Holiday Season in Mexico

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! 🎶 Which is my musical way of stating the obvious: another holiday season is here! And this year, I thought I’d really get myself into the spirit by chronicling all the upcoming días festivos that I have to look forward to. Interestingly, seven years ago, I wrote something quite similar about celebrating Christmas in Poland, and after reading that post again, I was amazed at just how many parallels there happen to be, particularly in the number of holidays celebrated on either side of the big day. So, if you find yourself in need of more holidays/international celebrations, here’s what Christmastime looks like en México:  

Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe

The first true holiday of the festive season falls on December 12th, but like any other Christmas-celebrating country, the decorations and festivities really start well before December. In fact, since Thanksgiving isn’t really a thing south of the border, there aren’t as many quarrels about when to start decorating; anything after Día de Muertos (November 2nd) is fair game. Of course, one of the first and most ubiquitous Christmas decorations you’re likely to see are the nochebuenas (or poinsettias). Nochebuenas are indigenous to Mexico and Guatemala and were used for wintertime celebrations even before Christmas was celebrated in the Americas. Actually, a lot of Mexico’s holidays tend to be a mix of customs from various indigenous groups (such as the Aztecs or Mayans) as well as from the colonists/Christians of Spain. And a great example of this is Día de la Virgin de Guadalupe.

La Virgen de Guadalupe is another name for the Virgin Mary, and she just so happens to be the patron saint of Mexico. On Día de la Virgin de Guadalupe there is a huge pilgrimage in her honor to a site of great importance in Mexican history. However, it’s really only the truly devout who partake in this annual event. For most Mexicans, this day is known first and foremost as the official mark of the holiday season, and it often kicks off the fiestas in the form of food, drinks, and posadas. I, personally, have come to associate the word “posada” with “party”, but it actually means “inn”, a nod to the nativity story. In practice though, posadas are very much like the Christmas parties we have in the US. There are generally posadas for every peer group: family, friends, co-workers, etc. and no matter who you’re celebrating with, you’ll likely see piñatas, eat buñuelos (a fried dough treat), and drink ponche (a warm, fruity beverage). Mmm!  

Noche Buena y Navidad

Next up is Christmas Eve or Noche Buena (not to be confused with nochebuenas the plants or Noche Buenas the beers haha). As a Catholic-majority country, church services are really common on Christmas Eve, including a very special midnight mass, also known as the Rooster’s Mass (it got this name because it is said that the crow of a rooster announced the birth of Christ). After mass, a feast is expected, and yes, that could be in the wee hours of the morning, which is why Christmas Day is seen as a rest and recovery sort of day. Of course, some people end up skipping church on Noche Buena, but the big family meal is rarely missed. Similar to our Thanksgiving, turkey or ham are common center pieces although the more traditional option would be bacalao, an olive and codfish dish. I’ll probably skip that one this year…

Another interesting thing about Christmas Eve night has to do with the all the nativity scenes. Nativity scenes (or Nacimientos) in general are extremely popular here. Like extremely. They feature in the décor of restaurants, banks, apartment buildings, malls, city squares, etc. Some are literally larger than life-sized and some are incredibly creative (we saw one this year made entirely out of poinsettias), but despite all the variety out there, they all have one thing in common: the baby Jesus is missing. That is, he is missing until Christmas Eve night. I absolutely love this detail and can’t believe how everyone pulls this off. Do they set an alarm to remember? Where do they keep the waiting babies? Who gets the placement privilege at the local mall? So many questions!

Día de los Santos Innocentes

Onto my least favorite of the wintertime holidays…Día de los Santos Innocentes is Mexico’s version of April Fool’s Day. It occurs every year on December 28th and started out as a day in which you could borrow something from someone without having to give it back, a sort of “finders keepers” day. However, over time, it has evolved to include all sorts of pranks pulled by family members, friends, and even news outlets. Basically, don’t trust anything you see or hear on this day, and definitely don’t lend anyone anything you might want back.

Noche Vieja y Año Nuevo

The next set of holidays on the list are, of course, New Years Eve and New Years Day. Celebrated much the same around the world, with food, fireworks, and late-night fun, there are a few Mexican traditions that stood out to me last year. The first being the 12 grapes you eat as the clock strikes midnight. The idea is that you make a wish for each grape (12 representing the 12 months of the New Year), and if you can get ‘em all down be the time the clock is done chiming, your wishes will come true. After trying this last year, I have to say that it is definitely harder than it sounds! Fireworks are another super common tradition, but not just at midnight. In fact, fireworks can be heard pretty much all December and well into January – another vestige of indigenous practices and a popular way of celebrating anything and everything in Mexico.

Día de los Reyes y Candelaria

Finally, we come to the last two holidays of the season Día de los Reyes (January 6th) and Candelaria (February 2nd). Día de los Reyes or Day of the Kings (often known as Three Kings Day or Epiphany in the US) is a holiday that is probably more exciting as a child. It’s another day where kids can expect presents, this time from the Wise Men. And while adults might not get any presents, everyone does get to partake in the sharing of the rosca de reyes. A rosca is a ring-shaped pastry that has a hidden figurine of the baby Jesus somewhere inside. Usually, you eat the rosca with family or friends, and whoever gets the baby, then has to buy the tamales the following month on Candelaria. Roscas come in all different shapes and sizes these days (in fact, we got a rosca of tacos last year in addition to a more traditional pastry), but no matter what kind of rosca you eat, just remember to bite carefully! Also, I advise you to order your tamales for Candelaria days in advance – a mistake I won’t make again!

Wow! So many festivities to look forward to in next two months! Honestly, celebrating the local holidays is one of my favorite parts of living abroad, especially because we get to take these customs with us and celebrate them wherever we end up in the future! And now you can too! ¡Felices fiestas a tod@s!

Most Memorable Meals

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about memorable meals of years past. Tucker and I have been extremely fortunate with all the incredible food we’ve been able to enjoy around the world, but what exactly is it that makes a meal memorable? The quality of the food? The location, the company, something else? I was curious, so I decided to delve a bit deeper by asking Tucker to reminisce with me about the meals we’ve shared over the years. In particular, the ones that, even years later, still stand out among the rest and why that might be the case. Here’s what we came up with:

Thanksgiving Feast: Crater Edition (Ecuador)

Likely because this was a recent experience, and it has a connection to the upcoming holiday, the first meal to pop into our heads was the Thanksgiving dinner we had after hiking the Quilotoa Crater in Ecuador. There are so many reasons this meal stands out in our minds. First, we had just hiked several miles into and out of an incredible caldera at elevation in the rain, so to say we were hungry would be a massive understatement. Then there’s the fact that all the hikers ate together in pretty much the only little restaurant open there, which made for a very festive meal. And finally, the food itself was incredible. I had a perfectly grilled steak with chimichurri and ají, boiled potatoes, corn on the cob – just an impeccable holiday meal; Tucker had a whole seasoned and grilled fish with homestyle fries and a plethora of interesting sauces, and, of course, we shared several ice-cold, local brews. It was absolutely perfect and extremely well-earned.

Weird Valentine’s Day Tradition (HK)

The next thing we thought of has actually become a sort of strange tradition over the years. Since we first moved abroad in 2015, we’ve spent the vast majority of holidays away from family, friends, and all that was once so familiar. Usually this means we get to learn new ways of celebrating the holidays, but sometimes we just miss all that familiarity and ease. Cue the international (yet super American) restaurant chain: Outback Steakhouse. One year, we were in Hong Kong over Valentine’s Day, and we happened to see an Outback in a mall there. We joked at how lame it would be to go to an Outback while in one of the best food cities in the world…alas, the molten chocolate lava cake called to us. We’ve now celebrated Valentine’s Day at an Outback in four different countries.  

