My Guidebook to San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

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My second guidebook for Mexico, Your Chiapas Adventure: San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, focuses on the two major destinations in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state: Palenque, an ancient Mayan city of climbable pyramids surrounded by thick jungle, and the lovely colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas.

The book is for independent travelers who want to experience the distinctive culture, nature, history and food of this fascinating region. It also includes insider tips for other places in Chiapas, including low-key beach villages, indigenous small towns, the towering Sumidero canyon, and more Mayan ruins. The guidebook’s extensive appendix provides detailed information on transportation, hotels, restaurants, communicating in Spanish, safety, and much more.

You can purchase Your Chiapas Adventure: San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, Mexico from Amazon.com, which provides a free reader for those of you without a Kindle, or directly from publisher Unanchor.com, where it can be accessed online and downloaded as a .pdf.

 

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Here’s the beginning of the description on Unanchor.com:

One of the most beautiful cities in Mexico, colonial San Cristobal de las Casas sits in a wide valley of the forested Central Highlands in the southern state of Chiapas. Founded in 1528, it’s not polished to a museum shine… More Details

Please click the book to view on Amazon.com:

For a free excerpt, please email me at nohaybroncablog (at) gmail.com or leave your email address in a comment below.

Some News for the New Year in Mexico

Taking out the garbage this morning—January 2, 2017—was a clear reminder that it’s the first Monday of the new year in Mexico. The party’s over; my neighbors and I slowly dragged our plastic garbage cans to the idling garbage truck, which overflowed with crumpled wrapping paper, broken piñatas, fireworks shells, pizza boxes, and bags of empty liquor and champagne bottles. Now they’re all gone, taken away like so many hopes, dreams, mistakes and memories.

Yes, 2017 is finally here, and life goes on. As always here in Mexico, it’s a life full of surprises and interesting news stories. I thought I’d share three with you.

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Gasolinazo

The big news for the start of the new year is the country-wide rise in gasoline prices. No one with Mexican friends on Facebook could miss the calls to protest, even revolution. The increase went into effect today, so not all the results and reactions have yet come to light, but here’s what we know.

The oil industry was nationalized in Mexico back in 1938. So there’s only one company that extracts oil, Pemex, and only one type of gas station in the country, also called Pemex.

A major issue for the past few years has been the proposal to privatize Pemex, which would bring modernization to the inefficient government monopoly and allow competing companies into the country. This privatization issue, like all privatization issues, is quite complex and ideological, so rather than go into its pros and cons I’ll summarize the government’s latest move: a hike in gasoline prices.

As of today, the price of gasoline will go up between 20 and 24 percent across Mexico. The prices won’t be uniform nationwide, but different in different states. And more increases are planned for the coming months.

For example, the prices in parts of Mexico City are now 16.33 pesos for regular gas (called Magna) and 18.2 for premium. In U.S. dollars, this would be 79 cents a liter (or about $3 USD a gallon) for regular, and 88 cents a liter (or about $3.33 USD a gallon) for premium.

Besides the added expense for commuters and all the people who drive for a living, these prices are especially frustrating to Mexicans because Mexico is an oil producing country, in which gas prices are usually low, often ridiculously low.

But another major reason for these high prices compared to U.S. prices is the fact that the peso has lost a lot of value against the U.S. dollar in the past two years. When I moved here in 2010, it was about 12 pesos to one U.S. dollar, and that price held steady until May of 2013 when it gradually began to change. Then in 2014 it started a rapid loss of value, finally breaking the 20 peso mark in the middle of 2016, and shooting up even higher the day after Trump was elected. Today it’s at 20.60 pesos for one U.S. dollar, which means big consequences for Mexico, much more than on gas prices. (Of course, this is great for U.S. tourists traveling here—instant discounts on everything.)

