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Travels in Mexico

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).

Baja California Sur Roadtrip: Part 2- Los Cabos

In follow up to my prior post regarding our Baja California Sur roadtrip, we continued on from Todos Santos to Cabo San Lucas, the most well-known spot for tourists. I will admit to being a bit skeptical of visiting Cabo prior to our arrival… I feared the existence of too many all-inclusive resorts & too many frogs:

Señor Frog, as spotted from afar, surrounded by scantily clad young-uns.

I was also wary of cruise ships & young girls getting their hair done in those horribly-unattractive really tight braids along their scalps by roving beach braiders.

In my nightmare, this cruise ship would suddenly speed to shore, disgorge all of its buffet-laden passengers, and surround me while that guy in the white t-shirt turned his hair-braiding attention on my locks.

As it turned out, I actually really enjoyed our visit!  Friend Heidi will attest that she had to convince me that we should spend two nights there, but as I told her later, it was a great choice. What turned me around on Cabo San Lucas, you may wonder?

1) Finding a sweet lodging deal on www.vrbo.com

I got a little obsessed with the Vacation Rentals By Owner website during our time in Mexico, as there were so many amazing properties at really reasonable prices. We had 5 people in our group in Cabo San Lucas, which was the perfect number for investigating a VRBO alternative to 2 or 3 hotel rooms.

We found Casa de Mario (http://www.vrbo.com/272874) located in Medano Beach, which was my top neighborhood of choice in Cabo. This spot has 3 beds/3.5 baths, is 300 yards from the beach, has a fully-outfitted kitchen, and even has a pool in the backyard. It was the perfect spot for our group as we could abandon our car & walk to everything, come back in the afternoon to refresh with a glass of wine in the air-conditioned living room, and whip up our own breakfast in the morning.  Owner Tim was super helpful & responsive, and even had some great restaurant recommendations to boot.  (See additional pics on his VRBO page above.)

John lauding over the pool at our VRBO house in Cabo San Lucas

FYI if you stay @ Tim's place, this is what the entrance looks like of the place he had us go to check in & get the keys.

2) Co-opting a large hotel’s beach chairs & pool for the day

We determined in advance that the only thing we’d really be missing out on by not staying in a large hotel was the primo beach location.  So on the nice sunny day that we wanted to spend reading on the beach in luxury, we had our best-dressed group member approach the gentleman standing guard around the beach chairs of one of the nicer hotels on Medano Beach. She asked if it would be possible for us to rent five chairs for the day. They quickly arrived at some reasonable agreement (maybe a few hundred pesos or so + our commitment to buy some food/drinks) to allow us free reign of the beach chairs, pool, and restrooms for the day.  Win-win, I say!Also, since we were inside the “velvet ropes” of the hotel property, all the beach vendors were preemptively shooed away from pestering us– bonus.

This is the hotel we ID'd as our target property for beach-sitting.

Cooling off in their gorgeous pool while sipping a cold beer was quite rewarding.

3) Breakfast on the beach at The Office

A quick walk from our door, the food here was solid & the views were great! A little Americanized? Maybe, but they had chilaquiles which gets a thumbs up from me. Sit in a ways from the perimeter of the tables to minimize interaction aforementioned beach vendors. Website is http://theofficeonthebeach.com/.  [Insert requisite joke here about this being the best office I’ve been to, etc.]

4) Great photo opps with cute garbage cans

What's not to love about these guys?

5) Great photo opps with the iconic rock formations off the coast

The girls looking artsy, outside of me in my dumpy Old Navy flatteringly-horizontal-striped t-shirt.

While we were too cheap to take a boat tour to actually see El Arco, it does look pretty sweet & probably merits a trip. :) VRBO owner Tim recommended the following folks that will treat you fairly: “POCHOS, across from the Marina, runs five boats of different sizes (Carlos or Gustavo 877-347-4275).   REDRUM Sportfishing is currently running seven boats, located on the Marina at the Marina Cabo Plaza Hotel.  John Donovan is the contact 617-335-2124.”