Odd Finds at Anatewka (Poland)

Sometimes what makes a meal memorable are the surprises that take place there. For this, Anatewka, an amazing Jewish restaurant in Łódź, immediately comes to mind. Anatewka packed in the surprises for us starting with our bowl of czernina, which we later found out was duck blood soup. The surprises kept coming when we got complimentary shots at the end of the meal (for digestion, of course). And as if that wasn’t enough to keep us guessing (and definitely ensuring our return), we were each gifted a tiny clay figure holding a grosz or the equivalent of a Polish penny. We were absolutely not expecting any of the little treats we got that night, and even though I won’t be ordering czernina again anytime soon, our dining experience at Anatewka was without a doubt both surprising and, indeed, memorable.

Simple yet Spectacular: St. Hubert’s (Quebec)

Surprises can definitely make us remember a meal, but the next meal that we kept thinking (and talking) about really had no discernible reason other than the fact that the food we had was incredibly simple and delicious. On our month-long initial expedition to Ottawa (and the surrounding area) in 2019, we happened to eat at a place called Rôtisserie St-Hubert’s. It’s a fairly nondescript restaurant, clearly a chain, with nothing particularly showy or remarkable on the menu, but what it lacks in flair, it seriously makes up for in homey goodness. Roasted chicken is what St-Hubert’s does, and they do it better than anywhere. It really brought to mind the qualities often associated with French cooking: fresh, buttery, light, and uncomplicated. Simply put, it was the kind of meal that just hit the spot. Of course, this was also the meal where, much to my chagrin, I first learned what clamato juice is, but even the surprise of finding seafood in my drink couldn’t detract from the rustic deliciousness that was this particular meal.

Once in a Lifetime Experience: Dining in the Dark (Malaysia)

Another meal that will obviously live in infamy (according to us anyway) is our experience at Dining in the Dark. If you’ve done one of these events, then it will likely be on your list as well because not only is the food extremely delicious and exciting, but the challenge and subsequent glimpse into a different way of living is eye-opening (see what I did there). For those who don’t know, Dining in the Dark allows you to experience a meal in complete and startling darkness. The servers are all visually-impaired and help you navigate what is a surprisingly scary and difficult set of tasks: everything from finding your chair and sitting down to re-finding your glass or fork somewhere on the table. For me, having my attention drawn to all these little things I took for granted was the most memorable part, but there are other aspects that made this meal stand out. Namely, our complete failure at guessing what we were eating. At one point we had a dish of steamed egg, mushroom, and tofu, and we guessed it to be “savory bread pudding”. What?!

Our First Foray into Fancy Food (Disney’s Remy)

Fun fact: Tucker absolutely loves tasting menus and fine dining because it allows him to try a greater number of usually quite unique dishes, which is all he ever wants in life. And for that reason, another meal on our list has to be Remy, a fine-dining restaurant on the Disney Fantasy cruise ship. Remy offers an eight-course menu of super fancy dishes, which at the time we had never had before. This experience was like stepping into another life. The dress code, the cheese cart, the flowers given to me at the end of the meal – it was all very different to anything we’d ever done. And then there was the experimental quality to the food. We had “tomato essence,” which was a completely clear liquid served in a champagne flute that tasted exactly like you just bit into a vine-ripened, heirloom tomato. There was also the “tomato soup cube”, which is pretty much as described, and countless other curiosities that have definitely kept us talking over the years. Honestly memorable in so many ways!

Making It Our Own: Cooking Class (Thailand)

Another meal that stands out is one we happened to make ourselves. Because we went to Thailand as part of a large group, there were lots of things that stand out about our time there, and one thing in particular was our first (and quite possibly only) cooking class. I personally loathe cooking, so I’m not sure I was really looking forward to this one or that I was very comfortable throughout the experience…but in the end, like everyone else, I was extremely proud of the dish that I made (and the certificate we all received lol). My pad thai was honestly delicious and Tucker’s khao soi was even better! Plus, the process of doing everything ourselves (from shopping in the market to grinding down the various chilis we needed) really gave me even more appreciation for all the chefs of the world. Thankfully this one turned out to be memorable for all the right reasons and not because I ended up burning myself or someone else!

Being Set on Fire (China)

Speaking of burning…the next meal that without doubt must be on our list was the time we almost died. Of spiciness. Tucker and I actually love spicy food, and usually we handle any level of spiciness pretty well. However, Chongqing and Chengdu take spiciness almost beyond human capacity. One of the most renowned dishes of Chongqing is the infamous nine square hot pot, which, of course, we had to try. Unlike the hot pots we were used to, with the nine square, there is only one flavor: spicy. We weren’t really concerned though because when we ordered and chose our spice level, we played it safe with the 1 chili pepper rating (they went up to 5). Turns out, there was no “safe”. Everything was extremely spicy, the meat, the noodles, the hot pot, the sauces…and it was all compounding! I’m not sure we’ve ever sweated that much in a restaurant or drank that many beers that quickly. The craziest thing was, despite our watering eyes, it tasted so good! I would definitely do it all again.

Just What We Needed at the Time (Sweden)

As it turns out, even the timing of a meal can be what ends up making it memorable. On one of our worst travel mistakes to date, we failed to set an important alarm, waking up after only a couple of hours of sleep with only 16 minutes to make it to the bus that would take us to the airport in time for our very early flight. Needless to say, we had a very panicky, rushed morning with no shower or breakfast, and when we arrived in Stockholm, all our thoughts were on a nice shower, a snack, and a bed. Unfortunately, our hostel said we’d have to wait until after 3 to check in. So we, dirty, tired, hungover, and by this point, very hangry travelers, set off to wander aimlessly around the city for the next 7 hours. Obviously, our first stop would have to be food, but finding a place to eat at this time of day was actually a little tricky. Luckily, we finally stumbled upon a restaurant that served their whole menu of Swedish favorites all day, and we happily chowed down. Now Swedish meatballs and plankstek will forever be remembered as our most rejuvenating meal.

A Whole Lot of Whimsy (Mexico)

And last but not least, a happy dose of serendipity mixed with whimsy in the form of dinosaur quesadillas. As you can imagine, a lot of the ads I get have to do with Mexico, travel, and food (hmm, I wonder why). Well, one night last year I saw a little video ad about a restaurant in Mexico that served dinoquesadillas, and I thought to myself, “aww, that’s cute, but I bet it’s nowhere near us.” And I was right. The restaurant was in Saltillo about 440 miles (705km) from Guadalajara. Oh well, no dinoquesadillas are worth that long of a drive! However, it turned out that a few months later we randomly had to make a return trip to the border through none other than Saltillo. Through a crazy coincidence, we ended up in the really cool city of Saltillo, and, of course, we went to the kitschy little restaurant for some dinoquesadillas. A great example of what I call travel fate.

So, it seems there are actually a great many reasons a meal might stand the test of time in our minds. Could be great food, surprising circumstances, or even when exactly you get said meal. I think for me, the common thread is really when something is just a little bit outside the norm, when there’s something that stands out as “different”. Maybe we should all run with that idea and get a little weird this Thursday – I’m definitely willing to give it a try! Happy (almost) Thanksgiving! ¡Buen provecho! 😉

Día de Muertos (and Halloween)

Another spooky season is upon us, which, of course, has me reflecting on last year’s festivities, and since last year was our first full year in Mexico, I remember having a lot of questions regarding two very colorful (yet slightly morbid) holidays that happen to take place in the same fun-filled week. Thankfully, we had a brilliant education last year, and now I’m ready to share all that I learned! So, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering how Halloween and Día de Muertos are celebrated south of the border, well, you’re in for a treat (see what I did there?) because this post is about to get frightening(ly in-depth). Mwahaha!

Halloween in Mexico

So, first off, whenever we would ask locals about Halloween in Mexico, they’d typically tell us that it’s not really celebrated…but I beg to disagree. Grocery stores start selling costumes and decorations in September, many restaurants have jack-o-lanterns and spiders welcoming their guests, and last year on Halloween (and several days on either side of it) I witnessed creepy clowns, Squid Game contestants, and many other characters walking down the street. There are also Halloween-themed events advertised for both kids and adults all month long, so whether it’s gimmicky or not, I sense a bit of a celebration. Of course, we’ve also been told that the closer you get to the US border, the more Halloween-y it will feel. Places like Monterrey, Ciudad Juarez, and Tijuana have the most going on, but even down here in GDL, the global holiday influence is still felt. However, I also can’t deny that there is a lot more buzz around the infamous Day of the Dead, and rightly so.

