Korea is easier with a few tips

In general, Korea is an extremely easy country to navigate, but there were a few times when we were awfully lucky to have kids living there to help.  In particular, when you are using airbnb there is no concierge or English-adept staff to clarify those details which can make life miserable when you are not in the know.

Getting in and out of your apartment

We had paid for 2 weeks of an efficiency apartment, meaning we were completely on our own.  In advance, the host was to send us the lock code which theoretically is all one needs to enter.  Ha.  We would have been stranded because the system of house locks is completely different from the US but consistent everywhere we went in the country.

Getting into your apartment:  A small box about the size of a cigarette pack is mounted on the door.  To use your key code first slide up the cover, enter the code on the numeric pad, slide the cover down, wait for the musical tone, and then open the door.

Getting out of your apartment:  In order to leave your apartment, which will lock automatically again when the door is closed, you push the button on the inside of the lock mechanism, watch the little dial turn, and then the door can be opened.  If for some reason the dial doesn’t turn you can turn it manually.  But for both ingress and egress, take your time and wait for the lock to do its thing.  Trying to open the door from the inside before it’s ready screws things up and you must take a breath, wait for tones and automatic things to happen, and start over if necessary.  DO NOT PANIC!

Without our kids showing us, we would have been locked out, and then locked in!  It’s a great system once you know how it works and though there are different versions in different apartments (and the exterior door of our guest house in Jeonju worked the same way) they all look and work the same.

Communicating With Your Airbnb Host 

I had booked our Seoul apartment on my desktop.  Emailing back and forth via the host’s airbnb address worked great in the US.  In Korea, when I tried to email from my phone airbnb responded that I had to authenticate myself via the airbnb app because I was using an unknown device.  I downloaded the app, entered all the info, but it never linked up to my original account.  USE THE APP while in the US.  Our kids came to our rescue, as they had gotten his phone number when I sent them the airbnb booking, but I was never able to get in touch with him on my own.  It didn’t occur to me that the way I had communicated from the US would not work when all I had was a smartphone in Korea.

Use the “Egg” 

Wifi is all over the place in Korea, and with few exceptions we were able to use various free services all over the city.  Sometimes when it appeared no service was on where we happened to be, walking a half block usually revealed another we could use.  However, most Koreans carry an “egg” which is the small personal hotspot and super handy.  While the egg does lose connection depending on where you are, it almost always comes back.  However, our phones always appeared from the wifi icons to be connected even when they were not, so you might not realize you aren’t connected until you try and do something other than GPS.

Many of the accommodations I looked at said “free egg” but ours didn’t so I didn’t know there was such a thing pretty much universally. Hence I hadn’t gotten the password, but again kids came to the rescue, called the host and got the “egg” password.

GPS-enabled Maps Are a LifeSaver

I am a fan of Maplets, even more so now.  This little app downloads digitized maps (tourist maps, subway maps, trail maps, etc.) worldwide and more and more of them are GPS enabled.  When no wifi was available we were able to figure out where we were by using these–and they worked even when Google and Apple maps seemed baffled (e.g., the blue spot would appear, but no map behind it).   Get Maplets and download subway and other maps (you can search by location)–they are also great because you can zoom in to details.

In general, Apple and Google maps were useless for routes and distances.  We could never get a walking route, for example, even when the map seemed accurate and visible.

Electronic Kiosks at Restaurants

If you walk up to a restaurant and see an iPad-sized thing mounted in front, this is how you register that you’re there and want a table.  While you won’t have a Korean phone number, you can enter your name, in which case do find a human and tell them what you have done.  Otherwise you will never get a table.

Spoken English is Rare

It seems strange that with every street sign, subway stop and most informational signs having an English translation so few Koreans speak English.  They are extremely friendly, will try to help, and of course as in many countries people will strike a conversation when they hear you talking and they want to practice English.  Hand gestures, pointing, and all the other things one does in a foreign country work just fine–but do not assume because the menu is translated that anyone in the place can read or explain it.

Use a Native or Foreign-Enabled Texting and Calling App

We use KakaoTalk to communicate with our kids living in Korea.  It is highly functional–probably similar to WhatsApp which we also use.  These work with wifi and enable crystal clear phone calls as well as texting.  While they only work with other people who have the same app, we had told friends and family to download and use KakaoTalk and that was our primary communication mode.

