Tasting Limited Edition “Vinos Mexico 2010″ – Puebla, Mexico

Last night we got lucky. After enjoying our very first Chiles en Nogada (a delicious seasonal regional specialty) at his acclaimed hotel and restaurant, Mesón Sacristía de la Compañía, owner and director Leobardo Espinosa invited us to join him at a private tasting of a very special wine.

As usual in Mexico, we are so glad we said yes.

Less than a year ago Mexico’s President, Felipe Calderón decided it would be a great idea for many of Mexico’s wineries to get together and produce some special blends as commemorative bicentennial wines. President Calderón likes wine and has even been credited with ditching the Spanish wines historically served on the Presidential plane and replacing them with Mexican wines. Bravo.

Anyway, a group of 21 wineries, large and small, from across Mexico ultimately took up the President’s challenge and they worked fast and furious over the  next few months to procure juice from 2008 and 2009 vintages, then blend it into three special bottles. We are familiar with a few of the wineries, but many participants were new to us. The list includes: Adobe Guadalupe, Bibayoff Vinos, Bodega la Redonda, Bodega Roganto, Bodegas Ferrino, Bodegas San Rafael, Bodegas Santo Tomas (one of our favorites), Casa Madero (the oldest winery in The Americas), Casa Pedro Domecq, Cavas Freixenet de Mexico, Chateau Camou, Moebius, Monte Xanic (another favorite), Valmar, Villa Montefiori, Vinicola San Patricio, L.A. Cetto, Vinos Tanama, Vina de Liceaga, Vinedos Aldo Cesar Palafox and Vinedos Azteca.

Together they created three limited edition wines called Vinos Mexico 2010 to commemorate the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence from Spain: one vino blanco Elite, one vino tinto Elite and one vino tinto Premium. The wines were unveiled last night at Restaurant La Noria, a swanky eatery in a former hacienda in a swanky suburb of Puebla during a formal private tasting sponsored by Vineria, the big wine distributor in Puebla. Sophisticated wine writers, hoteliers, wine club members, restauranteurs (and lucky us), got to taste the Elite blanco and the Elite tinto (red).

Mexico Bicentennial wines

The white Elite–a blend of chardonnay, chenin blanc, colombard and sauvignon blanc–starts with a bracing pucker, has a nice green nose and finishes with a lot of oak. There’s also a lot of honeysuckle which starts out lively but bloats at the finish. It’s a bit all over the map, but the effect is pleasing. The wine, made with juice from seven different wineries, improved substantially when poured very cold and it was very good with food–particularly the ultra-fresh ceviche we had to nibble on.

The red Elite is a mind (and palate) boggling blend of 13 varietals including barbera, cabernet-franc, cabernet-sauvignon, carinena, grenache, malbec, merlot, mision, petite syrah, ruby cabernet, sangiovese, syrah and tempranillo. Phew. Really, the task of blending so many different types of grapes from 13 different wineries into a complex wine is nearly impossible. What the winemakers did accomplish is the creation of a very easy to drink, no-brainer, light-bodied red that makes a good alternative to rose and would make an excellent base for sangria.

At 212 pesos (around US$17) for the Elite white and the Elite red and 400 pesos (around US$32) for the Premium red (which we did not get to taste) the wines are priced to try–and you really can’t beat the story behind their creation.

Our home base for this event was La Purificadora hotel where we spruced ourselves up in the solid alabaster shower (yes, even the floor is made from alabaster) and got our fancy clothes back into presentable shape (it’s not easy carting around cocktail party duds in the back of a truck).

Part of Grupo Habita (which readers of this blog already know we love), La Purificador is a favored haunt of politicians and movie stars (there were literally paparazzi stalking famous fellow diners during breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant this morning) and the sleek/chic atmosphere got us in just the right mood for the sophisticated and elite tasting.

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Taco Taste Test – Mexico City

This post is part 5 of 5 in the series Mexico City

Tacos are everywhere in Mexico and we’ve eaten more than we can count in the 16 months our Journey has spent here. But there’s something about the pace (need to grab a quick bite on my way to a meeting) and the coolness (need a snack before/during/after a night out) of Mexico City that is uniquely suited to tacos. Result? The town is lousy with taco joints.

Before we get a tidal wave of territorial taco tirades from folks who believe that they (and only they) know where to find the best tacos in Mexico’s capital city let us say one thing: this is not intended to be the last word on Mexico City tacos. Heaven forbid.

Okay, this taco stand is NOT in Mexico City (it's in Tuxtla Guitierrez), but we love the sense of humor in the name.

This is merely our take on the tastiest tacos we’ve tasted in Mexico City (so far) at places that are not mobile street vendors. Here we’ve focused on another level of tacos—one where there are tables and chairs and a permanent location and a cadre of loyal diners. For its combination of value, tastiness and sheer entertainment we prefer Los Paisas, but you be the judge…

A stack of el pastor meat on the spit--El Tizoncito in Mexico City claims to have invented this style of taco.

Name: El Tizoncito

Neighborhood: Condessa (though there are outposts across the city and across Mexico)

Vibe: Holier than thou. This place (the original installment of a chain) claims to have invented the ubiquitous tacos al pastor and its unique method of slowly grilling a cone-shaped stack of meat on a vertical rotating spit (like a gyro). This is like opening up a snack shop in Chicago and saying you invented hot dogs.

Strong suit: Um…

Insider tip: The al pastor tacos at El Tizoncito come with a fairly goopy, slightly sweep sauce on them—something we’ve never seen on any other tacos al pastor and which we do not generally consider a plus.

La cuenta: The al pastor tacos at El Tizoncito were, by far, the  most expensive we’ve ever had and really nothing special. In the end, we felt like we were paying for their claim to fame as the inventors.

And this isn't even a particularly busy day at Taqueria Los Paisas in Mexico City.

