A Travellerspoint blog

Vamos a la playa

Across the country from the jungle to the beach, and a few days of relative relaxation

sunny 30 °C
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Sam (Caroline really was going to write this one but she’s a bit sick)

Our second overnight bus trip was from Palenque to the west Yucatán beach town of Tulum. It was delayed by a couple of hours, but the better and emptier bus meant we slept really well and arrived in Tulum almost refreshed.

After a nice lunch in town, we caught a cab down to our rustic beachside cabaña (cabin). We were ready to relax, but had to wait around for two hours because the Frenchies who were staying there the previous night forgot that they were checking out. Life’s tough.

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Our beach cabin

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Undeterred by the delay, we spent the afternoon by the beach, noticing the distinct change in demographics here (Europeans and Americans make up a vast majority of the beachside population, while a few kilometres away in town, it’s mostly Mexicans). You can’t even find much Mexican food on the beach – we had Thai for dinner.

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The subtle entrance to our property

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I thought one afternoon of beachside tranquillity was enough, so the next day I dragged Caroline back to the bus station and we headed off to Cobá. This small town about 45 minutes from Tulum has a great set of ruins, covering many kilometres and including some pretty impressively tall structures, such as Nohoch Mul (the 'Big Mound', or 'Great Pyramid' if you're being a bit more generous). There are also a number of wide sacbés (ancient Mayan roads) linking the structures.

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Not the Big Mound

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A sacbé

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The Big Mound

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And the view of endless jungle from the top

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A smaller, more elaborate building hidden in the jungle

We did spend the evening swimming at the beach.

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We went out early again the next day to get to the Tulum ruins. They're not the biggest or most impressive we've seen, having been built primarily as a port and defensive outpost for Cobá. But they're the only ones overlooking the sea and are pretty popular among tourists, so we thought it best to beat the crowds.

The setting was spectacular, as expected.

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And the ruins themselves weren't bad either. Tulum means wall in the Maya language, and it probably got its name from the extremely thick walls that surround the city on three sides (the fourth being the sea).

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We caught another cab to the Gran (Grand) Cenote. Cenotes are pools where limestone has collapsed or eroded and filled with freshwater. There are a couple in South Australia and elsewhere around the world according to Wikipedia, but they're mainly associated with the Yucatán Peninsula.

Obviously they make great swimming spots in hot and humid weather. The lack of predators mean that fish and small turtles thrive in the crystal clear waters, and you can snorkel between them.

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In the evening we went out for easily the best meal we've had all trip - delicious octopus and a tuna steak.

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As much as I'd recommend that restaurant, Caroline might not. She woke up a few times during the night with a clear case of food poisoning, and she really struggled the next day to do anything other than lie down.

It wasn't a terrible day to be sick, because we didn't have much to do. I loaded her into a taxi to the bus station, we took a bus to Cancún, and she lay down again at our Airbnb place on the beach.

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The view in Cancún, essentially a sickeningly extravagant and overdeveloped tourist destination, but with lovely beaches. We're going back there in a few days so we'll write more later

She even managed to walk the mile to Linda and Al's apartment, having eaten nothing all day. (Probably not a good idea because she felt pretty awful afterwards.) But yes, we caught up with the Macindoes at last, and discussed our trip so far and the journey to come and the goings on in Melbourne and around the world.

We caught an Uber home, doing our part for the sharing economy.

Note: we're still a day behind here - we'll try to catch up soon.

Posted by samoline 14:25 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

Welcome to the jungle

Down to the sticky, jungle-swathed ruins of Palenque. If you can get past the wall of text at the beginning, there are plenty of photos just below

semi-overcast 29 °C
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Sam

It was a long journey descending through the Chiapas mountains to Palenque, an unremarkable town save for the ancient ruins a few kilometres away. They were discovered a couple of hundred years after the town was built; a bit of a boon for them.

We’d booked a heavily discounted hotel near the bus station, and arrived there pretty late. We had one of the most average meals on the trip at its restaurant. Caroline’s bolognaise sauce seemed to be missing tomatoes, a fairly important ingredient, and my ‘Mexican tacos’ were unlike any Mexican food I’d tasted so far in Mexico.

The standard of food has been very high though, so maybe we’re being unfair. And I do like that they specified that the tacos were Mexican though – it’s humble of them to assume that visitors might not have heard of this new food, or wouldn’t know its origins.

Anyway, we had a good night’s sleep (well, I did. Caroline says she was kept awake by my coughing. Sound familiar Mum/Dad?)

