Xochimilco, Mexico City – June 19, 2018

Xochimilco is one of the 16 boroughs (alcadias) of Mexico City situated in the southeast part of the city. It is known for its canals which are remnants of the lake and waterways that connected most of the settlements in pre-Hispanic Mexico. Colorful flat-bottomed boats called trajineras ply the canals at the present time – and are popular for tourists and residents alike – to navigate the canals and artificial islands called chinampas – and eat, drink and be merry while doing so.



It’s not as exciting as other river boat rides in many cities around the world – there is not much to see along the canals BUT it is an experience to ride the trajinera – as it is not motorized, driven completely by humans using wooden poles that they thrust into the river bed to propel the boat forward. Because there are a lot of these boats traveling through the canals, it is interesting to see how they maneuver the boat without bumping into each other. There were also other boats hawking touristy souvenirs, food, and drinks and some boats that carry mariachi bands for entertainment.

According to literature, the boats float along “lined with gardens and curtains of trees” and there are gardens of flowers, vegetables and ornamental plants on the chinampas, but I saw a little of those. The area along the canals are so developed now. However what I really like are the folk art on the boats themselves and the fact the whole enterprise feels like it stemmed from backyard tourism that just took off. While the boats are of similar construction, each boat has its own unique decoration and each is named as a female!

We had lunch while we were on the “cruise,” the delicious lunch were delivered to the boat while it was moving, then while we were having lunch, a mariachi band boarded our boat to entertain us while we were eating and drinking. It got to be rowdy later on – millenials among our tour group – from South and Central America, the US and Canada – opened up singing and dancing after they had some alcohol. They had a great time! Friendships were made, FB accounts were exchanged, and promises to hook up later were overheard.

I was going to watch a mariachi band later on the night in Garibaldi Plaza, but I had my fill here so I decided to chuck that activty out.

As usual, I had the mole for lunch. I can’t get enough of mole!


Mole

Because of the canal and Chinampa system, the area has been designated as a World Heritage Site.



Mexico City from Above

Mexico City (or Ciudad de Mexico or CDMX) is the capital of Mexico and the most populous city in North America. The city itself has a population close to about 9 million while the metro area is home to about 21 million people. It is an ancient city founded by people called Mexica – dating back to the 1300 and was built on an island in the center of a lake in the valley of Mexico. It also became the capital of later Aztec civilization, after which also it became the capital of New Spain when the Spanish conquered the country.



To have an idea of the vastness of Mexico City, on the last day of my vacation in Mexico City (June 19), I went up the Torre Latinoamericana, an architecturally significant building, not only in Mexico but in the world, because it is the first major skyscraper built on highly seismic land and has survived several major earthquakes. It was the tallest building in Mexico until 1984.


Torre Latinoamericana, one of the tallest (and safest) buildings in Mexico City with 44 floors and an observation deck (Mirador) on its top floor.

Here are some views of the city from the observation deck. On this particular day, you can actually see the towering white peaks of the legendary Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl volcanoes.



Best. Day. Ever. No. 2 Part 2: Teotihuacan, the iPhone chronicles

My second full day in Mexico City, June 16, 2018 was spent touring the two holiest places in the country: The Basilica and Shrine of the Lady of Guadalupe and the Teotihuacan ruins. Here are some photos of the Teotihuacan part of the day from my iPhone. I uploaded these photos while I was on the train from Seattle to San Jose (CA) in the second part of my vacation.



Teotihuacan is an ancient mesoAmerican civilization predating the Aztecs. Their city center is in a valley about 40 km northeast of Mexico City. Teotihuacan is known today as the site of the most significant pyramids built in pre-Columbian Americans. There are two of them: the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun, the latter being the larger of the two. Both are open to the public for climbing although you can only reach up to the first level of the Pyramid of the Moon. You also get the best view from the Pyramid of the Moon because it faces the long avenue called Avenue of the Dead.

While there are hundreds, if not thousands of tourists visiting the site everyday, the site doesn’t feel touristy at all (although there are trappings of modern day tourism). Here are some photos of the ruins that I took with my iPhone. Photos from my Sony A7 will be posted later.



Best. Day. Ever. No. 2 Part 1

Inside the Guadalupe Shrine square; in the background are two of the several chapels in the shrine
Avenue of the Dead and Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan Ruins

My second full day in Mexico City, June 16, 2018, was also spent walking, again with Urban Adventures, this time with their House of God: Shrine of Guadalupe and the Pyramids of Mexico City tour. I was incredibly fortunate to schedule this tour on this particular Saturday: I was the only one in the tour, it became my own personal private tour of two of the holiest sites in Mexico.