Día de Muertos

With such a sinister sounding name, it’s easy to connect the ghosts and ghouls of Halloween to this particular holiday, but in reality, Día de Muertos seems to have more in common with the All Saints’ Day we experienced in Poland or with China’s Tomb Sweeping Day. The holiday’s purpose is to honor family members who have since passed, much like other memorial holidays around the world. In fact, Día de Muertos is partially connected to Catholicism, thus the same date as All Saints’ Day; however, there’s also an indigenous twist in Mexico’s version of remembrance. Origins and comparisons aside, the first thing that really confused me was actually the name itself. I was constantly hearing and seeing both Día de Muertos and Día de los Muertos…so which should I be using?! Apparently, no importa, both are used, both are correct. It’s a pick your own poison sort of thing.

The next thing we learned was that Día de Muertos is actually días, plural. The holiday consists of two very important days/celebrations, one on November first and one on November second (of course, like other holidays, the celebrating really stretches throughout the whole week), but the significance of these two days is really interesting. November first is the day when the spirits and souls of innocents (or children) are remembered and honored. This day was a bit quieter and included a lot more white flowers (as opposed to the usual gold) and decorations especially for kids. For example, one of the tombs we saw had an array of toy cars and candy set out. The next day, November second, is the big day, the day when all the other ancestors are to be remembered and celebrated, with even more flowers and special treats, of course.

So how does one celebrate Día de Muertos?

Well, like every other major holiday, there are lots of regional differences and personal preferences at play, but a few of the more traditional elements include cleaning and decorating the tombs/graves of your ancestors, making an ofrenda (or alter) in your home for more recently lost family members, and having a party to celebrate the circle of life in general. Last year, Tucker and I visited two cemeteries to see some of the tomb cleaning and decorating for ourselves, and we were absolutely amazed! Even in a large, modern city (which usually has fewer traditionalists) and even with some of the oldest cemeteries (whose descendants might also be gone at this point), not to mention a pandemic to contend with, people really went all out! Famous Jaliscienses (people from Jalisco) had the most going on with elaborate flower carpets, rows and rows of candles, and a huge amount of papel picado (the colorful paper flags), but due to the ongoing Covid battle, former nurses and doctors were also highly celebrated, as were all the other lucky souls who still have devoted family members living in the city.

The tombs are often set up much the same as the alters at home. Flowers are a must, specifically cempasúchiles (marigolds) because their bright color and strong scent help guide spirits back for the night. This is the indigenous twist I was mentioning earlier: the ancient belief was that only on this night and only if your family put up an alter for you could your spirit come back to Earth and enjoy the party. This is also why the alters are often adorned with the favorite foods, drinks, and other preferences of those who have passed – something for them to enjoy on their journey. Sometimes it’s real food and drink left out (which is usually eaten by the living family members at some point), but sometimes the alters are decorated with figurines of all the ancestors’ favorites, which you can find at pop-up markets all month long: tiny plates of tacos el pastor, little bottles of tequila, itty-bitty cigarettes, etc. If someone loved it, you can find it in miniature. Sugar skulls with the names of those who have passed are also common for the ofrendas, but today, kids often want their own names put on them, further emphasizing that this celebration is for both those who are gone and those who remain.

While the decorations and alters might be the most eye-catching parts of Día de Muertos celebrations, the most memorable part, for me, was the party atmosphere. There is nothing creepy or sad about this particular holiday. It is all joy; music is everywhere, families hugging, kids playing, even in the cemeteries themselves. And once the alters and ancestors are taken care of, more partying takes place in the form of parades, mariachi performances, and snacks for all (including the infamous pan de muerto, a sweet bread in the shape of crossbones). Sometimes in pictures, Día de Muertos can look like an homage to death with all the skeletons and tombs, but in reality, it is a celebration of life and family, and it’s something I’m very much looking forward to celebrating in person once again.

Our Trip to South South America

Summer is officially here, so where better to celebrate than South America, where it happens to be winter! Of course, escaping the heat wasn’t our main reason to take off to Argentina this month, but I won’t lie, we were very happy to be donning our coats in July. Such a surreal experience!

In reality, we had many reasons to head to the opposite side of the Americas. For one, when we booked this trip, Canada was still an unknown, and Buenos Aires was at the top of our list for places to go after Guadalajara. Therefore, a large part of this trip was a scouting mission. Would we like southern South America? Would we prefer Buenos Aires or the nearby Montevideo, Uruguay? Could we picture ourselves moving there? Lots of questions to be answered even if the potential move has been pushed a bit further down the line. So, once again, we took to the road (or sky in this case) for some more “research”, and here’s what we discovered:

Seasonal Switch

First off, packing coats, scarves, and gloves for a July vacation was really strange. Of course, we knew the southern hemisphere is always in the opposite season as the northern hemisphere, but experiencing that drastic switch overnight in the dead of summer/winter was still disorienting. As was the fact that the weather got colder as we went further south. I didn’t realize how ingrained “north = colder” was in my brain! We also found it really entertaining to be all bundled up on the 4th of July – I can only imagine how strange Christmas in Argentina would be for me!

Happy 4th of July!

Another surprising, geography-related experience was just how far south Buenos Aires is! Our flight from Mexico City was 9 hours. We could have crossed an ocean in that amount of time! However, I think the long flight is worth it to have four distinct seasons. It was lovely to have brown leaves crunching beneath our feet again. Slightly less lovely was the fact that Buenos Aires is an hour ahead of Eastern Time. In Mexico, we’re an hour behind, and apparently, we’ve gotten really used to our work days ending at 4pm.

Map courtesy of Aeromexico 🙂

Amazing Food

Fugazzetta

Next up on our list of discoveries was actually more of a confirmation. Near our apartment in Guadalajara, we have several Argentine restaurants, and they’re easily some of our favorites in the city. We were beyond excited to try some of our favorite dishes in their country of origin. Thankfully, Argentina did not disappoint! Of course, the steak and wine were incredible (and SO inexpensive!), but the provoleta, the empanadas, the huge number of sandwiches, the dulce de leche – omg. I was extremely impressed with all the international options we had as well. Italian, German, Korean, Asian-style pay-by-weight places, we were definitely able to branch out even in just 2 weeks.

I was also blown away by the café culture of Argentina. I knew that people in South America have an affinity for drinking mate (a tea-like drink) and, of course, as part of Latin America, coffee is popular as well, but what I didn’t expect was just how abundant and accommodating the cafés would be. Literally every block of downtown BA had at least one café, most of which had several floors offering comfortable places to sit, eat, drink, and chat to your heart’s content. And whether at a café or a restaurant, you absolutely must ask for the check because they’ll never hurry you out.    

So Much Nature

While the local food is always a priority for us when we travel, the memories that stick with us longer are often our forays into the surrounding nature, which is something that South America has in spades. We knew we wanted to take a few trips outside Buenos Aires while we were there, but deciding on where to go was so tricky! An overnight train to the Andes out west? A trek through the jungle to see the infamous Iguazu Falls? Or fully embrace winter with a flight down to Cape Horn? Of course, we went with the coldest option!

Thanks to Argentina’s budget airline, Flybondi (which is thankfully still operating post 2020), we were able to find cheap tickets down to Ushuaia. Ushuaia sits in the far south of Patagonia and is known as “the southernmost city in the world”. Here we were able to play in the snow, chill our craft beers on the window sill, and tour the icy Beagle Channel. As a geography nerd, the sheer fact that I was at the southern tip of the Americas, only about 1000km from Antarctica was enough for my bucket list, but the incredible mountains and pink morning skies just made it that much more beautiful.

