I followed the bellman down a long covered portico, where lustrous marble floors gleamed like polished bronze in the slanting rays of a late afternoon sun. At the end of the terrace he stopped before a massive set of wooden doors and jiggled a large metal skeleton key in the lock. Shifting my backpack impatiently, I focused on how wonderful it would be to drop my heavy load for a few days and do absolutely nothing. After what seemed an eternity, the door finally swung open to reveal an exquisite Master Suite. I nearly wept. For the past three months I’d been trekking around Mexico, staying in hostel dormitories and modest inns, until Hacienda Xcanatun had kindly offered to host me. Dog-tired and desperately in need of a rest, I’d jumped at the chance to sleep in a “real” bed in a private room for a change, but this was more than I had expected. This Master Suite was larger than most of the hostels I’d stayed in.
I tried not to show my embarrassment as the bellman rolled my small dust-caked suitcase through the sitting room and set it up on a heavy wooden bench in the bedroom. He pointed out myriad switches that turned on lamps, wall sconces, and overhead fans and then explained how to work the multiple rain heads in the glass shower enclosure and operate the separate whirlpool soaking tub. Stepping to the far wall in the bathroom he tugged on cords that drew back a ceiling drapery, revealing a skylight; did I wish to let sunlight stream in or would I prefer dimmer lighting? Open. No, closed. Oh, I don’t care. Whatever would make him leave faster. Read More
Recently, the manufacturer of Paperwallet, a new lightweight wallet made from a thin, tear-resistant, elastic fabric called Tyvek, asked me to try out their product. Although I don’t write a lot of product reviews, I agreed in this instance because I have been searching for a solution to the “wallet issue” for years. When I am not traveling I carry a large wallet that has room for money, coins, ID, photos, and a myriad of credit, debit, and membership cards. But when I hit the road, I leave behind all the extraneous stuff and pare down to a small wallet. Over the years I’ve tried many different styles, but I have never been able to find one that suits me. For example, the man’s style tri-fold that I am currently using is a has a slot for paper money that is not long enough for many foreign currencies; I end up crumpling and double folding bills to get them to fit, which often makes the wallet too thick to close.
While the Paperwallet is not a product I would not consider for everyday use, its design was perfect for traveling. It has two credit card slots, two contact card flaps, two easy access pockets, and a cash pocket that handles U.S. bills with room to spare. And because it’s made of Tyvek, Paperwallet is recyclable; you can send your old wallet back to the company for recycling and the company provides a 15% discount on the purchase of your next wallet. Read More
The demon’s manic eyes stopped me in my tracks. I shivered, imagining its hawk-like beak flaying the flesh from my bones. This was the Mayan rain god, Chac, the most important deity in a land where the only source of fresh water was infrequent rain. Ominous Chac visages framed the stairway on the Pyramid of the Magician, leading to a stone doorway said to be the mouth of the powerful god. Here, Mayan high priests ripped out the heart of human sacrifices with a flint knife before throwing their bodies back down the steep steps.
Uxmal, one of the most important cities of the Maya empire, is located just an hour south of present-day Merida on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Located away from regions of heavy rainfall and the jungles that smother the ruins of Palenque, it stands with all its walls erect, almost as perfect as the day it was deserted by its inhabitants. Perhaps because Uxmal is in better condition than many other Maya sites, very little archeological excavation and research has been done on the site, however archeologists estimate that up to 25,000 residents lived in Uxmal at the zenith of its development during the Late Classic Mayan Period, from 850 to 925 AD.
Archeologists also speculate that Uxmal may have been more of an arts community than a governmental center, which could in part account for its stunning architecture. The Pyramid of the Magician, soaring 117 feet high and built on an unique elliptical base, is actually five superimposed temples. It anchors one side of the Nunnery Quadrangle, so named by Spanish Conquistadores because its 74 small rooms reminded them of nuns’ quarters in a convent. The western building’s facade is decorated with entwined stone serpent images, ubiquitous in the Maya world, which symbolized birth, change, and crawling though time. Even the latticework designs are thought to represent the diamond pattern on the rattlesnake’s skin.
I pressed my nose to the bus window as we rolled into Merida, one of the places in Mexico that I had yearned to see for years. My brow furrowed in disappointment; the city looked nothing like I had envisioned. With its location in the northwestern corner of the Yucatan, just inland of where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean, I had expected to see palm trees and sun-splashed cottages dripping in tropical colors. Instead, unbroken lines of flat-fronted buildings stood so close together that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the next began. Like haughty neighbors, they turned their backs, forming fortress walls that made claustrophobic canyons of the streets. As I climbed into a taxi, the unbroken row houses flushed briefly gold in the setting sun and then skulked into shadow.