6) You’re on a nice beach

The beach! Not overrun with spring breakers!

More beach! This time looking from the other direction!

 7) People-Watching Extraordinaire!

Good diversity of tourists equals good diversity in people watching. We enjoyed this special photo opp happening below with a young boy plus various small dogs staged along a multi-part beach chair.

Is this man a professional photographer? Hard to know what's happening here.

Which one is the statue in traditional dress?

From a food perspective, Cabo San Lucas certainly has no shortage of restaurants. We went to Nicksan for our one fancy dinner, but you have a plethora of options for higher-end dining. The bigger challenge is probably getting recommendations for good, traditional Mexican places to eat! Ask around where you’re staying (but try to clarify you’re interested in where they go to eat, not where the closest Ruth’s Chris is) & follow the crowds of locals.

After our two nights in Cabo San Lucas, we headed out for lunch in San Jose del Cabo & back up the coast to La Paz. More to follow in our next installment!

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.

Baja California Sur Roadtrip: Part 1-Todos Santos

When we assessed our options for a longer vacation in Mexico over Semana Santa last year, we asked ourselves the question that most tourists as themselves: what would Jennifer Aniston, Leonardo DiCaprio, & Cindy Crawford do for their vacations?   Well, as it turns out, what they would do is prance around in their swimsuits at an expensive resort in Cabo.  We decided to slightly modify that option by expanding it to all of Baja California Sur, spending less money, and minimizing the amount of time I would spend being photographed by paparazzi while scantily-clad (a constant battle, I assure you).  :)

I’d heard lots of rave reviews of Baja California Sur (even from non-celebrities!), so we plotted a Wednesday-through-Tuesday road trip to take in all the highlights over the long Easter weekend last year.  The plan was fly into La Paz, rent a car & head straight to Todos Santos (one of Mexico’s heralded Pueblos Mágicos).  We’d spend a night there, then two nights in Cabo San Lucas, then make a leisurely drive back to La Paz for three nights with a stop for lunch in San Jose del Cabo.

We had a bit of a rough start when we got bumped off our Wednesday afternoon flight from DF to La Paz for reasons yet-unknown.  But we didn’t want to admit defeat & return to our apartments, so we took Aeroméxico up on their offer to put us up in an airport hotel for the night.

Here we are, awaiting the arrival of the free shuttle to the Hotel Riazor in Mexico City... I think most of us look cheerier than how we were actually feeling at this stage.

As a side note here, for anyone in need of a hotel close to the Mexico City airport, the Hotel Riazor was actually decent/clean/convenient. For anyone in need of being in Baja California Sur, it was none of those things. :)

We made it out the next morning & arrived safely in La Paz, with great coastal views as we passed from the mainland to the peninsula.

A view of La Paz from the air

I will save the details of renting a car in Mexico for another day & time (note to self: investigate insurance options well in advance because the “but my US credit card covers rental cars!” argument doesn’t carry much water here), but we soon got on the road!  It’s about 55 miles from La Paz to Todos Santos.

Luckily driving around Baja California offers much clearer signage than Mexico City!

I wish I could offer a review of lodging in Todos Santos, but alas, our one night was foiled by our flight delay. However, I can tell you that I research hotels obsessively and had settled on Casa Bentley as the boutique hotel worthy of our love, so please check it out & report back!  The interesting thing about Todos Santos is that it doesn’t sit directly on the beach– but it’s only about a 5-minute drive or ~25 minute walk to get down to the beaches. Casa Bentley has a great map here to give you a better idea.

