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Dia de los Muertos: homemade sugar skulls & an ofrenda for Marcia

One of the marigold-heavy ofrendas on display in Mexico City

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) was always one of my favorite holidays during my time living in Mexico. The elaborate, colorful ofrendas (altars)… the well-dressed Catrina statues the tasty pan de muertothe fascinating traditions at the cemetaries… It was so interesting to spend two years in a culture that not only felt comfortable talking about death, but actually celebrated it.  I shared several photos from one year’s festivities around Mexico City in this post, and I’ve definitely missed all the rituals the last two years back here in the US.

My mom humoring me by eating at a taco street vendor in our hometown back in Sept 2009. :)

But this year’s Dia de los Muertos holds even more meaning for me than any I experienced in Mexico.  It falls on November 2nd, just two days before the anniversary of my mom’s death last year.  She passed away on a chilly fall day in Grand Island, Nebraska after a year and a half of battling lung cancer. We often joked together that she would have lived a more devil-may-care lifestyle if she’d known that was coming; a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis after never even having smoked a cigarette seemed a bit crap.

I’ve been thinking for a while about what to do in her honor as the calendar creeps up on one whole year that she’s been gone. One of my friends does an extravagant, multi-course dinner every year in the theme of her home state to honor the memory of the restaurant owner who taught her the key tenets of Midwestern cooking– dairy, meat, and booze. I love that idea, but I wasn’t sure I’d make it through a reprise of the last meal Mom & I cooked together without getting a little weepsy this year.

Visiting the Dia de los Muertos displays in Coyoacan with my mom in October 2009.

Luckily, the traditions surrounding Dia de los Muertos offered the perfect solution, along with perfect timing. In fact, Marcia’s last trip abroad was to visit us in DF during October 2009, so she got to see all of the ceremony firsthand & loved it! I decided to assemble my own ofrenda to celebrate her, led by my friend Lesley’s great how-to guide.  I was buoyed by discovering that friend Ross had a whole garden full of marigolds to share, the flower always seen adorning altars in Mexico.  And we already had the iconic Catrina and Catrin statues, purchased with my Mom’s guidance at the Coyoacan DDLM market.

Tracking down calaveras de azucar proved to be a challenge in the DC area, but I came across an extensive website — www.mexicansugarskull.com — where I was able to buy all the accoutrements to make my own sugar skulls at home. I was slightly afraid this would turn into an arts-and-crafts disaster, but Angela’s site did a pretty good sales job, claiming “even second graders” can do it. :)  And finally, I was able to special-order orange blossom water (a common pan de muerto ingredient) from the Italian Store in my neighborhood for a mere $2.99.

Making the Sugar Skulls

Early last week I started work on the long pole in the tent: the sugar skulls. I started with a five-pounds-of-sugar test run, carefully heeding the dire warnings on the website (Don’t make them on a rainy day! Sugar hates humidity! Don’t use crappy meringue powder!). I opted for the “Oaxacan Medium Skull” mold from the various options available, which I liked because it was very 3-D (you make the front & back and then adhere them together with frosting) but wasn’t so big that you have to scoop out the insides to get it to dry properly. The process was surprisingly quick– just mash sugar into the plastic mold, scrape off the back with a flat edge, and flip it onto a piece of cardboard.

Halfway through my five pounds of sugar skull-making run! The mixture of sugar, meringue powder & water should feel like beach sand.

They’re supposed to dry for 12 hours. Because I’m anal, I gave the 14 skulls a few days to relax on a card table set up in our living room.  But during that time, I accidentally knocked one skull-half onto the ground, and amazingly it did not break! After that litmus test, I felt confident enough to email a few friends to see if they might be interested in joining me to decorate the skulls. I still hedged my bets, though, promising a big batch of chili to eat in case this project was an unmitigated disaster. :)

On Friday night, I made another five pounds worth of skulls, even though it had rained during the day and weather.com claimed 97% humidity at 9AM. I flipped our A/C on in the morning, and the skulls turned out fine. I whipped up a couple batches of royal icing around noon on Sunday, and began assembling the skull halves together– this was probably the most tedious part of the process. Their royal icing recipe dries crazy-fast, so at least there were no worries with things slipping around.

Rows of assembled sugar skulls, awaiting their time in the makeup chair...

Bright and festive icing, all ready to decorate some skulls!

That evening, a few folks came over and we dined on a new chili recipe John had tested out (verdict: tasty but futzy, as I guess one should expect when one is making one’s own chili powder & tripling a recipe). Then, we plopped the piles of neon royal icing I’d made into the icing bags, complete with zip ties.

Jenny and I awkwardly fill up the fancy icing bags. Normally I am a big proponent of ziplocs or baggies for dispensing frosting, but I have to say, these things were worth the $4 I spent.

We gathered everyone around the table with their blank skulls, and set to work!

Silence fell over the room as everyone focused intently on their designs...

We found that Leah's pecan pie helped provide the energy needed for this project... Also note the piles of colorful foil & sequins/confetti at the ready, and toothpicks came in handy as well.

For a group consisting largely of engineers, diplomats, architects, and lawyers, I was quite impressed with the level of creativity displayed in the end results:

A lovely array of calaveras courtesy our artistic friends! Marcia's is in the middle of the front row-- often Mexicans inscribe the name of the deceased on the skull's forehead.

We sent most of the skulls home with their creators, but a few stayed behind to grace our ofrenda. Mexicans believe that the souls of the dead come back & visit their loved ones during Dia de los Muertos, so the ofrenda is the offering to the deceased. The skulls joined a few photos of Marcia, candles (to help light the way for the spirits), a good bottle of red wine (things the person liked to eat/drink), a glass of water and a pile of salt (to quench the thirst of souls after their long trip back), pan de muerto (for nourishment), marigolds (which represent the passing nature of life), her Golden Bear necklace (favorite items the person liked to wear), and a Swedish dala horse in honor of her Swedish heritage. Lots of these items also symbolize the four elements of nature- wind, water, earth and fire, like the breezy papel picados that represent the wind.

