Archive for September, 2009

A Rainy Month in Veracruz

September 30, 2009
One of the big Toltec heads from the Museo of Anthropologia
One of the big Toltec heads from the Museo of Anthropologia

Jalapa, or Xalapa, is considered the “Athens of Mexico” for its city orchestra (Sorry for us, not in September) the fab Anthropology museum (indeed it was) and the numerous and splendid parks (lush and well kept.) Also there are several art galleries (it is the luck of the draw what is being shown as to the quality.) I contend that Jalapa should be more correctly considered NOT the Athens of Mexico, but the Seattle of Mexico. Everyday was gray and overcast, it rained most every day we were there, of course it is the rainy season, and there are coffee shops everywhere in Centro. This makes sense since they grow coffee all over the countryside. Now the bad part. We were disappointed in the city.  I was talking to a young guy, not from Jalapa, and he said it best describing the city. The word is Dull. Many of the buildings could have used a can of paint, the streets are clean, but the traffic (I know, another rant about cars) is another problem altogether. On weekdays between 10 and 4 don’t even think about driving into the city. Think Guadalajara traffic times four. In defense, there are two major road works projects going on and, God love the Mexicans, driving courtesy is not contagious. Adding to the congestion are the abundant and deep pot holes that are by definition craters. The best way to get into the city is on a Sunday, in a cab. It costs, depending on where you start and end, around 30 pesos. Sunday, the Centro doesn’t get rolling until 11 a.m. The restaurants are nothing special with the usual menu of Mexican dishes. Surprisingly, unlike Mexico City, there are no taco stands anywhere. WARNING: Since Jalapa, as in jalapeño, the food is hotter than normal Mexican food. For a week, Jalapa has things to do and see, a month is too long.  But all was not lost. There several nearby cities that deserve favor and recommendation.

The pueblo of Coatepec
The pueblo of Coatepec

One is Coatepec and the other is Xico.

Lunch by the river in the lovely little town of Xico
Lunch by the river in the lovely little town of Xico

Both are Pueblos Magico, Coatepec has a small enclave of Americans and Europeans. Xico, according to the tourist office has about 20 foreigners.  These two towns are the colorful, sleepy and livable cities that busy Jalapa was 30 years ago. I would stay in one of these smaller towns and not in congested Jalapa. Jalapa has for the most part escaped the economic downturn plaguing Mexico, because it is the center of government and the university props up the economy AND the state of Veracruz is perhaps the richest of all the Mexican states. Think oil related money. Perhaps one of the reasons we weren’t enthralled with Japala was our accommodations. We rented a small, two room apartment outside of the city because it was all we could find. It had no kitchen, except a microwave and college dorm size refrigerator, no kitchen sink, we had to clean dishes in the bathroom sink, we didn’t have running water for a week, (repair work down the road) the hot water was iffy and the place was situated near a road that ran downhill and all the BIG TRUCKS  started rolling at 5 a.m. and they all seem to want to save their brakes on the downgrade and use first gear all…the…way…down…the…road.  Plus there was a bitch (as in female dog) that barked at Lassen every time we took him for a walk. Another city in the area that deserves kudos and was a FIND is Naolinco, 20 miles away from Jalapa.

The main square in Naolinco
The main square in Naolinco

This small community is in the always lush, green mountains complete with waterfalls and a special charm that is impossible to describe. The city is  a commercial center for leather goods. There must be over 100 shops scattered around the city selling shoes, purses and other leather items. I bought a pair of cowboy boots for $30. Yippeee! A bronze statue on the road into town has a seated cobbler at work. They also make wooden masks. I would suggest if you wanted to get away from it all Naolinco is the place. I don’t know why it isn’t a magic pueblo, it is lovely. We took a two night journey to the Costa Esmeralda,

Lassen enjoying the deserted beach on the Costa Esmeralda
Lassen enjoying the deserted beach on the Costa Esmeralda

a fancy name for the beaches north of Veracruz. This is an area that would be another Cancun if only it had white sand instead of gray making the water lose the beautiful turquoise and just be a clear and darker blue green. The beaches were lovely though and deserted with many smaller hotels. After a struggle finding a place that would take dogs we checked into a lovely hotel and were the only guests the first night we were there. Just an hour north of there we did visit the impressive Toltec ruins at El Tajin which was our main reason for going north. We also stopped in the town of Papantla, the vanilla capital of Mexico and another Pueblo Magic.

