4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Pyramids, Skulls and the Eye of God in Mexico (by Carmen)

Mexico’s past is so alive throughout the country it’s impossible to ignore it. I definitely came away from my trip with a deep appreciation for the various kingdoms that have controlled this land over the past few thousand years. Especially since the customs of the various ruling groups have morphed and transformed to be the mix of cultural and religious traditions that exist today. We visited a variety of historical sites throughout our trip so I thought I’d collect them in a single post.

The main drag of Teotihuacan

The main drag of Teotihuacan

On top of the Sun Pyramid

On top of the Sun Pyramid

The first was Teotihuacan just outside Mexico City. The giant pyramids of the sun and moons are carefully placed along a broad, straight axis surrounded by smaller pyramids and temples. They really are huge – the Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest in the world (right after Ginza in Egypt).  The structures of Teotihuacan were built many centuries before the Spanish arrived. In fact, by the time the Aztecs were in power they did not even know who had built the pyramids; they were assumed to be the work of the gods.

Map of Tenochitlan, now known as Mexico City

Map of Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City

Aztec disc

Aztec disc found when digging a sewer tunnel in Mexico City

When the Spanish did arrive, the Aztecs ruled over much of Mexico and Tenochtitlan was their capital. Today we know it as Mexico City. To imagine that a urban area built in a lake, similar to Venice, could metamorphisize to the megacity that DF is today is incredible.

Aztec carving of skulls similar to day of the dead

Aztec carving of skulls similar to day of the dead

Aztec skull wall from an excavation in Mexico City

Aztec skull wall from an excavation in Mexico City

Death was a major part of the culture and skull carvings were prevalent. These centuries old carvings are practically identical to the modern Day of the Dead motif celebrated throughout Mexico in the first days of November. Nathan and I couldn’t resist dressing up in this beautifully morbid style to walk around on Halloween last fall.

Monte Alban in Oaxaca

Monte Alban in Oaxaca

My mom and I Finding shade at Monte Alban

My mom and I finding shade at Monte Alban

My dad making his way to the top

My dad making his way to the top

Vegetation taking over the ruins at Monte Alban

Vegetation and agave taking over the ruins at Monte Alban

To the south of Mexico City, just outside Oaxaca, Monte Alban was built almost 2000 years ago on a mountain top overlooking the Oaxaca valley. Like Teotihuacan, the form is dominated by large pyramids arranged in and around a very flat, linear plaza.  It was practically rock climbing to get up the steep stairs with the sun beating down our backs. But the views were worth it.

Mitla courtyard

Mitla courtyard from 1300s

Intricate geometric designs symbolizing religious principles

Intricate geometric designs symbolizing religious principles

While Monte Alban was a political center, nearby Mitla was built around 1300s as an important religious site. Geometric carvings and some original paintings still cover the site, much of it unrestored.  It truly felt like stepping back in time, through short, squat doorways to ancient courtyards.  The geometry has a deeper meaning than just decoration.  Each design symbolizes complex ideas, like the cycle of life or the watchful eye of God.

Ancient corn tclayuda at Itanoni

Ancient corn tclayuda at Itanoni

Mexico’s history is not only evident in crumbling ruins or city architecture, it’s also present in the food. While in Oaxaca, we made time to stop by Itanoni, a cafe that specializes in heirloom corn to make its tortillas, tamales and sopes. As in the United States, GMO corn has come to dominate Mexican fields. I loved seeing the ancient corn strains being treasured in its native land.

This was really just the tip of the iceberg.  So many different great civilization have passed over this land, all of which have influenced the multitude of ethnic cultures coexist in Mexico today.  It’s a diversity that makes me want to come back for more.

I left my heart in Oaxaca (by Carmen)

Some people leave their hearts in SF, but not me. I left mine in Oaxaca. I’m not sure when I first wanted to go to this artistic corner of Mexico but it lurked somewhere deep in the recesses of my memory. Once Nathan and I narrowed our vacation destination to Mexico, it resurfaced as a top choice. I happened to mention to my parents that we were planning to go to Oaxaca in November and was met with a few moments of silence and then, “Are you serious?”

“Um, yes. Why?”

“We were talking this morning about going to Oaxaca in November, too.”

That’s right. Without even discussing the fact that Nathan and I would be going on any vacations to my parents we had both planned the same trip for the same month. It was fate.

If it hadn’t been for my parents, I doubt I would have booked a whole week for Oaxaca. But I’m so glad I did. It is a beautiful region with so, so much to explore. I already can’t wait to go back, which is rare for me. I’m usually excited to explore parts unknown to me.

Templo Santo Domingo

Templo Santo Domingo

The Tree of Life inside the monastery

The Tree of Life inside the monastery

One of the first things to greet us in Oaxaca was the Templo Santo Domingo. This 16th century Jesuit monastery stands tall and proud with immensely thick whitewashed stone walls. The layout of agave in the front accentuates the simplicity and symmetry of its facade.

Jardín Etnobotánico

Jardín Etnobotánico

Cacti at the Jardín Etnobotánico

Cacti at the Jardín Etnobotánico

Behind the Templo Santo Domingo is one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever been in. I am particularly fond of succulents and this sustainable garden was full of native varieties. The jardín etnobotánico was conceived by two artists as the city contemplated converting the disused monastery estate into a parking lot. The result is a stunning compilation of trees and cacti arranged in an aesthetic manner instead of according to biological groupings (like most botanic gardens). I saw plants I never knew existed, including some cacti that were no more than a half meter tall but were centuries old. Just beyond the garden entrance, the Restaurante La Olla was fresh and delicious. It felt like a local hang out despite the fact that I found it through the guide book.