With Al Gomez, my Urban Adventure guide

My guide was Alfonso Gomez, another incredibly passionate and knowledgeable individual that Urban Adventure is known for so far as guides are concerned. We bonded right away because of our similar ages. As soon as he saw me in the lobby of my hotel, he said, you’re 61? I’m 63! As it turns out, he is a retired engineer enjoying his retirement as a freelance tour guide with Urban Adventures. He was very organized (he’s an engineer!) carrying with him some visuals, basically a book that he organized himself, and sometimes offered an alternative history (basically a native’s point of view) of the places we visited.



Our itinerary went this way: from the hotel, we walked to the subway to catch the train to the Basilica of Our Lady Guadalupe (Basilica Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe) and national shrine in the northern part of Mexico City. The shrine is a complex of several churches and chapels and other buildings and is basically considered a holy site in Mexico because this is where, it is said, that the Virgin Mary appeared several times to a native peasant named Diego.

The original image of the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe displayed inside her Basilica. This image is repeated all over Mexico (as well as Chicago).

The Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world and the world’s third most-visited sacred site. The venerated image was granted a Canonical Coronation back in the late 1800. The complex is located on a hill called Tepeyac Hill, already a holy site to the natives on which a temple of the mother goddess Tonantzin. The Spanish then destroyed this native temple and built a chapel for the Lady of Guadalupe; the area became later on, a complex with several chapels, gardens and sculptures.

Bas relief representing Diego, the Indian peasant who witnessed the apparition of the Virgin Mary

The story goes that the Virgin Mary appeared to Diego 4 times before the priests believed him. It is a long convoluted story that involves Diego’s sick uncle who also saw the Virgin and recovered, rose blooms that didn’t grow on the hill, appearance of the Virgin’s image on Diego’s cloak, the erection of a private chapel where the cloak was first kept, the erection of a larger chapel on Tepeyec hill, and the first miracle in the area of the chapel happening when a mortally wounded Indian carried before the Virgin’s image made a full and immediate recovery.

On the subway to the bus station to Teotihuacan. Mexico City’s subway is extensive and efficient.
Bus station to Teotihuacan
Favelas (slums) as seen from the bus on the way to Teotihuacan

Then, we took another subway to a bus station to take a bus to a town called San Juan Teotihuacan about 40 km (25 mi) northeast of Mexico City. The municipality is where the ancient Mesoamerican pre-Columbian city of Teotihuacan, famous for some of the colossal pyramids pre-Hispanic Mexico is known for. This is another philosophy of Urban Adventures that I like: tours embrace the philosophy of “do what locals do,” so, as much as possible, their tours include riding public transportation, to experience part of locals’ everyday lives.

Mexican countryside

After a short lunch (tamales) in the bus station and a pleasant 1 – 1 1/2 hour ride through the suburbs of Mexico City and the country-side, I experienced the most anticipated highlight of the trip: the breath-taking ancient ruins of one of the glorious civilizations of the Americas – the ruins of ancient Teotihuacan, the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas and the 6th largest city in the world during its period.

Breathtaking view of the Pyramid of the Moon, first sight from the entrance.

The civilization existed from about 250 BC and may have lasted until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries AD, pre dating the Aztecs (of Templo Mayor visited in day 1 of my trip). The site covers a total surface area of 83 square kilometres (32 sq mi) and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Avenue of the Dead and Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan Ruins

From the ruins, we then walked to the town (San Juan Teotihuacan) to drop by a private residence that had a small obsidian carving business.

Obsidian Small Business

There I was treated to three different alcoholic drinks – pulque, mezcal and tequila. Arriba, abajo, adentro! Pulque tastes like the Philippine tuba – and has similar process of extraction and fermentation, but from the maguey plant (I learned that they do have tuba in Mexico, made from palm tree sap!). I also learned that the maguey plant is treated like the tree of life – as all if not most of its parts are used for something.

Maguey plant fiber

After here, we then took a local taxi service to another private residence to finish off the day – a humble family style dinner of chicken cooked traditionally – wrapped in foil together with cactus and the skin of maguey plant that adds a great flavor.

Chicken with cactus and maguey cooked in its own juices

Altogether, I walked about 6.1 miles, 16,956 steps and climbed 32 floors on this walk.



Here are pictures of part 1 of the trip: The Basilica of Guadalupe and national shrine.

Best. Day. Ever. No. 1 Part 2

I had to divide Day 1 into two parts because of the number of pictures I wanted to post. This post is part 2 of my first full day of touring Mexico City.