Clean & cute town square within Todos Santos

We spent some time wandering around the shops of tiny Todos Santos– definitely a cute little town, with kind of a up-and-coming San Miguel de Allende feel. (For those who’ve not visited San Miguel, this means lots of gringo-friendly stores & restaurants owned by a mix of Americans & Mexicans, lots of American artists peddling their wares, it’s easy to get by in English, and there’s a tendency towards gringo prices.)   It was a prime example of what John & I had realized several times during travel to more popular tourist destinations in Mexico– if we hadn’t been living in Mexico City for a year+, we would have considered the prices quite reasonable. But after living in “normal” Mexico, you become irrationally outraged at higher prices in tourist spots. :)

After eliminating a couple of the pricier restaurants I’d sussed out online, we decided to have lunch at the Hotel California at its La Coronela Restaurant & Bar.  (I think this menu is a couple years old, but it gives you an idea of the food.)  It was tasty & had fun decor + a nice palapa area to sit under outside in their courtyard.

I do love me some bull-themed decor...

...supplemented with fresh cala lilies!

Note requisite fountain + palapa in the distance! We arrived too late to snag an outdoor table-- popular spot.

After a final round of verifying that we didn’t need to make any large purchases, we took a few photos next to some noteworthy cacti and headed back to the car.

Here's the rest of the crew posing on the sidewalks of Todos Santos

My ~2 hours in Todos Santos did not allow me to suss out all that it had to offer, so I encourage you to review some other  assessments here, here, and here.  After our brief stop, we headed back out to our next destination– the famed Cabo San Lucas!  More to come on the sweet VRBO house we stayed in blocks from the beach in Cabo, followed by the best swimming I’ve ever had outside of La Paz!!

While you await my next post, keep yourself entertained wondering about this photo I snapped on the road from Todos Santos to Cabo:

"Hieleria" translates to "store that makes/sells ice". Note the sign in the middle-- No hay hielo!! There is no ice! Looks like there hasn't been ice at this spot for a while, folks...but the signage confirming that is appreciated.

And let this last photo lead you down the highway to Cabo San Lucas.... Will we see a celebrity??!? Watch and find out!

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.

Sparkling Wineries in Querétaro: Viva Freixenet!

Who can forget that first bottle of "champagne" you purchased from the local convenience store? ;)

I’ve shared before how I’m a sucker for well-branded tourism, so Querétaro’s efforts to promote their wine & cheese “route” certainly did not fall on deaf ears during my time in México. Even before we made our trip to Finca Vai for some cheese tasting, we drove from Mexico City to the same area in Querétaro to check out our nearby winery options.  (One has to prioritize, people.)  Cavas Freixenet was the first place to catch our eye, as I was quick to recognize the Freixenet brand name. “Aren’t they the people with that jet black bottle & trendy gold writing at a $10 price point?” I asked John.

We headed out near the town of Ezequiel Montes in Querétaro state, just north of Tequisquiapan, to visit the Mexican arm of Freixenet (the mother ship is headquartered in Spain).  I kept my expectations low, as I had observed that their website listed a number of special events happening at the winery… If I had learned nothing else from my time living in Virginia & touring its wineries, I had developed a hypothesis that there’s an inverse correlation between the quality of wines produced by a vineyard and the number of special events the vineyard has to host to sucker you into visiting & drinking its wine. :)

Once you see this sign, you have arrived in sparkling-wine-ville.

Cavas Freixenet offers free guided tours on the hour between 11AM & 4PM on the weekends, so John & I decided to check out the inner workings.

Their machinery seemed to be well-kept, in as much as I am familiar with winery equipment... (which is: not very)

Next, we descended into the bowels of the winery...

I was actually quite impressed with their cellars... massive arched brick tunnels...

...and wine stacked as high as the eye could see....

We also learned about the aging process, how they move the angle of the bottle to let the sediment collect in the neck & then be "disgorged."

After trotting around the cellars, then we headed back up to the courtyard for the real action: the tastings.  Most of their product line is available by the glass at very reasonable prices from carts in the courtyard, and then you can pop into the shop to buy any bottles you want starting at <$100 pesos.  In honor of my former days of drinking pink champagne with my roommates in Boston, I went with one of their rosé options.

This is how I was meant to live.

