The new frontier of Nicaraguan tourism

Some local children getting into the festival spirit with a gambling game for kids.

Some local children getting into the festival spirit with a gambling game for kids.

“Deh are naa boats tomorrow; it bruk down,” said one of the Big Corn Island locals.

“But surely there’s another boat to replace it,” I replied stupidly. “We really need to get to the mainland.”

“Naaa, tomorrow is Ma’der’s Day. Dey won’ be working. Dat’s why dere’s naa boat tomorrow, man, cos it’s Ma’der’s Day. Ya can git de cargo ship on Saturday. Is a’right, man; dis is paradise!”

It’s a very ‘first world problem’ to complain about being stranded on a Caribbean Island, but there we were – 9 first-world tourists moaning about the inadequacies of transportation in Nicaragua. Some of us were trying to get to Bluefields for the end of the Maypole Festival, while others had to get across to the mainland to catch flights from Costa Rica.

After much scrambling, bargaining, bribing, and bureaucracy, we managed to pay a local fisherman to take 20 of us over to the mainland on his little panga. It isn’t known as the safest or driest form of transportation, but it got us to our destination in one piece and in time for the end of Maypole celebrations.

Few people have heard of Maypole or Bluefields. The fishing port city is on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, which remains largely undiscovered by travellers. But what the city lacks in beauty is more than made up for by the friendliness of the locals.

Maypole lasts throughout the month of May and its history is a little unclear. The festival is a hybrid of celebration centring around English May Day rites, worship of the fertility goddess, Mayaya, and the start of the rainy season. One thing is for certain, though: locals in Bluefields know how to throw a great party.

Throughout the month each different neighbourhood in Bluefields hosts small festivals of their own. It culminates on the last weekend of the month with a large street party complete with costumes and the Maypole dance in the style of carnival. The Tulululu march from one end of the city to the other is a sight to be seen. Locals lead the parade holding the Maypole tree with a large procession following, tunnels are formed and the people at the back run through to the front – only for it to be done all over again.

The festival is a celebration of the unique culture found on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, which was an English protectorate until 1796, when the British Government recognised the sovereignty of Spain in Nicaragua. Many of the locals on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua are African descendants, whose ancestors were slaves being transported into the area during the 1600s.

“We identify more closely with our English history than our Spanish one,” Spencer ‘Rocco’ Hodgson, a Bluefields local, told me on the panga ride. “The Spanish Nicaraguans started arriving here during the revolution as refugees, and the population blew-out from 18,000 to over 50,000.”

“I worked on cruise ships for five years, and when I came back I didn’t even recognise the place.”

It’s because of this chequered history that locals in Bluefields feel so strongly about Maypole.

“We are Creole and so we dance the Maypole; that’s our cultural dance,” Jacqui Brown, from a group called Immortal Star told me. “When we dance, we represent our minority and it’s important that we keep our culture alive.”

“We’re very proud of this group. We do this with love and it comes from our heart. It’s important for the young people in the community to continue the traditions of our culture. Today we dance the Tulululu and we are so happy when tourists come to see us dance and celebrate our culture with us.”

The Government recognised the differences in culture between the Caribbean and Pacific in 2008. In an effort to unite the two sides, the Government decided to bring Maypole to Managua, the country’s capital. There has also been an inevitable commercialisation of the festival which some locals believe has affected the celebrations and changed its meaning.

“It’s changed a lot to what it was; it used to be better,” said Georgina Caseavanea. “Everyone used to be dancing in the streets when I was a child, and now I don’t see that.”

“You never used to be able to buy anything at Maypole, now everyone says ‘you can buy this and that’. To me it has a lot to do with the Government taking it to Managua. Them Managua people don’t know nothing about the dancing or the culture, you know.”

Not all the locals think this way, though. Many are happy with the attention and tourism.

“We are glad to have you all here. The people they come to join us and show us love right here in our home, so we are very thankful to have you all here,” Joanne Wilson told me during the festival.

“It has changed a lot because back in my days it wasn’t a business-pole, it was a real Maypole.”

“I really love it, though, because it is a tradition and I just like to see the culture continue. What we do here, they carry it to Managua and it’s beautiful to see our culture spreading to the rest of Nicaragua,” she said.

“What I love to see is that we are being united. I love to see you [tourists] come down here to teach us and for us to teach you. Because you know we don’t get to go to you, so I hope if you like it you will take it back to your home and tell people about our culture.”

Maypole is an important event for tourism in Bluefields. Few visitors to Nicaragua make the effort to visit the Caribbean side of the country. If they do, it is usually to the Corn Islands via an airplane. It’s a combination of difficulty and travel tales about the danger of the city which is widely known to be the drop-off point for cocaine in the Columbian drug-trade. But for some it isn’t a concern.

