Teotihuacán, San Juan Teotihuacán, and Rita

While visiting Mexico City, one of the “must-dos” for tourists is to take a day trip just outside the city to the ancient ruins of Teotihuacán. This was once the sixth largest city in the world. It contains the world’s third largest pyramid. And it was built almost 2,000 years ago by pre-Columbian and pre-Aztec people.

We never made it to Teotihuacán while we were staying in CDMX, so decided to make it a stop on our road trip, en route from Michoacán to Puebla.

Because most visitors are day-trippers and we decided to stay the night, we were able to enjoye the small adjacent community of San Juan Teotihuacán after the grounds closed without the throngs of tourists. There, once again, the kindness of local strangers touched our hearts, lifted our spirits, and provided some critical limes and ice in our time of need.

But more on that soon.

The Avenue of the Dead is Teotihuacán’s “main drag.” The most significant remaining structures of the city sit on either side and end of its impressive length (about 2.5 miles) and wide berth (about 150 feet).

You enter the park on one end, and look down to avenue to the other, where sits the imposing Pyramid of the Moon with tiny, ant-like humans climbing up its face. Meanwhile, the Pyramid of the Sun (the aforementioned 3rd largest in the world) precedes the Pyramid of the Moon on the right hand side, with its own, slightly larger-ant-like-people climbing up its face. Dozens of smaller structures – mostly ceremonial, some residential – line the avenue, giving a sense of where and how the ~125,000 people of this city spent their time.

Understated, no?

After upping our stair-climb-step-count in ascents of the pyramids, and debating whether urban planning was a profession in the era of Teotihuacán, we made our way back down the Avenue of the Dead to the entrance and towards our lodging for the evening.

About an hour before dusk in quiet San Juan Teotihuacán, we parked the Prizefighter outside a small house with a black gate and the correct street number. As we got out of the car, the smell of grilled meat greeted us. We knocked on the gate and a moment later, an elderly woman opened. Behind her, two small dogs were jumping and barking excitedly and a festive gathering of maybe a dozen people of all ages suggested we might be in the wrong place, and interrupting something.

Instead, it turned out the ‘hotel’ we had booked was actually just a room attached to a family’s house, and said family was celebrating the 18th birthday of their grand-daughter. They all greeted us warmly and invited us to join them for burgers.

Later, after we had settled into our room and charted our course for the next day, we decided it was time to enjoy some of the tequila we’d been carrying around with us since Tequila. We put our shoes on and went out in search of margarita supplies. The town was largely dead, but a convenience store a few blocks down had its door open, so we ducked in.

“Buenas tardes. Hay hielo?” we asked.

“No, no hay.” the shopkeeper responded.

“Ay, que lastima. Hay limones?”

“No, no hay limones.”

“Cuantos limones necesitan?” a fellow customer asked.

Rita happened to live around the corner, and happened to be stocked with a sack of limes and a freezer filled with filtered ice cubes. She insisted we should have them, in that uniquely maternal way which suggests you really have no other option.

Leaving the shop empty handed, we followed Rita down an alley and into her kitchen. As we chatted, she loaded a bag with more limes and ice than one could reasonably consume in an evening, or maybe even week. We thanked her profusely, grateful for this touching, unearned generosity, and she sent us on our way.

The colorful alleyway down which Rita lived. I snapped this photo as we walked away, arms full of melting ice and fresh limes.

Gracias, Rita.

We enjoyed a delicious margarita, shaken in a water bottle and served in a mug, while watching the recently released Knock Down the House documentary, which added a second dimension of moving inspiration for the day.

The next morning, on Cinco de Mayo, our host family and their barking dogs Chocolate and Panda bid us farewell, and we headed to Puebla!

Not Even Close to Around the World in 25% MORE than Eighty Days

Today marks our 100th day on the road! Our travels continue to surprise and delight us; today, for example, a simple excursion to the nearby town of Pátzcuaro evolved into a lakeside drive, an unplanned visit to the wonderfully-named Tzintzuntzán archaeological site, and a dinner in Quiroga, the carnitas capital of Mexico.

It’s been delightful to chronicle our comings and goings on this blog, and we’re grateful for all the love and support we’ve received here and through many other media. Here’s to the next hundred days!

Michoacán: Just Our Kind of Low-Key

From Sayulita, we carved back inland, through delightful backroads that brought us into the little ranching town of Mascota. Here we had a cheap and tasty lunch and pondered the commonalities among many of the towns we’d seen: the mellow, rectilinear main square (this one with a fun frog fountain); the commanding church tower; the sun-baked, two-toned walls.

Then on to Ajijic, on the northern shore of Lake Chapala, the largest freshwater lake in Mexico, south of Guadalajara. There is a substantial expat community here, and indeed we stayed in an Airbnb run by an Italian and his Mexican wife, who were both welcoming and shared homemade limoncello and pureed raspberries with us. (The western end of Lake Chapala is known for its berry production.) In addition to the charming malecón, or pier/waterfront (photo not found), we strolled through a renowned tianguis, or open-air market, right in front of our house, and took in one satisfying facade after another.

