¡Viva México!

Community Highlights North America ¡Viva México!

When one of my best friends announced that he was getting married in Mexico and wanted me to be part of the wedding I felt excited for him but nervous to be returning there after so many years. The thing is, I lived in Mexico eleven years ago – at the time I was a very young, very impressionable woman. Now I’m a not-so-young, very impressionable woman. In all seriousness though, a lot has changed since my time doing an internship at a homeless shelter in Mexico City. In fact, this blog was conceived at that time and I’m sure that those experiences and my perspectives would be wildly different were I to write about them now. One of the concerns that sprang to mind was how it would feel to see my old friends, and visit my old neighbourhood. Would they remember me? Would it all look different? How might this trip down memory lane impact my feelings about my time living there? I was also very aware of my relationship with fear and how that’s changed. When I lived in Mexico for those four months, I acted in foolish ways at times without anticipating consequences whereas now I avoid risk because I’m wholly aware of what the repercussions could be. Of course, it didn’t help that the Canadian government has a number of alerts about travel to Mexico.

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Before I go into much detail about my trip, I just want to provide a few disclaimers. I’m a fluent Spanish speaker who has lived in Mexico before so my perspectives are based on my experience meeting people and using services entirely in Spanish. I can’t speak to how accessible things would be in English unless I’m reporting on what my friends or boyfriend experienced. I’ll also mention that as a woman who has had some problematic experiences with men in Mexico in the past, safety may be more of a concern for me than others. I’m trying to paint an accurate picture of my relationship with Mexico, not pretend every trip is a blank canvas. In my opinion, every traveler brings their bias and should also be aware that the identity you wear on your sleeve when you travel may not be how you self-identify. I’ll finish off my preamble with this: just reflect on how you may be perceived before you go – it’ll ultimately make the trip easier.

The wedding itself was in Puerto Vallarta, which I had never planned to visit. I anticipated it being like Acapulco, and in some ways it was – for example, it’s packed with tourists, but fortunately in many ways it wasn’t because, for example, it’s incredibly safe. I will say that their airport is probably the least organized I’ve ever seen in my life. As it’s such a small place I assumed it would be a quick trip past customs and instead it took two hours from the point of disembarking to finally make it out of the building. This was in large part thanks to the many airport employees who were too busy gossiping to actually form lines and/or direct passengers. I voiced my discontent, and fortunately they seemed to take my words to heart. Unfortunately, my back was already killing me by this point (I learned my lesson – do not travel with a 20 lbs. backpack). When it came time to get to la Zona Romántica of Puerto Vallarta, I opted to catch a bus to save some money. Instead, I befriended a lovely couple at the bus stop who gave me a free Uber ride to town and inadvertently hooked me up with a private driver for the duration of the trip. I do not recommend taking a taxi from the airport if you can avoid it – they’ll charge roughly 320 pesos more than one of the buses. If you really want to travel in comfort, just order an Uber and save yourself some money for your nights out on the town.

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It felt appropriate that I was staying in la Zona Romántica on Valentine’s Day, even if I was alone. In fact, I was still able to get into a good restaurant (El Dorado) and treat myself to a nice meal. I also enjoyed long romantic walks along the beach at sunset punctuated by people trying to sell me massages, roses, and keychains. El Malecón is well worth strolling because it’s the main boardwalk of the city from which you can see vistas of the water and mountains, but also the plethora of statues, artists, and attractions. One of the strangest acts I saw was a clown who spent about 15 minutes making fun of where audience members were from and then proceeded to line children up from tallest to shortest. Somewhere between the silence and lack of laughter I grew bored and wandered away toward the Plaza Principal and Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (church). Fate drew me instead right through the doors of el Museo de Chocolate. I learned about how cocoa is harvested, mass production of chocolate and its use in Indigenous cultures, but more importantly I discovered tejate - a tasty prehispanic drink of maize, cocoa, milk and mamey from the Oaxaca region.

