahua. Beautiful. We pulled up to the dock at Chacahua and while I was unloading Luna and the surfboards, Emily was paying Alfredo. As we headed toward Bertha’s, Emily informed me that she had pre-paid Alfredo for our return trip as well. It seemed like a bad idea to me at the time, but then again, we got ripped off trying to get a boat back to Joe’s car last time. I just hoped we would see Alfredo again.

(check out some iphone boat ride to Chacahua footage:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZOkaRircp0

and…..http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t332IqI5oLE )

After the long walk carrying all our stuff through the sand, we finally arrived at Bertha’s palapa. It was dusk and there was no one around. No Bertha. The lady from the palapa next door said that Bertha would be back soon. We threw our stuff in a pile and waited. When Bertha finally arrived, we were really hungry. Just being back at that plastic table in the sand had gotten my stomach primed and ready for some comida de Bertha.

Bertha recognized me and laughed while addressing me as ‘Christo’. It was good to be back. We worked out the same deal as last time: camp for free under the palapa, have use of the ‘facilities’, and the only condition being that we buy all our meals from Bertha. Samira and Hermina were both still there and very much the way I remembered them from 7 months prior. Hermina is still crazy and tough as hell and Samira, being the older sister, still dominates her. Samira is very smart and still very serious. She loved my iphone and figured it out pretty quick. She’s better at it than Emily. She really enjoyed watching the video for the Rolling Stone’s “street fighting man” from the Fantastic Mr. Fox soundtrack. I wish I could’ve shown her the whole movie; it would have blown her little mind.

The meals weren’t as varied and extravagant as last time, but still delicious. Bertha served up lots of camarones (shrimp) this time around. In fact, most of our meals were shrimp in one form or another: el Diablo, empanizado, sopa de camarones, etc. There was quite a bit of debate between Emily and myself as to how to eat the shrimp. They were always served whole and with their shell. Since I always eat the tail anyway, am too lazy to de-shell each and every shrimp, and figured that adding a head with some bulging eyeballs wasn’t too much to stomach, I would end up eating the whole thing. However, the shell on the head of the shrimp is pretty sharp in places, as are some of the antennae and legs. So, in the end, we would tear of the head shell by the antennae, which still left plenty of head meat deliciousness attached.

It’s crazy how spoiled we are in the ‘states with modern conveniences. A lot of things I would have thought could not be done without prove to be superfluous when you witness minimalist Chacahua existence. Bertha’s kitchen has no real running water. There is just a large basin filled with water to wash dishes. The floor is sand and in general is filthy by our standards. But, the food is delicious and I’ve never gotten sick eating anything to come out of there.

Two guys from Mexico City (District Federal), Luis and Saul (pronounced ‘saw-oool’), arrived on our 2nd day. They set up camp next to us under Bertha’s palapa. They had huge board bags and lots of gear for spear-fishing. Luis had stayed in Chacahua for a few months before and new just about everyone on the island. These guys were super friendly, chained smoke joints, and slept a lot. When they did finally get a boat to take them out to the rocks off-shore, they speared nine fish. We all had fresh ceviche that night.

The surf was a couple feet overhead, but the break itself had changed since March. Apparently Chacahua was hit with a few storms that dumped a lot of rain in the area in September. The result of which was the formation of a huge sandbar right in the middle of the break. You could almost walk straight out from Berta’s all the way to the line-up a 100 yards or so off shore. This sort of broke the wave in half. The first take-off zone was more to the left of the breakwater than before, and the second take-off zone (Hilton’s spot) was just to the right of the newly formed sandbar. The second wave didn’t end up as close to shore as before, and consequently there weren’t those dramatic, speedy, closeout, beach break sections with huge backwash explosions at the end of the ride. Also, very rarely did a wave allow you to connect from 1st break through the now massive speed section into the second wave.

We talked to Sebastian’s mom and apparently he is doing really well. Sebastian (‘mighty-mite’ as we dubbed him in March) is twelve years old and now sponsored for his surfing. Gary Linden is now shaping boards for him as well. It was just a matter of time. That kid is talented and fearless.