UPDATE— I came across one DDLM-related saying today after I posted this that I’d not heard before but really liked. “Ya que el camino de regreso al mundo de los vivos no debe ser resbaladizo por las lágrimas.”  Translated, “The path back to the world of the living must not be made slippery by tears.” Great summary of the Mexican attitude towards celebrating the lives of those who have gone before us, rather than focusing on our sadness.

Our first ofrenda! My mom also helped me pick out the papel picados on the wall during our trip to Mercardo Jamaica in DF a few years back. I am amazed they are still (mostly) in one piece!

And a candlelit ofrenda view, including the pan de muerto I'd made the night before.

I had made vastly more sugar skulls then we ended up decorating (apparently not everyone has my perfectionist tendencies of needing multiple tries to hone my skull-decorating skills), so I whipped out a couple more after everyone left. One for my Grandma Arline, and one for John’s Uncle Brian.

The other family sugar skulls I made.

I debated for a while as to whether dogs deserved their own sugar skulls, but ultimately decided I had to draw the line somewhere. If our old beagle Roscoe and terrier Dave each got one, then what about Sophie the guinea pig? Or those fish we had for a while? The barn cats out at Grandma Dorothy’s farm?  There are limits, people.

As we cleaned up after the festivities on Sunday night, I gave John a big hug. “Thanks for being so supportive and not making me feel like a crazy person for wanting to do all of this,” I told him. “It’s just the kind of thing Marcia would have liked,” he replied, “Frenzied house-cleaning before having company over, friends, laughter, good food, red wine, and a project!” :)

It’s going to be a tough November 4th this year for me, my dad, and my brother, as well as for lots of her close friends & family. I just hope she knows how much we all miss her.

The Carmanns, all dressed up with somewhere to go. :)

Love you, Mom

Condesa & Roma: the trendy neighborhoods of Mexico City

Please check out my latest article up on the Mexico Today website– http://mexicotoday.org/article/condesa-roma-trendy-neighborhoods-mexico-city!  This month I’m recounting some of the highlights of our favorite colonias in DF– Condesa and Roma, located just east of Chapultepec Park.

Some of the hyperlinks to the businesses I mentioned didn’t come through on the Mexico Today page, so I’m including them here for your convenience. Take a look at the article for additional commentary on each!

B&B:

Restaurants:

Shopping:

More Mexico Today Updates!

In other news, here are some of the great articles my fellow MT folks wrote this past month for your leisure reading:

https://www.facebook.com/Gastrofonda https://www.facebook.com/Gastrofonda

Back to Mexico City!!

This past year has been a struggle for me & John to readjust from the “every other weekend = a 3-day+ vacation to a beach, jungle, colonial town or archaeological site” schedule that we got accustomed to living in Mexico City. :) (Yes, I can almost feel your waves of sympathy washing over me.)   So after a long, challenging, nearly-vacation-free 2011, we made last minute plans to zip down to Mexico City today (Friday Jan 6th).  We debated going somewhere new & unknown to us, but for this particular trip, the comfortable & familiar won out. Consider it a greatest hits tour….just 15 months after the original tour.

Planning has been pretty light thus far… all we’ve really accomplished is starting a list of places we need to eat…. So far we have:

Point being– we are super excited to eat & wander through all the fun neighborhoods, mercados, etc. & track down some friends while we’re there.  More photos to follow of anything else new we discover while there. My current fascination is this— Bamboocycle, a company that makes bicycles out of bamboo. Love it!

Is it wrong to just want to replicate this photo again in person? Love ya, tacos al pastor (& even the sullen taquero).

Our First Christmas Posada in Mexico City

One of the many Mexican Christmas traditions I’m missing while back in the US this year is the posada. The season of posadas began on Friday, December 16th– nine days before Christmas.  When we lived in Mexico City, this marked both a time of holiday joy & grinchy anger, because of the sharp uptick in traffic (even worse than normal!).  My friends told me the reason traffic got SOOOO bad was due to all the chilangos driving to posadas after work each night, as well as shopping for last-minute Christmas presents. :) Unfortunately my social calendar never had nine days of parties in a row, but I did get to experience at least one authentic posada thanks to my MBA classmates!

We arrived at Grace & Lalo’s house to discover a well-dressed dog, which I took as a sign that this would be a successful night:

Santa dog = key ingredient for any posada. :)

They had their own outdoor patio heater, which was both awesomely warm & perfect for lighting sparklers on:

It's all fun & games until someone loses an eye, David.

And most impressively, they were even prepared with posada instructional booklets!

All the official posada wording you could ask for

These were important, because a key part of the posada is reliving Mary & Joseph’s experience trying to find shelter in Bethlehem. You set up half the party attendees outside pretending to be a very pregnant Mary & tired Joseph, and the other half stays inside telling M&J to go away & not bother them. FINALLY Joseph explains how he has the mother of our savior with him & then the jerks inside are like “Oh! Our bad! We didn’t know! In that case, come on in!”

The text for the exchange between Joseph/Mary + the meanie lodging folks. It almost feels like that experience you had at the Motel 6 outside of Albany when you showed up at 2AM without a reservation.

Once Mary & Joseph are let inside the house, then the party gets started with some singing, a good old fashioned piñata, food and drink.  I was pleased to see that much like the Lutheran church, no celebration is complete without the opportunity to burn you & those around you with small candles while singing:

Ceci makes the rounds with candles surrounded by their protective, holiday-themed mini-muffin wax drip guards

Alonso pauses to marvel at the flame of light burning so close to his fingers.

