Street Vendor Selling Burritos in Mexico City

What do Argentine Tango, the Peking Opera and Mexican food have in common? They’ve all been given UNESCO status as Masterpieces of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. These lofty words are unlikely to come to mind while savoring the best food in Mexico. I prefer my sister Kathryn’s response after tasting her first tlacoyo: “Don’t talk to me—I’m in Food Heaven!”

I’ve lived in Mexico for more than fifteen years and have been to Food Heaven numerous times. Sometimes it’s been at a friend’s house, or at one of the high-end Mexican restaurants that have sprung up around town.  But most often it’s been at a simple market fonda or a humble street stall. 

Some people react to the term ‘street food’ in Mexico with alarm. Fear of strange bacteria and ‘Montezuma’s revenge’ stops them from trying some of the country’s best cuisine. When I first came to Mexico I would stroll by a busy stall, take in the heady aromas, and walk on by. But the tacos al pastor at El Huequito (The Hole-in-the-Wall) finally won me over—there were dozens of people eating them, and everybody just looked too happy. Over the years I’ve developed my own rules for eating on the street that have served me well.

A crowded stall is always a good sign. Make sure the place looks clean—trust your judgment. Look at the food to see if it’s fresh and is being cooked to order. Be wary of foods that may have been sitting around, especially in hot weather. Since the swine flu scare a few years ago many stalls now have a bottle of hand sanitizer available. I always carry moist towelettes to use before I eat—remember that your own hands can often been the carrier of germs. Notice if the cook is also taking the money—a bad sign. Food blogger Lesley Téllez recommends the best time to enjoy street food is lunch hour, roughly 2 to 4 pm, when things are busiest and there’s fast turnover. Also good is 10:30 to 11 a.m. because people are having their "second breakfast", to tide them over until lunch.  (Check out Lesley’s street food tours at http://www.eatmexico.com/).

The best street food is often found in and around markets and near busy metro stops. Most Mexico City neighborhoods have a tanguis, a street market held one day each week, where some of the freshest street food can be found. You’ll find a variety of stands offering everything from fresh fruit juices to savory tacos.  Here’s a list of top street food spots around town.

Metro Chilpancingo (Insurgentes and Baja California). This is my favorite spot in the city for great street food. On Calle Chilpancingo itself you’ll find some of the best flautas (literally ‘flutes’, elongated filled and deep fried tortillas served with salsa and cream) in all of Mexico, along with heart-warming caldo de pollo (chicken soup). I often have a quick lunch at El Tacetón (at the corner of Baja California and Tuxpan) which offers a variety of tacos de guisados (soft tortillas filled with a stew) including vegetarian options like tortitas de brocoli and coliflór;  there’s a selection of colorful salsas to spike things up.

BUEN PROVECHO!

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Mexico City
A landmass emerges from the Gulf of Mexico

Eventually, I think it happens to everyone who has family in the snowy Midwest.  You finally reach a holiday season where even though you love your family dearly, you just can’t bring yourself to head back for the sub-zero wind chill, ice-covered roads, and layer upon layer of puffy winter coats…  You tell yourself, “Just this once, we’re going to throw tradition out the window, and go somewhere warm and sunny for the holidays.”  A Mexican beach sounded like just the ticket.

When my husband and I had this flash of brilliance the second week of December a couple years ago, we quickly realized that we were not the only ones who had thought of this ingenious plan!  When we started our last-minute search for flights and lodging around Mexico, many of the best-known beaches were already booked up or charging a steep premium for the most popular week of the year (between Christmas & New Year’s).  But then I came across the tiny village of Yelapa, located just south of Puerto Vallarta in Jalisco state on Mexico’s west coast.

Yelapa is a sleepy little car-free pueblo that is primarily accessible by boat and just got electricity in 2001, but has various claims to fame with past visits from Bob Dylan, Jack Nicholson, Liz Taylor, etc.  While it’s a popular day trip from Puerto Vallarta, I think it’s better as a two or three night stay.  There’s not a whole lot to do, but that’s why you’re there—push your boundaries and see if you can resist Yelapa’s recently-acquired internet access for your whole trip. J

We flew into Puerto Vallarta and spent one night there first to check out “the big city,” and then hopped on the Yelapa Water Taxi the next day (which leaves from the old Los Muertos Pier for $150 pesos one way).  A few taxi tips that I observed—1) sit in the back of the boat to minimize jostling, 2) have your camera at the ready to capture the beautiful scenery + schools of tropical fish and whales, and 3) ideally wear shorts/sandals in case you get dropped off on the beach in Yelapa where no pier = wade through the water. (Drop-off location depends on where your lodging is.)

There’s an impressive number of lodging option for a village this size; you can see a fairly comprehensive list here. We opted for Casa Bahia Bonita, a bright orangey-yellow multi-level house built into the vegetation on the northeast side of the cove. It’s nothing overly fancy, but it was clean, it had great views from the terraces, and the rooms had small (albeit somewhat spartan) kitchenettes so we were able to whip up some breakfast on site.  It offers nice privacy as it’s the last property on that side of the cove, but the flip side is that it’s a bit of a walk to get to restaurants in town.  It’s good to try making that walk during the daytime to familiarize yourself with the route before walking it at night, and a flashlight comes in handy. If you’re staying on the beach side, you’ll have to cross the river to get into town. During low tide, it’s no problem to cross the mouth of the river at the beach, but during high tide, that crossing can be waist deep! However if you walk just a bit up the river, it’s much easier to cross & there’s usually a bridge.  (Something I wish we had known as we were wading back from dinner one night with wet shorts!)

If your tastes tend more upmarket, there are a couple higher end resorts that are worth checking out—Casa Pericos and Verana. We found surprisingly good food at Yelapa’s restaurants as well. Café Bahia was a great spot for breakfast & lunch, and we had a lovely Christmas dinner at the Yacht Club. You can find a helpful restaurant list + map on the site yelapa.info.  Do be aware that many spots are closed in the rainy season (roughly May to September), so your dining options may be a bit more limited. A final note on food—we’d read a lot about “the pie lady” who visits the beach selling her wares each day.  When we finally caught up with her one afternoon and dug into two pieces of pie, they were amazing and totally worth the wait. If she’s still making the rounds when you visit, flag her down for a slice of banana cream.