“I wanted to know about the whole culture of Nicaragua. I heard it was different on the Caribbean side, so I wanted to see that part of the culture too. I think the best way to do that is the Maypole Festival,” said Fabian Bracher, a Swiss tourist.

“I loved everything: the music, the people dancing on the street. I expected to see more people in colourful costume dancing, but it was great to see all the locals out having a good time.”

“I’d heard that Bluefields was a bit dangerous because it is part of the drug highway but I just thought the people were really friendly. Yesterday we met some local boys who took us to a restaurant and invited us to church with them. They were all saying thank-you for being here and seemed really happy to see us.”

It’s tourists like Fabian who locals in Bluefields are hoping to attract. The Nicaraguan Government has paved a road across the country so the journey is no longer as arduous as it once was. But Bluefields needs to shake it’s reputation before it will become an integral part of the tourist trail in Central America. However, the city’s proximity to the Corn Islands, another favourite amongst intrepid travellers, is a bonus – along with its unique culture and Maypole festivities. In recent years, word of Maypole has gotten out and there were a surprisingly large – 20 or so – number of tourists joining the party this year. Hopefully for the city this number will swell as backpackers share the information among their circles.

*You can take a listen to a bad recording of the Tulululu song here*

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Tourism during Mexico’s drug wars

This is the sort of amazing thing you miss out on by discounting Mexico as a dangerous place

This is the sort of amazing thing you miss out on by discounting Mexico as a dangerous place

“Ohhh Central America, you’d better be careful. It’s such a dangerous place.”

It’s a quote that could be attributed to lots of different people I spoke to before I left Australia. It’s a conclusion they have come to with good reason too.

Media reports back home, and in many other Western countries, are full of narcos (drug gangs which wage war against each other), drug wars, and dismembered bodies. Rural areas are considered particularly dangerous with rogue banditos descending upon towns and wreaking havoc.

With this fresh on my mind, I arrived in rural Mexico.

It was 8:30PM and everything was closed except Vicki’s. By everything I mean the restaurant and tiny store that serviced this rural town. My brother Thomas and I had arrived 6 hours earlier; he’d spent the afternoon surfing while I’d spent the afternoon exploring the amazing coastline. It was beer o’clock.

With no other options we went into Vicki’s. It was a small house with a few tables and chairs out the front. It moonlighted as a restaurant at night. Fortunately, she sold beer too. We asked for two bottles and she opened them.

“$27 pesos,” she said.

I handed her $50 pesos.

“I don’t have change for that.”

We madly scrambled to find the exact money, coming up with nothing except $200 peso bills.

“That’s alright,” she smiled, “bring it back with the bottles tomorrow.”

We’d never met Vicki before, and she had no idea who we were or where we were from, yet she trusted us to bring her money the next night. We did go back the next night – and the one after. (We ate at her makeshift restaurant too and it was some of the best food I’ve had in Mexico. Her special homemade hot sauce was particularly amazing.*)

I thought this was an anomaly but in town after town it was the same attitude. Everyone was grateful to see us, patient with our not-quite-correct Spanish, and willing to go out of their way to help us. Locals would take us to an ATM (even if it was a 45 minute drive away), help us find our buses, call us cabs, and give us a lift if we were walking along a road – always dropping us off at our destination, even if it was out of their way.

I met a Mexican girl named Maria when we were in a beachside town called Chacahua. She spoke excellent English and was really curious to know whether or not I liked Mexico and what it was about the country I liked.

“I love it,” I replied without hesitation, “everyone here is so friendly and welcoming. Definitely not what I expected.”

She looked relieved and explained how upset it makes her that the media portrays Mexico as such a dangerous place.

“People are so friendly and welcoming because they love having you here. We want more people to visit, but the world thinks it’s such a bad country,” she said with sadness in her voice, “I’ve never been robbed here, though, and I plan on keeping it that way.”

I don’t want to sugarcoat Mexico and pretend that nothing bad happens here. There are still many northern states that it is safer to just plain avoid because of the drug wars. The prominent military vehicles with eight men and their machine guns piled on the back also indicate that things aren’t quite right in the country and narco wars still break out in various towns from time to time.

Rio Nexpa is one of those towns. It’s not a typical town; instead it’s a series of cabanas that line the beach. The nearest town is Caleta, about 5km down the road. The cabanas service ex-pats, surfers, and tourists from Mexico, while most of the people who own the cabanas and work there live in Caleta.

Business has been slow in Rio Nexpa over the last four years.