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Puerto Vallarta is a great place to relax. The problem is I’m not very good at relaxing. My hotel, Hotel Porto Allegre, really helped in this regard because it had a beautiful rooftop patio with views of the jungles, mountains, and water. I was able to keep my mind racing by reading the newspaper, but also feel at ease by soaking up the surrounding beauty. The best views I saw were on the hike up to the Mirador Cerro de la Cruz. I would suggest not following the makeshift signs that take you through a sketchy jungle shortcut and instead following the street. I would also suggest bringing water. Trust me, I learned the hard way. Somehow, I avoided kidnapping, and also heat stroke. Hopefully you manage to do the same.

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Puerto Vallarta has a number of nice neighbourhoods, and based on your interests you’ll determine which area works best for you. Some of my friends chose to stay in the Marina Vallarta for their last night, which is a cute spot for restaurants and bars as well as crocodiles. No word of a lie – there are real crocodiles that live and lounge in the waters of the marina. The crocodiles didn’t scare away my appetite, and when I visited I ate a plentiful portion of risotto at Porto Bello Restaurant.

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The wedding itself was held in a town called La Cruz de Huanacaxtle at a resort called B Nayar. I could write an entire blog entry about how weird this “hotel” was. Firstly, it turned out that it’s not a real hotel but rather a timeshare scheme or fancy Airbnb. Secondly, it took an hour and a half to check in because it turned out our suite had gecko feces all over, no lights in one of the bedrooms, a broken safe, as well as multiple broken patio/balcony doors. Finally, I woke up to no running water on my last morning there. I’ll just leave that there.

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The majority of the wedding party stayed at an all-inclusive resort, the Royal Decameron, in the nearby town of Bucerías. One of the things that turned me off about the resort was that they don’t allow Mexican tourists. It was mind-boggling to me when I found out because it would seemingly violate so many human rights/anti-discrimination laws. In any case, I found that disheartening. The wedding itself took place at the B Nayar. Although I found it a bizarre place to stay, it certainly was a beautiful wedding venue. The wedding took place on a beach looking out over the sea and mountains of Puerto Vallarta, which was a great spot to watch the sunset. The views were simply spectacular. The bride and groom were ecstatic, and it was wonderful being able to celebrate their love with a number of my friends. I was actually surprised by the number of people who attended given that destination weddings are a significant investment in terms of both time and money. It goes to show how much love surrounds this couple.

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After the wedding weekend, it was time for me to fly to Mexico City and begin my journey to the past. Of course, it was a bumpy ride. Literally. I got so motion sick on the flight that I couldn’t stop vomiting even once I was safely on land. Fortunately, my personal doctor arrived soon enough and we headed to our Airbnb for a grounded evening. We had chosen to stay in la Zona Rosa because I knew it was safe, and also full of fun. As safe as it is in la Zona Rosa, that’s relative to the rest of the city. So, as a Canadian, I had to readjust because when in Mexico it isn’t uncommon to see massive guns. Even in a nice café, Tierra Garat, in a good neighbourhood, our thoughtful conversation about “cien”tipedes was interrupted by two men who ran by us with massive guns straight into the kitchen. After realizing we were the only people in the café who seemed to notice this, I asked one of the employees who then informed me that it was a security company collecting cash. With that assurance, we could return to our discussion about whether all centipedes have one hundred legs. Turns out I was wrong - they don’t.

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Overall, we really liked staying in la Zona Rosa but I’m glad we moved elsewhere over the weekend because I’m a light sleeper and it gets loud. We were right down the street from Kinky Bar, and it makes its presence known even on the weekdays. As the gay village of Mexico City, it’s a very accepting community. We really enjoyed the evenings because there was some fantastic people-watching from some really great bars and restaurants. Although we ate mainly Mexican food, we also enjoyed some other places like il Ristorante (Italian food), and Cafebreria el Péndulo (bookstore bar). A surprisingly good Mexican restaurant was actually in the mall Reforma 222. I had a delicious dish with mole at el Bajío, and my boyfriend and two friends ate quesadillas amongst other delicious dishes. It was nice to have a quiet space for the four of us to catch up, laugh and gossip without much distraction. It was also a good opportunity for us to remember that we’re in our 30s now and would rather have dinner in a mall than go dancing in a club.