Bride & groom waiting for one of the Oaxaca's many parades

Bride & groom waiting for one of the Oaxaca’s many parades

Fun textures at the textile museum

Fun textures at the textile museum

One of the many reasons I find Oaxaca so enticing is the many cultural activities and sites sprinkled throughout the town. Our very first night in the city, we observed a wedding parade (turns out this is a popular destination wedding location). The parade is lead by two bride and groom puppets, specifically commissioned to look like the bride and groom. As far as cultural sites, the Textile Museum was a beautiful example, full of historic weaved patterns sourced from Oaxaca and the surrounding states. Each tunic and shawl told a story, literally woven into the pattern of the fabric.

Mercado 20 de Noviembre

Mercado 20 de Noviembre

Parrilla hall

Parrilla hall

Every good city has a good market, and Oaxaca is a very good city. My parents, Nathan and I decided we were in need of a market meal. For this we turned to a smoke filled hall at the edge of the market lined with bright red steak and sausage ready for grilling. You pay separately for each service – for the meat, then for the person next to the butcher to grill it (interestingly, some meats, like the sausages were placed directly on the coals), then as you sit you pay for someone to provide tortillas, salsas and other fixings and, finally, someone comes around with drinks.  A unique system, but it works deliciously well.

Queso de Oaxaca

Queso de Oaxaca

Oaxacan food is world renowned with it’s most famous dish being mole. I was excited to learn some of the city’s kitchen secrets to bring back to my tiny NYC apartment so I could try to recreate all the yumminess that surrounded me. My family and I signed up for a class with Seasons of the Heart which took place in small ranch just outside of town. First up was a cheese class where we learned how to make amazing queso de oaxaca, which is similar to mozzarella. He strung it out and eventually wrapped it into this little rosette, a shape he said was a specialty of the his hometown.

Yummy mole

Yummy mole

Nathan entertaining classmates while making tetelas

Nathan entertaining classmates while making tetelas

Delectable smells filled the kitchen as the class divided and conquered under the oversight of the instructors. Everyone was anxious to observe the making of mole (think: Mexican curry) which used a wide variety of ingredients as a flavor base, including almonds, cinnamon, cloves, oregano and thyme. Tetelas were another hit – we each took a turn to flatten the dough, spread some spiced, fried beans into the center and then carefully fold it into a triangle before tossing it on the fire-heated griddle. Our feast was complemented by herbed rice, salad, salsas and fresh tortillas. The culmination was a spectacular bread pudding which, although not a traditional Mexican recipe, used local ingredients like pumpkin and piloncillo (evaporated sugarcane juice). Fantastic.

Memelas

Memelas

Oaxaca has that something special about it. Some magic in the air that makes it both exciting and new but totally welcoming and comfortable at the same time. The food was as amazing as I’d hoped – whether enjoying homemade mole or street side memelas (thick corn disks with toppings, very similar to a sope). The surrounding villages each had their own artistic specialty, whether weaving, pottery or painted figurines, providing endlessly entertaining markets. Mezcal is locally made and abundant. The people were kind.

Camino de Santiago pilgrim

Camino de Santiago pilgrim

And on top of everything I saw a sign from above – literally. A Camino de Santiago pilgrim was randomly painted on the side of a building, pointing towards the heart of Oaxaca, telling me where to go.

I shall return.

Al Pastor in Puebla (by Carmen)

View down the street in Puebla

View down the street in Puebla

There is really only one reason we went to Puebla: tacos al pastor. Given that we already sampled many, many tacos al pastor in DF, it may seem crazy to come 2 hours south to Puebla just to eat more. But this is the supposed home of al pastor. And let’s face it, we’re fanatics.

Inside the cathedral

Inside the cathedral facing the zócalo

So it was with great anticipation and hunger in our bellies that we found ourselves in the zócolo (main square) of Puebla. A city of 1.5 million seems positively tiny after DF (which holds about 21 million). The zócolo had a relaxed atmosphere with families and friends collecting in clusters and balloon sellers meandering around. The centuries old cathedral towers over the south side of the square flanked by arcades full of cafes to watch the world go by.

Las Ranas' version of al pastor

Las Ranas’ version of al pastor

Just a few blocks away was our al pastor mecca, Las Ranas. Al pastor (literally shepard’s style) was brought to the country by Lebanese immigrants. Like donner, thin sliced marinated meat (in this case pork) rotates on a spigot slowly becoming carmelized and juicy. The meat slicers at Las Ranas were pros and we watched them cut the meat into ever so thin slices to be placed on tortillas, queso fundido (melted cheese), bolillos (bread rolls) or pan árabe (literally arab bread; pita). The pita is what really brought home the origins of this specialty – it was soft and a little chewy, perfect with the seasoned meat and spicy salsas. Las Ranas will forever stay in my memory as a place that 1) has some of the best al pastor in the world and 2) made me fuller than I’ve ever been in my life.

Capilla del Rosario

Capilla del Rosario

One of Puebla's many churches

One of Puebla’s many churches

The next morning we discovered more of Puebla beyond its culinary treasures. An important colonial town, the city is full of lavishly decorated churches and religious sites. My favorite was the Capilla del Rosario. It is without doubt one of the most beautiful chapels I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The bright white stucco was shaped into intricate, weaved geometric patterns and then strategically covered in gold to accentuate the design. It was over the top baroque but instead of being tacky it felt fun, as if it were a puzzle to try and decipher the underlying geometries.