But back to today’s gas hike. In response, starting yesterday and continuing today, people all over the country have been blocking highways and gas stations (even threatening to set them on fire) to protest this. There is a large march going on in Mexico City (among other places), and the highways between major cities Querétaro and Mexico City, Toluca and Mexico City, and more have been blocked since yesterday or this morning. There will certainly be more actions like these, hopefully with minimal violence.

The entire issue has been called Gasolinazo, which translates to “big gasoline”—obviously in reference to the increase. We’ll see how this story develops and if it will be covered on international news outlets. There have been reports on Facebook and Twitter of gas stations set on fire, but as of now not on any major news sources.

Fireworks Market Explosion

Here’s a story that did make international news: On December 20, a fireworks market exploded in Tultepec, in the State of Mexico north of Mexico City. Watch the incredible video here.

Current reports state that 36 people have died and at least 86 were injured. It’s not known how it started, but probably either someone testing out some fireworks or walking around with a cigarette.

Besides the tragic deaths and injuries, the other incredible part of this story is that the market had already blown up in 2005 and 2006. Unspecified safety measures were put in place since then, but not enough to prevent this tragedy.

Loud fireworks are popular in Mexico for holidays, especially religious holidays like the birthdays of saints. Every town or big-city neighborhood has a patron saint, and on that saint’s birthday people set off fireworks on the street or from the local church, starting early in the morning and sometimes lasting all day and night. An interesting contrast: In the U.S. in Canada it’s usually the drunks setting off fireworks, but in Mexico it’s the devout (or of course the drunk and devout).

As for holidays, yes there are fireworks on New Year’s Eve, but more often it’s the locals  launching them, rather than an organized city-wide display. But, in general, people are much more enthusiastic for fireworks on religious holidays, such as the beloved Virgin de Guadalupe’s birthday on December 12.

Anyway, the parties are fun, but please remind me to never visit a fireworks market in Mexico.

Rubi’s Fifteenth Birthday

And finally, in lighter but still-bizarre news, Rubi finally had her big fifteenth birthday party on December 27. Let me explain.

In Mexico (and many other countries), a girl’s 15th birthday is occasion for a humongous party. She gets dressed up and dances the night away with all her friends and relatives.

(Contrary to popular belief, the girl is the Quinciañera, not the party, which is simply called a quince años.)

Well, when the father of Rubi Ibarra, an otherwise normal girl from the state of San Luis Potosi, announced on YouTube that “everyone was invited” to the party, 1.3 million people accepted the invitation, for sure making it a little more humungous than he’d planned.

It was a big story and the source of a lot of jokes, with speculation about which celebrities would show up and how the father would pay for it all. In sum, it was the definition of something accidentally and unexpectedly going viral.

She finally had her party, and you can see some photos here. Millions didn’t attend, but thousands did, and despite one unfortunate death during a horse race, it seems like it was a hell of a good time.

Thanks for reading, and a prospero año y felicidad to all.

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Jambands in the Yucatan, 2017: Ideas and Advice

The word got out: The Mayan Riviera is an awesome place for multi-night concerts at all-inclusive resorts. Widespread Panic has played the Hard Rock Resort five times already; Phish is coming back for a second time, perhaps starting a tradition; and early next year you can add two members of the Grateful Dead to the list of jamband luminaries throwing a party on the warm beaches of the Mexican Caribbean coast.

Tulum ruins

These three- or four-day events, played by bands that don’t repeat songs from night to night (just in case you aren’t familiar with jambands), sell out pretty quickly, and they aren’t cheap, that’s for sure. Other bands may or may not be on the bill; My Morning Jacket’s One Big Holiday has Gary Clark Jr., among others, while Phish is the only band performing at their second Mayan Riviera fiesta, which is the norm for Phish festivals.

If you’re coming, then a clearly-marked shuttle bus will pick you up at the Cancun airport and take you straight to your hotel. Hard Rock, Barceló, and the rest are enormous vacation villages with pristine beachfronts, big swimming pools, and all-you-can-eat-and-drink restaurants and bars. You could never leave the resort and still have a great time.