So how was the Freixenet wine?  Actually not half bad!  In another page from my Virginia winery experiences, I realized that enough sugar can hide a world of ills when it comes to wine…. but even their brut options were pretty drinkable.  We stocked up on several bottles of either the Petillant Brut or the Sala Vivé (my memory fails me) with an eye towards a mimosa-fueled brunch in our future, plus a few rosé for any upcoming girls’ nights out.  Definitely worth a visit if you have any sparkling wine-oriented parties coming up, as I think the bottles we bought were around $80-some pesos each.  On the way out, we verified that grapes are indeed grown here:

The vines of Freixenet in Querétaro state, Mexico

If you’re interested in a visit to Cavas Freixenet, there’s a good map on their website. But much like my prior cheese tourism post highlighted Finca Vai’s little shop in Tequisquiapan as an alternative to visiting the source, you can also experience the Freixenet wines at their shop in Tequisquiapan! During our next trip through Querétaro up towards Xilitla in February 2010, our schedule didn’t permit a winery visit, so we checked out the wine bar instead.

The Freixenet World's Wine Bar is tucked down a little side street off the main plaza in Tequis: Andador 20 de Noviembre

We enjoyed a lovely bottle of bubbly outside the bar...

Tell me where in the States you could polish off a bottle of brut + 2 orders of snacks for <$20 dollars? :)

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I don’t think all Queretaran vineyards are created equal…  We didn’t manage to visit La Redonda vineyard, but we were feeling bad about that so instead we ordered a bottle of their red wine at dinner in Tequis.  Let’s just say our group was not enthused:

The table offers a verdict on La Redonda's innovatively-named "vino tinto"

We were unimpressed and feeling like we got a bad deal, until we noticed the back of the bottle:

I think it's safe to say anyone who orders a bottle of wine whose labels aren't even applied in the right direction, shouldn't be hoping for much in the quality department.

The upside-down label perhaps should have been our first clue…

In summary, Cavas Freixenet can be an amusing day trip from DF, particularly when combined with cheese eating and photo opportunities with taxidermied birds in the entrance of a random Tequisquiapan hotel:

I always say, nothing tops off a evening of wine tasting like a stuffed ostrich.

Enjoy, and if you want to learn more about Mexican wines, check out my friend Lesley’s blog here or ask her about wine tasting tour options in Mexico City. And I would love to know– what other Mexican wine favorites have I been missing out on??

UPDATE– Check out even more wine & cheese tips from friend Alvin, who runs a B&B in Oaxaca!

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.

Cheese Tourism in Mexico: a visit to Finca Vai

Cheese and dairy products in general are one of my favorite things to eat. So when I learned via Querétaro’s robust tourism board of a nearby farm that combined cheese-making with a barnyard animal petting zoo, it seemed like a no-brainer.  The fact that it was basically a simulated visit to the Midwest was just an added bonus. :)

Finca Vai is located about half an hour east of the city of Querétaro (just past the airport), or about 2 hours north of Mexico City. We were a little concerned as to whether it would be easy to find in the Queretaran countryside, but I should have had more faith:

The large Q-U-E-S-O lettering was a sure sign that we were on the right track!! (Dirty photo courtesy our windshield)

Welcome to the land of cheeeeeese, Gromit!

I love me some well-organized tourism, so I was pleased to see that tours were indeed run as regularly as promised: each hour between 11AM – 3PM on weekends, and by appointment during the week ($35 pesos/head). Their website even offers an agenda!  We started off learning about the cheese making process– this part was a little slow for us adults, but I think the kids in the group were entertained. The tour guide demonstrated the old-timey method, stirring a massive vat of murky-looking  “milk”. In a move that would make a semi-professional magician proud, the guide drew our attention to something on the opposite wall while her assistant popped out from behind a door and dumped a bunch of yellow sponges into the vat. Turn back around kids!! Cheese curds have already formed!!

Cheese-making barrel photo courtesy the Finca Vai website, as I was apparently too riveted to take out my camera during this portion of the tour.

After we learned about how wet yellow sponges instantaneously turned into plastic-wrapped cheese, we moved on to the cheese maturation zone!

Here's the cellar where cheese might have been stored to give it time to mature, in the days before better refrigeration options existed...