And finally on to Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacán. Like so many other Mexican cities, Morelia (or its historic core) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, full of picturesque, ancient pink stone buildings. (We were gratified that the characteristic Spanish-style city planning on display here was an integral part of the World Heritage citation.) Nevertheless, tourism is fairly uncommon, mostly because of a spate of well-publicized drug cartel violence in recent years. But (a) this violence is not widespread across the state as a whole and (b) tourists not involved in buying, selling, or transporting drugs are wholly disconnected from this realm of violence. Certainly everywhere we went was perfectly safe, and deeply enjoyable to boot.

Especially coming from highly-touristed Sayulita, we reveled in the chance to connect with a place in a more mellow fashion. Over a couple of delightful days, we took in typical tourist sites (the aqueduct, the birthplace of Mexican war hero and city namesake José Maria Morelos, the gorgeous cathedral); attended a chamber music performance by talented students of the Conservatorio de las Rosas; and ate delicious thing after delicious thing, starting with the free Michoacán mezcal with which we were greeted at our hotel, the highly-recommendable Mansión Catrina, and including fresh gorditas and a fantastic meal at Tata Mezcalería + Cocina de Autor. Photos below – and remember you can always click on photos in these galleries to get a better look.

We have gotten really into mezcal, the quintessentially Mexican liquor derived from agave. Mezcal showed up on the US radar a few years back, and is known there primarily as a smoky, hot spirit coming mostly from Oaxaca and most frequently made from espadín (agave angustifolia). But mezcal comes from all over Mexico and has a very wide range of characters, from pure smoke and heat, to light, floral notes, to a downright cheese-like, oily body. In this way it’s more like whiskey than rum: just as a different mash bill can create big differences between a Scottish single malt and an American corn-heavy bourbon, a mezcal distilled from the wild agave cupreata has a completely different flavor profile than one made from farmed espadín.

It turns out that Michoacán’s mezcals are just fabulous. This Punch article has some good info – we gravitated mostly toward cupreata and inaequidens/alto varietals, which are savory and full-bodied. The mezcal list at Tata was superb; for me a bottle from Mezcalante, a cooperative in a small town northeast of Morelia, was a particular standout. (That price is in pesos, by the way, and equates to about $30 USD – most mezcals are satisfyingly affordable, even the really great ones.) Good luck finding almost any of these mezcals in the United States: while Oaxacan export production is finally on the rise, as of 2019 Michoacán exports almost no mezcal internationally. It’s refreshing to find a non-international commodity for once, but we’ll miss these spirits when we leave Mexico.

Enough about mezcal. After our days in Morelia, we took a day trip to Pátzcuaro, a more tourist-oriented town to the southwest. This trip, originally planned as a out-and-back, evolved into a fascinating loop through rural and urbanized Michoacán. We dined on the stately plaza (which had amusingly moody music piped in through waterproof speakers), saw some fantastically wabi-sabi stone convents and mansions, and laughed at some English-language kids’ shirts in a big covered market. (Random English phrases on clothing have been super common and super hilarious in all the countries we’ve yet visited.)

Then instead of coming straight back, we wound our way north along the Lago de Pátzcuaro. We opted against taking a boat out to the famous island of Janitzio but did catch a glimpse from the shore. Instead we explored the phenomenally-named archaeological site of Tzintzuntzan, the capital of the heretofore-unknown-to-us Tarascan empire. This was another great reminder of how much there is to know and how little we actually do know. How often do you learn about not just a site but an entire civilization you were unaware even existed?

The adjacent modern town of Tzintzuntzan reminded us powerfully of the setting of the recent Pixar masterpiece Coco, and indeed that film’s fictional town of Santa Cecilia is based fairly closely on the nearby town of Santa Fe de la Laguna. In fact, Michoacán is the epicenter of the Día de los Muertos tradition. We must return some November to see the processions, the flower petals, and the candles around the lake.

Changing gears completely, we got hungry and took advantage of our route’s passing through Quiroga, the carnitas capital of Mexico. We at at El Rey de las Carnitas – excellent – and we hear even greater things about Carnitas Olivo, which was already closed for the afternoon.

From Morelia to Pátzcuaro, and at many places in between, we felt powerfully relaxed and welcome. Michoacán was just lovely, just our speed. We would have stayed longer, given the chance.

A Stay in Sayulita

Sayulita, Nayarit, on the Pacific Ocean, was our slow place.

Four planned nights turned into eight, and languid days of reading and writing on the porch of our small airbnb were punctuated by guacamole making, runs to the local smoothie shop, and trips to the beach after the heat of the day had passed.

We had both gotten sick again, so had little choice but to stay put. As with times past, we did our best to embrace the forced de-acceleration and settled in.

Sayulita is a luscious tangle of hip cafes and avocado toast, tortillerias and ceviche stands. Its local population is small, likely bewildered by the sharp rise in tourism over the last decade. Visitors come from all over Mexico, as well Europe and the U.S. to spend some classically beach-y time in this laid-back barefoot oasis, and we were among them.

For a week, the Prizefighter sat idle, accumulating layers of detritus falling from trees and sticking to the exterior by the adhesive effects of salt air. The undercarriage became a roof over the heads of the local chickens, and the hood, a couch for the kids hanging around their parents who ran a nightly hamburger stand in front of where we were parked (which was, in turn, in front of where we were staying).