Another consequence of the recent heavy rains was the unusual amount of mosquitoes. Chacahua normally doesn’t seem to have a huge bug problem on the beach. You get about an hour and a half of biting sand-flies around sundown and that’s usually it. This trip, we were mosquito fodder. Everyone commented on how bad they were comparatively. The trick was to start a coconut husk smoldering and place it under your chair. You basically bathe yourself in smoke until bedtime. Once inside the tent you were fine. The mosquitoes were at least polite enough to only go after your legs and elbows. The didn’t do a lot of ear-buzzing flybys, for which I was grateful.

Luna loved Chacahua. She was given free-reign and took full advantage. She would swim until way pass the point of exhaustion. She slept great everynight. All the local island dogs took turns as potential suitors. Every evening a new dog would come sniffing around the palapa. Luna would parade around a bit and then settle under our table when she tired of their company. It was hilarious; she really was queen of the island during our stay.

Earlier I listed the things we brought with us to Chacahua for our stay…here is a list of the things we forgot: Emily’s bikini top, Emily’s sunglasses, papers, tweezers (for removing fleas from Luna), surfboardleashes (what can I say, I don’t like using them), and Luna’s flea medicine. The leashes and bikin top were a pain because they effectively kept Emily out of the surf for a good portion of our stay. But, the real problem was Luna’s flea medicine. It turns out that Luna was to have been given her scheduled 3rd dose of oral medication while we were still in Cuernavaca. This we forgot and consequently, on day 3 of Chacahua, Luna was all of a sudden covered in fleas and ticks. I mean covered. I’ve never seen anything like it. They were on her ears, in her ears, between her toes, all over her back, and filling every crease of her under-side. We tried to keep her in the water as much as possible and this seemed to help temporarily, but she got eaten up. At night in the tent with Luna, the fleas would make the short trip over to us for a small snack before returning in the morning to their canine host. It took Emily hours to off pick all the fleas and ticks once we got back to the van.

We went on a tour of the mangroves the day before leaving. Our guide, Andreus was awesome. We took a motorboat to his house where we all three got into a small flat-bottom canoe. The mangrove tunnels were eerily quiet and surprisingly free of insects. I had expected to get eaten alive by mosquitoes or worse, but we didn’t get a single bit. Andreus has quite a life for himself. He loves Chacahua and the mangroves, and he genuinely seemed to love sharing his little paradise with others. We stopped in the middle of a maze of mangrove tunnels and had a smoke with Andreus before heading back to his launch. From there we went to a crocodillo estuary and got to see some native crocodiles up close and personal. Most of the crocodiles in the preserve were youths and fairly small, but there were a couple of 30-35 year olds that were real monsters. If we had gone to see the crocodillos before we went exploring the mangrove tunnels, I’m not sure I would have had such a relaxing time.

The morning we left, the island was in a frenzy as to whether our driver would come back or not to get us. Somehow or another everyone had gotten wind of our impending departure and pre-paid return trip. Andreus, along with Emily’s new admirer Chuy, showed up at 9am to wait with us until Alfredo showed up. If he failed to show, they said, we could get a ride back to our van with one of them. We had boat owners from all over the island offering us rides, but we remained confident in Alfredo’s return. As it turned out, Alfredo showed up about 30 minutes early and had to wait around for us to settle our bill with Bertha who was not to be found until just before our scheduled departure time. It was a crazy morning, but we made our boat and rushed to get Luna back to the van and her medicine.

When we got back, the van was covered in bird poo and looked to have a water line halfway up the front tire, but at least it was still there and in one piece. Just before we were pulling out, some lady came up and said we owed her $100 pesos for parking in her yard. This was the first we had heard of this and didn’t even know if we had $100 pesos to give her. We scrounged together $90 pesos, gave it to her and got the hell outta dodge before anyone else decided we owed them money.

We made it to Puerto Escondido and an internet coffee shop fairly quickly. There was a surf contest going on at Zacatela and after the relative tranquility of Chacahua it seemed like hell on earth. We were tired, sunburnt, flea ridden and dehydrated. We got on the road and hoped to find a spot to hole-up and lick our wounds. We found an RV park nearby in Puerto Angel and hit the road.


