Guanajuato

The second half of our second adventure to Mexico was spent in Guanajuato, Mexico.  A brilliantly colored university town set in a valley, it was a quaint spot to relax, but really didn’t charm us as much as our first stop in Querétaro.

A couple of highlights:  The view from our B&B’s balcony.

View from balcony

Dinner at Las Mercedes.  A restaurant reviving Grandma’s traditional dishes with local, fresh produce.  We especially liked the flourless corn cake with strawberry ice cream for dessert.

The white building in the middle is the university

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Exploring a still operating mine that opened in the 1500’s.  As Andrew pointed out, the California Gold Rush happened in the late 1800’s, so they’ve been finding gold, silver, and copper south of the border for a long time.  We’ve got the Spaniards greedy egos to thank for that.

We're in the mine

Wandering around in the huerta of a former hacienda.

Garden of hacienda

Getting soaked to the gills by a late night thunderstorm.  Water cascaded down the steps up to our hotel like a waterfall.  I walked through water so deep it covered my feet!

Cathedral

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Beverage Guide to Mexico

Thinking about travelling to México meant worrying about drinking the water. It’s fun to joke about Montezuma’s revenge when the water spurting out of your tap at home is 100% safe to drink, but once you’re on the other side of the border, ingesting a piece of lettuce washed in unfiltered H2O or opening your mouth in the shower is suddenly terrifying.  Before arriving in México, I assumed that most Mexicans would drink the tap water like we do here, their stomachs and systems being accustomed to the weird bacteria that would give my plumbing a rude awakening.  Instead, almost everyone imbibes only filtered water bought in giant, thick, plastic jugs. I expected for beer to be considered water and to have to steer clear of coffee, but the culinary scene is a lot more varied than the Tex-Mex we normally chow down and so are your options of what to wash down your spicy poblano sauce with.

Street scene in Querétaro

For breakfast, and breakfast is a sit down affair, with typical Mexican portion sizes (read: generous!), you could try out a café de la olla.  Translated roughly to pot coffee, I thought I was ordering a normal drip coffee, a lá Waffle House, but I was served a cinnamon spiced-sweet caramel liquid in a rustic potted mug.  Charming, but not the strong, bitter brew I hoped for.  It’s worth finding out what café de la olla is, but probably not worth a repeat experience.

Another recommendation for breakfast time is a fresh fruit juice.  Most common is orange juice, but sometimes you might be surprised with a twist, like carrot-orange.

18th century aqueduct

At lunch, I’d recommend you find a restaurant where it seems those on a working lunch break are headed and follow them to their local fonda.  Again, my expectation was for folks to have lunch between 11 and 1:30, but really, the locals don’t sit down for their midday meal until 3 pm (though starving tourists don’t stand out too much if they can make it until 2 pm).  Along with your four course lunch, you should order the agua fresca of the day.  (Filtered) Water mixed with seasonal fresh fruit juice is served in a carafe for the table to share. Our first trip we made the rookie mistake of ordering a cerveza with lunch and then we longingly spied those in the know quenching their thirst the true Mexican way.  A couple flavors we tested were hibiscus flower (agua de jamaica), grapefruit (toronja), lemon (limonada), lime (lima), pineapple (piña) and orange (naranjada).  Grapefruit agua fresca stood out as the clear favorite, followed by the pineapple variety.  The drink can be cloyingly sweet depending on the house recipe, but we did ask once for it to be less sweet, which was no problem, as the proprietor informed us it was made to order.

facade of cathedral in San Miguel de Allende

In stark contrast to Spain, México really doesn’t have an all day bar culture. Students might go out in the evening with friends, but a social life that revolves around a glass of wine and a bite to eat at the local watering hole just doesn’t exist.  The culture still seems family oriented and centered around being with each other- great-grandma to granddaughter, walking, sitting, eating, but not drinking (publicly, anyway) much. Beer does have its place though, mostly at dinner time, and there are two distinct ways to have a cold one.

chelada is a dark beer served over a couple of tablespoons of pure lime juice in a salt-rimmed, chilled mug.

michelada isn’t for everyone.  Spicy tomato salsa and lime juice cover the bottom of your red-pepper and salt rimmed mug, over which a dark beer is then poured. Neither a chelada or a michelada taste much like beer, which is a shame as Mexico can brew a decent lager.