Chalupas

Chalupas

Near the church, a group of girls cornered us to ask us questions about America for a school project. They were adorable and very enthusiastic to practice English. One of the cutest moments was when the best English-speaker asked us if we really called calabacitas “zucchinis.” She thought it was such a strange word that she had doubted her teacher’s translation. We asked the schoolgirls what their favorite comida poblana (Pueblan food) was and they responded “chalupas!” We specifically sought these out and discovered that these are comprised of fresh tortillas dragged through rich tomato or tomatillo based sauces and then fried on a griddle. Thanks for the tip, chicas.

Bar in Puebla (I love the dancing woman painted above)

Bar in Puebla (I love the dancing woman painted above)

Pork cemita from Cemitas América

Pork cemita from Cemitas América

Another Pueblan specialty is cemita. What makes these small sandwiches special is the buttery, flakey, spiral shaped bread it sits on. We chose the most hopping cemita joint we could find and ordered two. This place only did one type of cemita – pig face. I like it when an eatery is bold enough to just do one thing well and, in this case, it paid off. Pig face is not for everyone but if you can learn to enjoy the jiggly factor, you’re in for a treat.

At the train museum

At the train museum

Inside a vintage Mexican train

Inside a vintage Mexican train

Puebla continued to charm me with a museum dedicated to Mexico’s basically extinct passenger rail system. El Museo del Ferrocarril (Train Museum) had a collection of old rail cars, some of which you can climb inside. The information signs provide details on the origins of the various cars, how and when they were used and background on the lives of the people who worked them. Inside Puebla’s former rail station, a photography exhibit displayed photos of the many migrants who boarded these trains in the mid-1900s to work in the US. My grandfather was one of these men, traveling from Guadalajara to Chicago, which made the exhibit particularly personal for me. I searched the faces in each photograph to get a sense of both the fear and the bittersweet excitement the men must have felt as they boarded the trains to a such a foreign place and culture.

Quesadilla close up with squash flowers and mushrooms

Quesadilla close up with squash flowers and mushrooms

Heading back to the town center, we couldn’t resist the sizzle of quesadillas on the grill. Ours contained squash blossoms, mushrooms and fresh gooey cheese on a purple corn tortilla.

Biblioteca

Living my librarian dreams at the biblioteca

Directly in the center, we were once again surrounded by colonial splendor. An elegant example of this splendor was the 17th century biblioteca (library). I love libraries. I’ve always been intrigued by becoming a librarian. I think it was the scenes from Beauty and the Beast in which Belle waltzes through the castle library stacked high with leather bound books that influenced me as a child. In short, I was very happy here.

Artsy mole at El Mural

Artsy mole at El Mural

Our final meal in Puebla diverged from all the previous ones we had had in Mexico. Thus far, we had focused on street food and hole-in-the wall eateries to get the most authentic food we could. In general, Nathan and I are weary of white tablecloth restaurants that only the local elite and tourists can afford. But we heard good things about El Mural and we decided to give it a try for breakfast on our last morning in town. They totally had me with their homemade miniature pan dulce. And their café de olla (coffee with spices). And their fresh juices. And pretty much everything else.

Street vendor in Puebla

Street vendor in Puebla

I’m so glad we stopped in Puebla on our trip. It was a charming and calm counterpoint to the frenetic energy of DF yet still had an urban feel. Next up was through the gorgeous four-hour drive through the mountains to Oaxaca.

Vivid Colors of Coyoacán & Xochimilco (by Carmen)

The glorious and very clean DF metro

The glorious and very clean DF metro takes you to the outer reaches of the city

There is much to see in the center of DF, but even more possibilities exist in the outer neighborhoods. Thankfully, the excellent public transport system made it possible to make it out to these areas without too much trouble. From the variety of choices, we narrowed our sights to two ‘hoods: Coyoacan and Xochimilco.

Coyoacan (coyote) main plaza

Coyoacan (coyote) main plaza

The cobblestone streets of Coyoacan feel worlds away from the broad boulevards just north of the neighborhood. Once its own village, Coyoacan was eventually swallowed up by the urban sprawl of DF. Cozy boutiques line Avenida Francisco Sosa which eventually opens up to the small, cozy plaza that forms the heart of the area.

Nathan at Frida’s

Nathan at Frida’s

The major draw to Coyacan for most people is Frida Khalo. She and her on-again / off-again husband Diego Rivera lived in a bright blue house not far from the plaza. I admire Frida for being strong, independent and eccentric at a time when these traits were not valued in women. Apparently, I’m not the only one since the museum was packed. Something new I learned while there is that the couple were passionate socialists. They even welcomed Leon Trotsky and his wife in their home when they were exiled from the Soviet Union. Trotsky eventually settled in a house down the street where shortly thereafter he was dramatically assassinated by a USSR sympathizer.

Posole

Posole

We didn’t have long to soak in the tranquil atmosphere of Coyoacan before the weather turned and rain came pouring down in sheets. Seeking shelter, we ducked into a covered market lined with posole (pork stew) stalls. Posole is in the upper echelons of comfort food. Pork is slow cooked over many hours then spiced with garlic, cumin and chiles to provide a rich, deeply flavorful broth. Traditional accompaniments include hominy, fresh radishes, chopped onion, cilantro and lime. Our stall gave us the choice of pork shoulder or head meat to mix into our broth and we just knew this was going to be good. That first bite was magical with the slow cooked meat and sweet hominy contrasting with the crisp fresh toppings. We journeyed back to the city center soaking from the rain but warmed from within by posole.

