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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).

Celebrating New Year’s Eve in DF

We found celebrating the Año Nuevo in Mexico City to be a bit different than our prior U.S.-based New Year’s Eve festivities.  In the U.S., pressure always feels high among the 20/30-something crowd to have THE MOST AMAZING NIGHT OUT of your life.  This usually involves spending 2x what you would normally spend on dinner at a restaurant whose food will be 1/2 as good as normal, and then spending the subsequent hours trying to purchase drinks from a bar packed with dozens of sweaty, overdressed strangers. :)

Most of the folks we knew in DF took the opposite approach: they spent New Year’s Eve at home with their families, where food & drink are plentiful, cheap, and readily-accessible!  But this begs the question, if NYE is not the crazed event that it is in the US, what is there to do in Mexico City for the non-chilango crowd?  Here are a few options to consider…

  • You can still go out for an overly-expensive, fancy New Year’s Eve dinner!

Lucky for you, there are still plenty of folks who will be out celebrating. As per Ruth’s post, Jaso & Piazza Navona will both be open on Dec 31.  Open Table may also serve as a useful starting point to determine which restaurants are serving dinner, as does this article on Chilango.com highlighting places that are doing fancy fixed-price options.

  • Learn & take part in traditional Mexican New Year’s traditions!

Cristina has a great summary of some favorite traditions within Mexico.  I found the “eating of the 12 grapes at midnight” the easiest to emulate. Make a wish for each grape you pop into your mouth!

You too can be the recipient of tired grapes from a bar in Mexico City @ midnight!

But I also quite enjoyed the lucky underwear– go to any Mexican mercado during the month of December, and you’ll find reams of red & yelow undies for sale.  Wearing red underwear increases your odds of finding the love of your life during the upcoming year, and yellow underwear is said to bring money.

We found this lucky-undie array at the mercado in Morelia, Michoacan shortly before New Year's Eve.

A quick non-NYE-related sidenote: I think when we saw our first red/yellow underwear display in Morelia back in 2008 (our first holiday season in Mexico), we didn’t understand the significance… But you know what we DID understand the significance of?  This hilarious display of other novelty underwear next-door to the NYE underwear:

These 20-peso novelty undies have provided an ROI of about 1000% in terms of amusement derived. We have given these as inappropriate gifts to more people (and laughed more at their expense) than we had ever hoped. Hindsight being 20/20, I would buy another 30 of these if I could.

  • Go to one of the trendy bars in Mexico City that you can’t get into on a normal weekend!

When we had trendy-club-goers visiting us from the US in Dec 2009, we were worried about telling them that “sitting at home together” was the preferred activity for NYE.  So, we decided to go out in Condesa to the strip of bars that is usually too much of a mob scene for us to bother going to on a normal Saturday night. :)

Pata Negra, here we come. (Address: Tamaulipas 30 at the corner of Juan Escutia)

We started out with a beverage at the King’s Pub, and then spent most of the evening at Pata Negra followed by Zydeco.  We were a little too early for much excitement @ King’s Pub, but I did score some sweet glasses there:

Yes! Feliz Año Nuevo indeed!

The best part about being at Pata Negra for the New Year’s Eve midnight countdown was: NYE is such a non-event that the 4 of us personally started the countdown in English based on the time shown on John’s watch. :)  But they did come through with glasses of grapes shown above! In general, the bars along Tamaulipas (normally quite busy) were pleasantly full but not heaving, which was perfect for us.

What are you folks doing for New Year’s Eve this year?? Will you be incorporating any Mexican traditions in your celebrations? :)

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.

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.

What’s happening this December in Mexico City?

December in Mexico City is jam-packed with opportunities for celebration, highlighted by the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe on Dec 12, posadas, office parties, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, just to name a few.  I found during our time in DF that the Mexico City goverment (a.k.a. “GDF”– Gobierno del Distrito Federal) really gets into things around the holiday season. 2009 brought a new Guinness record for the World’s Largest Christmas Tree, followed quickly by the World’s Largest Rosca de Reyes.  What could possibly be on tap for December 2011, you may be wondering??

