Archive | August, 2010

Palenque to Flores by bus

26 Aug

On Monday Alex and I made the surprisingly hassle-free trip from Palenque in Mexico to Flores in Guatemala.

We bought a one-way bus-lancha-bus ticket from a small travel agency in Palenque (located on the main road, next door to the first-class bus terminal). This Mexican operator partners with the Flores-based San Juan Travel to provide the transfer service. Sun Juan Travel is the biggest travel agency in Flores.

Everything ran smoothly. We were picked up in a minivan crowded with other tourists from our Hostal in Palenque at 5.50 am as arranged. Three hours later we stopped for breakfast at a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere. This place only offered a buffet breakfast for 70 pesos, which is expensive for Mexico. You are better off taking your own snacks if you are on tight budget.

We arrived at the border at roughly 10.30am. We had no problems at Mexican immigration where we received exit stamps. Those tourists in the group who were only leaving Mexico for a short time were able to pay 100 pesos and hold on to their tourist cards, which saves them paying $US 25 upon re-entry into the Country.

Our Mexican bus driver put us on a boat to cross the Usumacinta river which separates Mexico from Guatemala. After no more then ten minutes on the water we arrived at La Tecnica. In this Guatemalan outpost we were met by the friendly English-speaking Miles from San Juan Travel. Miles escorted us in a bus to the Guatemalan immigration office in Betel, half an hour from La Tecnica on a bumpy uneven dirt road. Here we each had to pay $5 USD to enter Guatemala, which may or may not have been a legal and official fee, but we figured it was a small price to pay for an easy border crossing.

Miles then escorted us on the last 4 hours of the journey to Flores, thankfully with short stops along the way to go to the bathroom and buy snacks. We arrived in Flores at about 3 pm Guatemalan time (one hour behind Mexico).

San Juan Travel encourage you to book other tours and transfer services from them before you get off the bus in Flores. They are a reputable company with good and reliable services, but you might want to wait and to purchase their services or others through your hotel at a discounted rate. We did this and saved about 20% off the prices offered directly to us on a tour to Tikal.

I should note that other travelers we met in Palenque ran into some trouble at this La Tecnica border crossing. The biggest problem seems to be that Mexican Immigration sometimes demand that travelers pay the $25 USD exit fee before they leave the Mexico. If you have flown in to Mexico, rather then arriving overland from the US or Guatemala or Belize, you have probably already paid this fee and don’t need to pay again! If your tourist card which you are given on arrival in Mexico has been stamped at the airport, you don’t need to pay this fee. I suggest you call your Embassy (or threaten too) if you have any problems at the border. The dodgy officials and hustlers might tell you that your bus will leave without you so that you feel rushed and more pressured to pay the fee. Don’t buy it – your San Juan Travel bus will wait for you.

Also, all non-Mexican are currently being requested to pay a fifteen peso ‘community tax’ on the Mexican side of the border. Some people pay, and some don’t. We did because it is not really a lot of money and couldn’t be bothered arguing, but the guys collecting payment don’t seem to have any authority to enforce this measure.

Lucha Libre! A girls guide to Mexican Wrestling

18 Aug

Lucha Libre is Mexico’s answer to the popular US commercial wrestling programs WCW or WWF.

I was only vaguely aware that wrestling was big in Mexico before I arrived in the Country. Once you are there the phenomenon is hard to ignore. In Mexico City the masks of the nation’s favourite luchadores are sold from stalls on every popular street corner. Chapultepec Park seems to be an especially popular place to buy your very own Lucha Libre costume.

Though I have never really been a wrestling fan, but I grew up with a little brother who was obsessed with the WCW and the WWF. For years I would have to fight him and argue with my parents for the right to watch something other then the Saturday WWF challenge, which lasted all weekend on Cable TV.

Back then the men in tiny costumes throwing themselves around the tiny boxing ring just didn’t do anything for me. And truth be told they still don’t, but Mexico’s enthusiasm for Lucha Libre proved contagious. I just couldn’t resist the invitation to accompany a group of backpackers to Arena Mexico on a Friday evening to watch Maximo take on his enemies.

