If we want to reach the still-smoking volcano of Popocatepetl and its twin, the dormant Iztaccihuatl, without making an absurd detour, we have to cross the chaos of Mexico City, the Distrito Federal. We are not too excited. Stories abound of the dangers of this city, and with more than 20 million inhabitants, we know we cannot just breeze through. The traffic gets heavier and heavier as we approach, and once crossing the toll booth on the outskirts, we know we have arrived. Our friend Liza in San Miguel had warned us, "Be careful which day you enter. There is law to control traffic in the city so check your plates. If it ends in a certain number, you may get pulled over by the police. And trust me, the city police are known for being corrupt."
Within 20 minutes of entering the city limits, a siren rings behind us, and we see a hand waving us over to stop. "Be calm," Laurent tells us, "I am sure it will be fine. After all, we are just tourists-what can they do?" Evidently, instill fear.
Asked for our papers, we fork them over while waiting to hear what the problem is: "You know it is illegal to drive that trailer in the city? Where is your permit?"
"We're tourists, and we didn't know there was any law against that," Laurent replies.
The police officer whips out a tiny booklet and points to one sentence: "Can you read that? This states the law."
We can't. His lucky day.
"Four hundred U.S."
"You've got to be kidding!" He isn't.
We don't have that much, and would be out of our minds to pay it anyway. The negotiating begins. After 30 minutes, we empty our pockets to the grand sum of $50. We fork it over and he gives us a small hand-written receipt that is supposed to act as our "legal" exchange. Smiling slightly, he tells us, "Buen viaje." Thirty more minutes down the road, another cop tries to pull us over. He is on foot. We keep going.
From Mexico City, we head southwest towards Oaxaca, famed for its chocolate and mole, a sauce poured over chicken or pork made out of chilies, smoked dried jalapenos, pepper, peanuts, almonds, cinnamon, aniseed, tomato, onion, garlic, and a pinch of chocolate. After gorging ourselves on the delectable treats this town has to offer, it is time to push off once more, but we almost lose our stomachs when a young salesman from Renault tells us, "Be careful on the road down to the coast. You know there are bandits."
"Bandits?" we ask. We've been in Mexico for two months now and have not had any problems. "You mean guerrillas?" Being close to Chiapas, we think there might be some Zapatistas roaming about.
"No, I mean bandits," he reasserts. "Last week I was on a bus on the same road you are taking. It was about 11 o'clock at night when suddenly, the bus stopped. Rocks had been placed on the narrow road to prevent passage. Three armed men in black boarded the bus and told us all to get out. While they lined us up, I could see more figures in the distance, all carrying weapons, all covered. Then they started to ask for money, jewels, anything of value. Just as we were starting to dole out whatever we had, they split. We were extremely lucky."
As we take the road of treachery, we finally get it. The narrow, winding road is surrounded by hills and forest-if anyone wanted to hide here and rob unsuspecting travelers, they certainly had the place for it.
The heat is instant once we get down to the Pacific plateau with temperatures in the car rising to 95 degrees F while moving. We're anxious to get back up into the highlands of Chiapas and to cooler weather-we know we will have the heat soon enough.
San Cristobal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas, is a gem of a town-narrow cobbled streets are lined with colorful colonial style houses and mountains loom around the town shrouded in clouds. The state of Chiapas retains some of the most marginalized communities in all of Mexico, yet their cultural identity has roots in one of the most magnificent: the Maya. Spending a few days exploring the hills, bizarrely painted churches, and pre-Columbian rituals are our guide. As we descend towards the jungle to Palenque, one of the most famous Maya sites, we stop to visit the milky blue waters of Agua Clara and Agua Azul, and the waterfalls of Misol-Ha where part of Alien 3 was filmed. The heat has returned, and with temperatures in the car reaching close to 40 degrees C, we relish every chance we have to cool ourselves off in the refreshing water at each stop.