The record-breaking Christmas tree I saw in Mexico City in 2009 was definitely not a natural fir.

Well, the GDF just announced some of their plans for this year’s Christmas/New Year events.  I was curious how the general economic climate might affect things, but this hilarious sentence from the article in El Universal put my fears at ease: “Los festejos de Navidad y Año Nuevo en el último periodo de la administración de Marcelo Ebrard en la Ciudad de México serán más austeros y con menos atractivos espectaculares que las temporadas anteriores, excepto por el posible concierto de la estrella pop Britney Spears en el Ángel de la Independencia.”

Rough translation?  “The Christmas/New Year’s festivities in the last perod of the Ebrard administration in Mexico City will be more austere and have fewer spectacular attractions than previous seasons… except for the possible Britney Spears concert at the Angel of Independence.”  What??  While I’m not certain whether bringing in a washed-up-but-surely-still-high-dollar American pop star says to me “we are keeping a close eye on the budget,” I appreciate their enthusiasm nonetheless!  :)

You’ll obviously want to monitor for Britney confirmation (they are trying for concerts on Dec 1, 3 & 6, and we’ll know next week whether negotiations have been a success), but here’s what you should mark your calendars for in the interim.

Christmas Events in Mexico City 2011

  • Ice Skating in the Zocalo!  December 4th will be the first day that the 2400 square meter ice rink will be open in the Centro Historico.  Check out the photos of its construction.  The ice rink should be open through January 7, 2012.
  • 50-meter-tall Christmas Tree!  Alas, they won’t be trying for a new world record this time, but there will still be a sizeable tree to view in the Zocalo. You’ll be able to see it from the pedestrianized street, Francisco I. Madero.
  • December 4th Parade!  At 6PM, lit-up floats carrying athletes that competed in the Panamerican Games will depart from the Diana statue on Reforma & head towards the Zocalo.
  • **UPDATE–December 4th! Britney Spears free concert is confirmed!! It will be at 7PM @ the Monument to the Revolution.
  • Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe on December 12th!  Now this is not a GDF-sponsored event, but rather an annual pilgrimage to the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City made by tens of thousands of people.  To be honest, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going on the actual feast day due to the crazy crowds… but if you want to experience a massive cultural event that happens all over Mexico & see its source, this is the place to be. I posted some logistical instructions here for how to get to the Basilica– scroll down about halfway through that post.
  • More Glamorous December 18th Parade that includes a FAKE SNOWSTORM!  This parade will start at La Morena and go up Eje Central Lazaro Cardenas. I believe it will cut right and end at street 20 de Noviembre in the Zocalo, but the map is a little unclear… (see below)  But to reiterate: they are going to have machines launching fake snow into the air to fall on parade watchers. Love that.
  • Nativity Scenes Galore! Apparently Reforma will have 3 nativity scenes instead of the usual huts selling random gifts/food, but there will also be a LIFE SIZE nativity scene in the Estadio Azteca parking lot. It just makes sense, people!
  • More Stuff for Kids! The Zocalo will also be packed with various other activities/games/inflatable bounce houses/etc. to entertain your kiddos, so bring them on down.
  • Another Crazy-Big Rosca de Reyes!  While I am unclear if this is a world-record-breaking contender, there will nonetheless be another massive rosca de reyes (the king’s cake traditionally eaten on King’s Day) created on January 6th. Keep this in mind if you haven’t eaten enough during December.

Logistics

Here’s a blurry map to give you a feel for the parade routes:

Parade maps courtesy Milenio online: http://www.milenio.com/cdb/doc/impreso/9068350

More info:

If you read Spanish (and/or can send website through a translator), monitor these two newspaper pages online that are tracking updates on holiday events in Mexico City: El Universal and Milenio.  Also Ciudadanosenred.com.mx may have additional details– thanks to them for their helpful article summarizing these events!