Although I’d felt completely safe traveling around Mexico solo for the past few months, I was suddenly anxious about exploring this large, unfamiliar city after dark. By day the city had been intimidating; by night its dark streets seemed positively ominous. Fortunately, the hostel owner assured me that Merida is the safest city in the Republic, handed me a map, and told me to be sure to check out the artwork inside the Palacio de Gobierno on the Read More
I hopped in a taxi at the bus station and asked the driver to take me to the Zocalo. “Perdon?” he replied. Thinking he hadn’t heard me I repeated my request, but he still seemed perplexed. “La Plaza Principal?” I tried. That did the trick; we were instantly on our way to the main square in the historic center of Veracruz.
Almost every city in Mexico has a large open square in the center of town, usually anchored by a cathedral or parish church. Before I began this long-term backpacking trip around Mexico I believed that these squares were all called Zocalos, but I was soon to discover that the naming of these public spaces wasn’t quite that simple.
My confusion began at my first stop, Mazatlan. In the center of the historic old town I found Plazuela de la Republica, the city’s main square, which is surrounded by the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Municipal Palace, and the main telegraph and postal buildings. In La Paz, capital of Baja California South, the Plaza Principal was called Jardín de Velasco (Velasco Gaden). In Zacatecas it was Plaza de las Armas; in Guanajuato the Jardin Union; in Queretaro I found another Plaza de las Armas. But no Zocalos.
I Googled the term and hit the Mexico forums, but research further muddled the issue. Even Mexican nationals were in disagreement on the subject. Although most concurred that to be considered a Zocalo a square must have both a cathedral and government building on its perimeter, many also insisted that the term is barely known throughout much of Mexico. Yet I was quite sure that the main square in Acapulco, which I had visited more than 20 years earlier, is called the Zocalo, as is the main square in Mexico City. Read More
Somehow the man in the Chihuahua park knew I was easy prey. From a distance he slouched against a hand cart and looked me over. His first pass was casual, just a slow saunter past my park bench, without even a glance in my direction. Old addictive thinking patterns resurfaced, patterns I thought I had long ago conquered. It was my birthday. Surely I deserved a treat? My desire transmitted through thin air. He reversed direction and approached a second time, until he stood on the sidewalk directly in front of me, his glittering onyx eyes boring through me.
“Que tienes?” I asked. What do you have?
“Ah, muchas cosas,” he replied. “Que quieres?” Many things; what do you want?
He tried to suppress the grin that crept onto his face. “Coca?” he repeated.”No, pero tengo coco.” No, but I have coconut, he corrected, as he reached into his into his ice cream cart for a tube of coconut ice cream. Apparently, I wasn’t the first gringa to mix up the word for coconut with the slang for cocaine, though I might have been the most embarrassed.
I don’t even like ice cream. I can accompany my friends to an ice cream parlor and watch them devour sundaes without experiencing the slightest twinge of desire. But ice cream in Mexico (helado) is unlike any I have ever tasted; it is sweet seduction, nectar of the gods. I’d first answered the siren call in Cabo San Lucas, where I watched a heladero struggle his ice cream cart down a rocky sand path leading to the harbor entrance. Gnarled, dust-caked toes protruded from his decayed leather sandals and his canvas trousers and white shirt hung on his emaciated frame. I would have bought something even if he were selling pork rinds.
A vast smile slit his leathery brown face when I stepped up and asked what flavors he had. Wait, he signaled with an upheld finger, then opened the cart lid and ducked his head through the ice fog to rummage around in its depths. Triumphantly, he emerged with a frozen foot-long plastic tube filled with a white substance. “Usted debe probar este. Es hecho en casa – mi especialidad!” You must try this. It is homemade – my specialty! I tore a corner of the rubbery plastic with my teeth and tentatively sampled the icy treat. Rich, delicious coconut ice coated my mouth and slickened my teeth. Like a greedy baby I sucked on the tube, forcing the frozen cylinder up from the bottom with my thumbs, not willing to waste a single drop.
Though I tried to resist, the siren call of Mexican ice cream continued to lure me into its clutches. In tiny Dolores Hidalgo, the town where Mexico’s independence movement began, I rushed through the old jail and cathedral, anxious to get to the main plaza, where some of the country’s most famous ice cream vendors hawk a bizarre lineup of flavors. Our tour guide led us to his favorite stand. Immediately, spoons Read More