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Ole! Down Mexico Way
Mexico, Ole! From bullfights to treks into places that dwarf the Grand Canyon, from sophisticated cities to tiny villages, from ancient pyramids to glamorous resorts hugging the brilliant blue of the Pacific, Mexico is as exotic as can be. It is also relaxing, laid back and friendly.
Having trekked over this ancient land from one end to the other: visiting Mexico City and Oaxaca, camping near the edge of Copper Canyon, bussing to Patzcuaro, Morelia, San Miguel de Allende, and points east, west, etc., I know this country and love everything about it.
I also know that Mexico can be confusing, frustrating and aggravating to first or even tenth time visitors. Patience is the keyword here, and a smile goes a long way toward cementing new relationships. Things never stand still in Mexico, and the last few years have been confusing for visitors. The peso changes its mind often, but mostly in favor of the tourist. The visitor is as safe in well-known areas of Mexico as in any other country.
Prices, Money and Rates
Having recently returned from Mexico, I have a few suggestions about traveling there. First of all, if you are taking a tour, or reserving a hotel in Mexico City, Cancun, Acapulco or Puerta Vallarta, don't be surprised if prices have not gone down. Despite the fluctuations of the peso, tour wholesalers have booked their tours more than a year in advance, on the basis of the peso and the dollar. They deal in dollar rates.
You'll discover that rates for tours and hotels are still high. This can happen in any country as it protects the tour operators in the event of a change in the currency. But, once you are in Mexico, you'll deal in pesos, so anything you buy or eat will be much cheaper than before the peso drop.
If you book your own hotel, ask for the peso cost; and if you go to Mexico without reservations, you can negotiate in pesos to your great advantage.
Despite the fluctuation of the peso, I always suggest that travelers buy at least $50 worth of pesos from a money exchange or your bank before you leave. Then, if you arrive in Mexico when airport exchanges are closed, you'll have enough pesos to take a taxi to your hotel. If you use your credit card for most purchases and hotel bills, you'll get the best exchange rates. Also, if you buy goods and ship them, most cards protect you from having to accept broken or inferior goods.
When you need cash, use your ATM card for the best rate. But always have pesos ready for taxis, dining in good local restaurants, and better bargaining power.
What is Mexico?
Now let's take a ramble down Mexico way and visit some of its exciting destinations. Unless you are flying directly to a resort, you'll probably fly into Mexico City, one of the world's oldest and most interesting cities.
Mexico City was fought over for centuries, and you'll discover excavations going on near the main Zocalo (plaza) that highlight pre-Hispanic life as it was more than 3000 years ago. Everywhere you go, the past collides with the present.
The glittering high rises make this appear a modern city, until you wander a few blocks away from the large avenues and discover small enclaves of history. Just when you're thoroughly sick of the milling crowds, smog-laden air and blaring horns of the city, you'll discover a place of 16th century tranquillity such as the San Angel Inn near the Bazaar Sabado, a few minutes from the Zona Rosa of Mexico. (To sound like you're an old timer, never use the word "city" after Mexico.)
Be sure to visit the Bazaar on a Saturday, when artisans spread their wares in tranquil patios. These are extremely fine objects, including paintings and sculptures by well-known Mexican artists. Start to bargain at 50% of the asking price.
Reserve ahead for lunch at San Angel Inn and be prepared for one of the loveliest experiences in life. The friendly waiters, enticing surroundings equaled by some of the best cuisine in the country are worth every peso.
Not far away, in the Coyoacan neighborhood, the brightly painted home of Diego Rivera and his last wife, the artist Frieda Kahlo, has become the dynamic Frieda Kahlo Museum.
Mexico (City) houses more than 17 million people, is rowdy, chaotic, irritating, wonderful...and very Latin despite its international look. On my most recent trip I opted for a Grayline bus tour of the city's highlights, and loved every minute. The bus takes you quickly and safely around the entire city, and ends up at the brilliant Museum of Anthropology. At the museum, after visiting as many rooms as you can handle, stop for lunch at the cafe.
Another tour takes you to the old Xochimilco Floating Gardens. The gardens are in wonderful shape after a serious clean-up job. You'll enjoy a romantic gondola ride through its flower bedecked canals. Mariachis sail by, playing and singing familiar Mexican tunes. Let your hotel concierge book a tour for you.