Part I – Templo Mayor, Metropolitan Cathedral, the zocalo
Part II – Beyond the zocalo, Bellas Artes, Chinatown, Mercado de San Juan, Alameda Central and Diego Rivera Museum

My first full day in Mexico City was a tour called “Hidden Mexico City” with Urban Adventures that specializes in small-group tour in many cities around the world. It is a division of an Australian company called Intrepid Travels that is known to deliver sustainable, experience-rich travel. Urban Adventures “are for those who want to get away from the tourist crowds and really connect with a city, with a local by their side. The experience can be as short as a couple of hours, or as long as a whole day, but in every case our Urban Adventures tours take travellers to interesting places to experience local culture and see what makes a place unique. Join us for the Best. Day. Ever.”



Here’s my review for the Hidden Mexican City Tour:


Eve

Our guide was Evaluz Espejel (Eve), a vivacious young-at-heart who was not only very knowledgeable about the places we visited, but also very passionate about Mexico, Mexico City and travel as a whole. She offered personal insights that may or may not be part of the “script” which made the tour less clinical, less observational and somewhat more participatory given the time constraint. She even sometimes, I felt, included her own little “side trips” (like stopping at a corner of the city, pointing out small detail of architecture or explaining some events currently happening on the street). Our group was small (3 including me), so the tour was quite personal and intimate. I didn’t feel hurried at all, especially that I photograph almost anything that interests me. There was enough time to absorb and understand the “sensory assault” (how else could I call it?) that is Mexico City – visual, auditory, smell, taste, touch, even movement, guided expertly by Eve. Consider this: the tour went through exploring ancient history in Templo Mayor, and the Spanish occupation in the zocalo and Metropolitan Cathedral with a pause for refreshments in a charming outdoor food stand, through strolling on the pedestrian only shopping streets full of people, to walking through a restaurant housed in an architecturally significant building, to viewing modern art in Bellas Artes, through to gawking at shops in Chinatown, to tasting various traditional and not so traditional food at the Mercado de San Juan, walking through the lovely French style Alameda Park, and ending in closely examining the famous “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park” mural at the Diego Rivera Museum. Yup, the tour was certainly stimulating all the senses. As an added health benefit: I walked close to 6 miles (just a little under 10 kilometers), 13,764 steps and climbed an equivalent to 9 floors during the tour. No wonder Eve looks so fit!!



Best. Day. Ever. No. 1. Part 1

Templo Mayor and its surroundings

Part 1: Around the Zocalo and adjacent areas – Templo Mayor, Zocalo, Metropolitan Cathedral, shopping at Cinco de Mayo Ave etc.

My first full day in Mexico City was a tour called “Hidden Mexico City” with Urban Adventures that specializes in small-group tour in many cities around the world. It is a division of an Australian company called Intrepid Travels that is known to deliver sustainable, experience-rich travel. Urban Adventures “are for those who want to get away from the tourist crowds and really connect with a city, with a local by their side. The experience can be as short as a couple of hours, or as long as a whole day, but in every case our Urban Adventures tours take travellers to interesting places to experience local culture and see what makes a place unique. Join us for the Best. Day. Ever.”



Here’s my review for the Hidden Mexican City Tour:


Eve

Our guide was Evaluz Espejel (Eve), a vivacious young-at-heart who was not only very knowledgeable about the places we visited, but also very passionate about Mexico, Mexico City and travel as a whole. She offered personal insights that may or may not be part of the “script” which made the tour less clinical, less observational and somewhat more participatory given the time constraint. She even sometimes, I felt, included her own little “side trips” (like stopping at a corner of the city, pointing out small detail of architecture or explaining some events currently happening on the street). Our group was small (3 including me), so the tour was quite personal and intimate. I didn’t feel hurried at all, especially that I photograph almost anything that interests me. There was enough time to absorb and understand the “sensory assault” (how else could I call it?) that is Mexico City – visual, auditory, smell, taste, touch, even movement, guided expertly by Eve. Consider this: the tour went through exploring ancient history in Templo Mayor, and the Spanish occupation in the zocalo and Metropolitan Cathedral with a pause for refreshments in a charming outdoor food stand, through strolling on the pedestrian only shopping streets full of people, to walking through a restaurant housed in an architecturally significant building, to viewing modern art in Bellas Artes, through to gawking at shops in Chinatown, to tasting various traditional and not so traditional food at the Mercado de San Juan, walking through the lovely French style Alameda Park, and ending in closely examining the famous “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park” mural at the Diego Rivera Museum. Yup, the tour was certainly stimulating all the senses. As an added health benefit: I walked close to 6 miles (just a little under 10 kilometers), 13,764 steps and climbed an equivalent to 9 floors during the tour. No wonder Eve looks so fit!!



Photos from Templo Mayor including inside the museum, Metropolitan Church, the Zocalo and Avenida Cinco de Mayo and surrounding streets.

