The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, known as the UNAM, is the biggest and most important public university in Mexico, known for the quality and breadth of its research and programs. There are campuses and research centers around the country but the main campus is in Mexico City, in the delegation of Coyoacán. A truly public university, students pay fifty cents to study there, creating a level playing field that promotes social mobility in Mexico.
Apart from the academics, the UNAM also serves as a cultural hub for Mexico City, its campus named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can see a wide variety of high-quality performances or concerts here and the campus is open to the community. On a Sunday afternoon you will see groups of people running along the paths, playing touch football or frisbee, throwing balls to their dogs, or student groups practicing traditional dances or even aerial silks. In a city with little green space, the giant campus filled with trees and grass serves as a lung for the city and a lovely spot for exercising or hanging out. If you need more specific reasons to visit the UNAM though, here are six reasons that you should visit the campus, even if your trip is relatively short.
1. The Murals
There are many murals on or near Las Islas, the main quad on campus (as well as many more all over campus), each representing an important time for the UNAM and for Mexico. The most impressive, by Juan O’Gorman, completely covers the Biblioteca Central, made up of colorful rocks put together to tell the history of the country and the UNAM’s place in it (aptly titled Representación histórica de la cultura).
Another famous Mexican muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros, left his mark on the UNAM on the Torre de Rectoría with three murals. One of them, titled El pueblo a la Universidad, la Universidad al pueblo, depicts students bringing the knowledge they have gained at university to their towns of origin. It’s currently being restored so it’s covered in scaffolding but when it’s done the colors should be back to almost their former glory. Another, called Las fechas en la historia de México show the most important dates in Mexican history: the Spanish conquest in 1520, Independence in 1810, the reform laws in 1857, and the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Siqueiros leaves another date open with question marks, implying that there will be another great moment in Mexican history in the 1900s. The third is called Nuevo Símbolo de la Universidad which shows two birds, a condor and an eagle (representing Mexico) biting the sun, which represents knowledge.
Perhaps the most well-known of the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, famous for his tumultuous relationship with Frida Kahlo in addition to his Communist-leaning art, also has a mural at the UNAM. La Universidad, la familia y el deporte en México decorates the Estadio Olímpico, right below the Olympic torch. The mural shows the mixing of pre-hispanic and Western cultures.
José Chávez Morado’s La conquista de la energía is found at the Auditorio Alfonso Caso and depicts the paradigm shift that resulted from the discovery of fire by humankind and the search since then for something that will change the world as much as the discovery of fire.
2. The Espacio Escultórico
The sculpture space at the UNAM is a lovely spot to wander around for a few hours, perhaps getting lost on the little paths and stumbling upon giant sculptures the size of a football field. Their immense size makes them very easy to interact with, crawling through or on top of them. Seeing their colorful shapes in the distance almost makes it feel like you’re on a search for dinosaur remains. All in all, a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
Hours: 8am – 6pm Monday – Friday
3. The Botanic Garden
Another delightful place for wandering is the botanic garden, featuring succulents, the plants that tend to thrive in this environment. There are greenhouses that feature other environments and types of plants and there is even a store where you can adopt plants that are endemic to Mexico.
Hours: 9am – 5pm Monday – Friday
9am – 3am Saturday
4. Azul y Oro
The restaurant run by distinguished chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita lets you sample classic well-done Mexican food from all around the country at a reasonable price. Presentation here is impeccable and even “simple” dishes like tamales are dressed up, though done in a way that doesn’t overshadow the flavors that make them delicious. I especially love the Jamaica enchiladas, the sweet flowers that are normally featured in agua de Jamaica make a nice tangy sweet contrast to the crema and cheese.
Hours: 10am – 6pm Monday and Tuesday
10am – 8pm Wednesday – Saturday
10am – 7pm Sunday
5. The MUAC
The Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporaneo is a low-cost thoughtfully-designed museum where you can see an interesting variety of contemporary art. The simple modern building design beautifully houses colorful exhibits where even the transitions from space to space are an experience (tunnels ending in glass turn at the last minute into a new room and giant doors covered in art open right as you near the end). There are impressive temporary exhibits that come through but the mainstays are interesting enough to be worth the visit, I especially enjoy the sound room and if you get hungry during your visit there is a glass-walled cafe tucked in amongst the volcanic rock that forms the sturdy base of the UNAM. The MUAC is located within the Centro Cultural so once you’ve had your fill of the museum you can go over to see a dance performance, concert or a play to round out your cultural experience.
Hours: 10am – 6pm Wednesday, Friday and Sunday
10am – 8pm Thursday and Saturday
6. The Olympic Stadium
The site of Mexico City’s 1968 Olympic games, the stadium is still in use today as the home base for the UNAM fútbol (soccer) team, the Pumas. During the season, games are played every other Sunday and even if you’re not a huge soccer fan the atmosphere in the stadium is a lot of fun. There are special cheers, huge servings of beer and so much team spirit that rival fans are separated from Puma fans by multiple layers of riot police.
However you choose to spend your day at the UNAM, it’s definitely worth the visit. Wear good walking shoes and slather on the sunscreen so you can can walk around the huge campus, enjoying yourself and learning more about Mexican culture along the way.
Being in Mexico for Día de Muertos is an incredible experience. It’s as magical as Coco makes it seem with the vivid colors of cempasuchil and papel picado everywhere you look and the aroma of pan de muerto drifting out of panaderias. Inside Mexican households, the altars mix nostalgia, love and mysticism all in one. Ofrendas (offerings) have pictures of deceased relatives along with their favorite foods and drinks, some salt and water, candles, papel picado, pan de muerto, sugar skulls and flowers. The idea is that during the night of November 1 the souls of dead relatives will come to the ofrenda and will enjoy the food and drink left for them. Obviously the souls are unable to actually eat the food but people say that if you try some of the food left out after the 1st the flavor is gone and the texture is hard. Throughout Mexico families create ofrendas for their loved ones and there are some cities that make public ofrendas for important figures (like the Frida and Diego ofrenda at the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico City) or have parades and celebrations. But there is one place in Mexico that celebrates Day of the Dead unlike any other: the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca.
The Sierra Mazateca is far away from Oaxaca City or the beach in Oaxaca that are more well-known by tourists and Mexicans. Its capital is Huautla de Jimenez and it is a beautiful yet isolated mountain range permanently blanketed in fog. The frequent rain means it is always green and plants are abundant in the mountains and towns alike.
The indigenous language of mazateco is spoken by almost everyone and they even have a language made up entirely of whistles to communicate across the mountains (seriously, watch this video after you read this, so cool). Probably its only claim to fame is its healer María Sabina, famous for using and promoting shrooms to achieve a deeper spiritual and emotional understanding of the world. Huautla is a Pueblo Mágico for this reason and many tourists still come to the area to try out the magic mushrooms.
However, as Dia de Muertos approaches, another unique phenomena begins in the Sierra. On October 27, the inhabitants of the city walk down to the cemetery at dusk, some dressed in their normal clothes and some in groups wearing ponchos, oddly-shaped straw hats and masks of the faces of old men. These groups carry instruments and laugh and speak in mazateco amongst themselves. Once everyone is gathered, older women light candles and then the singing begins.
In this song, they are calling on the spirits of the dead to rise from their graves and walk amongst them until November 2. The candles of the women guide the spirits and the people with masks and hats, called huehuetones, offer their bodies as temporary homes for the spirits during this time. In this moment the life-death barrier is broken and the huehuentones cease being who they are beneath the masks, but rather the people whose souls float up from the graves.
Once the ceremony has finished, the women slowly process out of the cemetery, leading the way with their candles lit in front of them. Suddenly, music begins from the groups of huehuentones and they begin to follow the women leaving the cemetery in groups. The music is rhythmic, repetitive and somehow eerily joyful.
As each group leaves the cemetery they form a procession leading up the streets going to the city center. Rather than playing the same song, each group walks together and plays their own songs one after another, with another group following them a bit behind playing their own.
The procession of huehuentones winds uphill through the city, finally ending at the central square where the groups disperse, some attending a mass and some staying in the square while others disappear down dark foggy streets, their music trailing behind them.
The ceremony at the cemetery and the procession to the city center mark the beginning of this special time when the huehuentones will go in their groups from house to house every night, playing music in exchange for food and drink. It is a real-life version of the ofrendas, the dead come to your house in the form of masked people with ponchos and hats and you offer alcohol or treats to them as thanks for their music. While the procession was not necessarily a solemn affair, the gatherings on the streets can become a little raucous, with licor de maracuya, mezcal and beer being passed around.
Being an outsider during this ceremony and procession is a strange and incredible experience. While the huehuentones wear masks, you are visible for who you are, though you may as well be hiding under one as this event is for them, not a show for you. Some huehuentones without instruments may ask you to dance if you are following around their group or they may even let you borrow your hat but this is not at all a tourist attraction. If no one was there taking pictures or videos they would be behaving exactly the same.
The music they play reminded me a bit of bluegrass, especially when the fiddle is featured. I love the haunting sound of a fiddle so I really enjoyed the huehuenton music.
Each group of huehuentones has a name and an identity and they begin composing and practicing their music months before Día de Muertos. They even record their music and you can buy CDs in Huautla with a mix of songs from different groups. While obviously each group has their own songs, they all fit within the same style and can sometimes begin to bleed together when they get stuck in your head in the days afterward.
