Finding Traditional Mexico

By David Simmonds 

The strip of real estate just south of Tijuana, centered around Rosarito Beach in Northern Baja, is undergoing a period of huge growth. Hammers are swinging, real estate agents are selling, and gringos from the norte side of the border are laying down their money, looking for that ocean-view hideaway that has become an impossible dream for many in SoCal.

Now I’ve been traveling to and through this area for years, and I really don’t see the attraction, especially when compared to so many other places in Mexico. It has that uneasy border feel and mentality to it, the beaches are no warmer than San Diego’s (where you can only swim in the summer without a wetsuit), and it now resembles a very long strip-mall. But it did have a strange appeal in the early days, before the land rush…some good, authentic bars and restaurants, a funky Mexican ambience, and down-to-earth, friendly locals. It was a quiet respite from the madness of California life and it was cheap. Many people would haul a small trailer down, find a place to park it along the ocean where they paid someone $20 a month for rental space, and over the years they would bootleg a more permanent structure around the trailer. It was all very Bohemian and unplanned, with just enough element of the unknown to make every trip an adventure. It was a relatively small population of people who “got it”, and they liked it that way just fine.

But that was then and this is now, and as we gringos tend to do, we find a special place unlike the States and turn it into a place…just like the States. And we end up stuck with the dark side of unintended consequences. The old-timers are now complaining about how everything costs so much more now. A $1.00 beer at the local cantina is now $2.50 and the price of a plate of street tacos has doubled. Many of the “trailer parks”have been demolished to make room for condo buildings (Trump even has his name on a project) and the traffic is often stop-and-go…mostly stop.

The lesson here, if there is one, is that you need to pick your place very carefully. If you want a community not much different from where you now live, you can find it. But if your desire is to experience “Old Mexico”, a place that is still steeped in tradition and Mexican culture, you need to look a little farther into the country, and hope that the crowds are not close behind.

Food Prices

By David Simmonds 

One of the coolest aspects to living in Mexico is that there are small tiendas everywhere that don’t look remotely like the ubiquitous 7-eleven on every other corner north of the border. They are family-run, friendly, funky and essential to every neighborhood. When you require a large grocery purchase with a wide variety to choose from, the chain stores, which are now plentiful in areas where expats settle, carry everything you will need. Many have their own bakery, tortilleria, food deli, and ATM’s. And the prices, if you buy domestic products, are relatively inexpensive.

Here is a short list of grocery store prices from a recent trip to a mainland town on the coast, in an area where fruits and vegetables are grown. More remote areas, like most of the Baja peninsula can be nearly double these prices, due primarily to transportation costs. I have converted the prices to U.S. dollars and kilos to pounds.

Whole Chicken $0.80 per pound

Ground beef $1.75 per pound

Sirloin $2.33 per pound

Pork chops $1.95 per pound

Bacon $3.25 per pound

Milk $0.56 per liter

Eggs $0.90 per dozen

Cereal- Cornflakes $0.90 box

Cheese $2.77 per pound

Beans $0.24 per pound

Bread loaf-sliced $0.79

Bolillos (rolls) $0.10 per roll

Sugar $0.40 per pound

Mayonnaise jar $1.23 24 oz. jar

Fresh fish filet $1.36 per pound

Butter $1.50 per pound

Oranges $0.20 per pound

Mango $0.34 per pound

Tomatoes $0.88 per pound

Can tomatoes $0.79 12 oz. can

Beer – Corona $2.90 per six-pack

Rum – domestic $6.00 per liter

Beach sunset – Priceless

My Blue Heaven

by Lola

My idea of “blue” is as varied as the entry in Roget’s: azure, beryl, cerulean, cobalt, indigo, navy, royal, sapphire, teal, turquoise, ultramarine… Mexico’s idea of blue is its ever-changing Caribbean Sea, a brilliant interpretation of just about every shade Roget thought possible. I know it sounds corny, but wait till you see it out of your airplane window. You won’t believe your eyes.