Name: Taqueria Los Paisas

Neighborhood: On the ddge of the Centro Historic

Vibe: Working man—and it’s always packed with working men and working women. Though there is a long comunal table with stools, be prepared for standing room only and join the crowd on the sidewalk.

Strong suit: A bar of DIY taco toppings which include grilled cactus, chunky potato salad and plump beans in addition to the usual salsas and limes. Pile on as much as you want. The handmade tortillas score points too.

Insider tip: The mustachioed grill master loves to practice his English and show off his considerable taco tossing skills. Smile at him and he’ll give you a goofy show.

La cuenta: 12 pesos (about $1.00) for a huge and hearty taco filled with thin slices of beef bursting at the seams with all the toppings you want.  Tacos al pastor and chorizo tacos are even more affordable.

The goofy grill master at Los Paisas puts on a show as he cooks up your food.

Name: Taqueria El Farolito

Neighborhood: Condesa  (though there are other outposts around the city)

Vibe: Jealous. It’s just not as cool as El Califa (see below) which is right across the street.

Strong suit: They serve their tacos with two tortillas so you can split up the ample fillings and their beef tacos come with the meat conveniently chopped for less-messy eating.

Insider tip: Our friend Crispin, who used to live and work in this neighborhood, swears by the tacos Campechano with special sauce here.

La cuenta: At 18 pesos for an al pastor taco and 34 pesos (nearly $US2.75) for a beef taco this place is on the pricey side, even for a fancy sit down taco joint in a hip neighborhood.


Name: Taqueria El Califa

Neighborhood: Condesa (though there are other outposts around the city)

Vibe: The model moms, hipster students and other so-called “Califans” seem to be saying “We’re only here to fuel up on our way to (or from) somewhere even cooler.”

Strong suit: All staff members wear black t-shirts with cool graphic representations of their jobs. The delivery guys’ shirts , for example, have stylized moto-scooters on them. Some of the waiters shirts have a classic waiter’s apron printed along the bottom.  Other waiters wear a great t-shirt that says “Gringa” on the top (referencing a popular type of snack) over a picture of a buxom, half-clad American pin-up. Also, El Califa also provides a tower of salsas, tasty re-fried beans and fresh tortilla chips on the table.

Insider tip: They’ll deliver (even to your hotel) until 4 am and the place is a convivial mob scene on Sunday afternoons.

La cuenta: Their copyrighted beef “Gaona’s” tacos are 38 pesos (without cheese) but we thought the common, everyday, non-copyrighted bistek (beef steak) tacos were tastier and they were more reasonable at 22 pesos (about US$1.70) and their tasty al pastor tacos were just 11 pesos.


This post is part of the Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Travel Blog Carnival hosted this time by Kat over at Tie Dye Travel. The Carnival is hosted every two weeks by a BlogSherpa member. The topic this time is Food Around the World.


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Base Jumping – Valladolid, Yucatan State, Mexico

Located about midway between Tulum on the coast and Merida inland, Valladolid is perfectly situated to serve as a base for day trips to plentiful area attractions including the Mayan ruins of Ek’ Balam and the flamingos of the Biosphera de la Reserva Ria Lagartos (more on those sites in our next two posts).

Valladolid is also perfectly situated to sizzle—smack in the hot zone of Yucatan State without the benefit of cooling ocean breezes. It was so hot when we were in Valladolid that the toilet water was steamy. It was two-cold-showers-a-day hot only you had to be sure you got your showers in before 8 am or after 7 pm or the water coming out of the cold tap would be hot.

The city’s naturally slow pace seems exacerbated by the heat. It is just too steamy to hurry anywhere. And despite its standing as the third largest city in the Yucatan, Valladolid still looks, acts and feels a lot like a small town.

Cathedral de San Gervasio - Valladolid

Valladolid's Catedral de San Gervasio.

Valladolid also has its share of small-town pride and beautification efforts are extensive and effective. Walls and buildings are splashed with a gorgeous and engaging range of colors. The main plaza in front of the Catedral de san Gervasio have curved poured concrete two-seaters where couples sit and face each other in the cool of the evening, the downtown mercado is small but full of some of the cheapest food vendors we’ve seen anywhere in Mexico (big sandwiches for 12 pesos, breakfast egg plates for 20 pesos, etc).

Valladolid - Parque Francisco Canton Rosado

Parque Francisco Canton Rosado, the colorful main square in Valladolid.

There are some surprisingly cosmopolitan moments in centro Valladolid too including the Maruja café and wine bar which looks (and smells) very European and also offers the best-made, best-value souvenirs in town including regional chocolate and coffee, handicrafts and witty t-shirts.

Right around the corner from the Maruja café, just a quarter block off the Parque Francisco Canton Rosado, is the Casa de los Venados hotel. Located in a renovated 400 year old hacienda, this boutique hotel is packed to the rafters with the most colorful, most engaging Mexican arts and crafts the American owners, John and Dorianne Venator, could get their hands on (reservations are a must). This year a sushi café called Sushi Va opened up too.

Colorful colonial buildings of Valladolid

Colorful colonial buildings of Valladolid.

Cathedral de San Gervasio at night - Valladolid

Catedral de San Gervasio at night.

Calzada de los Frailes Valladolid

The tranquil and chic Calzada de los Frailes street in Valladolid.

About a five minute walk from the centro area is a particularly well-kept and tranquil street called Calzada de los Frailes. This street is quiet, leafy and home to the Coqui Coqui hotel. Operated by the famous perfumer, this hotel offers just two super-chic rooms around a private garden with a spa, a café and a wonderfully retro-looking perfumeria.

A more affordable option in this charming neighborhood is the year-old Hotel Tunich Beh which has eight air-conditioned rooms (did we mention that Valladolid is hot?) around a small but serviceable pool plus Wi-Fi all for 450 pesos (about US$35) double occupancy.