Xochicalco

•01/12/2011 • Leave a Comment

Xochicalco.

Xochicalco is an archaeological site outside of Cuernavaca.  There are a few sites around Cuernavaca and we were ignorant about most of them, so we picked the one with the coolest name and decided to go after class. The drive from Cuernavaca is a short but confusing one. You twist and turn through a few small towns that seem like they are going to dead-end into wheat fields before ever seeing any signage mentioning Xochicalco. The whole time we thought we had to be heading the wrong direction. The route isn’t what you’d expect on the way to a World Heritage Site.

We finally arrived in the heat of the day. There are two parking areas: one near the ruins and one near the museum. The museum is about a half mile away from the ruins. We parked near the ruins and did the walk to the museum. The museum at Xochicalco is very impressive architecturally, houses lots of interesting artifacts, and is air-conditioned. We spent almost as much time in the museum as we did outside at the ruins themselves.

Xochicalco in Nahuatl, means ”in the house of flowers”. This is an apt description, as the site is littered with beautiful white flowering trees. Parts of the ruins were under renovation while we were there. The main ceremonial temple sits atop a leveled hill, surrounded by other, smaller structures.  The layout of the site is gorgeous and from atop the hill you can see several other remains and terraced slopes. There were many circular alters, residential areas and temples.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent stands out with its sculpted reliefs of the winged deity. The literature on Xochicalco details the apparent influences of Teotihuacan and Mayan art in this temple. The wasps and bees of the area seemed to really enjoy this particular temple. There were a few nests attached to the carving of the serpent. When walking through the flowering trees their buzzing was loud enough to be heard from yards away.

The ruins also feature an observatory that is supposed to be very impressive. The observatory was, however, closed when we visited Xochicalco. Apparently, some genius spray-painted graffiti all over the observatory and it is now closed to the public indefinitely.

Xochicalco was a beautiful experience and well worth the trip.  It’s not as big as Teotihuacan, but it’s much more picturesque…and it’s not overrun with vendors and tourists. For me, the absence of vendors trying to sell you stuff the whole time, makes Xochicalco infinitely more appealing than Teotihuacan.

Check out the video walk-through of the ruins on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogP-_M05570

Universal, the school that is..

•12/24/2010 • Leave a Comment

The following post is by guest-blogger Emily Tarpley. I tell you this not only to give her due credit, but also to distance myself from the over-abundance of exclamation points. “It’s 2 keys to the right of the M”, I keep telling her. But hints about using more ‘periods’ can get you in trouble. No one likes a critic. So here you go, enjoy…

What is there to say about Universal Language School in Cuernavaca? Well, the first few words that pop into my head are ‘phenomenal,’ ‘unforgettable,’ ‘priceless,’ and even ‘life-changing’! In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that my first visit to Universal, three and a half years ago, sparked my love for the Mexican culture, the Mexican people, and the Spanish language. The “Grand Adventure” which I am currently embarking upon was indeed inspired by my first visit to Universal. Clearly “grateful” is an understatement.
My second visit was just as fabulous as the first. We stayed with the same wonderful lady with whom I stayed the first time. Oliva Palacios is kind hearted, generous, accommodating, and endlessly funny. She is a joy to be around, and I am extremely lucky to call her my friend.

Our accommodations were comfortable and homey; and the food was without equal! After three and a half years, Oliva remembered my favorite dish (chilles rellenos – no contest!), that I don’t like mayonnaise, and that watermelon is my favorite fruit. Impressive. All in all, the welcoming, homey feeling of the house, Oliva’s cooking, and the wonderful company of her and her son Alfonso makes “Casa Palacios” a verifiable home away from home. Everyone else at the school had similar accounts of their own home-stays, as well.

