Honduras and Mexico, Feb. 2009

About 15 years ago, we visited Guatemala for two weeks. Although we had wanted to also visit Copan (in Honduras, just across the border), every book we read told us that the border was impassable, crime was endemic, and that the bureaucracy necessary to cross the border placed it outside of our reach. Because of this, when we finally got to Antigua Guatemala (near the border), we just didn’t leave enough time to visit Copan. What we found, on every telephone pole and hotel bulletin board, were notices of day and two-day trips to Copan. We decided that someday we would make a special trip to Honduras just to see the ruins of Copan.

When planning to again spend February away from the Boston weather in Mexico, we decided to start in Copan. We flew from Boston to San Pedro Sula and then took a bus to Copan Ruinas. We had an interesting experience in San Pedro Sula: our ATM cards (same bank) didn’t work, and we had no extra US$ nor the pin number of our credit card to get a cash advance. We tried about 5 or 6 banks – and then finally lucked out at Banco Atlántida. Did we mention that all the ATMs at the airport were out of service? Next time, we’ll have a better backup plan!

Although the bus was very quick, about one hour from Copan we ran into the most horrific traffic jam that we’d ever seen. A chemical tanker truck coming up from Guatemala had run off the side of the road, partially blocking it. Because of the danger posed by the chemical contents, they closed the road for hours while they attempted to empty the tanks and then get the truck out of the way. After 3 hours of little progress, at about 5pm, we realized that it would soon be dark – and we had no desire to spend the night in a bus. We decided to cross to the other side of the accident and hitchhike into town. We were very lucky – we travel light so could easily carry our bags past all the traffic, and once past the accident scene walked along the line of cars coming from Copan. Many were starting to turn around, and we lucked into meeting a manager from one of the Copan hotels who had just come upon the queue of cars and planned to turn back; he was more than happy to give us a lift.

We were quite relieved to finally get to our lovely hotel, La Casa Café. Set among gardens with a lovely view of the valley, it was very relaxing – with EXCELLENT Honduran coffee. Unfortunately, Copan Ruinas was in the midst of tearing up its streets to replace its sewer lines, and rainy weather had turned many of the streets near our hotel into a mucky, muddy mess. The modest village of Copan was not all that exciting. There are shops and cafes catering to the tourists, a small museum, and a tropical bird sanctuary that exists pretty much for the tourist trade – though we did enjoy seeing the rescued parrots and toucans there.

But the ruins of Copan make any effort to get there worthwhile. This is where the Mayan society reached its artistic peak. We were awestruck by the statuary, design, and decoration of this city, along with the excellent museum at the site. Although it took two days to get there and two days to travel onwards, it was well worth every minute.

After our delightful stay in Copan we took the bus back to San Pedro Sula and flew onward to Mexico City and Cuernavaca.

This is our fourth or fifth trip to Cuernavaca. It’s a big city with traffic, pollution, and not a lot of tourist attractions – but we now have a lot of friends there. Because of these relationships, it felt like we’re coming home. We stayed at the house of Josefina where we stayed the previous year. Sadly, the owner, Josefina passed away some months before we arrived. This year her daughter and son were there and extended a warm welcome to us. We had an opportunity to shop at the Mercado, and enjoy a few relaxing days with our good friends. One of our friends now has her own medical office in Cuernavaca, and we were so glad to be one of her first visitors.

After a few days in Cuernavaca, we headed to Mexico City where Susan met with colleagues and we both enjoyed the culture and vibrancy of this amazing place. If you read the newspapers and listen to the news reports, you would think that Mexico will is filled with violent gun battles on the streets. In reality, Mexico City is like any other major city on the planet. We saw no violence; we heard no gunfire; we witnessed no criminal activity. There was nothing that made us feel threatened. I feel sorry for people who have changed her vacation plans based on exaggerated and alarmist news reports.

After a few days in Mexico City we took a bus to Oaxaca and began the last two weeks of our fabulous vacation there. Through a tutor in Oaxaca, we’d learned of a lovely B & B with the Familia Giron. The house has several guest bedrooms that open onto a central patio, shaded by a grapefruit tree and filled with birdcages. The family was warm and welcoming, and the B & B provided a relaxing retreat and centrally located base from which to enjoy Oaxaca.