The celebratory singing begins!

Finally, the time for the piñata arrived. I took endless pleasure in watching the careful, laborious piñata set up.  I will confess to the fact that my motto of life in Mexico (“What could go wrong?”) flashed through my mind more than once… 😉

Things began with the transfer of the metal ladder over the electric fence. It was never clear to me whether it was truly on or off, which just made the process all the more exciting. :)

The other side of the piñata was secured to this ladder across the street.

To get a full visual of the piñata setup as well as hear a preview of the piñata-smashing theme song, you can check out this incredibly-dark video shot right before the first piñata contender made their way up to the plate:

Luckily the street that the piñata was strung across was not very busy... :)

Finally, it was my turn!!

Grace carefully instructs me in the ways of piñata-beating, while I am blindfolded with an artsy blue scarf.

I think I may have knocked loose one of the piñata's wings, which I promptly claimed for myself as a victory hat.

After the piñata excitement died down, we headed back to Grace’s deck and continued eating & drinking. The fan-favorite drink at any posada is ponche. It’s kind of the Mexican version of hot apple cider here in the US, but better (added alcohol optional but recommended). Check out some excellent recipes courtesy Maura, Silvia, and Lesley.

Good ponche, good people, good times. :)

It looks like we may miss the boat on hosting a posada this year here in Arlington, VA, but hope springs eternal for next year. Though I really need to work on mastering the lyrics to the piñata song.

Is anyone out there holding their own posada this week??  Would anyone like to bring over some tamales & ponche and we can have a quick posada, just the two of us? :)  In the interim, here’s to all my GMBA classmates who made our first & only posada so much fun! Check out more posada blog posts below…

Disclosure: I am being compensated for my work in creating content as a Contributor for the México Today Program. All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared in my blog are completely my own.

Musical Guilty Pleasure: El Colesterol

I would like to share another musical guilty pleasure with you, which I just discovered today in Atlanta. My job brings me to Atlanta on occasion to visit clients, and there’s definitely a larger Mexican population there than the DC area. One benefit of this is the food– while I’ve not yet had any autentico tacos, I have seen documented evidence of tacos al pastor!! This is very exciting to me.

Equally exciting is the music– I try to take advantage by tuning in to a Mexican-style radio station while I’m zipping around in my tiny rental car. While the prevalence of norteña does sometimes push my ear drums to their limits, I usually hear enough good songs to make it worthwhile. Which brings to me to this afternoon, when I came across a gem that I’d never heard before.  Usually I can barely make out the lyrics to songs in English (we’re talking “hold me closer Tony Danza“-style, folks), much less songs in Spanish.  But today I was struck by a catchy tune that kept mentioning chaparritas (the term witty strangers constantly used to refer to me in Mexico) and chicharrones… and the refrain seemed to be “Me sube el colesterol” (my cholesterol is rising). Huh? I was intrigued.

I jotted down the lyrics at a stop light, and checked things out tonight on the Google.  The song is indeed entitled “El Colesterol” by Fito Olivares, who hails from Tamaulipas. I wouldn’t exactly call this an award-winning song, but there are two reasons to listen/watch:

  1. the lyrics are at least semi-amusing
  2. the video combines wearing horrible suits while dancing (and by “dancing” I mean “swaying back & forth like you’re in junior high”) with what feels like a poorly-made documentary of one man’s visit to a low-end hospital

Anyway, I know this is song is from 8,000 years ago but for those like me who are a little behind the Mexican music times, I present “the official video” of El Colesterol:

If you find lyrics tricky like I do, check them out here or watch the subtitles in Spanish on this YouTube video. For you non-Spanish speakers, the song’s basically about how this guy’s doctor tells him he’s fat, his cholesterol’s too high, and he needs to cut out sweets/sugar/flour/fat. AND THEN he gets home & his honey calls out from the kitchen, “Do you want some fried pig skin, a piece of ham, or some fried chicken, love?” So he explains how his cholesterol’s rising & his doctor has ordered him to put on his belt….no pig skin for him!

Even if you don’t find the song entertaining, it should win some sort of award for Awkward Music Video.  Some portions feel like Grey’s Anatomy… if they filmed Grey’s Anatomy in a tired office building with doctors who, instead of constantly having affairs with each other, moonlight as cumbia band members. Replace secret trysts in the break room with secret saxophone practice sessions. Someone needs to write this pilot & send it to NBC….or Univision… We’re sitting on a goldmine!

A race to the finish: our final days in Mexico City!

One year ago last weekend, John & I were on our way to the Mexico City airport for the flight that would end our 2+ year experience as chilangos. All our worldly possessions were packed, all our kitschy souvenirs had been purchased, all the tacos al pastor that one person should ingest in a one-month period had been ingested, and most of the tears had already been shed. (Luckily our flight was so early that our driver wasn’t able to see me crying in the dark during our pre-dawn trip to the airport.)

Having lived in several cities now, I’ve experienced a lot of these permanent departures which usually involve a period of “holy crap, we have to do all our favorite things one last time before we leave!!!” combined with “I can’t believe we haven’t been to place x; we have to go before leave!!!” I thought it might be amusing to reflect on what made the Final Hurrah list for us in Mexico City.

  1. Eating. At a lot of places. Repeatedly.

This should come as a surprise to no one, as obviously I wasn’t able to maintain my corn-fed, Midwestern figure by NOT gorging myself on the amazing food in Mexico City. But which were the top priorities??