Eating pie and taking artsy photos of Corona bottles next to your toes in the sand should fill most of your days in Yelapa…but if you need more entertainment, there are options! Folks like Yelapa Adventures are happy to take you fishing, snorkeling, whale watching, or horseback riding. You can also walk along the river to check out the waterfall, and reward yourself with a cold beer once you get there.

We found Yelapa to be a great, laid-back place to escape to and avoid the Midwestern winter, especially when combined with a few days in Puerto Vallarta on the front or back end.  Keep it in mind when you’re ready for a break from the usual holiday routine, and perhaps you’ll create a new tradition—out with turkey and dressing; in with fish tacos!

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20.488587
-105.448918
Yelapa
Various dominations of Mexican money

The global economy hasn’t found much traction in 2012. Europe’s debt crisis remains unresolved. China’s rapid economic rise is plateauing, and, depending on who you ask, it may even be petering out. US growth is expected to be a middling two percent this year. Yet Mexico is growing at a much faster pace than it has over the past decade.

Currently, much of that growth owes to robust exports. Car and car parts are being sent to the United States at record levels, the aeronautics sector is burgeoning, oil prices are relatively high, and Latin America is a fast growing market for Mexican goods.

As I argued in the lead up to Mexico’s presidential election in June, the economy could easily sustain 5 percent growth in the years ahead. President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto is eyeing 6 percent growth over the medium term. A clutch of reforms would need to be enacted for this to occur, especially privatization of the state-run oil company, Pemex, but there are already inklings in this direction.

Eyeing these trends, economists at Nomura Securities, a banking conglomerate, have created a stir by predicting that Mexico could surpass Brazil as Latin America’s largest economy as soon as 2022. While that’s certainly possible, a more realistic scenario would involve Mexico growing at the upper end of the growth range the IMF has set for it—4.75 percent—while Brazil might grow at the lower end of its IMF growth range—2.75 percent. In this case, Mexico’s economy would eclipse Brazil’s in 2028 or 2029.

By focusing on exports though, an emerging driver of the Mexican economy is being overlooked—the country’s swelling middle class. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development deems half of Mexico’s population of 110 million to be middle class. Roughly 65 percent of Mexicans identify themselves as middle class, according to a poll conducted earlier this year. In 2010, the income of the average Mexican was almost $14,000.

In several ways, Mexico’s middle class bucks the global trend, which may help to explain why forecasters routinely overlook it as a source of economic growth. Rich countries are undergoing a “shrinking middle,” with unionized labor losing ground to nonunionized competitors, and with tight credit standards hampering small businesses and homeowners from getting the loans they need to expand operations or refinance their mortgages.

 Much remains unknown about Mexico’s middle class, as it emerged just over the past 15 or so years. For instance, a recent research note by McKinsey, a consultancy, suggests that when times are tough Mexico’s middle class adapts simply by buying less, not by foregoing quality labels for cheaper ones, in stark contrast to America’s middle class.  At the same time, Mexicans rely less on credit than their middle-class brethren in Brazil, but they save less of their incomes than do the Chinese.

While defining Mexico’s middle class may be more difficult than in a country like the United States, Shannon O’Neil at the Council on Foreign Relations has laid out what seems like a fair metric. Middle class Mexicans possess the “six C’s”: casa propia (one’s own house), car, cell phone, computer, cable TV, and trips to the cinema.

Perhaps the particular demands of the middle class will become clearer over the coming months, with the advent of a new TV program premised on entrepreneurs pitching ideas to potential investors. Based on the popular BBC reality show “Dragon’s Den,” the pilot for “Arena Titans” is scheduled for production in Guadalajara in September. 

Of course, things aren’t all rosy. Headwinds in the global economy are affecting Mexican consumers just like those anywhere else. But two signs in particular point to the resilience of Mexico’s middle class. Reuters recently reported that Mexico’s industrial output rose 1.3 percent from May to June, the largest such increase in nine months. Burrowing into the numbers unearths some interesting trends. Mining output ticked sideways, while activity in the utilities sector actually went down; these two sectors are becoming less prominent features of the Mexican economy. Construction activity, by contrast, provided the pep, which Reuters attributed to “solid domestic demand.” Second, retail sales in June were up 5.6 percent over the previous twelve months, including an uptick of 1.8 percent in the previous month alone. Given these signs, it’s no surprise that consumer confidence in Mexico is at its highest point since 2008.

As its middle class grows, a new era of economic development is taking shape in Mexico. 

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Mexico City
Ethnobotanical Garden in Oaxaca, Mexico

The city of Oaxaca is bustling, colorful and festive. But one of its great charms is that it has many quiet spaces where you can retreat from the hub-bub and find yourself surrounded by tranquility and beauty, manifested in art, architecture, nature, or the local people. One such tranquil spot is the Ethnobotanical Garden, located right in the heart of Oaxaca's historical center.

The Ethnobotanical Garden is part of the Santo Domingo Cultural Center which also includes the Oaxacan Museum of Cultures, the Francisco Burgoa ancient books library, and the Nestor Sanchez periodicals library. The garden is located behind the church and former convent, and unfortunately, many visitors miss it.

Mexico is among the most biologically rich countries in the world; it is considered to be "megadiverse" because of the great number of species of plants and animals that inhabit its territory. Of all of Mexico's 31 states, Oaxaca is the one with the most biodiversity. This is no doubt because of its varied terrain, with over 500 km of coastline, as well as mountain ranges of up to 3500 meters above sea level. This also accounts for Oaxaca's great ethnic diversity: no less than 16 ethnic groups live in Oaxaca, and have since ancient times.

 The garden is a microcosm of Oaxaca's rich biodiversity. Its goal is to preserve Oaxaca's endemic flora, and to allow visitors to appreciate the state's botanical diversity, as well as to gain understanding about human interaction with plants throughout history. This is the first modern, public botanical garden in the state, and the emphasis on the natural history of the local plants and their cultural importance makes this a fascinating visit even if you're not interested in botany.