Mexico City has a magical air about it. There are endless things to do, places to go and people to see. And unfortunately, we just didn't have the time to see all the people and places I would have liked. I planned our trip such that each day would be one zone. Our first day was spent in the historic center (la Zona Histórica) where we walked for seven hours in the sun (again, without much water). I would recommend only drinking bottled water while in Mexico, and making sure you actually drink enough of it! Again, learn from my mistakes. We started our day at the Torre Latinoamericana where we took in the best views of the city while enjoying brunch. If you’d rather not pay the price of admission, then visit the building directly across from el Palacio de Bellas Artes where you’ll still get a beautiful view of the downtown. Some of the key sites in that zone are: el Palacio de Bellas Artes (for the murals, and the shows), el Templo Mayor (where you can learn more about what ruins were unearthed while building the subways), el Zócalo (the main town square with the gigantic flag), Templo de San Francisco (one of many beautiful churches in the city), Citibanamex Culture Palace (home to interesting free photography exhibits), Sinagoga Justo Sierra (if you’re interested in the history of Ashkenazi Jewry in Mexico), el Palacio Nacional (to see some of Diego Rivera’s most prominent murals), and Plaza Garibaldi (for the live mariachi music, although I wouldn't go after dark).

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Although we rushed through these places in a day, it’s entirely reasonable to extend your visit so that you can really soak in the culture and history. There’s an incredible amount to learn, and you may not recall much if you’re too busy trying to make your next move. In fact, it was for this reason that we chose to spend an entire afternoon at the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia. We wanted to give this museum the respect it deserved given the gravity of the topics it broached. If you’ve read my other blog posts, you know that I like to travel to learn and often that takes me to some dark places. Visiting a museum that’s primarily focussed on genocide is not everyone’s idea of an ideal vacation, and that’s understandable. We left with heavy hearts, but we also felt lighter because the museum ends with messages of hope through tolerance. The museum is curated by people who understand that dark histories need to be balanced with the presentation of peace plans - for that reason, visitors will learn about the likes of Nelson Mandela and Ghandi before leaving. To me, the most inspiring part of that visit was the fact that we had to wait half an hour just to get into the museum. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon when people could be strolling the streets, they chose to spend their time acknowledging the atrocities of the past and present so that they can hopefully equip themselves with tools for tolerance and understanding in the future.

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My boyfriend flew out before me on the Sunday evening, so I spent that time returning once again to la Zona Histórica in order to quickly buy a traditional Oaxaca style blouse from el Mercado de Artesanías la Ciudadela, pop into Cafe de Tacuba for dinner and catch a performance of folkloric ballet at the Palacio de Bellas Artes before flying out myself later that night. They have performances Sunday mornings and evenings for a very reasonable price – my seat was only 300 pesos. The repertoire is diverse and covers everything from Aztec dances to a summary of the revolution of 1910 (complete with dancing female soldiers). One of the more bizarre dances was called la Vida es un Juego and involved massive dancing toys – supposedly, the game is controlled by the devil. Again, it’s possible to see a lot in very little time but you need to decide if that’s the type of trip that works for you. If it were my first time in Mexico City, I would likely have slowed the pace substantially.

