Updated: Mar 30
I secretly loved quarantine (not the terrifying global pandemic that claimed lives part, obviously, but rather the forced "time out" we all had to take). Being impulsive with my plans is when I feel that elusive "live in the moment" high: when I can just go watch people roller skate in the park, take a long walk with a podcast in my ears or pack for an overly-fancy cocktail hour picnic with another bored, socially-isolated friend. I'm not a misanthrope, I just have no problem being alone because I'm my absolute favorite person.
But now the end of our collective global holiday is near and as many slog back into offices and remember that we hated going out in the first place, I thought I'd write about where I've been for 2 months*. I have a Chicago friend living in Mexico City until the spring. He and his partner were defeated by being jobless and cold and, so, they grabbed the opportunity to live somewhere else for a few months and I thought I'd join them. So, for 2 months, I got to experience a bit of Mexico City (CDMX), chasing that high that comes with an unscheduled life, knowing it would be restricted and unlike any other trip I've taken.
A "less traveled travel guide" (most pics are by @mr_lampchops_ )
FYI: Many state-run and big museums, which I got to experience on my last visit to CDMX, are still closed, including the Museo Nacional de Antropología, the Frida Kahlo house in Coyocan, Museo Jumex and my favorite Museo Soumaya.
Museo del Juguete Antigo: A 3 story toy fanatic's paradise, this place feels slightly illegal. Above the first floor packed with classic toys are entire rooms dedicated to Barbie, King Kong and lucha libre figures- it's also a great way to get a look into Mexican pop culture. There is equal attention paid to the extensive street art that hides everywhere, including the rooftop.
We visited the wax museum on a whim. Museo de Cera is, like the toy museum, a good way to get a peek into Mexico's pop culture, but also political figures. I haven't been to a wax museum in a really long time, but the technology has apparently advanced enough to make it extremely creepy to be so close to Queen Elizabeth and an elderly Salvador Dalí.
Weekend trip #1 - San Miguel de Allende to Xilitla to Ixmiquilpan: lots of driving but we escaped the city for 4 days & explored this beautiful country for less than $100 each.
We rented a car (FYI- I learned the hard way that you get a credit card that covers rental car insurance so you can get a car for VERY cheap in other countries) and road tripped through the mountains to San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato state. A hilly colonial town with a bit of a tourist problem, you could spend 2 days wandering its historical streets for plazas and shops, then having sunset drinks on rooftops. (FYI- I had previously visited the city of Guanajuato and if charming hilly towns are your jam, it is worth booking a leg of your trip to. A silver mining town full of Spanish colonial churches, colorful homes and baroque and neoclassical buildings, it's also a pretty lively city of music and theater and a major university.)
Driving to our second stop, winding mountain roads turned from dusty and arid to lush, green forest and we hit Xilitla by dusk.
Much smaller and less crowded than San Miguel, this little town was fun to just walk around and get lost in the winding streets and staircase shortcuts that led up and down the mountain that night. But the next morning, we found this "quiet" little village was packed- being the only kind-of large town in the area, surrounding locals flock the plaza to do business and shopping.
But the reason we were in Xilitla was Jardín Escultórico Edward James, better known as Las Pozas. The short version- an eccentric heir of British merchant wealth and Scottish socialite Evelyn Forbes (yes, that Forbes), Edward James started patronizing artists of the Surrealists and Dadaists, becoming friends with Dalí and Magritte. He became obsessed with the idea to create a sort of Garden of Eden and in the mid-40s, he discovered the 80 acres of land that would become his Jardín. He spent the next 35 years doing psychedelics, keeping a menagerie of exotic animals and hiring locals to build fantastic sculptures, passageways and monuments that reference the surrounding natural world and surrealism. Just the tips: We lucked out on our tour- groups are super small because of Covid safety and we were the only English speakers. So, for another 50 pesos each, we got a private tour, in English, from a local named Charlie, who has worked for the Jardin for years and helped with the recent effort to digitally preserve the archives and interview the surviving locals who worked on Las Pozas. Full of stories. Eccentric and hallucinogens, you say? See the "eye tub" in the pictures below? He'd hire handsome locals to stand nude on pedestals, surrounding him like statues, while he bathed. A base knowledge of surrealist art helps you catch the references your guide will point out and we were able to go places a larger group could not- lots of precarious walkways and passages. For the small area of the 80 acres you are able to visit in an hour, definitely book a guided tour and I highly recommend a private tour.
Our final leg of the 4 day trip was to sleep in Ixmiquilpan and head out the next morning to Las Grutas de Tolontongo a park of pools fed by mountain springs. Just the tips: It's crowded- there's a small hotel near the grutas that allows families to spend the day, parents get drunk, kids run around, and, while it's clean and the view is beautiful, it's a little too family-friendly. We eventually took a path downwards from there, to more isolated pools, and learned too late in the day to visit the river and waterfall/cavern areas for a more peaceful experience.