Another drink on your list to try should be pulque, made from the fermented sap of the agave plant.  It has a milky, pulpy consistency, low alcohol content (5%~) and is normally mixed with a fruit juice to make it palatable.  I tried it once and that’s enough.

ancient monastery, now regional Museum of Querétaro

Regional Museum

And of course, tequila, made from the agave plants grown only in the region of Jalisco, and mezcal, the same liquor, but made with agave plants grown outside the region of Jalisco.  Many times these are served as an aperitif or digestive with sal de maguey (salt from the maguey worm-sounds gross, tastes good), red pepper and oranges.   Hope you have as much fun figuring out what to try next as we did!

El cerro de las Campanas- Maximilian was shot here.

Hello From Querétaro

I could live in Coyoacán permanently…

View from the top of Torre Latina

Another of our highlights during our first few days in Mexico City was soaring to the top of the Torre Latinoamerica.  Once the tallest building in Mexico City, it is now owned by Carlos Slim, Mexican national and the wealthiest man in the world since 2010, according to Forbes.  Evidently, he has bought up acres of property in the historic center of Mexico City and initiated projects to have some of the major arteries pedestrianized.  The view from the top of the Torre was impressive.  Through the hazy late afternoon light, we could make out the business district, bordered by the most affluent neighborhood and beyond, miles of concrete block, half-built dwellings stretched almost to infinity.

Palacio de Bellas Artes

From above

More disappointing was the Palacio de Bellas Artes.  Expecting grand murals by the most ubiquitous names in Mexican art, we found those, but they were ruined by the layout of the interior. Giant paintings were chopped up by the pillars of the building and the viewer couldn’t get far enough away from each work to see more than a jumble of bright colors assaulting his visual perception. Also, the separate galleries dedicated to various artists were in the middle of receiving a coat of paint during our visit and wouldn’t be open again until the middle of April.  When we asked about them, the guest relations representative promptly invited us back to Mexico in another month and said they’d be waiting on us! Sounds like hospitality to me!

Monumento a la Revolución

A visit to the establishment that houses houses arguably Diego Rivera’s most famous and informative work made up for the earlier underwhelming experience.  Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central rests inside a bare room within a building that, although it only features one piece of artwork, calls itself a veritable museum.   It depicts Mexican history through the interpretation of Diego, of course featuring him at the center, gazing at his wife and lover, Frida Kahlo. No pictures from inside since the proprietors charged extra for that luxury. The painting is worth a google, though.

a view of the alameda central from above

Restaurante en Coyoacán

Los coyotes:  what coyoacán is named after

Continuing our pilgrimage to visit the sites dedicated to modern Mexican art, we took a 45-minute metro trek out to Coyoacán, the birth place of Frida Kahlo. Frida is a legend in Mexican art and her story is as heartbreaking as it is fascinating.  As a little girl she contracted polio, which left one leg longer than the other.  Then, as an 18-year old, probably ready to venture out on her own and find out what life had in store for her, she was involved in a dramatic street car accident.  She was impaled by one of the poles on the vehicle and suffered immense pain caused by the trauma for the rest of her life.  Her personal life is no less interesting.  Wife and lover of fellow Mexican revolutionary artist, Diego Rivera, her spirit continued to endure challenges as they lived out a volatile relationship that involved unfaithfulness, divorce and later remarriage.  If one solace could be found in her life, she resided on a cool tree lined street in a budding bohemian neighborhood and her home of blue stucco was inviting and bright.  Her open, airy home was a mansion, even by today’s standards. The easel she used, a gift from Nelson Rockefeller, faced onto an open courtyard where water fountains bubbled cheerily and the sun warmed the stones.  Frida and Diego did agree politically: both left-wing communist supporters, they even provided a place for Leon Trotsky to live when he was exiled from Russia.

from inside the blue house... sorry no pictures from the inside (that cost extra!)