Taking a cue from the blue and cashing in on the trend towards upscale boutique properties with fab service and great sheets, AZUL BLUE HOTEL + SPA by Karisma in Tulum (that would be in the Riviera Maya, down a ways from Cancun, and yes, still part of the Mexican Caribbean) opened its doors to rave reviews (and with only 97 rooms, managed to stay just south of the usual all-inclusive behemoth radar. What? Did I say “all-inclusive”??? Ya betcha, yeah. They do have the ubiquitous “activities directors”, but they really, really, try hard to shed the AI stigma. Service, check. Great food, check (they call it “Gourmet-Inclusive”). Sexy accommodations, check. Ab fab spa, check. Beach-side bar swings, check. Hot beach butlers, check.

Anyway, I’d rather not sound like a runaway commercial and let you know that you, too, can go Blue—and for less green—thanks to their great new promotion:

• Guests staying at Azul Blue between Jun. 25th – Aug. 10,
2007 receive a 20% Summer Special Discount

• Guests staying at Azul Blue between Aug. 11 – Dec. 23, 2007
receive a 25% Fall Special Discount

• Guests staying at Azul Blue between Jan. 2, 2008 – Apr. 30,
2008 receive a 20% Winter Early Booking Bonus Discount

Hard to beat with a stick, especially when you consider that Azul Blue made the Condé Nast Traveler’s 2007 “Hot List.” Summer rates (Jun. 25 – Aug. 10, 2007) begin at $235 per person, per night; Fall rates (Aug. 11 – Dec. 23, 2007) begin at $220 per person, per night; and Winter rates (Jan. 2 – Apr. 30, 2008) begin at $235 per person, per night.

Treat yourself to some serious Blues by calling 888-280-8810 or check in online at www.azulbluehotel.com

July in Teotitlán

Sacred Bean Cafe

The Zapotec community of Teotitlán del Valle holds its annual town fiesta the first week in July. There is an assortment of carnival rides, and on Wednesday, July 4, performances of the famous Danza de la Pluma in which dancers wear elaborate headdresses fashioned from painted feathers.

Lying at the base of the Sierra Juárez, the town is within hiking distance of interesting places such as El Picacho, Cerro Gie Bets, which translates as ‘Stone Brother’ in Zapotec. Tip for visitors – check out weaver-guided tours. New this year will be a Feria de Tamales. Spend some time in the Place of the Gods!

Please Pass the Sunscreen

By Lola

Most visitors to Mexico’s beaches quickly find that sunscreen is not an option. On some beaches, however, they’ll find it’s the actual clothing that’s optional (which basically translates into a serious need for sunscreen). We (yes, I’m hiding behind the royal “we” here) decided to find out what all the hoopla was about at this so-called spicy getaway that went by the oh-so-spicy name of Desire Resort & Spa Los Cabos. And boy oh boy—let’s just say we needed several gallons of sunscreen to get through the week.

A five-star, clothing optional resort—couples 21 and over only, mind you—Desire Resort & Spa Los Cabos is located on a secluded corner of one of Cabo’s fine beaches. The hotel itself is quite lovely, with palapas punctuating pristine white buildings with ample balconies, rooms sleekly decorated and sparkling pools and Jacuzzis hither and yon. The guests leave very little to the imagination, which, of course is the entire point of a clothing optional resort. Take off or leave on as little or as much as you want—the choice is yours, we were told. So we did.

On that happy note, we’d like to share that we decided to take advantage of the summer’s Latin Fever weekends chock full of titillating games, exotic foods and activities that had to have raised more than a few people’s blood pressure (we kept ours in check by imbibing plenty of grapefruit juice. Really.) With rates starting at $140 per person, per night, Desire Resort & Spa Los Cabos has another spicy weekend coming up August 8-12. Can’t make that one? Check out the Desire Resort & Spa Riviera Maya on the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, where summer’s extended for the weekend of September 19-23 with rates starting at $185 per person, per night. Call them directly at 888-201-7441 or take a sneaky peek for yourself at www.desireresorts.com

And don’t forget your sunscreen.

Oaxaca on My Mind

By Lola

Last week a colleague posted a bit of a blog on a city that grabbed headlines the past year for all the wrong reasons. As he mentioned, Oaxaca City—pronounced Wa-ha-ka for those unfamiliar with the nuances of this tongue-twister—was caught up in the midst of a conflict that still stirs up the dust of grief to this day. However, in one line he neatly sums up just what we can do to help: “The best that we gringos can do is to go there and spend a little money.”