We did not get a SIM card, and we turned off data services for our phones (which seems to annoy Verizon no end as we were bombarded with offers and warnings when we sent data via KakaoTalk or WhatsApp) by making sure airplane mode was always on.  We used texting and KakaoTalk phone calls on wifi and it was entirely free.

If in Seoul and Hungry for Home Food, Head to Itaewon

Itaewon is for foreigners, and so there is a wonderfully mixed population and an incredible array of restaurants.  American style food, halal restaurants, Mexican restaurants (a current fad so it might be something different in a few years) abound, mixed with every kind of Korean food you can imagine.  There is also a reasonable choice of American food in the grocery stores–we bought a box of cornflakes so we could eat breakfast before setting out, both to save money and to have something familiar.  Itaewon also has several of the best bakeries I’ve been to anywhere.

However, with a few exceptions the coffee places open later in the morning than we would have liked–we finally found one that opened at 8am (Bread Show–excellent!) but many do not open until 10.  If you must have a caffeine fix before heading out there is ample instant (comes in little paper tubes that have both sugar and creamer, ugh) and the convenience stores (7-11, CU, etc.) all sell about 20 kinds of cold canned and cartoned coffee.

A few tips for traveling in 2019 Mexico

Nothing earthshaking but maybe one or two will be helpful

We spent just two weeks in three very different cities–Puebla, Taxco, and Mexico City, but picked up a few ideas about what to do/look out for that might help you on your next Mexican journey.

  • Do not fear the buses–once you are on, they are really superior modes of travel. No chickens in the aisle or scary driving, really! However, get some help if you can from your host or hotel in understanding how to reserve and purchase seats. See the earlier post on bus travel for some examples.
  • Street food is great. We ate everything that looked good and had nary a stomach upset. We found no reason for any continued concerns about lettuce or ice cubes.
  • The fruit/juice stands are a bargain and the juice could not be fresher. They seem to open at 8am Monday-Saturday, and in Mexico City they are in steel booths, permanently installed on sidewalks so they are reliable when you need something to drink. An enormous (styrofoam) cup is around 38 pesos. We would buy one on the way back to the hotel from coffee/breakfast, mix it with bottled water, and we carried these with us all day. More nutritious and renewing than plain water and delicious. We were there in the mandarin orange season so could get orange (jugo naranja) or mandarin (jugo mandarino). These stands also sell various kinds of fruit and fruit salads. Ask.
  • We also recommend the agua frescas that are sold in stands all over the place. You may see up to 10 big glass jars of different colors lined up on the counter–do not be shy about asking what they are. We always asked, but so did everyone else, natives and tourists alike. When you see agua fresca on a menu, just ask which kinds. Typical in restaurants, like here, are horchata, tamarindo, and jamaica (ha-my-ee-ka), but they often have others. Because the flavors change often everyone asks, not just dumb tourists.
  • It is tricky at times getting change for large bills, large being anything from 100 pesos and up. While everyone is very gracious about getting you change, it can be a hassle for them so try to plan ahead. Our hotel had change once of the four or five times we asked, so it wasn’t easy but we tried.
  • Uber is safe, reliable and very inexpensive–quite a bit less than taxis. Because of the potential change issue we were wary of taxis (and having to understand the amount quoted and figuring out a tip–though tips are not common in taxis unless there’s a lot of luggage wrangling involved). Uber drivers were unfailingly polite and some were positively delightful, offering ideas for what to see, interested in our reactions to Mexico. None but one spoke any English, so sitting quietly was just fine. We used Uber about 20 times in two weeks including many that were 30+ minutes, and the total we spent, with tips, in Mexico was less than we paid a Lyft driver to take us home from the Oakland airport, a 20 minute ride.
  • Silver jewelry shopping in Taxco is highly recommended. Prices are good but the selection is infinite. If this is a high priority for you, do visit on a Saturday when the weekly market is a riot of vendors, including many buying in bulk to sell elsewhere.
  • Museum gift shops do tend to carry high quality examples of artisan items and at good prices. They seem to curate their inventory pretty carefully, and you often see items that are elsewhere but a step up in quality. They are also well equipped to wrap breakables–street vendors and small shops, such as in La Ciudadela in Mexico City, do not have bubble wrap.
  • YouTube travel and foodie videos are worth the time before you go. We found several places that had been recommended and were very glad we did (e.g., Tia Calla in Taxco). We also stumbled on a very short video explaining how to find the bus ticket counters at the airport (see below) which, being our first day in Mexico was very comforting.
  • If you are flying to Mexico City and going on from there by ground, do not worry about bus connections. The Mexico City Airport has bus ticket counters and very frequent buses to many cities and you can count on walking right up and getting on a bus within the hour, often much less. While there are discounts for old people (65+) and children, they are limited in there are only a certain number available per bus. So you may qualify but they are simply sold out. Bus tickets are so cheap this shouldn’t concern you, but don’t think you’re being scammed if they say there are no child fares or if the ticket seller says she has to check to see if there are any available. The only time we felt something strange was going on was when, two times, our bus was stopped and boarded by officials asking about “discuentas.” They were checking ID to make sure the discounted tickets had been sold appropriately.
  • Random help from strangers was common and we were never steered wrong. If you look confused it’s common someone will come up and try to help. It was always sincere and a few times it made quite a difference. For example, when we walked out of Teotihuacan and were standing at the road looking around for the stop for the bus back to Mexico City, a young guy who was selling something (hats? tour guides?) came over to us and asked if we were looking for the bus back to “Mexico” as they call Mexico City. When I said yes he quickly pointed across the intersection and said (in Spanish) “That’s your bus–hurry!” Don’t be overly suspicious is the tip here.
  • Beggars were somewhat common, always women, older indigenes women or young women with babies. Just say no if so inclined. They can be persistent but never obnoxious. We saw more local people giving money than obvious tourists.
  • This is a very personal piece of advice. I never bargain with street vendors and suggest you do the same. There’s nothing wrong with paying the stated price. You’re not getting taken advantage of. You are not being scammed because you look like a gringo. Get into your head a quick translation of pesos to dollars so you can remember that everything is extremely inexpensive (because they use $ for pesos it takes a day or so). As a visitor with the money to buy a plane ticket and eat in nice restaurants and even hire private tour guides, you can easily afford to pay the price without haggling.
  • A second piece of advice–don’t take photos of people (or of their dogs) without asking. If it is a vendor I ask only after purchasing something–anything. The local people are not there to look picturesque for you, they are trying to make a living. Be respectful, in other words. I was never refused, and just asking makes all the difference. Memorize the sentence “may I take a photo please?” in Spanish and use it.
  • Have fun in Mexico!