Busy boats in the canals of Xochimilco

Busy boats in the canals of Xochimilco

On a sunnier day, we debated making another journey from the center of DF. I was heavily undecided about whether to go to Xochimilco (pronounced sho-chi-MEEL-ko). On the one hand, the lively collection of boats gliding down an ancient canal seemed like a fun party. On the other hand, it could easily turn into a tourist free for all where everywhere we turn we are being pressured to make a purchase or tip for something. Armed with directions from our hostel owner (the gracious Alfonso from Anys Hostal) we hoped for the best and headed into DF’s deep south to find Xochimilco.

Xochimilco is now a neighborhood of DF but at one time it was a separate village, a satellite of the Aztec city of Teotitlán. When the Spanish arrived, the entire Mexico City basin was a lake so the only way to live in it was by building up canals and small islands (think Venice). While the rest of DF has largely lost the canals (which has lead to water problems and the spongy soil issues I’d mentioned in earlier posts), these centuries old waterways can still be found in Xochimilco. Each weekend, hundreds of people descend on this sleepy section of town to hop on a lancha (gondola-like boat). The owners have gussied up their lachas to attract business such that each has become a riot of colors. Floating services have popped up – some serve food or drinks while others contain mariachi bands to entertain you.

Colorful boats!

Colorful boats!

We made it to Xochimilco on a Sunday since we heard the weekdays were pretty tame. I’m glad we did because I feel like we were able to blend in with the crowds more and observe the fun. This also meant that many markets were in full swing so we took our time to explore them. We snacked on coctel de camarón (shrimp cocktail), admired the chicharrones (fried pork skin) and ate and long-stewed pork tacos.

Chicharrones in the market

Chicharrones in the market

Market stalls of Xochimilco

Market stalls of Xochimilco

There are many different embarcaderos (docks) from which one can depart on a privately rented boat but we were hoping to get to the lancha colectiva (ferry) that we could share. After a moderately long walk from the light rail station to Embarcadero Nativitas, we found a our ferry which charged us M$30 each for an hour ride along the canals. (As a sidenote, if you are interested in getting a private rental the lanchas seemed to be going for M$300 per boat for 2 hours, plus tip.)

Micheladas

Michelada time

To kill some time before our ferry’s departure we celebrated our successful navigating skills with micheladas. A michelada is typically a beer with lime squeezed in it served with a salted rim glass. The place we went skipped the salt and instead added a sticky, sweet and salty chayote paste to the rim. It was messy but somehow that matched the scene. As we alternated sipping our beer and licking the slowly dripping red paste off our cups we watched the jumble of colorful lanchas narrowly missing collisions interspersed with the vendor boats racing each other for sales.

The craziness continued as our lancha launched into the thick of it. The bands played songs, people sang, people danced, people fell off the boats. It was a great party to celebrate our arrival to Mexico.

Exploring Mexico’s capital, DF (by Carmen)

After all of our travels around the world, it took much longer than expected to find my way to Mexico. I think it was simply too close to home. In the literal sense, since growing up in Southern California meant I was never more than 150 miles from the Mexican border. On top of that, the huge Mexican population in California means it’s easy to find mariachi or salsa music in the streets, piñata stores and taquerías. And on top of that, I’m half Mexican. So a bit of the culture goes with me wherever I go.

Beautiful church interior in DF

Beautiful church interior in DF

Nonetheless, my visit to Mexico floored me. I thought I knew what I was getting into but at every turn I was humbled by the kindness, beauty and generosity of the people I encountered. The food was fresher and more scrumptious than I thought it could be. The landscapes were grand and varied. In short, it was a welcome international trip after nearly a year and a half of staying close to home.

Zócolo in DF

Zócolo in DF

Nathan and my visit to Mexico began in the capital, Districto Federal (DF). Over our days there we learned the fascinating and lengthy history of this great city. One common thread throughout the turmoil of wars and conquests is that the city has maintained the same main square, known as the zócolo. It’s huge. It’s one of the biggest in the world (after the Red Square in Moscow and Tiananmen in Beijing). Even the word zócolo shows its age as this a word originating from the Aztec language, Nahuatl, rather than Spanish.

Catedral Metropolitana

Catedral Metropolitana

Catedral roof

Catedral roof

On its northern edge, the Metropolitan Cathedral stands guard as one of the first buildings Hernán Cortés ordered to be built after conquering the Aztecs in 1520. If you stand square with the cathedral and look closely, you realize it’s actually kind of tilted. That has to do with the notoriously spongy soil of DF in which the heavy stone buildings fare particularly poorly. Soon enough, Nathan and my game was to point out all the churches, fountains or archways that were obviously sinking in precarious ways. This was pretty much all major structures more than a couple hundred years old.

Pan Ideal

Pan Ideal

The entire neighborhood surrounding the zócolo is filled with colonial architecture. In one of the more cavernous historic buildings, I noted Pan Ideal. Streams of people were exiting the panadería (bakery) with white pastry boxes decorated with a blue and red floral motif. All panaderías operate the same way, whether a huge one like this or the small ones in your local town: you grab a tray and some tongs when you walk in and fill up the tray with whatever takes your fancy. Take the tray to the counter where they will calculate the amount you owe. Either pay them or head to the cashier with your bill. At Pan Ideal, most people were buying fully trays of pan dulce (sweet bread) such empanadas (stuffed dough pockets), conchas (literally shells; bread rolls with strips of sugar) and orejas (literally ears; flat, thin, crispy pastries). We only had room for a couple pastries which presented some tough choices as there were dozens of options!