Tacos Don Guero: corner of Rio Lerma & Rio Guadalquivir in Colonia Cuauhtemóc

John was such a regular here that it merited a photo on his last day of work. Great source of al pastor & bistec (beef), or ask for “a la gringa” to get it on a larger flour tortilla with tasty Oaxacan cheese.

John informed me that the "good" taquero is working in the background.... along with a whole lotta pastor!

Dulce Patria: Anatole France 100 in Polanco, in the Las Alcobas hotel

If we were still in DF, this place would have definitely become our go-to when visitors are in town for fancy, “modern” Mexican food. Much has already been written about Dulce Patria + Chef Martha Ortiz but let me second—the food is amazing, presentation is gorgeous, service is impeccable, and while prices are not cheap, I think they are very fair for the neighborhood + the quality of the food. Don’t skip the trendy drinks either.

I had a fantastic salmon dish...

...as well as a savory huazontle tart

P.S. -Learn more about huazontle from Lesley here!

Restaurante Lampuga: Ometusco 1 at the corner of Nuevo Leon in Condesa

Friends Scott & Aryani tipped us off to this great seafood spot . While many may argue for Contramar as the seafood go-to in Condesa (which I agree is amazing), Lampuga is open in the evening & has a nice bistro atmosphere with great food + reasonably priced wine. Great option for a seafood-centric dinner where you want to sample a variety of dishes among friends.

The Coyoacán Trifecta: start at Tostadas Coyoacán in Mercado de Coyoacán on Ignacio Allende, between Malintzin and Xicoténcatl

It would be hard to count how many times we did this circuit with friends/family on a Saturday afternoon.  First, find the brightly-colored yellow Tostadas Coyoacán stand inside Mercado de Coyoacán. Order an assortment of AMAZING tostadas—be sure not to miss the jaiba (crab), camarón (shrimp), and ceviche, and don’t be shy about trying the salsas on the counter. Get an agua de sandia (watermelon), jamaica (hibiscus flower) or maracuyá (passion fruit) to drink.

I could eat the tostada de camarón all day, especially with a glass of agua de maracuya

Next, leave the mercado & get to the intersection of Ignacio Allende and Malintzin. Walk south down Allende (in the opposite direction of vehicle traffic) until you see Café el Jarocho, where you’ll order a café de olla—basically dessert coffee with cinnamon & piloncillo (brown sugar). Continue a few more steps & pop into the Churreria on the same side of the street. Order either a bag of churros or an individual churro filled with dulce de leche. Dip these in your café de olla.

Everyone loves a churro

Then, go sit on the edge of the coyote fountain & reflect on how much food you just ingested.

My dad Larry and I, preparing for a rest post-churro.

Astrid y Gaston: Alfredo Tennyson 117 @ Masaryk in Polanco

I don’t think I’d tried many Peruvian ceviches before living in DF, where there are several high-end Peruvian restaurants: Astrid y Gaston, La Mar, and Restaurante Mankora. FYI—they are amazing. I’d always lumped most Pervuian food in the “variations on a theme of meat and potatoes” (which you’d think coming from the Midwest, I would have been more excited about). But Astrid y Gaston does an amazing job sexing up the traditional dishes as well as whipping out several flavorful, spicy ceviches. The service can be annoyingly hit-or-miss, but the food was solid. Don’t forget the popular Peruvian cocktail—the pisco sour. Thanks to my many Peruvian MBA classmates for introducing me to this fan-favorite. Though note to self: they go down easy but cost probably ~$150 pesos each at this joint, so budget accordingly!

I liked the "sampler" appetizer that let you test out several traditional Peruvian dishes.... I believe this was the "piqueo limeño para dos."

2. Finally taking a photo of someone sleeping in their car

This is one of those things where once you notice it happening, you suddenly see it EVERYWHERE. It made sense, as what else were the many drivers in DF to do while waiting on their passengers to emerge from their appointments/lunches/etc.?  But the sheer number of car sleepers we saw made it oddly fascinating to me. Finally I got the nerve to snap a pic, albeit from a healthy distance.

De riguer for the streets of Mexico City

3.       Stock up on guayaberas & lucha libre items

Check out our guayabera source here, and a smattering of possible lucha libre souvenirs here. The week before we left, I purchased yet another lucha libre purse, as well the lucha heads that are now gracing our bathroom….

4.       A few carefully selected museums

While I am generally not a huge museum fan (see #1 for where I am probably spending my time instead), Mexico City does have some amazing options. I made a special effort to get to-

Museo Dolores Olmedo: Avenida México 5843, La Noria, Xochimilco– you can drive or take the Xochimilco light rail (el Tren Ligero) to the Estación La Noria, after first taking the blue metro line #2 to Tasqueña. The metro & the light rail each cost 3 pesos.

Not only does this museum have a great collection of pieces from Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and beyond, but the property/gardens are gorgeous. Check out these two amusingly-divergent obituaries of Dolores Olmedo herself, one from her museum website & one from the Times.

A view of the gardens + main building at the Museo Dolores Olmedo

Some may be drawn to the screeching peacocks that roam the grounds, but the highlight for me was the collection of xoloitzcuintlis (or “Xolos” among their friends). These hairless dogs are rather fascinating, and the best part is that they all hang out sunning themselves next to a statue of a xoloitzcuintli. This results in hours of entertainment while you try to distinguish actual hairless dogs from statues of hairless dogs.

Dog vs. dog statues: you be the judge.

Casa Luis Barragan: General Francisco Ramírez 12-14, Colonia Ampliación Daniel Garza. Easy taxi ride from Polanco/Condesa/downtown, or take the subway to the Constituyentes stop. Tours cost $150 pesos.