On our last evening in Sayulita, feeling much healthier and with a bit of cabin fever, we ventured down to the Playa de los Muertos, a protected cove a short distance from the town’s main beach (named so because it sits adjacent to a small, surprisingly festive cemetery). We sat in the sand and watched the sun descend, chatted about the imminent closure of our time in Mexico, and speculated on the adventures to come.

After the sun and sky had concluded their evening entertainment, we scrambled back to town via the rocky shoreline. In the town square we met Mimi, a squat, beaming woman who has been making cakes in that exact location for 25 years. As we ogled over her table of goods, she told us she spends each day preparing a range of flans, sponge cakes, and cheesecakes, which she then packs into large plastic serving trays and loads into her truck. Just after dusk each evening, she backs her truck into the same parking space, sets up her table on the same corner of sidewalk, and sells by the slice. As we picked out two pieces – a traditional flan with cajeta and an orange cake – Mimi told us how much she loves baking. With a moving sincerity, in Spanish: “as much, still, as when I started.” She takes a vacation only once every two years, always far from the ocean.

A panorama of the beach with the unfolding of an incoming wave.

The Truth About Tequila

From Guadalajara, on our way out to Sayulita on the Pacific coast, we stopped in the town of Tequila. Yes, there’s a town named Tequila, and yes, it’s the epicenter of tequila production in Mexico, and by definition the world.

(Tequila is a sub-category of mezcal, the broader group of distilled liquors made from the hearts of a wide range of varieties of the agave plant. Mezcal is made in a number of regions of Mexico, and because some agave varietals are native to the southwestern United States, I guess you could have American-made mezcal, though I’m not aware of any. Tequila is made from specifically the blue agave plant, Agave tequilana Weber, and must originate from the state of Jalisco, or a few municipalities near Jalisco, where that varietal is native.)

There are many tequila producers across and near Jalisco, but it’s also true that the town of Tequila is a hotbed of tequila production. Approaching the town, you can’t miss the miles and miles of blue agave fields, sort of a grayish-green, and lovely against the yellow hills and clear blue sky.

We came to town intending to learn more about tequila, to try a few tequilas (not too many; I was driving and, you know, it was midday), and to depart with a nice bottle. There are many big names in Tequila – Sauza is headquartered there, as are Jose Cuervo, Centenario, Orendain, and others. As we enjoyed a decent brunch just off the central square, I did some research into where we might best spend our time.

What I found was shocking: as explained in this Bloomberg Businessweek article, over the past couple of decades, international tequila demand has skyrocketed, and at the same time, technological advances (I hesitate to call them “improvements”) have dramatically changed the way agave is grown and tequila is produced.

Unfortunately, all or almost all of these technological changes have been to the detriment of the flavor of tequila. Agave plants which once took up to twelve years to mature, developing flavor along the way, are now cultivated and harvested in as little as three years. Traditional wood-fired ovens and granite mills, used to toast and crush the agave hearts over several days, have been replaced by diffusers that extract the juice in a matter of hours; this less-complex liquid is then subjected to an accelerated fermentation of 36 hours’ duration in stainless steel tanks, where once it would have naturally fermented in wooden vats over the course of up to five days.

The net product of all this innovation is an agave-based spirit so facile that it is actually necessary to add “agave flavoring” to make it taste anything like “tequila” should. No thank you. (The article also notes that these new techniques are ubiquitous across the tequila price range, from a $10 bottle of Hornitos to a $50 Casamigos to a $200 Herradura Supreme Selection.)

It turns out that within the town of Tequila, there is only one producer still using traditional techniques: Tequila Fortaleza, founded about 15 years ago by the great-great-grandson of Don Cenobio Sauza (whose own famous brand became part of the Jim Beam empire in 2005). This scion bought back his grandfather’s farm/distillery, “La Fortaleza” (“Fortitude”), took it out of mothballs, and set to making tequila just the way his ancestors did. He initially named his product Tequila Los Abuelos (“The Grandfathers”) but after losing an international trademark suit brought by the Panamanian Ron Abuelo, adopted the “Fortaleza” name itself.

While you can just walk into Mundo Cuervo or La Experiencia Sauza, tours and tastings at Fortaleza are notionally by appointment only. Because we’d only heard about the place minutes before, we figured we were out of luck, but thought we’d try anyway. I knocked on the imposing gate (above) and the guard said sorry, no can do, but told us their tequilas were available for tasting from a nearby museum. So it was time for some museum-hopping, and a small side quest to try this tequila.

Well, it turned out that the Abuelos Museum was closed for renovations, but we did visit the Tequila Museum (no tastings, just interesting history and a description of the traditional production process). We couldn’t help but notice the Kirkland Signature bottle that was included in the museum’s gallery of tequilas – to be fair, KS tequila isn’t half bad and, from what I read earlier, probably is no more inauthentic than any other large producer’s stuff.

