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Mexico City – El DF, Teotihuacan and an intro to mezcal…

Templo Mayor ruins and the Spanish Cathedral behind

Mexico City (also known as Distrito Federal, or el DF) is one place where I genuinely didn’t know what to expect before I arrived.  It has had plenty of bad press in the past but I know people who’ve lived here for some time, and one thing Mexico has taught me so far is to take what you read in the papers with a big pinch of salt! The one thing I was sure about was that it was BIG. On the bus in on a Sunday lunchtime I confidently declared to Rich that we were only a few km out, so would be there in no time. This time his raised eyebrows were correct. The suburbs and stop-start traffic rolled on for miles and miles, but we eventually arrived at the North bus terminal, and got off, where much to my amusement Rich was repeatedly elbowed out the way by several elderly Mexican ladies half his size when trying to retrieve our bags. After the scrum we climbed into a cab and started towards the centre. Being a Sunday afternoon on a bank holiday weekend the streets on the way in were quiet, with lots of shuttered shops; it felt like driving though the suburbs in the early hours. We wondered where everyone was. On arriving at the hostal by the main square in the centre, the Zócalo, we found out.

As usual, if you’d prefer the pictures to the words, click here.

Ollie and some Mexican legends

Ollie and some Mexican legends

We stepped out into the throng and walked around for a while as Rich’s blood pressure slowly rose. Respite was found at a hole in the wall selling some of the best tacos so far (beef and chorizo in one – why has no-one done this before….) then into the bar next door for an overpriced warm beer. Rich looked ready to declare that Mexico City was rubbish, till we found Al Andar mezcal bar on Av. Regina. 10 minutes later he declared that the city wasn’t half bad and mezcal was his new favourite drink.

Muchos mezcales

Muchos mezcales

Not cheap but lovely and smooth, with orange slices and spicy nuts/beans/roast garlic on the side. A whole night’s accommodation budget later we went back to the hostel for a rather early night!

Looking out from the Moon  towards the Sun

Looking out from the Moon towards the Sun

The next day we were up with the birds (and only a hint of a mezcal headache) and tackling the DF metro system for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to navigate and the price – 3 pesos (about 15p) per journey. Also, all the stations have symbols as well as names which is surprisingly handy! We headed out on the bus (after Rich was frisked 3 times, which he was delighted about) to Teohuaticán, a huge site of pre-Aztec civilization ruins, about 20km north-east of DF. The site is anchored around a 2km wide pathway called the Calzada de los Muertos that runs north-south through the site. Towards the top end on the east side is the Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) – one of the most impressive structures I’ve ever seen. The third largest pyramid in the world and you can still climb up the steep and uneven steps to the top and get a fantastic view of the whole site, including the second temple Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon) that lies at the top of the pathway.

Before the climb up...

Before the climb up…

The view from the top of this second one is just as spectacular, possibly more so as it allows you to grasp the sheer size of its counterpart. The whole thing is even more awe-inspiring when you realize it was built without metal tools, pack animals or even the wheel. The site also contains many other smaller structures, including some remnants of murals of jaguars, pumas and birds (owls and quetzals) in faded colours that must once have been rich reds and bottle greens.

With only a touch of heatstroke and shaky legs from climbing hundreds upon hundreds of steps we caught the bus back into the city, then back into the bowls of the metro to visit the city’s leafier (i.e. richer/whiter) districts – Roma and Condesa. Things were very quiet due to it being a bank holiday Monday, but we found a suitably hippyish café where I could satisfy my craving for salad after weeks of tortillas/meat/cheese/sugary snacks. I must be getting old when I start dreaming of courgettes…

The next day was our big tour of just a few of the city’s historical and cultural highlights. You could spend a couple of weeks in Mexico City and still be lapping up culture, there’s just an incredible amount on offer.

Part of the Diego Rivera mural - Palacio Nacional. Can you spot Frida Kahlo?

Part of the Diego Rivera mural – Palacio Nacional. Can you spot Frida Kahlo?

We cherry-picked a few, namely the Cathedral on the Zócalo and the Palacio Nacional, where the President’s office lies, and which houses a huge and wonderful mural on the main staircase by Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico – no mean feat. We followed this with the Templo Mayor, the remains of the centre of Tenochtitlan (the great Aztec city and which they believed to be the centre of the Universe). I marveled at not just the technical and engineering prowess of the Aztecs but also at the sheer audacity of the Spanish in casually razing the lot and putting a Cathedral over the top of it.

