The Road to Mexico and Havana

  Chitong   Rivera and Gari Tiongco in  Oaxaca during the Dia de Muertos festival (Photo courtesy of Danny Gozo)

Chitong Rivera and Gari Tiongco in Oaxaca during the Dia de Muertos festival (Photo courtesy of Danny Gozo)

"Are you tourists?" asks this audacious Spanish lady in a Oaxaca hotel. "No," lawyer Gari Tiongco answers, "we are travelers." Indeed we were. Four fraternity brothers, (two in their seventies and two in their late sixties) embark on a "bucket list" journey to do what we could not do when we were younger, much less afford the time and expense of a three-week trek through southern Mexico, with Havana, Cuba tossed in.

The Upsilonians apart from Gari, were Ponciano "Chitong" Rivera, a retired businessman and current president of the UP Alumni Association, Jacinto "Tong" Puno, a successful advertising executive and I, a semi-retired strategic communications consultant. We had all traveled together with others in the past-- to the Ilocos provinces in Luzon, through Mindanao and, last year, to Nepal in the Himalayas to see Mount Everest and Annapurna up close. But those are for another article.

We flew to Guadalajara from Los Angeles to kick off this trip of our dreams. The grand parks, monuments and churches of Jalisco's capital served as our initiation into Mexico. Staying in clean hotels with hot showers and flushing toilets was our concession to the need for basic comforts. By agreement we avoided luxurious digs for that would make us "tourists."

We traveled by bus. Mexico has a good network of bus lines crisscrossing the country and, depending on how much you want spend, the comfort levels are adjustable. We took the "semi cama" buses of ADO and OCC lines.

Second stop for us was the mountain city of Guanajuato, a UN Cultural Heritage city over 6,700 feet in elevation. We caught the last day of the famed Cervantino Festival, so rooms in the center of town were fully booked. We ended up outside the city, but hired a car to take us through its places of interest.

 Upsilonians in Palenque: (L-R) Tong Puno; Chitong Rivera; Gari Tiongco; the author, Danny Gozo (Photo courtesy of Danny Gozo)

Upsilonians in Palenque: (L-R) Tong Puno; Chitong Rivera; Gari Tiongco; the author, Danny Gozo (Photo courtesy of Danny Gozo)

It had this warren of tunnels that run underneath the town in at least three levels and used for regular traffic of pedestrians and vehicles. What an amazing use of old mine tunnels for modern traffic conditions; sort of a naturally built underpass around the city. Guanajuato is also where Mexico's famous painter Diego Rivera was born. He and the enigmatic Frida Kahlo were major players in Mexico's counterculture at the turn of the 20th century. The Museo y Casa de Diego Rivera is a must stop for any serious traveler that reaches this charming city. In its marketplace we sampled their version of "chicharon," pork skin crackers but cooked in its entirety. Imagine a "chicharon" the size of newspaper! That was what it looked like.

Nearby is the city of San Miguel de Allende, surprisingly a haven for many Gringo retirees. Its colorful row houses and cobblestone streets remind one of the set for an Antonio Banderas movie. Its iconic red stone Cathedral is unique in all of Mexico. As the sun set on the city we were treated to an impromptu milonga session by an aging Latino in red pants, teaching the sensuous steps of the tango to whoever was willing to learn, a nice contrapuntal touch to the sheer harshness of the Mexican sun.  

  San Miguel de Allende cathedral (Source: wikipedia.org)

San Miguel de Allende cathedral (Source: wikipedia.org)

Mexico City and a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe were a must. We did not quite go the whole hog of walking on our knees, but it was a humbling experience to hear Mass at the biggest shrine to the Blessed Virgin in the American continent. The nation’s capital was a bit of a disappointment due to very bad traffic conditions. It sort of made us feel good about the situation at EDSA back home. We were happy to just enjoy the "tsokolate eh" at Cafe Tacuba near the Zocalo. Even in late October, there were already overtures of rallies in the capital, protesting the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero province. Shades of the ARMM massacre, Mexico version.

Oaxaca was another recommendation of Lonely Planet that we had not heard of. We happened to be there during the three-day festival of Dia De Muertos, October 31, November 1 and 2. What a discovery! A combination Mardi Gras and religious festival, it was quite fun seeing ghoulish make-ups, flowers in the hair, garish costumes and Mariachi bands accompanying processions of the Blessed Virgin alongside mythical gigantes that exhibit a mixture of Christian and pagan cultures. We also managed to attend Mass at the Chapel of San Felipe Neri where Benito Juarez, Mexico's 26th president and an Oaxaca native, supposedly married a 17-year-old bride when he was 37.

Mindboggling, Awesome

From the fun town of Oaxaca to the archeological sites of Palenque was quite a leap. It felt like of being in a Nat Geo documentary cum Indiana Jones movie. In a word, Palenque was awesome. Massive Mayan stone structures constructed more than 2,000 years ago without the benefit of metal tools were just mindboggling. Here we were indoctrinated into the lives of the Mayan chieftain Pakal, who ruled for 48 years and his son, Kan B'alam, his successor. Walking around the ruins one could almost imagine nubile maidens and chiseled warriors being sacrificed to the God Kukulkan. Sacrifices were supposedly not a simple jump from the pyramid, but a gruesome carving of the chest where the sacrificial heart was literally plucked out while still beating. Whew.
     