If you do want to leave, however, these resorts are surrounded by the beautiful natural areas and wild party towns of the Mayan Riviera. Most resorts (Hard Rock, Barceló) are between Playa del Carmen to the north and the seaside Mayan ruins of Tulum to the south.

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Getting Around the Mayan Riviera

Your resort should have a shuttle to take you where you want to go (maybe free, probably not). If you don’t mind paying a little more money, you could ask the front desk to call a taxi, although public transportation is cheap and easy to use.

Simply walk out the front gates to the highway, make sure you’re on the correct side of the road, and wave down any passing bus or white passenger van (called colectivos). Not all will stop, but when one does, tell the driver your destination and watch for signs so you’ll know when to get off. Colectivos are cheap: most trips will be around 30 or 40 pesos, which with a favorable exchange rate is between one and two U.S. dollars.

Don’t take a tour to Tulum. Go on your own. Leave early and hop on a colectivo. That way you can avoid the crowds and take your time swimming under the ruins at one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, certainly in Mexico, which often appears on “Top X Beaches” lists.

The colectivos going south first pass the Tulum ruins and then enter Tulum town down the road. The town has some good restaurants and a pleasant atmosphere, but not much else, and it’s far from the beach. To get to big, beautiful Tulum beach (not the little one under the ruins), walk 15 or 20 minutes through the jungle from the Tulum ruins.

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Colectivos going north will take you to Playa del Carmen. (From there it’s an easy transfer for Cancun.) In Playa, the area where the colectivos stop is two blocks from Quinta Ave (5th Ave.), the main pedestrian street full of bars and restaurants that follows the beach. Come here after the shows to party ’til sunrise.

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Downtown Cancun isn’t too exciting, but it has some interesting markets and nice parks. To go to the beach in Cancun, take a local bus to the Hotel Zone (Zona Hotelera), which is a long, thin island of white-sand beach and big resorts.

Another nice day trip from Cancun is to Isla Mujeres, where laid-back beaches with views of the mainland await. Ferries leave from two terminals in Puerto Juárez just north of downtown Cancun (take a taxi), or there’s a more expensive ferry from the Hotel Zone.

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Shorter colectivo rides from the resorts can take you to less developed beaches (Xpu-Ha is the closest and just south of the Barcelo) and cenotes, the underground caves and sinkholes with fresh, clear water for swimming or scuba diving.

If you’re staying at the Barcelo, there are four cenote parks right across the street, including Cenote Cristiliano and Cenote Azul, the two closest ones. Just walk out the front gates and cross the street. They are much cheaper (100 to 200 pesos) than the big adventure parks advertised everywhere with funny names like Xel-Ha and Xcaret.

(By the way, the x in words like Xpu-ha and Xel-ha is pronounced like sh.)

These huge adventure parks have ziplines, beaches, and cenotes, along with big buffets and shows. The resorts will offer to sell you a ticket and take you there, but be sure to compare with the prices on their websites and then take a colectivo. They’re cool places, but I think you’d have more fun and a more authentic experience at one of the lower-key cenotes nearby. I mean, you already have a buffet, right?

Shameless plug: I wrote a guide to the region that describes all of these places in detail. Click on the book above or the link for more information. But if you just have a quick question, I’ll be happy to answer it in the comments.

Sneaking In?

Well, sorry to burst your bubble of enthusiasm, but my first piece of advice is don’t do it, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. Although Mexican law states that all beaches are public land and therefore must be accessible to everyone, these resorts don’t seem to respect the rules, as their beaches are isolated and surrounded by jungle and rocky terrain. Yes, there’s crocs in them streams (not their Floridian second cousin the alligator), and the resorts are heavily fortified compounds with tight security.

If you’re determined to sneak in, however, I have another piece of advice for you: Offer no resistance to the security officers if you get caught. Don’t try to run past them and don’t bother attempting to talk your way out of it. Unless you’re prepared to offer a bribe (which they may take and still not let you in), do what they say and leave immediately.