Palacio de Bellas Artes

Palacio de Bellas Artes

Central Post Office interior

Central Post Office interior

A little further west of the zócolo the narrow streets of the colonial corridors open up to the Alameda, a nicely landscaped park the offers a bit of peace from the crowds. Up against the park’s east side, the colorful tiled dome of the Palacio de Bellas Artes peaks out. Taking many years to complete, this cultural center has a somewhat art nouveau exterior but a geometrically deco interior. Both are stunning. But what really took our breath away was the nearby central post office, covered in gold and intricate metalwork.

Churros at El Moro

Churros at El Moro

Nearby, we made another sweets stop, this time for churros. Thanks to the ubiquity of churros at American amusement parks and fairs, this is probably the only Mexican dessert most Americans are aware of. Which is too bad given the scrumptiousness of pan dulce, flan, arroz con leche, tres leches, etc. I rarely eat churros but since this churrería dates from 1930, I decided I should make room. The traditional way to eat churros (as they also do in Spain, where this dessert originates) is to dip them into thick warm chocolate. El Moro offered various types of dipping chocolate and we happily sampled two. It was the type of good that make your eyes roll back in pleasurable bliss.

Geometric traffic divider on Paseo de la Reforma

Geometric traffic divider on Paseo de la Reforma

The buildings continue to modernize as one moves further west from the Alameda, with most high rise and new construction centering on Paseo de la Reforma. This huge boulevard, punctuated with ornate glorietas (traffic circles), is generally choked with traffic. But on Sundays, from 9am-12pm, the street is gloriously bike and pedestrian-only.

La Casa de Toño

La Casa de Toño

The streets narrow again and leafy trees provide shade in the Zona Rosa neighborhood, which contains an unexpected mix of embassies, Korean businesses and gay bars. It’s also home to the first restaurant we ate at in DF, La Casa de Toño. There is a perpetual crowd of people waiting outside but it goes by quick and the service is prompt and friendly. We gorged on sopes, tostadas, and pozol (a pork and hominy stew).

Tclayuda in the bosque

Tclayuda in the bosque

DF is a sprawling city so accordingly the Bosque de Chapultepec provides sprawling green space in the form of a huge wooded park. This name is a mix of Spanish and Nahuatl translating to Grasshopper Forest and has been an important site since pre-Hispanic times. Today, the park is dotted with museums and cultural institutions and each major walkway is lined with vendors selling everything from face painting to knickknacks to snacks. We of course focused on the snacks : ) We gravitated to a tclayuda stand with lots of turn over. Tclayudas are similar to tostadas with a crisped, rustic tortilla being smeared with a thin layer of mashed beans, then topped with onions, salsa, cream and queso fresco (fresh cheese). A light, healthy-feeling snack.

Gordita

Late night gordita

While the city center shows the colonial heart of DF, and Paseo de Reforma it’s economic strength, then the Roma and Condessa areas are its youthful hipness. Our Roma-located hostel was a short walk to many stylish restaurants, bars and coffee shops. While they were enticing, we didn’t actually go to many of them as we were hard bent on eating only the most authentic and delicious food we could find. Often, this was on the street, which is how we found ourselves gulping down gorditas (literally little fatties) late one night on the walk between our hostel and the metro. The masa (cornmeal dough) was being formed right in front of us, fried, then stuffed with a delicious filling of carnitas (braised pork) before a final pass on the griddle. Topped with salsa, washed down with Senorial (Nathan’s favorite mexican soda), what more could you ask for?

Amsterdam Street in Condessa

Amsterdam Street in Condessa

Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles

Beyond just the food scene, Roma and Condessa are full of beautiful tree-lined streets that are perfect for wandering. We often found ourselves drawn to Amsterdam Street, an oval street that encompasses Parque Espana. It has a graveled path down the center for runners, pedestrians and dogs to meander without the congested traffic persistent in other parts of the city. It was around Amsterdam Street that we often did plonk ourselves down at one of the aforementioned stylish cafes to watch the world go by. One morning while we walked in the neighborhood, we stopped to order a favorite breakfast of mine, chilaquiles. Fried tortilla strips are topped with a tomatillo sauce, cream, cheese and egg are mixed for a most satisfying way to start the day.

Trip planning over café and conchas

Trip planning over café and conchas

I’m realizing that this is a huge post, but perhaps that gives a sense of the scale of DF as it’s one of the biggest cities in the world. We barely scratched the surface yet still experienced so much. And this post doesn’t even cover the outer neighborhoods or pyramid excursions or the amazing array of tacos yet! But we’ll get there. All in due time.

Falling for Fall in the Hudson Valley (by Carmen)

Fall foliage in the Hudson Valley

Fall foliage in the Hudson Valley

Towards the end of October Nathan and I celebrated a big anniversary so I wanted to surprise him with something different than our usual nice dinner out. Instead, I developed a secret day trip to the Hudson Valley. To make it extra special, I organized our adventure around three common interests: culture, food and nature.