Before we left town, we figured we’d give it another shot, and so we walked back to Fortaleza and explained that we really just wanted to buy a bottle. This time we had more success and after a few minutes, we were sipping their various ages of tequila (blanco/plata: unaged; reposado: aged at least 2 months; añejo: aged at least 12 months) and admiring the classic equipment in the distillery and the hillside of blue agave plants.

And let me tell you, this stuff was fabulous. Crisp and clean, tasting strongly of agave, floral and citric. We ended up preferring the unaged blanco style, which we felt most fully expressed the agave flavor. The bottle cost us about $32; in the US it would be at least $40, but what price authenticity? For making margaritas, we also grabbed a bottle of El Tequileño, about $10, tasty and straightforward, and produced just across the street.

And with that, we were off, driving westward under the vivid blue sky. We learned a good deal and had some great tequila. We were also left pondering the oddity of a small town powered 100% by a world-famous product. Verdict: worth a stop.

Way Off the Beaten Path Near Guadalajara

Quick post about our experience in Guadalajara, which was itself pretty quick!

Because Laurie brought us our camping gear (in anticipation of our European bike tour), we decided to camp for a couple nights in the Bosque La Primavera, a big, wild forest just west of Guadalajara. Not only would this be a delightfully cheap form of accommodation, it would also be a nice change of pace from the monotonously indoors places we’d been staying for quite some time.

On the way from Guanajuato to Guadalajara, we stopped in the neighborhood of Tlaquepaque, on the south side of town, for a quick walk around. The neighborhood was very charming but we were both surprised to discover that we were kind of burned out on cities at the moment! Guadalajara is Mexico’s second-largest city, and while it seems like a lovely place, it felt somewhat undifferentiated, and so we were glad to head off to our rural campsite.

On the first night, we stayed at a formal campground just inside the main entrance to the Bosque. This was a really fun scene with a bunch of day-trippers and a few groups staying overnight. There were people on horses, people on bikes, a zip line that I’m sad to say we didn’t find time to ride, all in a lovely pine forest that was very different from many of the forested areas we’d seen thus far.

The following day we decided to camp in a different part of the park, a bumpy few miles into the unpaved interior, along a thermal river. When we arrived, it was a blazing hot Sunday afternoon and the river was dotted with families and groups of friends who had brought coolers, speakers, grills and floaties for a fun afternoon in the water. We pulled out our own makeshift cooler and jumped in, whiling away the afternoon under the forgiving shade of a tree overhanging the river.

Our cooler, which we fashioned by cutting off the top of this 6L water bottle, filling it with ice and cold water that we procured from a family who also sold us some chicken taquitos. Very effective!

As the day moved towards dusk, day-users packed their gear and headed home for the work/school week. We remained, watching the park empty out completely and surveying the now-empty river bank for the best overnight camping spot.

The one we selected was on a flat spot under the shade of a jacaranda tree. We slept without our rainfly – a luxury of desert camping – and awoke a few times throughout the night to a cloudless sky, lit by a bright moon. As far as we could tell, we were the only souls who had stayed overnight, the only sounds we heard were from the river, and some cows mooing on nearby fields in the morning.

After another morning swim, we packed up the Prizefighter and pushed onwards, west into agave country!

And so begins the Great Mexican Road Trip!

On April 16th, we picked up our rental car and set out on a road trip around central Mexico. We had a rough itinerary, a bag full of snacks, and a little white Chevy Aveo, aka the “Prizefighter.” Back in Oakland, on his way to work, Drew would pass through a parking lot just before getting on BART. In this lot, he’d often play a game examining the lettering of license plates and try to make words that contained the three letters, in that order, in his head. Some are harder than others, and our rental, with the letters PZR on the plates, was a real challenge! Pizzamaker was one contender, but Prizefighter somehow seemed a more stately title for our chariot (also, incidentally, the name of a bar we really like in Emeryville).

We headed out of Mexico City – an altogether simple task relative to all the warning we received about driving in CDMX – and headed first to Querétaro. As this was our first real day as drivers in México, we’ll share a few brief reflections. While not without quirks, it’s pretty easy. And if you’ve ever been in a car on the BQE around 6:30pm on a Thursday, it’s a cake walk. I can say that, since I have the important task of sitting in the passenger seat and alerting Drew to all the imminent dangers – real and imagined – that I see (we opted to save the money on paying for permission to have a second driver, which means Drew is Chief Maneuvering Officer, and I am Pothole Identification Staffer, Associate Director of Navigation and also Manager of Snack-to-Mouth Delivery).

The most perilous aspect of driving, which seems to be a nationwide phenomenon, are the topes. Topes refer to “buckets” but also “speed bumps.” We learned the former meaning on our first day in Mexico City when we had ordered too much pozole and they sent it home with us in a small orange tope with a handle. Yay! The second meaning was made abundantly clear within our first moments in the Prizefighter. Topes are everywhere. Here they are more like abrupt mounds of clumpy asphalt than the smooth hills of American suburban speed bumps. Equally importantly, the amount of warning you receive about one’s imminence varies from very little to none. This could result in broken axles (we’ve more than once been reminded of this same danger from the Oregon Trail and acknowledged that we certainly don’t have the skills in our wagon to repair and continue on to the Snake River) or a little airborne journey, but fortunately neither fate has befallen us to date.