The dancing is very simple, there are no salsa spins or bachata grinds here, just a basic step/hop back and forth from one foot to another. There are no limits on participation, huehuentones range in age from young children to those old enough to not necessarily need a mask.
Small children look especially creepy in the old men masks
The huehuentones make their way playing music and dancing through the streets of Huautla every night from October 27th to November 2nd. If you come to Huautla for Dia de Muertos you will find yourself with plenty of time during the day before the huehuentones start up again in the evening. Huautla as a city does not really have tourist attractions, there is always shopping at souvenir stands that may be set up in the center but the beauty here is not found in town but rather in the surrounding mountains.
I wouldn’t recommend, however, striking into the woods without a guide or an idea of where you’re going. If you’re able to find someone who knows their way around the area (and who you trust going with into the woods) or detailed directions, then there are lots of hikes in the area that take you up to the highest peaks nearby or to the many waterfalls in the area. While I was here for Day of the Dead I went on a hike to a couple of waterfalls that took me out of the city, past humble houses in the woods and valleys and finally out to Puente de Fierro.
Even if you were unable to get someone to take you to Puente de Fierro, it is a short trip from Huautla in taxi or micro and there is plenty of exploring that you could do once there. There is one waterfall at the curve in the road at the bridge and another further past the curve on the side of the road where there is a house that looks like once was open for tourists. Both waterfalls are beautiful, although the one on the side of the road is more impressive.
If you’d rather go below ground, Huautla also has some impressive caves nearby. Whatever you end up doing during the day, it is a wonderful place to breathe in the crisp clean mountain air, especially if you’re coming from Mexico City.
From Mexico City you can take an AU bus from the TAPO bus terminal which will get you to Huautla in about 9 hours. It costs around $350 pesos and it’s honestly a much better idea to go on the overnight bus. Going during the day will take more time and although you will get to enjoy the views the bus does not have a bathroom so you will likely spend some time squirming in your seat waiting for the bathroom stop. If you go during the night you can just take some melatonin (or something stronger) and bring a travel pillow and you’ll be out for most of the trip.
Another option is to take a bus to Tehuacán in Puebla, a micro to Teotitlán las Flores and then the transporte mixto up the windy mountain roads to Huautla. Although this option cuts off some time, it is not for the faint of heart or stomach. Transporte mixto means mixed transport and it is a pickup truck that carries people as well as cargo in the enclosed area of the truck as well as the semi-enclosed bed. I have never gotten one of the coveted inside seats and you get thrown around in the back as they tear around the curves. They also frequently stop along the road to pick up people as this is the most local transit in the area so be prepared to ride with campesinos with machetes and groups of school children who will make you want to scold them for dangling off the bed only holding on with one hand.
What to Wear
The Sierra Mazateca gets a lot of rain and when it rains it pours so be prepared with rain boots, a jacket, and an umbrella. Once your clothes get wet they will probably not dry during your trip so bringing a few pairs of pants is not a bad idea. It also can get pretty chilly in the evenings or indoors in Huautla so wear layers and bring a heavy sweater and jacket as well as hat and gloves.
Finding a place to stay in Huautla can also be somewhat tricky, especially for Día de Muertos. There is exactly one Airbnb (which is more like a hostel so there are multiple rooms and listings) which seems very pleasant. The few hotels don’t have listings online but you can call them to make a reservation before you arrive. Don’t expect luxury at the hotels here, there will be a bed and a bathroom but it’s better to keep your expectations low besides that.
Although the Sierra Mazateca is in Oaxaca, the food is not completely what you would find elsewhere in Oaxaca. There are always the Mexican classics that you can find anywhere but otherwise the food is very centered on meat. Poverty levels are quite high in this area so when people go out to a restaurant they expect meat, vegetables are what is served at home when there is not enough money for meat. If you are a vegetarian or someone who appreciates vegetables and fruit you may have to stock up on snacks at the market or stop by to get ezquites every day to at least get some veggies in 😉
As has probably become evident in this post, Huautla is not a luxury tourist destination and can be challenging to stay for long, especially as a vegetarian. However, if you’re looking for an authentic and unique Day of the Dead experience in Mexico that will be amaze you as well as anyone you tell the story to, then Huautla de Jimenez is the place to go. Celebrating the dead by dancing with the huehuentones amidst the smoke and fog will remind you that the distance between us isn’t really that far.
P.S. Have you watched the whistle language video yet? I’ll just leave it right here in case you haven’t, it’s honestly amazing.
The Jardines de México is a lovely spot to get away on the weekend if you live in Central Mexico and a worthwhile destination even for a tourist if you are spending a lot of time in Mexico City or Cuernavaca and love visiting botanical gardens. It’s called Jardines de México because it is actually a group of themed gardens, based on the style (like Italian or Japanese) or the type of plant it features (like cactus or orchids) or just some fun ones like the sculpture garden or the kids area. It’s a lovely spot to wander around for the day with friends or family and get away from the hustle and bustle of the daily grind.
The Jardines are located in the state of Morelos, about a half hour south from Cuernavaca or about two hours if you’re coming from Mexico City. It’s actually not that hard to get here on public transportation, I went with a friend on a bus to Puente de Ixtla and from that bus station we got a taxi for the very last bit. You can also get there easily from Jojutla which is easy to get to by bus from CDMX (leaving from Tasqueña).
The weather warms up significantly in this area compared to Mexico City so you can enjoy the fresh air and warm sun but be sure to bring a hat and wear sunscreen.
They say that no food or drink is allowed but I brought in my water bottle without any trouble and would definitely recommend it, topped up with ice if possible because the sun will warm it up really quickly.
Photo by Juan Carlos Chinchilla
Photo by Juan Carlos Chinchilla
Cost and Hours:
So this is definitely an expensive attraction for Mexican standards, it costs 275 to get in for adults and there’s only a 50 peso discount for kids and seniors (225 pesos) so bringing the whole family could add up pretty quickly.
It’s open from 9am-6pm all 365 days a year so you can drop by pretty much whenever you would like.
Photo by Juan Carlos Chinchilla
Walking around the gardens will take up most of your day so you will be looking for food at some point. There’s a restaurant on site where you can eat from a buffet for about 350 pesos (also quite expensive for Mexican standards) but I got an insider tip when I was there that for about the same price, you can head over the the Ex-Hacienda Vista Hermosa for better quality food in an equally as enchanting setting. I would recommend getting an early start at the gardens and waiting until the Mexican lunchtime of 2 or 3 to head over there so you can relax and hydrate after your day in the sun.
Photo by Juan Carlos Chinchilla
Besides the botanical gardens, there is also an amphitheater here where concerts and even festivals are occasionally held so you can keep an eye on their website or follow them on Facebook to see what’s coming up and get a two for one botanical and musical experience. The music festival here last year was in the springtime where they open up the gardens for camping. I’ll definitely be on the lookout to see when that happens next year as that sounds really up my alley.
If you want to make a whole weekend out of your trip, you could stay at one of the Ex-Haciendas and relax there or go by Lago Tequesquitengo, a large lake right next to the Gardens where you can swim, boat or even waterski. There’s also a bunch of hotels along the lake in a variety of price ranges if you don’t want to spend too much money on your weekend away.
Photo by Juan Carlos Chinchilla
I went here with my friend for an info session for their year-long professional gardening course. This is the only professional gardening training program in Mexico and it seems like it really encompasses all the skills you would need as a gardener, from plant propagation and care to business skills for running your own company. Although you would think this course would be expensive given the cost of the entrance and food, it really is a reasonable price for what you’re getting. My friend decided to go ahead with the program so she heads down from Mexico City early on Friday morning and stays until Saturday afternoon for the two days of classes they have each week. I really liked the idea that the Gardens are used for education as well as pleasure and if you’re only wanting to get in some extra knowledge about your hobby they also have workshops throughout the year on various topics.
Photo by Juan Carlos Chinchilla
All in all the Jardines de México is a wonderful place to spend your day outside, oohing and awing over the blossoms and statues. I really enjoyed my day there and I feel like I need to go back and stay a whole weekend to experience the lake and the absolutely gorgeous pool of the Hacienda Vista Hermosa. I think I’ll be traveling soon to Jojutla for work so if I manage to make it work I’ll let you know about it here 🙂
On September 19, 2017, I was at work at my office in the neighborhood of La Roma, in Mexico City. One of my coworkers was having a meeting with our graphic designer and my other coworker and I were huddled over our computers. At 1:14pm, I felt a swaying motion and looked up, locking eyes with our visitor. One of my coworkers yelled, “Está temblando” (It’s an earthquake!) and we all scrambled out from behind our desks. I instinctively grabbed my purse and phone and rushed down toward the stairs behind my coworkers. As I attempted to go down the curved stairway, the swaying motion shifted to a violent vertical heaving and I had to put my hands against the wall to stay upright. I heard a loud crash behind me and proceeded to run down the stairs, jumping over the bicycle our designer had left in the hallway that was now blocking the door and hearing another loud crash, this time of glass breaking, somewhere next to me. When I got out the door, my coworkers motioned to me from behind a car and we all crouched down in the street, using the car as a potential shield for falling debris. Someone began to pray but I was too in shock to even think, still feeling the ground sway back and forth beneath me.
