Roundup 4: Mexico Part 2
March – April 2019
The second half of our Mexican journey was much less packed than the first (see Roundup 3: Mexico Part 1). As February had left us kind of worn out – we crammed all of the major tourist destinations in just 5 weeks – we decided to take it easy and have a slow March, discovering the Western part of Mexico.
We dedicated March to exploring some of the lesser-known Mexican towns. Some of them we loved, some of them we didn’t, but that’s just life. The good news is that we have no illnesses or any other crazy incidents to report in this roundup. It seems that Moctezuma has finally befriended us.
So here’s our report for this month. From the freezing, inhospitable lands of Chihuahua down to lovely Guanajuato, here’s what happened in our last 5 weeks in the spicy country that has become one of our favourites.
Mexico City and Mexico State – going back to normal
We spent almost 2 weeks in Mexico City doing nothing but eating and working on the blog. There were still things that we wanted to see in the Mexican Capital, but we decided to leave them for the end of our Mexico trip. We had to be back anyway to catch our flight to Peru, in April.
We only went out to the city centre twice: once to meet my good college friend Nadia who now lives in Mexico City, and another time to visit the gigantic campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), a legend amongst public universities in Latin America. As a proud graduate from a “sister” university, the glorious Universidad Nacional de Colombia, I had to see this. Besides, the campus of the UNAM is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We had the best time in Mexico City, doing the things that before we considered boring: grocery shopping, doing our own laundry the way we like it (laundry services in Mexico can be quite rough on the clothes), cooking, watching a movie in bed every now and then. We didn’t feel guilty at all for not leaving the house much; it was too hot to be outside all the time anyway.
One bizarre thing about Mexico City is that it suddenly turned us into supporters of big US chains. Walmart, a supermarket that we only knew from US TV shows, became our best friend. Especially since there was a giant outlet close to our place that provided all the food needed to support our self-inflicted “house arrest”. Cinnabon and Krispy Kreme on the other hand, with their cinnamon rolls and heavenly doughnuts, became our daily supply of sweet deliciousness. Italianni’s, a food chain serving the only semi-decent Italian food that we’ve tried since we left Europe, became a very welcomed and refreshing dining option.
It wasn’t all gringo food, of course. We did find an amazing restaurant (Cochinita Power) specialised in cochinita pibil which, as you might remember from our previous Roundup, was our favourite Mexican food. All in all, our time in Mexico City was a happy 2 weeks that we would have gladly prolonged for much, much longer. But we had to move on and so, a bit against our will, we hit the road again.
Valle de Bravo
Every October, millions of monarch butterflies migrate from the US to spend the winter in central Mexico, high in the coniferous forests of the Volcanic Belt. The oyamel trees are covered in massive clusters of butterflies, and the sky is filled with countless little orange wings in one spectacular natural wonder that has been on our bucket list for a long time.
We didn’t know if we’d get to see them, though. By February, the first butterfly colonies start their journey back to the north, so we knew that we were late. Was it worth travelling to catch a glimpse of the last monarch colonies? No idea, but we were not about to let this chance, even if faint, slip away.
In retrospect, we probably should have. Moving with all our stuff from Mexico City to Valle de Bravo (5 hours away by bus) and then back to Mexico City to catch a flight to Chihuahua, all in a lapse of 4 days, wasn’t the smartest of ideas. Especially because the reward didn’t compensate the effort. We got to see the butterflies but the colonies were small, as predicted. And Valle de Bravo wasn’t exactly a memorable town. Not ugly, but also not particularly special.
The sight of (still) thousands of butterflies was amazing anyway.
By now, we’d started realising that we have to get more selective with our destinations. We can’t see it all anyway, and moving frantically from place to place just to tick some boxes on a list isn’t always worth it. More importantly, it isn’t easy. Sure, there are some must-tick boxes that we just won’t miss for the world, but all those potentially “meh” boxes… we’ll be happy to skip from now on.
