spybird travel

spybird travel

Monday, March 18, 2019


 I guess I was a bit intimidated by what I had heard about Mexico City (Cuidad Mexico or CDMX on all the signage). After all, there are about 22 million people in its metro area, and it's known to be polluted, and difficult to navigate. There were whispers of danger as well. Lucky for me, my sweet wife Cheryl has had a hankering to visit, and in all things, she ultimately gets her way. 

      So we planned a trip that flew Jet Blue directly into Mexico City at a reasonable fare. From there we caught one of the frequent buses on the Estrella Roja line that runs directly to Puebla Poniente 4 station (the closest to the city of Puebla). It takes about two hours with traffic. From Poniente Station we took a cab to The Rosewood Puebla Hotel, stayed 3 nights, and arranged a car ride through the hotel for the return to Mexico City and The Hyatt Regency in the Polanco neighborhood for 6 nights, then home from Mexico City direct.

      We generally find it more relaxing not to drive when vacationing in foreign countries. Our strategy this time was to use Uber for local travel in these two towns, and a company called Journey Mexico (www.journeymexico.com) to arrange one tour day in Puebla and two tour days in Mexico City. These activities are detailed a bit below. When Journey Mexico could not find any birding guides for a trip outside of CDMX, I found one for us through the internet. Rafa Calderon-Parra runs www.inhuit.com and he worked out very well (again, see below).

       Puebla is a city of about 1.5 million people located in east-central Mexico, and located southeast of Mexico City. It's claims to fame are its lovely colonial architecture, the famous painted Calavera pottery, and its cuisine, especially mole poblano. On our first night we hit the jackpot very close to our hotel with Casareyna https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g152773-d4235727-Reviews-Casareyna-Puebla_Central_Mexico_and_Gulf_Coast.html which Trip Advisor lists as #1 out of 585 for local cuisine. Mole poblano is a rich, dark sauce made from more than 17 ingredients, including chocolate, garlic, chiles, almonds and cinnamon. The recipes here are handed down for generations and the flavors, usually served with chicken, are complex and savory, This is a great place to try it. The pippian verde (a mild green sauce made from pumpkin seeds) was also delicious. Chalulas and guacamole were excellent starters. Romantic ambiance, great service, friendly waiters and very generous portions.
Pippian verde and mole poblano
     Of course, there is no shortage of good restaurants in Puebla. In the centro, another good option is El Mural de los Poblanos  on Calle 16 de Septiembre, featuring all of the platos tipicos of the area, including seasonal specialties, in a very cordial, almost elegant  atmosphere. Again, highly recommended.

     It is wonderful to walk around Puebla and take in the zocalo (main square). The Cathedral of Santo Domingo and in particular its Capilla del Rosario is called "the eighth wonder of the world" because of its sumptuous Spanish Baroque style decorated with gold leaf and Calavera tiles. It is well worth a visit. The Calle de los Dulces provides row after row of candy and sweet shops. The Callejon de los Sapos (or Frog Alley) is like a flea market for older antiques and junk-tiques. 

Capilla de Rosario

     We made three museum stops in Puebla, all excellent in different ways. Perhaps most compelling is The International Museum of The Baroque outside the city proper. Designed by Toyo Ito, this modern museum celebrates the Baroque period in Mexican culture during the 17th and 18th centuries, not only in religious articles, but also in everyday life. It is a multi-media, interactive extravaganza, highly recommended. The Baroque Museum also houses a very fine and highly regarded restaurant, where we had lunch. In Puebla proper, The Amparo Museum is highly regarded as a vital part of community arts, and changes its offerings constantly. Most important are its collection of local handicrafts and colonial artifacts and furnishings. Finally, The Biblioteca Palafoxiana is located across from the zocalo in Puebla's Case de la Culture. Beautifully designed is wood, it is the oldest public library in Mexico, maybe even the Americas. 

   We were taken by our wonderful guide Carla to the town of Cholula, which is perhaps half an hour away from Puebla. Cholula is considered the oldest continuously-inhabited city in North America, and is the site of The Great Pyramid temple dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl. One can walk through the tunnels and climb the pyramid. The tour also included a visit to the tiny village of Santa Maria Tonantzintla, with its amazing 17th century church that showcases "indigenous Baroque" design and decoration. And there was a delicious and refreshing stop tasting a local cacao beverage whipped up frothy with purified water.
The tunnel inside the pyramid to Queztalcoatl
     (as an aside...)

     I'm working on a blog post in praise of local guides. In some situations, they are absolutely essential. You don't want to explore the Amazon or indeed most natural areas without someone who knows the lay of the land, flora and fauna, and the local language. As someone who enjoys watching birds, I'm greatly indebted to and in awe of the naturalist guides I have known. In addition to those special situations, we have benefitted in so many circumstances from the knowledge and insight of local urban guides. They typically show us so many delightful things we might miss altogether, answer questions, offer suggestions, and generally enrich travel by providing historical or social context to places we visit. They are also usually great company. 