When the swaying mostly stopped, we all stood up and took stock, making sure we and those around us were ok. I remember an older woman next door walking toward us crying and my coworker went to hug her. Our office building was still standing, as were all the buildings we could see, though there was a large cloud of dust forming down the street. Everyone began checking their phones, calling or texting relatives to see if they were ok. Germán called me to see if I was ok and I managed to send a message to my family telling them what had happened and that I was ok before the networks got overloaded and shut down. Not sure what the extent of the earthquake was and unsure what to do, we began to walk towards the cloud of dust. The air began to smell of gas and a passing police officer told those who were lighting up cigarettes to put them out because of gas leaks. About one block from our office the cloud of dust was coming from a collapsed building. We asked around to the crowd of people that had started to form and it appeared that no one had been inside. It was so odd to see two buildings standing on either side and this one just slumped over in between them.
Police had already started to congregate at this building and when we tried to continue down the street someone stopped us, saying it was closed because of a gas leak. We wandered back to our office, talking to strangers around us to try to fill in the gaps of our knowledge since internet and cell service was down. We got back to our building and checked the damage, the loud crash behind me had been our printer falling and the second one was the glass-front refrigerator of the tortillería next door. We didn’t see any major damage but also didn’t want to stay inside of any building for too long after seeing the building down the block. Cell service was going in and out at this point and one of my coworkers had still not heard from his mom in Xochimilco and the other was worried about how her neighborhood had fared in the notoriously shaky center of the city, where the earthquake of 1985, fatefully on the same day, had hit hard. So we decided to split up and make our way back to our respective neighborhoods.
The metro was closed which is how I normally got home so I decided to walk to the metrobus. I was able to board the bus with many other people and we started down the street, only to be stopped behind another bus a minute later where we waited, slowly advancing until we reached the next stop and were told that the metrobus was thereby closed. We all got out and joined the crowd of people walking down Insurgentes, one of the main arteries of Mexico City, eerily absent of cars with pedestrians and bikers forming a sort of solemn parade.
A few blocks later we were detoured away from Insurgentes due to a gas leak so I started walking down side streets more or less parallel to Insurgentes, trying to get south. I saw many broken windows and even hospitals evacuating their patients. At this point cars were passing by but they were going slower than I was on foot so I kept walking. Whenever I got service I would check my messages and Google Maps to make sure I was walking in the right direction. Germán had decided to stay a little while longer in Polanco since the traffic leaving there, normally very heavy, was surely intense. He ended up getting a ride from a coworker to Del Valle, most of the way home for him, but I was already passing by when he was just leaving Polanco so I went on alone. I walked and walked until I got to my municipality of Coyoacan, then got on a bus for the equivalent of the last two metro stops then walked some more. I probably walked more than 6 miles that afternoon and arrived home with my feet all chewed up from my shoes that I had not planned to walk in all afternoon. Germán’s mom, a professor at the UNAM, and her TA were at our apartment as the UNAM is right around the corner so they were riding out the “susto” (scare) and the traffic at our house.
My apartment, built on volcanic rock, was completely fine. Even the pair of tall vases on my table were upright with their flowers still within them. By the time I got home, hours had passed and the power and other services had been restored in my neighborhood. We swapped stories and listened to the news and I began to find out that many had not been nearly so lucky as me. The 7.1 earthquake had its epicenter to the south of the city of Puebla, about 80 miles from Mexico City, and at final count killed 361 people and injured 6,011. Thousands of buildings collapsed or were badly damaged by the quake. All that night we watched the news and saw videos of building after building collapse, many with people trapped inside. Germán’s mom ended up staying with us that night as the city was still in chaos but early the next morning we went with her to her home in Tlalpan and then went to Costco to get emergency supplies to donate to rescue efforts and shelters that were springing up all over. We spent the rest of that day at a supply center next to a collapsed school moving water, food, shovels, medical supples, clothes, etc. in a human chain, loading up cars that were going to the most affected zones: Condesa, Roma, Xochimilco and further south to the mountains of Puebla where it was rumored damages were widespread in the hard to reach communities.
In the following days the relief effort became more organized. There were designated supply centers and an army of cyclists that transported supplies from place to place, avoiding congesting the streets with traffic so that emergency vehicles could pass through. In order to verify where supplies were still needed and what needed to be moved there, giant networks of communication were formed through WhatsApp to identify those needs in real time. In contrast to the response to the 1985 earthquake, the government had a strong presence in supply centers and rescue sites alike. We all got to know Frida, the yellow lab on the Nay search and rescue team who wore goggles and booties to investigate the rubble, saving 52 people from collapsed buildings. Despite the recent tragedy, there was an incredible outpouring of support and strong sense of community in the city. Although many restaurants and businesses were closed in the days after the earthquake, some restaurants opened to serve free meals to volunteers, and psychiatrists and therapists volunteered their services at supply centers and shelters to help survivors and volunteers deal with the trauma.
Only a few days later, on Saturday, September 23rd, we were woken up to the earthquake alarm and rushed out the house, reliving the fear and anxiety of earlier that week. While in Mexico City this earthquake just brought up our collective trauma, it toppled buildings and caused more casualties in Oaxaca. This 6.1 quake was actually an aftershock of the 8.1 earthquake that hit Oaxaca just weeks before, on September 7th. And while help and international support were pouring into Mexico City, the people of Oaxaca, especially in the Istmo region, were lacking in supplies and aid.
Supplies kept getting donated however, and now the people of Mexico City did direct some of that to help Oaxaca. This trio of deadly earthquakes in one month, with aftershocks happening practically every day, inspired international giving, and I had family and friends inquiring how best to support the country in this trying time. That was actually a difficult question to answer, there was of course the Red Cross, the volunteer rescue squads, the government reconstruction, and a wide variety of smaller nonprofits with their own specific mission. Donations to the Red Cross do not go 100% to rescue and relief efforts (which as a nonprofit professional I am very ok with and wish everyone could get over this fear, but that’s a story for another day) so many were looking to donate elsewhere. The volunteer rescue squads were a good cause but they were flooded with donations after the earthquake and it was unsure what they would do with all that money after their supply needs were met. And there were serious concerns with the government that ended up being justified.
Once the immediate aftermath passed and the task turned to the reconstruction of much of the country, the government’s positive force changed to a feet-dragging bureaucratic let down. It was the government’s responsibility to reconstruct schools but they did so very slowly, many schools did not reopen until December or January, and even then they are learning in temporary structures. Money distributed to families to rebuild their houses did not have any selection criteria and there was little transparency in the process. Especially since the timing of reconstruction coincided with elections, there are suspicions of political cronyism playing a role in this distribution, and even that the government stole some of this money for their campaigns. In Mexico City, there are more than just suspicions of embezzlement, there are three cases of municipal governments not complying with their reconstruction promises and information on amounts of money destined for reconstruction has suspiciously gone missing from the public record. And it was not the case at all that this money was no longer needed for reconstruction, there are still communities, especially in the harder-to-reach areas, that have not been attended to since the earthquake. But even within Mexico City, Xochimilco, a municipality to the south that was hit hard, was without power and water for months.
However, where the government has failed, the nonprofit sector has stepped in. Now, one year later, the money that was donated to funds has been distributed to deserving projects and reconstruction is underway throughout the country. I want to highlight here a couple of amazing funds or projects that I’ve learned about that deserve support and recognition.
Semillas is a feminist organization that aims to improve women’s lives in Mexico. Obviously their reconstruction efforts have this women-led focus, supporting projects directed by women called “Women Rebuilding their Communities“. There are 25 projects that were selected from the many more that applied and the geographic range, though focused on Oaxaca, is all over central and south Mexico. You can like them on Facebook to hear more about the projects which started this July and if you feel inspired to support their efforts you can donate here.
Fondo Levantemos México
This fund has sprung up from the organization Ambulante, an organization that produces documentaries, organizes documentary film festivals and promotes the next generation of documentary film making through training. At the helm of the organization are Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, who fundraised after the earthquake and decided to create a Fund within Ambulante called Levantemos México. The projects are split between those organized by established nonprofits with history in the area and new groups that sprung up after the earthquake to help their community rebuild and recover. Many of the projects focus on rebuilding houses, either distributing typical construction supplies or rebuilding using traditional but forgotten building techniques like reinforced adobe that are actually very earthquake resistant. However, there are also projects that focus on rebuilding the social network in communities or that are trying to reenergize the local economy, especially for the Istmo region where interestingly, many of Mexico’s chips are made. There’s a full breakdown of the 45 projects funded by Levantemos Mexico here showing what they’re working on. And while most of their Facebook is focused on their documentaries, they’re also putting up news on Levantemos México now and again if you want to stay in the loop.