Mostly, drivers ahead will notice the tope (sometimes at the very last second), slow down to a near crawl (from 60 to 0 in two seconds or less), put on their hazards (the universal Mexican signal for ‘something is happening’) and lob themselves over it. So we learned by doing, and Drew has now navigated hundreds of topes with great finesse.

Though I’m sure you’re very anxious to learn more about the peculiarities of car handling and road dynamics in Mexico, I’ll return to the real purpose of this post: the trip itself. As mentioned, our first destination was Querétaro. This is the fastest growing city in the country, located in a state by the same name (there are 31 states in Mexico, and as of writing this on May 4, over 1,500 miles in, we have spent time in only seven!). We assumed from its designation as “one of Latin America’s most dynamic places” and the fact that its industry is largely built on IT, that we’d find a modern, glassy city. To the contrary, Querétaro’s architecture and vibe turned out to be thoroughly mellow, and quite idyllic. Here are some photos:

A few hours and a stroll around a beautiful urban park later, we returned to the Prizefighter and headed further west towards our destination for the next few nights: Guanajuato. Guanajuato is a topographically curious place, built into a bumpy valley such that much of the city is, by necessity, constructed out of stairways and underground tunnels – to get anywhere is a labyrinth of short ascents and descents only achieved on foot. Fortunately, said labyrinth is just full of color, excellent stonework and charm.

We stayed in a house on the edge of town, just under the Cerro de la Bufa – a mountain full of rock formations that could easily have been somewhere in the American Southwest. This familiar desert climate brought wild winds, piercing blue skies, and a truly excellent nightscape.

We explored Guanajuato’s market, checked out the famous Teatro Juarez, watched a soccer game at an outdoor café, paddled around a reservoir, and enjoyed enchiladas mineras: the local specialty prepared with potatoes and carrots, and named for the fact that the area has been a center of silver mining in the country.

We also spent more time than might be reasonable hanging around our lodging, on account of two outstanding resident cats, Cosita and Francisca. The former is a Maine Coon, striking in resemblance to my last cat, Mazy the VII. Both share(d) a sweet, slightly neurotic personality and penchant for kitty dreadlocks in their abundant fur. Cosita slept with us most nights, and this only further confirmed our suspicion that our next home will be one with a(t least one) cat; the future is feline.

We took a day trip from Guanajuato to the nearby towns of San Miguel de Allende and Dolores Hidalgo. Ninety minutes of desert driving (in which the Shakey Graves cover of Neil Young’s ‘Unknown Legend’ earned its rightful title as Song of the Road Trip) put us in the center of the “Greatest Place to Live in the World” according to, I don’t know, Travel & Leisure magazine? San Miguel de Allende is also known as Gringolandia, as thousands of U.S. Americans have made it their home over the last half century. We had to see what all the fuss was about. We arrived just before noon on Good Friday, so spent a few hours watching an Easter-related processional make its way through the streets, and then we ate some gorditas.

San Miguel is undeniably lovely. The streets are cobbled and lined with art galleries, the built environment colorful, the pace slow (and not just because there was a morose Catholic processional going down). We concluded that there was fuss to be made, but no more so than any other magical place we’d been (seriously, when is the Tourism Board going to send us our commission?!), and there was maybe one too many hip, aging Californian ladies with red spectacles, patterned long skirts and chunky silver earrings for our liking (no offense meant to those stylish broads, though!).

Onward, we went to Dolores Hidalgo. But not before stopping at La Gruta hot springs on maybe its most popular day of the year. Hot Springs in the Hot Desert might not sound like a winning combination, but the hundreds of families who had descended on La Gruta clearly felt otherwise. A collection of roughly ten hot pools were filled (and I mean, filled) with people of all ages splashing in floaties, drinking Tecate, taking selfies, or attempting to drown their brothers. It was a scene of the best kind, and we enjoyed a few hours of people watching and pool-hopping (well Drew did. I kind of wimped out at the sight of the mysteriously cloudy waters teeming with so many human bodies).

Then on to DH. This town was once just called “Dolores,” but then Miguel Hidalgo had to come along and be a hero and get his name added in there. No, but seriously. Below is the statue in front of the church where Priest Hidalgo rang some bells from the bell tower, yelled “Death to Bad Governance!” and helped start the Mexican War of Independence. He was later executed by the Spanish, and is on the record as saying to his executors something along the lines of: “Though I may die, I shall be remembered forever; you all will soon be forgotten.” Bam!

Anyway, Dolores Hidalgo is like the introverted younger sibling of San Miguel – same genes, less gravitas. We shared some tortilla soup and guacamole and played cards in a leafy courtyard restaurant where the maître d’ invited us to come live in Dolores Hidalgo forever (perhaps he’s on the tourism board and can help us with the matter of that payment?).

We then sampled the local ice cream, which is regionally famed for its unique and/or downright strange flavors. We played it relatively safe with avocado and Mexican chili chocolate for me and for Drew, whiskey cream and elote (astute readers may recall elote from our first meal in Mexico City: it is, basically, corn).