Calzada de los Frailes Valladolid

The tranquil and chic Calzada de los Frailes street in Valladolid.

Calzada de los Frailes street is capped by the San Bernardino de Siena Convent, a 16th century monastery in a lovely stone building on grounds that include a private cenote. Right next to the convent is Taberna de los Frailes restaurant. Opened by French chef/restaurateur/hotelier Patrick Charles Laurent and Doña Maruja Barbachano (the pair also runs Maruja café on the main plaza), the restaurant is breezy and welcoming.

The bar, lounge and dining areas are all built in a garden over part of the same massive cenote that’s found on the property of the neighboring monastery. Ask to see the well-like entrances into the cenote, but don’t get any ideas about taking a dip. The cenote’s water level is 120 feet below ground level.

The Taberna de los Frailes menu is not cheap (90 pesos to 250 pesos) but the ingredients (steak, tuna, veal) are top-notch and the preparations make a happy marriage of international techniques and Mayan and Mexican flavors–shrimp tacos al pastor is a good example (200 pesos). Or risotto Ixel with chaya, a kind of Mayan collard greens, (90 pesos). The tuna and salmon we ordered were both impeccable and the chocolate souffle was served in a soup bowl–massive! Even if you don’t eat here, stop in for a cold beverage after touring the convent.

Templo de San Bernadino and Conveto de Sisal - Valladolid

The San Bernardino de Siena Convento.

Coming soon: a new boutique hotel from the owners of Zamas in Tulum. They’re converting a house just a few doors down from Taberna restaurant into a brand new reason to visit Valladolid.

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Beach Boom – Tulum, Mexico

Tulum has been a major travel destination for years and the place has gone through many changes and much growth. The town of Tulum itself still feels like a Mexican town bisected by a highway. Yes, a shade more touristed than most Mexican towns but with enough local tourists from around the country to keep it real.

The beach area of Tulum is where the big changes are most evident and most ongoing–so much so that we stayed for an extra week to check it all out.

Beach art in front of La Zebra.

We were lucky enough to call La Zebra home for the first few days. Not only did we love the place (more on that later) but it’s also a good example of how things are changing in Tulum. Once a budget-bungalow joint that was free of frills and pretty cheap, as beach digs go, La Zebra was purchased by John Kendall who upped the comfort and decor level considerably.

One of the nine beach-chic cabanas at La Zebra in Tulum.

La Zebra (from US$110) is now a wonderful place to get your fix of beach-chic, Tulum style. Nine cabanas come in skittles colors and have plushly finished interiors (no leaky palapas here). Bathrooms inlaid with gorgeous stones, festive zebra-print linens, a small bottle of complimentary tequila and best of all: they’ve put the fans inside the mosquito nets so you can actually feel the breeze while you’re sleeping! There ought to be a law…

Cabana #1 is larger (two bedrooms), has a really sexy outdoor tub that’s enclosed in walls but open to the sky and is closest to the water. This cabana is perfect for a family or two couples. Just note that there’s no door between the bedrooms.

A shallow basin of water to rinse the sand off your feet before going into your room is smart. This version, outside every cabana at La Zebra, in the shape of a bare foot is the most charming version we've ever seen.

There’s also an even larger room above the restaurant that’s perfect for larger families/groups plus a stand-alone two storey positively luxurious house just a few steps down the beach which they have the gall to call the “Beach Shack.”  In the “shack,” the downstairs room has a king bed and an open-plan bathroom. The upstairs room has two twin beds and a bathroom and it opens onto a big furnished deck with a sink, fridge and outdoor tub. The place just screams “Party!”.

A suite and five more cabanas, with a shared plunge pool, are tucked right across the road on the jungle side of the property.

The bar at La Zebra is one of the best on the beach and their passionfruit margaritas, made with freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice, are legendary.

It took a long time and a lot of effort to get this sugar cane press to La Zebra in Tulum, but anyone who orders a margarita or mojito here will tell you its worth it.

As wonderful as the rooms are, you probably won’t spend too much time in them. La Zebra is right on the beach and it makes good use of its location with comfortable outdoor lounging areas and an inviting bar. Even if, like us, you believe the margarita is more often butchered than perfected, spin the dice one more time and order one at La Zebra.

Made with all natural fresh ingredients, including sugar cane juice squeezed using a hulking old press that’s attached to the bar, La Zebra’s passionfruit margarita is the welcome drink of choice. Warning: you will want more.

Beach lounging, La Zebra style.

Even hipsters have to eat and the restaurant scene in Tulum is definitely up for the challenge. We managed to grab a table at El Tabano (which, oddly, means horsefly) and were immediately struck by the juxtaposition between the staff and diners (all could have been models, except us of course) and the lovely ladies doing the cooking who looked like typical Mexican mamas and daughters busy getting the work of feeding the masses done. They could have been slinging tacos from a street cart but here they were busy drizzling balsamic.

It was a comforting combination that made us expect lively company and great food.  We got both.

As a birthday-party-in-progress passed around tequila shots we settled into our long wooden table and surveyed the more than 15 wines on offer and a menu that ran the gamut from seafood to tortilla lasagna (all listed on a massive chalk board). The homemade bread was delicious, the salad was huge and fish prepared in beer was out of this world–rich, salty, sweet, tender. The soggy and bland tortilla lasagna may need to be re-thought though…

Friends of ours (hi Joe and Pooja) raved about their celebratory meal at the Italian restaurant at Posada Margherita where they ate delicious food and drank lots of good wine. When they realized the restaurant was cash only (heads up) the proprietor told them “Don’t worry. You can pay me tomorrow. What’s important is the food.” Seriously.

That same night we enjoyed, of all things, a Thai meal at the restaurant at Mezzanine Hotel which manages a very urban look and feel (it could be in New York City’s meatpacking district). We sometimes feel guilty for “cheating” on the local cuisine when we choose to do something like eat Thai food in Mexico, but our meal at Mezzanine was worth any charges of food adultery.

