Saturday, April 19, 2014

Mexico: Part 3

We are now home to sunshine and spring flowers after our interesting, enjoyable though not exactly restful trip to central Mexico.

Palm weaving outside the church in Taxco
Last Saturday night, the evening before Palm Sunday, we were sitting on a balcony overlooking the main square of Taxco, and watching some highly energetic and costumed locals performing dances that involved a lot of foot stamping and handkerchief waving. 

The next morning we enjoyed watching skilled weavers making elaborate crucifixes out of palm leaves to sell to everyone entering the church, which was packed. And then, a noisy procession of several hundred people, many with middle-Eastern head dresses, came winding through the steep cobbled streets blowing trumpets, sousaphones and whistles and letting off fireworks. They were carrying a complex, palm-bedecked float to the church, which was already filled to capacity. We did not stay to see how that worked out, but instead went to the Taxco silver museum – named after the American silversmith, William Spratling, who revived the silver industry in Taxco. 

Palm Sunday Procession in Taxco
Interesting that two of the best local museums we visited in Mexico were founded by gay expat American artists in the 1950s.

The long drive from Taxco (southwest of Mexico City) to Puebla (southeast of Mexico City) turned out to be a lot easier than we expected, and was interrupted by an entertaining stop for “breakfast” at a roadside cafĂ© – plastic chairs and a tarpaulin roof beside the highway. The place was very busy at 11 AM, the main attractions being inexpensive and excellent food, and the three buxom waitresses in stretch tights with colorful eye make-up, one of whom provided an endless supply of fresh tortillas, flattening the dough into thin circles and toasting them on a griddle. Our two breakfasts of eggs, rice and beans, a liter of fresh guava juice, plus unlimited tortillas – $8.

Pottery Market
Speaking of late breakfasts, we eventually worked out that in central Mexico people eat only two meals a day – a late breakfast/early lunch between 10 AM and 12 noon, then an early dinner between 5 and 7 PM. Being used to Argentina and Spain where dinner doesn’t start till very late at night, at first we were turning up for dinner to find that restaurants were closed, closing, or empty. More than once the floors were being washed and chairs being put up on the tables while we ate. We got into the swing of it, however, and started eating earlier and earlier in the evening. Mexico is also great for snacks – there are stalls selling potato chips, popcorn, cakes, ice cream, and fresh fruit snacks everywhere, as well as more exotic local treats like chilaquiles, tlacoyos, and chapulines. The last of those is fried grasshoppers – not sure what the others are.

Our final stop was the colonial city of Puebla. If you visit just one city in Mexico, this is the place to go. It has beautiful old, well-kept buildings, quiet streets (no car horns!) with bike lanes, great restaurants and good museums, and is so well organized that it is easy to find your way around. 
Puebla street - old buildings, no cars, bike lane!!
The city is famous for its pottery, and many of the buildings and most of the churches are decorated with blue and white tiles (azulejos). Added to this, the attractions are (unlike most Mexican cities) very well signposted with information about the sights in Spanish and English, and sometimes Nahuatl and Braille. The cathedral is vast and relatively austere – it was packed when we first visited as the archbishop was conducting Mass on the Tuesday of Holy Week. 
Puebla tiles in the Capilla del Rosario
Our bibliophile friends will be happy to hear that one of the main attractions in Puebla is a library – the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, claimed to be the oldest library in the Americas. We also enjoyed visits to the artisan market and the artists’ quarters, both located in their designated areas by the well-organized Poblanos.

On our way back to Mexico City for our flight home, we stopped for half a day at the pyramids of Teotihuacan, a huge complex of ancient buildings, many decorated with fantastic stone sculptures and murals, which was constructed by a civilization far older than the Mayans or Aztecs from 100 BC to about 500 AD. 
Teotihuacan - Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Moon
We spent an interesting (and exhausting) few hours clambering up precipitous pyramid steps and walking along the 1½ mile Avenue of the Dead.

What struck us most about our trip to Mexico was how kind, friendly and helpful the Mexicans we encountered were. The streets of the cities felt safer than many we have visited, with little excessive alcohol consumption and minimal begging; people would stop in the street to ask us if we were lost or needed directions; locals were happy that we were visiting their towns or eating in their restaurants. Reputedly some parts of Mexico are dangerous for travelers and infested with robbers, kidnappers and drug dealers. Happily we avoided them, or perhaps we two elderly gringos just did not look like good targets. We even got out a few hours before the 7.2 earthquake hit central Mexico. We plan to go back and do some more exploring before our legs give out – we walked over 100 miles in 20 days.

Plumed Serpent carvings in Teotihuacan

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mexico: Part 2

Taxco Cathedral, with VW beetles
It is the Saturday before Palm Sunday, and we are in the small Mexican hill town of Taxco (pronounced (Tach-ko). Our little hotel is perched on a steep hillside with a wonderful view of small white houses, churches, flower gardens and swimming pools (!) clinging to the precipitous slopes. Taxco is famous for silver mines -- long exhausted -- and now boasts hundreds of little “tianguis” (stores) where silver jewelry and other handicrafts are sold.  The main square is dominated by a mostly pink baroque fantasy cathedral built by one of the richest silver barons. It has a beautiful wood floor and excessively elaborate gilt altars. We treated ourselves to tasty ice-creams, from over sixty different divine flavors, “los sabores de los dioses”, including tequila and burnt milk.