“Narcos have been around and it’s been driving the visitors away,” explains Manuel who owns some of the cabanas with his brothers, “we were living off the papayas we grow for a while, it was tough.”

“Things are better now, though. The town is safer, and the visitors are slowly coming back.”

He doesn’t say it directly, but it’s widely known in these circles that when things become ‘safer’ the local mafia has stepped in and driven the narcos away.

Even stories like this don’t deter some people, though. Victoria moved to Mexico in 1991 and is now a citizen.

“That [violence] is something that goes on between those groups,” she says with a shrug, “there is almost never an innocent bystander.”

“I haven’t seen any violence at all. In some areas the cartels keep the peace more than the police. I haven’t locked my door in six weeks.”

This is the general attitude most people have despite some disturbing stories. It’s rare to come across someone who has experienced any violence firsthand, though. It’s always a ‘friend’ or someone who has ‘heard about someone’. I’ve only met one person who has faced any danger in Central America. Martina is a Dutch surf instructor who spends her winters in Mexico. (Work for surfing instructors is scarce during Holland’s winters.) She was taking a night bus through Acapulco, an area notorious for nighttime bus robberies.

“We were driving when suddenly rocks we coming through the window and a girl started bleeding from the head,” she says, “the driver stupidly stopped and these men with guns were advancing toward the bus, so everyone was telling him to drive.”

“We were lucky they didn’t shootout the tyres, though.”

I took that same bus trip without incident, but I would advise against doing it on the weekend. Although, I’ve been told that now the buses form convoys before driving though that area.

These are just my experiences with Mexico and what I’ve discovered. You should definitely still have your wits about you travelling through the country and read safety advice. Don’t be deterred by media reports, though, because there’s often more to the story and it’s an amazing country with a reputation undeserved of many areas.

*not a paid advertisement

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Inside a Nicaraguan cigar factory

Inside the cigar storeroom at Mombacho

Inside the cigar storeroom at Mombacho

The term ‘cigar factory’ conjures up an image of concrete floors, high ceilings, and lots of machinery. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

I visited Mombacho Cigar factory in Granada, Nicaragua. It’s disguised as a house and, upon entering, isn’t dissimilar to many of the well-to-do hotels around town.

Each day three teams of two people produce over 750 cigars. With deft and nimble fingers the intricacies of cigar rolling are made to look easy.

So my brother, Thomas Snowdon, tried his hand at it and discovered that it isn’t so easy.

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Caving in Semuc Champey

Thomas making his way through some of the tighter spaces in the caves

Thomas making his way through some of the tighter spaces in the caves

I peered inside the tiny shuttle bus I was going to spend the next six hours on and groaned inwardly. There was less than a 30cm gap between the seats. After playing a bit of Tetris with my legs and bag, I settled in for an uncomfortable journey.

Three stops later – one for food, one for fuel, and one to pick up some dead plants on the side of the road (I employed the don’t ask and play ignorant if something goes wrong policy for that one) – the driver pulled up on the edge of a beautiful mountain range.

It was Zephyr Lodge in the Guatemalan town of Lanquin. Most tourists stay there to visit the nearby national park, Semuc Champey, which is famous for its caving tours, tranquil countryside, and unusual river.

I jumped out of the shuttle, grateful to stretch my legs. Suddenly a group of 12 Guatemalan men surrounded me, seemingly from out of nowhere.

“Senorita, El Portal.”

“Amiga, Semuc? Best price and accommodation!”

“Caving? You want to go caving?”

A young Dutch man pushed through the crowd yelling, “Ella tiene una reserva!”

“Gemma,” he enquired?

I nodded and he grabbed my bag, leading me away from the throng, which quickly dispersed. The men jumped on a truck and took off after the shuttle to try their luck with the others on the bus.

The best, and least imaginative, way to describe Zephyr Lodge is beautiful. It is on the outskirts of town and the thatched roof buildings are perched on the side of a mountain range. The view from all angles in the hostel is much the same: fog covered mountains with a river flowing between them and animals grazing on the lush greenery.

It is an odd place, though. Several hundred metres away is Lanquin, where Guatemalans dress in traditional clothing, eat traditional food, speak Spanish or the local Mayan language, and poverty is common. Zephyr is far removed from that. English is the common language and I would go so far as saying that it is actively discouraged for you to speak Spanish. The few times I tried to order food in Spanish I got looks of disdain and a response in English. The scenery and décor make it feel as though you are at an eco retreat, particularly the showers which each have a large window so you can look over the countryside as you wash the day’s dirt off.