 The area that today serves as the garden covers about 2 hectares and was part of the property of Santo Domingo convent, which functioned from 1608 until the 1860s. When the Reform Laws were brought into effect in the 1860s, religious orders in Mexico were dissolved, and the government nationalized all church property. The entire Santo Domingo complex, including the church, convent and surrounding property then served as a military base for many years. In 1898 the church was returned to the Dominicans, but the military did not completely evacuate the premises until 1994.

 After the military departure, the former convent underwent an extensive restoration project which finished in 1998, when the Santo Domingo Cultural Center was inaugurated, but the work on the garden was just beginning. The first plants were put in during the summer of 1998, and the garden opened to the public in 1999. The plants come from all around Oaxaca state. There are over one thousand species of plants in the collection, but this is just a fraction of the wide variety of plants that can be found in Oaxaca. It is a relatively new garden; but several large and old plants have been successfully transplanted here, including an impressive Biznaga cactus which is several centuries old.

 The garden is divided into several different zones. There's one section for food plants, where you can see corn along with its ancestor teosinte, as well as squash, beans and chiles and other less well-known plants that are used in Oaxacan cuisine. You'll learn about the domestication of plants, which began in Mesoamerica around 10,000 years ago; the evidence for this was found not far away, in the cave of Guila Naquitz, which is included within the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla. There is a zone which shows plants that were in use in very ancient times, a humid tropical forest zone, a pine and oak forest zone, and a dry zone.

 A water catchment system collects rain water from the roof of the former convent, which is channeled to an underground cistern with a capacity of over one million litres. The collected water is used to irrigate the humid zones of the garden. Since Oaxaca has issues with water supply, this ensures that the garden is not dependent on outside sources of water. 

The Ethnobotanical Garden is a lovely and serene green space, within the bustling Oaxaca city center. A visit here is both enjoyable and enlightening.

If you go:

The Ethnobotanical Garden may only be visited as part of a guided tour. Tours are offered in English on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11 am; in French on Tuesdays at 5 pm; and daily in Spanish at 10 am, 12 noon AND 5 pm, except Sundays. Arrive ten minutes in advance to purchase your tickets. The entrance is on the corner of Reforma and ConstituciÛn streets.

Consult the website for details: http://www.jardinoaxaca.org.mx/

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-96.750000
Monarchs will fly in the thousands through Texas this month

The monarchs are coming!

As the cold weather sweeps down from Canada in September, millions of monarch will take flight to escape it. In three pathways, monarch butterflies will flood from the United States into central Mexico. One group flies from the west through Arizona and New Mexico. Another migrates from central Canada, the Midwest and Great Plains through central Texas. The final cluster will travel along the Appalachian Mountains and Atlantic seaboard to follow the Texas coast to Mexico. 

When the autumn season brings shorter daylight and cooler temperatures, the monarchs read these as signs that they need to stop reproducing and head to their winter home in Mexico. 

The butterflies will reach Texas by late September, and the number will peak during October. The largest migration concentrations will cross into Mexico around Del Rio in the last half of October. By Thanksgiving, most will have settled into their reserves in the mountainous oyamel fir forests. 

There was a drought through the Midwest and parts of central Texas this year. This resulted in sparse wildflowers and few natural nectar sources, which is what the butterflies are dependent on. The southern rains in southeast Texas, however, have produced many nectar-rich flowers. This means the monarchs will – thankfully – have sufficient food to nourish them when they arrive. 

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Attention Texas: The monarchs are coming

Three thousand miles stretch between where monarch butterflies migrate to spend their summers and winters. Every fall, the tens of millions of these nearly threatened species that live east of the Rocky Mountains must fly to warmer weather. While some hibernate in southern California, the majority of monarchs travel to central Mexico to rest in the mountain forests. There are only around a dozen sites in Mexico that the monarchs thrive in. In order to reach their destination before the weather becomes too cold, the butterflies travel up to 80 miles a day. They stop to feed on nectar, and to rest.

The cold weather is the most obvious threat to these delicate creatures, but many other obstacles lie in their way to Mexico. Habitat destruction and harm to their food sources damage the travel paths and destinations, with many being ruined by new roads, housing developments and expanding agriculture. The larvae has only one food source: milkweed. It is frequently pulled by gardeners, believing it to be a harmful weed.

Despite the challenges, these vibrantly colored beauties flock to Mexico yearly. The monarch migration begins in August, and is finally completed in October. Their brilliant orange-red wings, decorated with black and white, seem to melt together to form a striking cloud of color as they fly across the country. Those lucky enough to see a cloud of monarchs say it is a marvelous natural phenomenon. Hopefully you will be able to spot them, and appreciate the unique beauty of nature the migration offers, as the monarchs flutters past. 

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19.530000
-100.275000
A trail next to a Mexican beach

Like margaritas and Mariachis, Mexico and romance have always been eternally linked. I'm happy to tip my sombrero to Mexican beach resorts as I certainly find them all incredibly romantic. From the deep blue waters of the Pacific Coast to the soft white sand of the Caribbean, Mexico’s beach resorts possess their own special kind of magic. But there's more to romance than the perfect sunset. This is a land of remarkable contrasts filled with vibrant images, amazing diversity, unique experiences and unexpected possibilities. Quite simply…romance defines itself here, and it's not always about the beach.

Romance is a personal thing. What's romantic to you may not be to me, and vice versa. It doesn't have to be candlelight and roses; I think it's about sharing an extraordinary moment in an extraordinary place. Here are a few suggestions for some different kinds of romance in Mexico.

Head off the beaten path. It sounds cliché, but it's so true. You can hire a guide for some one-on-one touring and you'll learn so much more. If you're in the state of Yucatán, take a tour of the cenotes (say-no-tays). These astonishing fresh water wells are so special. Ask your guide to take you to a few that aren't on the tourist circuit. Bring your bathing suit and spirit of adventure. Dipping into the crystal clear pools is like swimming in a sea of Perrier water. Soak it in. Listen to the soft echoes, and then enjoy the silence as you float in this incredible underground world. Then ask your guide to take you to HIS favorite restaurant and really indulge yourself in the local culture.

Discover Palenque. I was always told that sunset is the "magic hour" because everything seems to look more beautiful just before the sun slips beneath the horizon. This may be most true at Mexico's archeological sites. Arrive a few hours before sunset, just as most people are heading for the tour bus. My husband and I did this at Palenque in Chiapas and it was one of the most memorable afternoons I have ever spent in Mexico. Everything seems to come to life as the crowds begin to leave. The energy shifts. You get a stronger sense of the ancients. The light bounces off the ruins in ways you'll never see in the hard light of midday. Palenque sits in the middle of the jungle so the monkeys and birds create quite a symphony. The Temple of Inscriptions is the largest Mesoamerican stepped pyramid, yet at that time of day, the entire site seems strangely intimate. Don't miss Palenque in the late afternoon... you'll never be the same.

Do the zócalo in Oaxaca. The word "zócalo" refers to the main plaza or square in the heart of the historic center. Since 1529, this has been a gathering place for families, musicians and any and everyone who wants to drink in the feel of the city. There is almost always music of some sort. A Peruvian band playing pan flutes set the tone during my last visit. Hang out at a sidewalk cafe. Watch the smiles, listen to the music, laugh with friends, and of course nosh on some Oaxacan specialties. Don't rush this one, just stroll and enjoy.

Catch a performance (any performance!) at the Angela Peralta Theater in Mazatlán. I've had the pleasure to see both an unforgettable opera performance as well as a mesmerizing rendition of Mozart’s “Requiem” at this completely charming (and romantic) theater which has been restored in recent years to its European-style grandeur. Originally named the Rubio Theater, the structure was built in the 1870’s. In 1883, the famous Mexican opera singer, Angela Peralta (known as the Nightingale of Mexico), arrived in the city for a performance. The people of Mazatlán were so enamored of this songbird that the name was changed in her honor. The colorful interior is perfectly resurrected and true to the architectural influences of the period. After the show, head to Pedro + Lola, a hip restaurant with live jazz that sits catty corner to the esteemed theater. It will be an evening you'll long remember.

Do anything in Guanajuato.  This might be one of the most romantic cities in all of Mexico. Guanajuato is purely Mexican. You won’t find many Americans here, but you’ll be glad you came. This town is so magical that it’s difficult to describe in words. It has mysticism and charm only rivaled by the small Italian villages in Tuscany or the Andalusian cities in southern Spain.  Founded in 1557 as a silver mining town, Guanajuato is built over a maze of unusual subterranean street systems. Once used as control channels for floodwaters, the roads twist and turn through stone arched tunnels that bring you to the surface in various locations throughout the city. Above ground, you’ll find one of the most picturesque and colorful displays of architecture anywhere in the world. Splashes of bright greens, blues and yellows give the perfectly preserved buildings a storybook quality. A labyrinth of tiny streets, alleyways and steep stairwells cover the hillsides. This feels much more like a medieval village than a colonial city.  If you’re into photography, you’ll be in heaven!

At the city center is the Jardin de Union. Cafes, shops, colonial buildings, and the Teatro Juarez encircle this pristine V-shaped plaza. (Constructed from 1873-1903, the Juarez Theater is a beautiful combination of Doric, French and Moorish architecture.) Also a very safe city, exploring on foot is the best way to appreciate the multitude of sites. First time visitors may want to hire a guide as some of Guanajuato’s treasures may be rather complicated to find within the city’s layout. From churches to fortresses and museums to national monuments, Guanajuato is a real gem.

Whether it’s all about romance, or just an added bonus of your trip, you can always surprise yourself with the wonder of Mexico. Sharing Mexico with the people you love may very well be the most romantic thing you can do.

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21.158964
-86.845937
Cancun
Motorcycles driving on a Mexican highway

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Nancy Sathre-Vogel of Family on Bikes. She completed a thousand day journey from Alaska to the tip of South America in Argentina. She and her family biked it all.

Her inspirational family journey (http://familyonbikes.org/blog/) is an epic adventure and on it she cycled through Mexico.  Not to my surprise she loved Mexico and wanted to talk about her travels there. I asked her a few questions to share with the readership of Mexico Today.

q1) Before we talk about Mexico, tell us what inspired you and your family to chart this 17,300 mile course and bike from Alaska to the tip of South America?

We met some other people cycling from Alaska to Argentina while we were cycling around the USA and decided we wanted to head down to South America too. The REAL question is why were we out there cycling around the USA in the first place? And that is a hard question to answer. 

It basically came down to time – my husband and I wanted time together, time with our children, time to enjoy our lives before it was too late. As teachers, we were both spending more time with other people’s kids than our own and decided that needed to change. So we headed out on bikes. (Yes, I know that makes a LOT of sense, but it’s the truth.)

 q2) Incredible, so now looking at a map, Mexico must have been a large part of the journey. How many days, weeks, or months did you spend in Mexico?

 We spent about two months passing through the country on our Pan American journey and roughly four months cycling there on that trip “around the USA” I referenced above.

 q3) So you must definitely understand the country, but let’s start from the beginning, where did you cross the border? And was safety a concern?

 There were two distinct journeys through Mexico. In 2007 we entered through Tijuana, cycled the length of Baja, ferried to Mazatlan, then cycled north to Arizona. Then in 2009, we entered at Reynosa near the tip of Texas and cycled the entire east side of the country.

 Was safety a concern? Not so much for us. We had been to Mexico before, we knew the people were wonderful. Yes, we knew there was drug violence, but figured it was targeted. WE were not concerned. That said, OTHERS were very concerned. So much so that we came under quite heavy criticism for taking our children south of the border.

 As they put it, John and I, as adults, could make the choice to risk our lives by heading into Mexico, but they didn’t feel it was fair to risk our children’s lives. If we crossed the border in Juarez, a city greatly feared amongst many Americans, we would just be feeding them. We caved under the pressure, conceded to public criticism and made the decision to continue south along the border to a smaller, perhaps safer border crossing.