This architect’s home is totally off the radar for most DF visitors, but I highly recommend a visit, particularly if you’re an engineer-y/architect-y type. There’s a little more prep involved, as you have to call (+52) 55.5515.4908 or email casaluisbarragan@gmail.com to make an appointment for a tour (available in both English & Spanish). When friend Brandi & I went, we had a great tour guide who offered lots of color commentary—but I may have been biased because he was so excited to have me on the tour. Apparently I am the same height that Luis Barragan was (6’2), so the guide regularly paused for my input of what various perspectives were like since I would be experiencing it the way Barragan did. :)

So why is this place cool?  Barragan won the Pritzker prize in 1980 (which is *the* award to win for architects, so he must be good, and he also designed the Torri Satélite that you may have seen driving north out of DF). There are several tall-guy tricks, like floating walls that were high enough for only him to peer over to spy on people & furniture designed to accommodate his tall frame.. There’s a staircase consisting of wooden planks sticking out from the wall, and fascinating mixtures of paint/shadows that offer really different perspectives depending on where you’re standing. The bedroom where his female guests slept was the only room in the house to have no religious iconography in it, which I found amusing. This description is obviously not doing it justice, but just trust me that it’s worth a trip. :)

Unfortunately I was not able to take any interior photos, as I was told there exists some tricky arrangement where his heirs sold the rights to a foundation in Europe & they own all images of his work… However, I did find a couple blogs with a few pics. All I can share with you is the rather uninspiring street view to assure you that this nearly-unmarked door is indeed the entrance to Casa Luis Barragan.

If you're looking for the Luis Barragan house, you've come to the right barely-marked place. :)

Basilica de Guadalupe: Plaza de las América #1, Colonia Villa de Guadalupe. Take either metro line #3 up to Deportivo 18 de Marzo (if you’re going from the Centro Historico) or line #7 up to El Rosario (if you’re going from Polanco), and transfer to line #6 in the direction of Martín Carrera.  Get off at the La Villa Basilica station, and walk north 2 blocks.

While this is more than a museum, I’m bucketing it here due to its historical value. This is a must-do for anyone intrigued by the history of the Catholic faith in Mexico. You can visit both the old & new churches, see the cloak that Juan Diego brought back after the Virgen appeared to him (while you’re on a moving sidewalk), light a candle, be sprinkled with holy water, get your photo taken while riding a fake horse, etc. etc.  This merits a full blog post to really describe the experience, but I’ll whet your appetite with a few highlights.

Moving sidewalks to control the crowds viewing Juan Diego's cloak w/the image of la Virgen

The unique roofline of the new basilica (since the old one on the left is sinking, like many other historic buildings in DF)

Doesn't this just scream "Christmas card photo"??

5.       One more visit to Mercado Jamaica

My “top market in Mexico City” rating for Mercado Jamaica was recently seconded by an unbiased third party. :)  Besides flowers, they always have a great assortment of accoutrements for whatever holiday is coming up on the horizon; I made one last trip to pick up some papel picados around Mexican Independence Day for my future decorating needs.  And don’t forget to visit for all your flower animal purchases!

This flower frog is not only precious, but he also had a button you could press to make him ribbit. Hilarious, people!

6.       See the Ballet Folklorico: performing at the Palacio de Bellas Artes; tickets can be purchased on Ticketmaster

I had unwisely assumed the word “ballet” in the title equated to “boring,” but after enough friends tried to convince me otherwise, I finally brought my dad to this when he visited a couple months before we left. It was awesome. Great music, amazing dancing, a guy dancing like a deer while wearing a deer head, what’s not to love? Put the Ballet Folklorico on your list, people!

7.       Get your picture taken with the Ángel: intersection of Reforma + Eje 2 (a.k.a. Rio Tiber or Florencia)

When a city has one icon widely associated with it, I feel moving away without a photo of you + that thing is ill-advised. In Mexico City, this icon is the Ángel de la Independencia, located on the main east-west drag through town. I recommend doing this on Sundays when Reforma is blocked off to vehicle traffic. This will significantly reduce your odds of getting run over while posing with the Ángel.

This is about as iconic as we're going to get folks, outside of me draped over a green VW bug.

8.       Attend a bullfight: Plaza México in Ciudad de los Deportes, tickets available on Ticketmaster once the season kicks off in November 2011. Take metro line #7 to San Antonio station, or take the Metrobús to the Ciudad de los Deportes station.

Attending a bullfight wasn’t on my “favorite things to repeat” list, but I did feel like I had to experience it + Plaza México once before leaving Mexico. The spectacle is fascinating, albeit a bit depressing. The phrase “not very sporting” kept running through my mind as we watched the bull be weakened by successive rounds of picadors + banderilleros before the matador even came onto the scene…  But it was interesting, many tasty snacks were served, and I’m glad I went. FYI for the sensitive among us if you decide to brave it—there are 5 or 6 rounds (each with its own bull), so go towards the end to ensure you’re watching the good matadors who make the process as quick & painless as possible.

Early on in one of the bull fights at Plaza México

Now I know this isn’t a comprehensive Mexico City to-do list …. You may be asking, “But where is the Anthropology Museum? Xochimilco? A street food tour? Attending a lucha match??  The Centro Historico??”  Do not fear– this is just a combination of our favorites + places we didn’t prioritize when moving there but later realized we had to do pre-departure.  :) Former and/or current Mexico City residents—what else have I missed?? Anything unusual spots or activities that were/are on your DF bucket list (or lista de cubeta, rather) before you leave this amazing city??

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating content as a Contributor for the México Today Program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared in my blog are completely my own.