The famous pyramid of the niches at El Tajin
The famous pyramid of the niches at El Tajin

We flew the coop a week early to our next destination and stopped in the “First city in the Americas” Veracruz (Or so says a large sign coming into town.) We liked this city, thought we wouldn’t, surprise, surprise. The city has an up tempo vibe and energy sure not found in Jalapa. Of course, I would NOT visit here in summer when the humidity must mug you at the door and make you want to take a shower every hour. This time of year the temperature is moderate and had delightful evening breezes off the ocean. Veracruz had pretty buildings, a modern cool aquarium that claims to be the largest in Latin America and dancers and an orchestra on the zocalo in the evening.

Veracruz main plaza at night
Veracruz main plaza at night

We stopped in Tlacotalpan next, it is a UNESCO world heritage city found 90 km south of Veracruz. Situated next to a river it has a population of only 7000. The town is flat and has many colorful houses. It looks like a set from a movie and is just too cute. The music of Veracruz is said to have originated here. Before the seaport and railroad went to Veracruz this place was the main port in Mexico. Around 1900 that ended and this sleepy little village keeps its former glory to this day because no one cared to go there or build.

The UNESCO World Heritage City of Tlacotalpan
The UNESCO World Heritage City of Tlacotalpan

The downside of this city is it must be the mosquito capital of Mexico. People tell me after the rainy season the mosquitoes are gone.  Not much to do here however. There are only 3 Americans living here. One owns the place we stayed at. Like Veracruz it is well worth a weekend visit in the non mosquito season. They do have a huge festival during Candelaria when the bulls, as in 1500 pounds, run free in the town. If you go let us know what that is like. This event attracts upward to 15,000 people from around Mexico. Most of them return home. One last word about the state of Veracruz, it is very beautiful physically. You go from flatter plains in the north to gorgeous canyons with towering waterfalls in the center to lush rolling hills in the south. If for nothing else it is worth seeing just for the beauty. People told us that it is pretty much green and lush all year around. Orchids abound and are everywhere, as are bromeliads. Banana and tropical plants, coffee are all around so that it feels like you are always in a botanical garden.

for those who have not seen these photos on Facebook you can view these photos at the links below without joining Facebook.

Xalapa go to:

Xalapa Parks and Museo of Anthropologia go to:

El Tajin go to:

Costa Esmeralda go to:

Naolinco go to:

Veracruz go to:

Tlacotalpan go to:

Now we are onward to San Cristobal de Las Casas


Mexico City… A nice place to visit, but I don’t think I would want to live there. The good, the bad and the… uniquely Mexican.

September 2, 2009

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ANGEL OF THE INDEPENDENCE in a glorieta on Av. Reforma,

the beautiful main street lined with sculptures.

In Mexico City or D.F. (Districto Federal) The traffic congestion is not as bad as you’ve heard. They restrict certain days for certain license plated cars. About 10% of the cars are off the road on any one day. For us foreigners, we can’t drive any day between 5 and 11 a.m. we can’t drive on Monday (our license plate restricts us that particular day) and we can’t drive the first Saturday of the month. Got that? Most of the streets in the city are one way streets. Thank God. We drove twice in the city, both times to Costco, and got lost both times. . . a thing that will test a marriage is getting lost on Mexico City streets with your spouse.
Mexico City car drivers are an impatient lot and honk for anything. I think we all know Mexican personalities change once behind the wheel of a car. Without car: Type B: relaxed, calm, tranquilo.  Driving: Type A: hostile, aggressive, inconsiderate. Here, like Guadalajara, drivers will never stop for pedestrians and are not concerned about driving “pequeno tarde” through a red light.  I did not see any speed signs for any streets in the city. In defiance to these Kamikazi drivers, pedestrians jay walk across streets and against lights at intersections. Tickets for such behavior? You kidding? The police never say a word. BTW many of the traffic police officers are now women. Apparently women are less likely to take bribes I am told. Dogs do not roam the streets ( see above comment about Mexican drives for why that is)