Panificadora La Vasconia - amazing cakes and iced ceiling tiles

Panificadora La Vasconia – amazing cakes and iced ceiling tiles

Before our next meaty chunk of culture we stopped at a bakery for coffee and a sweet treat (in fact Rich’s third cream horn in his time in this country – he’s quite the connoisseur now…)

The place was nothing short of a palace of cake (they’d even iced some of the ceiling tiles) and also picked up some damn fine cheese/ham/jalapeno pasties for lunch.

Ollie's favourite jaguar sculpture

Ollie’s favourite jaguar sculpture

Next stop was a gawp at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (just the exterior) before heading down to the Bosque de Chapultepec to visit the Museo Nacional de Antropología. The place documents all the peoples of what now make up Mexico throughout history. We started with the Maya, and continued on through the people of the Gulf Coast, Oaxaca and the North. The sheer volume and quality of the exhibits is astounding, as is the information (often also in English) that accompanies it. I was particularly struck by the beauty of so many of the objects found and the breadth of variety of cultures that came before the Spanish. It leaves you with a real sense of poignancy that such a rich history was so systematically and seemingly callously destroyed and dismantled in so few years by the Spanish. They don’t come off well.

By that point our brains were at saturation point and the rain had begun to fall so we sought shelter in a pool bar in Condesa called Malafama where I was delighted to find some red wine after weeks of beer and less delighted to be trounced at pool by Rich… We had planned to move on to a few other places in the area but the rain gods had other ideas – a spectacular lightning storm and torrential rain fell for a couple of hours while we watched from a sheltered spot with a drink in hand. Once it finally let up a little we hopped through the puddles to find a mezcal bar called La Clandestina that had been recommended to us. On arrival we found that it was full of English people, including the chaps that had told us about it a couple of nights previously. A couple of rounds later and after some chat with some expats things got a little blurred around the edges and we headed for home.

Rich standing over the ancients

Rich standing over the ancients

Mexico City is a shock to the system after beaches and sleepy mountain villages but comes recommended – you’ll blow your budget and you’ll expand your mind as well as destroy a few brain cells (if you take a liking to mezcal, that is…)

So on to Oaxaca, which the glutton in me is very much looking forward to as it’s known for being a real culinary hotspot. Before that, here are a few general things about Mexico that have struck me so far:

  • The food – Rich say he doesn’t like to write about food too much, but I do! Mexican food has really exceeded my expectations, and the variety available, particularly between regions, is fantastic. This may warrant a blog post all of its own…!
  • Social levels – it’s striking that everyone in advertising and almost everyone on television looks very European. The smart areas of DF reflected that as well. It seems that the mestizo majority, followed by indigenous groups are more invisible in the media and in how the wealth is spread. Many bars/restaurants have signs up stating that they do not discriminate in any way but it seems that perhaps this does occur more generally or subtly.
  • And on a lighter note…. VW Beetles! – Apparently Mexico was the last country to continue producing the old-style Beetles, well into the 1990s in fact. As a result, the country is full of them, often in fantastic condition and pimped up. These have been an unexpected but great visual highlight in the streets!

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Uruapan – Riding horses up Volcán Paricutín, the ruins of Tingambato and the Parque Nacional de Cupatitzio

Ollie and the sneaky Nigel  #hoptgf“But we’ve never ridden horses before.  How are we meant to ride them up a volcano?”  This was a good question from Ollie when we were thinking about taking a trip to Angahuan to visit Volcán Paricutín.  That is a problem for future Rich and Ollie I said, so we decided to take a bus to Uruapan, Michoacan.  There was a heavy US State Department warning about all non-essential travel to this particular state due to the mayor having only recently been assassinated, but we thought that us being neither a government official or Americano, it mattered not.

All the pics, without the rabbit, click this

Our balcony view of the plaza

Our balcony view of the plaza

The bus to Uruapan was 4 hours from Guadalajara, driving through the Central Western Highlands of Mexico.  I know I keep saying this about Mexico, but this landscape was absolutely incredible.  The seemingly never ending green hills frame the landscape as we zipped up and down towards Uruapan, driving through some remote Purepechan towns on the way.  Arriving in Uruapan, a quick taxi ride takes us to the Central Plaza, where Ollie sniffs out the cheapest accommodation on the block at Hotel Colonial for M$200 a night overlooking the main plaza, while I sit in the plaza with the packs, watching the locals watching me.  The hotel being rough around the edges we decide to have a couple of drinks before an early night.

