Archive for the 'Mexico' Category

04
Jun
17

Mexico: 23 Hours in Mexico City


Mexico City is the largest metropolitan center in the western hemisphere. With its third world modernism, colonial spirit and Aztec vibe rolled into one, it is one of the most interesting urban centers in the world so I did not think twice about stopping there briefly. My recent Cuba trip gave me the chance to explore Mexico City as I chose to take Aeromexico.  As I was comparing the prices and timing of the flights in Aeromexico’s website and third party travel websites, I chanced upon a flight in cheapoair.com with good connections giving me exactly 23 hours to spend in Mexico City on my way back from Havana to New York.  This is how I spent it.

Day 1 08:25 Airport Arrival

MEX AIRPORTArrival at the Aeroporto Internacional de Benito Juárez from Havana was fast and efficient. I was out in 15 minutes. I bought coffee and a breakfast sandwich from one of the fastfood outlets in the airport terminal and then called the hotel where I would be staying requesting for the free shuttle.  In 10 minutes I was on my way to the hotel.

Day 1 09:00 Baggage Drop At The Hotel

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I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Mexico City Airport, which is less than 15 minutes drive from the airport and to the city center. I arrived several hours before the allowed check-in time so I left my things at the hotel, rested for a few minutes in the lobby and took a hotel taxi to Zócalo, the city’s main square.  I would later learn that the hotel taxi was almost double the price of an Uber ride.  Lesson learned: Do not take any hotel offers on taxis.  Book via Uber or Lyft.

Day 1 09:20 Entrance to Zócalo

DSC_0953It was an early Sunday morning so offices around Mexico City’s main square were closed but it was teeming with visitors like me and locals spending their time in and around the square. This was my first glimpse of Zócalo, the city’s main square  The giant CDMX in the southern part of the square stands for its Spanish name, Ciudad de México.

DSC_0948I spent around 15 minutes at this signage as visitors took turns to have their photos taken.

DSC_0951A visitor from Turkey obliged to take several shots for me.

DSC_0955I then walked across the square into and past the giant Mexican flag which is ceremoniously raised and lowered each day and carried to the National Palace. It would have been better if it was windy and the giant flag was stretched out, flying high.

Day 1 09:40 Checking Out The Cathedral

DSC_0956The Roman Catholic cathedral is one of the plaza’s most significant structures and it is the largest cathedral in the Americas.

DSC_1027It was built in sections from 1573 to 1813.

DSC_1025To the cathedral’s right is the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

DSC_0964As I veered into the right of the tabernacle, its side became evident. At this vantage point is where I did the next activity.

Day 1 10:00 Watch A Street Show

DSC_1023As I stepped away from the cathedral area to the right I chanced upon a group of five people donning Aztec customes doing a drum-beating show.

DSC_0973Their customer were colorful indeed!

DSC_0974And donations were accepted.

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DSC_0971I spent around 15 minutes watching the show and taking photos and then I moved on.

Day 1 10:15 Exploring A Stretch East of Zocalo

CSC_0961I walked eastwards where the Templo Mayor Museum and the Nacional Palace are located. I did not enter these places as the queues were very long.

DSC_1022I continued to traverse the long stretch of Calle Moneda.

DSC_0980Taking snapshots of the scenery on both sides of the street.

DSC_1020There were a lot of shops selling really good and cheap items.

DSC_0996The murals did not escape my camera.

CSC_1004Even underpasses were filled with murals.

DSC_0998Restaurants also abound.

DSC_0993There were also some smaller kiosks selling food that were bought by locals munching on them with their bare hands sitting along the street.

DSC_1010

DSC_1006This was how I far I have walked from the dome of the cathedral in the square center.

DSC_1011I made a turn to discover a compound that was attracting a tour group. Honestly, I chose not to take a travel book with me or use my phone to check where should I go. I just wanted to stroll leisurely and took photos.

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DSC_1013The white statues surrounding the east portion of the compound were eye-catching.

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DSC_1016Colorful buildings…….

DSC_0992….and schools too.

Day 1 12:00 Back to the main square.

