Hello, Mexico, glad to be back. Again, you ask? Yeah, you’ve kind of become our go-to stop when we’ve (almost) overstayed our welcome in Guatemala (90 days seems a little light for our delightful company, but I suppose delight is in the eye of the customs agent) but it’s still a bit too early to trust Saskatchewan weather. Of course, if that were the main criteria we wouldn’t head back north until the last week of June, but for now we’re still willing to take our chances at the beginning of May.
After last year’s painful 9-hr minibus/tourist shuttle debacle from Xela to San Cristóbal de las Casas we were thrilled to only be subjecting ourselves to a 4-hr chicken bus ride to Guatemala City, then flying straight into Mexico City. The perfect place to spend a single night, enjoy some tacos and a taste of city life, wander a bit and reminisce about places we liked on previous visits (“I don’t remember those lights looking like that”, “the Zócalo looks a lot different without all the pavilions”, “that sewage smell seems worse than I remembered”), then move on to somewhere new and, hopefully, exciting. In this case, the UNESCO Heritage city of Morelia.
But first we had to navigate the Mexico City metro system – no problem, we got messed up last year and ended up heading the wrong direction (Politecnico? We should have known that sounded nothing like an area we would stay in), then, once we were going the right way, got off too early and had to tromp through Mexican Chinatown like lost hobos. This year, however, we were prepared – mentally, physically and, theoretically, emotionally – bought our tickets with poise and grace, headed through the turnstiles full of brisk confidence, then immediately got completely confused and flustered and desperately jumped aboard the first train we saw… and ended up heading toward damn Politecnico. You’d think we’d be better at this by now…
Nevertheless, we found it much more familiar – almost comforting, really – to retrace our steps yet again and make our way in the right direction, soon to be ensconced in the very cool old Hotel Isabel just a few blocks from the Zócalo (main square). It has tons of character which, when it comes to hotels, is often just a thinly-veiled criticism implying leaky plumbing and rotting headboards but, in this case, is actually meant as a compliment. A mazy layout full of impressive hardwood, mystifying winding staircases, big rooms with tiny balconies overlooking the street, and a marquee sign that could have been announcing a 1950’s cabaret. The second-floor courtyard appeared to be designed as a 70-year old business centre, full of old-timey wooden desks with little lamps that seemed perfect if you were a Cold War era code-breaker with tons of work do. At one point, we emerged the wrong direction from a winding staircase (yet again) to find a giant iron safe just sitting there in the hall. A memorable place. In all fairness, though, the plumbing did actually leak but, on the other hand, the headboard seemed perfectly fine, and we enjoyed our choice of outstanding taco places nearby.
The following morning we did some aimless wandering, then tracked down a Mexican SIM card for my phone (on the sixth try) and a Subway sub (on the first try), then headed out to catch our bus to Morelia. We went with the higher-end ETN bus and spent the majority of the 4-hour ride stunned speechless by the unaccustomed luxury. Huge reclining seats with adjustable foot rests, seat-back screens, wifi, two levels, two (!) bathrooms, and, obviously, A/C. Yet, somehow, we were still a little put out that we didn’t get a snack. Still, the contrast between this plush ride and our perfectly acceptable chicken bus ride to Guatemala City the day before was like comparing a room at the Hilton to a clapboard hut with torn mosquito nets, or Saskatoon to Regina. In fairness, there was also a significant price gap to consider ($45 to $5).
On to Morelia, a fairly under the radar highland town between Mexico City and Guadalajara: first impression – Morelia is great. Actually, second impression. First impression was our taxi driver taking us on multiple shortcuts through some of the grimmest and least appealing neighbourhoods we’d seen since, well, Guatemala City the day before. But still. Lots of abandoned lots, crumbling walls, bluntly unclever graffiti, the occasional torta shop and, for some reason, dozens of weightlifting gyms. This turned out to be an isolated area, however, as the rest of the city – the historic centre, in particular – is extremely easy on the eyes. Not to mention pleasant, civilized, scenic and clean. We weren’t sure what to expect from Morelia, but it certainly wasn’t roughly 15 beautiful colonial churches in about a 10-block radius, another attractive square around every corner, and something smirkingly referred to as a “megaquesadilla”. The first two continued to appeal throughout our 9-night stay, the latter only for the brief amount of time it took our digestive systems to laboriously deal with and then, with a relieved gasp, expel.
