Thursday 19 July 2018

Mexico - Summer 2018

Una Cerveza Por Favor
Wednesday, 4 July

This was supposed to be the dull part of the holiday! Pretty much at the top of my bucket list and one of the first things to go on there was a trip to the Galapagos.  After spending several wage packets on our Galapagos tour we couldn't bring ourselves to spend another packet on the flights to Ecuador.  After a few hours of clicking "my travel dates are flexible" and searching "How much does it cost to get to Ecuador by boat?" I found that going via Mexico cut the cost in half!  I suppose I could check out what Mexico has to offer?
Our choices were either go touristy and safe or go off the beaten track and get kidnapped by the Cartel and held for ransom.  Sooooo a week in Cancun it is then... Cancun is as much Mexican as Fosters beer in Australian, but at least we're safe!.  I booked transfer flights and accommodation before reading news articles titled "Cancun: Thriving Paradise to Murder Capital";  "Human head with threatening message found in Cancun" and "Three more heads found".  So really our choice was getting our heads chopped off in Cancun or getting kidnapped by the Cartel off the beaten track.  But does that scare me?! Yes it is absolutely terrifying.  Did I feel in any way unsafe in Cancun? No!  Cancun was AWESOME!

It pains me to say that I am of an age where clubbing every night (what most people know Cancun for - Wooo Spring Break!!) doesn't quite appeal anymore, but that is such a small part of Cancun.  We spent a very busy 5 days here and visited the club strip once and spent no time at all on the beach!?  It seems crazy now to think we visited Cancun and not once sun bathed on their luscious, white sand, pristine beaches.  There is just so much other stuff to see and do here!  We stayed at Brisas Suites in the Hotel Zone which is a small self-catered residential compound perfect if you can't afford don't want to feel imprisoned in your enormous all-inclusive hotel resort.  I hate the idea of having to eat at the same hotel every night!? Why do people do it?  We picked up the keys from a neighbour and instantly felt like we were in a home away from home.  On our doorstep there was a bus that cost 12 pesos (50p) and took you everywhere you could possibly want to go in Cancun.  The layout is perfect here with one long road with the sea running along one side and a giant lagoon on the other; the bus runs the full length and back regularly, all day, every day.  For our first evening we hopped off at St Isla and ate at Taco Grill overlooking the lagoon.

I forget how vast Mexican Cuisine is!  We had spicy pork tacos and I ordered a serving of Escamoles which I had on my "The Sides" list since the beginning of my blog. Escamoles are known as Mexican Caviar, a delicacy that I have not found in any other country so far - more commonly known as ant eggs.  Fried with chili and garlic and served with fresh tortillas it was surprisingly tasty.  Even Becky enjoyed it until I told her what it was.  I have eaten enough bugs now to conclude that bugs as a food group have a taste all of their own.  They don't taste like any meat but if I were to compare it has a definite hint of prawn head or that crustacean smell you get when you barbecue shellfish.  This is my summation of all bugs: the dried mapone worms of South Africa; the fried tarantulas from Cambodia, Skewered scorpions from China, and now ant eggs of Mexico... distinguishably prawny but uniquely buggy.  Washed down with my first real Mexican Margaritas it was easy eating.

Isla Mujeres

Though it felt like everybody we met was trying to convince us to hire a car we just didn't fancy driving.  So, instead we just booked ourselves onto a load of tours.  I easily preferred this to driving and definitely saw more this way than we would have otherwise.  It's Cancun: the place runs on its tourism and we found all the tours brilliantly planned and really easy to organise.  Our first morning took us to Aquaworld to book in some SCUBA diving and we booked a tour with Ekinox Tours to Chichen Itza online.  We spent the rest of the day touring Isla Mujeres by golf cart stopping off at beach bars and visiting the recommended sites such as the turtle sanctuary and "The Best Margaritas in Cancun".  The Chichen Itza tour was perfect.  On the way we stopped at a historical town which looked like a beautiful scene from Breaking Bad with pastel coloured buildings and an old, beaten up church.  Then we stopped for lunch where an old Mayan lady cooked corn tortillas on an open fire and Cochinita Pibil - pork roasted underground with hot stones.  Yes it is all a little put on for tourists but I really enjoyed the whole experience.  Our guides were extremely knowledgeable and walked us around Chichen Itza telling us all about the Mayans.  All about the daily human sacrifices to the Sun God to give it energy so it can battle the underworld.  Then the extra sacrifices into the sinkhole nearby to appease the underworld God whenever a natural disaster occurred.  It was also great to have the guide's advice on how not to get tricked by the vendors; where is best to buy certain souvenirs and the optimum angle for the best pyramid selfie.  After a couple of hours baking under the sun at Chichen Itza our tour took us to Ik Kil sinkhole to have a swim; another place where the Mayans tied stones to people and threw them in for the underworld God.  A beautifully unique swimming hole where 40 meters of water separated us from a bed of human bones (I imagine...).  It would be the most tranquil place in Mexico if there wasn't a thousand other people there... Below you can see my attempt at making a video to give the impression that it was just the two of us there.  Failed.

