A Travellerspoint blog

Zacatlán de las Manzanas, Puebla

A family outing

One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to visit a new place in Mexico. Not a new museum or just driving through another state, but actually visiting a new place and getting out of the car and walking around. I had to specify, because with a one-year-old running around it is hard to even get out of the house and my husband might think that take-out from the new sushi place qualifies as "a new place."
So a few weeks ago we went to visit my in-laws and I gently but daily planted the seeds of the idea of going somewhere fun.
My sister-in-law picked Zacatlán de las Manzanas, a "pueblo mágico" or a "magic/al town," which is a designation given to many quaint places in Mexico based on certain characteristics, such as history, symbolic attributes, legends, or just a certain magic. (Read more here in Spanish: http://www.sectur.gob.mx/pueblos-magicos/)

Our first stop was the waterfalls, marked by a faded, rusty billboard depicting zip-liners flying through valleys. We went to the Tulimán waterfall off a gravel road that turns into a dirt road that turns into a freshly plowed series of switchbacks down into the heart of the ravine. The park costs 50 pesos per person and was much nicer in terms of facilities than anything I had ever seen at parks in Mexico. There are three levels, each one sporting clean, toilet-paper providing bathrooms, a snack hut and stand offering hot-off-the-comal quesadillas and other Mexican antojitos.

The first level takes you to two viewing platforms of the Tulimán waterfall. There is a short path heading down, and the place reminded me a lot of Monteverde, Costa Rica: high humidity, dense vegetation, the constant sound of water running somewhere. Bring your raincoat or a windbreaker because you're bound to get wet! The second, higher platform brings you right to the base of the waterfall where an abundance of waterfall spray soaks everyone trying to take their selfies. We were lucky enough to have "good" weather for Zacatlán- no fog and mild temps.

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The second level is even cooler: a much longer and steeper path down to a hanging bridge over the river and awesome rock formations. There is also a hollow tree, which I didn't venture to see, and some mineral water baths you have to pay extra for (which were a strange color and nobody got in). The rope bridge swings enough to scare you, and everyone enjoyed clambering over the rocks. Strong gusts of wind blew up and down the river, emphasizing the precariousness of our perch on the crumbling rock face (as I struggled to hold on to a toddler!)

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We didn't make it down to the third level, because by then everyone was hungry. So we all climbed back into the car and drove another 15-20 minutes into town. Zacatlán was nothing like I expected. The other pueblos mágicos I'd been to were tiny, quaint, cobblestone streets. The mists sliding inland from the mountains did give it an eerie, magical look to it, but the larger size of the town and the lack of hippies and street musicians gave it more of a big city feel. One thing everyone commented on was how clean everything was. No trash on the streets, no dog poop. At least not in the touristy downtown part. There were two prominent churches, one painted a yellow that reminded me of my favorite church in Lima, Peru, and plenty of pedestrian walkways.

Tourist guides from the information booth pointed us to La Parroquia, a restaurant not unlike La Maga in Cuernavaca. Just like my favorite restaurant, a narrow staircase leads up to a second floor crowded with wooden tables and smelling delicious. La Parroquia faces the side of the yellow church, and has tables out on balconies that overlook the busy street below. They have a buffet (like La Maga!) but for half the price (50 pesos). After running along rivers all day we had worked up quite an appetite. I'm sure the kitchen staff wasn't happy to see us go back for thirds (and in my husband and brother-in-law's case fifths and sixths). They had pancita, pasta, rice and veggies, hearty vegetable soup, salad, chicken in adobo sauce, etc., and for dessert, cookies, arroz con leche and applesauce. Buffets are perfect when traveling with a baby, because you never know what they might be in the mood to eat. Here I was able to pick and choose some healthy options that weren't full of spicy salsa, and the baby gulped down a full glass of agua de sabor.

After almost two hours of serious nomming, we rolled ourselves down the stairs to stroll around the town square a little more. There was a giant mosaic apple people were taking selfies by, a good-sized park for kids to play on, apple strudel-type pastries to munch, and oh- I forgot to mention- Zacatlán makes artisanal apple soda. We got a few bottles when we were at the waterfall. It's crisp and refreshing, kind of like my old Coca-cola favorite Manzana Lift. I wish I'd gotten some bottles to bring home, but the baby liked it too and even though it's "artisanal" I wasn't going to share it with her (or listen to her cry for it).