We drove back to Guanajuato with a sugar high as the sun began to set over the mountains. It was a sweet day, followed by sweet slumber, and the launch of the next leg of our road trip: to Guadalajara and the Bosque La Primavera!

Visiting Sara and Drew in Mexico City

Please enjoy this post from guest contributor Dr. Laurie Zivetz, MPH, PhD, aka “Sara’s Mom,” who joined us in CDMX for five lovely days in early April.

This is my first blog ever. In my travels as a youth, I kept a handwritten journal and wrote long aerograms to friends (the handwriting sometimes indecipherable, apparently). My trip to meet Sara and Drew was my third international trip this year—after Delhi in February and Beirut in March, I joined Sara and Drew on their 21st century round the world adventure in a city they had fallen in love with—Mexico City.

I was swept up in the romance. My darling daughter had done her planning magic to entice me in: finding vegan restaurants sprinkled about the city; getting tickets that would bring us into the compelling story of feminist artist Frida Kahlo at the home she shared with Diego Rivera—now a museum; and bringing me to the world class Museum of Anthropology—a stunning, colorful celebration of Mexican culture.

Sara and Drew navigated us on walks through leafy neighborhoods, urban parks, Sunday walking streets, towards local watering holes and around the city of 20 million people. I had been to Mexico City as a child—the beginning of a yearlong family trip that would change my worldview—and while there this time, spontaneously remembered the name of the largest urban park in the city—Chapultepec—the grasshopper hill.

The day after I arrived was Drew’s birthday, and as is their tradition, they had an elaborate day planned. We dined in a restaurant reputedly where chefs choose to go on their day off. Ant eggs were theatrically stir fried and presented at the table and several types of indigenous spirits consumed. (I watched.)

More walking, more food, a pedicure and some planned activities deferred to later days (a massage, a trip to the top of the tallest building to view the city, various eateries) and so Drew turned 33 in Mexico City!

Travel has changed since I sent those aerograms, and presumably since I stepped foot in Mexico City last (I can’t remember). The GPS makes getting stranded a thing of the past. Uber, bike share, a metro system and on-line bus information make it almost effortless to move around this complicated city (or at least it felt that way—I was just following along). Drew was completely in his element, and we all racked up a satisfying number of steps on our iPhones.

More people speak English here than in other parts of the world, though Sara and Drew take every opportunity to practice their Spanish. And yes, I have changed too and thoroughly enjoyed the free passes for seniors on public transport and museums. I was tickled to have my identification checked at the pulquería where we tasted the local brew, pulque (reportedly with probiotic benefits).

For all of you who are tracking the travels of Sara and Drew, I can report they are doing fine, eating well, voraciously taking in each new experience and cuisine. It was a treat to drop into their journey and I hope to be able to do so again—maybe in a place where I speak the language!

La Ciudad de México

“Art is not to be understood, it is to be lived.”

Translation of the message printed on the admissions ticket for Mexico City’s Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo.

So too, with cities.

It seems it is easier to write about a place that you just pass through. When you’re a visitor (and one could argue about how long it takes to shed the ‘visitor’ status – a week? a year?) you collect a handful of specific, vivid, vignettes from a place, prime for recounting. When you hang around, it becomes easier to perceive a place’s layers; the stories for retelling begin to accumulate, intertwine and blur. This is neither good nor bad, but it has made writing about our month in Mexico City hard.

And, neither Drew nor I have been quite as excited about a place since our respective arrivals in Berlin and New York City, about a decade ago. As urbanists who both came to the profession from a deeply emotional connection to the ‘sidewalk ballet’ of cities, Mexico City moved us. For this reason, no single or sequence of blog posts could possibly convey all we absorbed and relished, nor do justice to the entirety of the place and our slice of experiences in it.

But I do remember our first morning. We stumbled back into North America the night before, dry mouthed and bleary eyed, with the awe of Machu Picchu on our backs. We took a short taxi ride to our lodging, where our mom-of-a-host greeted us warmly and without complaint at 2:09 a.m. She demonstrated how to use the purified water dispenser, warned us not to look at our phones on the street, told us to have fun, and said goodnight.

We crashed and awoke a heavenly nine hours later to a Mexico City morning.
Outside our yellow building on a dead-end street, we greeted a sun-drenched day in Roma Sur. A leap away from our front door, a bursting jacaranda tree released a handful of its endless purple petals onto the sleepy intersection below. The air was dry, clear, and cool, though the sun had warmed it in patches. We walked towards breakfast in silence, taking in this new home.

The buildings in this part of the city are colorful and old, charmed with wrought iron and a largely pastel palette. Roma Sur has all of the easy charm of its neighbors Roma Norte and Condesa to the north and west, but less of the polish. Parts have a colonial feel, while a strong art deco theme also makes its mark. Cars move slowly and the abundant, leaf-heavy trees have been leaning over the sidewalks with wisdom for decades.

Our first meal consisted of several different components (my favorite way of eating), including panqué de elote (a kind of dense, cake-y corn bread), café de olla (coffee with cinnamon, a little cane sugar and other spices, traditionally prepared in special ceramic pots), fresh squeezed orange juice, enchiladas, chilaquiles, and fresh bread (because why not?). We lingered over it, smiling, and smiling again.