The Metro (subway) in Mexico City is fast, efficient and (subsidized by the government) cheap. 2 pesos to ride and you pay no more to connect to another line. On a train ride you also have vendors (many blind) who wander through the trains selling everything from flashlights to CDs to maps to…?

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Diego Rivera’s murals are everywhere, understandable. He is Mexico’s most famous and revered painter. Outside of Mexico his wife Frida Karlo is more famous thanks to the Hollywood movie.  I dare you to come to this city and not see a Diego mural or the likeness of Frida on a piece of merchandise. Can’t be done.

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Pollution (insidious): Crappy, yellow air, stings the eyes on bad days. Once again the culprit is the car. I think most people Lakeside in Chapala realize (maybe they don’t), how lucky they are to have very little pollution (so far.)

As you know the Mexican economy is in horrible shape. Unemployment is very high and getting worse, so consequently there are incredible amounts of merchandise and food stalls on the streets—-The Mexican are an industrious people. Most of the main streets are lined with vendors selling every imaginable thing you could want and many you don’t.

To live in Mexico City: There are a great many things to do and see. The American ex-pat community is spread out and invisible in a city of (Take your best guess) 18 million, We arranged to met one ex-pat that we knew of. He loved the the city and would live no other place. He had lived in New York and was a big city dweller.

The prices for restaurants and services are a little higher than Lakeside Chapala. Unless you speak Spanish well it would be difficult to feel accepted in many social circles.

There are not that many older Americans running around and we got stares, particularly on the Metro trains. My wife could, maybe, pass for Mexican (until she opened her mouth) but I will never, ever be confused for a Mexican man. German, yes, Mexican, no way, Jose. Of course there are not many white people on the metro either. They mostly drive creating the traffic and pollution.

Markets: Wow! If you love wandering through all kinds of markets, Mexico City is for you. Some of the markets are an endless walking cornucopia of all things under the sun.  A bewildering, confusing tangle of sights, sounds, smells that defies description. The word “entrepreneur” applies to most of Mexico’s population it seems. This city sells everything and anything… And speaking of selling… On one street I noticed young, overly dressed, women standing around lining the street. As a veteran of the U.S. Army (with a good conduct medal) and having served overseas in Southeast Asia I immediately recognized the women as…let me use an euphemism… good time gals? I wanted to talk to them, for journalistic inquiry only, but I was sure my wife would see no reason for my professional curiosity and my Spanish probably wouldn’t be sufficient for just talking.

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Hoods: The neighborhoods of Roma, Condesa, Polanco and Coyoacan need to be mentioned. They are for the most part quiet tree-lined streets with large well-kept houses. The neighborhoods are an eclectic mix of boutique shops, upscale restaurants, clean jardins and the restful familiarity of the best of city life. We spent many a wonderful afternoon walking with the ROCK STAR dog away from the boom and bang of Centro.

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Mexico City is a wild and wonderful place and for one month, our length of stay, there was plenty (too much) to see and do—Art galleries, museums, parks, restaurants, performance art programs, markets, etc, etc, etc, But this city is not a retirement, relaxed environment. It is a BIG, bustling impersonal city like New York, Los Angeles or Toronto. The denizens are in constant movement, marching to their own Mariachi band and, as such, you get the good, bad and uniquely Mexican way of life in MEXICO CITY.

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with 280,000 students one the the largest university in the world.

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