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Soon after we left the restaurant, however, a thick fog came rolling in. Like right out of Sleepy Hollow. I'd never seen fog come into a town like that, creep along the church stones and around vendors' wooden carts. It was time to go! A quick ride back in which everyone fell asleep but me and the driver, and I realized that we had gone to not one but TWO states! Puebla and Tlaxcala. I don't know about other expats living in Mexico, but I feel like I never get enough Mexican culture. Musings for another post. ¡Hasta pronto!

Posted by UnMejorHOY 13:09 Archived in Mexico Tagged family_travel alternative_travel travel_with_baby Comments (0)

Chicken Enchiladas in Creamy Spinach Sauce

We're spending the week with my Mexican in-laws, and I'm trying to soak up some Mexican culture and flavors while we're here. At home (still in Mexico) I cook mostly pasta and veggies, rice and veggies, meat and veggies, so it's nice to enjoy the flavors of Mexico that I am so lazy to prepare. My sister-in-law generously allowed me to share this recipe, repeating it five times for me to get it down right, and allowing me to document the process. Everyone had seconds, and my 14-month-old even wolfed down her own little plate.

Ingredients
a bunch or bag of spinach
3 TBS butter
1 TBS wheat flour (to thicken salsa)
1 can Carnation evaporated milk (250 ml)
3 small chicken breasts
10-15 tortillas
3 teeth of garlic
1 small onion, diced
1/2 cup of chicken broth
1 cube of chicken bouillon
1-5 Serrano chilies (however spicy you want it to be!)
1/2 kilo of Oaxaca cheese (or any kind of stringy cheese)
Mexican cream
salt and pepper to taste

The easy part:
1. Boil chicken in a large pot with garlic, onion and a dash of salt. 2. Wash spinach well and boil or steam in a separate pot. 3. In a blender, add evaporated milk, chicken broth, a dash of black pepper, Serrano chilies, and, when ready, the spinach. 4. Blend until ingredients are mixed well and the spinach has become a runny paste. 5. Heat butter in frying pan, then add mixture from blender. 6. Slowly add wheat flour to thicken. 7. Heat until boiling, and then simmer on low for flavors to mix. 8. Once the chicken is boiled and has cooled, shred it.

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The part that's up to you:
Now, when my husband makes enchiladas, he fries the tortillas first and then dips them in salsa. But my sister-in-law has two hungry little ones running around, so she skips that step. If your tortillas are warm or at least fresh, you can just put them in a shallow bowl or plate, add the chicken, roll or fold over the tortilla and top with spinach salsa, cheese and cream to taste.

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Play with the measurements- you might want to make double the amount of salsa to have extra for later. It tastes yummy over rice or meat. Fill enchiladas with whatever mix you like- diced mushrooms, tomatoes and zucchini or rice and beans are also great combinations. ¡Provecho!

Posted by UnMejorHOY 12:27 Archived in Mexico Tagged waterfalls mountains beaches animals spanish south costa rica america backpacking community mexican_food olas convivio alternative_travel participatory_travel voluneering_in_mexico Comments (0)

Paradise

Paradises visited so far

In high school I remember my mom listening to the song "Just Another Day in Paradise." It didn't matter where you were, as long as you were with the people you loved. It was a sweet song, that made me feel like even though I wasn't dating one of the Backstreet Boys (okay, I had really bad taste in music) or beating Venus Williams (my idol at the time) at Wimbledon, that my ordinary, boring life was still something special. But what is paradise, really?

Since we've been working on a short film called Paradise (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/694362253/paraiso), the topic has come up quite a bit in conversation. Some people prefer to visit paradise, stay a few days, and then return to their reality. Maybe their goal-oriented, work-hard mentality just won't let them be lazy and subsist on Coronas and coconut. Other people think that it's hell to actually live in paradise, because unless you are on vacation, you still have to work and clean while you watch everyone else being happy.

Although I still have quite a few paradises on my map of the world that I'd like to visit (Cuba, Brazil, Bora Bora, etc. etc.), here's a list of 5 places I've visited so far that I would call Paradise. It just so happens that they're all beaches, but one.

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1) Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. PV comes in number 1 for several reasons. Mangoes, dreadlocks, flat roads for jungle bike riding, hammocks, big waves, chocolate, oh and SLOTHS! My favorite day in this sleepy, Afro-Caribbean town was when we woke up, got breakfast at Bread and Chocolate, and rented bikes to go explore some beaches. I hadn't been on a bike in years, and I felt like I was in a Hardy Boys book, about to discover some unknown territory listed as a side note in my Lonely Planet.