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It was already pretty warm by the time we got to the ruins. The Mayan city there was at its peak from about 630 to 740AD, but was abandoned around 900AD, for no obvious reason. Some of the temples have been repaired and rebuilt, while other lie, as they were when they were discovered by the Western world in 1746. Excavation still continues today, and they’re still finding new stuff regularly.

But I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking.

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The Temple of the Skull (it's a rabbit skull, don't worry)

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The Temple of the Inscriptions

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The Temple of the Inscriptions again, from another angle

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And again

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Inside the Palace, where the Mayan royals probably lived

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At one of the smaller temples buried in the jungle

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Looking down on the Plaza of the Cross

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Caroline for scale (if you can make her out

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One of the better-preserved stucco decorations inside the temples

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Returning via a lovely stream that unfortunately we weren't allowed to swim in

We caught a colectivo (shared taxi) halfway back to town, stopping at an 'ecoparque', supposedly an animal rescue centre but pretty much a zoo that does some conservation work.

There were heaps of American (Central, North and South) animals that we don't see much in Australia, including spider monkeys, macaws, and even jaguars. Again, enjoy the pictures.

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I forget what these were called

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Cute ugly animals

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Not the best picture but they kept moving, dammit

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Not nearly as big as Australian crocs but scary-looking nonetheless

We went for a swim in the hotel pool in the afternoon, then caught another night bus across the country to the sunny Yucatán coast.

Posted by samoline 13:47 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Up to the mountains

Our final day in Oaxaca before a long trip up to San Cristóbal. Due to a technical issue, subscribers may have received two emails - we apologise for any inconvenience caused

semi-overcast 18 °C
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Sam (Caroline will write one eventually, but she says it's a lot of pressure)

We checked out of the hostel on Thursday morning and wandered over to the Jardin Botanico de Oaxaca (Oaxaca Botanical Garden). As the guide explained - in some detail - it's actually an Ethnobotanical Garden, because it tells the story of the Oaxacan people as well as of its plants.

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He explained lots of things over two hours, including his personal role in saving the gardens from becoming a car park in 1994, to the corruption of the government today, to the decorated architects who have designed sections of the garden. He even managed to talk about the plants a bit.

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The gardens aren't completely open to the public yet because they're 'unfinished' (when is a garden ever finished, really?), so a guided tour is the only option for now. It will be very impressive when it is complete, although at this rate that may not be until 2050.

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A church in Oaxaca

We had a cooking class booked for the afternoon, to learn how to make some of Oaxaca's famous cuisine. José took us to a local market, where we stocked up on chillies, vegetables and shrimp. We tried out a few local treats, too, including mezcal, which contains 48% alcohol. We weren't huge fans.

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The cooking process seemed to take forever, particularly because we had a bus to catch in the evening. We wiled away the hours chopping veggies and deseeding chillies discussing American politics with our classmates, two groups of Americans from Oregon and Vermont.

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José shows us how to make a particular type of mole, which essentially involves burning all the ingredients to a cinder

Eventually we had to cut our losses and leave, as the feast continued nearly an hour and a half after the scheduled finish. We didn't really learn how to make that much, because José doesn't really believe in recipes. It was enjoyable though, and we could probably make a decent salsa if pushed.

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Caroline tests out a salsa

We ran to our overnight bus, and made it just in time.

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Perhaps the adrenaline from running to the bus station didn't really help us sleep, or maybe for me it was the third test and the AFL draft being on at the same time.

Either way, we didn't really sleep that much, and we arrived in San Cristóbal kind of wrecked. It didn't help that I had a case of man flu.

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A couple of churches

Our Airbnb place wasn't quite ready, so we walked around the town in a daze, only partly taking in the sites. San Cristóbal (officially San Cristóbal de las Casas) is a very pretty and cool colonial town in the Chiapas mountains, surrounded by indigenous villages, and full of tourists chilling out.

It was also the scene of a Zapatista revolutionary anti-capitalist uprising in 1994, possibly courtesy of the many impoverished people who live in the hinterland. Today there's clearly many poor people around, and they're almost exclusively indigenous. There's also plenty of political graffiti expressing displeasure at the government.

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We'll try to focus on the positives though, like the textile and local history museums, housed in a beautiful old monastery.

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Modern fashions in the textile museum

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Caroline would make a good nun (probably a better doctor though)

We returned to our accommodation and crashed for a few hours, then emerged again to explore some more.