Dining, Hotels and Transportation
Mexico is teeming with restaurants, and you'd need a life-time to visit them all. The newest, Ciceros in downtown, needs early reservations, as do: Los Morales, Danubio and Fonda el Refugio, all historic eateries. You need not worry about water contamination in these restaurants, but bottled water is always a safe bet. For a sensible meal in comfortable quarters, Sanborns is always good.
The Zona Rosa houses many fine hotels, shops and restaurants, and I recently tried the 85-year-old Bellinghausen for lunch. -- an 'A' destination. The city's movers and shakers made room for this single diner and the waiters were very gracious. Fantastic hotels are all over the city, with the big names drawing most visitors. But the Maria Christina, at Rio Lerma 31 (011-525-566-9688), is still a favorite of mine. It is simple , comfortable and reasonably priced. The Galleria Plaza at Hamburgo 195 is another winner, but steeper in price (011-525-211- 0014).
If convenience is everything to you, try the Westin or Maria Christina.
Let your concierge suggest restaurants, but get your own taxi to save a bundle. To find one, walk away from your hotel and look for the bright green Volkswagens. Discuss the fare with your cabbie, and away you go. If you are cool about the language, hop aboard the pesero vans that charge you for your stop and carry ten or more passengers. I often take them when I am heading straight down the Reforma, the city's main drag. Hotel cabs are often double the price of the independents. Either way, your concierge can write down your destination in Spanish if you are unfamiliar with the language.
Language and Safety
Always carry a dictionary with you, and it never hurts to learn a few words of Spanish before you leave.
Now, let's talk about safety. Most cities have their own safety problems and Mexico is no different. Play it safe by not displaying signs of wealth while walking in the city. Money belts are ideal for carrying credit cards and cash. If you have valuables, and I consider both my passport and airline ticket in this category, put them in the hotel safe.
You do not need your passport when shopping or touring, but carry a Xerox copy just in case. A fanny pack worn in front, with a jacket over it, is an easy way to carry personal items. If you need more pesos, use one of the many ATM machines.
A few precautions:
- do not buy from street venders
- ignore people trying to sell you a tour or something like it
- beware of huge crowds
- don't walk in strange places at night
- always drink bottled water
- remember the altitude before you have that third margarita
Shopping in Mexico these days is a real pleasure. Mexicans are also talented artists, known for their fine crafts, and excellent silver. Every Sunday, Calle Sullivan in the Zona Rosa is filled with artists and their wares. Silver is a true buy in Mexico, and the designs are stunning.
Don't miss the famous Mexico markets, such as Cuidadela Market, near the Juarez Metro Station and Baldares (the Metro is safe and fast).
Puerta Vallarta has long been the Americans' stomping ground and feels like home even today with all the add-ons. Fortunately, all the development is taking place north of the slick, modern airport.
The villages of Puerta Vallarta and Colonia Zapata, south of the Rio Cuales, are almost like they were when Richard Burton and Liz Taylor rendezvoused here. Vallarta is extremely friendly, and you'll enjoy making new friends as you relax on the beach.
My alarm-clock driven, type -A spouse actually turns off his alarm and winds down quickly in Vallarta, even after a particularly frenetic work schedule. He'll rise late and casually wander into town for a lazy breakfast at Franzis under the spreading pepper tree. Time means relatively little around here, except when some bistros and shops in town close from 1-4 p.m. for siesta.
Accommodations in Vallarta range from fancy digs in well- known hotels for plenty of pesos, rented villas with staff and genuinely charming little hotels such as Playa Los Arcos. El Dorado still serves great food on the beach, and new eateries keep popping up. Carlos & Charles is still swinging, but try Le Bistro Jazz-Cafe on Isla Rio Cuale, Bombos and Cafe des Artistes.
One warning: one stay in PV (Puerta Vallarta), you'll be hooked. The lazy lifestyle, glorious bay, exquisite sunsets and superb beauty are catching.
Club Med has five clubs in Mexico, each offering a great vacation. Some offer specialized diving instruction. One of my favorites is at Huatulco, south of Acapulco. All ages are genuinely welcomed, and you'll find yourself doing Greek dances after lunch and dining in exotic Moroccan, Italian and French bistros (all included in the price).