Our Morelia AirBnB was known as Casa los Limones, in reference to the nice, shady lemon trees in the backyard. A beautiful traditional 3-bdr, 2-bath with 1 big-ass couch and not only TV, but Netflix, a backyard with a hammock, a fountain, and friendly neighbourhood barking dog (which was shared with all the neighbours equally, but it was nice to be included). Maybe best of all was the outstanding wifi which, based on an online speed test, was somewhere between 80 and infinite times faster than that we struggled with daily in Guatemala. Streaming-Leaf-games-live kind of speed. For example. And the power never went out once. Not a single time. Unheard of.
In preparation for our relatively long stay we quickly walked out to suburbia to stock up on essentials at a large Soriana supermarket. Maybe it was an Easter week thing, but this cavernous store was practically devoid of other shoppers, our tentative footsteps and hushed arguments about cheese flavours echoing through its spacious aisles. Along with enough food to keep us in breakfasts through the week, Laynni was sick so she also stocked up on cough drops, ibuprofen and some kind of spray that numbs your throat (sexy?), all to go with her 4-year old antibiotics. Unfortunately, however, it turns out that expired medication is of questionable usefulness, and after her throat continued to worsen day by day we eventually made a stop at a local pharmacy in hopes of a more current cure. Against all odds, we managed to track down one of the 3,445 pharmacies in the Morelia centro area, who were more than willing to sell us four packages of amoxicillin over the counter based on nothing more than our word, some pleading looks, and a vaguely obscene gesture Laynni made with regard to her throat. Actually, that was the second pharmacy we tried. The first lady was a stickler, insisting we needed a prescription, but happily assuring us that would be no problem at all since, as luck would have it, there was a physician conveniently located just out the door and up the narrow, dingy stairs to the left. We obediently inquired but, despite a sign confirming we were well within business hours and that an in-person exam would cost just 30 pesos ($2), alas, there was no answer, and we were left with procuring said antibiotics at a larger, more accommodating, location (Farmacia Similar: Mismo Pero Mas Barato – which translates to “the same, but cheaper”). Sold.
Her exact ailment, according to some rigorous internet research (cue every doctor’s groan), was apparently “uvulitis”. The main symptom convincing her of this fact being the way her swollen uvula “was slapping around in her throat like an old man’s ball”. What, in her life experience, led to her use this particular simile is unclear, but the vivid mental picture is undeniable.
Well, on to more appealing topics, shall we? Morelia is a very… “attractive” city, for lack of a better word. Originally, the important Spanish capital, Vallodolid, it was popular with European elite and was later renamed Morelia in honour of Jose Maria Morelos, one of the leaders of the revolution. Known for its pink limestone buildings, the old centro area is amazing, with all it’s big squares and stunning churches, but on top of that there are just lots of picturesque characteristics – green spaces, artistic fountains, wide streets, old churches and their most noticeably unique attraction, a kilometre-long aqueduct that was once the main conduit of life-giving water to the population, now serving as a glorified boulevard on the one of the city’s busiest streets. The drivers in Morelia are almost suspiciously polite (what exactly are they trying to hide?), as we’ve never had so many drivers stop and wave pedestrians across. In addition, if your main interests involve cheap dental work, fruity popsicles or shoe stores, this is also the place for you. The sidewalks are wide enough to be manageable (yeah, that was a dig at you, San Cristóbal), and then there is kitschy little Callejon del Romance – a photogenic little alley full of flowers and horny teens.