Hat seller in San Miguel
We have covered a lot of ground in the past week. We left Guanajuato by bus last Saturday for the short trip to San Miguel de Allende – a beautiful town of orange, brown and yellow buildings built upon a hill. We spent three days wandering the streets, checking out the local markets and visiting a lovely botanic garden and nature reserve with a great range of cacti in bloom, and some interesting birds. 

San Miguel (or SMA, as those in the know call it) has become a haven for gringo ex-pats, and in several of the restaurants they were quite reluctant to speak to us in Spanish. It appears that many of the gringos expected life to be a lot cheaper in SMA than turns out to be the case, and many have turned to selling real estate, or their own art work. The amount of art on sale and on display was astounding. We were not tempted… 

Our hotel in San Miguel
Despite this, San Miguel is definitely worth a visit for its beautiful buildings, friendly people, and great food and lodgings. The bedroom in our tiny 4-room hotel had a 16 ft. high brick vaulted ceiling and a bed the size of a small football field.

Kitchen in Robert Brady Museum, Cuernavaca
After an easy bus trip back to Mexico City and a slightly nerve-wracking subway trip across the city with our luggage, we picked up a rental car and headed off south, in the rush hour, towards Cuernavaca, where we spent 2 nights. We would not recommend Cuernavaca as a place to spend much time – it is a bit grungy and down at heel. The cathedral is built of stone that Cortes salvaged from the local Aztec temple and it looks like it – a large pile of black rock in the general form of a European cathedral, with primitive frescoes inside painted by locals who converted to Christianity. It is extraordinarily old for the New World, having been started in 1528. One delightful surprise which redeemed Cuernavaca for us was the Robert Brady Museum – a beautiful collection of arts and crafts in a fine old house. The former American owner, Robert Brady, was educated at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and at the Barnes Foundation. You could see Barnes’ influence in the collections of old keys, painted chests, African masks and Asian wall hangings in among paintings and prints of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Aztec temple in Malinalco
We would never have realized Mexico was so mountainous if we had not driven from Mexico City to Cuernavaca and from there to the “pueblo magico” of Malinalco, a very picturesque little town southwest of Mexico City. It was once an important Aztec religious site, and boasts the only monolithic pyramid in the world, carved out of the side of a cliff. It was really impressive, and because it was built out of one piece of solid stone, the Spaniards weren’t able to use it elsewhere as building material. 

We had our first lodging disaster and “Lonely Planet” letdown in Malinalco, where the hotel we had booked turned out to be awful – a small, cell-like room, with minimal curtains, a narrow and uncomfortable bed, zinging mosquitoes, barking dogs, and the rumble of trucks and cars on the nearby highway. We stuck it out for one night, despite having prepaid for two (not like us). For our second night we found a beautiful little B&B with a pool and tranquil garden where we enjoyed a happy afternoon, a quiet night and a delicious breakfast.

And so to today, where we are sitting on a terrace looking down on the higgledy-piggledy rooftops of Taxco. It is hard to believe we’ll be back home next Thursday.

San Miguel de Allende


Friday, April 4, 2014

Mexico: Part 1

We have been on holiday for a week now and are having a great time…here are some of the highlights.

We spent our first 5 nights in Mexico City. What a huge place…we were on a subway train heading south of the city center for nearly an hour and a half and still did not reach the countryside...roads and buildings and people everywhere. Overall, it is a very pleasant city with friendly people, lots of nice parks, fantastic buildings, museums and art galleries, and good restaurants. Our hotel was a small B&B in an old section of the town about 30 minutes’ walk or 10 minutes’ metro ride from the center, in an elegantly restored house from the mid-19th century, with high ceilings, tall windows, interesting art on the walls and very friendly and helpful staff. Unlike Argentina, they know how to do a good breakfast in Mexico – fresh fruit and yogurt, eggs and salsa, freshly squeezed juice and excellent coffee.

Perfectly polished peppers
The B&B was near a good small but lively and colorful market with amazing of displays of fresh fruit and vegetables. We could not get over how carefully and spotlessly everything was presented. Potatoes were scrubbed clean and piled in elegant rows, peppers looked polished, onions were peeled, fruit was sold whole or sliced, and in a fabulous range of color and size. There were at least 5 varieties of avocados on sale, and various exotic fruits that we had to ask the names of – guanabana, mamey, cherimoya, and others.

Aztec Rain God
We went to some excellent museums – the Templo Mayor is a huge archaeological site of an Aztec temple in the center of Mexico City, with a very interesting museum beside it, where they show the artifacts that have been dug up during the excavation of the temple and building of the metro. Reminders of the Aztecs are everywhere in the stonework and statues around the city, and in the place names spelled with x’s.

