Mexico City

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Last but not least, the capital itself. It was quite a contrast going from an island with 16,000 inhabitants, to a city with a population at least five times as great as my home country.  I wasn’t sure what to expect; like most people, mention the nation’s capital and I conjured up thoughts of pollution and traffic. My flatmate in Italy, Hector, was from Mexico City, and I was so excited to see him again and to be shown around this gigantic city with a local’s perspective.

A fascinating piece of history is that Mexico City has been colloquially dubbed the ‘sinking city’. It was built in a valley many years ago, and since it has been slowly sinking. This is really highlighted in some of the cathedrals; you actually have to walk down stairs to enter the cathedral, and the floors are definitely on slants. Mexico City is split up into a number of districts, each distinct with its own reputation. Hector worked in the Federal District, which was hustling, bustling and full of important looking people wearing suits. Our first meal took place here, and we were pretty excited to have a local ordering for us. At Oaxaca Bistro we launched ourselves into the thick of delicious, authentic Mexican food; and this was just the beginning. We ordered from a set lunch menu, which apparently is the done thing. Also nearby is La Casa de los Abuelos, basically an institution when it comes to classic Mexican food.

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Not far from Hector’s office is La Reforma, the equivalent to Barcelona’s Las Ramblas: it is an incredible boulevard that stretches for 12 kilometres, and is lined with hotels, greenery, office buildings, protests and the famous Latinoamericana Tower (once the tallest building in the city). It terminates in the Centro Historico; cobblestone pedestrian streets crammed with taco carts, street vendors and extremely cheap clothing stores. One of the prettier buildings is the Palacio de bellas artes; an art gallery/opera house that is white with a gold roof. Running parallel to Reforma is Alamadas – the oldest public park in the city, and if you need food Café de Tacuba is not too far away (Mexico City’s longest established café). If I had to recommend somewhere to stay, I would suggest somewhere close to the Reforma (although the closer you get, I expect the more expensive it would be), or in the bohemian Condesa neighbourhood; wide boulevards lined with trees and littered with funky bars and cafes, it was described as Mexico’s East Village (New York), or Notting Hill (London).

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The most obvious downfall to a city with so many people is the traffic problems it causes. It took so incredibly long to get anywhere. Thankfully Uber was were cheap, as I couldn’t imagine having to bus everywhere. As all of the people in Hector’s suburb have their own cars, there is no need for the subway to extend out that far. The taxis around the city are all either pink and white, or red and gold. A great way to see the most impressive sights of the extensive city, without having to drive or taxi everywhere is to buy a ticket for the “Hop on, Hop off” bus. Through this means we saw the Castillo de Chapultepec; a once royal residence, that transformed into a presidential dwelling, and now a museum (65 peso entry, unfortunately everything is written only in Spanish), the Monument of Independence, the Revolution Monument, and of course, the Anthropology Museum. This is Mexico’s most popular museum, and I loved it just as much as the next person. The history of the Mayan’s and Aztecs is absolutely fascinating, and you could lose yourself in the incredibly displayed warren of artefacts. We were fortunate in that a man at the help-desk gave us a ‘highlights’ tour, so we got to see the best of it in about 2 hours.

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On our last day in Mexico City we took a day trip from the Audacio to the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. We left at about 8am, and made a few stops on the way. First up was Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, Mexico’s most important religious site.  We drove through Tlalnepantla City, which consisted of hundreds of concrete houses covering the hill-side, all painted bold block colours; orange, green, yellow, purple, pink – you name it! At the pyramids we learnt how the Mayans used to obtain pigments to colour their paintings. Climbing up the pyramids was no mean feat; the steps were almost vertical, and there was a fair few of them. The souvenirs sold here were all pretty unique; various ornaments made from obelisk (the mineral that used to be mined in the area), as well as whistles that sounded like wild animals and birds. From here we visited a workshop where we learnt the various uses of the agave plant: soap, paper, needles and thread are just a few of the many uses. We were then given shots of mezcal and tequila, before taken to a buffet lunch where we were entranced by performances of miriacha and cultural Aztec dancers. We then got taught how to play Aztec ball – the throwing up of a round ball and hitting it back and forth to each other through a hoop, using the back-side of ones biceps as a bat.