Volcán Paricutín appeared in 1943 out of nowhere and rose to 410m within a year.  This area of the highlands is populated by the Purepechan people and they all managed to escape with their lives, but the lava flow decimated two towns. The volcano then continued to grow until 1952, where its black cone still looms over the landscape at 2800m, still smoking in places, with two smaller ones next to it.   There are visible ruins of the church form one of the villages, sticking out of a lava flow still which we also intended to visit on our trip.

Ollie and Benito set off

Ollie and Benito set off

We took a bus to Angahuan, 1 hour out of Uruapan, and before we knew it we were greeted by some locals who had us on horses on moseying on towards the summit, after agreeing the price of M$900 for both of us for the day including a local guide, Benito. (It is impossible to be on a horse and not use words like ‘mosey’ or tip your hat in a way of greeting people.)  My horse, ‘El Capitan’, was a moody bastard but after some disagreements, we understood each other.  Ollie’s horse was smaller and I named him Nigel.  Mainly because he was sneaky, and continually wound El Capitan up.  The trip took us 2¾ hours through the pine forests of the highlands, with the

Approaching the Volcano

Approaching the Volcano

ground turning to black volcanic ash as we got closer.  The saddles were wood with a wafer thin strip of leather covering them, making the ride torturous at times.  When it was time to get off, about 300m from the summit, our bodies hurt in most places, but we were soon attacking the back of the Volcano with Benito showing us the way.  Passing through various steam vents, where the rocks all around us were hot to the touch and the floor felt hollow, he soon had us scrambling up a treacherous rocky slope, ignoring the set path.


A strong beast  #hoptgf In amongst it  #hoptgf

Getting a feel for the steam

Getting a feel for the steam

Starting the ascent  #hoptgf

A long way to go  #hoptgf

The view from the top was stunning, like a scene of a Tolkien novel, but with fewer Orks and more beauty.  The ground below was a black cooled lava field, with steam seeping through, but this would then relent, giving way to fields of green before reaching another black mound.  There was so much steam and cloud, it was hard to tell which was which.  After admiring the view from the top, it was time to descend and we almost skied down it in shoes.  It was great fun.

Relieved to have made it to the top  #hoptgf Mordor    #hoptgf Aware that we are quite close to the edge  #hoptgf More lava field  #hoptgf The summit of Paricutin  #hoptgf Smaller volcano at the bottom  #hoptgf Lava field  #hoptgf Cross from a miracle working bishop who stopped the lava in 2010  #hoptgf So is she  #hoptgf

Templo san huan parangaricuto

Templo san huan parangaricuto

Back on the Captain and Nigel, we headed for the San Juan ruins of the Templo San Huan Parangaricuto.  After couple more hours, passing through the landscape of ash and pine, which soon turned into fields of avocado trees, the spire of the church was visible.  Benito took us on a tour over the black solidified lava to the church spire and through the doors, which were only just about visible.  The only other part of the church that survived was the altar.  The lava had come to a miraculous halt just in front of it, where it remains today, covered in decorations from the locals who still go there on holy days.  We both agreed that this is one of the strangest things we had ever seen.  After a quick quesadilla made with blue corn by a local Purepechan lady on top of an oil drum skillet and washed down with a  beer we were back in the saddle of pain and soon back to Benito’s village, where the local language is Purepechan.  We moseyed back into town, observing the local ladies in their colorful dresses and long platted hair carrying wood or babies, while children ran riot in the street. The air was filled with the smell of burning wood and the sounds of a woman’s voice in the native tongue announcing that she had rice for sale.  We said our farewells to Benito and hopped a mini-bus back into Uruapan for an early night.

Entering the church #hoptgf

the altar where the lava miraculously stops

the altar where the lava miraculously stops

Templo San Huan Parangaricuto,   from what was once the inside #hoptgf Inside #hoptgf Stone and lava #hoptgf about to fall on our guide #hoptgf Were once windows #hoptgf

The next day, we woke, unable to move.  Getting out of bed was almost impossible, but we headed to the Hotel Victoria, to have some coffee, eggs and a chance to exploit their free wi-fi. (The only place in town we have found where there is wi-fi, if you are planning on visiting and staying somewhere without…like us)

Moon pyramid of Tingambato ruins, #hoptgfAfter 5 cups of coffee and some damn fine eggs we got a bus to the town of Tingambato to see our first ruin. A beautiful little town set on what I would call the slope of a valley, with the ruins site at the bottom of the hill. The site is small and dates from around 450AD. But is well preserved and wonderfully kept.  We were the only people there so had freedom to wander around in peace.  Soon we decided to walk the mile back up hill through the town where we watched the locals all eye us with curiosity and a hint of suspicion (but never anything other than friendly)