The hostel makes life easy for the weary traveller. Shuttle buses can be booked to your next destination and will pick you up at the front door; they offer the cheapest caving and tubing tours in town, with the option of a packed lunchbox; and you can sign up for the nightly dinner, which is delivered straight to where you are sitting. It all seems a little bit too easy after struggling through Mexico.

My brother, Thomas, and I signed up for the caving tour – there is really no point sweating through the humid nights in Lanquin if you are not going to the caves.

A truck picked 11 of us up at 8:30am, and after a bumpy 30 minute ride, we arrived at the Semuc Champey National Park. During a 45 minute hike, our group somehow dwindled to 5 – the guide did not seem particularly concerned, though, so we shrugged and continued on.

Semuc Champey is a Mayan phrase and can be translated to ‘where the river hides beneath the earth’. The national park is on the Mountains of Chama and contains a unique ecosystem. After hiking up a set of natural and manmade stairs you can look down upon a river which seemingly ends suddenly to make way for a set of natural pools of crystal clear spring water. If you make your way down to the site you can see that the river actually runs underneath the pools and comes out the other side.

After a 45 minute hike in 80 per cent humidity, a swim is desperately needed. The turquoise clear pools are the perfect antidote with some of the coolest and most refreshing water in Central America. They are up to three metres deep and you can dive from one pool to another until you reach the other end, where the river finally emerges from beneath the earth. Tiny fish nibble at your feet if you sit still too long, so a lot of people choose to wear shoes in the water.

The Semuc Champey National Park can be done without a guide but you will need one for the next national park – Grutus de Lanquin. The park hosts a series of caves and is a short walk from the pools. Our guide was a spritely 20-year-old named Carlos who obviously knew the inside of the caves like the back of his hand – perhaps even better.

“¿Qué edad tienes,” he enquired, laughing when he realised we were all much older than him.

Carlos lit the candles he had handed out to us and led us into the pitch black cave while making a lot of noise.

“Many bats in here,” he said holding his candle upwards.

While he moved forward confidentially the rest of the group tiptoed forward, unsure whether to look where they were putting their feet, at eye level to watch out for hanging rocks, or upward incase there were bats. About 30 metres into the cave the ground suddenly dropped off into icy cold water.

“Swim,” Carlos explained holding his candle above the water.

This is how the caving tour continued for the next hour. Swimming, scaling rock walls, and jumping down waterfalls – all while trying to keep the candle above your head and out of the water. It was extremely fun and not for the faint hearted, although, it was not quite as arduous as several people had made it out to be.

Semuc Champey is a natural wonder worth seeing, and the caving tour an experience worth having. The bumpy drive into the park on a road that probably never saw better days and lack of phone or internet services should make it feel as though you have reached an isolated paradise. Those days are well behind this park, though, and Semuc Champey has been firmly implanted into the tourist trail. This is no doubt due to gringos who have created hostels offering easy ways of getting to the park and even easier ways of staying there longer than you need to. What effect, if any, this will eventually have on the park remains to be seen.

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Losing yourself in the Mexican rainforest

The ruins at Palenque are within a national park in the state of Chiapas.

The ruins at Palenque are within a national park in the state of Chiapas.

I’m sitting on a balcony watching a small stream trickle through the lush greenery of the Mexican rainforest, while wildlife rustles around on its banks and in the treetops. The air is thick with the sounds of birds singing and, in the distance, howler monkeys letting off their distinct dinosaur-sounding call. The temperature is brisk in the morning, but by lunchtime the humidity is heavy; there’s no relief from it until the sun goes down at 7:30PM.

This is Palenque. The best way to describe the overall experience is Mexican ecotourism at its best. Palenque is a Mayan ruins’ site in the state of Chiapas. Although ruins are a dime a dozen in Mexico, this one is a little different because it is situated in the heart of the rainforest a few hundred kilometres north of the Guatemalan border.

My brother Thomas and I arrived in the town of Palenque on a Sunday afternoon. We took a ‘collectivo’ to a place called Panchan, just outside the gate to the national park where the ruins are. Panchan is a series of five sets of cabanas in the rainforest. All of them are reasonably priced, clean, and most are fairly secure. All the cabanas neighbour each other, so the experience of waking up to the howler monkeys is one that everyone can share. Thomas and I chose a high set cabana in ‘Jungle Palace’ with a balcony that backed onto the rainforest.

Panchan is a quiet little community. Besides the people that run the cabanas, there are a number of hippies who seem like they have been here forever. There are no shops, just two restaurants. One of them, strangely enough, is an Italian restaurant serving giant helpings of pasta dishes, pizza, salads, and a couple of Mexican dishes. The other is a more economical and traditional restaurant just around the corner. It would be hard to miss if you didn’t keep your eyes peeled, there’s no signage and the only indication that it is a restaurant is a Mexican lady cooking behind a high counter. Don’t be fooled by how understated it is, though; Thomas and I had a delicious meal there. He had chorizo, chicken, vegetables, rice, and beans while I had a similar dish but without the meat.

