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

1 comment:

  1. What a great review of your trip that makes me pack my bags and fly to Mexico. Margot and I have taken several trips in the Fall to Western coastal cities which we go for R & R. You certainly have a knack of doing things local and putting it in proper perspective indeed. I am forwarding your blog to my many travelling friends. Have fun. Mucho gracias for sharing your travel blogs. Chuck