DSC_1036As I was back in the square center, my attention was focused on the transportation above ground.  Of course there were the basic taxis but the modern ciclotaxis reminded me of the coco taxis in Havana, the tuktuk in Bangkok and the tricycle in the Philippines.

DSC_1035To the left of the cathedral is the station for tourist trolleys….

DSC_1033

DSC_1032….and double-decker buses.

DSC_1028I walked a few steps to the west of the square and suddenly I was approached by a restaurant staff promoting a place overlooking the square at the top of the building shown above.  I just followed the guy and I was glad I did.

Day 1 12:30 Brunch With A View

DSC_1040First, the food truly had Mexican flair.

DSC_1038Secondly, the view of the square from above was breathtaking.

DSC_1037The view of the cathedral also took my breath away.  Mostly, the Catholic locals would come here after spending time in the church.

Day 1 13:30 Back At The Hotel

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I was back at the hotel before 2 p.m. and the front desk finally checked me in. The Holiday Inn Express Mexico City Airport Hotel has huge rooms and reasonable prices so I chose this during my overnight stopovers going to and coming from Cuba.  Since I was already awake at 3 a.m. early that day as I left Cuba I felt I needed to take a couple of hours of siesta.  Well, if I have been well-rested that night I could have used the two hours for other activities such as taking one of the exciting city tours or shopping.  I woke up before 4 p.m. and I booked an Uber ride back to Zocalo.

Day 1 16:00 To The Palacio de Bellas Artes

DSC_1041From the cathedral, you can take Calle 5 de Mayo or Francisco Madero westwards as the imposing Torre Latinoamericana would come into view and serve as compass. The two streets represent the modern Mexico City and they both lead to….

Museo_Palacio_Bellas_Artes_1_2….Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts).

9373486666_32219e09d1_oCalled the Cathedral of Art in Mexico, the Palace of Fine Arts has hosted some of the most notable events in music, theatre, dance, opera and literature and has held important exhibitions of painting, sculpture and photography.

Day 1 16:30 At The Best Western Hotel Penthouse

DSC_1042My day-ending plan would be to spend at a place overlooking the main square during sunset.  From the internet, I learned that the Best Western Hotel located next to the square has a top floor restaurant with sweeping views of the square.

DSC_1044So I went inside and asked the front desk about it and I was told to go to the 7th floor.

https://www.facebook.com/aniban.erwin/videos/vb.1490298170/10212124802743893/?type=2&theater

As soon as I got my table, I noticed everyone’s attention was on the square.  I peeked and I saw the daily ceremony of lowering the giant flag in the center of the square. Click the video link above.

DSC_1045The place offers a buffet of Mexican food and I feasted on anything my palate could take.

DSC_1049It started to get dim, the square was lit up and the night mode was on!

DSC_1053The cathedral right after sunset looked haunting.

DSC_1059Palacio Nacional, the seat of the federal executive in Mexico, looked shimmering as its lights were turned on.

DSC_1060This is the south side of the square.

DSC_1068I spent half an hour more at the restaurant after sundown. As I walked to the elevator I saw this Mexican flag with the lady sculpture.  Mexico, I did have a wonderful day indeed!  Gracias!

Day 1 20:30 Back At The Hotel

holiday-inn-express-mexico-4653979396-4x3I  went back to the hotel past eight in the evening as I had an early morning flight back to New York the next day.  I truly enjoyed the night zzzzzzz.

Day 2 05:00 Departure

IMG_8330.JPGAfter a quick breakfast at the hotel, I took the hourly complimentary hotel shuttle to the airport to board my flight back to New York.

plane-at-benito-juarez-mexico-airportIt was a unique experience for me having to maximize a limited amount of time to check out one of the world’s biggest cities in both population and land area.  Adiós Ciudad de México!  I will be back to explore you more!

[I actually wanted to skip Mexico City and instead go to San Miguel de Allende but the trip would cost me more time and resources so I stayed in Mexico City. I am more than convinced that I made the right decision.]

26
Oct
11

Mexico : Playa del Carmen and Cozumel


The previous day when we arrived in Cancun, Mexico from our 8-hour trip from San Francisco the weather was bad.  Thank God, this day was different.