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If you have a week or more in Mexico City it’s well worth considering your daytrip options. A must-see is Teotihuacán – the ancient Mesoamerican pyramids built around 300 BC (well before the Aztecs). You can choose to purchase a tour, or attempt to get there by yourself. Remember that if you go with a tour you need to really do your research to ensure that it’ll allow you adequate time to explore the site, and remember that you’ll be paying a lot more. Many of the tours force you to make stops at markets where they’ll take a cut, rather than permitting you plenty of time to climb the pyramids. Also, be aware that there are multiple pyramids and you need to dress appropriately for climbing them. I saw some unfortunate folks who didn’t understand that climbing a pyramid and going salsa dancing involved different attire. Although we dressed appropriately, our mistake was that we didn’t leave our hotel early enough to arrive there with sufficient exploration time. Because we left so late, we only arrived at Teotihuacán early afternoon, and the site closed at 5pm. The site entry tickets cost 75 pesos each, and even though we had such a short time it still felt like we got our money’s worth just seeing that incredible taste of Mexican history. When you factor in the tremendous crowds, our bad timing left us with enough time to climb only one pyramid: the Pyramid of the Sun. We had climbed a mountain two days prior, so we were excited for the pyramid climb and able to complete it within about 15 minutes (accounting for the lines). The view is incredible and really leaves you in awe of the ability of ancient peoples, and interested in learning more about their way of life. Walking the Avenue of the Dead, which takes roughly half an hour from end to end, also left us very curious about their philosophies on life and death.

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If you’re not taking a tour, you’ll likely need to trek to the Terminal Central de Autobuses del Norte where I’d suggest buying roundtrip tickets (you can buy an open return) for 104 pesos. The buses leave fairly frequently but they also stop frequently to pick up seemingly random passersby on the way so it isn’t as quick a trip as Google Maps may have you believe. For us, it took just over an hour and fortunately we were able to sit together on the way there (but not on the way back). We experienced some confusion around which gates to wait at, but ultimately the buses stop at a few so we weren’t left searching for caves to sleep in. If I were to go back, I would take more snacks and also make reservations at the only walkable restaurant – la Gruta, which also happens to be in a cave. When we arrived, we were told it would be a one hour wait, so we settled for street food instead.

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La Gruta would be a great place to dine because they provide entertainment like dancers and singers. All in all, it worked out fine though because we ended up back in Mexico City early enough to go for a proper meal at el Quebracho (Argentinian steakhouse) in the Cuauhtémoc neighbourhood. As it happened to be our last night together in the city, we dressed nicely and after our tasty dinner and dessert, we went strolling by the famous Ángel de la independencia on Reforma ave. Just as a quick note on dessert: there are amazing churros all over, but my favourite spot was el Moro. I surprised myself thinking about this but in all honesty my all-time favourite dessert in Mexico is fruit. You can find fresh fruit on many street corners, and it’s tropical too! The best street meal, in my opinion, is a licuado de mamey and a quesadilla con flor de calabaza – it gives the fancy Argentinian steakhouse a run for its money.

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For our last days in Mexico City, my boyfriend and I moved from our Airbnb in the gay village to luxury suites in Cuauhtémoc at the MX Grand Suites. I thought it was an excellent hotel. They were particularly helpful with last-minute requests like on the Friday night when a protest shut down a number of streets nearby and our Ubers kept canceling – the concierge called us a taxi, and walked us to it so that we wouldn’t be further delayed. The taxi had our backs and we weren’t late to our very important date. My friends were meeting us at the Arena México for Lucha Libre – Mexican professional wrestling entertainment. It turns out that my friends were able to get us VIP tickets which meant that we entered through the same doors as the wrestlers. Because the first luchador I saw was Místico he quickly became my favourite. That being said, without a doubt my favourite wrestling name was Terrible – he calls it like it is. Ultimately, the battle that most impressed me was the one-on-one, which just went on and on and on. I couldn’t believe the stamina of these men. Although it’s all staged, I’m sure, it’s still incredibly physical and these men knew the show had to go on and on and on too. It was a lot of fun attending Lucha Libre with my Mexican friends because they were able to fill us in on the back stories of the different entertainers, it was like watching a real-life multi-generational telenovela.