Roma Norte, our neighborhood

We could live here. What a great walking, eating, dog-watching, park-filled part of the city. Our hotel, the Stanza, sat right on the edge across from Pushkin Park, and it couldn’t have been more convenient or pleasant.

From Taquitos Frontera, a fabulous restaurant (two locations–we preferred the one with the larger menu and a block away from the one that is actually on Frontera, both on Obregon) to Contramar, a world class splurge of splurges, the food is varied and fun. Pushkin Park on the weekend was filled with kids learning to roller skate on one end and an open, off leash dog extravaganza on the other.

At all times the shopping, street vendors, shady streets, lovely architecture, and sidewalk scene were comfortable and fun, safe and friendly, bustling and peaceful in turn.

Centro Historico de Ciudad de Mexico

We spent two separate days in the intense downtown and enjoyed both immensely. There is so much happening, seemingly at all times, it can be overwhelming…but the historical sights, the fascinating architecture, the markets all add up to a vibrant scene.

From Roma Norte it was about 20 minutes to downtown via Uber, though on Saturday the driver noted the many closed off streets made getting us to our museum of the day somewhat complicated.

The zocalo is immense. On one side is the cathedral, two sides are government buildings, and the fourth is shops at street level (mostly jewelry) and restaurants on the second level, meaning there are hawkers every few feet encouraging you to come and eat something. Once off the zocalo there is a mix of every kind of retail, many many restaurants at street level, and every few blocks or so a string of food stalls on the sidewalks. Is it my fault I spend all my time in Mexico hungry? The smells of corn tortillas and grilling meat and vegetables are so enticing. Mostly we recognized the food but every now and then I had to ask “what is that?” And I would have tried them all—if my stomach could have fit everything.

Templo Mayor

This was on our list but when we asked a driver “what is the one thing we should not miss while here” the answer was Templo Mayor. Yes!