Finally it seemed that we had learned enough to be allowed to EAT THE CHEESE. They sat us down in a cute little roofed area with hay bales for chairs– a nice farm-y touch.

John prepares himself for a degustacion de quesos...

We got to sample 4 kinds of cheese on little branded Finca VAI plates:

I believe these were reblochon, ranchera, a panela with chipotle, and maybe a manchego?

I recall being a fan of the reblochon, as well as of the smoked provolone that they sold in the gift shop. After the tasting, we were off to discover the source of these cheeses: barnyard animals!!

First stop: the cattle! They were very willing to be petted.

Plenty of sheep were lurking around ready to offer their services.

The baby animals had their own little pens & were awaiting our arrival:

I was impressed that this girl was able to get a grip on the lamb.

John had no similar problems commandeering the same lamb.

This calf was in search of anything to suck on within a 10 foot radius.

I don't think this rabbit played an integral role in the cheese production process, but he was cute nonetheless.

And with that, our cheesery tour was over. We had the opportunity to spend more money in their store, so we snapped up some smoked provolone for the road:

All the cheese your little heart desires, available for purchase at the Finca VAI gift shop

Would I recommend the Finca VAI tour to others? If you have kiddos, I think this would be a great spot to bring the kids for an afternoon. The tour is very child-friendly, lots of opportunities to participate/answer questions/etc. (well, particularly if your child speaks Spanish).  And what kid doesn’t love petting farm animals!

For adults, the tour can be a little slow, but we were still entertained by the visit to the countryside + supporting a local business. That said, if you’re interested in sampling some cheese but aren’t a fan of sheep and cows, there’s a great alternative in nearby Tequisquiapan at the Museo del Queso y Vino. The word “museum” might be a slight overstatement, but it does deliver on Finca VAI cheeses!

The Museo del Queso y Vino offers lots of good photo opps with faux-cheese

As well as its own tasty treats!

Check out the Museo just off the square in downtown Tequisquiapan at Salvador Michaus 3 in the centro.

And as for Finca VAI, there’s a vague map on their website, but I’ve also tried to map its general location on Google + directions from Mexico City.  Enjoy your visit & México’s nascent cheese tourism industry thanks you for your patronage. 😉

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.

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!!

The Fields of Oaxaca

I believe it was a famous photographer who once said, “Some of the best photos this world has seen were taken from small, fogged-up airplane windows while flying over the state of Oaxaca.” Even if that’s not true, I’m still going to subject you to a photo I snapped on our descent into the OAX airport this afternoon– primarily for the viewing enjoyment of the many farmers & recovering farmers in my family. :)

Take a look at these stripey farm fields in Oaxaca state:

This looks like a modern art project, executed in crops.

The colors are a little anemic due to the multi-paned airplane window, but trust me that this flora was much more vibrant in person– particularly since the rainy season has begun in Oaxaca! I found the thin, multi-colored patches quite scenic. (Especially as opposed to my alternative view across the aisle– a man who seemed to be trying to put the moves on his airplane seat mate.)

More farm stripes! You are riveted!

It may not mean as much to those of you who are not Midwesterners & hence did not grow up viewing aerial photos of your Dad’s farm. So, check out this Google Satellite view of the farm land north of Pleasanton, Nebraska to get a sense of what an average US farm looks like. (And if you were wondering, yes, Pleasanton is home to the famous Sandbar restaurant & bar.)

Maybe this struck me today because it reminded me of the beautiful, stripey quilt that my Mom just finished for me & John, to accent our new gray/blue bedroom walls. Here it is on display still in her home:

Can you say talented quilter?? She even whipped up multiple pillows!! Go Marcia!!!

And speaking of beds (smooth transition, eh?), I was welcomed tonight after my arrival into Oaxaca by this message spelled out in leaves in my Camino Real hotel room:

John, don't get your hopes up expecting nightly love notes spelled out in cherry blossoms on our new quilt. ;)

This is how I was meant to live…but realistically I will only be living like this when Mexico Today is picking up the tab. :) Thanks to them for a great evening in Oaxaca!