Having nothing to do with the morning’s meal whatsoever, later that afternoon we went for a run. Our destination was the public office of Ecobici, the city’s bikeshare system. There, we took a brief digital road test to confirm we understood CDMX traffic safety laws (we both proudly passed the test – in Spanish – with 100% scores) and paid our $25 USD for an annual bikeshare membership, allowing us to freely zoom around the city on two wheels.

Sweaty mid-run selfie because look at those jacarandas!

That is about where, more than a month later, my memory begins to blur (though I’m fairly sure our next stop was tacos). So, in no particular order and again, without anything close to completeness, a few other things from the next 27 days that blew our minds:

Noche de Primavera. A free music festival in late March. The organizers selected sixteen unique locations throughout the city to erect stages on which 96 musical groups performed across genres. Pictured, a solo female bassist from Chile performs on a stage in the middle of the street near the Zócalo. Later, we found two opera singers performing famous French pieces in the Guimard entrance to the Bellas Artes subway station. (In 1998, the Paris and Mexico City subway systems performed a cultural exchange; Paris sent an Art Nouveau subway entrance; Mexico City sent an indigenous mural, now found in the Palais du Louvre station.)
Diego Rivera murals, on display at the Palacio Nacional as well as the Secretária de la Educación Pública (pictured here). Both buildings are works of art in and of themselves, but the highly accessible murals, painted right on the walls of the interior of both institutions, were an outstanding examples of public art, visual storytelling, and history.
The CDMX subway, which we were told repeatedly not to ride. It was clean, absurdly affordable (~$0.25 USD per ride, free for seniors and other vulnerable populations) felt safe, and was easy to navigate, thanks in part to the pictured icon-based station system map (a solution to low national literacy rates when the system was built). You should ride the subway!
Let this photo be a proxy for all the parks & urban green space we loved and lounged in all over Mexico City. This is in the succulent section of the botanical garden in Bosque de Chapultepec (the city’s ‘green lung’), which we enjoyed when my mom came to visit (guest post forthcoming!). For those taking notes, other parks we loved included: Parque Bicentenario, Jardín de la Bombilla, Parques México y Espana, Jardín Lopez Velarde (and nearby Huerto Roma Verde), Viveros de Coyoacán, and Parque Lincoln.

An Ai Weiwei exhibit (his first in México) at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). The exhibit tells concurrent stories about the “destruction of cultural heritage and our relationship with our ancestors,” through the story of the 43 student protestors who were kidnapped and disappeared in 2014 in Iguala here in Mexico (a national scandal that helped us better understand government impunity and some of the fallacies of democracy in modern México) and the commodification and loss of cultural antiquities in the Chinese revolution. The exhibit is open through October 2019 for anyone visiting before then.
Biblioteca Vasconcelos. An homage to Brutalist architecture on the outside, and on the interior, a masterpiece of contemporary design. It was so fun to explore both the way this space was conceived and executed, and to see how well it was being used by people from all walks of life.
These particular tacos and quesadillas (among the hundreds we consumed), which we stopped for on the way home from an evening out in Roma Norte. We caught the proprietors just before midnight as they were starting to pack up. We shared this meal on pink plastic stools on the sidewalk, and had a good long laugh about something neither of us can remember now.
Our dear friend also Dana came to visit, and we spent one evening at the Chapultepec Night Picnic, a free public event where the park remains open after dark, trees are lit with colorful lights, and you can spend the evening drinking wine and playing cards (or engage in whatever leisure activity you desire) on rattan mats with hundreds of other city residents.
The street art. I loved this piece, though my favorite place for art in the open was in the Buena Vista-Guerrero corridor, which invested heavily in public art as a community revitalization effort.
Though we will forever give due respect to Bogotá for pioneering the street closures that now bring thousands out on bike and foot in cities all over the world each Sunday, the CDMX version – Paseo Dominical – was a particular joy. Here I am with our bike share bikes on Paseo de la Reforma, a key artery of the city, dotted with regular roundabouts centering on spectacular sculptures and monuments. You can see one of the more famous – the golden Ángel de la Independencia – in the distance.
That time Yo-Yo Ma played a cello made out of guns. As part of his 36-city world tour (see: Bach Project), Yo-Yo Ma stopped in CDMX. He played Bach’s six cello suites for free, outdoors, in front of a 17,000 person audience. The following evening, he hosted a panel discussion with cultural leaders in the city (also free and open to the public), exploring the topic “What is the Responsibility of a 21st Century Cultural Capital?” At the end of the dialogue, one of the panelists – an artist – brought out a cello he had made for the event out of repurposed weapons, and Yo-Yo Ma deftly eked out some cello-like sounds.

In the end, the best thing about this city was everything about it. We were fattened, stirred and inspired.

Certainly, Mexico City is not without flaws. Like any big city, poverty abounds outside the well-trodden corridors. Sanitation and lack of clean drinking water are major issues, and income/employment inequality – particularly for indigenous populations – are very real issues, as is a fragile judicial system and rampant corruption (we might someday share our tale of paying off a cop to avoid a night in prison for a minor infraction in a public park).