It was a beautiful sunny morning as I peeked outside our Westin room in Cancun, Mexico. I would be going south of Cancun to Playa del Carmen and to the island of Cozumel, off the coast of Playa del Carmen. As my friend opted to stay in Cancun to explore it more, I decided to go on the adventure alone.

I took my first McDonald’s breakfast in Mexico. You know, with chili and jalapeno, it was a different experience.

I took a public bus from our hotel to the bus station then I took a wi-fi enabled ADO bus to Playa del Carmen and you bet I was grinning from ear to ear during the entire, well, just one hour trip because I was connected to the world. Well, I did not have a data roaming or data-enabled local sim card so the free wi-fi was a real bonus for me.

In 55 minutes we were already in Playa del Carmen (PDC or Playa for short).

A colorful, seaside resort, PDC was cramped with locals and tourists alike.

A Catholic church in PDC.

I walked closer to the beach area which was two blocks away from the bus station. Awesome location!

Every time I go to a beach I always become so excited.

As I walked closer…..

..and closer, I was mesmerized, stunned, stupefied, overwhelmed.

So I had to sit down under one of those red beach umbrellas and set up my camera, put the timer on and had that one memorable beach shot.

It’s indeed a stunning beach.  Better than the beaches in Cancun.

Stunning!

It was quite filled with mostly locals and some tourists.

I rested for a while inside a bar sipping on a glass of long island iced tea while waiting for the boat that would take us to the island of Cozumel.

Then I headed to the jetty terminal.


The jetty terminal is situated in the middle of the beach.

This was the other beach to the right of the jetty terminal.  I was once again overwhelmed.

Typical of a Caribbean beach.

Yes we were headed to Cozumel, I knew that!

Quite a lot of tourists going to spend days in Cozumel.  I wish I had the time to do likewise.

This was the beach to the left of the jetty terminal where I spent time earlier.

As we boarded the boat and were seated inside, the amazing views were still truly attracting me so I took a picture of the beach to the right of the jetty terminal….

…and to the left of the jetty terminal.

And once again to the right of the jetty terminal as the boat got off to a slow start away from Playa.  This view actually brought tears to my eyes.

Goodbye Playa del Carmen!

Hello Cozumel!

As the boat docked I just went straight to stroll in the area near the jetty port.

Clean, organized, exotic,  Cozumel beckons.

Colorful restaurants….

…and colorful buildings such as the Plaza del Sol.


It was just past lunch time and everyone was probably taking siesta.  Suddenly I decided to take a snorkeling tour.  The group I was supposed to join already left but there was a way I could join them.

The tour company owner picked me up himself and dropped me at one of the stops of the snorkel group.  We passed by Barbie’s car when we cruised around town trying to get to our destination.  I wonder if Barbie was with Ken at that moment.


I finally joined the group.


Yes that’s me with the thumbs up sign.  It was a shame my photographer (the boat driver) did not ask me to take off my snorkel mask.  We then went to three more snorkeling areas swimming with beautiful, colorful schools of fish. I apologize that I am still not into underwater photography so no underwater shots of Cozumel’s colorful and rich marine life, would appear on this blog.

And so we headed back to the shore and passed by the empty docking area for cruise ships which probably had just left or were on their way back.


Souvenir shops, yes!

Really!?

I finally went to my final destination in Cozumel, Hard Rock Cafe.

It is the smallest Hard Rock Cafe in the world.

Even the way up in is narrow.

With a tiny bar that could sit less than 10 people and a main dining area with less than 12 tables, it’s indeed the smallest HRC in the world.

As I was waiting for my boat trip back to Playa del Carmen, I sipped on, what else, margarita!

It was good!

The bar.

Another addition to my collection of Hard Rock Cafe shot glasses.

It was time to say goodbye to Cozumel. I did not have regrets for not spending more time to visit the entire island because I know some day I would be back…..when I would already be into underwater photography and diving.  It was good to spy the island first.

23
Oct
11

Mexico: Cancun


This was my first time in Mexico.  Before this trip, I had to actually choose between Mexico’s Pacific Coast and its Caribbean side.