We had a great night at the wrestling. For me the highlight was the amazingly ridiculous theatrical entrance that each luchador made into the Arena. Every wrestler enters the stadium dancing to his theme song and music video which serve to highlight his unique stage identity. ‘Felino’ was a hairy man dressed as a garbage collector with a cat tail and cats ears, who featured in his video hit rummaging through garbage cans and then sweeping rubbish from the street. A catty, dirty bastard. Ray Buccanero was dressed uncannily like Johnny Depp’s character in Pirates of the Caribbean and jigged his way into the Arena accompanied by a child or midget dressed in a Parrot’s costume.

Of course some luchadors were too cool to dance. Once guy wearing only tiny (too-small) white budgie smugglers rode a motorbike in his video clip, and sauntered into the ring in a way that said ‘real men don’t boogie’.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7X8EpPUQPk&feature=related

The actual matches were also fun to watch, full of false blows and melodramatic displays of pain and discomfort from the loosing luchadors. The aerial twists and turns and attacks were cleverly orchestrated. The audience seemed to be particularly amused by the ‘little fighters’, usually the cute sidekicks of their larger partners, when they threw a few punches or were themselves picked up and spectacularly thrown from the ring into the crowd below. The loud cheering of the crowd, comprised of men hurling insults towards unfavoured competitors (Puta Madre!) and women screaming every time a luchador removed an item of clothing to reveal even more flesh, raised the level to excitement in the room to a palpable level.

Tickets to the wrestling range from 25 to 250 pesos, and can be bought at Arena Mexico on the night. The most expensive seats are those closest to the ring. In the front row you have a very good chance of a luchador or two crashing into you as they struggle to win the championship. Our 100 pesos tickets were a good buy, putting us about 20 metres from the action.

Remember that you can’t bring food or drinks, or cameras, into the stadium, but women selling Coronas and popcorn roam the inside of the Arena.

None of the guidebooks seem to have caught on to Lucha Libre as a worthwhile tourist experience yet. Surely they will do soon.

Arena Mexico is located very close to the Chapultepec metro station at
Doctor Río de la Loza 238, Cuauhtémoc.

The Arena Mexico / Lucha Libre website (Spanish only) publishes details of upcoming events; http://www.arenamexico.com.mx/texto.aspx?id_contenido=98

Ask your hostal or hotel for more precise instructions on hot to get there and when matches are on.

Mexican Fondue

18 Aug

I have seen ‘queso fundido’ advertised on lots of menus in cantinas all over Mexico.

I understood that cheese was at least a significant ingredient in this popular dish, but beyond this educated guess I had little idea of what queso fundido might be.

Given that I am a cheese fan, I decided to take the plunge this afternoon and order the unfamiliar ‘queso fundido con chorizo’.

Turns out that ‘fundido’ simply means ‘melted’, and so queso fondido is essentially Mexican fondue.***

I received exactly what I ordered; a little bowl of bubbling hot melted cheese with little pieces of chorizo stirred through, with a plate of maize tortillas on the side. As I ate the dish the cheese quickly started to cool down and became very stringy like mozzarella.

Most likely I was eating Oaxaca cheese, which is a white, stringy cow’s milk cheese that is sold in long thin straps wrapped into a ball (like yarn).

Queso fondidio isn’t my favourite Mexican meal, because it is just a little bit too oily and, well,a little bit too cheesy, for one person to enjoy alone. Though I think it would make a great tapas plate to share with friends. If you are interested in experimenting I found a good recipe on the NY Post website.

***Actually ‘fundido’ is closer to meaning ‘molten’ or ‘smelted’, which is usually a term used to describe metals not dairy products. The apparent influence of mining on Mexican culture is very interesting.

No quiero Taco Bell!

17 Aug

What’s a taco?

Tacos compete with burritos and enchiladas for being the most well known Mexican dish outside of Mexico. There is a very good chance that you have tasted one, or at least seen one, even if you have never left Australia.

Tacos are small, round, soft and flat savoury maize cakes served folded in half and filled with a whole lot of different meats and or cheese and salsas. They are abundant in Mexico and make for a great breakfast, lunch, dinner or beer snack. Maybe not all in the one day.

Where can I find the best tacos in Mexico

Mexican charcoal chicken joints known as roticeros sell the best chicken tacos in the country. At these places the chicken is usually freshly cooked and juicy and the portions are generous. Often roticeros will also serve complimentary barbequed onions and chilies, which make a good addition to your tacos. Rosticeros are everywhere in Mexico city so you shouldn’t have trouble finding one.