Fantastic Cities

As amazing as it was to be surrounded by such diverse nature, we definitely spent the majority of our time in the two major capital cities: Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Turns out we could have used even more time because Buenos Aires is huge! That’s really the immediate impression I got from the city. It was a 45-minute ride from the airport to Retiro (a downtown neighborhood), and aside from the distance, the number of massive buildings, many of which were apartments, definitely stood out. Walking downtown, I was also amazed by how tall so many of the building are. Very old, very European-style architecture, but much taller than I seem to remember in Poland (or than what we find in Guadalajara). Luckily everything seemed to be bigger in Buenos Aires because there were also gigantic plazas and parks, wide sidewalks, and many-laned throughfares. It seemed like the kind of place you could live for years and still be discovering new points of interest.

Montevideo, on the other hand, was much smaller. Both in terms of the city’s size and the architecture. Although just a few hours away, across the Rio de la Plata, Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay and has an entirely different vibe. Of course, we were super interested in noting any and all differences (in the name of research) and couldn’t help comparing as we went along. To me, Montevideo felt a little like the quirky younger sibling of Buenos Aires. It was much more colorful with lots of street art and eclectic architecture throughout the old and new sections of the city. It also felt much more coastal with its huge rambla (promenade) and beaches. While a lot of the culinary traditions are similar between the two countries, Uruguay has a few of its own stand-outs as well, like the Chivito sandwich, which is now in Tucker’s top 5 sandwiches of all time.

I give you the Chivito

Spanish Differences

Another interesting experience on this trip (as well as on our trip last year to Ecuador) was the Spanish we were hearing and eventually using. The Spanish I’m learning is Mexican, and this is never more obvious than when we’re traveling in another Spanish-speaking country. Words like “alquilar” (to rent), “maní” (peanut), and “palta” (avocado) gave me pause because we regularly (read: only) use “rentar”, “cacajuate”, and “aguacate”. Just like learning to use “chulla vida” in Ecuador, it was really interesting to see which indigenous words Argentina and Uruguay have adopted and how these (and other) influences still serve to differentiate Spanish varieties around the globe.

However, it wasn’t just the vocabulary that caught our attention on this trip to South America. The first real conversation we had in Argentina was with the security guard in the building where we were staying. He gave us our keys and made sure we knew what to expect with entering, exiting, etc. Luckily, having a few Argentine teachers in the past helped prepare me for hearing things like “sha” and “shaves” instead of “ya” and “llaves”, but it was still much harder than I expected. The accent is SO different from what I’ve grown accustomed to, but it was surprisingly easy to pick up and start using ourselves. After just a few days we were saying “sho” (yo) and “para shevar” (para llevar) like everyone around us!  

So, What’s the Verdict?

Well, we loved it all! We could definitely see ourselves moving to either Buenos Aires or Montevideo in the future, and I would absolutely love to have a few years down there (at least!) to more thoroughly explore South America. Even though we might be going north before we make it back down south, I’m beyond thankful for the opportunity we had to get even a glimpse of such an amazing part of the world! Until next time! ¡Chau!

Top 12 Photos from Poland

Last month I finally decided to move my writings from our time in Poland off Facebook and onto my blog site as individual posts. (Sorry to those of you who got email updates before I remembered to turn off the notifications!) This was a long time coming, and although the process was a little tedious, I thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing about all our trips and experiences in Europe. Therefore, for this month’s blog post, I thought I’d do a little countdown of some of my favorite photos (and the memories that accompany them) from our beloved Polska. Enjoy!

#12 – St. Jakob’s Orthodox Church, Częstochowa

We had never heard of Częstochowa prior to moving to Poland, but after visiting, we fell in love with this highly-organized city of international pilgrimage fame. 

#11 – Orłowo Pier, Gdynia

The Tri-City area of Poland might just be our favorite because it is filled with all sorts of unexpected sights and activities! For example: intriguing pirate ships, beautiful sandy beaches, and a lovely ferry to Hel and back. 

#10 – Słowiński National Park, Łeba

The sand dunes of Słowiński National Park are also high on our list of incredible (yet unexpected) sights in Northern Poland. Is this even Poland? Tak, to jest Polska.

#9 – Market Square, Wrosław

Some cities have something so unique that they will always stand out in your memory. For me, I will always remember Wrosław for its legion of tiny dwarf statues.

#8 – Town Hall, Poznań

Poznań was another city of surprises with the legendary goat dance and the highly revered rogal świętomarciński, a pastry with its own museum. Smacznego!

#7 – Countryside, Silesia

Our main method of transportation around Poland was Polskibus (something I miss dearly). Views of the beautiful countryside from the windows of a double decker bus will forever be etched in my brain.

#6 – Wawel Royal Castle, Kraków

We were lucky enough to visit Kraków several times, but the bar crawl we did on a whim one night gave us more stories than any other singular event in Poland. My head still spins at the memory.

#5 – Oświęcim

Oświęcim, the Polish name for Auschwitz, was a sobering reminder of the horrific events that occurred here and the fact that those who do not remember the past are surely condemned to repeat it.

#4 – Motława River, Gdańsk

Another part of the Tri-City area, Gdańsk, has such an interesting history and local flair. Reflecting on it now, Gdańsk is probably the most likely candidate for a long-term return (other than Łódź, of course).  

#3 – Tatra Mountains

Truly a Winter Wonderland, hiking in the snowy Tatras was utterly surreal. As was the fact that we traversed the 16km trail thick with fresh snow…in gym shoes. I can still feel my frozen toes.

#2 – Malbork Castle, Malbork 

Europe has such a knack for making you and your life feel small in the face of so much history. This was certainly the case in Malbork, exploring the largest Teutonic castle in the world. 

#1 – Główny Rynek, Kalisz

Regardless of destination, the memories (and photos) that mean the most often have to do with friends and family. For me, walking around one of the oldest cities of Poland with my parents falls directly into this category.  

Locations of the 12 photos

What an incredible country! I love reminiscing about all the things we did and saw while living in Poland (thanks for humoring me, by the way). One of the most shocking things about this little project was realizing that this was 7 years ago! We’re clearly long overdue for a trip back. Fingers crossed it happens sooner rather than later! Naprawdę tęsknię za Tobą Polsko.

Quintana Roo – Mexico’s Caribbean Coast

One of my goals for our time spent living in Mexico is to visit as many of the 31 states as I can. In fact, this lofty goal, coupled with the fact that my mother-in-law loves the beach, is what led us on our most recent adventure to Mexico’s easternmost state, Quintana Roo (pronounced “keen-tah-nah row”). Typically, we don’t spend quite as much time (two weeks!) in one state, nor do we often have the luxury of visiting four separate cities and two islands on one trip; however, we definitely wanted to be thorough here because these are some of the most popular tourist destinations both within Mexico and internationally! So, if you’ve always wanted to head on down to Riviera Maya, here’s my summary of what you can see, do, and expect:

Cancún / Isla Mujeres

Our first stop was in Cancún for many reasons. For one, Cancún International Airport is the second largest in the country, which means there are tons of flights in and out from a huge variety of locales. Another solid, practical reason to start in Cancún is the fact that it’s located at the very tip of the Yucatán peninsula, meaning flights from east of the Mississippi are quite short and very affordable. Personally, I also wanted to start in Cancún because I had (erroneously, as it turns out) thought that Cancún would be my least favorite of the cities on our itinerary, and I’m very much a save-the-best-for-last kind of person.

The Best Parts:

Speaking of bests, one of our favorite experiences in Cancún was kayaking among the mangroves in the Nichupte Lagoon. As a planned city, Cancún has several distinct “zones”, and the Nichupte Lagoon is actually what separates the Hotel Zone from the city center, making it very convenient regardless of where you’re staying. The lagoon is part of a protected reserve and boasts incredibly clear and calm water as well as a plethora of flora and fauna. Another must-do, as far as we’re concerned, is a catamaran ride to Isla Mujeres. On a whim, we booked an all-day package that included a catamaran ride, snorkeling through MUSA (an underwater art museum), an open bar, a buffet, and several hours of free time on the island. It was amazing! Dancing to the macarena with a group of strangers was the cherry on top of the perfect beach day. Of course, all the beaches on Cancún and Isla Mujeres are glorious. I have never felt sand so powdery soft or seen such beautiful water both on the shore and out at sea. I totally get why people fall in love with these beaches.