One of Levantemos Mexico’s funded projects is headed by my favorite nonprofit in Mexico, Isla Urbana. Isla Urbana’s mission is to increase access to a clean, reliable and affordable water source for Mexicans through rainwater harvesting. In the period after the earthquake when Xochimilco didn’t have power and water, the streets were still badly damaged, which made trucking in water difficult. Isla Urbana had actually been contracted there to install rainwater harvesting systems years before and the people that had those systems were the only ones in their neighborhood that had water. They ended up sharing with their neighbors and called up the municipality to see why more couldn’t be installed. Isla Urbana came in, supported with donations from all over the world, and installed 350 disaster relief systems in houses in San Gregorio, the neighborhood in Xochimilco that was most affected. They’re continuing this work with support from Levantemos México but they are always installing systems throughout Mexico City and beyond to provide a water source for those who do not have one. If you would like to support their work of providing water to the most vulnerable and improving the resiliency of communities, especially after natural disasters like the earthquake, you can donate here or get to know more by following them on Facebook.
Photo by Cate Cameron
San Gregorio appreciates your support. Photo by Cate Cameron
Today will be an emotional day for many Mexicans (and people living here, like me), one when we remember the horror of feeling the ground shake beneath us and seeing buildings collapse to the ground, but we will also remember the camaraderie and fellowship of those days afterwards when everyone worked together to help out those in need. In these times of political division and environmental catastrophes, I hope we can hold on to that feeling to face the challenges ahead.
Lots of people, Mexicans and people back home, ask me how I like Mexico. My answer is that Mexico is an amazing and beautiful country, but the biggest transition for me, and something I still struggle with, is living in a big city. I grew up in a tiny town and my house was literally in the middle of the woods. Even when I’ve lived in cities, they’ve always been smaller ones that have easy access to trails and outdoor areas. Mexico City is definitely not a small city and it’s harder to get to some of the natural areas nearby, especially without a car. So, when Germán was assigned his vacation week in the summer, I began planning a trip that would involve lots of natural bodies of water, camping and adventure. I was between Baja California and Chiapas but it seemed like Baja would be better for the winter/spring so Chiapas won. Within Mexico, Chiapas is known for the high levels of biodiversity and natural wonders and among revolutionaries worldwide, for its strong indigenous population that started the Zapatista movement in the ‘90s. It’s similar I’d say it’s similar to its neighbor Oaxaca but has a grittier, wilder feel. I looked up waterfalls, rivers and lakes in my Lonely Planet guide and found a bunch of places that I was interested in clustered to the southeast of San Cristóbal so we booked our flight and a rental car and headed out for a five-day road trip.
We flew into Tuxtla early Saturday morning and waited in line for awhile to pick up our rental car. It turns out that everyone had picked the cheapest option when renting their car and there was only one person working the desk so we were forced to start adapting to the slower times in “provincia” as they say in Mexico City (meaning pretty much everywhere outside of Mexico City). But we finally got our car and left the airport.
We were eager to get out and start exploring in the mountains so we only stopped in San Cristóbal for some breakfast and kept pressing on. We stopped by a grocery store in Comitán to pick up some snacks (I always like to be prepared, especially when venturing into rural areas of Mexico) then continued south. Once you turn off the Carretera Internacional onto 307 service starts to get spotty and houses and buildings start thinning out to make way for fields of milpa and cattle grazing. At this point we were ready to do some exploring and stretch our legs after being in the car for a few hours so it was a perfect time to stop by the Chinkultic ruins.
Right before the entrance to the Lagunas de Montebello National Park is a turn off to the archeological site Chinkultic. The mayan ruins are free to visit, though you can hire one of the guides who sometimes hang out at the entrance to show you around for a voluntary fee (though I’m sure they would be extremely upset if you didn’t pay them, it just means you decide what to give them). You pass through a sunken plaza first then make your way past some partially excavated ruins on the way up to the step pyramid. On they way up you’ll pass an overlook for a cenote (well/pond) down below that the Maya used to toss valuable objects into for good luck (young girls were also tossed in too according to our guide).
The view from the top is pretty amazing and the pyramid is quite well preserved. Back down below, there’s a ball court and a handful of stone carved slabs depicting important figures. You can walk all around in about an hour as the site isn’t very large but since it’s not nearly as popular as places like Palenque you don’t have to deal with hordes of other tourists getting in your photos.
Lagunas de Montebello
After leaving Chinkultic it’s only a short ride to the entrance of Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello. At this point though, you should start practicing your best uninterested/cold as steel/resting bitch face because before you even enter the park, there will be unofficial guides flagging you down at speed bumps to offer their services. Initially, it seems as if these people have something very important to tell you and we fell victim to one of their agitated waving and were trapped into listening to his schpeal for about 20 minutes and then even when we said that we didn’t want a guide that day (it was getting late and we wanted to get to where we would camp) he insisted on a tip for the information. We learned later that these guides are unofficial because they don’t live in the ejidos, villages, that run the park and thus do not have official credentials and can’t take you to the places that require them. There are signs that warn you about these guides for your safety but from what we saw it seemed more like a political arrangement rather than a safety issue (though obviously you always need to be careful when allowing strangers into your car).
Once you pass the ticket booth (entrance fee is 34 pesos), the guides are official but equally as aggressive. You’ll be getting really good at your resting bitch face by this point so that you can get on to your home for the evening. We stayed in Tziscao, one of the ejidos within the park at Villas Tziscao (make sure you take the right immediately after the ticket booth if you’re headed here). It’s a lovely place right on the shore of Lake Tziscao that has a hotel, cabins and camping spots right along the lake complete with your own palapa. We were excited to camp so paid the fee (which includes access to the bathroom with showers) and set up for the night.
Villas Tziscao also has a restaurant which is the latest one open in the village and subsequently where we ended up eating. The food in Chiapas is nothing to write home about compared to the rest of Mexico but there’s always your Mexican classics like carne asada and quesadillas and they are very proud of their traditional dish, queso fundido. In the rest of Mexico queso fundido is normally an appetizer but here they serve it with chorizo, beans and mushrooms (with tortillas of course) and turn it into a main dish. We were quite sleepy from our day of early travel so tucked in early but if you want to have a fire without having to make it yourself there are enterprising young boys who will come around offering to make you one. If you forgot to get snacks there are also young women walking around selling food and beverages. Maybe because it’s the poorest state in Mexico or maybe the take no b.s. Zapatista revolutionary spirit but the people in Chiapas are born hustlers.
We woke up on Sunday to the weird squawking of local birds but the amazing view outside of the tent overlooking a teal-blue lake made up for the noisy birds. It had rained quite a bit the night before (the rainy season is from August to December approximately and it had just started raining for the first time in months the week before we went down) so we waited a bit for the tent and some of our things to dry before packing up.
We headed out and stopped along the side of the road to get some breakfast quesadillas and a local concoction with an indigenous name I can’t remember that is basically like a bean and cheese gordita (a fat tortilla stuffed with beans and cheese). We continued on into the park and tracked down a guide we had met the day before as we were asking for directions. We liked his more laid-back style so once we found him he jumped in the backseat and we started off our exploration with the Lagos de Colores, lakes of colors. (Aside: his name is Alex Hernández if you go and want to use a guide, I’d recommend him although he doesn’t currently speak English – he is learning though as the park is trying to attract more international tourists). These are a handful of lakes all very close to each other that vary in colors from almost lime green to turquoise to sapphire blue. All the lakes within the park are volcanic lakes and are very very deep. Our guide let us know that some are dangerous to swim in because of some crazy currents they have going on below the surface and some are prohibited to swim in because they are reservoirs for local ejidos.
After the colored lakes we went over to the namesake lake, el Lago de Montebello. This is the lake that everyone recommends swimming in although Alex let us know that the beachfront you walk along is super muddy so it’s better to get a boat to get to another shoreline. (I can attest to the quicksand nature of the mud in the park, in one of the colorful lakes I wanted to just put my foot in to see the temperature but I stepped down and my leg got sucked in up to mid calf and my sandal got left behind when I got my foot out. I had to dig around in there for a bit to release my sandal and the straps are still slightly more teal than the blue of the other foot due to the orange mud). So we decided to pay for the boat ride out to an island where it was supposedly nicer to swim and there was also a natural orchid garden. You pay per boat, not per person, so Germán and I spent 500 pesos since it was sprinkling and overcast and not too many other people were lined up for a boat ride. The boats are rowboats as they are trying to limit pollution in their pristine lake so our rower worked hard to take us out to the island. We only saw about two orchids and although it was definitely not hot out I took a dip because I’m the type of person that has to swim in every new body of water I encounter.
Overall the boat ride was nice but unless you’ve got a big group to break up the price or are an orchid fanatic I don’t think it’s worth it, you could probably get just as nice of an experience by walking along the shoreline.
Set back from the shore is a line of comedores (food stands) and we were hungry for lunch at this point so Alex took us to his aunt’s comedor. The speacialty item was once again queso fundido but we opted for carne asada and quesadillas (it was a good thing I brought my trail mix and we had stopped for fruit and granola bars or I think my diet would have been 100% quesadillas on this trip). After lunch we went to Cinco Lagos and Alex showed us a super secret overlook that had amaaazing views.
A side note here about getting a guide: it’s really not necessary at all but it’s nice for a couple reasons 1) we did actually get lost the first time we entered (no service for Google Maps), hence the asking for directions 2) you will stop being bothered as much by the other guides on the road if you have one with you 3) they can give you some more info about the area and the lakes and know about super secret viewpoints and finally 4) it’s a good way to directly support the local economy in an area where tourism is important and most people live below the poverty (and extreme poverty) line.
