The united colours of Mexico
Hold on to your sombreros, folks, ‘cos this is going to be a long post. I’ve got some catching up to do and city-by-city just won’t cut it.
Mexico was a real upside-down experience. A whirlwind three-week trip and so much to learn and discover.
First, even though we’ve been in the Spanish-speaking world for a couple of months already, everywhere else has been very much se habla inglés. Which made me a bit lazy and so my español did not advance as much as it could have. (Though I still confounded waitstaff by speaking Spanish-ish even while they asked questions in English.) Mexico, on the other lengua, was very much a Spanish-speaking place. (The most populous, I believe.)
Second, Mexican food — the main reason we came here — was not really what I expected it to be. Maybe a little too timid, but the food tour took us to places we might not otherwise have visited and it still didn’t match my mental image of cocinando mexicano.
Mexico City: Chilango Unchained
Mexico City, aka D.F. (Distrito Federal), aka CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico). I love the pride I saw in CDMX, starting with that branding. I don’t know if it’s new or not, but what I’d expected from Mexico City was a smoggy mess and what I saw was clean and cared for.
We stayed in a few different neighbourhoods. Lots of nice places to eat and drink, lots of green space, and mostly very walkable. Calle Amsterdam was one of my favourite places, with a green strip between the two lanes and a big park in the middle of the circuit.
As part of our literature-based research for Mexico I read (and Lucy re-read) The Lacuna by Barbara Kinsolver, which was partly set in Mexico City round Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. It was pretty exciting to visit places mentioned in the book and get a better understanding. As an example, the buildings are built right up to the street but have a large central courtyard — I guess that’s the Spanish influence. So very different to our houses in Australia which are mostly about the backyard, and where possible set back from the street as well.
Apparently two of the three largest pyramids in the world are in Mexico. (Not sure if that’s by height, mass or footprint. Still, unexpected.) Spectacular! (Also hot and full of tourists, said the hot tourist. And so hard to pronounce!) This is a huge complex and apparently was just for ceremonial and bureaucratic use. The town was a mile or so away. Isn’t this a way cooler legacy to leave on the landscape than whatever mess we are going to leave behind?
Didn’t get many photos in Puebla — above is some of the stunning landscape from the bus ride from CDMX — but what I did get is cartoon violence!
I have so much respect for lucha libre, which is Mexico’s big wrestling entertainment best known for colourful face masks.
The wrestlers are divided into two groups — basically the good guys and the bad guys. The bad guys cheat, the good guys don’t. And the crowd is also split into supporters for the two groups, and the wrestlers encourage the crowd to chant at each other. It’s all a big theatrical experience as well as being very athletic.
Theatresports creator Keith Johnstone wrote about getting ‘heat’ from the improv audience, getting them booing and jeering as well as cheering, and he borrowed ideas from wrestling. Lucha was a great demonstration of that heat. Even the referee was in on it, making unfair calls which got the crowd shouting. I read up on it before we went to the match and they even have challenges where the loser has to retire their mask or cut off their hair. Because of the in-built rivalries they don’t need to rely on “championships” and other structures to create an engaging event. Very clever.
The best part: the good guys didn’t always win.
Pretty as a picture.
The pronunciations gave me a slight speech impediment, and our itinerary became “Mexico City, Pwaybwa, Wahaca, dat wascawy wabbit…”
We were in Oaxaca during a big celebration of indigenous culture. I’m not sure if that was the reason there was a big party every night, or they just dig music and dancing. The music (Latin Jazz?) was incredible, with different bands standing about 20 metres apart and playing at full volume, with groups dancing around them.
There was a lot more to Oaxaca than this church, but this is where we kept coming back to.
The food tour we were on included an overnight bus ride down to the Pacific coast. We skipped that to stay in Oaxaca a little longer, because we loved Oaxaca and we hated the idea of another overnight bus trip. Then we skipped straight to the Yucutan Peninsula to the latest tourist hotspot: Isla Holbox (pronounced ‘olbosh’).
A lot of research led us to Holbox. Lucy very very much wanted to swim with whalesharks (which are actually fish), and the area around Cancun is a good place to do it. But the boat ride from there to the swimming area is aggressively unpleasant, according to reviews which cited between 50-100% passenger-vomit ratios. Holbox was supposed to be a much more pleasant way to do it.
A couple of weeks before we arrived Holbox experienced a massive collapse of infrastructure: water, power, and sanitation all failed, and the island closed to visitors for a few days. We were pretty anxious about it, and started making backup plans. Fingers crossed…
(One thing I’ve learned from this trip: if it only costs a little more, book flexible tickets. And know the cancellation/refund options and timelines. We’ve made a few last-minute changes that have blown the budget. Worth it, but still painful.)
Even though the power went out a few times, and even though it was ridiculously hot and humid and our room wasn’t ready for check-in yet and we were wearing long clothing, and even though the whaleshark tour was pretty much a bad experience all-round, and even though we got covered in mozzies and tiny bugs while failing to see flamingos, we had a fantastic time.
Holbox is gorgeous. It’s paradise. The beaches are crystal clear and the scenery is incredible and we had some fantastic food and cocktails and had a few days of just relaxing. It’s the most relaxed we felt in ages (we are bad at holiday).
It’s changing, and developing faster than the infrastructure can handle, and we probably wouldn’t go back. But for a few nights Holbox was just about perfect for us.
Mexico is colourful. I knew that as a cultural touchstone — the pastel colours of a Mexican restaurant, for example — but seeing it in person made me understand it. The houses are colourful, the cars are colourful, and I got to see those colours in nature: the pink and green of prickly pear fruits (called tunas), the yellow of the corn, the blue of the sky.
Noticing these colours led me to notice something else: Volkswagens that were the same colours as their surroundings. Which led to a bit of a game: spot and photograph VWs and buildings of the same colour.
Two cooking classes, countless markets, lots of cocktails.
The hot chocolates in Mexico were great. Chocolate is generally just ground cacao mixed with granulated sugar, so it has quite a grainy texture. The hot chocolate is just that chocolate dissolved in hot milk or hot water. It’s not too sweet, and has a very rich and simple chocolate taste. Sometimes served in a clay bowl which is just super decadent and would be great in winter.
When the cocktails were good they were very very good. I had one made with smoked rosemary, which was rosemary hit with one of those kitchen flame torches, then shaken in with the liquid, then another flamed rosemary stick as garnish. The smokey taste and aroma was just overwhelmingly good. Gotta get me one of those torches now.
Probably the best dish we had in Mexico was a lamb taco on Holbox, and it was a complete surprise. Up until then the food in Mexico hadn’t overwhelmed me with rich, fresh flavours. Mostly moles and salsas that had been cooked for a while. But the lamb taco was a rich, slow cooked but still crispy and juicy meat with lots of fresh lime juice and depth of flavour from hommous. Just fantastic. That was the type of bright, rich, fresh flavour I had been expecting from Mexico and it came right at the end.
Assorted cool things seen on the street.
Meet ‘n’ Greets
I spent about 5 minutes chatting with this lady in the markets and I understood the gist of what she said (avoid sugar, eat real food). Success!
More interesting things. I’m good at this blogging thing. Definitely not cutting corners here.
I’m very proud of this one. I understood a Spanish-language pun!
In Spanish, pharmacy is “farmacia”. Plus is said mas, the word for “more”. So the name of this shop is “far” “mas” “cia” — “farmacia” (with a little subconscious trigger that you will get “more”).