The Burros are Back!!

Some things are so important to alert my readers to that I have to emerge from my 2-month blog hibernation to do so.  Any guesses what could possibly make that exclusive priority list? The Feria Nacional del Burro, of course!!

For any readers who had the misfortune of missing my live coverage from the National Donkey Fair 2010, rest assured that you can review both the emotional buildup to the event and the actual event here. Even though I knew it was unlikely that I would be able to attend Otumba’s premier annual tourist draw this year, I have been trying to monitor the innerwebs for further details to share with my many friends in Mexico City who will surely be dying to go. I was almost sidetracked from this quest by starting a new job (yipee!), but it appears I uncovered this year’s DonkeyFest just in time!!

You can review the full agenda for the 2011 Feria Nacional del Burro here. My instinct says that the day to go is this Sunday, May 1st, as that is the day of both the carnival & the burro races, as well as some burro polo. Sunday is the last day of the festival, and I have to say, all the other festival days seem heavy on bands/dance troupes and light on DONKEYS DRESSED LIKE AN AMERICAN TOURIST.  So choose your day wisely. Furthermore, do not dally or foolishly sleep in on Sunday– the good events (i.e. the burro polo) start at 10AM, and it will take you around an hour to get to Otumba from Mexico City.

The website http://otumbariam.wordpress.com/ appears to be the source of info for this year’s gathering (and they are also twittering up a storm). While it is not as witty as their now-defunct website from the 2010 event, I am going to give the Feria Nacional del Burro organizers the benefit of the doubt– surely they’ve chosen to invest their hilarity/sarcasm in donkey costumes rather than html coders. The below poster with a donkey in a frame also bodes well:

How could this event possibly disappoint you??

If you’re uncertain on how to get to Otumba, check out the ever-reliable Google Maps, or hire a taxi– Otumba is just a bit past the pyramids (a.k.a. Teotihuacan). I reckon you could negotiate a <$1000-peso rate for a taxi for the day. Once you arrive in town, just follow the braying & the clip-clopping of delicate hooves.

While I wither away this weekend in the donkey-less capital of Mexico’s northern neighbor, I am going to be relying on my faithful readers in DF to allow me to live vicariously through you. Please, report back on how the Feria has grown to be bigger & better than ever. Get your photo taken on a brahma bull. Purchase an inordinate amount of burro-themed crap. Adorn yourself in burro ears. I will be awaiting word. :)

Zihuatanejo: our last beach trip in Mexico

I sense your sympathy may be limited when I tell you that today is the last day of our LAST Mexican beach vacation, and it’s raining. We’ve truly been spoiled with all the amazing travel opportunities during our 2.25 years here in Mexico, but nonetheless we wanted to jam in one last trip to a beach.  The selection process of “which beach” was helpfully facilitated by the implosion of Mexicana Airlines (which had the only flights out of Benito Juarez Airport to places like Puerto Escondido and Huatulco), and the near infinite number of times I have seen The Shawshank Redemption on TBS while growing up.

For the possibly 5 people who have seen fewer movies than I have, I will try not to unduly spoil the plot by disclosing that at the end of the movie, someone ends up going to Zihuatanejo. Although I now understand that scene was actually filmed in the US Virgin Islands (liars), the seductive call of the name Zihuatanejo was enough to sway us– particularly when combined with a reasonably-priced plane ticket + generally positive reviews on the innerwebs.

Here is my underbelly skin contrasted against a white piece of paper, white fabric, and a white tile floor. Can you tell where my arm ends and the white objects begin??

Traveling to a Mexican beach in the month of September puts you firmly entrenched in the rainy season. I wasn’t overly worried about this, because God knows it’s not like my skin is destined to spend a lot of time in the sun. (see evidence at right) But I did sell John on the idea of spending a bit more money to stay somewhere nice, since odds were good that we would be spending a lot of time indoors. 😛 We settled on Casa Cuitlateca.