You can try a game of squash, sail, water-ski, work out or simply hang out in a hammock for the entire week. Club Med has matured with the times, and after visiting 14 clubs I'm pleased to announce that keys, phones, safes, single rooms and even televisions have come to many of the clubs. Nothing else has changed, but we do like our privacy and a few modern touches, and Club Med has obliged.
A History of Food
Some Americans are used to eating Tex-Mex food, fast food tortillas and tacos. But, once you've dined in Mexico you'll be hooked on its unusually diverse cuisine. Not everything is hot, although more than 200 types of peppers are used in cooking. Chiliquiles are the hottest peppers, guaranteed to blow your head off, so read the menu carefully.
The Indians of Mexico brought the following delicacies to the world's tables: avocados, tropical fruits, hot chili, corn, beans, herbs, cacao an believe it or not, the turkey. When the Spanish arrived, they brought: goats, chickens, cheese, wheat, oil and wine. From Africa came coffee. Mangoes and spices came aboard ships from the Orient. The blending of these influences became Mexican cuisine which varies by the geography of the country. Oaxaca's mole dishes are quite different from those of Puebla, and Yucatan cooking reflects its Mayan origins.
In Mexico City, huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on corn) is used in tacos and crepes. Squash blossom soup is another staple lightly flavored by Mexican herbs and spices.
A tourist resort town, such as Puerta Vallarta, offers some of the best in Mexican cooking. Fresh fish and seafood are incorporated into traditional dishes. Crepes at El Dorado in Puerta Vallarta are a famous dish, savored by locals. These fresh crepes are filled with shrimp, ham and chicken. A goat cheese sauce enlivened with green chiles enhances the flavor of the crepes and the result is sheer ambrosia. A foaming glass of Mexican beer or a frosted glass filled with strawberry margarita is a wonderful accompaniment to the crepes. A mariachi band is bound to be playing on the nearby beach, and as a lazy fan revolves below the thatched roof your troubles float away.
Mexican cuisine is noted for its blend of flavors, and only in Mexico can you find the genuine thing. One of my favorite dishes is a national favorite: Tortilla Soup. Made properly, this soup has a rich base, peppers, slivered fried tortillas, a tomato or two, avocados and cheese and should be served with steamed, hand-made tortillas.
As you can tell, I love this country with its sublime beaches, ancient villages, stunning cities, mystic ruins with haunting histories, art colonies (San Miguel Allende), wild rivers and the friendliest people in the world.
1/4 cup oil
1 onion, small dice
1/2 cup tomato puree
1 teaspoon cilantro
3 quarts broth, chicken or beef
sprig mint leaves
Cut tortillas into strips, fry in oil until crisp, then remove from pan and drain. Saut» onion and tomato puree in oil from tortillas. Mash in the cilantro and strain in the stock. Place tortillas back in the pot. Cook 1/2 hour, adding mint leaves during the last ten minutes. To serve, add avocados and ladle into bowls.
Mole de Guajolate (Turkey with Spicy Chocolate sauce)
serves six to eight
8-pound turkey, disjointed
4 cups of water
3 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup lard or vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon crushed dried chili
12 whole cloves garlic
1 cup chopped onions
2 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
1/2 cup seedless raisins
1 cup shelled peanuts
2 tomatoes chopped
2 bananas peppers
2 ounces un-sweetened chocolate
3 cups chicken broth
Rinse the turkey. Combine turkey, water, whole onion and half the salt in sauce pan. Bring to a boil, cover loosely and cook over medium heat 45 minutes while you prepare sauce.
Brown sesame seeds over low heat, shaking pan frequently. Heat lard or oil in skillet. Add dried chilis, garlic, chopped onions, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, raisins, peanuts, tomatoes and bananas. Cook 15 minutes, stirring often. Cool 15 minutes. Pur»e in blender or food processor with chocolate and 1/2 of the sesame seeds.
Discard whole onion from turkey mixture. Pour the stock from turkey and the chicken broth into the chocolate mixture. Bring to a boil and cook over low heat for 20 minutes. Add turkey and remaining salt. Cook 15 minutes.
Sprinkle with the remaining sesame seeds and serve with rice and refried beans.