Things to Note:

For me, Cancún (and really all of Riviera Maya) is not the place to go for true Mexican culture. It is a tourist haven, and there are essentially zero Quintana Roo locals. Cancún, especially, has a bit of a Vegas vibe as the city is divided into the Centro and the somewhat remote Hotel Zone – the Hotel Zone being very much like “The Strip”. We actually learned the hard way that getting around Cancún isn’t as easy as it usually is in Mexico. Ubers are banned from the airport and the Hotel Zone, taxis do everything they can to ensure they’re getting their money’s worth, and the buses (while frequent) are quite crowded and more expensive as well. The resorts can also be a bit of a headache for those who are staying downtown. Although, by law, all beaches in Mexico are open to the public, private hotels can and have put up walls that require a long walk around to specified access points along the Hotel Zone. That said, once you’re on the beach, you can walk anywhere you want, and there’s nothing they can do about it!

Speaking of headaches…

Playa del Carmen / Cozumel

Our next stop was Playa del Carmen, another resort-focused city along the coast and without question a part of the infamous Riviera Maya. As it’s only about an hour from Cancún, it’s really easy to travel from one to the other, and like Cancún, Playa del Carmen also has a famous island destination right off its shores: Cozumel. Interestingly, I had been to Cozumel as a pre-teen while on a family cruise, but to be honest, my memory of it was almost non-existent…maybe that should have been my first clue as to how I would feel about it as an adult.

The Best Parts:

But first, the positives. The center or anchor of Playa del Carmen is a long shopping/restaurant street called Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue). Here they have everything from high-end malls to beach trinkets and 5-star dining to taco stands. We ate at Aldea Corazón, which had an absolutely delicious take on modern Mexican cuisine. They also have a waterfall and cenote in the outdoor dining area, so the atmosphere is as excellent as the food. After Cancún, it was nice that everything: hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. were all running parallel to the beach, just one block inland. I appreciated not needing any form of transportation while seeing the sights. Playa del Carmen is also beautifully placed directly between Cancún and Tulum, making it easily accessible from either direction.

Things to Note:

Okay, now I’ll be the first one to admit that sometimes you have bad days or bad experiences while traveling (it has definitely happened to us on more than one occasion), and it doesn’t usually affect how I feel about a particular destination. However, our time in Playa del Carmen, definitely had some extreme travel lows. Tourist scams are abundant, upcharges are frequent, and Cozumel is catered to cruise ships. All I can say, is you’ll have to pay A LOT to see and do things that were honestly better in Cancún and Isla Mujeres. Another thing to note (really in all heavily touristed areas/large cities) is to be aware of your surroundings. While we were in Playa del Carmen, we witnessed a serious street fight that got out of hand and could have easily escalated into something much worse. Remember it’s not only family vacationers that frequent high-end resort areas.

$25, over 45 minutes, blacked out windows…find another way!

Tulum

After our day in Playa del Carmen, we drove down to our next destination: the highly touted, Tulum. If you consume a lot of travel-related media (like I do), Tulum is/was most likely already on your bucket list as well. Mayan ruins on the cliffs, underground rivers and cenotes, eco-tourism at its finest! I think for this particular trip, Tulum was the city I was looking forward to the most.

The Best Parts:

The things that have put Tulum on the map are definitely the main reasons to visit. The Tulum ruins are incredible! There is so much history and beauty in these sites (although I do have to say that Uxmal, which is closer to Mérida in Yucatán, is still my favorite Mayan site. Yes, even over Chichén Itzá.) The cenotes, of which there are so many in this area, are also well worth the trip. Crystal clear freshwater swimming holes that have so many interesting facts and stories surrounding them – what’s not to love? Downtown Tulum isn’t quite as developed as either Playa del Carmen or Cancún, but the number of independently owned, vegan/vegetarian-friendly restaurants is certainly top notch. The main road through the city is the aptly named Avenida Tulum, but I highly recommend walking parallel to the main drag (on either side) to get a little more of the real day-to-day life of Tulum. And if you are planning to stay in Tulum, I cannot recommend Casa Libélula enough – such a beautiful little oasis tucked away in the chaos that is a burgeoning tourism hub.

Things to Note:

As I mentioned, Tulum is still a growing tourist destination, meaning there are some kinks they’re still working out. Sidewalks are mostly present, but not always, and the locals are still figuring out the right prices for their wares…in my opinion, they’re aiming quite high at the moment. Unfortunately, another thing that goes along with these up-and-coming tourist destinations is the yolo mentality (on both sides). The tourists are yolo-ing it up with a lot of noise and trash (and no resort personnel to clean up after them), and the vendors are making the most of a current fad that they know might not last forever by taking advantage when and where they see fit. In addition to the pandemic-related slump that has affected tourism globally, over the past few years, the Caribbean coast of Mexico has also been inundated with sargassum, or seagrass, and Tulum is unfortunately not immune.

So much Sargassum!

Bacalar

Finally, our last stop on this epic journey, the future tourist hot-spot of Bacalar. Bacalar is about 4 hours south of Cancún, an hour north of Belize, and sits on the pristine Bacalar Lagoon. Unlike the other three cities we visited, Bacalar had not been on my radar until after we moved to Mexico. This is a favorite among locals, and anyone who visits can easily understand why. During our time in Bacalar, I actually felt quite sad thinking about whether or not it’s going to become the next Tulum or Playa del Carmen, but I have to think that it will always retain the special type of mágico that exists there now. ¡Ojalá!

The Best Parts:

Immediately, one of the best parts of Bacalar for me was that it felt much more like the Mexico that I have come to know. It is much more laid back (even with the growing tourism industry). Bacalar has a more traditional main square, an old Spanish fort, and plenty of places to just sit and chill out in the shade. Thankfully, price-gauging hasn’t become an issue in the local shops, and here, more than anywhere else on our trip, was my Spanish needed (as it should be!). Then there’s the lagoon itself. 42km by 2km (26mi by 1.2mi) of incredibly clear blue water (in fact, Bacalar Lagoon is known for having 7 distinct shades of blue). As there is a lot of shoreline available along the lagoon, it’s very common and affordable to stay right on the water, which is what we did. We stayed at Seven Blue House and had an amazing time swinging in hammocks on the dock, kayaking in the lagoon, and watching the sun and wind play on the water from our balcony right over the edge of the lagoon.

Things to Note:

Of course, with Bacalar being so much smaller than the other notable cities in Quintana Roo, the amenities are limited (no Señor Frog’s here!). It’s also not on the beach if that’s something you’re looking for. The lagoon is a couple of hours from the nearest Caribbean beach and all that accompanies it (like sand, for instance). Bacalar is also the furthest away from the big airports and most famous sites of the Yucatán peninsula, so if you want to do and see it all, Bacalar is not a likely home base for a trip like that.

TL;DR

Ultimately, this was a trip full of surprises for us, which shouldn’t actually be so surprising given all the expectations and preconceived notions we came into it with! In summary, I do feel a little guilty about how hard I was on Cancún (before I even visited) because in reality I enjoyed the variety it had to offer. Playa del Carmen isn’t really my vibe, but I can see the draw. I wish I had traveled to Tulum 10 years ago, but it’s still such a sight to see. And with Bacalar, the baby of Quintana Roo’s tourism industry, all I can do is wish it well and hope it remains as unique as it is in this moment.

And with that, another extraordinary trip is in the books! Just so everyone knows, I still pinch myself quite often over the fact that we’re able to do and see all that we have. What an incredible planet we inhabit! Hopefully everyone reading this is currently planning their next adventure, but if not, I hope you enjoyed living this one through my eyes. Here’s to the next one!