Five days in CDMX – First Glance

Metropolitan Cathedral

It has been too long since I have been abroad. So this year, I promised to myself that I would go out of the country, fly somewhere, have a visa stamped onto my passport for a trip that would not cost me an arm and a leg. I considered several choices – Ireland, Costa Rica, Belize, Mexico, even India but upon reading on these destinations, Mexico won out. Not the beaches which I have been to (you really don’t want to go these beaches with their exclusive all inclusive resorts unless you want to see loud tourists who could be your neighbor down the street, why would you go out of the country to do just that? or Canadians not in their best behavior, haha) but the sprawling densely populated Mexico City. Many people asked me why, Mexico City is not safe (and all that crap, I really think that is just racist talk, because most of the people who told me that – have never been there because they are afraid of the difference and they really believe what Trump says about Mexicans).



So Mexico City it is, (now officially termed as CDMX or Ciudad de Mexico) – not just for the price (my 7 nights stay – una habitacion in a 3 star-hotel, air fare, everyday tours, food, souvenirs, tips etc. cost me less than a thousand dollars), but for history, especially shared history with the Philippines. In my bucket list especially, is the archaelogical dig that they have right there in the city called Templo Mayor, an Aztec city that was destroyed and built over by the Spanish. I was interested on it ever since I read about the time electric company workers dug up a huge stone disc dating to the 15th century depicting an Aztec moon goddess, right there in the middle of the city, next to posh residences and the city cathedral that was built by the Spanish over the majestic Aztec temples that were there before. And this was only recently – 1978!

And also I thought I could practice my Spanish, which, it turned out, was so differently spoken over there that I just turned my brain off and just said, no comprendo, hablas Inggles? instead. (I had more positive experience in Spain when talking in Spanish.)


Lobby of Hotel Metropol

I stayed at the Hotel Metropol in the central historical district, two blocks away from Alameda Central, a beautiful, nearly 500 year old sprawling classic French-style garden. Anything that was important for first time visitors to see are within walking distance.


One sight along one street on my way to the hotel from the airport


My first thought riding on the taxi service from the airport was that, wow, the streets and the architecture were like Manila (except that the streets here are a little bit cleaner, they have their own version of the old Metro-Aides – street sweepers – with similar colored uniforms and also carrying what looks like walis tingting – coconut midrib brooms)! The city seemed to have white washed (or in this case, colorfully washed) unsightly buildings with intense colors – like bright pink and purple and green and reds (just like what Imelda used to do in Manila but hers was white). Mexico City has recently been named as 2018’s World Design Capital by the World Design Organization, the first city in the Americas to be named as so and this is painted on bright pink-washed walls all over the city.

And the graffiti and murals – they were incredible!


Airport greeter

But before that, I was impressed by my taxi service, Amigo Tours – it actually had a representative waiting for me at the airport arrival hall, with my name written on an erase board! – and I had my own sparkling car – whose driver was an expert in maneuvering around the traffic.

About Hotel Metropol (my expedia.com review):
“I was pleasantly surprised – I had a very good experience. The room was spacious and spotless. The WiFi was strong. I stayed for 6 nights during the rainy season, so I didn’t need AC – just opened the window. (It was actually cold one day – I am from Chicago.) Hotel is close to everything – just off Benito Juarez, a main street in the historic district, so once you’re off the main grid, streets are not as well maintained. Across is a shuttered beautiful art deco theater (what a pity). Noise level could be loud – as it is in the central district, people are always around 24 hours – including a group of twenty somethings hanging out in the front of the hotel till the wee hours. There is an itinerant food vendor who announces his offerings (tamales) with a loudspeaker every evening – could be annoying, could be charming. The hotel’s restaurant is a good intro to Mexican food – but nothing to write home about – although the breakfast buffet is incredible with lots of choices including fruit and bakery items that could be familiar … or not :-). The wait staff are personable – both morning and evening shifts (but not the front desk staff – strange – a bit stand-offish, though some of them may actually greet you. They should realize, they’re in the hospitality industry!). Would I stay here again? Yup. Certainly. Last: be careful about the potable water faucet in the room – pressure is strong! (Oh, and the towels are flimsy, but it’s a 3 star, not a 5-star luxury.)”

I had booked for a walking tour around the central district during my first full day in the city, to serve as an easy introduction to the city with a small group tour called Urban Adventures. We were to meet our guide at the front of the youth hostel just off the zocalo and a good 15 minute walk from my hotel.

The walk gave me a good first glance of the city. It was a gloomy cloudy day in Mexico. Lighting was not that good. I thought to myself, this walk, along the magnificently maintained Benito Juarez Ave. early in the morning, could spell whether I will like the city or not. I did. Have a look!