Suitcase and World: Memories of Mexico.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Memories of Mexico.

Ayşe, Juan Jose, Julee, Francisco, Mark

Yes, Mexico is more than Cancun, Playa, Cabo, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and Chichén-Itzá....and it's not like all violent, ugly place like Tijuana and Juarez. There are Spanish colonial towns and cities like Puebla, Oaxaca, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Campeche and Mérida - colorful, vibrant, full of history, culture and some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet.


The zócalo in Puebla
As expected, the towns were full of basilicas, cathedrals, churches, monasteries and convents and we paid many a visit.

But a lot of our memories about these towns are of the zócalo or town square. Each town has a zócalo in its historic center and that's where locals go to hang out.  Street vendors and performers add to the atmosphere.  My favorite zócalo was the one in Puebla - it was a great place just to sit and watch the world go by.

The street performers, especially in Puebla, were truly entertaining.  A good time could be had for just a small tip.

San Cristóbal de las Casas

In Oaxaca and San Cristóbal de las Casas, the center of the zócalo was occupied by a raised podium.  At nights, a live band would come to play music and locals would come out to dance.

By the end of a day, you could find us sitting on a bench in the zócalo soaking in the sights and sounds of the town.

At Mitla
Of course, what would a trip to Mexico be without seeing a ruin or two or in the case of my brother and I, eight!

There are more ancient ruins than you can shake a stick at. On this trip, we visited Aztec ruins at Teotihuacán and in Mexico City at Templo Mayor and at Plaza de las Tres Culturas.

The three of us at Monte Albán
Nearby Oaxaca, we visited the ruins of the ancient Zapotec capital city of Monte Albán and the ruins of the former capital of the Mixtec empire, Mitla.  Of course, the Mayans were and still continue to be a major cultural influence on Mexico.  We were fortunate to have been able to visit Uxmal with its beautiful Puuc style temples, Palenque with its temples built by Pakal the Great and his son and of course, Chichén-Itzá which reflects a mix of Mayan and Toltec cultures.

Mexico has more varieties of fruit than you can possibly imagine and with my brother, whom I lovingly refer to as the "Fruit Obsessed One" traveling with us, we tried as many unique fruits as we could get our hands on. Most made it on the thumbs up list, a couple were tasted one and never again!

So, this was a fruit filled trip and one by one, everyone got into it, buying fruit for the daily road trips. We bought from road side stands and street vendors, never venturing into the stores to buy packaged fruit. Over the course of the trip, we had bananas, rambutans, pomegranate, passion fruit, guava, prickly pear (tuna), dragon fruit (pitahaya), saramuyo (custard apple), papaya, mangoes, pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, grapes, Mexican limes and lemons and last but not least, coconut. We also had nance which was the only fruit that none of us liked. Ayşe had never tasted a lot of the fruits fresh and so there were a lot of new taste sensations for her. I will miss having all that wonderful fresh fruit.

I'm a street food fanatic and I had been told that for street foodies, Mexico is the place to be.  I was not disappointed.  Everywhere we went, we could get something to eat.  It was tasty and inexpensive and generally speaking, fresh home cooked food.  You can't beat that!  There were days where street carts were our dining establishments.

I will miss the tamales the most - especially the ones that we got from a woman who was selling them on the roadside nearby our hotel in Tulum.  We bought 3 to try for dinner one night and they were so good, we got more two nights later!

Thanks to Juan Jose, I also had the best chicken tamale EVER at a truckstop.  That's right, it was a truckstop in Mexico where I had
a corn tamale that had the texture of soft polenta but it was filled with tasty shredded bits of stewed chicken.   I will forever be trying to recreate that taste sensation in my own home or else try to find that truckstop!


Juan Jose and Francisco were our resident Mexican foodies and with them, we dined on a lot of regional specialties from tyludas in Oaxaca to cochinita pibil in the Yucatán.  It was all good.

On this trip, we ate every meal, except for breakfast with these two guys.  We had such wonderful times with them that I couldn't imagine not sharing the meals with them.

My favorite meal was the one that we had in Boca del Rio, a tiny town outside Veracruz.  The guys were planning on taking us to some fancy schmancy place for dinner but when we told them we wanted to eat seafood (which is what Veracruz is known for), they changed plans.  We got into the van and Juan Jose drove us to Boca where he took us to a small restaurant where he knows the owner.  That night, I had Salpicon de Jaiba which is shredded crab salad but in Boca, it's made with river crab.  Unbelievably sweet crab meat and for what I paid, an absolute steal!!