A free Mexico #hoptgf

The plaza of Tingambato ruins #hoptgf Whatever you do, don't climb on the ruins #hoptgf

Deciding to give our aching bodies more punishment, we head back to Uruapan and for the Parque Nacional de Cupatitzio , which is only 1km from the main plaza.  Paying the M$25 gringo fee to enter, it’s like being in another world.  The river Cupatitzio thunders through in a series of waterfalls surrounded by tropical plants that cover the canopy above.  The locals get in free, and were out for a Saturday stroll taking photos in front of the many man-made water features.  If you were a kid, this place would be heaven.  It’s enormous and has endless areas to hide in.  You can get genuine peace and quiet here, despite the sheer amount of people walking around.  After losing a couple of hours wandering around, we decide to head back to back to our uncomfortable beds and rest our aching limbs in preparation for the journey to Mexico city

Parque Nacional de Cupatitzio #hoptgf One of many water features Nother waterfall shot, Parque Nacional de Cupatitzio #hoptgf The waterall shot, Parque Nacional de Cupatitzio #hoptgf

Rio Cupatitzio #hoptgf

Uruapan was a wildcard destination, and turned out to be spectacular.  It is certainly off the gringo trail of Mexico, but if you decide to go, you will be handsomely rewarded for the effort.

Calle Independencia, Uruapan

Calle Independencia, Uruapan

For all the pics, click here


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Guadalajara – Plaza’s, Lucha Libre wrestling and the ‘magical town of Tequila’

Plaza de  Armas #hoptgfGuadalajara.  Mexico’s second largest city.  A five hour bus ride from Sayulita and after Ollie purchases bus tickets from a chicken shop we’re off and before you know it, into the first heavily populated area we’ve been in for quite some time.  The bus takes us to an area called Zapopan, about 7k from the center, so after a cab ride through the busy streets we’re outside a huge church adorned with neon crosses on the spires in the Sunday evening market below.  In the center of the square is a monument to the Blue Agave, which I will come to later.  As we have only eaten some crisps in the past 12 hours, we search the street food offerings.  “I want one of those”, I shout at Ollie like an excited toddler in a Disney store.  Of course, I don’t know what they are, or have the ability to ask.  Ollie negotiates and soon we’re enjoying hot tamales (corn meal, chicken and sauce wrapped in a corn husk) and they’re pretty damn awesome, especially eaten on the steps of church in a packed square in the center of Guadalajara.  After we watch some older dapper gentlemen vie for the affections of glamorous dance partners-to-be in what I can only equate to an evening tea dance in another corner of the square, I get the feeling we’re going to enjoy our next few days here.

For the snaps without waffle, click here!

Guadalajara Cathedral

Guadalajara Cathedral

We stayed in Casa Vilasanta, a reasonably priced hostel about 10 mins south of the center off Juarez.  Walking through the Monday rush hour we get to Guadalajara cathedral and all of the surrounding plazas, of which there are four.  Fountains, modern art sculptures, catrinas and old buildings surround us as we wander past a food bank for the homeless.   I am humbled when a man carrying everything he owns holds his plate out to me to offer up a one of his small free breakfast burritos.  An incredible gesture which I am sure I will always remember.   After scoffing a Mexican version of a cream horn on the steps of a church in the Plaza De Los Mariachis we people watch for a while before strolling on back to the hostel.

Plaza Tapatia

Plaza Tapatia

A game of thrones #hoptgf

She can't resist a Catrina #hoptgf

Chapultepec is an area where the night life is so we headed there.  I lie, it was nothing to do with the nightlife.  I was following a recommendation about a place we could get a torta ahogada; a chili-soaked pork sandwich.  Finding the place closed we stumbled onto a craft beer bar called Grillo and proceeded to drink our dinner budget away.  If you are planning on visiting Guadalajara and want to go out, go west on Lopez Cotilla until you get to Ave Chapultepec.  Being unable to afford such a night out, we purchased a bottle of tequila and headed home for some cards and to continue Ollie’s tequila training for the big event.