¡Salud!

One Year in Mexico – What Have We Learned?

What a year! And what a question! As usual, the time is flying by, and the number of stories, facts, and lessons we’ve accumulated are innumerable. However, I thought it might be fun to share a few of the things that have stuck out this past year as we’ve continued adapting to our new home in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The Lifestyle

One of the first things that is easily recognizable as soon as someone enters Mexico is its vibe. Totally unique and bursting with energy, Mexico (and Guadalajara in particular) had an immediate effect on our mentality. Moving from China back to the US with Canada on the horizon during a global pandemic definitely had us in a more serious mindset. Luckily, only a few days in Mexico had us feeling considerably more relaxed.

More than relaxed actually – tranquilo is the word. The week we arrived in Mexico, I remember walking through a park and watching a man literally stop to smells the flowers. My American go-go-go brain couldn’t compute at first. But that was really all it was. He stopped, smelled the flowers, and went back to his walk. It was the first of many muy tranquilo instances we’ve encountered this year. You can’t help but slow down and ease up, even in a major city like Guadalajara. I have to imagine this year has been significantly better for my blood pressure!  

In addition to feeling more relaxed, we’ve also been re-learning the concept of divertido (fun). One image that will forever be ingrained in my head is that of a man we saw in Ajijic riding a horse down the middle of a road while simultaneously browsing his phone and downing a cerveza. He was definitely having fun. But it’s not just the so-called magic towns that have fun. We live a block away from the party street of GDL, and we hear ALL the fun. I know for some that sounds like a nightmare (light sleepers beware), but for us, it feels like we’re having a party every weekend. Even if we’re just in our PJs watching TV at a comfortable distance.  

Another aspect of our new lives in Mexico has to be living in the moment (o espontáneamente). Sometimes it seems like either something is done right then or else it’ll be “ahorita” (which basically means never). A good example of this would be the “afiladores” or “knife sharpeners”. Every week from our apartment we can hear a whistle and a shout from the afiladores who walk the neighborhood announcing their presence so residents in need can grab their knives and run down for an impromptu sharpening. So far, I’ve yet to attempt this, but maybe ahortia…       

The Lessons 

Of course, adapting to the lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight. We’re basically still fumbling our way through life’s daily routines, making error after error as we go, but for me that’s where all the fun is. The laughs we get from the mistakes we make along with the little annoyances or oddities that give us a window into our own cultural confines definitely make all the ambiguity and confusion worth it.

¿Cajeta o galleta?

Most likely our biggest area of failure revolves around language (as it has in every one of our previous homes abroad). One that is still making us laugh actually occurred in the privacy of our own vehicle on the long drive down. The GPS kept saying we were headed toward Oeste, but neither of us had heard of that city or ever saw it on the map. Turns out “oeste” just means west in Spanish. How had we never learned the cardinal directions? Other language faux pas include my use of the word “cansada” rather than “casada” (“tired” instead of “married”) when asked my civil status, and Tucker’s continual struggle with the pronunciation of “galleta” versus “cajeta” (“cookie” or “caramel”) – for the record, I prefer cajeta.  

Another big lesson (mostly for Tucker) this year has been within the realm of driving. Driving in a foreign country is always challenging, but when you add increased frequency, the lessons just keep on coming. For example, we’ve just about reached our lifetime quota of driving through three-lane roundabouts. Still not always sure the best practices there, though. We’ve also realized that “yielding to flow” is not as easy as it sounds. But my personal favorite has been listening to forgotten 80s hits everywhere we go. The radio stations here absolutely love to play Rasputin, Take On Me, and the like.   

Glorieta de los Niños Héroes – pure chaos
Adiós Tony

Shopping in Mexico has also taught us a few lessons over the past year. We had previously learned that we might be expected to sticker our own produce before checking out (thanks Poland and China), but in Mexico, they thankfully do that at the registers. However, here it’s the bakery and cosmetics sections that are separate in most grocery stores, requiring separate check-outs/payments. We definitely lost a carrot cake in this learning process. Another fun grocery store occurrence is the covering up of any cartoon mascots on food products. There’s a law in Mexico that banned characters like Chester Cheeto and Tony the Tiger in an effort to combat childhood obesity and skewed marketing tactics. When we buy products imported from the US, there’s very often a huge sticker covering up some well-known faces.

Other Surprising Tidbits

In all honesty, every time I write a post like this, it’s hard to choose what to put in and what to save for in-person stories. I usually try to group our experiences in some way, but there are so many things we come across that are really in a world of their own. Things like…

Taco facts. Tacos are a way of life in Mexico, and we’ve learned a lot about how to rate, make, and eat a taco. First of all, two corn tortillas are a must for any self-respecting taco. We’ve heard rumors that in El Norte you can get flour tortillas, but I don’t know, it seems sort of sacrilegious now. Sadly, I also found out that putting crema on your tacos is totally fresa (uppity or snobbish). In fact, the purist tacos should have only 5 things: tortillas, meat, onion, cilantro, and lime. Of course, the final addition to any taco is a good salsa, but I could (and might seriously) write an entire post about salsa in Mexico. 

Another discovery in our early Mexico days was the constant morning cowbells. It reminded us of the “bring out your dead” scene of Monty Python, but in reality, it’s the call of the garbage collectors. There aren’t traditional bins in downtown GDL (and good thing too because the sidewalks are well-trafficked and the sun is warm), so instead of a weekly collection day, each morning the bells are rung, and if you have a full bin, you set your bag outside for collecting as they pass by.

Last but not least, I thought I’d end on a cultural tidbit that I’m not sure if I find cute or creepy. When children lose their teeth in the US, the Tooth Fairy visits their room while they sleep, taking the tooth and leaving some money (also somewhat of a mix between cute and creepy to be honest…). And kids here in Mexico experience a similar swap; however, it’s not a fairy that makes the trade. It’s the Ratón de los Dientes (or the Tooth Mouse). Makes me wonder if Mickey’s got a collection of teeth somewhere in the Kingdom.

Anyway, that’s what we’ve been up to during our first year in Mexico. Picking it all up as we go along and having a ton of fun in the process. We’re currently busy renewing our residencies for an additional 3 years, so I think the learning has only begun! ¡Deseanos suerte!

Hogar dulce hogar ❤

US National Parks and Rec

For me, the National Park Service is easily one of the most amazing things about the United States. I am very fortunate to have seen many of these incredible places growing up, and even now when I plan trips back to the States, I always try to include a national or state park in my itinerary. The diversity and the beauty of North America is absolutely astounding, and I (and many others) can’t get enough of it. FDR once said that “there is nothing more American than our national parks”, and I really couldn’t agree more, which is why I want to share a few of my recent NPS experiences and ultimately spur others to get out there and see these beauties while we can!

Number and Size

The United States is a massive country. As the song goes, it stretches from sea to shining sea, covering a whopping 2.43 billion acres. Thankfully, in the 1800s, Americans realized that we might just need to protect some of our incredible land (mostly from ourselves). Thus, the first national park was born. These days, national parks make up about 80 million acres of the US, and when combined with state parks and other protected areas, represent about 14% of the total land area. As of January 2022, there are 63 congressionally-designated national parks and 423 national park sites located in the US, all chosen for “their natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse ecosystems, and recreational opportunities”.

What’s in a Name?

As mentioned, we have 63 infamous national parks, but what is the distinction between the parks and the national park sites? And what about national monuments or state parks? Well, the national parks can be seen as the big kahunas. They are what the other parks, sites, and monuments hope to be when they grow up. To be designated as a national park there has to be an abundance and variety of natural resources and large swaths of land or water areas that enable the protection of these resources. National park sites and monuments on the other hand are usually smaller and singularly focused (as in one element of a national park or a historic site completely separate from the national parks). They might also include things that are not so park-like, such as Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.