Chihuahua – on trains, canyons, and disappointments
And speaking of lousy travel choices, here’s one that we should have skipped altogether. We travelled to the northern state of Chihuahua with the sole purpose of taking the Chepe Train through the Copper Canyon, a ride that’s said to be “the most scenic train ride in the continent”. Well, let’s just say that the experience was really not worth the US$692 that we spent during this 5-day trip (yeah, ouch!).
Coming from warm and vibrant Mexico City, Chihuahua felt quite depressing. From the moment we landed, we felt we didn’t belong there. It was mercilessly windy, so as a welcome gift we got sand all over our ears, eyes, and mouths, courtesy of the Chihuahuan Desert.
We stayed in an Airbnb close to the city centre, yet at 5 pm the streets around our place were strangely empty. And not peaceful kind of empty; there was something shady, something uncomfortable. Maybe it was just the wind… and a couple of characters that we met outside who looked the opposite of friendly. I mean, I don’t want to offend anybody, let alone all the lovely Mexicans that we encountered all over the country, but let’s not forget that some of the world’s most dreadful drug cartels operate not far from here…
To make matters worse, as soon as the sun went down, it got so freaking cold! Windy, cold, and spooky. Not a very welcoming feeling. We just grabbed some quick dinner and went back in as fast as we could, hoping that things would look better in the morning.
They did, a little. It was sunny, which was a good sign, but even the sun here was painfully harsh. And it was still oh so windy! We walked around a bit, saw the main square and its surroundings and, tired of fighting the wind, did some quick grocery shopping and went back in. After all, there wasn’t much to see and we had to prepare for the next day when we’d take an 8-hour bus to Creel, to catch the highly anticipated Chepe train. We were better off inside.
Creel is a tiny ghostly town with no other visible charm than the Chepe train. It was cold, very cold in Creel. And because we stayed in a hotel with thin windows and no heater – accommodation is terribly expensive around here, so this was all we could afford – our nights were very unpleasantly cold. Washing our hands and brushing our teeth was a torture. I was actually surprised that the water was still flowing through that faucet, and not coming down in cubes. In contrast, the shower was possibly the best, warmest, most stable of our Mexican trip, so I guess we can call it even.
But we were not in Creel for the town. We were there for the train, excited about this ride that many have said so many wonderful things about. Would it really be as great as they say?
Divisadero day trip
The short answer is no; it wasn’t as great. The long answer can be found in our Why we didn’t love the Chepe Train Experience post.
For those who haven’t read the post, here’s the summary: the Copper Canyon is indeed beautiful, but not so much as to justify this expensive, long detour from central Mexico. And as for the train, well, it was kind of a rip off: it costs as much as a Swiss train ride, which is alarmingly expensive for Latin American standards, and doesn’t even come close. We should have known.
And so, after an expensive 5-day trip to the north of Mexico, we left this region as fast as we could, disappointed and cursing ourselves for having spent so much money and energy on this. But well, we had to try and most importantly, we learned our lesson: we definitely must consider our destination choices better! “Less is more”, we were reminded. Our bank accounts certainly seemed to agree.
Jalisco – spring, tequila, and the best tacos in Mexico
We were recently asked if we would live in Mexico and if so, where. Without hesitation, the answers were yes and Guadalajara.
From the moment we arrived in Guadalajara, we felt right at home. If you’ve read our post on 5 things not to miss in Guadalajara, you sure know by now why. It isn’t just that the city is lovely (and it really is). We also were lucky enough to land on an incredible guest house that made our impression of the town all the more unforgettable: a beautiful old house in Colonia Americana, one of the coolest neighbourhoods in town, where we spent most of our time relaxing, cooking, and working on the blog.
There was so much for us to love about Guadalajara: we loved the city’s contagious good vibe, lively and young. Loved its weather, hot by day and pleasantly cooling by night. Loved every blooming jacaranda tree colouring the streets purple. Loved our evening strolls along the boulevard in Avenida Chapultepec, where street artists please the crowds with music and dance performances. Loved the gorgeous historical centre. But most of all, we loved that we found the very best tacos in Mexico, right around the corner!
There sure must be lots of places claiming to have the best tacos in Mexico but for us, that title is and will always be reserved for Taquería Tomate, a place serving meat so delicious it draws hundreds of customers (locals, mind you) from all over the city every single day and night of the week.