I chose the Mexican Caribbean as my first Mexican destination with Cancun as the base because of its proximity to the equally famed beaches of Playa del Carmen & Tulum, the island of Cozumel and most importantly its being 2 hours away drive from the world-renowned Chichen Itza.  Acapulco, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta will have to wait.

I was able to tag along in this trip my Sacramento-based friend Ron and we took a US Airways midnight flight from San Francisco to Cancun via the airline’s hub in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a no-frills flight but it had a wi-fi internet connection offered for just $7 for each flight leg.

Miami in Florida could have been the best jump off point to Cancun but we could not find a reasonably-priced and timely flight from San Francisco to Miami so we settled for US Airways.

Starting last year, May 1st, 2010, all foreigners, regardless of their nationality, visiting Mexico as tourists, transmigrate or for business matters will not need a visa for Mexico as long as they hold a valid US visa and arrive in Mexico from the United States.  However, the immigration and customs declaration forms still need to be filled up.

We arrived in Cancun just before noontime.  From the airport, we took a shared 8-seater van bound for different Cancun hotels.  We were the first one to get off.

Our hotel was the Westin Resort & Spa Cancun.  The check-in process was smooth.  We were given a room at the Starwood Preferred Guest level at room 1511 and it delighted me!

Our room had two queen size beds.  The highlight was when we opened the floor-to-ceiling door that revealed….

…a breathtaking view, showing the hotel’s main pool and the pristine beach.  [The word WESTIN in the picture above is actually not in the pool but in the glass panel in our hotel room window from where I took the shot.]

The sky was gloomy when we arrived but still some were still dipping in the pool.

And yes, our room had an illusion of an almost white, heavenly room.

Yes, this is the Westin-advertised heavenly bed…..[oh yes I was able to sleep well]….

…and these are the heavenly showers which are actually just double showers.

These are more shots of the slightly-cramped but nonetheless clean and nicely done bathroom!

This is the hotel’s rather confusing menu because, well, the prices are actually in pesos (P) and not in dollars ($).   The conversion rate:  1USD=13.6MXN.

It was raining hard still so we had to spend some time indoors and we feasted on great, authentic Mexican food.  I started with tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo & miami vice.

My main course was fajitas pollo with guacamole and pico de gallo.

After the meal, we toured the hotel and saw one of the pools that faces the lagoon at the other side of the hotel.

When it stopped raining we headed for the beach, stunning beach, even without much of the sunlight.

I actually love empty and scenic beaches…..

..and idyllic spots within those empty beaches.

With shots taken near the beach.

The red flag was up because of the huge waves and strong current due to the recent rain.

My friend Ron and me took turns to have our pictures taken even with the dark skies.

After some time, we went up to our hotel room and we rested for a while before we headed to…..

…Cancun’s nightlife center.


We had dinner at the full-packed Carlos n Charlie’s.

Well, ok we sat to be waited and we were amused.

We had some more Mexican food….tacos…tacos….tacos…and beer!

It was a real, continuous party inside where customers were asked to take part in some singing and dancing routines together with the restaurant staff.

Reasonably-priced and with great staff, the restaurant gave me a pleasant dining experience.

Supposedly, it should only be my friend Ron and me in the pic but the guys next to our table and the other free waiters hopped on in the fun frame!

Outside, the main road was starting to get crowded.  In fact it was a Saturday night and people were out wanting to have some slice of the fun!  So after the dinner we were out touring the nearby nightspots.

One of the most visited and probably the most entertaining night spots in Cancun is Coco Bongo.

Also nearby was the American food joint, Hooters, which was one of our dining places days after.

Another famous bar is Mandala.

People were really partying that night.  There were times the crowd swelled from the open bars into the streets.

And it was time to call it a night and to take that “heavenly” sleep in our “heavenly” beds, after the necessary lavation using the “heavenly” showers. We were indeed glad we were at the The Westin Resort and Spa, Cancun!

We woke up the next day with a jaw-dropping view of the Caribbean seas! It was time to step out of Cancun.