The history of how this site was rediscovered is fascinating. I won’t go into it here, see the link, but let’s just say some developers were probably mighty pissed that their plans were foiled by a major discovery in 1978 (the round “tablet” below–it was a world-renowned find). And it is such a large excavation, right smack in the middle of the downtown, that it must have cost the city and country a lot of money in foregone taxes, not to mention the expense of the dig itself.

There is the site itself and the attached museum, both worth the time. We spent several hours and were fascinated and dazzled. The juxtaposition of the site and the adjacent cathedral is also pretty cool, as you view ancient and contemporary religions right up against each other.

Tacos de canasta

I must share our lunch experience. I very quickly glanced at yelp and saw a highly rated taco place and without reading anything we headed over-it is just a half block off the zocalo. The name is Tacos de Canasta los Especiales, and there was a large queue which David joined while I slid past the line to the inside to try and figure out the deal. In the back was a large multi-part room, lined with narrow stainless steel counters and every 5 feet or so enormous bins of chopped lettuce, pickled jalapeños and carrots, and seemingly gallons of a guacamole salsa. Every few feet the counters had stacks of napkins–this is an ‘eat with your hands’ place. I went back to David, shrugged my shoulders and in a minute we were at the first “station”. I asked “que es el sistema?” and he replied we paid for how many tacos we wanted, he then handed us a token with the number of tacos, we handed the token to the next guy who gave us two paper plates each with two tacos that he had scooped out of the basket in front of him, and we headed back to a counter to eat. We don’t remember what it cost but according to Yelp it’s 40 pesos for 5 tacos plus a drink. Suffice to say it was embarrassingly cheap, and they were delicious and the entire scene great fun. HINT: Carry some silverware with you–I have some snap together knife/fork/spoon “kits” in a little box that I bought at Cole Hardware in downtown SF. They sure came in handy here, as I didn’t want to leave a bit of the crunchy lettuce and jalapeños.

Palacio de Bellas Artes

We decided to wander and ended up walking over to the Palacio de Bellas Artes where we enjoyed the beautiful architecture, murals, and a very fun temporary exhibit titled “Redes de Vanguardia” (networks of the vanguard) about Amauta, a Peruvian arts and politics journal from the 1926-1930 that for the first time brought indigenes art and culture to the fore. Seems so obvious now, but recognizing indigenes contributions was a breakthrough at the time.

Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico

This is one of those places that is terribly under-represented in the guide books. We went there our last full day in the city, and it was a wow. The building, just a few blocks off the zocalo, is lovely, the displays about the challenges of large urban centers is a multi-media wonder, and the information about the city itself—its history from pre-Hispanic to modern times is rich and entertaining. However, some Spanish is recommended as much of the information is not translated (though much is). There is an entire room devoted to explaining the many different jobs that keep the city running, from teachers to street food vendors to dog walkers to construction workers. Each wall is covered with photos and descriptions, and there are also five or six videos that profile work and workers…it was incredibly illuminating and it brings the people of the city alive.

On the second floor are a series of art exhibits, including one that had just opened—we were so lucky!—that comprised four large rooms filled with mostly very large contemporary paintings of Ciudad de Mexico. We loved it.

Downtown on a holiday weekend

That last day, a Saturday, the zocalo was filled with tents. We asked our Uber driver what was going on and he said it was just “normal.” As we walked around we figured out it was a celebration/observation of life with a physical disability. For example, there was a footrace with paired runners, tied together at the wrist with one runner blindfolded. There were wheelchair races and apparently a race on crutches, as there were many pairs of crutches lined up against the fence. A short zipline was managed by members of the military helping kids go back and forth. We didn’t enter but it looked like a lot of fun, like a different kind of carnival. “Normal.”

Naturally for Mexico, around the fair were artisan street vendors selling anything and everything. Something we had not seen before were maybe five or six spots where indigenes shamans (?) offering purification. Individuals stood with their arms out, eyes closed, as they were fanned with burning bundles of dried something that might have been sage, serenaded by conch wails, and otherwise rid of bad spirits. Intriguing, but I wasn’t brave enough to do it. Small children ran everywhere, and I had to photograph a group of 4-6 year olds sitting on the pavement trading Barbie and other doll clothes so intensely they were oblivious to anything happening around them.