To end our one-week stay in Guadalajara on a high note, we took the one day trip that nobody in town should skip. The one that many people actually come to Guadalajara for: we visited the legendary town of Tequila. And we’re happy to report that this was NOT a trip that we regretted.
Tequila day trip
Everybody knows tequila, the evil spirit that has whipped many with the worst hangover of their lives. Not everybody, however, knows about Tequila, the cute little Mexican town where that particular spirit comes from.
We spent a very hot sunny day in Tequila town, learning about the process of making the drink, visiting the beautiful blue agave fields – a landscape that forms part of the UNESCO world heritage – and of course, sampling tequilas of different ages and qualities.
As we walked the colourful streets of Tequila, surrounded by live traditional Mexican music and the tipsy joy of those who’d had one too many tequila shots – which is mostly everyone visiting town – we felt light and energised. We were back to the Mexico that we liked, the colourful, cheerful one that we had fallen in love with. Our Chihuahua days, short as they were, were a thing of the past and we were glad about it.
For those wanting the details of our experience in Tequila, you can read all about it in our post Tequila tour: meet the spirit and the town it comes from. There’s also a more specialised post, How to choose the right tequila tour, for those lucky enough to be planning a visit to T-town.
San Luis Potosí – a one-week bohemian rhapsody
San Luis Potosí
With a couple of weeks to spare before having to head back to Mexico City, where we’d sadly reach the end of our Mexican adventures (for now), we decided to spend a slow week in San Luis Potosí, a calm city that seemed perfect for our newly found slow travel routine.
There isn’t much to do in SLP, other than walking around the historical centre which is, like many others in Mexico, a UNESCO world heritage site (do we sound repetitive? Not our fault. Mexico ranks 7 on the list of countries with the most UNESCO heritage sites). It took us just one day to visit all the attractions, so we dedicated the rest of our time in SLP to work on the blog and start planning our upcoming trip to Peru, which we had been postponing for weeks now.
The colonial architecture of SLP is no doubt pretty. But what made this city memorable for us was our Airbnb. It was an old, dusty, kind of messy house, with a water heater that made us fear for the entire neighbourhood’s safety every time we took a shower, as it infused the whole house with a powerful and frankly quite terrifying gas smell. But in spite of all that, we had a very relaxing time there!
As it turned out, we landed in an “experimental house”, owned by a bunch of weed-smoking cooks/artists, that planned to turn the place into a temporary home for guest artists coming to the city for cultural exchanges. Or something like that. Truth be told, I’ve got the impression that they don’t really know what they actually want to achieve with the house. Or maybe we just weren’t stoned enough to grasp the abstract concept that was being explained to us.
Our host, Diego (not his real name), was a warm and lovely – if yet erratic – Mexican young man with an exceptional resemblance to Badger, from Breaking Bad. Together with two or three other guys (maybe more), he runs the guest house, hosts an art studio, organises the meetings of an entrepreneurial artists movement, and prepares paninis to sell in a food truck that they own, all of which happens in the same house!
There were always so many people coming in and out of the place. There was cooking, and painting, and debating going on in the common areas. At first it was somewhat uncomfortable, but soon we were part of it all. Courtesy of Diego, we got to eat some really good panini bread a couple of times, enjoyed a rather professionally equipped kitchen, and collected some fresh herbs from their patio. We even got some ready-to-use weed (self grown and processed, of course) and a wooden pipe, just in case we felt like it. Although we politely declined, we all have to agree that it was a nice gesture.
He may have seemed clueless at times, but he was the sweetest. He even phoned us to make sure that we’d arrived safely at the bus terminal after we checked out, something that no other host has ever done. We’ll always remember him fondly and can only hope that they’ll fix that leaky gas heater some time soon.
Querétaro and Guanajuato
Santiago de Querétaro
Our last week before heading back to Mexico City was spent in Querétaro, a warm and lovely city of beautiful architecture where once again, we spent most of our time cooking and blogging and getting ready for Peru. Oh and yes, once again, the historical centre of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site, in case you were wondering.