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2) Siesta Key, Florida. Been going here since I was a child, but never really explored the town until I was in my 20s. This beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida is best before most snowbirds arrive. Rated the #1 beach in the US, the yards of fine white sand lead you to calm, turquoise waters that almost always promise you a dolphin or two. Town eats include Big Olaf's for ice cream and the Salty Dog for a beer and corn dog bites.

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3) Puerto Escondido, México. One of those paradises that have become more popular since I last went there: now you can get cheap flights within Mexico to this surf town on the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca. With an undertow to kill (SERIOUSLY) and fresh seafood to boot, this beach offers lazy days and thumping nights. Also, it's a great base camp to then explore more isolated beaches such as Mazunte and Zipolite.

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4) Peñitas, México. Although these two beaches share the same coastline, Their vibe couldn't be more different. Peñitas, on the Pacific Coast of Guerrero, is more for families, although you still drink the same amount of beer to beat the heat. Here, we camped, lazed in hammocks, ate freshly caught seafood and ripe plantains, and then followed the heavily palm-treed coastline to watch the sunset. Football and yoga on the beach and bonfires at night.

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5) Cuernavaca, México. This is where I've chosen to call home, along with a few hundred other expats. We wake up to green parrots squawking and birds chirping, it's appropriate to have a barbeque and drink a beer at lunch every afternoon, and we can enjoy a view of the smoking Popo volcano in a hazy pink-purple afternoon. Trees flower year round, and in every neighborhood you can smell the local comida corrida and piping hot tortillas fresh off the comal.

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Yes, I know I'm painting a pretty picture for a place that is now one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico. But as you actually get to know a paradise, you realize that each place has its dark side. It's up to the people who live there and the tourists who visit to make sure its a paradise for everyone. Where have you been that's paradise, and what makes it a paradise??

Check out our Kickstarter project, an exploration of the War on Drugs in Mexico and one couple's search for Paradise: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/694362253/paraiso

Posted by UnMejorHOY 09:03 Archived in Mexico Tagged waterfalls mountains beaches animals spanish south costa rica america backpacking community mexican_food olas convivio alternative_travel participatory_travel voluneering_in_mexico Comments (0)

San Jose, Costa Rica Airport to Hotel

Originally this was a trip where my husband and I were going to take our 15-year-old niece to Costa Rica to celebrate her “sweet 15.” But since we haven’t learned to organize flying together, we only bought two tickets and in the end it was just me and a 15-year-old girl. Traveling with 15-year-olds is a whole other blog post or two. The point is that we booked a flight that got in past midnight since I was originally expecting to be traveling with my husband, and we ended up getting through customs around 1 am. But not to worry, Costa Rica is safer than Mexico at least, right?

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So we went through the airport and customs and found our luggage without any hassle. However, we got taken advantage of at the currency exchange, like everyone does. IMPORTANT TRAVEL TIP #1: if you are traveling to touristy areas in Costa Rica (we went to Tortuguero, Monteverde, Arenal and Puerto Viejo), most places accept dollars. At the airport they gave us 465 colones to the dollar, and the exchange rate at many restaurants and hotels is 500 colones to the dollar. Prices were listed only in dollars at several restaurants and hostels. At any rate, it would have made more sense to just exchange enough colones to pay for the taxi and breakfast in the morning and then taken money out at the ATM.

The next step of getting to our hotel was finding a taxi. At the Mexico City airport there’s a stand that offers certified taxis. In Costa Rica I had read that there was something similar, but when we finally got out we just saw a lot of sketchy taxi drivers waiting around. We had been told that a taxi from the airport to San José was about $30. Since I was suddenly responsible for a 15-year-old, I made sure to ask the taxi drivers if they had documentation. I know that sounds a bit overboard, but you wouldn’t get into a car with a short Shrek either if he didn’t at least flash you his driver’s license. So we ruffled a few feathers asking around and finally found a guy that seemed friendly enough and who willingly showed me some ID. However, here comes the sketchier part. He told us his taxi was upstairs and that we could all get in the elevator together. Alarm bells ringing, right? Fortunately he understood our concern and said he’d take the stairs and meet us up there with his car. As we were walking to his car we ran into some of the women from immigration and asked them which taxis we should be taking. They confirmed that the taxi driver we had chosen was safe, that he’d been working at the airport for awhile, and that we would be fine. Whew. What a relief. IMPORTANT TRAVEL TIP #2: Go with your gut feeling. Just because this guy was smiley and friendly doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have jumped us in the elevator with a big smile on his face. In Costa Rica the typical taxi is a red car with a little yellow taxi sign on the roof. At the airport there are also independent drivers who offer their services, so just ask around. Or better yet, since Costa Rica is the land of customer service and convenience, see if your hotel will send someone to pick you up.