State parks, however, are quite different. As the name suggests, they are run by each state as opposed to the federal government. This usually means that there is a lot more variety in how they are managed and upkept. Luckily, it also means that they are right outside your door (wherever that happens to be). Tucker and I really discovered the joys of state parks while we were pandemically pinned in Florida. Florida and most states east of the Mississippi are somewhat lacking in national parks, but they are not lacking whatsoever in state parks. Florida, for example, has 175 state parks, Illinois has 123, and Georgia has a still-respectable 46. While they might not be as big or famous as those in the NPS, they’ve also been chosen specifically for their natural beauty, historic interest, or recreational potential.

All Good Things

All of these protected areas are well worth seeing. Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, and so many others are the epitome of America’s beauty, and the lesser-known names are no less so. Our national and state parks are extremely accessible and fortunately not cost-prohibitive. The most expensive entrance fees are $35, but the vast majority of parks charge only a fraction of that, making national and state parks not only an incredible experience, but also one of the cheapest you can find (so much better than a day at the movies, in my opinion). Not to mention, the money you spend at the parks goes to an amazing cause: the conservation and preservation of our incredible homeland. So, who’s ready to get out there and explore our amazing parks?!

Exploring Ecuador

Over Thanksgiving break this year, Tucker and I decided it was finally time to hit the international travel trail again! Aside from our move to Mexico last winter, we hadn’t been abroad for business or pleasure since 2019, so it was definitely an exciting prospect for us. For this particular trip, we decided on Ecuador, which meant that we’d not only be traversing a new country, but also a new continent since this was our first time to South America as well. Woohoo! Here’s my take on our latest journey:  

The Preparation

Of course, before venturing out, the first question we had to ask ourselves was where to go, which is not so easy in post-Covid times. Different countries have different restrictions and requirements for testing, vaccination, tourism, etc. We finally settled on Ecuador for several reasons. For one, I was happy that they require either a negative PCR test or a vaccination card for entry (a little regulation goes a long way). Two, we were also hoping to stick to the Spanish-speaking world (to continue our practice/immersion, of course). And three, I’ve always wanted to visit the equator – how cool is it to be able to stand in two different hemispheres at the same time!

…or sit on the line…

Once we decided on the location and made sure we had the necessary documents ready, we were able to start planning. The planning also turned out to be a little different than our pre-2020 travels. A lot of services and attractions have been permanently closed (including the postal system as we found out), and even those that remain open often require additional amounts of flexibility because everything is very much subject to change these days. This was really my first glimpse into just how hard the tourism industry has been hit over the last two years. Prices, schedules, options, procedures – a lot has changed, but with any luck, it’ll continue to bounce back and hopefully be stronger than ever. I know I’m beyond ready for that.

The Capital: Quito

Our first stop and home base for this trip was Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. If you weren’t already aware, Quito is one of (if not the) highest capital city in the world at 2,850 m (9,350 ft). I love the fact that the elevation meant chilly temperatures (even so close to the equator), but, unfortunately, my head doesn’t particularly like the pressure changes that also occur at elevation. The good news is I already knew about my sensitivity to high altitudes, and I was able to take Western medicine (Acetazolamide), drink the local coca tea, and share some traditional Chinese medicine with a fellow traveler all to avoid any unwelcome bouts of altitude sickness. I’m not exactly sure which one did the trick, but other than a mild headache, I was totally fine to climb stairs, hike volcanos, and do anything and everything else I wanted to do Ecuador. Another success!  

Aside from its elevation, Quito is also unique in that it is wedged between several Andean mountains and volcanoes. For this reason, although the city is about 40 km (25 mi) long, it’s only 5 km (3.1 miles) wide. It’s also extremely hilly, which made for many beautiful views all across the city as well as some of the most difficult driving conditions I’ve ever experienced. Imagine a 45-degree incline on slippery cobblestones in bumper-to-bumper traffic with a manual vehicle. I made sure to compliment the driving of every one of our taxi/Uber drivers- so impressive! Another amazing part of staying in Quito was the history. Quito has one of the least-altered and best-persevered historic centers in the Americas, and the plazas, churches, and neighborhoods were so much fun to explore. 

The Food/Restaurants

Pristiños y chocolate caliente con queso

Another really fun part of this trip was the fact that we were trying out a completely new type of cuisine. Neither Tucker or I could remember ever having Ecuadorian food, so everything was completely unknown. From the tostados (or toasted corn kernels) and ají (a spicy sauce served with every meal) to the most famous dishes from the highlands, we loved learning and sampling everything. Some of our favorites included empanadas de verde (empanadas made of plantains stuffed with cheese), locro de papa (creamy potato soup), and pristiños (fried dough with honey). Another infamous dish in this region (one that we actually opted to forgo) is cuy, or in English, guinea pig. Definitely new to us!  

While certain things (like rodents on the menu) made Ecuador seem very far from the US, other things made us feel like we’d gone north rather than south. For example, Ecuadorians use the US dollar as their currency, and I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the break from constantly converting in my head. Another similarity is that servers in Ecuador often take your credit card to a register in the back of the restaurant for payment. Not so strange for the average American, but after years in countries where that would never fly we found ourselves feeling a little concerned about identity theft. I mean, where’s the portable terminal? And why aren’t those commonplace everywhere?! It seems so bizarre to us now!  

The Nature

As amazing as Quito (and its restaurant scene) is, the nature is the real draw. Ecuador is home to the Amazon, the Andes, and the Galapagos Islands. It has an incredible amount of biodiversity, and while we mostly stuck to the highlands (this time), we were absolutely blown away by what we saw. Our focus on this particular trip was definitely the volcanoes. Ecuador has the most volcanoes per square kilometer of any country, including some of the only volcanic glaciers on/near the equator. One of our favorite experiences in Ecuador was climbing Cotopaxi, the highest volcano in the country. Not being very experienced or even prepared climbers, we only hiked to the refuge (at 4,860 m / 15,744 ft), which was difficult enough with the lack of oxygen, unstable terrain, and hail we experienced along the way. Still, I’d definitely do it again in a heartbeat – so cool!

The other big hike we did was at the Quilotoa crater, about three hours from Cotopaxi. Quilotoa used to be a volcano, but after its last massive eruption in 1280, it is now classified as a caldera. Here we found ourselves climbing down rather than up as we made our way into the crater to get to the shores of the mineral lake that now fills the void. The hike down was absolutely breathtaking, but the hike back up was brutal: 1.7 km of steep, sandy paths (still at an elevation of over 3,914 m / 12,841 ft), and if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, it rained on us the whole way out. This was one of only a few trips where Tucker and I actually lost weight on vacation…despite all the good food. And speaking of food, my favorite part of this day might have actually been the meal we had after the hike – a Thanksgiving feast that will live in infamy.

The Random Facts We Gleaned

Since our buses out to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa were cancelled (because there weren’t enough people to warrant them), we actually got to tag along with a tour bus group instead. This meant that we got loads of information about Ecuador, the Andes, volcanoes, etc. – much more than I ever would have found on my own. For that reason, I have a plethora of other interesting facts to share about Ecuador. Here are some of my favorites:

-Ecuador was the first country to give constitutional rights to nature. In 2008, Ecuadorians voted to give its mountains, rivers, forests, air, and islands “legally enforceable rights to exist, flourish, and evolve”.

-One of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in this part of the world is Quechua, which is derived from the language used by the ancient Incan empire. Interestingly, Ecuadorians refer to the Peruvian dialect as Quechua while calling their own Quichua.

-Many place names and colloquial expressions in Ecuador combine Spanish and Quichua, such as the catchy “chulla vida”, which is the Ecuadorian version of “YOLO”.  

-Llamas and alpacas are both endemic to this part of South America and can be commonly seen alongside other livestock throughout the highlands. But how can you tell them apart? Well, alpacas are much shorter, have softer fur, and are typically less aggressive. Llamas are the ones to look out for!