Pictures really don't do this place justice.

Pictures really don’t do this place justice.

During the day people staying at Panchan either visit the Palenque ruins or participate in one of the many ecotours available. The ruins are about 3kms from the entry to the national park; ‘collectivo’s’ to the top run regularly or you can walk. The ruins themselves will take your breath away immediately. You can climb the steep stairs to the top of the ancient Mayan cathedrals and look over the rainforest, get lost in the intricacies of the entertainment centre, or just sit in the shade and marvel at the ability of the Mayans. Guided tours around the site are offered in English or Spanish, although we opted to just walk around ourselves so we had time to take photos. There are explanatory plaques beneath each ruin so you know what it is. There are three separate major sites and it took us around three hours to see it all. The exit is also beautiful. The path leads you through the bush where you can see the ruins of what used to be living quarters, plus some small but picturesque waterfalls with water as clear as glass.

Other ecotours that are available from Panchan include: guided rainforest walks, horseback riding through the rainforest, and transport to the nearby Cascada Roberto Barrios. Thomas and I organised to do the latter with a couple of German girls, Nancy and Katrina, on our third day. A ‘collectivo’ dropped us in a small Zapatista village about an hour away. Four men were sitting under a makeshift shade collecting the MXN$20 entry fee (around AUD$1.50). After paying, one of the men jumped up and guided us down into the rainforest, the sound of rushing water getting louder and louder. Suddenly we could see a beautiful lagoon full of the clearest and bluest water I have ever seen. Two small waterfalls were rushing into the lagoon and a wooden bridge stretched over the body of water. About 20 metres over the bridge and down a set of stairs is a larger lagoon with slightly bigger waterfalls – this is the place to set yourself up for the day.

Scattered on the shore of the lagoon are chairs made from tree stumps where you can leave your belongings. If you jump in the water and swim to the far edge of the waterfall you will be able to see a set of footholds which can be used as stairs to climb up and down the waterfall. You read that correctly – you and climb up and down the waterfall. Unlike Chiapas’ famous waterfalls, Aqua Azul, Cascada Roberto Barrios is not a well known place and few people visit the area. The town also has a reputation which puts a lot of people off visiting. We were told not to take anything with us and always stay alert. Although, like most places in Mexico, we found the locals friendly, welcoming, and eager to show us around. It is a bonus for people who make the effort to visit Roberto Cascada, though; you are guaranteed to have the place to yourself or only sharing it with a couple of other people.

After a day packed full of activity people return to Panchan, which comes to life as the sun sets. Those who have been out exploring for the day return, and others who had retired to their cabanas during the hottest part of the day emerge. Most people congregate at the Italian restaurant, where live music features on a nightly basis, or around the corner at a smaller, but cheaper, bar. As we overheard one British guy say: “There’s nothing to do here so everyone just drinks.”

Another option at nighttime is to try out the local mushrooms. Palenque is known for its mushrooms. Locals even seem to take great pride in the reputation with psychedelic murals heavily featuring the fungi, and mushroom lights lining the pathways. Locals sell them along the road to the ruins or it is probably quite easy to find them in Panchan itself – I didn’t ask. Be careful how many you eat, though; you don’t want to be ‘that’ person at the bar unable to talk and looking like you are having a horrible time.

Palenque and its surrounds is a growing tourist area and will only get bigger over the next few years. Already the ruins can become overcrowded. This is only set to get worse as more people read about the place in Lonely Planet or the ever-growing number of travel articles which feature it. Panchan is still very tranquil, although, the construction of what looks like a five-star hotel is underway right next door so, again, how long this will last is uncertain. Balancing this growing tourism with environmental and historical conservation is a common challenge throughout Central America, as natural wonders and inexpensive travel means more people flock to its shores. What steps Mexico takes to deal with is the big question.

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Would you leave your country behind because you hated the politics?

Victoria left the US for good after the 1991 invasion of Iraq. Now she lives in, and is a citizen of, Mexico.

Victoria left the US for good after the 1991 invasion of Iraq. Now she lives in, and is a citizen of, Mexico.

“If Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister I’m leaving the country.”

“If the Federal Government raises the price of alcohol again I’m moving overseas.”

These quotes could be attributed to a lot of people in Australia. Although I’ve heard the words many times over, I’ve never met anyone who has followed through on their promise. Well I hadn’t until last week.