Guayaberas: the must-have men’s summer shirt of Mexico

One excellent souvenir for any man visiting Mexico is the guayabera. To me, this is the consummate summertime shirt for men who want to look good but can’t be bothered to wear a stuffy suit. I won’t get into the historical debate about its origins, but within Mexico it originated in the Yucatan. Some Americans refer to it as a Mexican wedding shirt, and there is certainly no shortage of beach weddings that have taken place with the groom sporting one of these.

In Mexico City, I observed that guayaberas were standard slightly-less-formal attire for spring/summer wedding attendees, as well as a great option for an nice evening out. Heck, even Mitt Romney (random fact of the day: his father was born in Mexico!) has been spotted wearing them!

This light blue guayabera is one seeing regular wear by John on hot summer weekend nights here in DC.

For those of you who are residing in or passing through Mexico City, you may be wondering, “But where can I get a good quality guayabera without trekking down to the Yucatan?”  Luckily, I have your answer!  The store I’ve outlined directions to below isn’t really on the tourist circuit– it seems to cater more to wholesale business, e.g. I don’t recall seeing a dressing room, they’re not open on weekends.  However, the prices for the higher-quality linen shirts seemed as good as John had found anywhere in his searches and they have a solid selection of designs & colors organized by size for easy shopping.

If you’re in the market for gifts to bring back from your trip to Mexico & know your recipient’s shirt size, this could be even better than the 8,000 lucha libre masks we’ve distributed to 50% of our family and friends (albeit also a bit more $$). :) This store also had sizes down to 2 years old, which definitely made my list of “precious gift options for toddlers!”

Directions to a great guayabera store in Mexico City’s Centro Historico

Name: Guayaberas Yucachen
Address
: La Academia 6, Piso 1, Centro, Mexico DF
–> just south of the intersection with Republica de Guatemala
Link to Google Maps Street View

Closest Metro Stop: Zocalo. From the Zocalo Metro, walk east on Seminario and take a left in ~3 blocks on Academia.

Phone Number: 55.5542.0537 acc to the Yellow Pages
Hours: Our vague recollections are this place was *not* open on the weekends or Mexican holidays and closes up shop by 6PM.
What else to know: lino means linen and algodon means cotton. There are also various fabric blends available. Linen costs more, but is the more traditional option.

As you walk north up Academia, look for the white GUAYABERAS sign overhead on the east (right) side of the street.

The entrance to the store (located on the 2nd level of the building) is inside this unassuming parking garage...

...and up these dingy stairs... The window displays filled with guayaberas will help you know you're on the right track!

Once inside Guayaberas Yucachen, row after row of shirts await your perusal!

In traditional Mexican retail store fashion, the salesperson will carefully follow your every move. ;)

Tell me these little guayaberas for 4-year-olds aren't the perfect gift that his mom will think is precious. (And yes, let's just ignore the fact that the 4-year-old will think it sucks because it's not a truck & you will become forever branded as the relative who always gives him clothes.)

Once you’ve made your guayabera purchase, expect to receive regular compliments on what a trendy hipster you are if you’re wearing it back in the US. If you are wearing it in Mexico or Cuba, this will not be as novel so don’t hold your breath. :) Take good care of it, and you will be able to constantly relive that beach wedding you may or may not have had!

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating content as a Contributor for the México Today Program.  I was also invited to an all-expenses paid trip to Oaxaca as part of my role and for the launch of the program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared in my blog are completely my own.

Visiting the Alebrije Hotspot of Oaxaca

One of my favorite parts of my trip my recent Oaxaca trip via Mexico Today turned out to be the visit we made to the small town of San Martín Tilcajete. When John & I visited Oaxaca back in 2009, we’d heard from friends about all the little villages specializing in various handicrafts that are located within an hour’s drive from the city. To be honest, I was skeptical.  You’ve seen one Mexican handicraft, you’ve seen them all, right?

This is definitely not your run-of-the-mill handicraft!! I *loved* this turkey alebrije @ Jacobo and Maria Angeles' shop.

But this was before I had a true appreciation for Mexico’s many incredibly-specialized small towns. For instance, are you interested in seeing every piece of home decor that could possible be made out of onyx? Tecali de Herrera in the state of Puebla is your answer for all your onyx lamp needs! Hoping to buy as many trendy leather shoes for $200 pesos each as can fit in your suitcase? Head over to Leon in Guanajuato state, hub of all things leather (except for women’s shoes in size, ahem, 12 or 13).

So three years after being introduced to my first alebrije (including some extra-large ones scattered along Reforma in Mexico City), I was more optimistic about visiting the small town that’s bursting at the seams with alebrije action!

Oversized alebrijes seemed to escort us as we drove into the town of San Martin Tilcajete

For those wondering “what is that word she keeps using?”, alebrijes are colorful fantasy animals that are traditional folk art in both Oaxaca & Mexico City. There’s one history on the origination of alebrijes here— those in DF were papier mache, but those from Oaxaca are carved out of wood. Fellow blogger Alvin has more great detail on the unique tree that Oaxacans use for their alebrijes– the copal–and their sustainable farming practices.

A smattering of Oaxacan alebrijes

Many of my other blogger pals have highlighted the gorgeous finished alebrijes that we saw at the workshop of Jacobo and Maria Angeles. But I wanted to share my favorite part– the shelves of naked alebrijes, categorized by animal & awaiting their coats of paint to make themselves presentable to the world. :)

You can almost hear the howling of that dog with his back to the camera.

This bear was one of the more agile looking bears I've seen, and also one of the more pouty.

These guys were great-- frogs ready to party, some with guitars and other with jugs full of moonshine. (yes, I know; anthropomorphize much?) ;)

Here was one of the alebrije carvers hard at work, with a flurry of copal wood scattered around him.

The unique aspect about the alebrijes at this workshop was their amazing level of detail– like nothing I’d seen elsewhere in Mexico.

