4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “Mexico”

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.

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.

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