Another thing we liked at the Mezzanine: the hotel throws a weekly party with a live DJ. To staff it, they fly in top-spinners from around the world and put them (and one lucky guest) up in a special DJ room at the hotel for two weeks at a stretch. The DJs get an awesome Mexican vacation and guests of Mezzanine get awesome parties.

The Thai restaurant at the Mezzanine Hotel in Tulum got the decor and the food right.

Opened in 1993, Zamas (which means new beginning) is a beach side option that helped spearhead the cool movement out here. Even today it retains a hippy movie set look and feel that’s easy-going and welcoming enough to make sense of the infrastructure, aspects of which could use a new beginning.

A standout at Zamas is the open air restaurant  ¡Que Fresco! where the pizzas are dreamy (out of a real pizza oven!) and the seafood chowder is complex and not fishy at all. Sadly, we didn’t have time to try the rest of the items on the inventive (but not outlandish) menu, but we’ll leave that up to you.

The owners of Zamas are currently transforming a home in the most interesting neighborhood in Vallodolid and plan to open it as their second hotel soon.

Perhaps the ultimate stamp of hip-dom is the fact that Grupo Habita, creators of iconic boutique hotels across Mexico including Condessa DF, Maison Couturier and Boca Chica, is working on a new hotel on the beach in Tulum–look for it to open its doors in 2011.

The view from our beach bungalow at Zamas in Tulum during a break in the rain.

Yes, the chic factor is gobbling up the beachfront in Tulum, but there’s still plenty of jungle and mangrove wilderness here too, thanks in large part to the Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an. This 1.3 million acre preserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean. The place is full of birds and mammals and even Mayan sites. Kayaking is the main way to explore the preserve since roads and trails are scarce/nonexistent.

Here we are on top of a tower overlooking the vast and varied Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an near Tulum.

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Scoop Scoops: Our 5 Favorite Ice Cream Treats in Mexico

July has been National Ice Cream Month ever since Ronald Reagan made it so during his presidency in 1984. He also decreed that the third Sunday in July is National Ice Cream Day. Anyway, to celebrate we thought we’d share some scoop scoops discovered during our 18 months of travel in Mexico. We’re not even dessert people but here in Mexico they definitely scream for ice cream. Here are five of our favorite finds.

1. Every region of Mexico is known for some sort of signature food. The state of Michoacan is the undisputed ice-cream state. You’ll find ice cream shops throughout the country claiming to make Michoacan-style ice cream. But to get the real stuff, you’ve got to go to Michoacan—preferably Patzcuaro. Every day in this Pueblo Magico (Magic Town) women set up ice cream stands under the arches that ring the lovely main plaza. Peruse the wares, but rest assured that every one of the dozens of flavors (corn, blackberry, chocolate, coffee, durian, guava, cheese) are homemade and totally natural. Full of real local fruit, real sugar (not corn syrup) and rich cream these treats (mere pennies per scoop) are rich and gooey.  And addictive.

The mouth-watering display at Helados Torres in Hidalgo del Parral, Mexico.

2. Hidalgo del Parral in Northern Mexico has many claims to fame. This is were Pancho Villa was gunned down, for example. The city was also instrumental in the country’s silver, gold, zinc and copper mining heyday. It’s also got one hell of an ice cream parlor. Right downtown off the Plaza de Armas you will find Helados Torres. Big, shiny, bright and featuring a display of homemade, all-natural gelato-esque delights like you’ve never seen, each vibrantly colored container topped with a pleasing display of the ingredients inside. Their ice cream (helado in Spanish) is as delicious to look at as it is to eat.

3. The Dulceria y Sorbeteria Colon, on the Champs-Elysees-inspired Paseo Montejo in Merida in Yucatan State, is an institution where you’re likely to find families and first-daters enjoying massive portions of homemade creations that straddle the line between ice cream and sorbet—creamy and deeply flavored without the heaviness of cream or the iciness of sorbet. The mango is so true-to-life in both color and flavor that it seems like you’re eating the miraculously whipped and frozen fruit itself.

Just one of the ice cream vendors selling an extremely unusual selection of flavors around the main plaza in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico.

4. Most people who bother to stop in the town of Dolores Hidalgo come to see the site where priest Miguel Hidalgo delivered his famous grito on September 16, 1810 which helped ignite the Mexican Independence movement. This is an awesome reason to come and a compelling piece of Mexican history—particularly given the fact that 2010 is the 20th anniversary of the speech and Mexico’s Independence movement. But there’s one more unique offering in the town of Dolores de Hidalgo that shouldn’t be missed. The half dozen or so mobile carts in the town’s main plaza may look like regular ice cream vendors, but read the list of flavors–pig skin, corn, beer, shrimp, tequila, rose, mole–and you see why they’re unique. Once you’ve decided on an exotic flavor, your ice cream comes in an awesome freshly-made cone. A word of warning however: these vendors are dangerously generous and it’s easy to fill up just on the samples they offer of each flavor as you’re trying to make up your mind. We ended up with more than a dozen tasting spoons in our hands before we decided to try the mole ice cream (rich, salty, chocolaty and sweet with just a touch of spice).

5. Not all of our favorite Mexican ice cream is found on the street. At Hacienda Xcanantun, outside Merida in Yucatan State, the gourmet fare is as much of a draw as the luxuriously restored hacienda hotel.  You will enjoy your entire meal here but order their rich and subtly sweet roasted tomato tart for dessert and you’ll also get two scoops of deliciously confusing (sweet/fresh/green) homemade basil ice cream made with basil from an organic garden in the neighboring village. We recently heard restaurant critic Gael Greene says she “doesn’t like lawn clippings in her dessert” in reference to basil ice cream. Then again she color-coordinates her shirts to match her frumpilly antique hats.