This gentleman carefully puts the finishing touches on this wacky dragon

Still a little dragon tail left to be painted, but look at that detail (not to mention, how did they carve the tail like that??).

And here's one of the amazing finished pieces.

How do I get to San Martin Tilcajete?

If you’re ambitious & are driving, Moon Travel Guides has a great, fairly detailed map of all the villages around the city of Oaxaca. You’ll take Highway 175 south from the city, and San Martin Tilcajete is about 23km out. It took us about an hour to get out there when you include some slow-moving traffic in the city + a festival of topes (killer speedbumps!) on the way out of town.

Look for this sign to mark the inauspicious entrance to the town of San Martin Tilcajete!

Alternatively, if you’re looking for a tour guide, I can only speak to the experience I had with the tour company with whom the Mexico Today folks made arrangements– Turismo El Convento de Oaxaca. Ulises Bonilla Martinez and his mother Maria Esther Martinez Ricardez both did a great job, and she in particular had the gift of story-telling that added a lot to the experience. The prices outlined on their brochure I received for various tours around Oaxaca state start from $180 pesos for half-day trips to Monte Alban or the nearby artisan villages, and $300 pesos for full-day outings. You can email info@oaxacaexperts.com for more details. If you want to do some shopping around, here’s a list of some other tour options to consider.

Finally, there is a great list here (in Spanish) of recent/upcoming events in Oaxaca, so be sure to monitor that for 2012’s Feria del Alebrije schedule as you plan your travel– you know how much I love a good niche festival!!

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating content as a Contributor for the México Today Program.  I was also invited to an all-expenses paid trip to Oaxaca as part of my role and for the launch of the program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared in my blog are completely my own.

Upcoming Random Events in Mexico City & beyond!

As part of my continuing “Live Vicariously Through My Friends in Mexico” program, I wanted to alert y’all to some upcoming events in DF, Quintana Roo, and Hidalgo state that I thought may be worth checking out. Rest assured I continue to keep my finger on the pulse of kitschy activities despite my absence from Mexico, all in exchange for the small request of merely a few of your cheesy photos to make me feel like I was there. 😉

MORE LUCHA, MORE BETTER:

That’s right folks– the month of July once again brings us the annual Lucha Libre: La Experiencia!! The dates are July 23 & 24 at Centro Banamex. Have you ever thought to yourself, “I wonder what it would be like if a bunch of luchadors and lucha libre super fans got together and hung out for two days at a tradeshow that also has a professional wrestling ring set up?” Now is your chance to find out!! For fond memories of LuchaFest 2009, check out my prior post.

Recall this photo of me with a veritable "Who's Who" of up-and-coming lucha libre stars.

Their Facebook site may merit a visit, as there seem to be some hot prizes & giveaways happening in the final feverish moments leading up to the extravaganza.

El Matador is on the right, accompanied by famous "mini" luchador Mascarita Dorada. (photo courtesy El Matador)

Since you folks let me down on live reporting from the Feria Nacional de Burros (which, btw, was recently featured in the San Francisco Chronicle online!!), I have already nailed down a correspondent for this event. Friend and luchador El Matador, who has also recently relocated back to the DC area, will be flying down to Mexico City for the craziness. Keep an eye out for the gentleman on the right– if you are lucky, perhaps you can get one of his action figures, which currently is gracing my cubicle at work. I have not yet inquired as to whether El Matador will be doing any wrestling here in DC, but I feel like come election time next year, there will surely be some enterprising politician looking for a popularity boost by taking on one of the rudos…!

MEXICAN MICROBREWS: Yes, Virginia, there is a beer besides Corona in Mexico

If you ask the average person about Mexican beer, you’ll probably get an answer restricted to either the Grupo Modelo brands (Corona, Victoria, Pacifico, Negro Modelo, ) or those of FEMSA (Dos Equis, Sol, Indio, Bohemia, Tecate). But a revolution has been brewing, my friends!! (pun intended)

Mexican craft beer festival? Sold!

A number of craft breweries have emerged around Mexico, and they will have their wares on display September 1-3 at the World Trade Center in Mexico City during the Congreso Cerveza México 2011: Por La Cerveza Libre festival. You will be able to sample more than 100 beers for a mere $150 pesos/day (with advance registration)! This event is part of the Gourmet Show that happens at the same time/place– check out last year’s pics here to see if it merits a visit.

WHALE SHARK SEASON IS NOW!! Come swim next to a fish with a 6-foot-wide mouth!

Swimming with the whale sharks off the coast of Isla Holbox in Quintana Roo state in Mexico is one of those wildlife-interaction experiences that I think you have to do at least once, just like a safari in Africa, seeing the giant tortoise in the Galapagos, and visiting prairie dogs in Nebraska. John and I made it down last June & stayed at the Holbox Dream hotel (thumbs up; great air conditioning, which quickly became my main criteria for a hotel on an island in the summer).

We were too cheap to pay for a guide that took photos of us underwater, but check out my friend Joy’s amazing photos or Kelly’s story & pics on their blogs. While the average whale shark is 25 feet long, they can be up to 40+ feet in length– they are the world’s largest living fish! Even the Washington Post is getting in on the whale shark action. They’re really an added bonus to what is already a lovely beach vacation.

The view from our hotel room on Isla Holbox, Mexico

México Desconocido has further tiburón ballena details, for those who read Spanish, and if you search for “whale shark” + “Isla Holbox” or “Isla Mujeres” (the other jumping-off point for tours), you’ll find reams of additional details. In fact, el Festival del Tiburón Ballena is happening July 15-17 on Isla Mujeres.

FERIA DE LA BARBACOA!!