Oaxaca itself is a beautiful city, although crawling with gringos, tourists, and students. The restaurants had English menus, and many of the pedestrian streets were lined with souvenir shops and yuppified cafes. However, the ambience of the city didn’t suffer. We loved the colonial architecture, the craft shops, and the fact that every evening hundreds – perhaps thousands – of Oaxacans descend on the zócalo (the city’s main plaza) for the entertainment, dancing, and music. Our visit coincided with the anniversary of the protests, and the political parties staged rallies. Oddly, indigenous craftspeople are now barred from setting up crafts stands on the zócalo (which were ubiquitous when we’d been here 15 years ago) – except during the political events.

Another highlight of Oaxaca, at least for us foodies, is the wonderful ice cream. Not far from our B & B was a plaza with 5 or 6 “nevaria” stalls – more like sorbet, our favorite was “beso de Oaxaca” (kiss of Oaxaca) that included apples, pineapple, and carrots in a wonderful blend. Of course, Oaxaca is known for chocolate and mole, and we were obligated to stop for frequent samples at the many stalls downtown that pull pedestrians in with their aroma. We also ate frequently in the central market, and became addicted to the tamales from a street vendor. Fortunately, we walked so much that we could rationalize all of this eating!

We visited Monte Alban, where 15 years ago, along with Susan’s brother and family, we were treated to one of the most memorable tours of any ruins we’ve ever been to. This charming (and eccentric) Zapotec guide told us that Monte Alban had actually been a medical university, and among the attendees were Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. The fact that these people didn’t live at the same time didn’t seem to bother our guide. To further his claim that this was a medical college he pointed to the each of the murals and reinterpreted them as medical drawings. He was also quite critical of the Mixtecs and used every opportunity to convey his opinions. We had no such entertainment this time, though we did meet one wonderful stone mask maker who told us about his history working in the US and then resettling in his native village. In addition to Monte Alban, we took time to explore Mitla and some of the smaller ruins, including Yagul, Danzu, and Zaachila, each with its unique history and art.

Since we had two weeks in Oaxaca, we had the luxury of exploring many small towns in the valley of Oaxaca, and very much off the beaten path. The Valley has been settled for thousands of years. The climate is extremely arid and the area has ever been wealthy. However this area also has a cultural wealth that you don’t see in central Mexico. Each village has a handicraft specialty. Arrazola is known for its “alebrijes”, whimsical woodcarvings, while Atxompa, San Bartolo Coyotepec and Ocotlan each have a unique type of pottery. Other villages specialize in rug weaving and embroidery. We arranged our visits to these towns to coincide with their weekly markets, and between these trips and the shops in Oaxaca managed to fill a suitcase to bring home. We also brought back some of the great Oaxaca mole and chocolate, reminders of all the wonderful food we had in Oaxaca.

Logistics:

Copan Ruinas Hotel: Casa de Cafe
Run by an American expat and his Honduran partner, this small hotel is just a few blocks outside of the center of town. They offer free wi-fi, a delightful breakfast, and clean, comfortable accommodations. www.casadecafecopan.com

San Pedro Sula: Maya Copan Hotel
Adequate and convenient, as well as moderately well-located. www.hotelmayacopan.com

Mexico City Hotel: Hotel Canada
We used to stay at the Catedral. We changed our plans because the Canada is more centrally located, right across the street from our favorite Mexico City breakfast place, Café Popular. We made the right choice; there was a huge and noisy construction project going on next to the Catedral. The ‘free wifi’ in the Canada’s lobby didn’t work, but they provided a cable connection. There are dozens of great places to eat near Cinco de Mayo; we found a new favorite taqueria and had a great meal at our old standby, Café Tacuba. www.hotelcanada.com.mx

Oaxaca B&B/Homestay: La Familia Giron
We received a recommendation for the B&B/homestay of La Familia Giron. This lovely home, a 5-10 minute walk from the zócalo, was charming. The breakfasts were huge, and they were always willing to give us advice. They speak only Spanish.
www.casagironoaxaca.zoomshare.com

Cuernavaca: La Casa de Josefina
This is where we stayed a year ago. Great location (about 10 minutes north of the zócalo by bus, 10 minute walk from the school, 5 minute walk from a large supermarket, and on many bus routes. We enjoyed our stay immensely. The small garden is very pretty, and the place is very quiet despite its proximity to Morelos and Avila Comacho. Sadly, Josefina passed away some months before our return visit. The apartments are now being managed by her son and daughter. www.vacationrentals.com/vacation-rentals/27473.html

Oaxaca Spanish Teacher: Laura Olachea.
Laura is a superb Spanish tutor who can customize lessons for your skill level and learning speed. spanishclassesoaxaca@yahoo.com.

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