 As it turned out, every border crossing we reached was deemed “too dangerous” by THEM. Finally, the stars aligned just right and our lucky star was shining and we managed to score an escort. Not just any escort – Claudio.

Claudio, a local man very involved with motorcycle clubs, managed to line up an entourage to escort us through the border region and then through every single city we passed through.

 q4) So you received an escort? A unique experience, how much assistance did your family have in Mexico? Was it needed?

It was incredible. Truly a remarkable experience. The Mexican people went above and beyond to help us out and won the Hospitality Award in a huge way. Every time we were a couple days out of the next city, I hauled out my cell phone preprogrammed with the phone numbers of the presidents of the local motorcycle clubs. They organized themselves and came to help us get through their cities. The motorcyclists helped us find a place to stay (many times in their homes) and arranged interviews and other activities for us. They were wonderful.

Did we NEED the assistance? No. We could easily have passed through the country without their help, but we greatly enjoyed getting to know them. They added a whole new dimension to our journey.

 q5) I noticed from your stories on your blog, you had quite an adventure in Veracruz. Tell us what happened? What did you learn about Mexico from it?

We learned that day that people know way more than maps.  According to our map, there was a perfectly good road right along the lagoon. To our way of thinking, a remote road along a beautiful lagoon was a much better choice than the main highway. Many local people told us to stick to the main road, but… ummm… we knew better.

We turned away from the main highway and headed back onto what was supposed to be a nice, quaint rural road next to the water. And for the next ten hours pushed our bikes through deep sand and mud puddles up to our knees. Needless to say, we stuck to the main highway after that.

q6) Ouch. You already mentioned the Mexican people are one of the best reasons to travel to Mexico, but so is the food. I imagine you ate some great food while in Mexico. What do you miss? What was your favorite? 

Plain ol’ tortillas and beans is one of my son’s favorite food in the world. He was in heaven in Mexico where he had an unlimited supply of fresh tortillas and beans. He frequently brings up the day he walked past a tortilla shop making fresh flour tortillas and the woman handed him a tortilla still hot from the oven. His mouth starts watering at the very thought.

My other son loves tamales and sought out tamales wherever we were. He was always sorely disappointed if we couldn’t find any.

 q7) You probably explored more of Mexico than most will in theirlifetime, what place or places would you recommend to travelers searching for a unique Mexican experience not offered in major resort towns?

We enjoyed all of our time there, but I think the most unique part of the country was the Sonora River Valley up in the north near Arizona. The tiny road snaking alongside the Sonora River between Douglas, Arizona and Hermosillo, Sonora wasn’t even on our map. In Google Maps online, we had to zoom in nearly full-on before we could even see the towns – but the road still didn’t show up. Even so, it was a delight to cycle like we had never found before.

All along the valley, we cycled through small, historic towns every 15 or 20 kilometers. The people had smiles ready and beers in their hands. They invited us to lunch and to spend an afternoon in a hot spring. We were welcomed by hundreds of cattle ranchers at their annual meeting, party, and rodeo. We spent a night with one of those backcountry Mexican places you see in the movies – but this one was real. In the morning, he caught a raccoon for his lunch.

The Sonora River Valley reminds me of the “old Mexico” – the Mexico portrayed in the movies. The Wild West experience. Certainly not what you will find in a beach resort. 

q8)Very cool. That is still I part of Mexico I need to explore. But, everyone is not biking through the Mexico. So, for those considering a vacation or even an adventure in Mexico, what advice would give?

Go. Do it. Just head south and you are likely to encounter friendly people, great food, and loads of fun. Honestly, I don’t think you can go wrong with Mexico. The variety is enormous and each section is unique so there is no end to what you could do. 

q9) Thanks Nancy, that is great to know and hear that from you, someone who has biked all over the world really appreciates Mexico. So, now for everyone interested in learning more about your Mexican adventures and your entire trip, where can they find you online?

We have a blog and extensive resource section at www.familyonbikes.org Our journal from our entire bike journey from Alaska to Argentina is on there, along with loads of information to encourage and inspire people to pursue their passion and follow their dreams.

 Ok, great. Thanks again. 

Stay Adventurous, 

 - Craig Zabransky 

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19.432608
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Mexico City
The paths of monarch migration have been discovered by tagging

Monarch butterflies have a relatively short lifespan. Every winter, the monarchs travel from Canada to Mexico. When the weather warms up again, the butterflies in Mexico travel back north. The oldest butterflies live six to nine months, meaning they only make the return trip about halfway. 

Imagine a monarch that has traveled the 3,000 from Canada to Mexico, and then only makes it to Texas on the return journey. Say she lays an egg there, and that egg born in Texas births a monarch that flies to South Dakota and lays another egg. That monarch hatches, and manages to find her way to Mexico come autumn. How did the monarch travel to the exact same grove in Mexico that her elder monarchs did? 

Some animals that migrate learn from parents. Other creatures orient by stars or landmarks. How do monarchs know where to migrate south? Scientists are still trying to find out.

Dr. Orley R. Taylor, a scientist who runs the Monarch Watch project at the University of Kansas, has studied this mystery. He has tested their ability to reorient themselves. He transported monarchs from Kansas to Washington, D.C. to see if they could still successfully navigate after a relocation of more than 1000 miles. If the monarchs are released immediately after being relocated, they take off due south as they would have from their original location. However, if they are kept in mesh cages for a few days, they watch the sun rise and set, and reset their internal compasses. 

Dr. Taylor cites that monarchs are one of the only species that have the ability to orient themselves in latitude and longitude. When the sun drops to approximately 57 degrees above the southern horizon at their specific latitude, monarchs begin their migration.

Professor of neuroscience at Queens University of Canada Dr. Barrie Frost does not believe monarchs use the earth’s magnetic field or the sky’s polarized light. Rather, he thinks the sun reckoning leads the butterflies south, while mountain chains and the Gulf of Mexico funnel them towards southern Texas. Dr. Frost also believes that once in Mexico’s mountains, they are guided by the smell of last year’s corpses. 