The adventure of getting to our hotel did not end with putting our bags in the trunk. Our driver had never heard of our hotel, Boutique Hotel Calle 20, and we spent about 45 minutes driving around the red-light district of downtown San José. In case you didn’t know, La Alajuela is the town where the airport is and San José is about 30 minutes from there depending on traffic. We got there in about 15 minutes since it was 1 am. Our taxi driver was so friendly that he used his own cell phone to call the hotel and ask for directions. Once you get off the main square in San José all we saw were homeless people and scraggly bearded men and leering, anorexic hookers. I know you all think Mexico is dangerous, but at least the prostitutes in my town are plump and smiling. IMPORTANT TRAVEL TIP #3: fly into a new city when the sun is still out. Obviously this is the ideal time, although we 20-something travelers try to be flexible schedule-wise if it saves us $50 or $100 bucks. The truth is, when you travel on your own or with a peer, you don’t mind sleeping in the red-light district. It’s all part of the stories you’ll tell when you get home. But when you’re with a minor or your own child, you suddenly become protective and want to demand a free room at the hotel that was dim-witted enough to set up shop two streets down from the late-night hangout of every down-on-their-luck member of society.

Sometime around 2 am we updated our Facebook statuses to let people know we were alive and then crawled into bed. Let the Costa Rican adventures begin!

Posted by UnMejorHOY 14:04 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged hotels airport hostels backpacking san_jose mexican_food alternative_travel red-light_distrcit la_alajuela Comments (0)

5 Things to do in Lima

In total we’ll have spent 10 days in Lima. Since we’re at the end of our trip, we’re also at the end of our budget. Our friends we're staying with must think we are the most boring couple ever, but nobody believes us when we say you Mexico is so much cheaper. Here are 5 things you can do on a very tight budget:

Eat. Peruvian cuisine is up-and-coming on the culinary spread. Typical Peruvian dishes are becoming quite famous on an international level. While you may not be able to afford much, you can just sit for an hour or two looking at the menu and learning about all of the different types if potatoes. Another tasty treat is churros with chocolate. At Manolo's in downtown Lima, churros come with a creamy chocolate dipping sauce. The only other thing you must try, even if you’re out of cash, is the ceviche. Sell your Lonely Planet guide if you don't have the money.

Drink. There’s Pilsen, Cristal and Cusqueña for beers. If you’re lucky maybe the bar will serve some snacks and you can spend more on drinks than food. And you must try one of the pisco varieties. Although a Pisco sour is the typical touristy drink, all the cool Limeños drink Chilcanos, pisco with ginger ale. It was surprisingly good, and I would have had another, again, if it weren't out of our budget.

Climb. If you follow the route we did, South to North, you will have already done Machu Picchu and think that you will no longer be impressed by crumbling ruins. But Huaca Pucllana is a recently discovered (time-wise, in the archaeological world, or course) site that overlooks the city of Lima. It is actually nestled in the quiet upper class neighborhoodof Miraflores. Layered brick-like walls rise and fall as you get a guided tour of the area. There’s even a tiny farm that shows regional Peruvian animals and plants.

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Explore. One of my favorite museums on this trip was the Santo Domingo Church and Catacombs. The overcast day we went on didn’t help the creepy factor. So many people were buried there that now they’ve been grouped into just piles of bones- femurs, skulls, hips. There is a very old library in the church as well- one or those two story ones where you have to swing along on a ladder to find everything. It reminded me of Ollivander’s wand shop in Harry Potter. A stunning church and convent with an air of mystery and grandeur.

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Walk. At the end if our budget we don’t have any other choice. But that’s just perfect, because Barranco, Miraflores and the Historical Center are all flat. If you have some extra cash, maybe you can rent a bike or a skateboard. These neighborhoods are beautiful, with an intriguing mix of huge old mansions and shiny new high rises. Chorrillos and Barranco follow the coastline- you can watch the suffers float like little seals as they wait to catch a wave. Just breathtaking views.

In all honesty, out of all the cities and towns we visited on our trip Lima was the most inviting and authentic. Everywhere else felt like a stop along the tourist route, whereas Lima is alive and liveable. It is a vibrant city with a complicated history that is finally starting to get noticed by the rest of the world.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 20:58 Archived in Peru Tagged travel peru lima sites spanish santo_domingo archeological huaca_pucllana alternate_travel Comments (0)

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