I got a chance to catch up with mi amigo Jorge Gamboa Patrón (Director of the Mexico Tourism Board LA) at the Travel & Adventure Show in Los Angeles recently. ¡Vamos a México!
Posts Tagged With: Mexico Travel
¡Orale! The Gringo With A Green Bag was representing the Mexican banner this past weekend at the Travel and Adventure Show in Los Angeles. What a great time we had! The spirit of the fiesta was in the air and there was plenty of travel inspiration to be absorbed in an atmosphere full of zesty cultural flavors, interactive exhibits, music & dance and travel professionals from all parts of the globe there to share information about the world’s hottest destinations. The Mexico booths were packed ALL weekend long and I was happy to be a part of all the acción! Stay tuned for my video highlights, interviews and just a bunch of wacky GWAGB fun…once I recover from the “virtual” travel hangover.
After the fiesta, it’s time for siesta…
What is it about trekking through the jungle that sends omenously cool vibrations sprinting down my spinal column? It’s wild, unpredictable, mysterious – kind of like walking into a strip club in Vegas on your 21st birthday – it’s just an exhilarating (and intimidating) place to be. So when I heard about this massive ancient Mayan site embedded in the remotest of remote jungles near the southern end of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make the trip down to check out the remains of what was once among the most influential sites in the history of the Mayan Empire: Calakmul.
From what I understood, it was a bit of an effort to get there. There’s only 1 hotel within a 60km radius and if you Google “Calakmul” on a map you end up with a location marker that lands in the middle of absolute nowhere within a huge Biosphere Reserve just north of the Guatemalan border, several hours away from anything remotely familiar to the average Mexico traveler. This is the beauty of traveling to places like this. Only the adventurous few will make the effort, so the experience will feel unique and untainted and you’ll never have to worry about crowds, traffic jams or crying toddlers in strollers begging for ice cream while you pass through the turnstile. (No, I’m not a big fan of Disneyland, you guessed correctly.) An exit south off of highway 186, which slices horizontally through the state of Campeche, took me on a long, lonely road flanked by endless miles of a subtropical forest that has seen only the most intrepid of travelers pass through its sequestered corridor.
After a lengthy drive deep into the jungle, with every revolving digit of the odometer reminding you that you are advancing one frame further from civilization, I arrived at the Calakmul visitor’s center/museum. Plenty to see there while killing time, but my eagerness to explore had ignited my appetite so I grabbed some Doritos and an empanada and then hopped in a van with a few other travelers to make our way down another long (dirt) road, which really reassured me of the remoteness of this ancient wonder. Upon arrival to the ruins site, I performed my typical jungle-trekking ritual of mosquito repellent-bathing, calf-stretching and a second round of mosquito repellent-bathing. There was a lovely scenic walking path leading to the actual ruins, passing through an expanding canopy of dense forest with filtered sunbeams penetrating the jungle roof like a laser light show transmitted from heaven. The environment here is raw, stimulating, overwhelming to the senses…it kind of reminds me of walking through the olive & pickle market in Spain back in the day. The deeper I get into it, the more I start salivating. I finally arrive to the actual ruins and am immediately thrown into the set of Apocalypto (“please don’t let me run into a black jaguar on its lunch break”, was my first thought). The ruins were imposingly present throughout the area and seemed in a very natural state. I climbed to the top of the first structure I saw. The view (and the 60+ steps) took my breath away.
Standing above the jungle canopy atop the remains of an ancient structure of a kingdom that once rivaled Tikal as one of the grandest and most powerful cities of the Mayan world will quickly halt your mind into “pause” mode – and then force you to reflect on the former reality and historical scope of your surroundings. This was the land of rulers and kings…the turf of brave and brutal warriors and conquerors (and angry little monkeys, but we’ll get to that). The view of adjacent temples popping up through the blanket of vegetation in the distance is one that your brain will quickly file into the category of “Holy Shit – Awesome!”. Several large structures were scattered throughout the area, and if each one could speak I’m sure it would have countless tales spanning centuries of discovery, war, peace, famine and wonder. (That, or it would tell me to “clean your shoes before walking on my face, jerk!”) The surrounding jungle sprawls out endlessly in all directions, and the louring echo of howler monkeys adds an eerie soundtrack to the surreal scene that quietly envelopes you. When you sit there and think about the history that a place like this has written in its fraction of existence on Earth, and the countless lives that lived and were lost here, you are humbled…and you are also reminded of your very fortunate place in the annals of time. We live in a time where science answers many of the natural wonders that the original inhabitants of this land would never understand…a time where technology allows us to connect with and discover the farthest corners of the globe…a time where you won’t get sacrificed for being on the losing side in a game of kickball. As I explored Calakmul, I remained humbly cognizant of its historical significance. I walked among symbols of great power and strolled through ancient hallways of artistry and wonder.