Path to the Chuang Yen Monastery temple

Path to the Chuang Yen Monastery temple

Buddha in the Hudson

Buddha in the Hudson

Nathan had his suspicions and was able to guess some of the day’s activities, but I really threw him off when I pulled into the Chuang Yen Monastery grounds. This was a serendipitous online discovery. The Hudson is known for artist colonies and high end antiquing more than Chinese monasteries so when I saw the name displayed on Google map I had to learn more. Not only does it have the largest Buddha statue in the Western hemisphere, it also serves a vegetarian lunch to visitors on the weekends. I knew I made the right decision as we walked into the dining hall. Plates were piled high with stir fried vegetables, stewed seitan, braised tofu, rice and chili sauce. It was as delicious as I’d hoped. The two women next to us were discussing Buddhist philosophy as well as a recent group of monastery visitors from Tibet. Based on our experience in Dali in 2012, we made sure to finish every single speck of food on our plate, down to the last grain of rice.

Lake with goddess statue

Lake with goddess statue

Japanese maple tree

Japanese maple tree

After lunch we walked around the grounds, which included a small lake and a mausoleum. The lunch, peaceful surrounds and chill in the air brought back so many memories of our time in China. Especially our trek between the monasteries of Mount Emei Shan.

Fishkill Farms barn, orchards and vegetables

Fishkill Farms barn, orchards and vegetables

Trees laden with apples made for easy picking

Trees laden with apples made for easy picking

Apples!

Apples!

We left the monastery and headed north to Fishkill Farms. What Nathan did guess right about the surprise day trip was the “food” portion of the day: apple picking! Some apple farms that let you pick your own fruit (known as PYO) are like amusement parks focused more on hayrides and corn mazes than produce. I wanted to avoid that scene and, while there were plenty of people at Fishkill Farms, there were quiet corners in the orchards and vegetable patches. The tree limbs were heavy with crisp, ripe Golden Delicious apples, the kale was in full bloom, and we walked out with our arms full of goodies.

Nathan practicing his expert juggling skill

Nathan practicing his expert juggling skill

Apple cider donuts

Apple cider donuts

Most people at the farm seemed to congregate around the apple cider donut stand. Nathan and I had heard people talk of these sweets but we weren’t sure if they were really worth the hype. As we stepped up to the counter, we could smell the fresh from the fryer donuts. Still piping hot, they were coated in cinnamon sugar that became slightly caramelized and crackly. We took our first bite and it was a revelation. Yes, apple cider donuts really are that good. Looking forward to many more of these in my life.

“Jade Rock of Hope and Prosperity”

“Jade Rock of Hope and Prosperity”

One last surprise, was to take a little walk on the Appalachian Trail to honor both our love of nature and of long-distance trekking. We pulled into Fahnestock Park and immediately saw a beautiful green rock jutting out from Canopus Lake. I think we were influenced by our monastery visit earlier in the day but again we were reminded of views from China. We therefore decided to name it the Jade Rock of Hope and Prosperity.

Now that I’ve seen the Hudson Valley in the fall and winter, I’m thinking spring and summer trips are in order!

Death & Spirits from West to East Village (by Carmen)

Nathan and I as Los Muertos

Nathan and I as Los Muertos

Halloween is a big holiday for New Yorkers. Bars and restaurants become enshrined in fake cobwebs. Dogs dressed as tarantulas or pirates or ballerinas are proudly paraded by owners. Ghost tours and haunted houses come forth to celebrate all things macabre, gorey, creepy and/or scream worthy.

West Village Halloween parade

West Village Halloween parade

To fully celebrate, Nathan, Brenda, Drew and I decided to join the thick of Halloween craziness, which centers on the West Village. Each year, a parade takes over 6th Avenue in which anyone in costume can join. I love the spontaneous, convivial nature of it all. It’s very New York. Nathan and I went all out dressing as Mexican calaveras (sugar skulls), sweets traditionally served around this time.

 

Merchant House in mourning

Merchant House in mourning

Washington Square arch, built on a former cemetery

Washington Square arch, built on a former cemetery

What’s Halloween without a little scare factor in it? The best spooky experiences are the ones where there is a grain of truth which is how we found ourselves at a candle lit funeral from the 1800s. The Merchant House Museum is in our Noho neighborhood and its history has always intrigued me. About 6 different ghosts have been sighted within its walls. Not only was the candlelit ghost tour the appropriate amount of creepy, the walking tour gave me new insights about my neighborhood. The grisly Bond Street murder, Edgar Allen Poe’s favorite bar (now occupied by Il Buco Alimentari), and the fact that the Washington Square was once a cemetery and still has 20,000 unexhumed bodies buried there were all news to me.

St. Marks in the Bowery steeple

St. Marks in the Bowery steeple

Dia de los Muertos altar

Dia de los Muertos altar

Al pastor tacos

Al pastor tacos

In the days following Halloween, we visited the East Village to view the Day of the Dead altar at Stuyvesant Square. Hosted in the shadow of the historic Church of St. Marks in the Bowery, the altar and food stands were sprinkled among grave stones from the early 1800s. It’s hard to imagine the same square at that time, when the church was surrounded by farmland and stately homes. Though we had just eaten lunch, we made room for a delicious al pastor taco. Looking forward to many more of those in our upcoming Mexico vacation!

Hurting for a Yurting (by Carmen)

It was still a cold, blustery spring when our friend Taylor suggested a summer camping trip. As extra enticement, the campsite she had in mind came equipped with the most fun to say accommodation on earth – a yurt. The heat of summer was still just a glimmer in our eyes but we could already taste the campfire s’mores. We replied with an enthusiastic yes.