Victoria Ryan lives in Mexico. She was born in Surfer’s Paradise during World War 2, moved to New Mexico where she grew up, and then left the country for good in 1993.

She left after the United States invaded Iraq, fed up with American politics she carved out a new life for herself in Mexico and became a citizen.

I met her in the Mexican seaside town of Rio Nexpa where she told me more of her fascinating story …

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On the surfing trail in Mexico

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One of the cabanas that line the beach in La Ticla

One of the cabanas that line the beach in La Ticla

“The shop on the road down was closed when we passed it,” said Joel, a Canadian surfer, “there were a couple of crosses out the front so I hope they couple who owned it weren’t killed.”

This is how visitors, and sometimes locals, talk in La Ticla. People don’t die or pass away. They are killed.

La Ticla is a rural, beachside town in the Mexican state of Michoacan. It is a 2 hour bus trip from Mexico’s biggest Port City, Manzallio (3-4 hours if you allow for Mexican time). It’s known in surfing circles for having some of the best waves on Mexico’s west coast. My brother, Thomas, is a keen surfer which is how we knew about it. A quick google search of the town will prove that the only way to hear about it is through word-of-mouth or on surfing forums. From the months of March through May surfers from all over the world converge upon its shores – well, they used to.

The number of surfers that visit La Ticla has dropped since word got out about intense violence in the area. The violence was a result of the Indigenous community’s fight for their right to own the land. A few years ago the Mexican Government tried to take the land from the local Indigenous people of Otsula – the wider community that La Ticla is part of. Locals felt their land was being taken away unjustly – so they went to war.

As the violence escalated the local Indigenous people blocked the road to La Ticla to stop the Government coming in.

“We were protecting our land and families, everyone was armed and ready to fight for our rights,” Crisheila, a 20-year-old student told me.

Fights over land rights in Mexico aren’t new and, as with a lot of countries over the world, there is still ongoing anger, violence, and mistreatment of Indigenous people in many states. Not all Indigenous people take matters into their own hands like they did in La Ticla, though. The Mexican state of Oaxaca is in the middle of a media war over its mis-treatment of Indigenous people. Thousands are being forced from their land through extreme poverty and migrating to Oaxaca city where visible but peaceful protests are ongoing.

In La Ticla the story has a somewhat happier ending, though, with the local Indigenous people eventually winning the right to keep the reserve. The fact that it is a reserve means no non-Indigenous people are allowed to set-up any sort of business there. Visitors to the area are still few and far between, though.

“The violence was very localised but it scared a lot of people away and they are still staying away,” Crisheila said with a touch of sadness in her voice.

The poverty in La Ticla is obvious as you drive through the town to get to the bungalows and many people rely on tourism for any income at all. Visiting surfers stay at a series of bungalows on the beach which are owned by 10 local families. Locals fondly refer to the area as ‘Hollywood’ or ‘mini Hawaii’, whether this is because it’s the nice part of town or the seedy part wasn’t made clear.

Indigenous families who don’t own the bungalows are given a parcel of land on which they cultivate their own crops. They create means of income by selling fruit, vegetables, and bread to visitors. Others have created small business and set up restaurants at the front of their house or make money by driving visitors to the nearest town for groceries, cash machines, or whatever else they might need. Despite its fame in international surfing circles, Mexicans were the ones who brought most of the money into La Ticla and Mexicans are the ones who are still concerned about visiting the area because of violence. Now La Ticla is keen to let everyone know they are open for business again.

Visitors are obviously still a little wary as well, while I was there a fire cracker went off. A number of visitors down at the bungalows jumped and looked for signs of a gunman. In general, though, the place feels safe and somewhat untouched.

“I’ve heard of robberies and violence in the area but I’ve never seen it happen in front of me,” Mathew, a Canadian surfer, told me, “I keep coming back so it doesn’t concern me and I’ve never felt unsafe here.

This is the general sentiment of most international visitors to La Ticla and locals are hoping this will spread to the wider Mexican community. A lot of effort has been put into into ensuring the town remains safe. In years gone by stories of Banditos coming down from the mountains and pillaging the towns have been plentiful. Now night watchmen patrol the bungalows with walkie talkies (there’s no phone reception in La Ticla) to make sure there’s no one hanging around who shouldn’t be and stop any violence they might see. This is all part of the towns ongoing efforts to improve its image and bring the visitors back. Whether it will work is yet to be determined, the town is holding a surf competition at the end of March for Mexican nationals only. They are hoping word will spread of the newer, safer La Ticla. Only time will tell if it works.