We spent the following days visiting places like Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Chichen Itza.  We still went back to our Cancun-based hotel and enjoyed the time when we were there, just simply swimming in the pool or lazing on the magnificent beach or going back to the nightlife center if we wanted to experience a night crowd.

If you want a mix of bustling, hardcore nightlife and excellent beach life in this side of Mexico then Cancun serves as an excellent base. Otherwise, you can head south and camp in Playa del Carmen or even Tulum for a more intimate, subdued night life but definitely more stunning day time beach sceneries.

12
Oct
11

Mexico : Chichen Itza


Whether you are flying in to Cancun for your first visit to Mexico’s gorgeous Caribbean coast or getting off a cruise ship docked in Cozumel or Playa del Carmen, Chichen Itza should be on top of your must-visit list.  The best time to be in Chichen Itza is in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Although it is only almost 2 hours drive from Cancun you have to allot one whole day for the entire trip if you are joining a tour group.  Tour groups usually leave Cancun at mid-morning, arrive at a swimming side trip, stop for buffet lunch at a Mexican restaurant and arrive in Chichen Itza around after lunch and leave at around 4pm.  If you have the guts to drive on your own, you can choose to leave Cancun before lunch time and arrive in Chichen Itza at the same time tour groups arrive so it gets pretty crowded around that time.  Otherwise choose the best option to drive early in the morning from Cancun at 6am and then arrive in Chichen Itza after two hours and by lunch time you can be back in Cancun to utilize your time for other activities.

To avoid the hassles of being lost while driving and queueing for tickets if we take the trip on our own, my friend and I decided to take a tour group.  There were offers from travel agents situated inside our hotel in Cancun but my friend decided to go to the city center and got a better, cheaper deal! We were picked up at our Cancun hotel at around 830am on the day of the tour.

It was a full-packed tour bus with tourists from Brazil, Columbia, Argentina & the U.S. Some were from Europe and some were from other parts of Mexico. My friend and I were the only Asians.

After one and a half hour driving from Cancun, our first stop was the town of Valladolid. It was a taste of colonial Mexico.

Our main destination in the town was Zací. Located just three blocks away from the town plaza, the now open-air cenote (underwater sinkholes) has a diameter of 150 feet and is 260 feet deep. This is a popular cenote for swimming in the refreshing turquoise waters. You will see rare species of eyeless black fish known as “lub.” A third of the cenote is covered with stalactites and stalagmites and there is a walkway around the entire cenote. Some did bring swimming gears and swam in the freshwater well.

Others just watched and strolled around the compound that actually has a very good restaurant.

And I rested… and rested some more.  For those who were not keen on swimming, we could only take a walk around the freshwater well compound, take a look at the souvenir items and have some food and drinks. I was actually only interested and focused on Chichen Itza.

We left the freshwater well after an hour and we were treated to a dazzling display of colors everywhere around town.

The buildings were painted with pastel colors, a trademark of colonial Mexico.

We also passed by a famous landmark in Valladolid, the Cathedral of San Gervasio.

We finally stopped at one of the town’s famous buffet restaurants serving delectable Mexican food.  It was also part of the tour package. We just had to spend for our own drinks.

After lunch, we drove again around town on our final approach to Chichen Itza passing by colorful buildings again….

….one of which was a bank.

We also passed by a quite crowded street with locals, old and young, strolling by.  Most of them are the descendants of the ancient Mayans who are known for their advanced mathematical knowledge and incredible understanding of the solar system.

Finally, after a 40-minute drive from Valladolid, we arrived in Chichen Itza!

Tickets were already pre-purchased by the tour operator as part of the tour package.

A general map of the complex would help in exploring around.

After a short walk from the main entrance, my first glimpse of the world-renowned Temple of Kukulkan or El Castillo (the castle) reminded me of the same emotional frenzy I felt, seeing the Great Pyramid of Giza, a year earlier.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Temple of Kukulkan or El Castillo was built by the pre-Columbian Maya around 9th and 12th century AD.