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After Lucha Libre we were contemplating whether to call it a night, but felt like our old selves would have been disappointed (and we knew it was our last time hanging out as a group, for this trip at least) so we headed out to an open-concept bar/restaurant called el Comedor. There was no dancing, just eating. Good compromise between wanting to live up to our partying past, but acknowledging our particular present. Catching up with my friends felt so natural even though we hadn’t seen each other in over a decade. We saw this couple a couple of times because, well, they’re just such wonderful people and were also integral to my time in Mexico. It also helped that my boyfriend and the husband hit it off instantly, and could communicate in English. One of my concerns before departing on this tour to my past was whether things would be the same. While there, I realized that things didn’t need to be the same to feel just as natural. Although we have grown and changed, we still get along and respect each other for who we are now. It was really special for me to be able to share that experience with my boyfriend too, because I think learning more about someone’s past allows you better insight into their present. I just wish we had had more time to catch up with more of my Mexican friends, but it wasn’t in the cards for this quick trip.

Speaking of my Mexican past, I wanted to spend time in la Condesa – the area I had lived in all those years ago. My boyfriend and I wandered the streets until we found my old house, and although I seriously considered ringing the bell to see whether the landlady still lived there, I decided against it. It was enough for me to just see that the house was safe. You see, an earthquake in September 2017 did a significant amount of damage to that neighbourhood, and in a sick twist of fate it occurred to the day on the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City that had killed at least 10 000 people. People often think about danger in Mexico as being restricted to person-on-person, and they forget the raw potential power of the earth. The spot that struck me the most was an apartment building near the fashionable Parque México that had been ravaged by the earthquake. It stood there wedged in between stylish condo blocks, totally out of place yet standing its ground. The bottom floor was still in use by a business, even though the floors above were shattered and uninhabitable.

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After wandering streets and sipping drinks at endless cafes, it was important for me to spend some time in the massive Bosque de Chapultepec. At over 1 600 acres in size, I’ve been told it’s the largest urban park in North America. Although it’s undoubtedly beautiful, it’s also not the kind of natural retreat you’d get at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York for example because it’s filled with vendors, museums, and even a castle. I couldn’t remember ever entering the castle, so my boyfriend and I decided to pay the fee, hike up the hill, and go for it. The information inside is entirely in Spanish so I played translator for him as we wandered the opulent halls, and paused to take in the gorgeous views of Mexico City. I really enjoyed learning about how the castle changed depending on who was residing in it. In a nutshell, the castle was first built in the 1700s and has served as everything from: astronomy observatory to a military college to a house for the president. Some of the history is depicted visually through murals, by Antonio Gonzalez Orozco and Diego Rivera, for example. And prior to 18th century development on the hill, it was already a spot of great importance to Aztec cultures.

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Speaking of the Aztecs, we did a day trip to Tepoztlán so we could hike up the mountain Tepozteco and visit the temple dedicated to the Aztec god of drunkenness and fertility (naturally the two would go hand-in-hand). Although we weren’t drunk or pregnant (although it would be amazing if my boyfriend were the latter), we still managed to enjoy the visit immensely. Like our day trip to Teotihuacán, we opted out of guided tours or private guides and instead took the subway to Tasqueña metro station and then walked to the Terminal Central del Sur where we bought our roundtrip tickets (134 pesos each). Our trip was eventful as the highway exit was closed, and the bus driver announced that he wasn’t familiar with the neighbourhood. After accepting advice from passengers, we detoured through the smoke from a massive countryside fire and eventually made it to the bus terminal in Tepoztlán. Our journey wasn't over yet though. From the terminal we had to walk for more than half an hour, and naturally stop for ice cream at the famous Tepoznieves, before we made it to the base of the mountain. It took us just over an hour to get to the top, but we were fortunate that there was no rain because it’s a messy path. In fact, large parts of the hike are just rocks and loose stones which definitely helped me sprain my ankle on the way down. I can’t imagine doing the hike in anything other than hiking boots or running shoes, but I did see some people struggling to do it in flip flops. Did they make it to the top? I can neither confirm nor deny. My boyfriend and I certainly made it to the top, and loved the views from up there. We also appreciated that there were water bottles for sale because by then we had finished ours (and were able to toss them in the garbage bins). Something that really surprised us both were the animals we met along the way like the coatis, which are sort of like Mexican monkey raccoons who are very territorial about the garbage at the pressipice. The hunger in their eyes, albeit for garbage, definitely triggered our appetites and by the time we made it back to town we stopped at one of the first restaurants we saw: la Colorina. We basically ate our way through every town we saw, and enjoyed every bite. Except for the food that made us sick, of course.