-Another interesting fact about Ecuador is that it is home to the highest mountain in the world…sort of. The peak of Mount Chimborazo is actually the furthest from the center of the Earth (or the closest to the sun). Mount Everest is the highest if compared to sea level.

-Gravity is lower at the equator, which is why many rocket launch sites are located close to the equator. It’s also the reason it’s supposedly easier to balance an egg on a nail. #huevochallenge

-Ecuador is also the world’s largest exporter of bananas. Unsurprisingly, the bananas we had while there were extremely cheap and perfectly ripe.

Overall, it was truly an incredible trip. I feel so grateful that we were able to have this experience, and I sincerely hope it won’t be so long before our next big adventure!

¡Gracias por un buen viaje, Ecuador!

¡Guadalajara, Guadalajara!

Somehow, we’ve officially been residents of Mexico for 6 months already, and it’s absolutely crazy how fast the time went by! Of course, as we’re still in “pandemic times”, our usual explorations and goings-on in a new city have been pretty tame, but that doesn’t mean we’re not learning everything we can about the incredible city we call home: Guadalajara. Through virtual chats with local friends, outdoor excursions, online Spanish classes, and, of course, the internet, we’ve definitely gleaned a lot of information about GDL, and I would say we are already as fiercely proud of this city as any good Tapatío (or Guadalajara native) would be. We’re so enamored (okay maybe even a little obsessed) that this month I want to share some keys facts about Guadalajara in the hopes that someday soon anyone and everyone will want to visit this amazing city.  

History

First thing’s first: where did it all begin? This is always a tricky subject with colonized countries because there are typically two histories: one European and one indigenous. Guadalajara’s story is no different. In the region/state now known as Jalisco (of which Guadalajara is the capital), there were many indigenous groups such as the Tonallan, Tetlán, and Zapopan peoples. These names can actually still be seen and heard representing various parts of the modern-day, sprawling city, but it was in the early 1500s, when the Spanish settlers, continuing their journey west, officially founded the city known as “Guadalajara”. However, due to some unrest with the local indigenous groups of the time, the city was actually moved three times before finally settling in its current location in the Atemajac Valley, in 1542. In fact, the true founder of the city was Beatriz Hernández, one of the initial settlers, who got tired of all the moving around and finally put her foot down, ultimately choosing the city’s final placement.

From 1542 onward, Guadalajara has always played an important role in Mexico’s history. Miguel Hidalgo had his headquarters set up here during the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s. President Benito Juárez made Guadalajara the seat of his government during the Reform War of the 1850s. Throughout the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, the Great Depression, and multiple domestic and international wars, Guadalajara continued to flourish and grow. By 1910, it solidified its place as the second largest city in Mexico, and since then has also become known as the “Silicon Valley” of Mexico, hosting a large number of innovative companies and international events throughout the years. As the city of Guadalajara expanded, neighboring cities have also been absorbed into the greater GDL area, including Tonalá, Tlaquepaque, and Zapopan, each of which still retains its unique vibe and perspective.

Geography/Climate

The geography of Guadalajara is a really interesting mix because while we’re squarely in Central Mexico in a “humid subtropical climate” zone, we’re also at 5,200 ft (1,560 m), roughly the same elevation as Denver, Colorado. For this reason, the weather is extremely mild (read: gorgeous). The hottest and driest months of the year here are April and May, but even then, the average high is only around 88°F (31°C). With no humidity and with temperatures dropping into the 50s (10-12°C) every night, it felt somewhat like a brief, very manageable (albeit early) summer. From June-September, GDL is in rainy season, which typically means rainy afternoons and some seriously stormy nights. Luckily, it also means the temperatures stay down as well. It’s currently August, and I usually have to wear a jacket when taking the dog out in the mornings – how awesome it that?! After the rainy season comes a cool, crisp autumn followed by a dry, mild winter. In GDL, winters are usually quite sunny and “spring-like”, but it has on occasion snowed. In fact, we’ve already heard several great stories about the infamous snow event of 1997!

Although it sits at a high elevation, Guadalajara is still technically in a valley, which means there are low-lying mountains surrounding the city. To the northeast there is a canyon system and several surrounding forests including Bosque Primavera. In general, Guadalajara is much lusher than I would have expected: green grasses, leafy trees, and many waterfalls can be found throughout Jalisco. There are also several volcanos in the area, a few small ones to the west (near Tequila) and a few more, southwest on the border of Colima, another one of Mexico’s 31 states. The city of Guadalajara itself is quite large: 58 sq mi (151 sq km) and is home to approximately 1.5 million people. If it helps, it’s about the same size and has a similar population density as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Guadalajara, like most large cities, is broken up into many distinctive barrios (or neighborhoods). We live in the slightly hipster Colonia Americana, which lies a little to the west of the oldest neighborhood in the city, the aptly named “Centro”.

Food

Of course, I cannot write about Guadalajara without highlighting some of its most characteristic foods. I wrote a bit about the common dishes found in the Bajío (lowland)/Western region of Mexico in a previous post, but for Guadalajara in particular there are a few specialties that must be mentioned. The first being the infamous torta ahogada (“drowned sandwich”). Perhaps the Philly-GDL comparison can continue here because the fame and ubiquity of this particular sandwich is very similar to that of the renowned cheesesteak in PA. A torta ahogada is essentially a pork sandwich made on baguette-like bread smothered in a spicy tomato sauce. It’s absolutely delicious and very unique. Other famous dishes here include birria (slow-cooked meat stew), carne en su jugo (beef broth with beans, eaten with tortillas), and jericalla (a flan/crème brûlée like dessert). The French flair that can be seen (and tasted) in a lot of Guadalajara’s signature dishes actually comes from the large swath of French immigrants who came into the area throughout the 1800s.

Not exactly a food, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share the fact that tequila is also an important claim of Guadalajara/Jalisco. The city of Tequila (which is how the drink got its name) is about 40 miles (65km) outside GDL. Grown only in this particular region of Mexico, the blue agave plant (as opposed to other varieties) is what separates tequila from other types of mezcal. Its status is highly protected, and the drink is as beloved here as it is the States. Although the margarita is really more of a US thing, cocktails containing tequila mixed with various fruits, juices, and either salt or tajín (a powder made of chilis and dried fruit) are super common here. In Guadalajara, I’d say the paloma is the most popular tequila-based cocktail, which is made with tequila, lime juice, grapefruit soda (usually Squirt), and salt mixed right into the drink.  

Other Notables

Guadalajara is known as a cultural hub of Mexico because not only does tequila (a national icon) originate here, but so does mariachi. The traditional music often associated with Mexico in general has gone through a lot of phases during its development and various influences. From handmade stringed instruments played by indigenous groups to the brightly colored outfits and trumpets of performers today, you can listen to a variety of mariachi styles in the Plaza de los Mariachis or in various restaurants across Guadalajara (and across Mexico as a whole), especially for important events. Mariachi, and its history, is widely celebrated in GDL, for example with a yearly Mariachi festival, during which (in 2009) a group of over 540 musicians gathered to break the world record for largest mariachi group playing together. One of the songs they played was, of course, “Guadalajara”, famously covered by Elvis Presley.

Other interesting facts about Guadalajara include: the Roman/Greek goddess Minerva/Athena has become a symbol of the city. She has a large statue near the Arch of Guadalajara and is also featured on the city’s license plates. GDL has two professional soccer teams: the Atlas and the Chivas, and from what I understand, the latter is arguably the most famous and successful team in Mexico. Guadalajara also has the largest indoor market in Latin America (Mercado San Juan de Dios also known as Mercado Libertad), which spans over 430,000 sq ft (40,000 sq m). GDL was also the birthplace of celebrities Guillermo del Toro (the director) and Canelo Álvarez (the boxer). And…it’s only a 4-5hour flight from Atlanta or Chicago! Ultimately, it’s a really remarkable city, and unlike some of the other places we’ve lived, the locals here know it and love it just as much as we do. I think you will too!

¡Todos bienvenidos!