Dr. Taylor disagrees, citing that butterflies do not have odiferous fatty acids that would last a year and lead a new migration herd. Citing work by butterfly biologist William H. Calvert, Dr. Taylor says most monarchs cross central Texas. Dr. Taylor’s tagging work has also shown that a monarch tagged near the Atlantic or the gulf is just one-tenth as likely to reach Mexico as one tagged in the Great Plains.

How do you tag a small, delicate monarch? Dr. Taylor will gently pinch the butterfly in one hand, and place a tiny adhesive tag on a specific cell. He is then able to track the butterfly for the entirety of its life, and uses these tags to follow the annual migration.

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olive ridley sea turtle hatchlings 200 million Mexico

Over the past six years, over 200 million olive ridley sea turtle hatchlings have been released on La Escobilla Beach. Located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, La Escobilla Beach has seen a significant increase in hatchlings over the past few decades.

The government program that has led to this increase has seen numbers rise from 200,000 hatchlings in 1973 to over 1.5 million in 2012, indicating that the species is making a strong recovery.

La Escobilla Beach is the sanctuary with the highest number of olive ridley hatchlings; 95% of all sea turtle species in Mexico nest there. Because of this, efforts to protect female turtles and nests are carried out under the National Sea Turtle Conservation Program.

The Mexican government has spent more than 143 million pesos ($11 million) to support projects that combat threats to sea turtles. The funding also covers operating costs of mobile camps, equipment, and worker salaries. Furthermore, turtle egg extraction was made illegal and has been that way since 1927. Also, a permanent ban on capture, extraction, and the sale of sea turtles and their products was implemented in 1990.

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San Agustinillo
A town in Mexico with mountains in the distance

Living in Mexico City, the options for a fun and exciting ‘weekend getaway trip’ are endless. Pick any direction and after a short two-hour (or less) drive you can find yourself in the states of Queretaro, Mexico, Morelos, Puebla, Hidalgo, Michoacán or Tlaxcala. Within this radius there are plenty of unique towns to discover and explore with a wide arrangement of different customs, gastronomy, and traditions due to different pre-Hispanic and Spanish colonial influences.  With nearby access to at least 15 Magical Towns (Pueblos Magicos) and crossing at least 11 of Mexico’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Mexico City is a well known and accessible starting point in which one can venture out and discover the country’s rich culture and charms. 

While any time of the year is a wonderful time to visit the neighboring cities and towns, you often can get a better immersion experience during their festivals. These celebrations occur at different times throughout the year and present the perfect forum for truly witnessing the beauty and culture of the area.

Queretaro -The quaint Magical Town of Bernal holds a festival May 1-5 to honor the Holy Cross.  The traditional religious celebration of The Feast of Santa Cruz includes escaleros (climbers) that make a procession through the town then up the impressive 1,150 ft tall peña or monolith to plant a cross at the top. All of this is achieved without any harnesses!

- Caderyeta de Montes, just 20 minutes away from Bernal, is the nearby Magical Town which holds two famed events held by Spanish Winemaker, Freixnet.  In the month of August, La Fiesta de la Vendimia (Wine Harvest Festival) takes place, where Cavas Freixenet opens their doors to the public to enjoy and partake in traditional rituals, such as the cutting and stomping of the grapes.  May 26 and 27 is when Freixnet holds an annual Paella Festival where you can sample different tasty versions of this popular Spanish seafood and rice dish!

-The town of Tolimán, just north of Caderyeta de Montes and Bernal, is where you can find one of Mexico’s unique UNESCO Intangible Culture Heritages: the traditions and memories of the Otomí-Chichimeca people. Starting in July and culminating in September, El Chimal takes place and is the most significant festival to this culture and its people. It is a celebration of spiritual rituals and elaborate offerings, with a decorated vertical tribute of small objects and flowers towering over 75 feet!

Puebla -Zacatlán was named Puebla’s second Magical Town after Cuetzalan and is known for growing apples and utilizing them in delicious ciders and alcohols. Every year, La Feria de la Manzana (Apple Festival) is held in August. The festival is celebrated with shows, regional dances, a parade, and plenty of music and dancing. The festival always falls over August 15, the day of La Virgen de la Asunción, patron saint to the fruit farmers, in order to give her thanks and praise for the fruit that gives this town it’s signature. 

-La Fiesta Patronal del Señor Santiago is a special celebration on July 25 for the Magical Town of  Pahuatlán. The people come and celebrate their patron saint with typical Mexican fiesta traditions and a spectacle of the Voladores de Pahuatlán. In Pahuatlán, the voladores (flying men) are also known as Tocotines and is part of UNESCO’s Intangible Culture Heritages: the ritual ceremony of the voladores.

-While there are plenty of other distinct and unique fairs and festivals throught the state of Puebla, the regional Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos, is especially extraordinary in the Poblano city of Huaquechula. From October 28 to November 2, extravagantly decorated altars and ofrendas paint and scent the town as the people pay their respects to the dead. 

Tlaxcala - A festival not to be missed during the month of August is La Feria de Huamantla. In the small Magical Town of Huamantla, approximately 300,000 visitors come to view the spectacles dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  One night in particular, La Noche que Nadie Duerme,  is when the residents create intricately designed tapetes (carpets) made of colorful sawdust and plants which line the streets until dawn. The Huamantla Fair culminates with ‘Huamantlada’ a day when the streets are saturated with people, barricades, and a releasing of the bulls. While the brave ones can challenge the running toros, one can also mitigate the danger by partaking in the other events like charreadas and watching a bull fight.