We climbed a hill to get a decent view of the town, and had a hot chocolate to warm up.

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Amber was an economic resource in Chiapas since pre-Hispanic times, a factoid we learnt in the appropriately-named Amber Museum. It's also housed in an old monastery.

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Having missed vegetables for the last week or so, we had vegan burgers for dinner. Not as easy to find here as in Byron, Matty!

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The next morning we climbed another hill on the opposite side of town, getting another view and seeing tens of young girls in wedding dresses, presumably taking part in some sort of confirmation ceremony.

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We dropped in to the jade museum on the way back, marvelling at the objects and recoiling at the prices in the gift shop.

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On to another bus for a windy descent down to the jungle.

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Thanks for the greeting

Posted by samoline 19:36 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

Holy Mole

Pronounced moh-leh. And if you're wondering what that is, read on

sunny 26 °C
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Sam

Our first challenge of this blog period was lugging our bags through the Mexico City metro at 8.30am on a Monday. Luckily, it was a public holiday, so we got to the bus station without too much fuss, and headed to Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ka).

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Scenery between Mexico City and Oaxaca

Oaxaca is about 700m lower than Mexico City, and seemingly has no clouds, so the weather is significantly warmer. While it feels like a cute colonial town, it's actually a reasonably big city, with about 250,000 residents.

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We spent a nice couple of hours wandering the streets, seeing the main square, cathedral, and many more tourists than in the capital.

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We had mole for dinner, a Oaxacan speciality. It essentially consists of a rich sauce - of which there are many varieties - poured over meat. Caroline finds it a bit overwhelming (or underwhelming?), but I am appropriately whelmed. Mole negro, black mole, for instance, is very flavoursome and rich.

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We also tried Jamaica water, essentially hibiscus juice

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The next day we took off to one of the highlights of the region, an ancient Zapotec site called Monte Alban. It's similar in scale to Teotihuacan, but without the bigger pyramids, but with better weather. When the Zapotecs were here, they covered their pyramids with lime, so they shined in the sun for the surrounding valley to see.

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There were plenty of tourists, but the site is so large that it didn't matter. It's even growing, as they excavate more of the ruins.

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In the afternoon, we saw the town's main attraction, the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures. It's a beautiful museum housed in an old monastery, with pretty good displays tracing Oaxaca's history. Unfortunately the explanations were all in Spanish, so we didn't get everything.

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Inside the peaceful monastery

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The view looking out

Speaking of Spanish and English, we had a delicious dinner at an upmarket restaurant - best we've had all trip - but the waiter insisted on speaking to us in English, even as we continued to answer his questions in Spanish. Obviously we've still got a bit of a way to go (or maybe he just wanted to practise his English).

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Today we went on a hike in the mountains surrounding the city. Claudia, a German expat who has been living here for twenty years, was our guide and interpreter, and Sonya, a local indigenous woman, was the local expert. With two guides between two tourists, we felt pretty pampered.

We walked slowly for about four hours, around Cuajimoloyas, literally 'the place where mole freezes in the pot'. It wasn't that cold, but we were above 3000m, so it wasn't that warm either.

Sonya told us all about the medicinal properties of the plants around her village, treating everything from a sore throat, to urinary tract infections, to diabetes and even cancer. Caroline was too diplomatic to ask for the randomised controlled trials.

The views were beautiful, and we got an insight into how the villages operate (through a kind of direct democracy), the things they grow (corn and potatoes, mostly), and how migration is both a problem and a blessing for small communities. At least with the recent tourism boom, thereare more decent-paying jobs available in the mountains.

Sonya's two children, both in their thirties, have immigrated to the US, and send money back. But their absence weakens the community, of course. Both are staying in America for now, unlike some of their friends who have already come home, already scared for their safety post-election.

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Corn drying on a roof. They're a bit hard to see, but there are two dolls hanging from strings overhanging the corn, to scare birds away

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A small 'ranch' in the hills. That's Claudia to the right

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As we ascended, cacti gave way to oak trees, which then gave way to pine forests

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Some amazing succulents, with us for scale

One of the best parts of the trip was being able to grill Claudia on life in Mexico during the hour-long drives each way. Her despair over corruption in the Mexican government was palpable, as was her concern over the present global political situation. On a brighter note, she said there's a lot you can do locally if you're determined enough.

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We have one more day in Oaxaca before we take an overnight bus onwards. ¡Hasta pronto!