Cinco Lagos was probably my favorite of the lakes we saw, there are steep cliffs going down to the shore though apparently there are ways to get down there because we saw a boat floating around. If I had come here before Montebello I definitely would have sprung for the boat ride here instead. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I felt like I just wanted to build a little cabin on the overlook and live here forever.
After stopping by another lookout on Cinco Lagos we decided to skip the international lake (you can walk across the shore to Guatemala even if you don’t have your passport) to get started to Las Nubes. We had to head back to the entrance to drop off Alex and then leave the park to fill up on gas since there are no gas stations beyond the park for a long time (they sell gas in plastic containers on the side of the road in the villages if you’re in a pinch but it’s obviously more expensive). Another word of warning is that according to Google the driving time from Lagunas de Montebello to Las Nubes is 1 1/2 hours but it was actually more like 2 1/2. The roads are quite twisty turny as you drop a lot in elevation after the park and every time you pass through a village there are topes, speed bumps, which are just looking to take a chunk out of your car’s underbody or send you flying into the air if you don’t slow down to an almost stop.
You have to turn off the highway at the turnoff for Jerusalén to get to Las Nubes and then take a couple other turns after that but there are signs marking the way for you (just know that they sometimes refer to the ecotourism project as Causas Verdes Las Nubes, Las Nubes is the name of the town that it’s located in). Once you get to the home stretch you’ll get to a road that is half paved and half dirt but not in the way that you’d think with the beginning half paved maybe and the second half not. Oh no, on this road it alternates back and forth between paved sections and dirt sections, we were quite perplexed on why and how this happened, wouldn’t it be easier to just keep continuing the pavement instead of breaking it up??
Road paving techniques aside, Las Nubes is a lovely spot along the roaring Rio Santo Domingo. The climate is a lot more tropical compared to Lagunas de Montebello and the rain here is serious. The night before my tent had leaked on us (I love it but it’s quite old and has been through a lot when it was my home for a few summers when I was an Adventure Guide and a Trail Crew Leader) and we had driven through a crazy rainstorm on the way with more rain on the horizon so we decided to spring for a cabin. I really mean spring because this cabin was actually more expensive than the hotels we stayed at in Comitán and San Cristóbal at $1,000 pesos/night ($50 USD). However, they are very nice, each one has a bathroom attached and a fan which is nice with the humidity and your own private porch. Plus, the whole area is very nicely cared for. We enjoyed the hot shower and felt especially good with our decision that night as we heard the rain pouring down outside.
It was a good thing that we had prepared for this trip and stocked up on snacks as the on-site restaurant wasn’t really open while we were there (it was a Tuesday and the high season was pretty much to an end). So we ate some granola out of a box and looked out to the river. After our improvised breakfast we set on on some of the hiking trails that they manage. Super close by is a suspension bridge over the river which was absolutely raging due to the heavy rains that had just started. I tend to get a little freaked out on suspension bridges and having a super intense river churning down below me didn’t help much.
Then we decided to go back to a trailhead we had passed on the way to the bridge to check out the mirador, or overlook, because who doesn’t like a mirador? The hike up was pretty short but the tropical climate left me sweating profusely by the time we made it up. But every drop of sweat was completely worth it – the view is to die for!
Outside of the rainy season the river is normally a bright turquoise but I felt like I was equally as impressed with the river’s power as its beauty so I didn’t mind that it was a turbid brown. At this point our check-out time was looming over us so we hustled down and put our stuff in the car. I of course had to take a dip in the one shallow part of the river and we hung out a little more on the river’s edge before heading to our next destination.
To be clear up front, I am not recommending going to Lago Miramar as part of this five day trip, but include this as a word of warning for anyone who sees the description in Lonely Planet and thinks that it would be a lovely place to go. Reading the section after the fact, it does say that it’s accessible by air or boat but I understood it to be accessible by land outside of the rainy season. We made it as far as the tiny village of Lomo Bonito where we discovered that you still needed to drive a bit farther to get to the boat launch, then travel in a boat for about 4 hours before starting a few hour hike (the hike was the part I was prepared for). We decided to forego that trip as we would have probably barely made it back for our flight and we still wanted to check out more places near Comitán and San Cristóbal. However, I wasn’t really upset that we had driven a few hours in vain as we got to admire more landscapes and meet more people deep within Zapatista and Maya land.
An interesting experience we had as a result was being stopped in the middle of the highway by a group of about 40 indigenous men all carrying machetes and demanding 100 pesos for highway maintenance (in a friendly way to be fair). This happens pretty frequently in Chiapas once you get more into rural areas but I’ve heard that it’s not normally that expensive. I think being a foreigner and a light-skinned Mexican duo meant we got the güero tax in this situation. Anyway, apparently as long as you just give them what they’re asking they won’t stir up any more trouble though it is a bit intimidating to be surrounded by a large group of armed men speaking in a language you can’t understand. I don’t think I mentioned before that many people in rural Chiapas don’t speak Spanish as their first language, rather their local indigenous language, so don’t be surprised if you hear an accent when they speak Spanish or if they don’t even speak Spanish at all.
After our failed Lago Miramar attempt we decided to head back to Comitán for the evening. We had to turn around along the same road we came out on instead of the lovely loop I had originally planned (I don’t love going out and back on the same trail or road but in this case it was hours and hours shorter) but I still got to see some views in a different way.
If you went straight back to Comitan after Las Nubes then you would arrive with some daylight for exploring but we got there pretty late so we just ate dinner and watched some Orange is the New Black in the hotel – there’s something about chilling in a hotel that just feels so luxurious to me, plus you need to relax a teensy bit on vacation, right?
We woke up and got some typical Chiapaneco breakfasts at Doña Chole then explored Comitán. The center has a charming square and the streets surrounding it are nice but as you get farther away from the center I found that it starts losing it charm.
Outside of the center square, there were a few cute spots we discovered. For souvenirs and Chiapas artesanía, el Centro Cultural y Artesanal El Turulete is a lovely area with many shops circling the center courtyard. If you’re interested in trying out or bringing home some of the coffee Chiapas is known for, Comitlan Tostadores de Café is your best bet here. The owner is a passionate coffee toaster, barista and aficionado and can make you feel like a complete novice but you’ll also learn a lot if you speak Spanish and ask him about any of the varieties or brewing methods. He only has a handful of types at a time and tries to have representation from other areas of Mexico, not just Chiapas, but whichever you prefer he can grind up to the size you need for your preferred brewing method to take to go. And of course while you’re deciding you can enjoy a coffee there, just don’t even think of ordering a mocha chip frappe, he is a purist who believes that putting sugar in your coffee is sacrilege. He made us a deliciously refreshing cafe “on the rocks” which was an espresso with mineral water and ice.
In my opinion of San Cristóbal and Comitán, San Cristobal has a lot more to see/do than Comitán so I would recommend starting out around mid-day to be able to enjoy the rest of the places on your itinerary and spend more time in San Cristóbal.
To the southwest of Comitán is the impressive set of waterfalls known as El Chiflón. There are two entrances which lead to two separately-run sets of trails, camping spots and cookout areas. From Comitán we took the second entrance just because we missed the first but I was happy with our choice once we got up to the last waterfall. The side run by Paraisos Indígenas (where we went) doesn’t get you as close to the falls but was much better for views of the complete waterfall.
The hike up to the waterfalls is not at all a backcountry experience, there are even cafés along the trail where you can buy drinks, beer or light snacks. However, this means the trail is very nicely maintained and if you want to celebrate vacation by drinking a beer then you can. From the very beginning the beautiful turquoise waters are amazing to admire but as you get farther up and start to see some of the smaller waterfalls and crystal clear pools it gets really magical.
The final waterfall, el Velo de Novia is maybe the most impressive waterfall I’ve seen. It’s enormously tall and powerful, even outside of the rainy season. And while the Rio Santo Domingo in Las Nubes had already changed from turquoise to brown due to rains, the pools along El Chiflón were still bright and clear. The contrast of the turquoise blue with the sand-colored rock along the river was an amazing combination that I’ll never forget.
On the way back down we stopped at one of the pools farther up that I had scoped out on the way up for swimming. For my New England cold sensors the water temperature was lovely and refreshing but for Germán it was too chilly for swimming. I splashed around in the clear water until we were kicked out by staff as the park was closing. Overall it was probably my favorite experience on this trip.
Something to keep in mind though is that we were there later in the day during the week but it seems like the type of place that could fill up significantly on the weekend so you may need to switch around some things if this day falls on a weekend for you.
San Cristobal de las Casas
We arrived in San Cristobal and got a room at the Parador Margarita Hotel, a lovely but not too expensive place in an old stone building close to the center. I would definitely recommend it if you go, it even has parking down the street if you rent a car. It was already later so we went straight to dinner, a Peruvian restaurant called Peruano that Germán’s dad recommended in the center. I really like Peruvian food and have had some good stuff in Peru but their pisco sours and ceviche lived up to my standards (though Germán tried one of their flavored pisco sours that I wouldn’t recommend). The little plaza it’s located in (San Augustiín) is also super adorable, and full of international options if you’re not feeling like more queso fundido 😉
We walked around afterward and were surprised that late on a Tuesday evening a lot of the downtown streets were still hopping with people selling artesanía and tourists strolling around or getting drinks at one of the many bars whose tables spill out into the streets. When we had passed through before to get breakfast our first day I had gotten a much more mellow/traditional vibe but this evening I saw that you could also have a pretty lively time if you felt so inclined.