One of the reasons we booked such a long stop in Morelia was because our visit coincided with Easter week, known in Latin America as Semana Santa, and also as an annual excuse to discard all the rules of polite society in favour of endless eating, random fireworks and all manner of religious processions involving be-robed children and ominous chanting. The traffic is typically not to be messed with, either. As it turned out, however, Semana Santa Morelia-style was nowhere near as crazy as we’d expected, consisting mainly of larger crowds around the churches, desperate battles for parking, and a sharp increase in both the availability and general greasiness of street food. But nothing as insane as “The Smoky Noise Parade of San Pedro la Laguna” or “The Tank-Top Tan Beach Invasion of Rincon de Guayabitos”. There were some real fireworks, briefly, a couple nights, but none of the amateur noise-makers that so thrill and delight the easily entertained with all those very special “big booms”. The one really interesting Easter occurrence in Morelia is the Procesión de Silencio, which takes place Good Friday evening. It was eerily quiet (hence the “silencio”), with only a creepy drum-beat to be heard over the murmurs of onlookers and occasional celebratory noise from some bored kid’s iPad, almost entirely in darkness and dramatized the crucifixion of Christ from start to finish. The main oddity of this particular procession are the hooded penitents. Yeah, hoods. As in, tall, pointy hoods that completely cover the face and give the illusion of height and, for North Americans, a firm belief in their racial superiority. In reality, the hoods are meant to signify that true faith, belief and penitence should be anonymous and not used as a point of pride, a sentiment I wholly agree with, but if the participants could look just a little less deep-south-bigot-chewing-tobacco-and-hollering-for-a-border-wall, well, it would make me feel just a bit more comfortable.
General info on Morelia in April: a pretty surprising temperature disparity, going down to 9 or 10 C at night but reaching 30 again by late afternoon. Works well for sleeping, breakfast in the backyard, morning walks and spending all afternoon watching sports on the couch, wander again at night, repeat. We had vague ideas about hiking but some grass fires snuffed that out, and day-tripping to a nearby, similarly colonial city, called Patzcuaro, but general laziness ended that pretty handily. Maybe most notable, however, was the almost complete lack of white tourists. There were plenty of Mexican tourists from all over the place but, unlike most popular Mexican towns and cities we’ve visited, and essentially every nice beach, North American and European tourists are still extremely rare in Morelia (something which I can only assume will change as word gets out about “the new Oaxaca”). Other than Dolf, the friendly and helpful Dutch owner of our AirBnB, the only other white people we saw all week was a couple spotted in the Mercado de Dulces (Sweets Market) in the midst of the Good Friday ambling press. But they were hanging out with a Mexican family and didn’t appear to be on the hunt for any clamato juice or tasteful Roughrider ponchos, so I’m not sure they even count. And, in case you were wondering, yes, we did find a tree that was entirely covered in old gum.
We also discovered our new favourite Mexican food of the moment, something called an “alambre”, which we enjoyed at Taqueria la Poblanita just around the corner from our place. As with most of my favourite Mexican foods, it’s really just a slight variation on the ones I already know and love, essentially consisting of everything you would normally put inside a taco (with a wide variety of mixtures to choose from), except all just piled on the plate along with a little stack of hot-off-the-grill tortillas so you can construct your own, at your leisure. The difference-maker, however, is that all the meat and peppers and such are liberally drowned in melted cheese. Sold. Realistically, I’d probably rave about stray dog balls if you doused them in enough melted cheese. Either way, highly recommended.
Sunday morning, in lieu of taking multiple buses and taxis to visit yet another quaintly colonial Mexican highland town, we stuck around and stumbled across the Ciclovia, a weekly activity which involves shutting down several of the main streets to traffic, including past the main cathedral and along the aqueduct, for the excusive use of bike and foot traffic (and the occasional sneering skateboarder). We rented bikes for 25 pesos each, then joined the crowds leisurely gliding up and down the main drag in town. Helmets weren’t in great supply, although you’d be hard-pressed to find a more benign biking adventure, so we decided to risk it. Of course, having said that, there was one narrowly-averted disaster as I attempted to perform for the camera, executing a slick “Look! No hands! With a cool background! Aren’t I awesome?” – move that very nearly backfired when my softly-tightened seat post suddenly gave way, dropping me ass-first a full foot and a half to thud against the frame, arms flailing ineffectually while my legs slammed awkwardly against the bar in desperation. Of course, Laynni didn’t quite catch any of that in the photo, meaning that, in the end, I just look super-cool, yet again.
Next up, Guanajuato, another popular highland town which I visited briefly back in 2002. I don’t remember a lot other than some epic callejonadas (roving street parties) and a mummy museum filled with a bunch of leathery corpses sporting epic batches of pubic hair. Needless to say, we can’t wait to get there.
For those looking at visiting Morelia, here is a link to a Wikiloc GPS of our personal “Morelia Highlights Walking Tour”: