1. Mexico City
Well I started off my journey around the world with the proverbially *BANG*! On the morning of August 17, I left sleepy Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island (population 8,502) on route to one of the world’s largest cities. Ciudad de México, a.k.a. “D.F.” (Distrito Federal), was not only the first stop on my round-the-world trip, but also the first time I’d been outside of Canada/USA in my entire life. It was nothing if not a shock to the system. It’s loud, crowded, polluted, sprawling, constantly in your face; in many ways it typifies the modern megalopolis (keeping in mind that the majority of people on the planet do NOT reside in neat tidy cities like Vancouver, Chicago, or Toronto).
It’s also lush with trees, urban parks, full of a contagious vibrancy, and home to more museums than any other city in the world – yes, more than Paris, London, or Rome. It’s an embarrassment of riches for anyone even remotely interested in history, art and culture. I could have easily spend two or three weeks exploring the various museums, exhibits and cultural centres; alas, I had less than five days. A brief breakdown of the highlights:
Museo Nacional de Anthropological:
This is quite possibly the most impressive museum I’ve ever been to. I was blown away by the beauty and elegance of the museum itself, and even more so by the staggering history it displayed.
Not even the constant harassment from vendors hawking the usual tourist kitsch could detract from this incredible site (no quiero nada or “I don’t want *anything*” has since become my mantra). The massive archaeological complex, located about 40km northeast of the city, contains some of the largest pyramidal structures in the Americas, as well as the world’s third largest pyramid in “The Pyramid of the Sun” (behind the Pyramids of Giza & Cholua)
Frida Kahlo Museum (“Casa Azul”):
The former home of two of Mexico’s most celebrated artists (and tormented lovers), Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, has been turned into a showcase for their artwork as well as a museum frozen in time (complete with books, paints, photographs, medications, kitchen pots and pans, etc.). The 2002 Julie Taymor film Frida originally piqued my interest in Mexico City, and it was surreal to see this place in person.
The current seat of the federal executive, the building’s site has been home to the ruling class of Mexico since Aztec times (and apparently some of the original materials from Moctezuma’s original palace were used in the modern palace’s construction). Tourists flock here to see the famous Diego Rivera murals which grace the inner walls, and truly are magnificent.
The metro was surprisingly easy to get around on, and at 3$ MXN (or about $0.25 CDN) very easy on the pocketbook! It also proved to be an excellent showcase for the remarkable ingenuity of the Mexican people (more on that for a later post).
It was time to move south. The greyhound-like bus ride through the Sierra Madre was very comfortable and picturesque, and six-hours later I arrived in Oaxaca (“wah-hawk-kah”); a clean, pretty, laid back (dare I say orderly!) city chock-full of beautiful colonial architecture and wonderful local arts and crafts. Rick Steves might even say it’s quaint. It’s also world-renowned for its array of culinary delights, including fried bugs or champulites (and *yes* I did try them…tastes like chicken?), and is particularly famous for three things: mezcal, chocolate, and mole (a traditional sauce).
I’d been introduced to mole negro in Mexico City, and was immediately seduced by its unique combination of flavours; part sweet, part bitter, part salty, entirely delicious. In Oaxaca, there are seven classic moles; negro, amarillo, colorado, verde, chichilo, coloradito, and mancha manteles. I sampled a few different ones, but kept coming back to the negro (unfortunately for me, and my limited cooking skills, mole negro is the most complicated and difficult to make!). The chocolate here is prepared by combining cocoa with sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and sometimes almonds. It’s traditionally prepared hot, though not always. One afternoon, I stopped in a local shop and enjoyed a hot chocolate prepared from scratch. Mmmmmm.
3. San Cristóbal de las Casas
Following a 12-hour helter skelter (and at times down right frightening) night bus, through winding mountain roads and over sheer cliffs in the pitch dark, I arrived at the San Cristóbal bus terminal in the early morning, to cool, crisp mountain air – and without a wink of sleep I might add. I hopped in the first taxi I saw, with a random hostel pamphlet in hand, and was soon checked-in just in time for freshly brewed coffee and breakfast.
San Cristóbal de las Casas, is a small city perched up in the highlands of Chiapas, and boasts a large indigenous population (Tzotzil Maya – in fact the city itself is named after Saint Christopher and Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish priest who defended the rights of indigenous Americans). Over the next few days, I took in more beautiful colonial architecture, and also enjoyed a day trip down to Sumidero Canyon, a national park featuring 1000m cliffs and a variety of wildlife, including crocodiles.
In a country that boasts everything from beaches, tropical rainforests, deserts, magnificent archaeological ruins, colonial architecture galore, wonderful *cheap* food on nearly every street corner, modern mega-cities with all the amenities, and peaceful mountain-top villages… I barely scratched the surface of what Mexico has to offer. Off to Tikal Ruins!