The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and set out to explore the city. In contrast to Comitán the charm here spreads out even into the outskirts of the city and the center is filled with pedestrian streets, cafés, shops and quaint restaurants and a definitively international hippy vibe. The coffee expert in Comitán had recommended some places in San Cristobal so we went to check out Cafeólogo, a chic modern café that also rents out rooms in the back. The owner had first opened Carajillo, a café/restaurant also in San Cristobal but noticed that the high quality coffee they were serving was in demand so he opened up Cafeólogo to really showcase Mexican coffee along with high-quality toasting and brewing. Again, not the place to come for a unicorn frappe but if you really enjoy coffee or are trying to appreciate it more (like me) then this place is for you.
San Cristobal has two plazas right in the center and a little to the north is the Templo Santo Domingo de Guzman. Only part of the church and ex-convent was open when we went as the rest was closed for restoration but there is also a market surrounding the church that sells artesanía for a lot cheaper than the hip stores you’ll be drawn into.
In addition to coffee, Chiapas is known for its chocolate so we stocked up on some chocolate here too. We didn’t have a lot of time to fully explore the city since we had arrived late the night before and we left wanting more. You could easily spend a couple of days just in San Cristobal but we thought it would be easier to come back to the city for a weekend sometime so we dedicated more time to the natural areas.
Cañón del Sumidero
Speaking of natural areas, our last stop on the trip was to the Cañón del Sumidero which is very close to Tuxtla, where the airport is located. The canyon became what it is now when they completed a massive hydroelectric dam on the Río Grijalva which filled up the canyon leading up to the dam. I don’t really love hydroelectric dams in general but in this case it did create a protected natural reserve. To see the canyon you can drive to lookout points on the roads above or to really experience it you can take a motorboat from one of the embarcaderos which will take you on a two hour tour along the length of the national park. The canyon’s steep vertical walls make for a super impressive view and you can see lots of different birds, spider monkeys and crocodiles along the way.
The sad thing about touring Sumidero, especially in the rainy season, is the amount of trash and pollution that runs into the river. You can tell by looking at the water that this is not a place you would want to go swimming and there are literally piles of floating trash and branches from upstream informal dumps and logging operations. It definitely shows you up close and personal how trash and contaminants are washed out from where they were originally dumped and also how far Mexico has to go in its awareness and attitude towards trash, management of wastewater and use of plastic, agricultural chemicals and all the other things that end up in the river. Since the vast majority of tourists here are Mexicans I hope that seeing the effects in the river could help inspire some change, although I think that the guides should take advantage of the situation to bring awareness to the problem, not brush it off as just some plastic bottles that wash down in the rainy season as our guide said.
That being said, the landscape is amazingly impressive, you can’t help but be in awe by the enormous cliff walls. And, since #thisisMexico, there are even people on a boat by the dam that drive up to the tour boats to sell beer, sliced up jicama and a variety of other snacks. They did make sure to also include a bag for everyone to put their trash in when they were done so maybe there’s some awareness building happening, maybe? Overall, the canyon is a bit of a tourist trap but the natural beauty really makes up for being squished in a boat with sweaty people in ill-fitting lifejackets.
From el Cañón del Sumidero it’s a quick trip to the airport in Tuxtla where you can board your flight to your next destination or back home.
Overall, Chiapas did not disappoint on natural beauty, I was in awe much of the time we were driving of the amazing landscapes and the places we went to were crazy beautiful. I would definitely recommend going outside of the rainy season because although the rainy season was just starting, the chilly rains did dampen my jumping-into-every-lake-or-river spirit a tiny bit. The people in Chiapas are definitely more used to national tourism so if you don’t speak Spanish it might be a bit of a struggle (and could potentially result in some unpleasant situations if you’re stopped at a roadblock like we were but don’t understand what they’re asking for). Although you could do this same trip using public transportation, it would be a lot more time-consuming and just generally trickier, especially exploring the Lagunas de Montebello National Park as you need to drive to get from lake to lake in many cases. So if you’re a Spanish conversationalist who loves road trips, beautiful scenery and natural bodies of water, this trip is right up your alley – get going and let me know what you thought afterwards 😉
Every time I’m in Oaxaca I feel more and more like it really represents the soul of México. It’s the birthplace of mezcal, indigenous cultures and languages are still very present and there are amazing mountains, beautiful beaches and pre-hispanic ruins to explore. In the capital of Oaxaca City, there are so many activities to keep you busy and not to mention amazing art and shopping but one thing really stands out for me: the delicious food. If you appreciate good food and drink and find yourself in Oaxaca, Oaxaca, try out these recommendations to create a perfect foodie day.
Breakfast at Boulenc
If you’re not staying at a B&B that has breakfast and are looking for a lighter option to pace yourself through your foodie day, then Boulenc Pan Artesano is the perfect option for you. This hipster bakery specializes in sourdough bread, served as sandwiches or with eggs for breakfast. Their menu also includes pizza if you come here later in the day (or if you enjoy pizza for breakfast, who am I to judge?). Their coffee is also on point, I always appreciate a place that serves a good cold brew. They’ve done a great job with the atmosphere, it gives off a warm, homey vibe (though way cooler than any home I’ve lived in). When I was there a live band was playing and the brass instruments really completed the hip throwback vibe.
After breakfast you may crave some intellectually stimulation after the gastronomic experience so head over to the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca to learn about the original indigenous cultures in the state. It’s right next to the Jardín Etnobotánico so if you stayed too long at breakfast enjoying the live music and missed the tour of the gardens (the only way to enter), there’s a wonderful view from the back of the museum. While you’re there, pop into the church of Santo Domingo and marvel at the impressive gold plating.
Mid-Morning Refreshments at Oaxaca en una Taza
Oaxaca en una Taza means Oaxaca in a mug, and that really is the best description for this little cafe. There is coffee and some assorted breads and small pies but the reason you come here is for the chocolate. Not bars of chocolate but refreshing chocolate drinks made the traditional way. You can get them hot or cold and with milk or water. I prefer the cold chocolate made with water, especially if you need a pick me up after strolling around in the sun. You can get it plain or with other spices mixed in and for an extra charge you can choose the cacao percentage you would prefer. It’s definitely a unique drink, and something you don’t even see that much elsewhere in Mexico. Be sure to give it a try!
In the center of Oaxaca, there is an art gallery practically on every corner so you can continue your cultural experience admiring local art. There is also plenty of places to shop for Mexican artesanía, especially the Oaxacan specialties of black pottery, wool rugs and embroidered tops and dresses. Lunch in Mexico isn’t until 2 or 3 so feel free to work up your appetite as your browse for souvenirs.
Lunch at Casa Oaxaca
If you’re feeling a little fancy get a reservation ahead of time for this popular (and a little pricey) restaurant. Casa Oaxaca is noticeable for its bright blue exterior and the simple, sophisticated while still a bit traditional vibe continues inside. There are a few interior dining areas and a beautiful roof area overlooking Santo Domingo. The food is elevated traditional Oaxacan and you will not lack for options. It’s really a mind-body experience dining here, where you can feel like you enjoyed a delightful meal and took a deep dive into Oaxacan culture at the same time.
If you’re impressed by the mole or Oaxacan cheese at lunch and would like to take some home with you, head to the mercado to get a feel for the local hustle and bustle and where you can also buy mole paste, crickets, local cheese, or almost anything else from Oaxaca. The paste will stay good for months even without refrigeration and only needs to be heated up with some chicken or vegetable broth to serve. It’s a great way to impress your friends back home with how much you learned about Mexican culture.
Pre-Dinner Cocktails at Praga Coffee Bar
Praga Coffee Bar has one of the best views in Oaxaca, directly facing the church of Santa Domingo. Once the sun starts going down, the lights illuminating the church come on and the rooftop terrace becomes the perfect spot to enjoy the golden color of the church at night. With delicious mezcal cocktails, lots of wine and beer options and a selection of tapas and appetizers to whet your appetite, it’s a great spot to start off your night in style.
If you haven’t walked through the Zocalo yet, you can stroll down the pedestrian road lined with galleries and cafes to get to the main square, where there are always crowds of people selling things and enjoying time with their families. If you didn’t have an appetizer at Praga, you can line up at one of the street carts for ezquites or elotes, my personal favorite street food. They’re corn off or on the cob served with mayo, cheese, chili and lime, which I agree sounds gross but just believe me, they’re amazing. But don’t eat too much, there’s still one more meal to enjoy in this beautiful city!
Dinner at Zandunga
Zandunga specializes in food from Istmo, a region on the coast of Oaxaca. The vibe is colorful and friendly and I’m always impressed with the wait staff’s knowledge and demeanor. It has your typical Oaxacan classics but with a bit of a twist. There’s understandably more seafood than you would find in a typical Oaxacan restaurant but even for non-seafood lovers like me there are plenty of options. Their homemade salsas are quite spicy and are served with freshly baked tortillas, I would also start out with their perfectly tangy guac. If you’re here for dinner then you could split a tlayuda or stick with something lighter, like one of their tamales. They also make delicious mezcal cocktails and have a good craft beer selection. Overall, I’ve really enjoyed myself every time I’ve come here, it seems to inspire great conversation and embodies the Oaxacan spirit that I love so much.