I wasn’t sure if Casa Cuitlateca could possibly live up to all the rave reviews on Trip Advisor, but it did. :) We were especially appreciative given the constant weather forecast of:

...and by "chance of rain", we mean "rain."

We arrived on Friday to a beautiful sunny day, but it poured that evening & has basically continued raining with ~2-3 momentary pauses over the subsequent three days. Casa Cuitlateca gets bonus points because despite only having five rooms, they have a number of open-air common areas so you’re not trapped in your room all the time during the downpours. We lucked out being the only guests during our three nights here, but I think even if the other four rooms were full, there’s enough space that you wouldn’t all be on top of each other.

This place was probably the best-designed B&B that we’ve stayed at, combining innovative design, traditional decor, novel water features, excellent food, great service, and very well thought-out rooms. If you were willing to pay a lot more, I’m sure there are more luxe options available, but for us Casa Cuitlateca struck a good balance with their boutique hotel feel + their off-season pricing ($150/nite + tax for the nicer rooms, apparently a 60% discount off high-season prices). Check out more pics below:

After you arrive via taxi, you're dropped off in the parking lot & get to cross a sweet suspension bridge over the driveway.

As you head up to the main level of the property, you pass this lovely pond (located below the infinity pool). Those stairs take you down to the road below.

A view towards the centro of Zihuatanejo from Casa Cuitlateca's pool. All the greenery you see around the pool-- that area is filled with little fish + a few big orange koi, so you have free entertainment while swimming.

I am a sucker for an infinity pool. One of the employees, Alfredo, told us a great story about how some dude showed up for a drink in the bar one night along with his dog. The guy sat down, and the dog promptly jumped in the pool & began vigorously paddling across. Alfredo tried repeatedly to get the guy's attention but was ignored. The dog, meanwhile, reached the infinity edge and jumped over it, down a ~30-foot drop off. FINALLY the guy takes notice, but by the time he heads down the stairs, the dog is already on his way back up- though now sporting a limp in his front right paw. The guy left his drink & departed in a huff, idiot dog in tow.

Facing the pool on the main level is the bar/breakfast nook when it's raining out. It has a great view and is a good spot to sit & wonder, "How long can it rain for, anyway?" with a drink in your hand.

This area had two strategic fans mounted on the walls, which we found to be great for taking "fan showers" when you returned all sweaty after your hike uphill from the centro. (note glistening body)

On the 2nd floor there's a spacious TV room/dining table...

...along with a computer for checking the intertubes.

I believe we were in the Puebla room, which offered an excellent direct view of the ocean.

It did not have as large of a terraza as the Guerrero room, but it had more indoor seating, which we decided was more valuable due to the everpresent mosquitos waiting to attack.

And if you tire of your room's bed, there is always this cute bed under the palapa by the pool.

Casa Cuitlateca also had a jacuzzi on the 3rd floor that we didn’t test out. They serve a small lunch menu of things like sopes, quesadillas, guac, sandwiches, burgers, etc. at *extremely* reasonable prices (i.e $75 pesos for a cheeseburger, $50 pesos for 4 sopes with the best tinga I have had in Mexico, etc.). Everything we had was excellent. Dinner you have to request in advance, and it is a set menu priced at $65/$75 USD per person, depending on entree (and includes an hour of open bar + a bottle of wine). I have read numerous rave reviews, but we didn’t try it as the pricing seemed a little high to us for a set menu that included several traditional Mexican dishes (that we eat often).

The last two highlights are the breakfast and the staff. For desayuno (which is included), you’re handed a menu listing juices, fruits, eggs, meats, side orders & drinks, and you basically order as much as you want off of it. Our first morning, we had 4 cups of coffee, a glass of fresh OJ, a glass of fresh grapefruit juice, a plate of mixed fruit accompanied by a bowl of yogurt for dipping, huevos rancheros, a ham-n-cheese omelet, and two orders of waffles. Um, yeah. Let’s just say we didn’t go hungry. 😉  Finally, the staff were all extremely friendly, helpful and attentive– we enjoyed chatting with Alfredo & Amador, and Sylvia did a great job in the kitchen. I believe there are 10 employees in total, and they do fantastic work maintaining a property that is certainly no small task!