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The Mexican bus trip that refused to end

One of the many beautiful old and abandoned houses I saw on the 30 hour trip

One of the many beautiful old and abandoned houses I saw on the 30 hour trip

It was around 2am when I was woken by two men speaking angrily in Spanish…Well they could have been exchanging pleasantries, but when you don’t speak much Spanish it is hard to tell the difference.

I parted the curtain to see a Mexican soldier holding a machine gun right outside my window. Suddenly another soldier stomped onto the bus and demanded to see the ID of a young man sitting up the back.

This story starts about 14 hours ago in Tijuana, when my brother Thomas and I decided to catch a bus from Tijuana to La Paz. We were told it would take 22 hours, which was fine – it would be good to travel overnight because we’d get a free bed. Essentially we ignored the first rule for backpackers in Central America: don’t travel at night – especially through northern Mexico.

It was seven hours into the journey and I was enjoying myself. I’d had a nap and I’d seen some amazing countryside. Lots of barren land, cacti, beautiful houses, and gorgeous mountains. Plus it was like a thrill ride – every time I opened my eyes we seemed to be careening around a corner on the edge of a cliff at 100kms an hour.

It was just after sundown, around 7PM, when suddenly the bus stopped. This wasn’t unusual, it stopped a lot, which is why it took 22 hours to get to La Paz. Everything was fine – until 15 minutes later and we were the last people left onboard and the bus was still stopped.

The driver came back onboard and started speaking to me in Spanish.

“Ahh no hablo Espagnol” I quickly said.

Then he left me and Thomas on the bus. Alone.

Fortunately a passerby came and explained in part English and part Spanish that the bus had engine troubles and we’d have to wait here for three hours until another one came to the rescue.

So there we were, stuck in a small, rural, Mexican town that no one even knew the name of. It was pitch black and we had three hours to kill. This was the sort of place where even the locals refused to venture away from the bus station after dark, instead huddling around a tiny tv under the fluorescent lights. So Thomas and I went to get some beer.

The bottle shop was a couple of hundred of metres away. There weren’t that many people around and the main street wasn’t very well lit.

I guess they don’t see many blonde haired Australians walking down the main street in rural Mexico because everyone we passed stared at us. Then we walked past a dark ally and a young man started chasing us, we bolted across the road and into the bottle shop a few doors down with the adrenaline pumping.

I wanted to get back to the bus station pretty quickly and insisted that Thomas get Sol beer because it’s one of my favourite – well, if nothing else is available it’s my favourite. We grabbed it and ran back to the bus station. I went to the bathroom while Thomas cracked his first beer.

“It has tomato juice in it,” he said when I came back.

“What do you mean? It’s beer, why would it have tomato juice in it?”

He was right though (sorry, Thomas), it was beer mixed with tomato juice. It was like the worst bloody mary I’d ever had. Mind you, I’ve only ever had one other bloody mary and it was also terrible, so there’s a good chance I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

That little adventure and two beers (we couldn’t stomach anymore) took up the first hour of our wait. My memories of the next two hours are a blur of awesome Spanish soap operas, Mexican Idol, and soccer all playing on this tiny little television that 10 people were crowded around. My favourite were the soapies. The storylines in these always seem to be the same – husband and wife have baby, evil twin comes to steal baby, husband tries to get baby back and gets shot, husband falls into coma, wife mysteriously gets baby back and weeps by her husbands side until he wakes up. I should write for Spanish soap operas.

Anyway the second bus eventually came and I promptly fell asleep until my 2am wake-up call at the military checkpoints. The checkpoints are to stop drug trafficking within the country but they weren’t too bad. We passed through 4 and only got stopped at two, both times the soldiers checked a couple of IDs and let us proceed. I pretended to be asleep both times so they didn’t talk to me…it seemed to work. I saw one bus where the passengers had been forced to disembark and unpack all their luggage.

We eventually made it to La Paz in one piece, though, and there are several important lessons I’ve taken onboard:
1. Mexican time really doesn’t mean 10-15 minutes late. It means hours late
2. Always take toilet paper everywhere. I usually do this anyway but for some stupid reason didn’t bring any to Mexico
3. Ditto with hand sanitiser
4. Eating is really important to Mexicans so don’t bother preparing by bringing food. We stopped for breakfast which lasted around 45 minutes
5. If you think something is wrong it probably is

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Deep in the scene of the San Francisco streets

I didn't ride this tram. The line of tourists was way too long. It looked cool though

I didn’t ride this tram. The line of tourists was way too long. It looked cool though

The first district I walked down in San Francisco was the Tenderloin – the most notoriously dangerous district in then entire city. I learned this lesson the hard way – as my expensive camera was eyed off and I was called a cunt a couple of times…Lesson learned.