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Goodbye, Guadalajara

All told we’ve now spent more than three months in and around Guadalajara and, as we prepare to finally move on, we wanted to share a few of heartfelt and (we hope) helpful observations about Mexico’s second largest city.

The Zócalo is anchored by the Guadalajara Cathedral or Catedral de la Asunción de María Santísima.

 

Best fish tacos: Taco Fish on La Paz. Yeah, 16 pesos is a whole lot to pay for a taco in Mexico, but this street spot slings expertly fried fish and shrimp tacos with all the fixin’s. The crowd speaks for itself. Warning: unless you’re an NFL quarterback (Go Saints!) do NOT order more than two. They’re huge as well as delicious.

Best old-guy bar: Molacho. There’s no sign. Go to the corner of Alcalde and Juan Manuel right in downtown and take the stairs off Juan Manuel up to the bar which is on the second floor above the Farmacias Guadalajara on the corner. What you’ll get is old guys galore (including one playing a baby grand piano, if you’re lucky) plus botanas (free bar snacks) galore, including tacos and tostadas and even soup. People rave about a place called Cantina La Fuente, but we found it to be too big and not very welcoming. Plus, there’s no baby grand piano and no botanas.

 

Palacio de Gobierno in Guadalajara, one of the few historic buildings left standing in the city.

 

Most disturbing corporate mascot: The Farmacias Similares guy. Okay, this is a national chain of pharmacies and you see them all over Mexico. However, there seemed to be even more of them than usual in Guadalajara–all with some poor guy dressed up like the chain’s perpetually smiling fake pharmacist mascot prancing around out front. There’s just something about this guy that makes us want to whack him in the head…

This kid likes the ubiquitous Farmacias Similares mascot way more than we do.

 

Best market and best market vendor: In Guadalajara the impressively massive Mercado Libertad gets all the attention and it MUST be visited. But our favorite go-to market (as in we went there every single day for lunch and sometimes later for dinner too) was the comparatively tiny Mercado Corona. Great food vendors (from tacos to seafood to carnitas) and the second floor is full of stalls selling potions and lotions and sprays meant to fix anything that might possibly be wrong with your life. Want more success at work? Pick up a can of Call Client, whose label proclaims that it contains “Genuine Spray.” Got problems with gossipy friends or a chatty-Cathy spouse? Both are easily handled by a product called “Shut Your Mouth.” Even better than that is our favorite market vendor, the perpetually happy man who runs a small health-food/juice bar stand on the market’s first floor. Not only did he make the best aguas frescas (water infused with fresh fruit) we’ve had in Mexico, he always spent time to help us with our Spanish too. tip: mix strawberry (fresa) with lime (limon).

Smartest urban quirk: the walking/running man.Guadalajara is Mexico’s second largest city (after the vastly more-huge Mexico City) and it runs remarkably smoothly thanks to a whole host of tools and rules that keep even the sometimes congested downtown under control. One such tool is liberal installation of fabulous crosswalk lights that now only countdown the number of seconds that you have left to cross the street but also displays a moving human who speeds up its pace as the seconds tick away. If nothing else, this walking/running man made us smile every morning on our way to Spanish language school. Mexico City could learn a lesson here.

 

Best totally different places to see live music: Casa  Bariachi and On the Rocks. Guadalajarans (aka Tapatios) love their live music–from traditional Mariachi (which Tapatios will claim was invented in Guadalajara) to modern rock. Our favorite place to see massive mariachi bands with a rotating cast of sit-in starts is Casa Bariachi, an enormous festive place that is almost always packed with tables full of Mexican families or Mexican women on a raucous (tequila-fueled) ladies’ night out. It’s unbeatable. For live rock we stumbled upon a place called On the Rocks which is run by a gregarious guy named Isaac who makes sure the waitresses are smiley and speedy and the bands (which usually play covers of US and European rock songs in English and in Spanish) are of high quality. His own band performs on Wednesday nights.

Most confusing moment: trying to figure out when/where the futbol (soccer) games were. Guadalajarans, like most Mexicans, are crazy for soccer. Here the two top teams are Chivas and the Liones Negros. We were understandably anxious to see one or both teams play, but our initial research on their official team web sites and the local sports pages left us totally confused about where and when the teams were playing. We even asked friends with much better Spanish than ours to do the same. None of us could figure it out. When we finally did get the hang of how to know which team was the home team and, therefore, where the  game was taking place we’d already missed a bunch of matched. We never did get to a game…

Most uninhibited fountain: Along a pedestrian mall in downtown Guadalajara is a fountain. That’s not the the remarkable part. The remarkable part is that the fountain consists of a group of small boys cast in bronze, all of them peeing into the center of the fountain. It’s called the “kids peeing” fountain.

Yep. This is a fountain full of bronze boys peeing.

 

Greatest family ever: the Delgadillo/Sanchez/Hellyer clan. The generosity, help, support and overall wonderfulness of every single member of this family not only made our time in Guadalajara immeasurably easier and more enjoyable but also added to our understanding of one of the greatest things about Mexico in general: the generosity and pride of the people. We literally can’t thank them enough for feeding us and letting us stay with them and putting up with our rickety Spanish and making us feel like we were part of the family. We look forward to continuing the friendships we started in the Guadalajara area long after we’ve moved on.

Karen is all ears sitting on one of the whimsical sculptures by Alejandro Colunga in Plaza Tapatía in front of the mural-filled Hospicio Cabañas.

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Forget Fruitcake – Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

Christmas, as you might expect, is a big deal in Mexico and the season stretches all the way to January 6–aka Three Kings Day (Día de Reyes in Spanish). In some parts of the country this is day on which children get their presents, not December 25.