Seeing where Frida did the majority of her work and visiting the barrio that was the backdrop to her life definitely tops the list of my Mexican experiences.  Like my mom said, this trip was as much vacation as it was continuing education for us.  The only unit I clearly remember from high school Spanish 4 was the chapter on art. As deeply disturbing as some of the images that Frida shared with the world on canvas are, I’ve never felt repulsed by her, only felt a sadness for the damage and pain she suffered.  Getting to see her home and some of her original work was worth the trip.

la casa azul from the outside

¡Viva México!

Evening time.

We successfully completed our first adventure south of the border!  Andrew, the trip planner, takes all the credit for the former exclamation.  He read and informed himself on how to navigate around México and I depended on him to know what to do while I threw out helpful comments like, “I will NOT step out of the hotel after dark!” and “We will definitely have diarrhea for at least a week after this trip, not to mention the fact I’ll probably have to go to therapy for (insert whatever horrible experience you’ve dreamed up that happens to tourists in Mexico on a regular basis).”  Not surprisingly, moms and dads all around weren’t all-together astonished when the announcement was made that our Spring Break destination of 2013 was México City.  They were ever supportive, but I am sure they spent extra time on their knees in prayer that we’d come back whole, without any visible markings or emotional scarring and with all of our important documents still on our person. Thankfully, I can say not only did we feel relatively safe in D.F., we also had an thrilling glance into the chaotic, colorful country of Mexico and the lives of its people.

Patio, Palacio Nacional

Diego's grand mural, palacio nacional

We stepped off the plane in Mexico City, not sure what we’d encounter.  If our experience entering through passport check, grabbing our bag and passing through customs was any indication of the trip to come, we were going to conquer Mexico with a single guidebook and our Spanish expertise. The first challenge, finding the authorized taxi stand, strengthened my confidence in Andrew’s extensive preparation.  Per his research, we bought our ticket inside the airport, wheeled out to the line of taxis, pre-paid for our ride and were on our way, through the shanty towns near the airport to the historic downtown.

La catedral metropolitana

During our time in the capital, we tried to hit the highlights on the tourist circuit in the largest city in the world.  The Zócalo, or the main square, of the city is the second largest in the world, only behind Red Square in Moscow.  The sheer number of people, mostly all Mexican tourists and residents of the city, strolling around the square, taking in the sights themselves, was overwhelming.  They were with their families, eating ice cream, paying homage to Jesus and Mary inside the cathedral, holding hands, pushing strollers, swinging babies from their shoulders, snapping pictures with their iPads and showing off lots of PDAs.  Located on the Zócalo are a couple of noteworthy sites: El Palacio Nacional, La Catedral Metropolitana and El Templo Mayor.

Catedral, view of volcanic stones taken from Templo Mayor to make new Cathedral

One of our favorites was the Palacio Nacional.  Built next to the ancient Aztec Temple ruin, the Palacio Nacional boasts traditional Spanish architectural grandeur and clearly demonstrates the attitude of the Spanish toward the Aztec civilization (we’ll destroy your inferior culture and customs and construct our civilized empire right next to it).  A sunny patio inside is surrounded by three floors of archways, with the main staircase decked out in true Mexican fashion with a giant mural painted by Diego Rivera.  His murals depicting Mexican history and daily life continue around the walkway of the second floor.  Outside behind the palace, a shady, lush oasis of palm trees and hibiscus flowers seem out of place in a city dominated by concreted blocks and pavement.  For a minute, in the quiet of the garden, almost cool again, I almost forgot about the herds bustling by just beyond the building.

Templo Mayor ruins

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The Templo Mayor is also incredible, the ancient Aztec’s shrine to their sun god, to whom they made frequent human heart sacrifices.  The volcanic stone that is left, leaving shape to the grand pyramid, worn down, doesn’t seem as if it could have witnessed the rise and fall of Tenochtitlan, the great Aztec city that once stood where Mexico City thrives today.  Ironically, the Spanish took the stones from the demolished Aztec pyramid and used them to raise their own temple, a Catholic church, the Catedral Metropolitana, right next door.

Street view in the casco antiguo

view from the torre latina

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I’ve barely covered days 1 and 2! There is a lot to say about the country that borders ours to the south!