I will caveat this alert with the fact that I know nothing about this festival in honor of grilled meats except for the announcement on the México Desconocido calendar that is backed up by the announcement on the town of Actopan’s homepageTHIS weekend, folks, in scenic Actopan in the state of Hidalgo, a meat festival (probably lamb) is awaiting your arrival. The website indicates the primary attraction at this festival is the competition to win the title of Best Barbacoyero of the Year. The word barbacoyero is not one I’ve come across before, but I will translate it loosely as “one who makes barbacoa“. :)

This photo seems to confirm the event actually exists, though according to this blog we still seem to be awaiting further details…but last year’s agenda was quite thorough!  So don’t let the silly logistical details keep you away! Commit wholeheartedly & with low expectations- this is my travel motto & it never fails. If you show up in Actopan on Saturday with the goals of eating barbacoa & meeting a talented barbacoeryo, I can almost promise your expectations will be exceeded. 😉

The 2009 logo for the Feria de la Barbacoa was the best I could find, but I felt it lends a certain air of authenticity. Also, please note the ambitious "463rd anniversary". Just think what might be in store for the 465th year!!

In summary, have a fantastic time wearing a mask to wrestle a whale shark while drinking a Mexican craft beer and eating barbacoa. What a summer Mexico has to offer!!

Shopping in the Mexico City Airport

As many of you regular readers may have gathered by this point, there are few things I love more than products with a Mexican theme and kitschy shops for hipsters. When these worlds combine, good things happen.

I certainly didn’t expect to find this combo inside the Mexico City airport. But as I wandered through Terminal 2 on Friday (en route to Oaxaca for the Mexico Today kickoff), I came across “DesignMX: diseño mexicano contemporáneo” located between the two Starbucks in the middle portion of Terminal 2.

Here's the low-key signage for the DesignMX shop at the MEX airport

The flurry of loud, colorful bags caught my eye as was trotting by in search of a sandwich.

I was drawn to the busy prints like a moth to a flame...

Everything in the store comes from local Mexican designers, or so I understood. The one pictured above is Sensacional de Diseño Grafico (their website is a bit hit-or-miss, but I do love the lucha computer bag in the lower right corner of the photo above). You can check out some more of the wares in the pics below– just click on the photos to see a larger version.

My old favorite itten is selling their laser-cut jewelry & decor, and my new favorite Rojo has some witty ceramic items.

T-shirts, bags, bowls, jewelry, and fun faux-crumpled plastic cups on that 2nd shelf down from the top in red/black/white.

I have always been tempted to purchase one of Mexico's popular chicken-shaped egg baskets, but I fear our dinner guests would be weirded out by our eggs sitting out at room temp.

I told myself that if I didn’t make any big purchases in Oaxaca (outside of the already-planned bottle of mezcal), I would make a return visit before my flight home. So on Sunday, I popped back in and purchased a wee gift for John:

This is such a Mexico City-specific gift, I couldn't help but spring for it.

If you’ve never driven a car in Mexico City, the above figurine (actually a coin bank!) will mean absolutely nothing to you. Those who have spent time driving, you should recognize an artist’s rendering of the bane of your existence- the “Viene Viene” dudes. To quote Noé’s packaging:

“Noé is one of the thousands of “Viene Viene” (direct translation: “come, come”) of Mexico City. These individuals claim the majority of free public parking spaces on the street in order to charge the person who wants to use it. When one decides to pay, the “viene viene” removes the bucket used to save the spot & begins to aid you in parking by saying “viene, viene, viene.” Noé  is the name of our character and its meaning comes from the play of words No E, which in Spanish translates to No Parking.”

“No E” is the abbreviation for “No Estacionarse.”  These guys were indeed on every street of even marginal popularity. Initially I found them infuriating– they didn’t own this street; how could they charge me to park on it! But eventually I became a fan– nothing ever happened to our car under their watchful eyes, and for a few additional pesos they would usually wash off all the DF grime by the time we returned. Anyway, this memorabilia was one I couldn’t resist.  (John was appropriately amused.) :)

If you’re entertained by the Viene Viene, I highly recommend checking out the designer’s site at www.arielrojo.com. They also have an awesome pig lamp that uses swirly compact fluorescent bulbs as the pig’s tail, and another bank shaped like a mattress.

As for the other designers at DesignMX besides Ariel Rojo, I’ve written about itten before, but you should also check out El Escobas & their Molote Art Toy, Liquen jewelry, MODO Museo, and the various other brands whose names I can’t read in my pictures. Check out DesignMX on Facebook, and allegedly a website is coming soon!

If you have more money to spend, the Tienda MAP (moda y arte popular) has some great souvenirs, but the prices are well above what you would pay at popular tourist spots like Ciudadela in Mexico City. They do have some great stuff though if you are running short on time; it is the wing with Gates 52-62.  Pineda Covalin also has some beautiful clothes & accessories with classed-up Mexican imagery incorporated into their fabrics, but be prepared to pay for the name/quality. (They have stores in both wings of Terminal 2 and also in Terminal 1.) Note- they do have an international website as well if anyone is inspired!

I do love this Pineda Covalin bag, but I think it was ~$200 dollars...

Finally, I would be remiss in not mentioning the best option for lucha libre kitsch at the airport– the Hijo del Santo store is also located in Terminal 2, but it is outside of the secure area near the food court by puerta 6. Don’t let this Christmas be the Christmas you come home without any Mexican wrestling-themed gifts for all your loved ones, people! Consider yourself forewarned, and happy airport shopping. :)

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating content as a Contributor for the México Today Program.  I was also invited to an all-expenses paid trip to Oaxaca as part of my role and for the launch of the program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared in my blog are completely my own.

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