Posted by samoline 19:58 Archived in Mexico Comments (4)

Piñatas, painters and pyramids

A weekend in the Federal District

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Sam

On Saturday morning, our delightful host Jorge took us out on his weekend shop. His 'short walk' (of around an hour and a half) took in some city sights and ended at a huge market.

The Mercado de Flores had everything, from medicine to lollies to fruits to insects to piñatas. Jorge asked us: "How much do you pay for a kilo of avacados in Australia?" to which we just laughed at the concept of measuring avos by the kilogram. For the record, decent quality avos are around AU$1.30 a kilo here.

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Jorge buying some avocados

When we told him how expensive limes were back home, you could see that he felt sorry for us, and he was wondering how anyone could live in such a place. (A kilo of limes at the market were going for about 60c.)

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Jorge spotted the piñata area of the market, and said he'd seen a Trump version last week. We went searching for one but they'd sold out.

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Non-Trump piñatas

We parted ways eventually, and Caroline and I went to the leafy neighbourhood of Coyoacán in the south of the city. Mexican artists Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera lived in the area for years, and their casa azul (blue house) is a popular tourist destination.

Extremely popular, as it turned out. It took us the best part of two hours to get in, and when we finally did, there were still queues to enter the exhibits. The art was beautiful though, and the pain of Frida's injuries and miscarriages came through. On principle, we didn't want to pay extra for the 'right' to take photos, so here are some from the internet.

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Outside the Casa Azul (courtesy wikipedia user Kgv88)

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Just inside (courtesy wikipedia user Éclusette)

Escaping the crowds, we trotted over to the house of another former celeb, Leon Trotsky. He had been granted political asylum in Mexico (on the urging of Rivera), and had lived with Frida and Diego for a time, but moved to a nearby house after they fell out for unknown reasons.

His museum was just as interesting as his former housemates. We saw his grave, the bullet holes in his bedroom from an unsuccessful attack, and the study in which he was assassinated with an ice axe.

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Trotsky's grave

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The lovely garden

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The fateful study

But enough gore and pain - time for food! We walked to a bustling square, and ate at the market next door. Again, we weren't really sure what we were ordering (sopes and gorditas) but they were deep fried, messy, and incredibly scrumptious.

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A plaza in Coyoacán

We finished the day with churros from a Mexico City institution, lining up for nearly half an hour for a bite of more deep-fried goodness at El Moro.

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This morning we woke up early (much to Caroline's dismay) to beat the crowds to Teotihuacan, a complex of pyramids an hour north of the city. It was built around 250BC by the Teotihuacans, a society that predates the Aztecs, and everything was made without wheels, pack animals or metal tools.

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The largest pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun, is one of the tallest few pyramids in the word. The entire site is beautiful, though. It's expansive, peaceful, and clearly provides some spectacular views.

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The Temple of the Moon viewed from the Temple of the Sun

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The Temple of the Sun viewed from below

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The Temple of the Moon

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The Avenue of the Dead, with the Temple of the Sun to the left. They were quite keen on the moon and the sun, evidently.

As amazing as the pyramids might be, the Teotihuacans were no Incans (the stonework is shoddy compared to ancient Peruvian sites).

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This is from Cusco, Peru - compare the stonework to the picture above

In the evening, we had a final walk around our area, visiting a grand old building coverted into a library, and then having an enormous stuffed chilli for dinner.

We also took the lift up to the top of Torre Latinoamericana, for some final views of the city.

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We're leaving Mexico City tomorrow morning, so I'll make a few remarks that don't really fit in elsewhere. It's the ninth biggest city in the world by population, but of course it's not a homogenous population. Most are pretty short, but that's where the similarities end. There are millions in the middle class - we saw them out and about this weekend, exploring their city. Many are poor, as would be expected. The government does plenty of good things, like making attractions free to locals on Sundays, and subsidising public tranport (at five pesos a trip, about 30c, the metro is one of the cheapest systems in the world).

Speaking of the metro, there are pictures for each stop, so that if you tell someone you'll meet them at the Chabacano (apricot in Mexican Spanish), and they can't read, they'll know to get off when they see an apricot. It's a clever system when there are presumably many people who are illiterate.

And finally, and I know we've talked about this before, but Mexican food is SO good, and so much more diverse than what we get back home. And so widely available, too - you can hardly walk down the street without walking into a taco vendor. Enough now, I'm making myself hungry.

Posted by samoline 18:47 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

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