Three Kings Day is also celebrated with its own special cake called a rosca de reyes. A particularly massive and popular bakery in Mexico City called Ideal actually shuts down production of all other goodies in the days leading up to January 6 and focuses exclusively on churning out tens of thousands of rosca de reyes cakes which are duly gobbled up by the masses.

In Guadalajara the Colegio Gastronomico Internacional charges its budding chefs with the task of baking a rosca de reyes that measures 1,500 feet (500 meters) long. That’s more than a quarter of a mile of cake! This we had to see. We have to admit we were a bit disappointed to discover that it’s not one continuous cake, but a series of three food (1 meter) long sections lined up end to end. However, it tasted great and went perfectly with the mugs of hot chocolate they were also handing out.

Part of the quarter mile long rosca de reyes cake baked every year by chefs-in-training at the Colegio Gastronomic Internacional in Guadalajara.

 

A warning about the good old rosca de reyes, however. Each and every one is loaded with white plastic representations of the baby Jesus (inserted after baking so they don’t melt). If your piece of the cake contains one, you could break a tooth plus you’re responsible for throwing a party on February 2 at which you must supply tamales for everyone.

Have we mentioned how much this country loves any old excuse to throw  a party?

Serving up the 1,500 foot long rosca de reyes baked by chefs-in-training at the Colegio Gastronomic Internacional in Guadalajara.

Want the recipe? Check out the piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com about this epic Christmas cake which includes the official recipe from the Colegio Gastronomic Internacional. 

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WAY Off the Train – Copper Canyon, Chihuahua, Mexico

This post is part 3 of 9 in the series Copper Canyon, Mexico

Most visitors to the Copper Canyon get off the train once during the entire trip. Our goal, however, was to use the train as a lovely tool to get deep into the canyon where we would get off the train as often as possible. WAY off the train.

After leaving our truck behind with friends we got back on the good old CHEPE, but only long enough to get to the town of Cuiteco where it was pretty much immediately clear that this small town doesn’t see much in the way of tourists.

We checked into the lone hotel in town (though a new guest house called Mirador de Cuiteco is nearing completion) which is owned by members of the Balderama family and was built and furnished with cast-offs from the upscale chain of Balderama Hotels. The place was like a graveyard for 1970s hotel furnishings–mostly in a good way.

An unexpected dash of fancy hotel service may be the most successful hand-me-down here–despite the fact that we are the only guests in a budget guesthouse in a tiny town we returned to our room after dinner and discovered that someone had lit the fire in our fireplace while we were out. Lovely.

Wandering through town friendly inhabitants showered us with greetings of “buenos tardes” and though it would be hard to say that anything of note actually goes on in Cuiteco, the peacefulness (and short walk to a lovely waterfall and swimming hole) is reason enough to spend a day if you’ve got the time.

Tarahumara children at the school in Cuiteco.

Tarahumara children at school in Cuiteco.

A nice hike from Cuiteco brings you to this nice waterfal with a great swimming hole. Regretfully the morning we were there it was too cold for that.

A scenic one hour (one way) hike from Cuiteco (take a guide, there are tricky turns) brought us to this waterfall and swimming hole. Regretfully, the morning we were there it was too chilly to jump in.

Karedn keeping warm by the fire in our room in Cuiteco.

Karen warming up by the massive fireplace in our room in Cuiteco.

 

The next morning Alberto Lopez picked us up in Cuiteco for the short drive to Cerocauhi and that’s about when the laughing started. This guy is great–knows the area, speaks excellent English and loves to have a good time whenever humanly possible. He was so much fun that we basically didn’t stop laughing for the rest of the day as Alberto showed us around.

San Francisco Javier de Cerocahui church in Cerocahui. Don't miss the hysterical "English" translation of the story of the church in a frame by the front door.

San Francisco Javier de Cerocahui church in Cerocahui. Don't miss the hysterical "English" translation of the story of the church in a frame by the front door.

Approaching the Urique canyon a short drive from Cusarare.

Approaching the massive Urique canyon just a short drive from Cerocahui.

 

First stop: Gallego viewpoint above the town of Cerocahui. Here we got amazing views down into Urique Canyon (the deepest in the Copper Canyon network). From where we stood at the viewpoint–which is currently undergoing a major upgrade with proper bathrooms, new vantage points and more guardrails being installed–the Urique River and the town of Urique were comically small at 4,300 feet below us.

A view of the Urique Canyon with the small town of Urique at the bottom.

The Urique Canyon and the town of Urique way down at the bottom.

The Urique canyon with the Urique river and the town of Urique 4,300 feet below, from the Gallego viewpoint.

The Urique canyon as seen from the Gallego viewpoint with the Urique River and the town of Urique 4,300 feet below.

 

After the viewpoint Alberto expertly navigated us down the twisting, turning dirt road that switchbacks its way down to the bottom of the Urique canyon. It’s not the hairiest road we’ve ever been on, but the drops are dramatic and there’s not a guardrail in sight. Oh, and it descends about a mile in elevation in the space of just 15 miles of driving.

By the time we reached the bottom we were starving and Alberto knew just the place to go: Restaurante Plaza on the main drag (you can’t miss it–there’s only one main drag and the restaurant is hot pink). He also knew what to order: a cold cerveza (for everyone but him) and matates (stone bowls also used for grinding) filled with a dish called aguachile.

No, it’s not just chile water as the name would imply. This stunner is a kind of thin, spicy Mexican tomato soup absolutely full of peeled fresh shrimp. We each must have had nearly a pound of shrimp apiece and, yes, we ate them all. Not bad for around 70 pesos.

Once we reached the bottom of the canton we stopped for a great meal -- Aguachile.

The steep and windy drive down into the Urique Canyon was rewarded with a meal of aguachile in the town of Urique.

Looking down the Urique river.

The Urique River.