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Playa Del Carmen

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$250 bought me my flight from New York to Cancun. The airport in Cancun was pretty basic, and to our frustration every single one of the ATMs at the airport was broken. Thankfully, the machine didn’t eat either of our cards (others weren’t so lucky), and Hailee was carrying some leftover US dollars. The conversion rate was easy; basically 10 pesos equalled $1. At the airport we jumped on an ADO bus for 68km to Playa del Carmen – it took about an hour, cost $16 (prices fluctuate depending on the season) and was extremely spacious and cool (which I was already grateful for, after only 10 minutes in the mild Mexican heat!). There are two bus stations in Playa del Carmen – the ‘old station’ is on the corner of Juarez and 5th Avenue and the ‘new station’ is essentially at the opposite corner of the town, right next to the big supermarket MEGA, and Walmart.

We stayed at Tres Mundos Hostel – which was clean, friendly, and quiet. It was within close proximity to both the beach and 5th Avenue (Quinta Avenida) and the weather was so warm that the cold showers were welcomed. The main street, 5th Avenue, is one row back from the beach and has fancy all-inclusive resorts at each end. It is incredibly festive, crowded with high-end shops, souvenir stalls and over-priced bars and restaurants. The streets are thick with American accents, and little Mexican men promoting their souvenirs by telling you it will help you find a Mexican boyfriend.  The souvenir shops run by these cheeky Mexicans are a source of entertainment on their own. You can find everything from sombreros, ceramics, blankets, leather, food, magnets and of course, tequila. As soon as we set foot in one of these places, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I gave into the temptation of these colourful delights.

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Venture two streets back from the beach, and you are already hitting local territory – with street food, carts, and houses. So it is relatively small, and doesn’t take long to explore by foot, which I loved. Running perpendicular to the beach is Avenida Juarez – which has lots of smaller shops, where prices tend to be more negotiable. There are also lots of food stalls, and a small food market. It has an entirely different vibe to 5th Avenue, and feels far more authentic. At the south end of 5th Avenue I located a bunch of shops I’d adored in Europe – such as Pull & Bear, Zara and Bershka and at the northern end were more shops, including Forever 21.

The beach was fine – but for a New Zealander (inherent beach snobs) it was overcrowded and a little bit dirty. We spent a few well-needed days by the beach. We were craving sun, sea and sand after our week in New York. The weather was very temperamental – always hot, but there were numerous patches of rain throughout the day. This was fine; it provided opportunity to pop up into town for a quick bite, or to browse the shops.

Our first Mexican meal we wanted to be authentic – therefore we had to find somewhere selling Mexican food amongst all the Italian, French and other touristy cuisines on offer. We settled on a place called La Fisheria – which at the time I didn’t find too expensive (given the exchange rate) but I soon learnt it was more of an upper-end restaurant, definitely targeted at tourists. Despite that, the menu was mouth-watering, and the food fantastic; my yellow fin tuna tostada with mango guacamole was almost worth dying for.

An avid blogger myself, I always take enjoyment out of visiting places that other people recommend on their travel blogs. In Playa del Carmen, we had been advised to eat at El Fogan, which is on the far side of town by the supermarket (only about 5 blocks). We arrived, and it was buzzing with people. We sat down to find the entire menu was in Spanish. Unfortunately, I was not as bilingual as I’d thought, so we had to piece our way through the menu, still being a little unsure of what we actually ordered I got tacos el pastille; the beginning of a trend, and certainly, the beginning of the end. For about $1, I got two tacos, with the meat coming off the rotisserie (commonly seen in kebab shops in NZ). Another restaurant recommended by a blogger was Le Cororela. This place was located near the south end of 5th Avenue; cheap, authentic and delicious, we shared tacos, enchiladas and a quesadilla – washed down with a green smoothie (had to get my nutrients from somewhere!).

[Nearby is the Xcaret Eco Park, which is a popular tourist destination, especially for families, and is home to many activities (for example cenotes, snorkelling), wild-life, beaches and eateries. Also, just a ferry ride away is the island of Cozumel, which although we didn’t have time to visit, Hailee spoke highly of it – a great opportunity to hire quad bikes and do some exploring, as well as a world-class destination for snorkelling and diving. It costs approximately $25 and takes 45 minutes to reach by ferry.]

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MEXICO

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There is something about the Spanish culture that I absolutely adored when I was in Europe. A combination of the weather, the language, the food, people and music; a sense of happiness encompassed me in Spain, and I was hoping for the same in Mexico. I hadn’t been to Mexico since a childhood visit to Tijuana, so I was definitely excited to explore the unknown. I had been learning Spanish for the few months leading up to this trip, and I was enthused by the prospect of practicing these skills. It was also a cheap, chilled way to end my trip; a cheeky stop through the Riviera Maya, who wouldn’t say no to a swim in the Caribbean?!