Sunday is the day when families go out together and all the museums are free for them but less often for foreigners. We went to the huge central Chapultepec Park, where we visited the palace of the Mexican/Austrian Emperor Maximilian, now converted into a museum of Mexican history. It is in a beautiful setting overlooking the city and surrounded by trees, with spectacular purple jacarandas in flower. The museum itself was an eye-opener – Mexico certainly has a complicated history.

The highlight of Sunday for us was a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology, where artifacts of Mexico’s dozens of existing and past cultures and nations are displayed, along with overwhelming levels of information about their history and ways of life. The museum starts with an explanation of human evolution and the current theories about how humanity reached the Americas, that was better than anything we have seen elsewhere – including the Smithsonian and the Museum of Natural History in London. The vast stone monuments of the Aztecs, Toltecs and Mayans were truly impressive.

Families enjoying the water sprays
at the Monument to the Revolution
Part of the fun of Sunday in the park was seeing the population of Mexico City at play. The paths were thronged with people and lined with stalls selling all kinds of food, drink, clothing and tourist souvenirs. Everyone was happy, the huge concrete plaza turned into a “spray-ground” for the young and adventurous, and we felt safe and secure – not at all the picture of Mexico that one gets from reading the news in the U.S.

Colorful punts in Xochimilco
We also found our way to a unique corner of the city in the far south, the small town of Xochimilco. What an interesting place! It features the last remnants of the huge lake that once surrounded this area. Much of the lake has been semi-reclaimed by the creation of artificial islands that now house plant nurseries. Instead of cars, the primary means of transport is by boat. Because it is an attractive area with canals in lieu of roads, and gardens along the banks, it has become a great tourist attraction. We spent a leisurely couple of hours being poled gently along the waterways on a brightly colored punt past fabulous displays of flowers, watching the local people working in the gardens, paddling to or from school, or working on their boats. Our punt was regularly pursued by smaller boats from which people tried to sell us drinks, food such as grilled sweetcorn, blankets, dolls and sombreros. There were also boats with bands of musicians offering to sing a song and play for us. Some had full mariachi bands, others had xylophones, and singers with guitars. No motorized boats are allowed and all the boats were paddled or punted by skilled operators, though there were frequent close calls.

We did not see any of the fish or snakes reputed to live in the lake of flowers, but the axolotl is worth a mention: an incredibly ugly amphibian tadpole that has forgotten how to turn into a frog, it only existed in the Xochimilco Lake. The Aztecs caught them for food, and it is at risk of extinction. Pollution in the water has caused them to disappear from the lake though they are now being bred in captivity.

Mexican Hairless Dogs -- one is real, one is a statue.
We would also recommend the nearby Dolores Olmedo museum, set in a beautiful garden with peacocks under the trees, and a small pack of Xoloitcuintle (Mexican hairless dogs) that are sadly endangered because of their delicate skin. La signora Olmedo was a wealthy patron of the arts and a friend of Diego Rivera’s, so she owned a huge collection of unique paintings and portraits of his and Frida Kahlo’s, along with a large collection of Asian treasures, including giant ivory carvings and sculptures.

Frida and Diego pinatas
After our days in Mexico City, our five-hour bus ride to Guanajuato was surprisingly pleasant, with a bag-lunch provided, WiFi available on board, and interesting movies to while away the hours. Even the bus station was clean, with airport-style X-ray machines and screening of passengers and their bags. We learned that just as Philly was briefly the capital of the U.S., so Guanajuato was once the capital of Mexico. Silver is still mined here, and the old colonial buildings and many huge churches reflect the wealth of the former silver barons. It is a beautiful town now declared a UN World Heritage Site, and justifiably. Every corner is another picture-worthy moment.

Colorful Guanajuato
After our long winter in Philly, days of 80 degrees F. are especially welcome. We managed to get soaked in a couple of late-afternoon thunderstorms in the capital, but the air is mostly dry and clear and the nights are cool. We walk miles each day, and enjoy being outside. We just spent a delightful morning in the garden of a former hacienda and home of one such rich citizen, now a museum with old paintings and furnishings. We enjoyed the 17 different garden styles represented with fountains, patios, walls of flowering vines and climbing plants, huge trees and containers of small flowering plants. We even spotted 3 different species of woodpeckers, along with warblers, hummingbirds and a magnificent vermillion flycatcher.

The steep slopes of Guanajuato
Because Guanajuato is built on the steep slopes of the surrounding hills and the town is mostly tiny, twisting alleys, the cars and buses drive through an underground system of tunnels. It is definitely a little scary to be walking underground with the traffic after getting off a bus and trying to locate the right tunnel to take to reach the surface. A great relief to emerge into the bright sunshine again.

Most of the restaurants do not stay open late, so eating dinner at 7 or 8 at night is far from unusual. We like the Mexican tacos, enchiladas, soups and salads, and have eaten a variety of chicken, seafood, bean and cheese dishes.  We avoid the slabs of deep-fried tripe, the goat stews and any spiny unrecognizable fish.

Our next stop is San Miguel De Allende, only an hour or so away on the bus.
Silver Baron's garden outside Guanajuato