In Mexico, especially as a tourist, you have zero rights. Although the security officers probably won’t rob you or beat you up—this part of Mexico has too many foreign visitors for that—they could easily have you arrested and thrown in jail. In fact, I heard that a few people went to jail for trying to sneak into Phish last year.

Again, despite beaches being public land, in practice you can’t really argue the finer points of Mexican law with six angry security guards tapping the guns and handcuffs on their belts.

Just save your money and go another time. It’s not like Phish, Widespread Panic and the rest don’t play your hometown or darn close to it at least once a year anyway. (Unlike poor me living in B.F.E. Mexico—but I did make it to Dick’s last year.)

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Some Thoughts on Price

This brings me to a common complaint about these shows: too expensive. For sure it would be awesome if Phish played a big festival in Mexico with regularly-priced tickets, like Vive Latino in Mexico City or Cumbre Tajin in Veracruz. Though Phish has few fans in Mexico, if they played a festival like one of those, they would instantly create tens of thousands.

But these festivals are in the middle of the country. I imagine that Phish and the other bands want to play shows in Mexico because they want to play next to the ocean, with palm trees swaying and the breeze breezing. Trey wouldn’t have written “Breath and Burning” otherwise.

Sure, these resorts are expensive—and they’re expensive even without a hugely popular foreign band playing there. And think about it, when Phish comes to play, it’s not just the dudes in the band and a few guitars, but planeloads of gear. I mean, last year they had so many lights, including big ones over the ocean, that they had to bring in a second lightman, the guy from Umphrey’s Mcgee.

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So of course these resort shows aren’t cheap. What do you expect? That the bands would find some empty beach nearby and set up everything themselves, and their huge fanbase (most of whom don’t speak Spanish) would find their own hotels and transportation to the shows? Sure, it’s possible, by why go through the headache, especially when plenty of fans don’t mind paying and look forward to eating whatever they want and drinking top-shelf tequila all morning, day, and night long.

Whatever the price, the shows are happening and will keep on happening. I won’t be going to any this year (too expensive for my Mexican university teacher’s salary, especially with the terrible exchange rates for the peso), but those who do, you’ll for sure have a great time.

Here’s the list for 2017:

January 13-15

Phish: http://www.phishrivieramaya.com

January 25-28

Los Muertos con Queso (Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann from the Grateful Dead, String Cheese Incident, more): http://losmuertosconqueso.com

February 4-8

My Morning Jacket (with Gary Clark Jr., among other guests): http://mmjonebigholiday.com

February 9-10

The Avett Brothers  (with Jason Isbell, among other guests): http://avettsatthebeach.com

February 23-25

Dave Mathews and Tim Reynolds: http://daveandtimrivieramaya.com/the-event

February 27-March 3

Widespread Panic: http://panicenlaplaya.com

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Final Tip

One last piece of advice. If you can, spend a few more days in Playa del Carmen before or after the shows. You’ve already paid for the plane ticket, hotels and restaurants are cheap, the place is awesome, and there’s a even a huge electronic music festival—the BPM Festival—in the clubs and beaches from January 6-15. Even if you don’t like EDM, the scene is wild.

In Playa you can find decent hotels a block or two from the beach for as low as $20 or $30 USD a night. The Mexican peso is low and getting lower against the U.S. dollar, meaning automatic discounts on everything. You can chill in Playa and have an excellent base for visiting all the places you didn’t visit because you were too busy getting shwilly in the Barcelo pool, like the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza.

(Chichen Itza is too far for a day trip anyway, at least without a rental car and a really early start. Don’t take a tour to Chichen Itza—go by yourself when you can. On the tours you spend more time on the bus than at the ruins, and you get herded around like kindergarteners on a field trip. The best way to see it is to stay in the colonial town Valladolid the night before.)

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You can find lots of suggestions in my guidebook to the area, and you’ll save its low price the first time you follow my advice for a hotel, restaurant, bus or colectivo:

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