If you’re here with the whole family, then you may be ready for bed after dinner, as dinner is usually around 9pm. But if you’re still wanting to sample some of the local drinks to wash down all of the delicious food, there are plenty of options for drinking mezcal, the local craft spirit. Or, if beer is more up your alley, Oaxaca is starting to catch on to the micro brewery movement and there are some delicious craft beers local to the city.
Local Craft Beer at La Santísima Flor de Lupulo
La Santísima Flor de Lúpulo means “The very sacred hop flower” and there is even a hop spirit creature on the wall in the same sort of display that virgins and saints are normally displayed on in Mexico. They are a nano-brewery so there are only a few of their own beers on tap but they have lots of other Mexican and international options as well. And it’s one of the few breweries in Mexico that I’ve seen that has their own Saison! It wasn’t the best Saison I’ve ever tasted but I give them a lot of points for just having one in a country where craft brewing is still very much in the early stages.
Mezcal at La Mezcalerita
If you’re more interested in trying some mezcal, then head over to La Mezcalerita, a comfortable and quirky bar with plenty of options to get your mezcal fix. There’s also craft beer and other drinks if you want to mix it up but the idea is to order a shot of mezcal and a Mexican beer and to switch off sipping between the two. There are some different areas indoors and a giant roof terrace with tables and couches. If you’re there later at night and it starts to get chilly they even let you borrow a nice thick blanket to keep you warm and toasty.
If you’re full of energy and want to keep exploring the nightlife in Oaxaca, you can stroll back down past Santo Domingo until you hear thumping music coming out into the street. Otherwise, it may be time to call it a night so that you can get up tomorrow and continue enjoying all that Oaxaca has to offer you.
There is nothing more Mexican than tacos, REAL tacos that is. If your idea of a taco is a crispy taco shell filled with ground beef flavored with taco seasoning and topped with lettuce, shredded cheese and sour cream, I’ve got news for you: that is not a taco. Authentic Mexican tacos are simple, with one one or two ingredients and a few toppings to choose from. However, when you go out to get tacos there is a wealth of options for what goes inside.
Every taco starts with a tortilla, usually made fresh from corn masa. This humble tortilla (or two) is then loaded up with whatever type of meat or veggie you would like, cheese optional. Obviously the place you go to will determine what your options are, but below I’ve presented some common options for both sit-down taco places and stand-around-a-tall-table-on-the-sidewalk-stuffing-your-face places.
Bistek: One of the most common tacos, they’re very thinly sliced steak cut up into bite sized pieces
Costilla: This means rib and it is indeed the rib bone and all the surrounding flavorful meat.
Chuleta: Pork chops.
Suadero: This is beef rib meat as well but braised until super tender, served without the bone.
Chorizo: Not to be confused with Spanish chorizo, Mexican chorizo is pork sausage that crumbles when it’s cooked and has a red color due to the spices inside. It’s pretty fatty but (I think) delicious.
Lengua: This means tongue and it is literally a cow’s tongue. Sometimes it is cut up and sometimes presented in its entire glory atop your tortilla.
Cabeza: The head. I tend not to eat meat that is a recognizable body part so I’m not sure how this tastes or where exactly on the head of a cow this comes from but that is the general area.
Ojo: Continuing with abnormal (for Americans) cow body parts, we have the eye! It’s cut up and I cannot attest to the taste.
Cachete: This means cheek. This makes me narrow down cabeza to not include the cheek but again, I cannot attest to the taste.
Tripa: And to round out the section of things Americans think are gross to eat, we have tripe. Yup, that’s the intestine of a cow, yummmmm.
Campechanos: So this generally means a little bit of everything. It’s usually bistek and chorizo though sometimes it’ll mean suadero and chorizo.
Cochinada: When all the various meats are being cooked up on the grill and scooped into your taco, a little bit of meat invariably gets left behind. Once lots and lots of tacos have been made the left behind meat adds up and has gotten quite crunchy. Instead of throwing away these crunchy bits of bistek or suadero (or both) they put them in their own special taco.
Arrachera: Steak that has been aggressively tenderized and marinated to form a tender and flavorful piece of beef.
Carnitas: Pork that has been braised and simmered until it gets to a sort of melt in your mouth level of tender.
Barbacoa: Generally sheep’s meat that is traditionally cooked in a hole in the ground filled with coal and covered in banana leaves and then with dirt to slow cook for hours and hours. The category of barbacoa has a lot of different options when you go to order according to the body type. You won’t find these tacos when you go out to a taco joint because they are breakfast tacos! They’re super popular to get as you’re leaving the city for the weekend and there are a plethora of places or tents that line the highways leaving Mexico City.
Al Pastor: This should almost be its own category as taco places can easily be distinguished between those that don’t serve al pastor and those that proudly display their trompo on the sidewalk or entrance. This type of preparation was influenced by the Lebanese population in Mexico and it’s basically pork sliced up and marinated in a very involved mixture of spices, chiles, and sometimes even a touch of citrus. The marinated pieces of meat are then pierced onto a metal spike to form the trompo, topped with a pineapple. The trompo gets spun around to cook evenly beside the (preferable) coal fire on one side. As people order tacos al pastor someone slices downwards on the trompo to get the meat for their taco.
You’ll see the trompo changing its shape as the day/night goes on, getting skinnier as more and more is cut off. I consider myself an almost vegetarian but I make an exception for al pastor, it is so delicious.
Real vegetarians don’t despair, there are pretty much always vegetarian taco options wherever you go, though admittedly much less variety.
Nopales: A type of cactus that is widely eaten in Mexico, it is cut into strips and either sautéed or grilled.
Hongos: Mushrooms cooked up until they’re nice and juicy. If you get it with cheese they might call it a Quesongo.
Rajas: Poblano peppers cooked with crema (Mexican sour cream but lighter) or cheese. They can occasionally be spicy so if you don’t tolerate any spiciness this may not be the greatest option for you.
Quesadillas: Mexico is divided between those who believe a quesadilla needs to contain cheese (pretty much all of Mexico) and those who believe the cheese in a quesadilla is optional (Mexico City residents). The argument of the chilangos is that quesadilla doesn’t come from the word queso but rather a náhuatl word which means folded. So if you go somewhere in Mexico City and order a quesadilla they may ask you if you want it with cheese (I was so confused the first time this happened to me). However, most taco places tend to assume that when you order a quesadilla there you want cheese. You can get a quesadilla with just cheese but also with meat or veg inside as well. So what still confuses me is what the difference is between say a mushroom taco with cheese and a mushroom quesadilla (besides the quesadilla being served folded and the taco open). Is it just the folded part? Anyone have any knowledge/ideas they want to share?
Volcanoes: This means volcano and it is an open tortilla that they’ve crunched up a bit on the grill and then top with cheese so it’s all melted and overflowing, hence the volcano. You can get this with some sort of meat on top as well.
Gringas: So this is basically a taco al pastor with cheese but is made with two flour tortillas laid out flat with all the cheesy al pastorness in between (I’m assuming the name comes from the use of a flour tortilla and maybe even the style being similar to how we make quesadillas in the U.S.). It is definitely delicious and having two larger tortillas makes it more food than a regular taco.
Alambres: This is potentially my favorite thing to order when getting tacos. It’s a mixture of meat (usually al pastor) and sautéed onions and peppers held together by gooey cheese. You get this mixture on a plate and then get tortillas on the side so you can make your own tacos.
On the side at a sit down place you can get such items as guacamole, chicharón de queso (cheese cooked on the grill until made into a thin crispy sheet), queso fundido (melted cheese with other things thrown in sometimes served with tortillas), cebollitas (green onions cooked in soy sauce), or frijoles charros (pinto beans served at almost the consistency of a soup with bacon or some similar meat and onions and such). A lot of places will also give you chips and the salsas for your tacos are available on the table for dipping.
Pretty much anywhere you go for food in Mexico has aguas frescas: water flavored with fruit, flowers or rice with a fair amount of sugar. Taco places are no different and you can almost always find the agua fresca staples: agua de jamaica (hibiscus water) and horchata (like rice milk but made with water. Fun fact: horchata was originally and sometimes still is made from melon seeds). You’ll probably also be able to find a limonada (limeade) pretty much anywhere and of course there will probably be chelas (the very Mexican word for cerveza which is beer).
How to Order:
Like I mentioned at the beginning, do not expect your taco to come with lettuce, cheddar cheese and sour cream. You will get the meat or veggie you have requested and the normal toppings are diced onions and cilantro. If you get one of the al pastor options, your taco or gringa will also come with chopped pineapple. So if they ask you if you want your taco “con todo,” they are referring to those two or three things. If you would prefer to not have one of those toppings just let them know. Salsas are at your table for you to choose which one you’d like and how much but be careful, salsas can be really spicy! Fun story, when my Mom visited Mexico I took her to a taco place and she loaded up a chip with a salsa that has some avocado in it so it looks sort of like guac but is really quite spicy and she was almost unable to eat the rest of her meal. It was quite funny for everyone else but I’ve never seen her eyes get that big! I always sample tiny drops first to see if the spice level is appropriate for my taste before loading up my tacos. And of course you can’t forget to squeeze some lime juice on top, the fresh acidity really brings out the rest of the flavors.