Now let’s get to these monkeys that were ready to engage with me in a full-on turf war. What began as a cordial initial encounter, with the natural underpinnings of curiosity, quickly turned into a Clint Eastwood “Get off my lawn” scenario where the native tree-dwellers began to express to me just how peeved they were with my presence in their “jungle hood”. I hadn’t been briefed on the hospitality of the local monkey community before entering the area, therefore I just continued to go about my business, observe them, photograph them and proudly reinforce to them (by standing my ground) that there wasn’t gonna be any Planet Of The Apes-inspired ego flung in my direction. What WAS flung in my direction, however, was a tree branch straight towards my head by one of the two feisty little hairy bastards that I was shooting in the trees above, followed by some maniacal gestures of chest-beating and flashing of the teeth (those teeth are no joke!). This isn’t how I typically like to be received into a new place. The capuchins in Costa Rica posed for my camera like girls auditioning for a Lowrider magazine cover on Instagram. There was no “Welcome” mat on these two monkeys’ front porch. They began shaking the tree branches and beating on their chests like little King Kong wannabies. Oh, hell no. It was getting serious now. I was dealing with some bonafide bullies. As soon as that tree branch came flying towards my head, I was reminded of my surroundings in this “wild” and “unpredictable” jungle environment. This isn’t like being at the zoo where you’re able to laugh and make faces at an animal and feel safe from retaliation due to the security provided by the double-paned glass or steel cage that lies between you and the animal. This was the wild wild west of Mexican jungles – untamed and virtually unexplored – and these monkeys were the last holdouts of their village who weren’t gonna backdown from any foreign “bandits” armed with cameras and binoculars. I must admit, the intimidation tactics did work. (Again, those teeth are no joke!) I didn’t stick around too much longer to find out of they were bluffing. I wasn’t in the mood for a face full of poo that day, or a couple of jungle hoodlums trying to bully me for my bananas. Their aggressive behavior was enough for me to wrap up my photo shoot and quickly move along. Monkeys 1 – Gringo 0.
The fact that you can visit one of the world’s most fascinating remnants of ancient times and experience the full ambience of the natural world that surrounds it makes Calakmul a “must-see” destination on anyone’s Mexico travel list. Here, you can enjoy Mayan ruins that rival all of the grandeur and scale of the ruins of Chichen-Itza, but in a much more exotic and remote (and far less manicured) environment. You’ll also escape the crowds of day-trippers and local vendors trying to negotiate the “good price for you” sale of painted jaguar masks and plastic pyramid paper weights. If Chichen-Itza is Starbucks, then Calakmul is your out-of-the-way coffee shop reserved for enjoying an authentic blend in a quiet environment. Calakmul offers its visitors a chance to enjoy some seriously impressive ruins and experience the environment the way the ancient Maya saw it – in a natural state, remotely enclosed by the very jungle that witnessed its rise and fall. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a close encounter with the modern-day native inhabitants of this exotic land…the wildlife. There is an abundance. Just watch your back. As soon as a tree branch comes flying towards your head it might be your cue to continue your tour and move on to the next structure. As I was reminded, it’s best to never outstay your welcome in the wild…a lesson I also learned in the chaotic urban jungle of Mardi Gras in New Orleans back in 1996, but that’s a story for another day.
I love seeing this portrait of a local Mayan woman putting the finishing touches on a beautiful hand-crafted hammock for me. I drove around Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for several days looking for a traditional homemade “hamaca” that I could bring back to my parents. Not that it was on their wish list or anything, or that they would ever use it. All they ever ask for is either a magnet or some sea salt. But I once bought them a rug in Morocco that was most likely manufactured in Taiwan (it had to be, it was way too cheap), so I was aiming for a little redemption here. Besides, the origin of the hammock dates back over 1000 years and is credited to the Maya. If anyone knows how to weave a proper hammock, it’s these people. So, with a few inquiries to the locals, a kind villager directed me to the town of Tekit, where I was told to look for the “blue house”. (That’s how directions work in this part of the world. No addresses, just colors.)