Here’s where I visited: (click on each title to read more)

 

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10 useful tips to know before you travel to Mexico:

  1. The water is mostly undrinkable. Ask at your accommodation though, because sometimes they will have a filter.
  2. US dollars are a second unofficial currency. Most places will accept US dollars or pesos, and frequently both prices will be advertised. It pays to always carry some cash, as most places won’t accept cards.
  3. Mexico’s own aperitif – corn chips with various sauces. Whenever you go out for a meal, complimentary chips are brought out to start you off; I had to develop some serious self-control, and quickly – otherwise I never actually wanted to eat my dinner.
  4. Haggling is a thing. In department stores, grocery stores, pharmacies and the like, prices will be as advertised. However, if it is a flea-market type shop, then feel free to negotiate towards what you believe is a fair price.
  5. Getting around – welcome to the collectivo. Looks like a shuttle, effectively a group taxi; you wave them down and should pay about 25 pesos regardless of where you are going. We got ripped off a few times, but didn’t waste our time arguing over a few dollars.
  6. Obviously the places I visited were more touristy than a lot of other places in Mexico, but I was astonished at how well everyone spoke English and how willing everyone is to help.
  7. Mexican toilets and loo paper don’t mix well. Don’t risk it, save yourself a potentially awkward situation and when instructed, just put your loo paper in the rubbish bin provided.
  8. Being young, female and blonde meant I attracted a lot of unwanted attention. I soon learnt that the Mexicans thrive off banter, and if you are willing to move past their nonsensical chat, they are indeed great sources of local information, and unlike other countries, are absolutely stoked to have you practice your amateur Spanish-speaking skills on them.
  9. Mexico’s version of the Seven Eleven, OXXO stores are virtually everywhere, and sell virtually everything.
  10. Museums are often closed on Mondays, so check that first.

 

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  • Everything incorporates tortillas one way or another. Whether it be fresh in a taco, toasted in a tostada, or grilled into a quesadilla, I suddenly found myself eating them on a regular basis.
  • Margarita. Tequila + triple sec + lime juice, served on the rocks. Nowadays, they are served in many different ways – flavoured, iced and all very delicious.
  • Paloma. Tequila mixed with sparkling lemon, what Mexican’s tend to think of when they picture drinks involving tequila.
  • Horchata. A traditional drink made with rice, almonds, cinnamon and sugar. To me it tasted like a chilled chai latte.
  • Tropical fruit. Usually in abundance in any tropical country, we saw mango, banana, coconut, pineapple, papaya… convenient, delicious, healthy snacks!
  • Tacos al pastor. One of the most famous dishes, ‘al pastor’ translates to ‘in the style of the shepherd’. To serve, think strips of meat are sliced off a spit, placed on a tortilla and topped with onion, coriander and fresh pineapple. My mouth is watering at the memory.
  • IMG_4522Tostadas. Simple yet delicious, basically they are baked/fried tortillas, served either plain or topped with cheese, meet, beans and anything else that tickles your fancy. Kind of like a pizza base, it is a great way to utilise slightly stale tortillas!
  • Chicharron. Unlike in New Zealand, where you only see pork crackling if someone successfully makes it when they cook a roast, you can find bags of crackling here, in amongst where you buy the potato chips. It is frequently found as a topping on salads, tacos, and of course, tostadas.
  • Enchiladas. An ancient dish evolved from when the Mayans used to wrap corn tortillas around small fish. Nowadays are enchiladas are filled with anything from meat to seafood, beans and vegetables, layered with cheese and chilli and baked until cooked through.
  • Quasedillas. Pronounced ‘kasss – aaaa- deeee- yaaah’.
  • Guacamole. Something I cannot get enough of, especially when tacos are in abundance. Combine avocado, onion, tomato, lemon juice, chilli, garlic and if you are feeling adventurous, a dash of tequila and devour with tortilla chips – one of my favourite foods in the world.
  • Frijoles. Translates to beans, I saw how popular these are with the Mexican people when I lived with Hector. They are usually cooked with water and onion very slowly, until they are soft. Sometimes they are mashed and recooked (ie. Re-fried beans).
  • Empanada. South America’s answer to the meat pie, it is a meat filled pastry.

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