Weekend trip #2 - Puerto Escondido - My friends and I needed a beach week and, having previously been to Tulum & Valladolid, we headed to Oaxaca state.
For about $60, we booked round-trip flights and stayed 2 blocks from Playa Carrizalillo. A long staircase leads down to a beach that is super clean, with restaurants, rental chairs and umbrellas. It is between two cliffs so it doesn't have a ton of beach vendors and it doesn't have the big waves of some of the other beaches- it's great for swimming and being left alone all day. Times when the water is calm and clear are best for snorkeling the nearby reef for sea turtles, stingrays and schools of fish. Also nearby and up one of the cliffs is a popular sunset restaurant called Espadin or enjoy a free sunset view from the opposite cliff at a spot called Mirador Las Tortugas. The strip of Av. Benito Juarez where we stayed has lots of places to eat, juice bars and cafes to relax in and small mezcalerias and bars (and one hostel). Here's a bonus video of me rubbing aloe, pilfered from a lot in the neighborhood, on my brutal sunburn:
Just the tips: Mercado Benito Juarez's stalls are a great place to escape the sun for a local market experience- rows of people making cheese, butchering meat and selling homemade salsa, jams, tinctures, etc. Playa Zicatela is the probably the most popular beach and the beach vendors and tour/rental/restaurant prices reflect that. Beyond it, lies "La Punta" at the point of Zicatela beach, which has a few spots to organize a surf lesson or board rental. We happened to be there when the waves weren't great, but Puerto Escondido is hailed as one of the best surfer spots in Mexico. (La Punta is also where you'll get the hostel crowd: hulahoop girls, dudes doing slackline, drum circles and ukelele jam sessions, the rich beach smell of dirt weed at sunset and digital nomads with manbuns working on their Macbooks.)
Back in CDMX - take a boatride on the canals of Xochimilco: Mexico City is built on a lake and the man-made islands of farms and greenhouses, called chinampas, that dot the canals of Xochimilco are a look at the process.
Take a cab to Nuevo Nativitas Xochimilco and get dropped off in the parking lot, surrounded by pay toilets (WCs) and shops where you can pick up snacks and beers to bring on the boat- you are going to want to get all that in advance to save money.
The boats are colorful barges with gondoleiros and a long table in the middle and chairs. You rent the whole boat for a flat rate per hour (usually $500 pesos, but you can talk them down pretty easily to $400). If you are going alone or as a couple, wander the artisan market around the boat launch for other non-Mexican tourists and slyly hook up as a group to share the ride and the cost beforehand. You are technically not encouraged to do this, so be slick! I suggest looking for other non-Mexican guests because renting a boat is a very popular way for Mexican families to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, etc. and you don't want to crash their party. (Though, if you are traveling solo and speak Spanish, getting invited to join their party may be THE Xochimilco experience. Let me know if you dance with a drunk abuela on your boat...).
We stuck to our group of 3 to comply with their more tight social distancing requests and it was just as good as last time with a group of 5 strangers, if not more better. Just the tips: The mornings (around 10am-11am) are less crowded and while it's fun to be part of all the afternoon action, it can make for a slow ride. Bring cash and beware your gondoleiro trying to sell you lunch from one of the boats floating by (they usually have it worked out with the vendor for getting a free lunch, but you'll end up paying for it- we paid $15 each for a taco lunch, way beyond the price point you'll be used to) and trying to upsell you a longer ride to Isla las Muñecas (though that could be a fun full-day trip, it's about 5 hours total). We tipped 100 pesos at the end, so be sure to have that on hand.
Lastly, here's a picture diary from my Mexico City adventures, accentuated with a few points of light- afternoons people-watching in Parque Mexico (dance classes, kids learning to skateboard, etc.), an empowering International Women's Day protest, a few aerial classes at the neighborhood gym, chances to practice my "transactional" Spanish in bustling markets over gorgeous piles of produce or at random taco carts on the street. We took long discovery walks and rides using the local share bike program to find street art and hidden restaurants with beautiful courtyard dining rooms, covered in plants and surrounded by Spanish colonial architecture.
I experienced people through the markets and by sitting around in the many parks, experienced architecture and restaurants through long walks in the neighborhood, experienced culture and history through street food, canal rides and lots of small, weird museums. So there's no "must visit" list, only a recommendation to get yourself down to Mexico City and give yourself time to chase the high of unplanned, unscheduled time.
* (Note on "how dare you travel during Covid" finger wagging- save that energy for the spring breakers in Miami Beach & people who won't wear a mask "for medical reasons" in the US. I did everything I was supposed to do in order to travel & visit safely with consideration for the people who live & work in Mexico City: I got tested before I left & isolated when I arrived, we masked in public the whole time, we stayed in our small pod and only went out for groceries and long walks around the city, until the rigorous mask-wearing by everyone in CDMX dropped their numbers down & allowed more places to re-open. Imagine being home during the pandemic, but in another city with everyone wearing a mask at all times & taking your temperature everywhere you entered. So, not the U.S.)
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