There are many such archeological sites in Central America, but this one is probably one of the best kept and preserved. We were told that Mayan temples have been discovered all the way to Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and even El Salvador.

The Palenque ruins are in the state of Chiapas, which has a festering security problem. We were not spared. During a trip to Agua Azul waterfalls, we actually passed by a roadblock with about 30 locals protesting some issue. Our guide-driver negotiated, and the nail-encrusted 2x4 piece of wood was pulled away from the road. He paid 20 pesos. On the way down from the falls, we were confronted with the same roadblock. Only this time the fee demanded was 100 pesos! We readily paid as the locals did not seem too friendly.  We were out of there very fast. One can say that it is not more fun in Mexico.

Sinigang in Merida

Next stop was what I would call the Savannah of Mexico, the city of Merida. A city built on the fiber sisal, which was used for cordage, ropes, nets, sacks and whatever could be woven at the turn of the last century. The city's iconic parks and chapels make walking around a very pleasant experience. Our hotel in Merida, Luz en Yucatan, was the best we stayed in because it had a kitchen, which allowed us to cook sinigang for dinner and Spam and eggs for breakfast. You can take us out of Pinas, but you cannot take Pinas out of us.

From Merida, it is a 90-minute motor ride to Chichen Itza, the most famous of Mexico's pyramids. Of Disneyland proportions, this ruin is well preserved and arguably the largest of all Mayan temples. It is also one of the Modern Seven Wonders of the World. This is the showcase of Mexico's rich archeological heritage. It even had what appears to be an astronomical observatory among its structures spread across more than 20 hectares of land. Its aqueducts are still functioning. Two more ruins were on the Merida agenda, Uxmal and Kabah, again in various stages of being unearthed from the jungle, but each with a different look and character still within the Mayan tradition.

The last stop before the trip to Cuba was Cancun and its adjacent city, Playa del Carmen. Cancun struck me as very similar in look and feel to Angeles City, Pampanga, when the Americans were still in Clark. Almost every corner had a US franchise, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Arby's, 7-11, etc. But no Inn and Out Burgers yet. Playa del Carmen, however, was a welcome sight not only for its large Boracay look and feel, but more for its beachcombing, sun-seeking visitors from north of the border, if you get my drift.

 The author with Chichen Itza in the background. (Photo courtesy of Danny Gozo)

The author with Chichen Itza in the background. (Photo courtesy of Danny Gozo)

The Pull of Havana

Surprisingly, all throughout the trip, we never encountered other Filipinos. It would seem that Mexico and Cuba are two countries that do not welcome foreign workers for reasons of their own. Cuba was a bit of a romantic mystery to us growing up in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The revolution that spawned Che Guevarra, Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos captured our imagination, and we wanted to see what it has given Cubans; thus the desire to see Havana even only for a few days.

The result is not too encouraging given the undeniable gross poverty that was peeking through the patina of propaganda that "All is well" after nearly 60 years of being on their own. It also was like stepping back in time, going back to the ‘50s with American cars vintage '56 through '59 roaming the streets as taxis. Were they really still in perfect running condition? Well, it turns out that the car bodies were kept the same, but their engines have been replaced with Korean and Japanese motors.

 Cars in Havana (Source: wikipedia.com)

Cars in Havana (Source: wikipedia.com)

We did manage to visit the Museum of the Revolution and walk around the cobblestone streets of Havana. The seaside avenue reminds me of a very large and very long Dewey (now Roxas) Boulevard in Manila. Its walled-in Centro Historico is also a carbon copy of Manila's Intramuros, but again in a larger scale.

  Havana's Jose Marti monument in front of the Museum   of the Revolution (Photo courtesy of Danny Gozo)

Havana's Jose Marti monument in front of the Museum  of the Revolution (Photo courtesy of Danny Gozo)

What was a surprise find in Cuba was the food. It had that taste, character and look of familiar dishes like calderreta, asado, afritada and callos. Inexpensive too, if you know where to go. We were advised to bring small denomination currency in US dollars. Good thing we did. While the greenback is an accepted currency in Havana, they will give you change in Cuban pesos.  

 Gari Tiongco, Tong Puno and Chitong Rivera in Mexico City's Zocalo. In the background is the Presidential Palace. (Photo courtesy of Danny Gozo)

Gari Tiongco, Tong Puno and Chitong Rivera in Mexico City's Zocalo. In the background is the Presidential Palace. (Photo courtesy of Danny Gozo)

In all, the journey was well worth it--a respite in our busy lives, a step back in time, an entry on the bucket list ticked off. Next on our list? New Zealand maybe, or if we can swing it, a train ride on the Orient Express from Vladivostok to Moscow. Now that’s a journey worth preparing for. Buen viaje a todos!


 Danny Gozo

Danny Gozo

Danny Gozo is a semi retired Corporate Communications Consultant based in Manila. He still dabbles in Political Strategy, Public Relations, Advertising and his passion, golf.