It wasn’t the greatest start to this enigmatic bayside city – where anything goes. Things were about to get stranger, though.

On the dancefloor, at a hidden-away club in downtown San Francisco, there are several people all dressed in appropriate goth attire (velvet, black leather and purple) doing to what looks like a seductive version of the robot to me. In a cage next to the dance floor is another girl in a painful looking leather corset and some of the tightest leather pants I’ve ever seen, she’s rubbing her hands all over her body and licking her lips as she makes eye contact with people on the other side of the bar. Against the wall to the left are four men in their late 50s – all on their smartphone with appropriately bored expressions … or maybe they were tweeting about what an awesome time they were having.

Welcome to the Cat Club.

It’s an industrial goth dance club. From memory, the selection of music they played was: Florence and the Machine, The Cure, and … actually no those are the only two songs I remember. They were also the only two songs I knew. I started speaking to Hannah, who moved to the United States three years ago from Germany. During the week she is a ‘corporate bitch’ working at a large law firm. She gets payed well, and looks the part. On weekends she puts on her knee-high leather boots, pulls on her vinyl dress, and spends her time at clubs like this.

Although Hannah has only been living in San Francisco for a few years, she told me she loves how many different things are happening in the city and what a strange mix of people it holds. It seems like San Francisco is the place where the hippest of the hip and the weirdest of the weird move. You walk down one street and people beg you for one cent. Down the next street tourists line the corners waiting to take the famous San Francisco trams. The next street is high-end fashion. A block over is where Twitter, Pinterest, and other up-and-coming technology companies have abandoned Silicon Valley to start gentrifying areas in the Bayside city. It’s a melting pot, and many of the areas are a far cry from what you imagine when you hear: “if heading to San Francisco be sure to wear flowers in your hair”. The Haight-Street hippies are long gone, replaced with desperate pan handlers looking for nothing at all, or maybe a penny of your change.

The city still has a great vibe about it and the locals are nice. I visited several dive bars while I was there. How could I not – I’d accidentally timed my visit to coincide with San Francisco beer week (these are the types of accidents I love to have). My interpretation of a dive bar is a really crap place – not the case in San Francisco. Instead, they were mainly filled with hip young San Franciscans. But they were still fun and the locals are nice.

At the 500 Club I met Alex and Sean. Sean is a programmer for the Fox Network who has worked on The Simpsons, Ice Age, and Garfield. Alex is a writer who has recently signed his first book contract. At the Noc Noc Club I met Emily who works for the non-profit environmental group Save the Bay. In Benders Bar & Grill I strike up a conversation with Jack, he’s a lawyer by day but in the evenings he presents an industrial/drone/metal/punk program on community radio. He also drove us home a little later in the evening. These are the types of people we meet everywhere – most have cool and well paying jobs – they have to be well payed with rents starting at around $2000 a week for a one bedroom place. It’s expensive but people are willing to pay these prices so they don’t get stuck ‘living over the bridge’.

San Francisco is an interesting city – with each street holding something completely different to the last. The Castro district is the city’s gay area where protests were underway over the recent banning of nudity in public places. Nudists had previously gathered on the corner of two streets in Castro every Saturday morning to have coffee, breakfast, and enjoy the fresh air. Although the biggest protests had died down, there was still a subtle “fuck you” hanging around the place. Who knows what gave me that impression. Maybe it was the man walking around with nothing on except a sock covering his penis. Or maybe the waiter wearing the assless chaps and belt saying ‘down with the nudity laws’. But it could have just been the vibe.

So that was my San Francisco experience. There were a lot more bars involved and even a couple of touristy things – think Golden Gate Bridge. But these are the people and experiences that really stuck with me and made the city worth remembering.

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What happens in Vegas ends up in the American market

Las Vegas is well known for a lot of things. Mostly gambling, drinking, and other sorts of debauchery.

One of the many colourful and fun bodysuits Bam Bam makes

One of the many colourful and fun bodysuits Bam Bam makes

The city that’s branded itself the Entertainment Capital of the world also has a serious side though.

An international trade show is on at the moment, clothing brands from across the world have gathered to try and sell their clothes to American outlets.

Among the internationally renowned brands are Bam Bam, an up-and-coming label from Queensland, Australia.

The clothing label was started by Michael Pretsel and his brother on the Sunshine Coast and have built a name for themselves in Australia.

They had a fair bit of success at the same Las Vegas trade show last year when Urban Outfitters started stocking them.

When I was in Vegas I spoke to the brands National Sales Manager, Dean Topher and the Accountant, Sam Hardy, about what it takes for a local Australian label to crack the American market …

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