And I would be remiss not to acknowledge the many ways in which our brief life here did not, could not, mirror that of true residents. For one, most of the time, we had nowhere to be. We could wander, sleep late, avoid traffic, act on impulse. For another, we were treated as visitors, all the more welcomed for our earnest attempts to crack jokes in Spanish and our goofy and constant excitement for everything we saw, ate, and experienced. This kind of enthusiasm tends to endear oneself to others, and we were largely rewarded with treatment that typical residents may not enjoy from the average street vendor or subway station attendant.

Concessions and admissions duly noted and fully factored in, it is still the case that we fell in love. And we’ll be savoring these memories and this rare thrill as long as it takes to return (which we hope, is not long at all).

p.s. Our initial explorations of CDMX were guided by a handful of helpful resources shared by various friends who had come before us. Building from a great map created by our planning school classmate, friend, and Mexico City native, Ulises, we tracked a lot of our destinations – food-based and otherwise – in the map below! For anyone who’s planning their own visit (or just curious) feel free to peruse for more insights on what we did and where we went, including some personalized commentary within each pin.

Machu Picchu: the South America Grand Finale

Like the place itself, the internet is crowded with tourists’ tales of their visits to Machu Picchu. Rather than pile ours on, we’ll keep this brief.

Machu Picchu was awe-some. It’s hard to fathom the how of it all. We loved being there as much for the mind-blowing structures and grounds as for the epic natural beauty; the landscape that surrounds Machu Picchu is other-worldly.

A few pro-tips (with accompanying photos!) below in case you’re planning your own trip:

Getting There

There are no roads in and out of Aguas Calientes, which is the town at the base of Machu Picchu. You have to take a train*, which is an expensive, but beautiful ~ 2 hour ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (the town adjacent to Machu Picchu). As our prior blog posts confirm, we recommend a few nights in Ollanta before your train ride!

Once in Aguas Calientes, you can hike to and from Machu Picchu (about 90 mins up, 60 mins down, depending on your walking speed), or you can take a bus ($12 per person per direction), which takes about 30 minutes. We recommend saving your legs for the grounds and bussing up, but hiking down. The trail down the mountain is surprisingly lush (but note: it is all steps, so not great for weak knees).

*You can also opt to take a bus to a nearby town, Hidroeléctrica, which is a cheaper, more time and labor intensive option. Google it; many a backpacker has paved this path.

While You’re There

Our hostel hosts (Pico’s House – a bit hard to find but very comfortable stay with friendly proprietors) recommended we first visit the Incan Sun Gate, which is a 20-30 min walk away from and above the main grounds. It provides a beautiful vantage point from which to get a lay of the land – you can see the citadel and surrounding landscape, and escape some of the more intense crowds. We concur with this recommendation!

If you can handle heights and are up for a few hours of good physical challenge, book tickets for Huayna Picchu. It is the vertiginous mountain famously backdropping the Machu Picchu citadel, and hiking up and around it was thrilling, mystical, and rewarding. (Only 400 people per day are permitted to hike Huayna Picchu, so book your entrance tickets well in advance.)

First you hike straight up, up, up to the peak and marvel at the fact that there are more stone structures built there at the top, and then most people hike back down. We strongly recommend following the trail to the back of the mountain, where we saw only a handful of people for the rest of the hike. This trail goes down, down, down (including straightdown some precarious ladders, see pic below) until you reach the Temple of the Moon. This is said to have been built by and for Incan women specifically, and the stone work and views were breathtaking. Return to the citadel via another tough but beautiful (and shorter!) ascent.

Whatever you plan to do while there, we recommend spreading your time at Machu Picchu over at least two days. Taking it all in on day one, and then really engaging and exploring on day two made the experience that much more memorable and meaningful. Plus, it’s a chance to see Machu Picchu in potentially different weather conditions, which is a real treat!

Without planning it this way, Machu Picchu ended up being our last real stop in South America. We left on an afternoon train back to Ollantaytambo, where we switched to a bus which took us, under a rising full moon, through the Sacred Valley back to Cusco. We slept and caught a flight the next morning to Lima, where we spent five hours wandering the airport before connecting to our flight to Mexico City.

In 55 days we walked over 300 miles in the cities and towns, mountains and beaches of three amazing countries. We took 21 buses and flights between destinations, and dozens of tuk-tuks, taxis, Willys jeeps, motorcycles, subways, gondolas and other forms of transit within places. We spent time in both the Northern and Southern hemisphere, explored the world’s longest mountain range (the Andes), visited two of the continent’s most populous cities (Lima and Bogotá), and spent a week in the second highest capital city in the world (Quito). We sampled so many new fruits, vegetables, spices and meats, shared meals and time with family and friends old and new, and thanked countless strangers for their kindness, welcoming warmth and helpful guidance as we explored a small segment of this vast continent.

Some of the new friends who made our travel that much more fun!

As we took off to the west over the Pacific Ocean from Jorge Chávez International Airport, it felt both as if we’d just arrived, and been there for years; covered significant ground, and hardly scratched the surface. With mixed emotion, we said goodbye to South America and flew north!