After erroneously knocking on the door of the first blue house I saw, I ended up finding the right “casa azul”, as I saw this woman carefully crafting a lovely, tropical-colored 10-footer that was hanging in her workshop. I don’t know if I was just craving Skittles or what, but this rainbow of intricately woven fibers caught my eye immediately. Major score! Now, there’s a difference between “homemade” and “handmade”. Handmade just means it was made by someone’s hands. Factory workers in China make “handmade” items all the time. Doesn’t mean it was made by a local artist, or that it isn’t a replica. Burgers at McDonald’s are handmade. They’re crap. “Homemade” is exactly what it says it is…you get it from someone’s home, sprinkled with love and genuine family-coated TLC. It’s like grandma’s banana bread. Always best to get it straight from the source. (If you get a homemade item in Spain it may come sprinkled with the scent of cigarettes. But hey, I’d much rather have an aesthetically inferior item of authenticity over a polished replica any day, albeit tobacco-tainted.) Nothing more discontenting than getting excited about purchasing that local Peruvian alpaca scarf, only to find the all-too-familiar “Made in Indonesia” tag sticking out from the bottom (unless you’re actually in Indonesia – but even then, alpacas in Indonesia?).
I didn’t even negotiate the price, which is common practice down in Mexico. I was so happy to be getting an authentic item of the finest local quality and variety, directly from the artist (who’s ancestors invented the thing). To me, this is the equivalent of a gallery curator being handed a Rembrandt from the man himself. Authenticity is at the core of “real world” life experiences. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll hear me preach about it often. Can a brother get an “amen” up in here? I could have saved some valuable time and energy and bought a hammock from any of the numerous roadside tourist souvenir shops I passed along the way to Tekit, but I’ve grown weary of the typical (and universal) salesman’s pitch of “100% authentic”, “handmade”, “indigenous”, “local artisan” – blah, blah, blah. If you pay a lot of money to go somewhere or purchase something, you want it to be legit. It’s an investment in great experiences, great memories or a product you will be totally satisfied with. After all, that’s what travel is really all about. If you don’t care about having a true experience, cancel that trip to Paris and take your butt to Las Vegas. You can visit Paris, New York, Rio and Venice all in the same day for a fraction of the price (unless you get sucked into that stupid Wheel of Fortune slot machine at the Rio. I emptied my wallet on that rigged-ass money-guzzler. To this day, I still curse at the sight of Pat Sajak every time I see him on TV.)
Only thing left for me to do now is to teach my mom how to lay in a hammock without flipping over like a sunscreen-slicked fat kid jumping on a wet intertube at the community pool. I never get tired of seeing that though. 🙂
Of course, I gotta give a shout out to the kind gentleman who pointed me in the direction of the “blue house”. He wasn’t selling his hammock that day. Hope he got a commission though, or a plate of whatever she was cooking up in the kitchen that afternoon.
This is a #GringoWithAGreenBag Foto Friday “Film” edition ladies and gents! Ahhhh yes, the nostalgia I get when I remember the days of shooting 35mm Kodak ELITE Chrome 100 with my sexy silver Nikon N50…the beauty and eye-popping color of slide film…waiting anxiously for several days while the lab processed the images…having an entire album of physical prints from every trip or special occasion…and paying $300 for image developing after shooting 35+ rolls on a 2-week vacation (in addition to purchasing the film itself)! That was the turning point right there folks. I would soon enter the “Digital Age” with the purchase of a Nikon D70 and film would inevitably become an honored and beloved art form of the past. (The N50 has since been retired and is now living a life of luxury on my closet shelf.) But while it was in it’s prime, my N50 camera was an international stud! It served as my portal to the world of travel photography, helped to open my eyes to countless unfamiliarities and was the most loyal travel companion one could ever ask for. (Sniff, sniff.) That baby earned it’s badge as my #1 deputy ambassador in the field, with flying colors.
The difference between film and digital is more about economics than image quality (some actually prefer the quality of film). Those of us on a budget had to be economical with our shutter releases. It forced us to get the shot right with a lot less takes, something that nurtured patience and critical attention to composition and detail…qualities that are imperative to any photographer. The economics of digital photography don’t dictate the # of shots people take. The days of thinking about “.20¢ per click” are long gone. The tradeoff is having to spend an incredible # of hours in front of a computer to edit and process our digital images. If you adhere to the ideal of “time is money”, then digital is not really saving you much. But is sure does make our lives easier (especially to a generation of fiends for instant gratification). The irony of it all is that the only way my old film shots ever get viewed nowadays is in digital form (having spent countless hours with a scanner and a dust brush). I’m just glad I can still easily share them with the modern world without having to carry around a bunch of old portfolio binders and coffee-stained albums with the title “Damian’s European Adventures”. I’m also very grateful to have learned the art of photography in the age of film. Though it often depleted my perennially slim wallet at the time, it really helped to make me the best photographer that I can be, and for that I say “Long Live Film”!
Here’s a few images that I dug out from the archives, shot on film and scanned to digital. I hope you have enjoyed this Gringo With A Green Bag “turn back the clock” moment. 🙂