     In Mexico City, we stayed at The Hyatt Regency in the Polanco neighborhood, which is fairly tony and upscale.  Polanco and adjoining Condesa are the hip places to be nowadays. Our credit card provides a hotel listing service that includes breakfast, upgrade, late check-in and check-out for the hotels on its list, so we took advantage of these benes at The Hyatt.
     There are tons of restaurants and sights in CDMX, but my absolute favorite place is the Palace of Fine Arts, a Deco and Baroque jewel constructed over 30 years beginning in 1904. The architecture, design elements and iron work are all superb. There is also a collection of Mexico's finest muralists, including Diego Rivera's Man at the Crossroads, which is fantastic (and may have used Paul Newman as its subject model!). However, the Grand Auditorium takes the prize with a stunning stained glass ceiling and the incredible 27-ton curtain wall made from Tiffany lustre glass. Besides visiting the Palacio and finding a tour of the auditorium, we returned to see The Orquestra Sinfonica Nacional perform a concert of Debussy, Ravel and others. Followed by a sinful dinner of churros and chocolate shakes at the oldest churros shop in CDMX, El Moro (established 1935).
The Tiffany Glass Wall at Palace of Fine Arts

Orquestra Sinfonica Nacional
    Three other restaurants deserve mention and your consideration. Maximo Bistrot in the South Roma section is serves delicious, home-made food in an unpretentious cafe atmosphere with warm, friendly waiters. It was here that we tried "Mexican caviar" or escamoles, which are ant larvae and pupa gathered from the roots of mezcal or tequila cacti. They are available only five weeks of the year. We tried them on a bruschetta with spinach and cheese. Delicious! We were also delighted by ravioli stuffed with short ribs. A great meal. Agua y Sal (Water and Salt), in the Polanco neighborhood, specializes in ceviches and sea food generally. We were concerned about raw seafood and chose some cooked dishes like fish tacos and calamari, but the food was very tasty and the service quite good. Honorable mention goes to Dulce Patria, also in Polanco. Here, local chef Martha Ortiz, combines interesting regional flavors and artsy colors. Dulce Patria has been called one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Cocktails are super, as was the duck mole. Lots of imaginative names for food, like 'rain that cools the fire," but the staff does not speak excellent English, so a challenge to figure stuff out. The bobble-head chicken with sweets served at the end is a nice touch. Trip Advisor reviews are gushing. If you want an elegant "old school" experience, the restaurant Monte Cristo is a treasure. Located about half way between Mexico City and Teotihuacan, this colonial property includes a lovely patio and fine wooden interior space. The food is delicious, especially the slow-cooked lamb, stuffed fried squash blossoms and the table-made guacamole. I had a prickly-pear dessert that was perfect and not too sweet. One of the awesome waiters told me it was available nowhere else in Mexico City. I believe him. 
Mexican Caviar or ant larvae

   We had three days with guides over our six days in Mexico City. 

    On the first tour day we visited the center of Mexico City, the Cathedral built on the old Aztec temples, and the National Palace which house Diego Rivera's history-explaining  murals. It is quite a mental reach to envision Mexico City as the center of the Aztec civilization, but the archeological guide pegs are still there and well worth seeing. Rivera's artistic style is full of personal political and social philosophy, and adorned with familiar historical figures, including Communists adored as heroes and capitalists sometimes depicted as villains. He had Trotsky living with him and Frida for a spell nearby. If you are interested in this complicated man, you can visit Rivera's own museum and The Blue House where he and Frida lived together and apart for some years.

   We also visited the Museum of Anthropology, which is regarded as one of the finest museums in the world, and with good reason. Besides being the largest and most visited museum in Mexico, it contains significant architectural and anthropological artifacts from Mexico's pre-Columbian period, including the Stone of the Sun, and my fave, a 16th century statue of the Aztec god Xochipilli. The Museum is arranged to allow independent access to different periods and exhibits contained in its 23 rooms and almost 80,000 sq. ft. The exhibits are interactive, bright, airy and interesting. The Museum is simply a must-see.
Xochipilli, Lord of the Flowers, adorned with psychotropic plants

     For our second day trip, Jose Antonio took us to Teotihuacan, about 25 miles northeast of Mexico City. This is a collection of some of the most significant Mesoamerican pyramids builtin pre-Columbian America. At its high point, perhaps 1st century AD, there were 125,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in the pre-Columbian world. The pyramids are well preserved, and there are some wall decorations still visible in some places. The atmosphere is quite intense and vibey, and climbing the pyramids provides an expansive view of the entire site area. The Temple of the Moon provides a fine vista well worth the climb.

Climbing Temple of the Moon

View From Temple of the Moon
    We also spent part of the day at Our Lady of Guadalupe, the most visited Christian Pilgrim Site in the Americas. There is an old Basilica, adjacent to the new, modern open structure where masses are carried out during all waking hours for the benefit of groups visiting Our Lady. While we were there, many groups of cowboys were visiting. The Virgin Mary allegedly appeared four times to Juan Diego in 1531, and her image, now venerated, appeared on his cloak. You can visit the cloak by using a moving walkway, which allows  for efficiency and crowd control.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Cowboys visit Our Lady of Guadalupe for a blessing
     For our last trip outside the city, we decided to visit some green space and do some birding. Using the internet I found Rafa Calderon, an ornithologist, conservationist, guide  and founder/owner of IHuitl (www.ihuitl.com), He and his partner Z picked us up from the hotel, and took us out to three different parks and botanical gardens. It was a pleasure to spend the day outdoors, very educational, and I added 40 new species to my modest life list. 

    The pleasures of a place like Mexico City are many, especially for belly gods and culture vultures. I didn't really notice all the pollution I have read about, and we never felt in any way insecure or endangered. Our USD went far, based on an exchange rate of between 18 and 19 pesos for a dollar. By the way, U.S. dollars are accepted in many places. A very good, even fancy meal for two does not cost much more than $60-$75. Truly, the only real issue for us was the traffic, which must be considered without fail when traveling in the city. However, the cost of Ubers and public transport is also very inexpensive, so the traffic mostly a matter of time and planning. I hope you enjoy your travels to CDMX. Let me know if I can help you further.

Spry folk dancers entertain for free




Saturday, January 26, 2019


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Mexico City and Puebla, 2019