From here we walked to La Ciudadela, an artisanal market. The market was really great and well worth a stop even though we had been shopping at markets for two weeks. The walk could have been a 15 minute affair but the crowded streets and vendors were too interesting to rush by and we spent about 40 minutes dawdling. I was hungry (surprising?) so kept stopping to ask street vendors “what is this?” I am still regretting not trying a “pata” taco–the customer who told me this mysterious ingredient’s name put her fingers to her lips, Italian style, gave a kiss and said “Muy rica!” A few blocks later, though, we came upon “Tacos de Tripa.” The cook pulled pieces of tripe out of a boiling caldron, chopped them into tiny pieces, tossed them on the steel grill where they became crispy, separated them into little piles each of which he covered with a tortilla, deftly flipped each over, crisping up the tortilla as well. I love tripe and was delighted to stop and order one, yes please to onions and cilantro, while a couple eating next to me asked “What is the word for ‘tripa’ in English?” (In Spanish of course.) And then they wanted to know the English word for caliente, hot, which I explained was the same as the word for picante (spicy). We agreed that ‘tripa’ (tree-pa) is a much prettier word than ‘tripe.’ Oh yes, the taco was delicious.

Wandering Mexico City

As everywhere we have been in Mexico, this is a friendly, comfortable city where a little Spanish will get you far, most everyone is happy to explain or help, moving around is straightforward, Uber is ridiculously cheap, and the food is plentiful and delicious.

We have started each day with coffee and a pastry (if you are in Roma Norte we highly recommend Buna for croissants—cuernitos—of the highest quality and especially well made espresso drinks), stopping at a fruit/juice street vendor for what may be a quart of freshly squeezed orange juice for 40 pesos or so, then after a refresh at the hotel calling Uber to head to a museum. From there we wander to a taco stand or market or hole-in-the-wall place for lunch, and either walk and wander or call Uber to take us back to the hotel to spend the rest of the day in and around the Roma neighborhood.

Yesterday, for example, we visited the Museo Soumaya in the Polanco neighborhood, known as the Beverly Hills of Mexico City and reputed to be the most desirable real estate in Latin America. The museum contains Carlos Slim’s personal collection. The guidebooks call it “eclectic” and I would rename it “Stuff I Bought.” It is the most bizarre, oddly organized, hodgepodge of an art museum imaginable, housing everything from an enormous (too much so) collection of Rodin to postcards and watches. The building was designed by his son-in-law and is, shall we say, striking. The interior has an open stairway and ramp which wind from level to level and room to room, and I was freezing the entire time because there is a wind tunnel effect adding to the oddness of the experience. Sr. Slim has no apparent discipline or taste, and while the collection includes many paintings from recognizable artists I learned something I’m not sure I wanted to know—even the biggest names (Renoir, for example) did some truly mediocre work. But it was free, we toured with energy, and were out in perhaps 90 minutes.

Having no interest in walking around a cliche rich peoples’ neighborhood to ogle houses or Chanel shops, we hopped an Uber and went to the Friday market in Condesa to find something to eat. Now, that was more like it.
Below note the beautiful blue corn gorditas and quesadillas. A very nice man in front of the cooks is there to explain what is on offer and take orders. Gorditas were “chicharron” but in truth that meant cheese, nopales, and a few other vegetables stuffed into fat tortillas that were split like pita and grilled. The mushroom quesadilla was alas eaten too quickly to make it into the photo. I was happy to see a juice vendor so I could get a picture showing the enormous number of small, green and yellow orange rinds piled into the two big bags as he grabbed halves, pulled down on the juicer, and tossed them aside in a single motion. Poetry.

It was about a mile’s walk back to our neighborhood in Roma, so we decided that would make a perfect end to the afternoon. We were correct—discovering the beautiful, dog-filled Parque Mexico and the enchanting architecture of Condesa, and before we knew it we were back “home.”

Trotsky and Casa Azul

Our friend Christina had encouraged us to check out the Coyoacan neighborhood and that meshed nicely with our plan to see Trotsky’s house and small museum as well as Casa Azul, the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, two worthwhile sites only a few blocks apart.

We had both been ignorant of the Trotsky story, and both had the same revelation about how the heck Trotsky ended up living, and being assassinated, in Mexico City. Turns out Rivera, also a socialist, had prevailed on the government to give Trotsky asylum, and even had him as a houseguest for a few months (during which there was apparently a strong flirtation between Frida and Leon).