Of course, you can't go to Mexico and not munch on insects which seemed to only be a treat for Francisco, Juan Jose and I.  I will give my brother and Ayşe credit for trying them but looking at this face, I was sure that eating insects would only be a one time thing :-)

We truly laughed a lot on this trip.  Memorable moments included all the times the guys would tease poor Ayşe about learning Spanish.  I wonder if she remembers how to say "Bon Appétit" in Spanish considering all the meals she had to say this at or whether or not she remembers the word for "fork" which my brother would torture her with at every breakfast by holding on to her fork until she could ask for it in Spanish :-)

I know I won't forget our speed boat ride up the Sumidero Canyon in the pelting rain.  It was the root cause of a lot of hysterical laughter between Ayşe and I.

And that wasn't the only time we got wet.  It was a blisteringly hot and humid day when we took a walk in the park around Misol-ha waterfall.

There, you can walk in an area underneath where the water cascades from above.  Cracks in the rocks formed natural showers.  It was just too hard to resist dunking our heads under the water.

My brother and I also spent a few days in Tulum where we went snorkeling in the Yal-ku lagoon and bay in nearby Akumal.  We also donned "Mayan diapers" and floated down a natural canal in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve in Tulum.

I even dipped into a hotel pool.....something I've not done in ages.  Have to admit, it was nice to chill off in the water but I'm still not a fan of being in chlorinated water.


I had hoped our ultimate water adventure would be snorkeling with the whale sharks and manta rays but no thanks to a tropical storm named Dawn, our plans were dashed.  Luckily, we came up with Plan B which was to go deep sea fishing.  My brother reeled in 3 barracudas which we had to throw back one.

I had also planned for my brother and I to go out one night and watch the sea turtles nesting but that plan fell through as well as.  We did see a big mama turtle lumber up on to the beach but she got scared by all the lights and noise of the crowd that had gathered around her and she left.  We did get to see some loggerhead hatchlings the next day and that made up for some of the disappointment.

Oddly enough, we did get to see a couple of giants in the form of cactus and tree.  Who would have expected that?

First the cactus which we saw somewhere on the road between Puebla and Oaxaca.   Ayşe wanted to climb it but I told I didn't think that would be a good idea so she decided to use it as swing platform instead. 

Then, there was this huge tree in the small town of Santa Maria del Tule.  Massive thing.   2000 years old.  It was quite something to see.

Hands down, this trip was memorable because of the people that I went with.  My brother and I have very similar interests so we get along extremely well on trips and I'm looking forward to going on many more with him.  We had a phenomenal time doing things together on this trip though there was a certain bicycle ride in Tulum that he convinced me to go on that left me a bit bruised.  He will have to make up for that misadventure :-)

A lot of what we experienced on this trip was completely new to Ayşe but she came with an open mind and an open heart and I know she really every minute of the trip.  Given the chance to go back to Mexico, she would do it in a heartbeat!  One of my favorite memories of Ayşe was her rolling down a small hill with some young school girls.  It was just one example of her just jumping in and enjoying herself.

I also have to thank Francisco, our guide.  The man is like an encyclopedia when it comes to knowledge about his home country.  History, food, culture, geography, flora, fauna.....he knew it and when he didn't he was reading up on it.  His twenty six years of experience as a tour guide showed and we were grateful for every tidbit of information he would share with us.

It was obvious that he loved telling visitors everything he could about his country and we all soaked up his knowledge like sponges.  My love and appreciation for Mexico has gotten deeper because of Francisco.

A father of several children and a grandfather of two,  he also has a wonderful sense of humor and was both the source and participant of a lot of good laughter.

If you are planning a trip to Mexico and are looking for an experienced guide with a good sense of humor, please consider hiring Francisco.  I'm attaching his business card that has all his contact information on it.

Juan Jose was our driver and nightly food guide.  We had quite a few long road trips and I can only imagine how tired he must have been at the end of some of those trips.   He's a very kind and jovial man with a quick wit.  He and I would often toss good humored barbs at each other

Sadly, his wife passed away two years ago and his only child, a son, lives in LA. He took a lot of ribbing from us when it came to talk about finding a girl friend for him.
 He was a bit camera shy so trying to get a picture of him was hard that is until I figured out that he would stay put as long as he was eating :-)

I will forever remember how much pleasure he got from eating food.  You have to admit, he has the physique of someone who enjoys eating :-)

For me, this trip to Mexico was an opportunity to rediscover a country that I had fallen in love with 26 years go and I loved it even more this time around.  But there's so much more of the country yet for me to see and experience.  I will return again!  In the meantime, I have this blog and a lot of precious photos and videos to remind me of this trip.

This travelogue details my trip and includes a selection of the photos and videos that my brother, Ayşe  and I took along the way.   Our thanks to Francisco for taking the group shots of the three of us. Be forewarned that this is a long blog so to make it easier to navigate, I've created a "Table of Contents" (below) which has links to each of the postings. To read each blog posting, simply click the link for that particular posting. Click on the Back button on your browser to return to the "Table of Contents".

I hope you enjoy reading about my travels as much as I did experiencing them!

Table of Contents

Pre-trip Planning & Research