 

The drive back up and out of Urique proved easier than the drive down and soon Alberto had us back in Cerocahui where we checked into his shiny new guest house called Hotel Centro Jade right on the town square (look for Alberto or his wife Francia at the Bahuchivo train station and they’ll whisk you off to paradise). We can recommend it because it’s spotless, economical (about 500 pesos for  room that will sleep 3-4 people) and comfortable. Each room even has it’s own small patio. And you can’t beat the hosts!

The next morning Francia, took us on a short hike to a nearby waterfall that tumbles through a natural bridge in the rock face, along with their elated yellow lab. We don’t own a dog (except for Grady, but he’s stuffed and doesn’t hike well). However, a well-behaved dog like Muneko (which means “little doll”) always makes a hike better with its full-throttle glee.

Near the trail head to the waterfall we also got a glimpse of a new zip line that has been put up. Sadly, the man who operates it was out of town so we couldn’t take a ride.

Fetch! Yet another waterfall, this one a short hike outside of Cusarare.

Alberto and Francia's lovely dog, Muneko, made our trip to a waterfall near their guesthouse in Cerocahui extra special--and extra damp.

Blue corn, the staple of the Tarahumara diet is left to dry on the stalk.

Blue corn, a staple of the Tarahumara diet, is left to dry on the stalk.

 

After our morning walk it was time to get back on the train at nearby Bahuichivo station and head for the town of Temoris. Temoris is a mining town that very, very few people ever visit. However, we discovered a lovely place to stay (the Nuevo Hotel) and a great place to eat (Gaby’s). We also found geologists exploring the area for mining potential (hi Larry and crew) and they were all happy to show and tell us about their work. If you’re into rocks, this is the place for you!

Corn stalks drying in a field outside of Temoris.

Corn stalks drying in the sun near Temoris.

We love us some In-N-Out burger, but something doesn't seem quite right here.

We love us some In-N-Out Burger, but something doesn't seem quite right about this one in Temoris...

A view from the road from the village of Temoris, down to the train station. Part of the U-shaped train bridge is visible below.

Part of the U-shaped train bridge at the Temoris station as seen from the road that winds up the valley to the town of Temoris.

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Did You Miss Us?

You’re right. We were headed south, as in south of Mexico City. But then stuff changed (surprise) and we had to head north again. For the past three months (but who’s counting?) on a forced pit stop in California, so our posts have been few and far between. However, we had our reasons.

First, we needed to fix damage done to our truck after a taxi hit us a few months ago in Mexico and that turned out to be more of a fight than we expected, but hardly worth blogging about (we like you too much to subject you to the drama that ultimately unfolded). Suffice to say, we are NOT fans of GNP insurance and the profoundly incompetent “foreign client service” our claim received. That means you, Mr. Solis.

We also spent a lot of time working on new business ideas in an attempt to generate some funds to keep our Trans-Americas Journey rolling along. Most of you know about the time and energy we put into our video application and follow up hustling to try and land a Really Goode Job–a six month gig as social media wine country lifestyle correspondents for Murphy-Goode Winery.

When that didn’t go our way we decided to harness the knowledge, confidence and ideas we gained during the MG process to create our own social media marketing consulting business for wineries in the Paso Robles area. And, so, Paso Winos was born. Reception to our services was good but slow and we simply couldn’t hang around for the additional months needed to really get clients on board–though we are eternally grateful to those wineries and wine folks who got what we were trying to do right off the bat and supported us (talking ’bout you Meg at Alta Colina, Terry and Marissa at Clautiere, Ryan at Wine for Water and the Paso Wine Centre and Brandy and crew at Donati Family Vineyard).

We still have a very exciting iron in the fire (hint) and we hope to have some great news shortly. In  the meantime, we’re back on the road and our first destination is a doozie: Havasu Falls!

We’ve hiked into the Grand Canyon from both the South and North rims of Grand Canyon National Park, but we’ve never explored the canyon in the Havasu Falls area. Owned and managed by the Havasupai tribe, the area is famous for its blue/green water (the word Havasu means  blue green water). The beauty of the area is legendary and in high demand, however, the tribe limits the number of camping permits it issues each day so it’s tough to get in.

We got in for three nights and we can’t wait to see the area. Devastating floods hit the area in August of 2008, nearly killing some hikers and radically changing the landscape and water flow, so we’ll let you know how it is once we manage to hike back out.

After Havasu we are returning to our beloved Telluride, Colorado and checking into the Mountain Lodge for a few days so we can take in the Blues & Brews music festival.  Buddy Guy! Bonnie Raitt! Joe Cocker! Anders Osborne! Plus a chance to see our friends music photographers Dino Perucci and Allison Murphy.

From Telluride we’re planning an excellent Colorado adventure including Colorado Wine Country (who knew?), the Bar Lazy J ranch for some epic-sounding horseback riding, Valhalla cabin to hang with our very own nordic goddess (hi Marca!) and enjoy two nights (count ‘em) of Galactic live at the Fox theater in Boulder. Toss in some 4-wheel driving around Ouray/Silverton and Ute Mountain and Hovenweep in Mesa Verde Country and you’ve got a great month.

After that? Two words for you: Copper Canyon! Then we promise it’s all South from there.

It’s sure nice to be back where we belong.

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Where to Wine: The LATEST List

We’ve been crazy about both travel and wine long enough to have amassed a list of some truly breathtaking places to enjoy awesome wine. We’re not selfish, so we’ve decided to start sending a quick Tweet about the best dive bars, five star bars, campsites, infinity edge bath tubs, mountain tops, riverside patios, BBQ joints and luxury hotels to enjoy a glass of wine at. Follow us on Twitter, then follow up right here on our blog where we’ll elaborate on each Tweet including photos, links, past Travel Journal entries from our web site and published reviews of the place. Most importantly,  we’ll also suggest a wine that pairs perfectly.

Glasses ready?

#7: September 10, 2009 NEW! NEW! NEW!

