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.
Palenque is indeed a remarkable site. Set in a verdant setting of jungle, a line of temples rise up in front of us as we enter. Below them sits the tomb of Pakal, the ruler of this city at its rise from AD 615 to 683. Found in 1994, his remains were covered in jewels, and his face in a jade mosaic death mask. Walking around the temples sets us back in time to a civilization that can be compared to the ancient Romans and the Chinese, and that fell mysteriously into time.
As we travel into the Lacandon Jungle, we feel that we have fallen back in time. Not only are there more archeological sites to enjoy, but the jungle is also home to the Lacandon people. They originally migrated to this jungle in the 18th century and largely avoided contact with the outside world until the 1950s. Although many still retain their traditional ways, their agricultural economy is now being replaced by the money tourism can bring. Ricardo, a Lacandon who runs a set of lodges under the jungle's canopy, tells us some of the difficulties of instilling ancient ways: "Most young Lacandon want to wear jeans and t-shirts. They don't want to associate themselves with the old ways yet; the jungle has been our home for centuries, and if our younger generations give up on it, our culture and traditions will be lost forever."
We meet Wilhelm in a small store in Xpujil, after leaving the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Dressed in a pair of dark blue overalls and a white shirt, blond hair and blue eyes, he is the last person we expect to see in the middle of Mexico. Our curiosity gets the best of us and we strike up conversation. He tells us that he is part of a Mennonite community that lives in Campo 10, not far from here.
Several thousand Mennonites left their communities in Canada in the 1920s, persecuted for their beliefs. The pre-revolutionary Mexican government took them in, and sold them land that they worked diligently and successfully. "We don't work on Sunday, and I would be pleased if you come for a visit." Wilhelm tells us. "Just ask anyone here where Campo 10 is. You can't miss it."
We definitely want to see this, even if it means backtracking at the end of the week. Arriving back into town and driving on the bumpy road towards the Campo, the dry shrublike landscape gives way to freshly cleared fields, and western-style houses rise from the red earth. As we maneuver our way on the sandy tracks that are perfectly laid out in grids, we are surrounded by blond-haired, blue-eyed kids in groups on the roads, all dressed identically: the boys in blue or green overalls and shirt, the girls in flowered dresses and hats. It is somewhat surreal and when they open their mouths, for hardly any of them speak Spanish (even if their families have been here for generations), and the German they do speak is an old dialect that most Germans in Europe would have a hard time understanding.
Transportation here consists of horse and buggy, or your feet, and all mechanized machinery is forbidden, so the chance to ride on the back of a trailer has true entertainment value. We finally reach Wilhelm's house, after driving deep into the Campo, and he welcomes us warmly. He is slightly different from many of his colleagues, and communicating in Spanish tells us, "I left the Campo to travel and to work as a driver. At first, I had no intention of coming back but as I got older, I felt myself wanting to be part of this community again-my parents are here, my brothers. So after saving some money, I was finally able to buy some land and could build this house for my family. After I pass on, my son here will take it over, then his sons after him."
It is hard for us to comprehend this way of life: Extremely isolated, and yet, they prefer it, knowing almost nothing about the outside world. It is pretty much the antithesis of our world tour.
Our raid continues around the Yucatan Peninsula, with more archaeological sites, caves, colonial towns, bullfights, flamingoes, and the turquoise-blue water of the Caribbean all part of our daily life. And in spite of the heat that at times is debilitating, the margaritas and white sand beaches more than make up for it.