Whatever you decide to order, make sure to enjoy every last finger lick.
P.S. If you found this article interesting, go check out Ugly Delicious on Netflix. Episode 2 is an entire hour devoted to discussing and eating tacos in Mexico and the U.S. You’ll thank me later.
Around 3 hours away from Mexico City in the state of Querétaro, Tequisquiapan is a great spot to get away for the weekend. It’s a cute town with a beautiful central plaza for strolling or shopping and dining at the shops and restaurants lining the plaza. One of the main focal points in the plaza is the salmon-colored church which is pretty on the outside though not as impressive on the inside. There are smaller streets radiating out from the central plaza filled with more restaurants and stands with ice cream or souvenirs.
Tequisquiapan is known for its cheese and wine and there’s a wine and cheese festival that lasts for almost a month in May and June. You have to buy a ticket to get in and try all the different wines and cheeses on display but even if you come at another time of year, there are plenty of wine and cheese shops all around that will let you sample their wares to pick out what you want to buy.
If you get bored of drinking wine and eating cheese (which is pretty hard to do in my opinion), Tequis is close to the popular tourist attraction of Peña de Bernal. The jagged rocky peak is right within the town of Bernal which is also a great place for strolling and eating. You can even hike up the Peña, though I cannot personally speak to how technical the climb is. Bernal can get really crowded during weekends or holidays so going there for the day and then returning to the more peaceful Tequisquiapan is a good plan.
We made the trip to Tequis this weekend for Germán’s uncle’s 80th birthday party. His aunt also has a house there so the entire extended family crashed between the two houses and we celebrated all weekend long. Mexican families love to celebrate and this time family members even came from different countries for the party. We came home with two personalized bottles of mezcal as party favors and feeling great (though tired) from spending time with family. What did you do this weekend?
Mexico City is an amazing place to visit any time of year. There’s a plethora of cultural activities happening year-round and the food is always delicious. However, if you’ve decided to make the trip and are wondering when is the best time to visit, these are some considerations to keep in mind.
Mexico City is a very temperate and generally not humid place, so wintertime here is not that intense, even though we’re at elevation (Mexico City is higher than any city in the United States at 12,890 feet). Winter temperatures can drop to the low 40s at night but during the day temps rise back up to the 70s. However, houses here do not have heat and are made out of concrete which I don’t find to be the warmest building material. So people hang around their houses at night in the winter with jackets and hats on and you definitely need to bundle up a bit when you go out at night (though I’m from New England so “bundling up” here is a whole different concept). Weather aside, the month leading up to Christmas in Mexico City is a very festive time, Mexico being a predominantly Catholic country. The Christmas season starts on December 12th with the celebration for Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Virgin of Guadalupe is, without getting too deep here, a Mexican looking Virgin Mary who appeared to an indigenous man on the outskirts of Mexico City and whose image miraculously appeared on a cloth. That cloth hangs in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City where pilgrims flock every year to celebrate her feast day. The Basilica and the surrounding area become super crowded this time of year but all throughout the city you’ll hear fireworks and parties in her honor. Following December 12th there are Christmas posadas, which are processions of people singing to represent Mary and Joseph looking for a room in Bethlehem, followed by a celebration with lots of food. However, it may be harder as a tourist to get involved in these events as they are generally celebrated amongst families.
Springtime in Mexico City is the season of jacarandas, the equivalent of the cherry blossoms in D.C. The bright purple blossoms show up everywhere and provide pops of color and even blanket the sidewalks with purple flowers. The weather warms up to around 80 during the day and a pleasant coolness of 50 at night. As far as seasonal festivities, religious holidays continue with Semana Santa, the week before Easter. As most touristy destinations outside of the city fill up, the city is left relatively quiet. Celebrations around this time tend to be more solemn religious proceedings and some restaurants or tourist places may be closed. But if you’re interested in that sort of thing the working-class neighborhood of Iztapalapa does a real-life stations of the cross that’s quite impressive. As the spring turns into summer, the rainy season begins (or as was the case this year, rainy season began pretty much in March) and the dry landscape gets greener.
Summer in Mexico City brings torrential downpours pretty much every evening. During the day the sun shines brightly and highs even go down slightly from the spring. Around 6 or 7, clouds roll in and rain falls down hard for an hour or two. The rain is so intense that streets sometimes flood and the metro turns into a clammy slow nightmare. There’s not really any significant seasonal holidays during the summer either. Although this doesn’t really sound nice at all, the great part about the rainy season in Mexico City is that humidity is only an issue right before the rain starts and you’re not stuck with overcast cloudy skies, you can still explore during the day and just be sure to pack your umbrella and rain jacket for the evening.
The rainy season tapers off as fall begins, with intermittent rains continuing until October. The temperature drops to the mid 70s and around 50 at night. Fall is pretty much the season of Mexican holidays with Mexican Independence Day on September 16th and Day of the Dead on November 2nd. Independence Day is celebrated with fireworks and parades but what is unique about how they celebrate Independence Day here is the grito. At 11pm people gather in the main squares of the city to join in shouting “Viva la independencia, Viva México” and general revelry afterwards. Many families also choose to eat pozole, a typical Mexican soup with hominy and some sort of meat and then you choose your own adventure with toppings ranging from radishes to lettuce to spicy salsas.
The Day of the Dead in Mexico is an experience unlike any other in the world. Mexicans have an interesting view of death that really comes to life on Day of the Dead.
Basically the idea is that deceased family members will come visit their loved ones in spirit form on the evening before November 2nd so families create an ofrenda, or offering, which includes pictures of their loved ones, the typical cempasúchil flower, papel picado, a bit of salt and their relative’s favorite foods. The domestic ofrenda is recreated at museums and public spaces on grand scales and you can make a day of visiting various ofrendas at this time.
While Halloween has caught on here as well, the traditional way to celebrate on November 2nd is to go to the cemetery and have a sometimes raucous party by your relatives’ graves. There’s a parade that goes through the center full of Catrinas, the typical skeletal women with a giant feathered hat, and various other characters. I really can’t express how unique and indicative of Mexican culture Day of the Dead is, it’s an experience you have to live to even try to understand.
And if Day of the Dead and Independence Day wasn’t enough, fall is also the best time of year to eat ezquites and elote, which is corn off or on the cob served with mayo, cheese, chili and lime which may sound kind of gross as you read it but it is literally my favorite Mexican street food.
So if you couldn’t tell from my tone, I would recommend planning your trip to Mexico City in the fall, with springtime a close second. However, like I said before, you can’t go wrong with visiting this amazing and culturally profound city at any time of year. And if you’re not wanting to brave the rains or the cold here, summer and winter are great times to visit other areas of México, beach anyone?
In the U.S. we tend to get very enthusiastic about holidays, especially when we’re celebrating other countries’ holidays. St. Patrick’s Day is a bigger deal in the U.S. than in Ireland and Cinco de Mayo is hardly celebrated in México. So what exactly is Cinco de Mayo celebrating if not Mexican independence and why is it such a big deal in the U.S.?
Cinco de Mayo actually celebrates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, during which the much smaller Mexican army claimed victory over the French army who had invaded due to debts that México had stopped paying to France. Although the underdog victory slowed down the French, they did end up defeating the Mexicans and instated the Archduke Maximilian as Emperor of the Second Mexican Empire. Only five years later, the Emperor Maximilian was executed and Benito Juárez returned as president of Mexico.
In Mexico, this day is really only celebrated in Puebla, it’s not even an official national holiday. Mexican Independence Day is celebrated on September 16th, which is when Mexico gained independence from the Spanish in 1821. So why then, does gringolandia celebrate Cinco de Mayo with such enthusiasm?
There’s really three answers to that question. One is that the U.S. supported the Mexican government throughout the French occupation and actually pressured the French to remove their troops from Mexico. Having relatively recently disposed of our European rulers, the U.S. was pushing for a North America free of European intervention (to promote freedom and independence or to be the major political player in North America, depending on your levels of idealism).
Really the main reasons though are the same reasons St. Patrick’s Day is so popular: immigrants’ nostalgia and alcohol. Many Mexican immigrants in the U.S. come from the state of Puebla and their special holiday became a celebration of Mexican culture adopted by many Chicanos. It was a way to keep their culture alive, even as their children grew up speaking English and integrating into American culture. However, it was still mainly celebrated in California and in areas with large Mexican populations up until the ’80s when beer companies realized they could promote this holiday to sell more beer. So in true capitalist spirit, beer companies started creating spanish-language ads and marketed like crazy until the holiday was adopted by Chicanos and gringos alike.
If this last bit sounds crazy, that’s consumerism for you. But if you want to celebrate Cinco de Mayo a bit more authentically and with less cultural appropriation this year, maybe just try to balance your focus to include all the other great aspects of Mexican culture, not just Corona. That being said, I’m experiencing a weird sort of expat nostalgia for our Americanized celebration of this holiday so I’ll be drinking a margarita or two in celebration. ¡Salud!