I'm not quite sure, but I think it want's to eat me #hoptgf 100% Agave...100% class #hoptgf

Tortas Ahogadas, Tlaquepaque  #hoptgfThe next day, we headed to Tlaquepaque, which is to the SE of where we were staying and a 9k bus ride.  The area is pleasant enough, aimed at selling shit to tourists, but it has a calming feel to it, so a nice place for a stroll.  Also where I finally got to have a torta ahogada.  I’m not big on talking about food, but this is a great eat.  A big pork roll, cut in half and drenched all over in chili sauce.  By the time you’ve finished greedily scooping up chill sauce with the first half, the other has turned into a sponge and becomes almost impossible to eat without a spoon.  We then tried some pulque, which is the fermented, un-distilled liquid from an agave.  Giving it the big ones, I order it ‘natural’ while Ollie has it with pineapple.  I was searching my memory trying to match the taste, when I realized it tasted like pickled gherkins.  Ollie reminded me that I meant it tasted like vinegar.  I won’t be drinking it again.

To Puque, or not to Pulque...choose wisely!

To Puque, or not to Pulque…choose wisely!

Luche Libre Hermanos #hoptgfOn to Lucha Libre (Mexican Wrestling) at the Arena Coliseo and we were feeling understandably nervous, despite the effects of the pulque.  We were soon off the bus and into our seats five rows from ringside with 1L beers in our hands, listening to the crowd shout “bendejo”, “tu madre” and “puta” at each other…in a variety of combinations.  Soon, darkness, loud music, flashing lights and scantily clad women meant showtime.  Four fights.  The first three were all More time out of the ring than in #hoptgftag teams, with wrestlers moving dramatically around the ring, whilst throwing themselves at each other theatrically.  Some had masks and capes, others just leotards, but all were amusing.  The crowd was busy whipping itself into frenzy after moving into groups and seemed to be picking on other smaller groups or individuals at random.  This proved too much for the other 6 gringos sitting near us who left halfway through.    After the final fight we were out into the street where the crowd was still chanting at each other, now face-to-face.  What an experience it was.  We both enjoyed it a lot more than we thought.  If you don’t like wrestling, the scantily clad women will keep you entertained.

This little guy must have been 5ft #hoptgf Fuego...all mouth and no trousers...#hoptgf 6 guys to stretcher this one off #hoptgf useless ref #hoptgf

A field of Agave

A field of Agave

The next day was Tequila time.  Jalisco is the state in which the ‘Magical town of Tequila’ is (magical officially since 2004 apparently) and is the only place Tequila can be officially called Tequila.  Like champagne basically.  If it’s not made there it’s called Mezcal.  Tequila is made from Blue Agave, which is a cactus-like plant, and there are fields and fields of the stuff around Guadalajara.  The area around Tequila is stunning.  Rolling green hills make an impressive backdrop and add to the ‘magic’.

A real life (well dressed) Jimador

A real life (well dressed) Jimador

We booked a day trip of Tequila for M$300 each through ‘Tequila Tours’ and our first stop was an agave field where we met a real life Jimador (agave farmer) who showed us how sharp his tools were and explained his part in the process.  Tequila has 41 distilleries around it, all knocking out delicious bottles every day, but we headed to Jose Cuervo…the first…the daddy, to see how they knocked out 50,000 litres of the stuff each day.  You would be forgiven in thinking it was the town of Jose Cuervo really as they seem to dominate it.  Nevertheless after a free margarita or two we toured the distillery and learned a surprising amount.

Serving up our double double Familia reserve #hoptgf

Tequila will only be 38% abv legally on the shop floor.  The difference in price and quality range from how long it’s been aged or if it’s actually 100% pure agave.  That Cuervo Gold shit we all drink after a few pints is not pure, which is why it makes you feel so awful in the morning.  After a coupla’ freebies in the factory one of which was around 60% (a first pressing) we headed out into the bar area again where we were plied with more free margaritas.  We then decided to drink some of the ‘Cuervo Family Reserve’ and watched the barman extract it directly from the barrel.  He served us up two double doubles which we sipped for around 90 minutes like you would fine single malt scotch.

Ok, so it's not a raven, but just imagine it is...on the Agave pineapples

Ok, so it’s not a raven, but just imagine it is…on the Agave pineapples

Guadalajara is an old city with a young and aspirational population.  The universities there mean that the streets are filled with grungy teenagers all sipping beers or coffee in flat-peaked caps in the various bars and cafes. However you can find the old historic beauty all around including the Mariachis that just seem a part of life here.   It is a charming place and somewhere Ollie said she could live.  I certainly couldn’t because after a month I still don’t speak any bloody Spanish…

These took 90 mins to drink #hoptgf

For the full gallery, click here