Now, Querétaro isn’t just a pretty city. It is also one of the safest cities to live in with the highest quality of life in Mexico. It is then probably unsurprising that we got to spend our week in the house of our dreams, which provided a blissful shelter against the heat of the day and an easy way to explore the charms of the city in the evenings. We didn’t have the house all to ourselves, but we didn’t mind sharing that little oasis with its owner and his tiny, nervous french poodle.
Nothing remarkable happened in Querétaro but we really liked it there. Of course, our place had a lot to do with that. From our room, a sliding glass panel allowed us to wake up to a fuchsia bougainvillaea where hummingbirds came to feed. Outside in the living room, another glass panel led to a goldfish pond from a modern kitchen island. It was a dream come true.
We had to force ourselves to get out of the house every now and then, but we never regretted doing so. Querérato is a lovely city to stroll around, with plenty of architectural gems that include a 1.3-km-long, 7-story-tall stone aqueduct dating back to the 1700s and a bunch of very nice colonial buildings and pleasantly lush squares. The city is made all the more colourful by the countless women selling traditional Mexican rag dolls, a trademark Mexican souvenir that originated in the state of Querétaro.
The dolls – called muñecas de trapo or simply Marías – became famous in the 1970s when Guadalupe Rivera, daughter of Diego Rivera, started a social program to improve the lives of the native women by teaching them to make dolls so that they could stop selling candy in the streets. So, not only are these colourful dolls adorable, they’re a reminder that we can all help improve the lives of those around us with simple but significant actions.
We could have just stopped here and head back to Mexico City, happy to have seen so many beautiful towns all over the country. But there was one more town on the list. One that we didn’t want to skip, although our delightful Airbnb in Querérato made it slightly difficult to make the decision: beautiful Guanajuato.
Guanajuato day trip
Shall we still mention the UNESCO World Heritage thing? Well, in any case, this is a city well worthy of the honour.
Guanajuato resembles Querétaro in its grandeur and architectural style, but it surpasses it in charm. There’s a reason why many tourists and locals alike, consider the city to be one of the most (if not the most) beautiful in Mexico.
We had a lovely day, walking along the narrow, hilly streets of Guanajuato, which are packed with gorgeous landmarks left and right. As it was the case through almost our entire time in Mexico, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, food was amazing (god bless those market stalls selling tacos de carnitas), and the sound of traditional music followed us everywhere! I know it sounds a little too embellished, but it is what it is.
This is one city where we could have stayed longer. One day was not really enough to enjoy it as it deserves, but now we know where to go next time we come to Mexico. We’re sure we’ll be back.
Mexico City, again: a farewell ode to our beloved Mexico
And so, after an incredible 10 weeks in Mexico, it was time to say goodbye. Not an easy thing. We’ve really come to love Mexico dearly. During our last days in Mexico City, we did a little bit of everything to complete our to-do list and repeat our favourites.
For something cultural, we visited the Anthropology museum one more time (two times are still not enough; it’s such an impressive museum!).
For a last gastronomic delight, we returned to our favourite Cochinita Power and tried the wonderful Molino El Pujol, a down-to-earth, all-about-the-corn mini restaurant by the acclaimed Mexican chef Enrique Olvera.
For some Mexican fiesta, we met my friend Nadia and her husband Lázaro, in the renowned mariachi centre Plaza Garibaldi. For something spiritual, we visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mission accomplished!
Mexico, we’ll be back!
There’s no way to put into words our feelings for Mexico after the wonderful time that we spent there. The kindness of its people, the richness of its traditions and indigenous legacy, the exquisite flavours of its cuisine, the colours of its soul, they’re all captivating.
We can only hope that this won’t be the last time that we’ll be in this beautiful land. That we’ll be back to keep learning about it and exploring its endless beauty. Maybe next time for a little longer?
Until then, we can only keep in our hearts the beautiful memories of what we’ve been lucky enough to experience here. And, in case we become “homesick” for Mexico, we can always watch Pixar’s Coco to overcome the nostalgia. After all, the director himself has called the movie a love letter to Mexico and that’s exactly how we read it.