Where: Lake O’Hara campground, Yoho National Park, Alberta, Canada

Why: Iconic Lake O’Hara offers views of Mt. Lafroy and Victoria Peak on the Continental Divide plus grizzly bears, elk and other members of the Canadian Rockies Wildlife Top 5 list. The area is also a hiker’s paradise with one stunning route after another. Don’t miss the Alpine Loop which connects four separate trails into one epic 15 mile circuit that takes you through a range of mountain terrain from dense forest to above-the-tree line-scree. Some sections are  literally chiseled into the stony mountain face. The beauty of the place is such a draw that Parks Canada  restricts access to the area’s 30 coveted back country camp sites in order to reduce wear and tear on the land and safeguard crucial migration corridors for the area’s big mammals.

Which Wine: Manage to get a camping reservation at Lake O’Hara and you’ll want to celebrate. Thankfully the campground is mere steps from where a school bus drops you and your stuff off–more than accessible enough to bring along a couple of Nalgene or Camelbak or SIGG bottles full of wine. We suggest King Shag 2007 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The adorable penguin on the label of this extremely affordable and delicious New Zealand wine makes a nice addition to the existing wildlife.


#6: July 23, 2009

Where: Triple Creek Ranch Darby, Montana

Why: This is NOT a dude ranch. Yes, there are horses and cowboys and cabins and mountains and cattle and elk and saddles and a few dudes. However, this is a world class luxury hideaway which consistently tops travel magazines’ “Best/Top/Most” lists (if you believe in those sorts of things) and is a member of the elite Relais & Chateaux group. The wines here, housed in a glass-enclosed 3,000 bottle cellar, have earned Triple Creek  Ranch the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year since 2005 and, even better, a selection of those wines is included in the all-inclusive room rates (which are admittedly steep at $650-$2,495 double occupancy). Bottles are even re-stocked in your luxe cabin during your stay just in case you feel like a glass or two in your private hot tub. Read Karen’s full review of Triple Creek Ranch for www.itravelishop.com.

Which Wine: The so-called “house wines,” which are included in the room rate, are absolutely delicious–or splurge and choose something from their wine list. We got turned onto Schlumberger Cuvee Klimt Brut Champagne during our stay here and the resort currently has a great bottle from Paso Robles on the list (L’Aventure, “Optimus” 2003).


#5: July 17, 2009

Where: Cafe Italia, El Paso

Why: Don’t let the strip mall location fool you. This BYOB pizzeria is the real thing, particularly if you’re a wine lover. They’ve got a real wood-fired brick pizza oven, feature organic and local homegrown veggies, all the mozzarella is homemade AND their corkage fee is just $1. That’s, like 1908 prices! Really, when we saw the corkage fee at the bottom the menu we thought it was a typo. The owner, Dan, will undoubtedly be on hand to make sure you fall in love with every bite and he’s always handy with the bottle opener. Generously sized and topped pizzas are just $14 (the Gracie’s is outstanding) and we recommend you go nuts and have Dan toss some silky, buttery prosciuto de parma  on top as well. The menu changes seasonally as well, giving you more reasons to return again and again.

Which Wine: That’s entirely (blissfully) up to you. That $1 corkage fee means you can bring  as many of your favorite bottles as you like or an armful of new ones to try.

 

#4 – July 8, 2009

Where: Non Solo Panino cafe in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, Mexico

Why: This pint-size cafe off a tranquil park in one of Mexico City’s most bohemian neighborhoods offers delicious salads, linger-inducing sidewalk tables, a riotous casts of chain-smoking and lap-dog-toting regulars and a short but refreshingly Italian wine list–all things that are in short supply in Mexico.

Which Wine: Does it matter at 25 pesos (roughly US$2) per very generously poured glass? Go nuts and get a whole liter of perfectly enjoyable vino della casa for $7.

 

#3 – July 1, 2009

Where: The bathtub in bungalow 16 at Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, Florida

Why: With just 30 free-standing, thatched-roof, totally-luxe bungalows on the whole private island this award-winning hideaway in the Florida Keys is one of the most romantic spots on earth. Bungalow 16 has one of the most romantic bathtubs on earth–an elegantly curved copper monster right in the middle of the room with a chandelier hanging over it. Here’s Karen’s full review of Little Palm Island for www.itravelishop.com.

Which Wine: Start with the bottle of bubbly the resort gives you at check in then really work the room by ordering up the resort’s Romance Package. You’ll return to your room after dinner to discover an even better bottle of champagne, a specially drawn bath, chocolate covered strawberries and rose petals all over the place.

 

#2 – June 26, 2009

Where: Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park Campground

Why: This lightly-visited park offers a forest of ancient coastal redwoods so thick that the park remains largely trail-less and some roads have vehicle size restrictions. Campground sites are also shaded by towering redwoods, creating the perfect ambiance for a glass or two around the fire ring.

Which Wine: A camping standby for us is Goats do Roam, a no nonsense Rhone varietal blend made by a South African winemaker with a delicious sense of humor. We also love the sturdy constitution of this tasty red which helps it keep its balance even in the shifting temperatures that come with camping.

Wine+Redwoods_small

 

#1 – June 25, 2009

Where: The Lounge in the DiRoNA Award, Wine Spectator Award of Excellence and James Beard House award-winning Granary Restaurant at Spring Creek Ranch in Jackson, Wyoming.

Why: The Granary Lounge at Spring Creek Ranch offers more than a dozen wines by the glass at reasonable prices and more than a hundred old and new world bottles from the $20s to the $200s PLUS the best view of the Grand Teton mountain range in the area. Do yourself a favor and go at sunset. Here’s Karen’s review of Spring Creek Ranch for www.itravelishop.com.

Which Wine: The wine list at the Granary Lounge evolves constantly, however, we enjoyed a bottle of Dry Creek Vineyards 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon.

granary_new

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