As for Zihuatanejo in general, it is definitely a very laid-back spot that skews towards smaller hotels and houses vs. the massive, high-rise, chain hotels that are found in Ixtapa. The water/beaches were not the best I’ve seen in Mexico, but I think some of that is a function of rainy season + a really heavy rainstorm on our first night in town. I’m sure the beaches look more like this during the dry season, whereas I would not rush to go swimming in the ocean or walk along the sand barefoot in the rainy season.

Employees of a restaurant along Playa La Ropa work to clean up garbage after a stormy night.

Zihua’s centro is cute, with a good mix of touristy + local restaurant options and plenty of shops to buy all the Mexican artesanias that your little heart desires. Be aware that in the rainy season, the centro definitely has some drainage problems, so no need to wear your fancy high-heels here! Apparently water management has been a consistent problem in Zihua due to small, old pipes & the massive elevated area that is draining into the centro. We saw a number of “storm drains” that were actually functioning as fountains…

This drain may not be that effective... In other news, I didn't know I would be in this photo wearing my all-shades-of-green outfit. John told me the fashion police probably wouldn't be out in Zihua on a rainy Sunday afternoon, but now my fashion faux pas has been exposed to all just to bring you the news of Zihua's crap storm drains. What sacrifices I make for you people...

Many of the fancier restaurants are located along Playa La Madera/Playa La Ropa, mostly in hotels. We visited Kau-Kan Restaurant on Saturday night, and had a fantastic meal. To be fair, it didn’t end up being *that much* less expensive than the dinner pricing I mentioned above, but we had some novel dishes like an Asparagus & Cranberry Tart, Smoked Sailfish Salad, Seared Tuna w/Creamed Spinach & Mushrooms, Sea Bass w/Herbs, and an amazing Passion Fruit Sorbet.  Service was very good; highly recommended.

The other spot that everyone & their pet dog has recommended on Trip Advisor is Lety’s Seafood Restaurant. I will admit to being slightly skeptical as to how good these coconut shrimp could possibly be. FYI: they’re great. Big shrimp, not greasy, filled with a bit of cream cheese & accompanied by a coconut milk dipping sauce.

Yummm. Camarones de coco at Restaurant Lety's in Zihuatanejo.

Notes to self for when we try to make this at home: the shrimp seemed to be butterflied & filled w/some cream cheese. We hypothesized that then they are dipped in egg, then flour, then egg again, then shredded coconut.

Lety’s is located just across a footbridge from the centro, so have a taxi drop you off in the parking lot by the pier. Cross the bridge & turn left, and look for the below sign. Lety’s is on the 2nd floor.

Sign & stairway up to Lety's in Zihuatanejo

In summary, we’ve enjoyed our time here in Zihuatanejo despite being impressed by just how consistently it can rain for for 3 days. :) (We do have rainy season in DF as well, but it tends to consist of sunny mornings & temporarily rainy afternoons/evenings.) If you visit here, I recommend staying somewhere with a pool (as I’ve heard mixed reviews of the cleanliness of the bay). Zihua is a nice, traditional Mexican town/fishing village, vs. vacationing somewhere like the Zona Hotelera in Cancun where you could be on any beach in the world, trapped on a strip of chain hotels. For dining, there are plenty of fancy, high-end options that are priced accordingly, but you can also easily access <$1 USD tacos & traditional Mexican fare. And for drinking, there are numerous liquor stores in the centro if you’re looking for a better bargain than hotel bar prices. (May we recommend the Havana Club Siete Años rum?)

Now I am off for our Last Meal on a Beach in Mexico. :) See you back in DF!!

****Quick Update (Sept 7, 2010)****

For those interested in prices for getting from the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo airport (airport code ZIH) to town, here is a photo of one of the signs listing taxi prices:

This gives you an idea of the taxi prices at the Zihuatanejo airport (aka the Ixtapa airport).

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