As for the school itself, the classes are small and personalized, the grounds are beautiful (gardens, terraces, even a pool!), and the teachers and staff are second to none! Claudio and Romero* are friendly, competent administrators who are happy to help with anything and everything from home-stay placement to directions to the nearest post office. Sergio is the director of classes. He was my teacher last time, and is beyond knowledgeable, not to mention one of the nicest people I have ever met. Not to be forgotten are his infamous drawing skills – he did all the illustrations for the student handbooks! The cook, the gardener, and Candi, the receptionist, light up the school with their friendly smiles and welcoming greetings. It’s amazing how a simple “Buenos Dias” can make your whole day! Both my teacher, Rosalba, and Chad’s teacher Ana Maria were lovely people with whom we are still in touch and glad to call our friends. Also among our long list of great friends in Cuernavaca, is the shining soul that is Carlos.

Carlos is in charge of the weekend excursions that Universal offers. Though we did not have time to go on any this trip, Carlos took my classmates and I on numerous unforgettable adventures last time I was there. The school offers fabulous trips to Mexico City, Teotihuacan and other cool ruins, Las Estacas (a downright paradise of natural pools, calm rivers to float down, rope-swings, diving platforms, etc.), the town of Puebla, and many, many others. Carlos is an expert in Mexican culture and anthropology. I’ve yet to ask a question he could not answer. On one occasion, when I was there the first time, I twisted my knee attempting a jumping-front-snap-kick in the rain. I pushed through the pain and climbed the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan the next day. By the time our tour bus left the site, I was in so much pain that I was almost in tears. Our group stopped for lunch on the way back to Cuernavaca and Carlos all but carried me to the table, set me up with a bag of ice, and brought me a much needed shot of tequila. As if that wasn’t already enough, he arranged to pick me up at Oliva’s the following morning (which was Sunday – his only day off) and take me to a specialized doctor he knew of on the other side of town. The doctor was wonderful. Carlos waited hours with me to see him and translated everything he told me. In the doctor’s exact words, I was ready to go play football when we left. Never will I forget the incredible kindness Carlos showed me during my first trip to Cuernavaca.

All of the people who work at Universal are incredible. Our teachers were certainly no exception! Class time passed seemingly instantaneously. Rosalba and I found ourselves working (and by “working” I mean chatting, laughing, and playing word games) straight through the breaks and well past the final bell. Chad and I were both lucky enough to be the only ones in our classes. One-on-one instruction for three hours a day! With mediocre teachers, one wouldn’t be able to help but learn a great deal of Spanish in a circumstance like that. However, given that our teachers were fantastic, we learned in a week the equivalent of what one might learn in a month or two of studying in a normal university setting in the States. Maybe more.

In addition to the fabulous learning environment provided by Universal, impeccable staff, and overall enjoyment of being there, Universal’s methodology of teaching Spanish is extremely effective. I cannot stress enough how strongly I recommend this school to anyone interested in learning to speak the Spanish language. When I say anyone, I truly do mean anyone! The first time I was there we had a lady from San Diego who was pushing 80, and doing it well! This time the youngest student was 14… months! High schools all over the States offer abroad programs, as do colleges. Immersion programs are a far more effective alternative to typical American studies – especially one as wonderfully unique as this! Also a plus, the program is an intensive. This means that you can earn a full semester’s Spanish credit in just one month! And so much more fun!!

I previously attributed the one-on-one training we received to our good luck, but I feel I must mention Universal’s bad luck (and in truth all of Mexico’s bad luck), as well. The United States has done an excellent job of really hyping up the dangers of Mexico. I’m not saying that incidents don’t occur, but imagine if every single incident in the States (or even just in L.A., for that matter) were broadcast to the public. I guess what I am trying to say is, Universal (as just one small example) is suffering from the effects of an exaggerated report of violence in Mexico. As a whole, Mexico is no more dangerous than it ever has been. We have been traveling for over two months and have yet to experience anything less than welcoming, hospitable, helpful, caring, generous WONDERFUL people everywhere we go (Ecuandureo being the one exception). To be fair, border cities are (as they always have been) a bit sketchy. Other than that, this is a country full of kind, loving people around every corner.

I will end this post with two words: VISIT MEXICO! And while you’re here, be sure to pay a visit to the remarkable language school in Cuernavaca, Morelos! You will never forget your experience at Universal!