Yurt sweet yurt

Yurt sweet yurt

It was months later, in the dog days of summer that Taylor, Andrew, Nathan and I piled into our rental car for the drive to the Belleplain Forest in New Jersey. But NJ didn’t want us. Or so it seemed from the massive effort it took to get into and through the Holland Tunnel. When we finally emerged on the other side we all felt extraordinarily grateful for leading car-free lifestyles exempt from the daily traffic grind. We still had a ways to go since our destination was in the southern end of the state. We passed the time with upbeat music, good conversation and entertaining roadsigns, like the community of Cheesequake. I think NJ just wants to be made fun of sometimes. When hunger got the better of us, we made a quick pit stop for decent Chinese food in a random little town along the way. Thanks Yelp!

Building our fire

Building our fire

After a few hours on the road, we pulled into the campsite after dark and found that friend Megan and Andy had built a lovely campfire for us. What a welcome sight after a long drive.

Lake Nummy (photo source: Megan)

Lake Nummy (photo source: Megan)

Woodsy stroll (photo source: Megan)

Woodsy stroll (photo source: Megan)

The next morning I awoke to the most perfect weather ever. It was not too hot, not too cold; not too humid, not too dry; just right. To get a taste of the surrounding woods we did a quick stroll around Lake Nummy (rhymes with yummy :) before jumping in. While the lake was rather small, the designated swimming area was even smaller. And of course it was watched over by two lifeguards, just in case. Thankfully, we all survived.

Andrew after he successfully hung the hammock

Andrew after he successfully hung the hammock

Hammock views

Hammock views

Improvised hummus wrap (photo source: Taylor)

Improvised hummus wrap (photo source: Taylor)

We ate a crunchy lunch of veggie and hummus wraps and hung around until it was swim time again. While the group headed back to the lakeside, I opted to rest in Taylor and Andrew’s deliciously comfortable hammock while reading my beloved Alexander McCall Smith writing about my favorite city, London. Felt like care-free days of summer camp.

Cooking on the campfire

Cooking on the campfire

Campfire gathering

Campfire gathering

In the evening we gathered around the campfire to assemble some kabobs for dinner. Though by the end of it we were incredibly full on charred veggies and spicy rice we still had s’more room for dessert. Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret about s’mores – the best method for a perfect ooey-gooey s’more is to warm the chocolate. Because lets face it, chocolate tastes better in melted form. To do this simply place your square of chocolate on a graham cracker and place on a grate near the fire. It only takes a minute and your s’mores may forever be changed.

Sea Isle City Beach (photo source: Sea Isle City)

Sea Isle City Beach (photo source: Sea Isle City)

On our final New Jersey day we couldn’t pass up the a chance to visit the Jersey shore. Yes the shore of MTV infamy. Indeed there were the dense looking guys who spent way too much time at the gym and sunning themselves. But this simply gave the beach some NJ credibility. With good waves and decent sand even this California girl has to admit, this was a nice beach overall.

Thanks to Taylor, Andrew, Megan and Andy for a great weekend! Let’s do it again next year :)

Solstice on Fire Island (by Carmen)

Sunset on the solstice

Sunset on the solstice

Yes, the solstice was a few months ago – we’re catching up a bit. After a strenuous hike on the AT, we decided to take it easy this time and head to the beach. The summer solstice seemed like the perfect time to get to the shore and soak in as much light as possible.

Wide open expanse of beach

Wide open expanse of beach

Fire Island is a skinny spit of land spread along the south shore of Long Island. While it only has 300 year-round residents, thousands of fair-weather visitors descend in the summer. Indeed Fire Island has reputation as a party zone, which explains why I got a few puzzled looks when I told people that I was backpacking there. The general lack of knowledge about the island’s wilderness zone worked in our favor as we encountered beautiful stretches of beach to enjoy all to ourselves.

Ferry that took us across Great South Bay

Ferry that took us across Great South Bay

Wooden walkways become the “roads” of the car-free sections of Fire Island

Wooden walkways become the “roads” of the car-free sections of Fire Island

Like the Appalachian Trail we had hiked earlier, the Fire Island trails had the great benefit of being transit accessible. We boarded a Long Island Rail Road train to Patchogue (pronounced PATCH-og) and walked a little ways to the Davis Ferry landing. (If you go, note that there are two ferry landings in Patchogue. You want the one further north, closest to the station.) The 30 minute ferry across the calm Great South Bay was packed with families, coolers, barbeques, dogs, and us with our backpacks. There are no cars allowed on most of the island and the only access is by boat.

Our secluded campsite among the dunes

Our secluded campsite among the dunes

After checking in with the visitors center, we filled our water bottles to the brim. There would be no amenities once we walked into the wilderness zone, not even a water spigot. This seems to be enough of a detraction that within 20 minutes of walking the crowds dispersed. The incredibly bright sun beat down on us as we crossed wide swathes of empty sand, though because it was only June, the cool breeze meant we welcomed the suns warmth. When we felt we had lost sight of all other backpackers, we nestled our tent against a sand dune and devoured our all-time favorite hiking lunch, a PB&J.

Near the tip of Old Inlet which was breached by Hurricane Sandy

Near the tip of Old Inlet which was breached by Hurricane Sandy

There was more walking to do, however, as Nathan convinced me to join him in hiking to the Old Inlet 4 miles away. The name Old Inlet is a bit of a misnomer. While it was once a dwindling waterway connecting the bay and the ocean, Hurricane Sandy increased its size tenfold. The Reborn Inlet, as they should call it, now creates a swift tide rapidly pulling water in and out of the Great South Bay.