English speakers were separated from Spanish speakers so we were advised to join the group of Victor, our English speaking tour guide. Before we went into a walking tour of the complex, he superbly explained in detail the history of the Mayan civilization and the related sites but I could get only a part of what he was explaining as I was sometimes away eagerly taking shots of the impeccable structures.

It was actually a crowded afternoon and we really had to take the right timing to take the pictures without much of the crowd as background.

This is the north side of the 29-m high step pyramid.  The total height includes the 6-m high castle. The pyramid consists of a series of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides to the temple on top. There are 91 steps on each side. Unfortunately, climbing the El Castillo was stopped in 2006 by the National Institute of Anthropology and History.  Only the northern balustrades have the sculptures of the feathered serpents run down its sides. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the late afternoon sun strikes off the northwest corner of the pyramid and casts a series of triangular shadows against the northwest balustrade, which some believe creates the illusion of a feathered serpent “crawling” down the pyramid.

Kukulkan (feathered serpent) is shown at the base of the west face of the northern stairway of El Castillo. Kukulkan is the name of the Maya snake deity closely associated with the Itza state in the Yucatan Peninsula, where the cult formed the core of the state religion.

This is the south side of El Castillo.

This is the northwest side of El Castillo.

This is the mostly eroded southeast side of El Castillo.

One of those funny shots showing the serpent kissing my cheek.

Recent excavations revealed earlier Mayan structures.

This is the Jaguar Temple that together with the El Castillo, Tzampontli & the Great Ball Court form the Great North Platform of Chichen Itza.

This is Tzompantli still in the Great North Platform. This monument, a low, flat platform, is surrounded with carved depictions of human skulls.

This is the Great Ball Court, the most impressive and largest ball court for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. It measures 166 by 68 metres. The imposing walls are 12 metres (39 ft) high, and in the center, high up on each of the long walls, are rings carved with intertwining serpents.

At the base of the high interior walls are slanted benches with sculpted panels of teams of ball players. In one panel, one of the players has been decapitated and from the wound emits seven streams of blood; six become wriggling serpents and the center becomes a winding plant.

Walking to the direction of the Central Group structures in Chichen Itza, we passed by so many stalls selling souvenir items such as masks, t-shirts, relics, key chains and many more.

One of the structures in the Central Group is El Caracol observatory temple.

Many were in awe of the observatory, a small structure with its unusual placement on the platform and its round shape (the others are rectangular, in keeping with Maya practice).  It is theorized to have been a proto-observatory with doors and windows aligned to astronomical events, specifically around the path of Venus as it traverses the heavens.

As the sky got dimmer, we hastily went to the area of terminal classic buildings constructed in the Puuc architectural style.  The Spanish labeled the area as Las Monjas (The Nunnery).

Just to the east is a small temple (nicknamed La Iglesia, “The Church”) decorated with elaborate masks of the rain god Chaac.

This became one of my favorite structures in Chichen Itza.

Upon our return to the Great North Platform, we headed west to the Group of a Thousand Columns.

The columns are in three distinct sections: an east group, that extends the lines of the front of the Temple of Warriors; a north group, which runs along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors and contains pillars with carvings of soldiers in bas-relief; and a northeast group, which apparently formed a small temple at the southeast corner of the Temple of Warriors, which contains a rectangular decorated with carvings of people or gods, as well as animals and serpents.

The columns actually lead to the…..

….Temple of the Warriors, one of the most impressive structures at Chichén Itzá. It may be the only known late classic Maya building sufficiently big enough for really large gatherings.

A chacmool reclined before the main entrance to the Temple of the Warriors overlooking the Temple of Kukulkan.  Chac Mool is the name given to a type of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican stone statue. The Chac Mool depicts a human figure in a position of reclining with the head up and turned to one side, holding a tray over the stomach. The meaning of the position or the statue itself remains unknown.
And that was the end of our great escapade to Chichen Itza. We were dropped at our hotels 2 hours after we left the magnificent complex.
Certainly one the great archaeological sites of the world and one of Mexico’s most visited tourist spots, Chichen Itza has been selected as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. If you have no time to spare for the visit to Chichen Itza and you just want to laze on the beach with some Mayan structures in site, then go to Tulum, 80miles south of Cancun.




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