Trotsky comes across as a lovely guy, doting on his chickens and rabbits while he wrote obsessively, often using a dictation machine. It was while he was working at his desk that the assassin came up behind him and hit him in the head with an axe. It is a very small, traditional, modest casa and he and his wife were admired for adopting a completely Mexican life.

Now, Casa Azul is something else again—filled with art, curios, gardens, studios, traditional kitchen (no electricity or modern accoutrements of any kind), and the very sad remnants of Frida’s pain-filled life. In spite of her physical misery, however, she had many lovers and intense relationships while at the same time suffering greatly from Diego’s affairs. We rented the audio-video tour and highly recommend it.

We walked on a few blocks to the small mercado looking for lunch, and ended up in a lovely conversation with a couple from Montreal, ate an enormous lunch at a little counter in the middle of the market, walked for a while in the lovely, quite, cobblestoned neighborhood of Coyoacan, then took Uber home to Roma Norte.

The symbol of Coyoacan is the coyote, and they’re everywhere.

Museo Nacional de Antropologia

Everything as advertised

As we were leaving the National Museum of Anthropology I flashed on the Prado in Madrid. Like our experience there last year, this museum totally lived up to the hype and we had used every bit of energy to finish seeing everything in the one day we had dedicated.

This enormous architectural wonder is an epic history of the many peoples who comprise Mexico, starting from the latest understanding of where they came from (across the Bering Straight) and how the many cultures arose, migrated, combined, changed, and occupied the many distinct regions of this enormous country.

One thing has struck us over and over—how old and complex pre-Hispanic Mexican history is. These peoples built enormous cities (Teotichuacan had 75,000 people at its peak), conquered and reconquered each other, left millions of artifacts of artistic and historical value. Thank goodness they believed as the Egyptians did that when a person of note is buried, examples of the items that support daily life were buried with her. This custom has made recreating long extinguished cultures possible…and every year the archeologists uncover more.

The collection is organized historically in rooms 1-6, and then geographically—Oaxaca, Gulf Coast, Maya, West Mexico, and Northern Mexico. Some displays are intimate, some, such as the enormous room 6 dedicated to the Mexica people (formerly Aztec) where the famous stone “calendar” hangs in the center, are huge. This room also has a large diorama of a Mexica (pronounced me-zhi-ca) market—which looks very much like the markets in Mexico today. One of the more interesting items is a codex, unfolded from its accordion form, that details the migration of the Mexica over many years from place to place. A video explains each page and what the symbols and drawings mean.

The charming figures at the top of this post are from the preclassic era, 2500 BC to CE 100. A figure sits with a dog on her lap, giving a kiss. How lovely is that?

I did my best to control the impulse to photograph everything, so here are a few representative pictures which I hope convey something of the grandeur and beauty of this treasure.

The last photo is one view of a series of gardens which line the outside of the historical wing—each further displaying items representative of the era, enabling you to walk outside from any gallery, very lovely and peaceful.

Midday we were suddenly hungry and found the cafe, a fixed price cafeteria with a variety of Mexican and Euro-American foods. As with most everything in this friendly country we had no opportunity to try and figure it out ourselves. We were immediately approached by a woman who explained the system, showed us to a table, took our drink orders and welcomed us to be comfortable. Refreshed, we headed to the last few rooms on the ground floor and then upstairs where the distinct cultures and regions of the country are shown as they live, work, make art, and worship today.

Una experiencia muy linda. Exhausted and happy, we called an Uber and returned to Roma Norte and our hotel to face our next big decision: Where to have dinner!

Mas Piramides—Teotihuacan

Having arrived late afternoon Sunday in Mexico City we started planning the week and since museums are commonly closed on Mondays we decided the next day would be perfect for a trip to Teotihuacan. And it was. The weather was warm, not hot, with big fluffy clouds so we had intermittent shade and the crowds were, for this most amazing site, small. (They warn you not to go on Sundays, when it’s free for Mexican citizens.). I had been here before but it was a first for David, though he is an experienced pyramid visitor having Cholula, Palenque, and Monte Alban under his belt.

I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of this impressive place, with the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon, the Street of the Dead, and the amazing frescoes and decorative sculptures. It’s everything you expect and a little more.