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Hands-down my favourite meal (for the food and ambience) was at Antiguo palacio de Coyoacán in the south of the city, where I enjoyed sopa Azteca and tacos dorados. I particularly liked that we were sitting on a patio and could people-watch, although I was distracted by the man beside us who was watching telenovelas on his cellphone. I was ambitious in our planning for our time in southern Mexico City because I thought we may be able to visit Coyoacán, San Ángel, Desierto de los leones and Xochimilco in one day. At the end of the day we had made it to Xochimilco and Coyoacán. Upon further reflection, I realized that we could drop San Ángel from our itinerary because it’s a similar vibe to Coyoacán. Instead of rushing, we spent some time wandering the cobblestone streets and relaxing in the central plazas: Plaza Centenario and Plaza Hidalgo.
In contrast to the calm of Coyoacán, Xochimilco was more like a frenzied fiesta. Xochimilco is actually a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, and has an incredible history given how the landscape (and lake) has changed over time. It’s known as the Venice of Mexico because it’s full of canals and boats called trajineras which are ridden by mariachi bands, and vendors selling everything from huitlacoche (corn fungus) to dolls. Dolls have become integral to the tourist experience at Xochimilco given that there’s an island of dolls, which is quite unnerving if you don’t know what to expect given that half the dolls are dismembered or decapitated. We had set off from the Embarcadero Nativitas whereas in the past I had left from the Embarcadero Belem so depending on where you leave from and how long you want to spend on the canals you may see the original island of the dolls or the fake version – they’re both equally creepy, don’t worry. Our steady trajinera, Paola, took us past the dolls, the mariachis, and the hoards of other tourists with only a couple of collisions.

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After our time down south, we decided to have dinner with an old friend of mine and his girlfriend back in the center of the city. Neither of them speaks English, so I got to reprise my translator role. It really was a throwback to the past because my friend and I had worked together at a homeless shelter a decade ago and we’re now working in very different contexts. Listening to my friend give updates about the men we worked with really left me torn. It was also difficult to hear that the organization and shelter no longer exist. Apparently, everything shut down, and the only thing that remains of it is that some of the former employees now serve as consultants in the field of homelessness. The organization and shelter had such an inspiring philosophy: future-focused to equip the men with skills like cooking, marketing, and business by letting them run a local bakery. On top of that, it also ran programs for local youth to help them stay off the streets. It’s estimated that there are millions of homeless people in Mexico City, and there are a lot of people doing a lot of good work to help that population. Seeing old friends reminded me of the passions and interests I had living there, and the many caring people who helped me through some tough times, including some of the incredible men I worked with at the homeless shelter. Mexico City was definitely a trip through the past, and it reminded me of the importance of compassion and not letting fear drive how you live your life. I’m so grateful that I was able to be a part of my friend’s wedding ceremony in Puerto Vallarta, and spend time with my boyfriend and old friends in Mexico City. I loved reflecting on the things (and people) that matter in my present, and what I want from my future.

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This featured blog entry was written by madrugada from the blog Destination (Un)known..
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By madrugada

Posted Mon, Mar 25, 2019 | Mexico | Comments