The man can cook

The man can cook

Mmmmmm

Mmmmmm

Nathan and I sauteed a light dinner of vegetables and couscous while perched on a large piece of driftwood. It felt so exhilarating to be in such a empty, idyllic setting, breathing the salt-scented air, absorbing the sound of waves crashing. We toasted our good fortune with a few sips from the flask, then carefully climbed a nearby dune to watch the sunset on the solstice.
Once the last bit of sun was gone, we bid a hasty retreat into the tent to escape from gigantic mosquitos that found us irresistible.

Tequila!

Tequila!

Sea shells by the sea shore

Sea shells by the sea shore

In the morning, we milked our beach time with some sun salutations and splashing around. As we headed westward, the families with coolers at the beach set again surrounded us again. While waiting for the next train, we shared a delicious meatball sandwich from Delfiore Italian Deli and marveled at the fact that such natural beauty could be found so close to NYC. In the end, we retained three souvenirs from our solstice on Fire Island: sea shells, sunburn, and a new respect for east coast beaches.

1% of the Appalachian Trail (by Carmen)

Appalachian Trail sign post

Appalachian Trail sign post

Fall is well under way here in NYC but here on the blog we’ve got some summer catching up to do. To take advantage of the warm summer, Nathan and I enjoyed three lovely camping trips in three different locations – one in the mountains, one on the beach and one in the woods. It had been almost two years since we had set up our tent so by Memorial Day we were ready to hike some of the mountains of the Appalachian Trail.

Excited to be hiking again

Excited to be hiking again

We jumped in to the first camping trip with both feet. At 20 miles in with an elevation gain of about 3,000 feet, our hike in the mountains of Harriman State Park was challenging. There were two main advantages that caused us to choose this trail. The first was that both the beginning and end were transit accessible, which made planning much easier. The second was that our route followed a portion of the famed Appalachian Trail (aka the AT). The AT stretches 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, meaning we we’re only tackling less than 1% of it. And given that it took me a month to walk the 500 miles of the Camino, I’m awestruck by this megatrail.

White AT blaze (photo source: Two Knobby Tires)

White AT blaze (photo source: Two Knobby Tires)

Trail blaze translation (source: Wikipedia)

Trail blaze translation (source: Wikipedia)

As we began the trail, we spotted one of the telltale signs of the AT – the white blaze. Just as the Camino has its yellow arrow, the AT uses patterns of white rectangles painted on trees to let you know that you are indeed on the right path.

Nathan in the Lemon Squeezer

Nathan in the Lemon Squeezer

Orange salamanders littered the trail

Orange salamanders littered the trail

A couple hours in, we found ourselves between a rock and a hard place, literally. The Lemon Squeezer is a tight squeeze for anyone and with a backpack I barely made it through! As we continued on, we marveled at the technicolor vividness of green wilderness around us. Everything glowed, especially the neon orange salamanders. The beauty of it all and the excitement to finally be backpacking again helped give us strength in our battle against the gnats and mosquito which enjoy buzzing in our ears every step of the way.

Vivid green landscape

Vivid green flora

Our campsite

Our campsite

Along our walk we encountered a few intrepid through hikers, or people walking the trail all in one go. They were light on their feet and walked with purpose. They had commandeered the stone shelters built at intervals along the AT since many did not carry tents. While all hikers are technically supposed to stay in or near the shelter, it was far too crowded for our taste. So we pushed on and found ourselves a beautiful little clearing in a nearby valley to set up camp. After setting up our tent, I collapsed inside for a quick nap. As I gazed out the window, I could see the golden light streaming through the incredibly bright green leaves. It was beautiful. Finally, we decided to start dinner. Little did we realize that green clouds were rolling in overhead and within minutes the heavens had opened and the rain began. Not just rain, though, a veritable downpour. We dove into the tent soaking wet and managed to finish our meal inside.

View from top

View from top

Bear Mountain views

Bear Mountain views

Bear Mountain from Lake Hessian

Bear Mountain from Lake Hessian

We woke to a sunny day and we trudged up and down the mountains to our destination, the Hudson River. As we came closer to the summit of Bear Mountain, the trail takes on a new atmosphere. Bear Mountain is a popular destination for day hikers from the nearby inn and picnic area. Most of the people we encountered in this area were ill equipped for such a hike – some were even in flip flops. But I admired the perseverance of those who made it to the summit. We descended the mountainside and were jolted by the loud music and huge crowds surrounding the inn and Hessian Lake. The people were incredibly diverse – Arabic-speaking groups gathering around aromatic baked chicken and rice, Latinos blasting salsa music, Asian families bbqing. We grabbed a mint chip milkshake and I lost myself in its sweet creaminess. Basically anything you eat after a big hike tastes amazing and this was no exception.

Bears are necessary at the Bear Mountain Zoo

Bears are necessary at the Bear Mountain Zoo

Hudson River from Bear Mountain Bridge

Hudson River from Bear Mountain Bridge

And yet, we weren’t quite done. There were a couple more miles to hike, past a zoo and historic buildings. Since it is along the Hudson River, this area once held strategic forts to protect such an economically important waterway. Finally, we made it to a dusty little train station by the river and were on our way home, grateful to know that an escape to nature could be so close the NYC.

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