Feeling our age and insufficient sleep after 3 days in noisy Taxco we were skeptical we would do much climbing but once we were there we had to do just a little. We kept looking up at Piramide del Sol, the highest, and the teeny tiny silhouettes of people walking around the top, and challenging each other that yes, we were going to do it. And we did. We were enormously proud of ourselves, so much so we decided to skip Piramide de la Luna and caught the bus back to Mexico City, which was waiting when we walked out of the gate (not so surprising, they run every 15-20 minutes). We celebrated our accomplishment with a very good sushi dinner at Mog, a 10 minute walk from our hotel.

The photos above show our progress to the very top. The view, and sense of accomplishment, were more than satisfying. Going down is a bit scary, but we did it.

Buses in Mexico are wonderful…except…

Bus travel in Mexico is inexpensive—shockingly so at times—and the buses are extremely comfortable and welcoming. For trips longer than an hour you get a drink, sometimes water, sometimes your choice of a soda, often a cookie or other small snack. The seats are reserved, are often memory foam, they recline, there is space for carry-on. Larger luggage is carefully placed in storage under the bus—no tossing of bags or rough handling. It’s so nice.

However, it is ridiculously hard to ascertain schedules or even which bus company goes where. There are myriad bus companies which often have their own terminals and might have more than one in a single city. Sometimes you seem to be able to reserve seats and sometimes not. Sometimes you can buy a ticket online, sometimes not. In smaller cities there may be several terminals each for just one company, while in Mexico City the terminals are akin to airports in the US. Enormous, with arrivals and departures via separate concourses, restaurants and shops just like an airport.

Our only almost disaster was our trip from Puebla to Taxco. First, Abraham the guest services Superman at Meson Sacristia spent one morning unable to find any company that had a route to Taxco. Then, he found the company but was unable to reserve us seats so urged us to get to the terminal early. The second day of his efforts he got us a reservation, via the city of Cuernavaca, told us the time, and instructed us that we would be able to purchase our tickets to Cuernavaca and on to Taxco from the Puebla terminal. When we got to the terminal we attempted to do so, but the young lady, after checking with a co-worker, told us we would be able to buy the ticket when we got to the Cuernavaca terminal. Phew. All on a single company, Estrella Oro.

We arrived in Cuernavaca and went straight to the counter to buy our second leg.

“We don’t go to Taxco. You need to go to the Estrella Blanca terminal.”

Yikes. We hopped in a taxi and told the driver to take us to Estrella Blanca. He asked where we were headed, we answered Taxco, and he started a long and complicated explanation of routes and roads and different bus terminals as he drove through the city. I was finally able to slow him down as he seemed to be saying we wanted the “other” Estrella Oro terminal. This seemed weird, but okay. Then he assured us that there was a 3pm bus on Estrella Oro to Taxco. I am wondering how he would know this, and whether he was trustworthy as we drove on and on through the city—it was around 2:15 so a tiny bit of worry started creeping into my mind. If he was wrong, and we were at the wrong terminal…

He suddenly turned into an Estrella Oro station, saying again he was sure there was a 3pm bus to Taxco. We paid him and, still doubtful entered the station. There were a few people at the counter so as we waited we watched the rolling list of departures on a screen, which kept flipping from alphabetical to time of day order, back and forth. No sign of Taxco. Now we got really worried, aggravated by David’s discovery he had left his pullover sweatshirt in the taxi. I cautiously approached the counter. Could we buy tickets to Taxco?

Of course—the bus left at 3pm. All was wonderful! Why did the young lady at the other Estrella Oro terminal tell us they didn’t go to Taxco? We will never know.

Another thing about traveling in Mexico, there are surprise inspections that can be disconcerting if you are the panicky type. As we lined up to board the bus we were pulled aside by a federal police officer who wanted to check our passports and entry/departure forms. I had stashed the forms in a safe place but we offered our passports to be admonished, in an officious but not unfriendly way, to keep the forms tucked next to a particular page of the passports. He explained “Immigration!” But then he smiled and waved us on the bus. In 90 minutes we were in Taxco, after being stopped again by an official who wanted to inspect ID for anyone who had a discounted ticket. ?? The same man appeared on the bus out of Taxco to Mexico City, for the same purpose.

The next day when leaving Teotihuacan the bus was stopped by police—two men, one of whom video’d every person’s face, the other strode up and down the aisle looking serious. Then they said “have a good trip” and left.