Finally, you can check out the current progress of the Mexico City ice rink & general Zocalo preparations in the video below, courtesy of El Universal:

Have a great holiday season & take advantage of all that Mexico City has to offer during this festive time!!
**Updated 11/30 to reflect the dramatic free concert news of everyone’s favorite pop star. 😉
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 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.

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!

Are you a Mexico fan? Tell us about it & win $500!

Have you ever been sitting at your computer, paging through this blog, and thought to yourself, “You know, Julie is not the only one with stories to tell about Mexico…. I too have lots of witty/touching/inspiring/riveting things to share about this country! When will I be given the chance to share my stories about Mexico??”

My friends, this time is now!  The Mexico Today program that I’m a part of recently launched the Mexico Today Social Magazine on Facebook.  This is a pretty slick online publication that will profile stories & submissions from a variety of Mexico bloggers & influences, including me + my 23 Mexico Today Ambassador pals. The content will be community-driven from folks who are fans of Mexico, and the goal is for the Social Mag to have fresh, dynamic content for readers interested in Mexico’s culture, economy, environment, food, etc.  Right now we’re in “gather content” mode, and then in November, you’ll be able to see the second phase with the contributions all prettied-up into an online magazine.

So how does this impact you? We want your Mexico stories!  Tell us about that time you had the best cup of esquites from that street food stand in Puerto Vallarta. Tell us about your amazing destination wedding that you pulled off for 100 of your dearest family & friends on the white sand beaches of Tulum.  Tell us about your trip through Copper Canyon on the only passenger train left in Mexico & meeting the Tarahumara Indians profiled in that book,”Born to Run.”  Tell us about that time you had one too many shots of lighter-fluid-grade tequila at Señor Frogs…er, wait. On second thought, that is one Mexico story that we might pass on. 😉  But ALL THE REST of those stories– those we want.

And the best part? You might win $500 for sharing your Mexi-insights online! Each month, they’ll be drawing 10 winners, which makes me feel like you actually have a chance at some $$$.  (And those are dollars, not pesos people!)

If you had an experience like this in Mexico, don't you think it's only fair to share it with someone else?? :)

Here’s all you need to do:

  • Go to the Mexico Today facebook page at www.facebook.com/MexicoToday, and click on the link on the left that says Social Magazine.  Or get to the mag directly at this link.
  • Click on the green box that says “Submit your story or link for the launch!”
    • Don’t get freaked out by the ol’ Facebook “this app needs to access your info/settings” warning– we promise not to e-stalk you.
  • If you have a blog, great- you can just submit the link to what you’ve written.
  • No blog? No worries! Just scroll a bit farther down the submission form under the “Write Your Story” heading. Here, you can type in any anecdotes you’d like to share!
    • If you are a friend of mine, this will probably be either a) how visiting Julie & John is Mexico City was totally the best trip you’ve ever taken in your life, or b) how you have this friend who is constantly talking/writing about how great Mexico is so you’ve decided to plan a trip there just to get her to shut up.
    • If you aren’t a friend of mine, you should have more latitude in your topic selections. 😉
  • That’s it– thanks for sharing your Mexi-story with the world. Now just sit back, relax, and keep your fingers crossed that $500 gift card will soon be winging its way towards you!

If you’re curious to see what others have been submitting for the Mexico Today Social Magazine, check out this great summary from fellow ambassador Laura.  Also, you can review the legalese on the Facebook page, but you have to be a legal US/Canadian (but not Quebec) resident in order to win, and not living in my house….sorry, John.

Looking forward to see what gems y’all have to share, so keep me posted if this inspires you to send anything in!  If you win, I will be happy to serve as a consultant on what Mexican-themed food & goods to spend that money on– free of charge, in exchange for just one tamale. :)

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.

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.

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