Our first diving day was in a cenote (like a cave but for some reason not quite a cave) which was a brand new experience for me and a pretty damn nerve racking one at that.  We dived cenote Tajma Ha (video below) which had the most stunning aqua blue entrance with small, black catfish and those fish that you find in a foot spa.  I know this because I sat with my feet over the side and saved myself £14.99.  On the surface you just see the most welcoming, cool, crystal waters.  Duck your head under and you see a much less welcoming dark hole into the abyss.  With a torch strapped to our wrists and a guide taking the lead it is more exhilarating then scary.  Controlling your breathing when diving is very important but knowing that you are completely closed in with the only access to the surface being through the small crevice you entered 20 minutes ago, it's not that easy!  It is stunning, but it is not for the panicker.  Some crazy, unusual cave dwelling fish would have been cool but it is the rock formations and incredibly clear waters that make the experience.  Our second day diving was at MUSA or the Underwater Museum of Art which has over 500 life-size sculptures where fish and coral have made there home over the years.  Not as abundant with fish and coral as some would wish but the sculptures really make it a unique dive.

I am loving eating Taco's here and it is difficult to order anything else.  There are places that make nothing but tortillas and they sell them by the kilogram.  Street vendors, restaurants and families buy these and fill them with the most incredible meats, selection of fresh salsas and always one red hot sauce and one green hot sauce.  Which one is the "hot" hot sauce is a game you play each time you eat as it is always different.  Most places just give you the meat in a tortilla and leave you to add your own salsa, sauce and sprinkles to your taste.  Leftover tortillas are quartered and fried into nachos and served with more salsa or guacamole the next day - amazing!  We had fish tacos at a beautiful restaurant called Navios built out onto the lagoon; ate beef tacos with a cactus salsa at St Isla whilst watching England beat Columbia; and ate amazing street pork tacos at 70p each before our night out to Cocobongos.  Cactus has a slime not unlike okra which made the salsa taste as if a family of slugs had walked through it.  The cheap street tacos were, not surprisingly, the tastiest!  They lined our stomach perfectly before our completely off the wall, all you can drink experience at Cocobongos.  Cocobongos gives you everything that could be expected of a club owned by Jim Carrey.  It is exactly what I imagine stepping inside his brain would be like and we both absolutely loved the whole thing.  We got a bus home at 3am buzzing on what we had just watched.

Actual Real Life Mexico
Wednesday, 18 July

This is a little mixed up in dates as since the last post I have been to Ecuador and the GALAPAGOS before returning back to Mexico but I wanted to keep Mexico as one entry.  I am sure 80 year old me will appreciate it when I am reading my life story back to the grand children.

Before going home we have 3 full days to explore Mexico City and really experience Mexican food and culture.  We are staying in Zona Rosa, The Pink Zone, which is known for its busy nightlife and gay community.  Well if you are going to name it the pink zone what will you expect!  :o).  We sat at a busy bar and ordered a taco sharing board and an enormous michelada also known as a bloody beer.  I have said enough about tacos in this blog (but look how good these were!!) but this was my first michelada - a beer with lemon juice, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce mixed into it and served with a chili salt rim.  What Worcestershire sauce is doing in Mexico I have no idea but we have regularly seen it keeping the ketchup company on restaurant tables; you don't even see that in Worcester!  We had dessert next door at El Moro Churreria who have been making Churros since 1935.  Over 80 years!  Needless to say they were perfect.  Soft and fluffy on the inside with a crunchy, Cinnamon sugar coating.  I am ashamed to say that we (Becky) ordered churros in Cancun and boy were they a disappointment... These more than made up for them!  We finished the evening off drinking a much dreaded but surprisingly smooth Don Julio 70 Tequila and watching a Mariachi Band toot, hoot and whistle.  Within just 3 hours I think we had absorbed more Mexican culture here than we had in 5 days in Cancun!