Oh, one more oddity—the buses show movies, and what a hodgepodge! We laughed with our friend Christina, who lives in Mexico City, about the completely random movies that show up. For example, on the way to Taxco the movie was The Kindergarten Teacher with Maggie Gyllenhaal, an indie remake of an Israeli film about a 5 year old poetry prodigy with whom his teacher, Maggie, becomes obsessed. Hardly a mainstream offering. Whatever, the trip was scenic, fast, and we got where we needed to be.

Someone should start a travelocity-type service for bus travel here. It would make so much sense!


Eat, Drink, Party, Shop!

Hotel Los Arcos

I’m not sure how I selected this place but it turned out to be perfect. While there is no quiet spot in Taxco on a weekend, the location, just around the corner and down the hill a bit from the zocalo, was ideal. The room was large and comfortable and the central patio peaceful and picturesque. On the roof is a large terrace with gorgeous views of the town, which stretches way up the mountain and down into a valley. Walking this town requires stamina (it’s at around 6,000’), good shoes, and strong thighs and knees. We loved it.

Food highlights

Well, the food in general in Taxco is as delicious and inexpensive as elsewhere in Mexico but a few meals and restaurants stand out.

We had two fantastic, and typically enormous, breakfasts of chilequiles with eggs. The restaurant that serves in the hotel patio is terrific and highly recommended for convenience, service, delicious food. One of the “jams” they serve is a sweet chipotle that was memorable…not spicy, just a smoky, just sweet enough condiment. For the view—though the servings were overwhelmingly large so eating was almost discouraging, we went to Del Angel, a hotel behind Templo de Santa Prisca, the huge central church on the zocalo. The restaurant has several outdoor terraces, all with sweeping vistas of the town. Don’t get me wrong, the food was great—but entirely too much for a normal human being to consume in the morning.

Two of our three nights in town we went to La Bendita, a small cantina-like place for drinks and small plates such as tacos, tostadas, quesadillas. The ceviche tostadas were what called us back for a second time, and I highly recommend the chicharron pescado (fried fish) tacos as well. My mojito(s) were delicious, and both nights David had the liter of beer. Sitting at a tiny table on a tiny balcony overlooking the zocalo madness was entertaining. The second evening the moon rose over the bell towers to give us a magical picture.

Finally, on the Taxco food front, we went to the famous Tia Calla, a basement level pozoleria. David isn’t a big fan of pozole but I am—and he had the chalupas, four little tortillas with chicken and chipotle. By the end of his snack he said his mouth was tingling but they were not the killer heat we know from chipotles in the US. The pozole was the best I’ve had.


I really wanted to be in town for the Saturday market, a truly insane explosion of silver puestos (little stands) that seemingly filled every bit of space in the town—buildings that were closed on Friday opened to be consumed by hundreds of vendors each with approximately a card table’s worth of display. While many vendors sell the same things, as you walk each aisle you see that from one to the next they have a particular type of jewelry or a distinct style. My plan was to leave with enough pairs of earrings to last me for years, and I did. We also bought a few little gifts which will not be shown here as we want to surprise the recipients. The prices are absurdly low and the experience always “muy linda.” I had tried to describe Saturdays to David—there are always hundreds of vendors in stores and on the streets in Taxco—but he was shocked at the sheer level of commercial enterprise.

Simply too picturesque

We wandered the town every day, and at every turn enjoyed the beauty of this amazing town, one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos.

The biggest pyramid in the world is in Cholula

Cholula is maybe a 20 minute Uber from the historic center of Puebla, and yes, it has the very biggest pyramid on earth. It is also a lovely town easily navigated on foot, and we spent several hours in the archeological zone, as it is known, walking through the slightly scary tunnels, wandering the ruins that have been excavated, and then took a walk through the ‘downtown’ where we had a delicious lunch and a walk through an odd church right across from the zocalo. It made for a good day trip.

The pyramid was for centuries thought to be a big hill with a church on the top that was built in the 1600’s. A thing about Mexico—it is so much older than the US, with many buildings and churches still standing that were built in the 16th and 17th century. Bits and pieces were unearthed over the last 100 years or so, and now there is even a small museum (very small) that discusses the history of the area, once a marshy lake, and what they have been able to decode about the different groups which lived, died, and moved on over the centuries.