So in the name of all that’s amazing, intriguing, enduring, cultural, fascinating and unforgettable about Oaxaca, LET’S ALL GO DOWN THERE AND DO OUR DUTY. Oh, and have some major fun while we’re at it…

The best time of year to go is in July for the colorful Festival of the Guelaguetza. Cancelled last year during the “troubles”, this year it promises to showcase the commitment of sharing and the practice of contributing for the good of the entire community. They need you to be there as much as you need to experience this magical occasion of song, dance, food and togetherness. And Mexico Boutique Hotels, a group that brings the world the best of Mexico’s most unique accommodations, wants to make your contribution to Oaxaca even sweeter when you to stay at any of their participating members for three nights or more during the month of July with the knowledge that a percentage of your entire stay will be donated to a local Oaxacan children’s charity (www.teleton.org.mx).

And while a visit to the actual city is really a must, at MBH they also know that there may be other destinations in Mexico that might be closer to your heart or even just closer to your airport. Keeping this in mind, they’ve made it so you can still do your part by letting you choose from a stay any of the following unforgettable hotels located in a few of the country’s finest destinations: Condesa DF and Habita in Mexico City; Doña Urraca in Querétaro; Hotelito Desconocido in Puerto Vallarta; La Casa de las Rosas in Morelia; Quinta Las Acacias in Guanajuato; Villa Ganz in Guadalajara; and, of course, Casa Cid de León and Hacienda los Laureles in Oaxaca. For details, loads of pictures, and reservations visit www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com.

I’ll show you my pictures if you’ll show me yours.

Pick a Passport—Any Passport. Just Not The Dark Blue One.

By Lola

Seriously folks, this passport thing has been announced FOR OVER A YEAR and still we’re finding snarls, delays and numerous other red tape entanglements. To those of you who waited UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE TO ORDER YOUR PASSPORT: what in Bush’s name were you thinking? It seems like every other thing in this administration has moved at a snail’s pace (well, except anything that has to do with sending 18-year-olds to war or spending inordinate amounts of money on finding out if there’s ice on Mars) so why not this whole passport fiasco?

Was the government agency in charge of processing every single American citizen’s passport ready for the obvious onslaught come summer travel time? Methinks not.

In its place, our fearless government has instituted a six-month delay on the rule that Americans present passports when entering the US at a land or sea border crossing. What they obviously forgot to trumpet was the fact that a drivers license AND a birth certificate were BOTH needed to get in and out. Just ask the crowd that got denied boarding on that Mexicana flight today. Boy, were they happy.

Here’s a tidbit from the newsmakers: “Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the proposed rules and new flexibility after a passport requirement for air travel to those countries produced months-long delays in processing passport applications at the State Department.” Duh.

However: “Even as recently as last week, DHS officials had insisted in the face of a public outcry that they were going forward with the tougher regulations on land and sea crossings starting in January.” Really.

OK, pick your poison guys, or as they say in the Wild West… Well, I won’t even go there. I’ll side with Rep. Thomas Reynolds (a Republican, so there you go), who called it “more of the same bureaucratic doublespeak.”

On that happy note, I can tell you this: Don’t wait to get your passport four weeks before your trip. Don’t expect to get your passport SIX weeks before your trip. Even if you spent the extra $60 THERE’S NO GUARANTEE.

Heed the warning: GIVE YOURSELF AT LEAST TWO TO THREE MONTHS (8 TO 12 WEEKS FOR THOSE WHO ARE COUNTING) before your trip in order to have your passport in hand when you try to criss-cross the border. You will be a much happier camper. Trust me. And that sweet little baby of yours? SHE NEEDS ONE, TOO. Age is no excuse.

I myself have to switch out my passport (a very needed name change, in case you’re wondering) and I have already sent in my paperwork even though I won’t be traveling to Mexico to see friends and family until December. Better safe than sorry, frazzled and totally bent out of shape, I always say.

There’s no getting around this folks: that lovely 2×2 taken at Walgreen’s will have to be endured. Smile at the camera: your friendly neighborhood immigration agent will be happy you did.

http://travel.state.gov/passport/passport_1738.html