On the following day we had a walking food tour booked with Intrepid Tours starting in the Historical Centre at 8am.  After reading about the craziness of the metro during rush hour we decided that the 1 hour walk to get there would be a nice way to see the city.  Thoughts on keeping safe are always at the back of the mind but the walk was absolutely fine as the whole city was buzzing with people already.  On the tour we visited 5 different markets looking at painted murals and sampling some well known local food spots.  Our first bite were some very tasty tamales.  Tamales are made by wrapping corn dough in a corn husk and steaming it with lard.  We had some stuffed with pork and some with cheese and felt completely full with another four markets still to visit.  My favourite stop, however, has to be tacos once again.  We had barbacoa and cecina tacos from one popular vendor (right).  Barbacoa is shredded lamb and cecina are thin slices of salted and dried beef steaks.  I was full from the tamales but there was plenty of room for these!  The tour was an ideal way to spend your first day to get a good grounding on how the city runs.  We used the metro, a local bus and an uber to get around in the tour and our guide answered all of our questions.  We sampled fruits like cactus fruit and mamey; marvelled at potions at the witches market and ate Mexican delicacies such as huitlacoche - a fungus comparable to truffle that destroys corn crops but worth more than double that of the corn in the first place.

I think this is my first country where corn is the staple food.  There are over 50 different varieties of corn here and the tastes and textures can be completely different.  I really enjoyed esquites which is a kind of corn salad I had served in a corn husk and topped with mayonnaise and cheese; Sweet, creamy and savoury it's a cheap and delicious snack.  Part of me wishes that 20 year old me chose South America to backpack around as food is seriously cheap here.  We ate at one place with a queue out the door that had giant containers filled with 4 different types of tacos and help yourself enormous vats of guacamole and pickles.  It fed both of us for 28 pesos! That's just over a pound.  There were even a couple of homeless people eating there too!  Coming to think of it it may have just been a really good homeless shelter... Either way we were stuffed!

All this time eating delicious Mexican food and only in the final days did I actually eat a National Dish - Mole.  I did get to sample different Mole pastes like it was ice cream on the food tour but I had to visit El Bajio to eat it cooked into a sauce.  A typical Mole Sauce has well over 20 different ingredients in it (This is a recipe I found on google: 12 dried ancho chiles, 12 dried guajillo chiles, 6 dried pasilla chiles, 4 tablespoon sesame seeds, 1 teaspoon whole aniseed, 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram, 3 dried bay leave, 1 stick cinnamon, 2 cups canola oil, 7 1/4 cups chicken stock, 1/2cup skin-on almonds, 1/2 cup raw shelled peanuts, 1/3 cup hulled pumpkin seeds, 1/3 cup raisins, 2 slices white bread, 2 stale corn tortillas, 1 medium onion, 10 medium cloves garlic, 2 large tomatillos, 1 large tomato, 1 cup finely chopped Mexican chocolate, 4 tablespoons sugar and Kosher salt.)  with chocolate being the most significant and two types of dried chilli coming a close 2nd.  It's sweet with a little spice and flavours that combine to make something truly unique.  Really like nothing I have ever eaten!  I had chicken thoroughly smoothered with Mole Pablano and resorted to the slightly more acceptable finger wipe and suck when what I really wanted to do was lick my plate clean.

For our final couple of days we did the typical touristy sites made easy by the "Turibus" which was great value.  We bought a one day hop on hop off ticket but could have easily done two days.  We made the mistake of having the National Museum of Anthropology  as our second stop and spending the rest of our day there!  The Anthropology Museum is one of the best things you can do in Mexico City as you explore the entire history of human existence; definitely something not to be rushed.  The history in Mexico City is immense and so the turibus facts and figures through the headphones were a nice little bonus.  We attempted to go to the Frida Kahlo museum but the queue for pre-paid tickets was enormous and we didn't even have those.  We didn't really know or care for Frida Kahlo before coming to Mexico so we didn't fancy waiting the hours required in line.  Instead, we went to nearby Museo del Carmen which was an abolute gem find and fascinating to see the facial expressions on their 6 unidentified, well preserved mummies! However, At the top of my list of "cultural" things to do in Mexico was to watch some Lucha Libre wrestling at the Mexico Arena and so we went and bought tickets the day before the show.  I've always loved a bit of wrestling but even Becky got really into it!  It was great fun and after two double Corona Micheladas it was the best show I had ever seen!

There is a lot to keep you busy in Mexico City.  We had a day where we just jumped on and off the metro (with our new found confidence after our tour) and visited small cobbled street markets, unusual museums and out of the way cafes.  I ate Huevos Rancheros at Lalo Cafe, fresh ceviche at San Juan Market and Tlayuda(right) from a vendor in the park as my final meals in Mexico (ignoring the rack of ribs and plate of wings from Chili's before heading to the airport...).  Our number one concern before visiting Mexico was safety.  Taking a few precautions we kept to busy streets and didn't stay out overly late and so never ran into any problems.  You could very easily be to cautious and miss out on so much of what Mexico has to offer and so our Intrepid Tour on day one really helped us understand what we can do.  As long as you have your wits about you, safety should not be the reason to not visit Mexico.  On the other hand, I spent 5 days in Cancun and 3 in Mexico City so who am I to judge?!


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