The best place in Mexico to find all other types of tacos are local taquerias, small local restaurants or take-away only set-ups that specialise in the preparation of this favourite national snack.

The most commonly available taco flavours include;

  • Bifsteak; Large chunks of or finely chopped carved beef, or sometimes Sharwama-style beef
  • Chorizo: rich and fatty spanish sausages chopped up into tiny pieces
  • Queso; with melted cheese as the key ingredient makes a good option for vegetarians

Those who aren’t fans of spicy food will be pleased to know that tacos aren’t generally served spicy.

Taquerias will always provide a range of condiments to customers who are free to mix and match salsas and other extras on offer to make their tacos as spicy as they desire.

In addition to the omnipresent salsa roja and salsa verde, taquerias usually have a fresh spicy, vinegar-based salsa made from chopped up tomatoes, onions, capsicum and coriander, extra coriander, and sometimes spicy pickled chilies and carrots. I am a big fan of the latter, but I have made the unfortunate mistake of adding too many jalepenos to my tacos for my gringa tastebuds and have had to surrender my too-hot tacos to Alex, who has a much greater chili tolerance then I do.

A word of warning for the taco consumer; use common sense when shopping for these snacks. Like any food tacos can make you sick if they have been unhygienically prepared or left to sit uncovered in the open or in a lukewarm baymarie for long enough.

No matter how sorry you feel for the lonely old man unsuccessfully hawking tacos across the road from his busy competition, always buy your tacos from popular vendor or restaurant where there is a good chance that the food is freshly prepared. It is always better if you can see your tacos being made to order.

How much do tacos in Mexico cost?

When I first arrived in Mexico City I asked my hostal manager how much tacos cost. They guy refused to give me even a ball park figure. Tacos, he explained, are made and sold by everyone from the most modest street vendor to the most upmarket restaurants and cafes in the Country, and so the prices vary accordingly.

The cheapest tacos I have seen in Mexico were being flogged at 4 pesos are piece by a street vendor, though I would say the average price is 8 pesos per taco at the budget end. Often cheap taquerias discount plates of tacos selling 5 for between for 25 – 35 pesos. This would definitely be a big enough meal for one hungry person, and enough for two if you aren’t famished.

A Guide to Eating Pizza in Mexico

13 Aug

Pizza in Mexico is generally good. Cheap lunches and dinners for backpackers can often be found at local pizza cafes that sell large individual slices of pizza for about $1 – $2 USD. Sometimes a free soft-drink is thrown in for this price. Large pizzas that can easily feed three to four friends sell for between $6 and $10 USD at the budget end, often with a large bottle of soft-drink included.

The pizza flavours available outside of gourmet pizza restaurants are nothing special; cheese, jamon (ham), Hawaiian (ham and pineapple) and chorizo are the main fare. What delightfully distinguishes the Mexican pizza experience is the range of salsas and condiments that accompany your pizza.

Most budget pizza joints will make sure you have at least the three standard pizza enhancers on your table. These include;

  • Salsa Valentina which is a tasty red tomato and chili sauce that adds flavour and spiciness to your meal;
  • Some kind of Salsa Verde (a green sauce made from tomatillos and green chillies), which is both sweeter and spicier then Salsa Valentina; and;
  • Salsa Inglesa, also known in the Anglo world as the humble ‘Worcestershire sauce’.

Surprisingly Worcestershire Sauce does not make a bad addition to your pizza.

Pricier pizza restaurants in Mexico will provide better quality versions of these pizza enhancers to their patrons. Fresh homemade Salsa Valentina and Salsa Verde can be delicious, as are of course expensive aged balsamic vinegars drizzled over your pizza instead of Salsa Inglesa.

The variety of pizza condiments also tends to be greater at these upper-end establishments. The owner of the expensive pizza restaurant that I visited in Zacatecas provided me and my fellow diners with more than a dozen types of salts and peppers to add to our pizzas. It was one of those ‘You want salt? I got salt!’ moments that turned into an amusing performance (my favourite was the smoked pepper). The owner also encouraged us to try a wonderful basil-infused olive oil which tasted as good as its fragrance.

The moral of the story is don’t make the mistake of thinking its too boring to eat pizza during your visit to Mexico. If you are willing to be adventurous and experiment with pizza condiments like the Mexians do, you’ll have something to write home about.

My new favourite condiment