Hidalgo

-Real del Monte, Mineral del Chico, and Huasca de Ocampo are Hidalgos three Magical Towns and are all located driving distance from one another. December through January is a great time to visit these Pueblos Mágicos. Starting December 8, Mineral del Chico holds La Fiesta de la Purísima Concepción. Considered the most important festival of the year to them, it is a time of recognition to the town’s patron saint. A few days later, December 11- 13, there are festivities honoring the Virgin Mary in Huasca de Ocampo, with typical carnival rides and stalls.  To close out the calendar, December 31 is when the locals really party! Real del Monte, organizes an enormous fiesta in the main square, with a large celebration of fireworks and traditional dances to ring in the New Year. The party also reigns in their January Fiesta del Dulce (Sweets Festival) which honors el Señor de Zelontla, patron saint to the past miners of Real del Monte. The month long festival includes a parade, religious processions, artists, and other attractions that transform the town into a kaleidoscope of colors and movement. Throughout January, you can also find celebrations in Huasca de Ocampo, including the Three Kings celebrations (3-8) and Feast of San Sebastian (20) commemorated with rodeos, cockfights, and other joyous Mexican traditions and fun.

If you plan on visiting one of these towns during a holiday or festival, be sure to make arrangements for accommodations well ahead of time. For tips on how to find accommodations (as many do not have comprehensive websites), check out  the post “Planning A Trip To Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos (Magic Towns)”.

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Three Mexican Women through flowers in celebration

If you’ve traveled a lot, you probably have a funny story or two, like the time you intended to order a stuffed apple but got a pregnant porcupine. It makes for good storytelling when back home.

The same could happen in Mexico, of course, but keep in mind, Mexicans are generally a polite bunch. They’ll probably double check before bringing the porcupine. They understand you’re from somewhere else, and appreciate, even admire, that you are trying to learn a bit about their language and culture. Most all you meet will be tolerant when your accent lands on the wrong syl-LA-ble, or you commit shocking grammatical errors, or when you highlight your cultural idiosyncrasies.

What’s more, as you know, Mexicans have a special connection with the United States. Many have family who are US citizens, too, some have had families in places like California from even before it was part of the United States. So they know a bit about you and they like you.

Here are a few tips about Mexican customs I hope will help you feel even more confident and comfortable mingling with the locals on your next visit to Mexico. Keep in mind, these tips are mostly for travelers, rather than tourists, by which I mean folks who want to discover a little more about Mexico, as opposed to those who are visiting only for the nice weather but in every other way want it to be just like home (for more on the difference be sure to read this article by Mexico Today Ambassador Lisa Coleman). Mexico accepts both types.

Language and Communication

 If you have a tin ear for languages and think your limit is two phrases, then learn these two most powerful phrases in Spanish: “por favor” (please) and “gracias” (thank you). For reasons too deep to go into here, they are the oils that lubricate Mexican culture.

 One other thing you should be aware of, and will probably notice, when you are in a crowded space in Mexico, like a restaurant. Folks generally speak much more quietly than we are accustomed to in the United States. If at first you find this disconcerting, give it time, you will come to appreciate it I think.

Clothing

A brief word about attire. Of course in beach towns things are naturally a little more casual, but in the rest of Mexico, folks probably dress less casually while going about their daily business than we do in the United States. For example, errands to the store still call for shoes rather than chanclas (flip-flops). Also, sweatpants are generally too casual for almost everything, save for the gym or around the house.  And, while I get that pajamas are very comfortable, unlike sweatpants, they won’t do, even in the gym, so best not wear them in the street.

Eating and Food

Many foods thought of as typical Mexican dishes- tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and the like- are what Mexicans call antojitos. For most Mexicans these are not everyday dishes, but are usually associated with special celebrations. Of course, you probably know Mexicans celebrate a lot, so you are likely to see these foods when visiting, but a typical Mexican meal on a normal day, at least where I come from, is more likely to start with a brothy soup or a rice dish, followed by beans, cooked vegetables, and some meat or fish either in a sauce or grilled.  Guacamole, rather than a dip for chips, is also a common side dish next to the rice and beans. 

 Which brings me to another important point. This main meal, as I have described it, usually happens between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.  Some Mexicans return to work afterwards and work into the early evening as I often did. A typical meal schedule in Mexico might look like this:

Desayuno-Breakfast 7 am 

Almuerzo-Lunch 11-12 noon

Comida-Dinner -3 pm-The Main Meal

Then, usually, either:

Merienda-Light Snack 8-10 pm- Something light, like a sweet bread pastry (pan dulce) with hot chocolate.

or

Cena-8-10 pm Something light like but more substantial like a taco or quesadilla

But sometimes both! 

Restaurants

Chips and salsa do not adorn the center of every table in Mexico. (I’d never seen it until I went to a Mexican restaurant in the United States.) If they are there, it may be simply to make you feel more at ease. If you would like water, you need to ask for it and it will usually come without ice.

A funny thing can happen in different cultures: In one, a behavior may seem rude, while in another, it is considered polite.  It’s all about intent and cultural values. The restaurant server’s behavior is a perfect example. I want you to know you are not being ignored if your server doesn’t rush in each time you put your fork down, nor has he forgotten you if he fails to deliver your check within two minutes of your last bite. In fact, to do either would be considered rude. In Mexico, hospitality requires that you not be rushed out with your last gulp. So when you would like the bill, simply ask for it. Just remember to say, “la cuenta, por favor.”

Just think how civilized it will be to sit and chat in an outdoor cafe for as long as you would like... in a plaza ...in a beautiful pueblo...in Mexico.

Bienvenidos!

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Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Mexico

There was a time when Tulum was little more than an archeological site, with a handful of humble lodgings and local eateries in the vicinity for the occasional visitor to munch a codzito or papadzul before catching the second-class bus on the highway to somewhere else.  And this time was not so long ago, as even we can recall clambering up the stone steps of El Castillo and exploring the Mayan paintings inside the chamber at the structure’s summit overlooking the Caribbean Sea, accompanied only by a local teen offering to tell us tales of the Mayas for two bits.  No roped off areas, no throngs greased in sunblock, no digital media.  Today, the Mayan archeological site remains fascinating, the beaches gorgeous and the breeze in the palms as enchanting as ever.  But Tulum now is more likely to conjure images of upscale spas, international chefs and fashion designers barking into their iPhones in Italian.  So when the madcap mix of yoga on the beach, honey-clay facials and house music hits a fever pitch, where can a regular Joe go to dial it back a bit?

Actually, just a couple kilometers down the road from Tulum, where a simple stone arch signals the entrance to the magnificently beautiful – and peaceful – Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.  Considering the boom in popularity of Tulum in recent years, it is remarkable that the nearby reserve has maintained its Lost Continent atmosphere.  This may be due in part to the molar-jarring unpaved road through the reserve, but it most likely a result of the joint efforts of government, NGOs and conservationists to recover and preserve this unique ecosystem.

Sian Ka’an, or “Where the sky is born” in the area’s native Maya language, covers 1.3 million acres along the Caribbean coast of the state of Quintana Roo, in the southeastern corner of Mexico.  The reserve, approximately 75 miles long and 20 miles across at its widest point, was established as a protected area in 1986 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.  A significant portion of the area is covered by wetlands such as mangrove swamps, savannas and lagoons, which share the reserve with miles of white sand beaches, tropical forests, dunes and 68 miles of the world’s second largest barrier reef.  The area is also home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and crustaceans and over 1,000 species of flora, as well as 23 known Mayan archeological sites, some of which have yielded artifacts dating back 2,300 years.  Descendants of the ancient Mayas still live within the confines of the park.

As an early adopter of the now popular “eco-tourism” concept, a prime objective of the Sian Ka’an project has been to incorporate human activity into the area to provide employment for the indigenous communities in a way that is sustainable and in harmony with the natural environment.  This effort has resulted in two particularly noteworthy projects: CESiaK and Community Tours.  The Centro Ecológico Sian Ka’an (CESiaK) operates a restaurant and provides tourism services such as beach bungalows, boat and kayak tours and fishing.  The proceeds from the tourism operations are used to finance a wide range of pro-environmental activities including biological research, education, community outreach, dune restoration, native plant nurseries and revegetation of disturbed lands, among others.  At the CESiaK Visitors Center, located approximately four miles from the entrance to the reserve at the south end of Tulum, visitors can arrange tours, rent rustic bungalows on the beach, lounge under beachfront palapas and swim in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, followed by a delicious Yucatecan style lunch or dinner at the center’s restaurant.  The crowning jewel of the center, however, has to be the multi-level terrace atop the building, which in addition to a full bar boasts the singular attraction of offering sweeping views of both the Caribbean Sea to the east and the shimmering lagoon to the west.  It’s no wonder that guests at the center congregate for cocktails on the terrace in late afternoon to enjoy one of the world’s most spectacular sunset experiences.

Alternatively to CESiaK, visitors to the area can arrange activities with another locally-run enterprise, Community Tours Sian Ka’an.  Organized in 1988 as a means for incorporating members of the local Maya community into the conservation and education efforts in the reserve, Community Tours offers guided tours of the area’s archeological sites as well as activities such as bird watching, sport fishing, kayaking, hiking and snorkeling.  On a recent visit to Sian Ka’an with Community Tours, guide Manuel Galindo mesmerized us with intriguing detail about the endless varieties of trees, flowers and insects all around us as we threaded our way through the forest before coming upon the thousand year old temple of Chunyaxché.  But the moment of sublime relaxation was yet to come: floating weightlessly along the cool, clear waters of an ancient Mayan trading canal through the dense mangrove wetlands alongside the Muyil lagoon.  Almost enough to make you want to stay and skip the lunch of Yucatecan tamales, salbutes and empanadas that followed.  Almost.

Aaaahhh…that lunch…  Anyway.  So if you’re searching for inner peace on a budget and the $200 moon papaya therapy up the road in Tulum isn’t getting the job done, try sipping a margarita at sunset on the terrace at CESiaK.  Now that’s enlightenment.

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Tulum
Man sitting on a park bench, reading a paper, in front of billboard

Mexican photographer Ulises Castellanos recently presented a selection of his work in London. “Mexico City: Invisible City” was the name of his latest portfolio of photos featuring images of modern Mexico. Through the lens of Castellanos, includes the city’s most iconic buildings such as the Torres Arcos Bosques in Santa Fe, the Angel of Independence, Mexico City’s World Trade Center, as well as images of Mexican people, young and adult. Watch a video here for images on his latest work.

Following the inauguration of Castellanos’ photo exposition in London, the Mexican Embassy in London organized a party of “El Grito” the following day at Camden Centre in celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day. Watch a collection of photos from both events here.

The event helped to show the UK public a sample of Mexican documentary photography through the work of Castellanos, and show how Mexico is a modern city with a unique cultural story.

Castellanos studied photography at House of Images (1983) and in the Active School of Photography in Mexico (1986), and the Journalists Training Centre (CFPJ) in Paris, France (1992). Castellanos formerly taught as a visiting professor of photojournalism at the Maison du Mexique the Paris International Academic City. Some of his most important exhibitions in recent years are: "Mexico City, Construction Space" presented in 2004 at the Photo Gallery 798 in Beijing, China; "Scars" which was presented in Paris in 2005 at the Renoir Gallery He Latine; "Tibet" presented at the Alliance Francaise in 2006; and "Beijing Forbidden City" presented at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in the same year.

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London
Collection of photographs and film make up the new monarch exhibit

The Embassy of Mexico in Canada has partnered with the Canadian Air and Space Museum in Ottawa to present the exhibition “On the Trail of the Monarch Butterfly.” The display portrays the 72-day journey of Francisco Gutiérrez, a Mexican filmmaker and pilot. 

The beauty of the monarch butterfly migration attracted the attention of Francisco long ago. Francisco grew up in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, which plays the winter home to these delicate creatures. He spent countless hours of his childhood staring at the forest trees laced with butterflies. Sometimes, he says, there would be so many butterflies on a single tree that a branch would actually break. 

During the summer of 2005, Francisco decided to follow the monarchs’ 3,000 mile journey from Montreal, Canada to the state of Michoacán. Traveling in an ultra-light aircraft painted to look identical to the wings of a giant monarch, Francisco aimed to portray the migration from the butterfly’s point of view. Through unique photographs and film, he is able to recreate his unique journey to help share his love and appreciation for the monarchs.  

This breathtaking exhibit will be featured in the museum from July to October. It is open to the public daily from 9:30 to 4:00. 

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