Having a baby in Amsterdam: the first trimester, and how to get started

It was mid-January, and I was hanging out in a small apartment in Brooklyn, eating an absolutely delicious bagel and trying to figure out how one goes about this whole having-a-baby thing. I had probably already eaten a big bowl of cereal as well, I was ravenous and about 7 weeks pregnant. My situation felt a bit surreal – sitting in New York (where I’m from) and trying to figure out how to get started with the whole pregnancy thing in Amsterdam. It wasn’t as if I could ask my other New Yorker friends for their advice, and I felt a bit disconnected from Amsterdam (after being away for almost 7 weeks at that point on an extended vacation). I started with what I knew.

In the Netherlands, the default is working with a midwife, not an ob/gyn. The idea is that doctors are for sick people, and pregnant women (with low-risk pregnancies) are not sick. This sounds painfully practical (in that so-dutch way), and …. well, it makes a lot of sense. If you can get behind this idea without too much effort, the first step – after you’ve confirmed pregnancy – is to pick a midwife. I think the general rule of thumb is that the first visit happens around 8-10 weeks, but you might want to go in for “consultation” meetings before that (where you just learn about the practice, etc.).

But how?? How does one just pick a midwife? Are there rules? Isn’t this a super-important decision? Will I be able to find a midwife that is okay with speaking English? Where do I even begin? This is all covered by my dutch health care insurance, right? What kind of insurance do I have, anyway? Just a few of the question that ran through my mind as I watched the snow fall in New York.

I googled for awhile, and then I gathered up the guts to email one of my non-dutch-mom-friends in Amsterdam to tell her that I was pregnant and had no idea how to get started and to please give me advice. This was well before I was comfortable spreading the news of pregnancy, but really, you’ve got to have a bit of help. My mom-friend responded quickly with all sorts of really helpful information, and google filled in the rest.

The rule about picking a midwife is pretty simple: pick one close to your house that you like. Do some research, see which midwife practices appeal to you, and see if you can have an “intro” no-commitment meeting (that I refer to as a consultation). Very do-able, right? I started researching. I used google Chrome a lot when looking at midwife websites for instant translations. I learned some things that I didn’t like, and decided to stay away from them. For instance, the idea of going to a midwife practice where I would see a different midwife every time? Not appealing at all. 15-minute meetings once a month with a variety of different care providers was not my idea of pre-natal care, and even though some other expat-type blogs had me believe that was The Way It Works, I figured that surely there would be a midwife practice that suits my needs. And indeed there was – I discovered Vive Vroedvrouw, and immediately loved what I read on their english language page. Right there, in perfect english, was a description of “typical” midwife care in the NL (“group practices, usually with around 4-5 midwives …a lot of different faces during your pregnancy … a fair chance of hardly knowing the midwife who will attend your birth … The consultations last 10 to 15 minutes maximum“). And then there was a description of the care that they offer and why. The parts that mattered most to me at the beginning was simply “One personal (primary) midwife instead of various midwives as seen in a group practice….Each prenatal appointment will be 60 mins, ensuring more than enough time to pay attention to any emotional, and where desired, spiritual aspects of your pregnancy.”

I sent an email to their general address, telling them when I thought I was expecting and asking a few questions. I didn’t get a reply, so I sent another email directly to a few of the individual midwives listed on the contact page. I had a reply from within a couple days from a midwife telling me she was available to have a consultation meeting around the start of my 9th week of pregnancy. She would be able to refer me for an ultrasound at this meeting as well, and Enrique was more than welcome to join. I told myself to calm down and be patient (ha!) and that there was nothing wrong with waiting until the 9th week for this consultation meeting, even though in the US the idea is that women go to their OB/GYN pretty much as soon as they find out they have a positive pregnancy test. To be honest, the consultation meeting couldn’t really happen any earlier, since I was out of town. I decided not to schedule any other consultations while I was still in NYC, that it would be better to have the first one and see what it was like.

I flew back to Amsterdam on the 20th of January, and a few days later Enrique and I went together for the consultation. This was all so completely new and weird for us, but I had a really good feeling from the beginning, just being at the WG-plein in the Oud West. Crazily enough, it was at a party in the WG-plein where I had first met Enrique. The Oud West was one of the first neighborhoods that I really knew in Amsterdam. The office was close to my house (1.5 km away – a six minute bike ride or 20 minute walk). So far, so good.

The three of us met in a small, comfortable room. We sat on pillows on the floor and were offered tea. We spoke for a little over an hour, and I asked as many questions as I could think of. She gave me a few books (in english) about the pregnancy process in the Netherlands (this was so valuable!). We didn’t make any commitments that day – Enrique and I went home to think about it, and decided pretty easily that we were quite happy with the practice and with the midwife we had met. Fortunately, she also agreed that we would be nice clients to work with, and the deal was set. I had a midwife. A sweet, Dutch midwife who had worked with many other foreigners before, and who seemed to love her job. I chose to work with her because that’s what felt right at the time – there really isn’t much more to it than that and I decided there wasn’t any reason to over-complicate things by visiting other places. At the consultation, she had written me a referral for three ultrasounds – one at nine weeks, one for 12 weeks, and one for 20 weeks. All ultrasounds in the Netherlands are optional, so if you don’t want them, no one will force you to have one. My insurance covered the first and the 20-week ultrasound, but I had to pay for the 12-week “combination test” ultrasound out of pocket since I was under 36 years old (I  missed the age limit by about six months). The combination test was about €150. But let’s stay on track and go in order.

That first ultrasound… I was so nervous. I was nervous for days beforehand, I was nervous that day, and I was nervous about everything. Like – name the most remote possibility on earth, and I can assure you I thought of it and dedicated time to being nervous about it. I was 9 weeks and 5 days when I walked into the Echo Amsterdam office.

Like most people in Amsterdam, the woman who greeted me at the office was absolutely fine with speaking english. I gave her my referral, told her my name and birthdate, and showed her my insurance card. About 3 minutes later, Enrique and I were called in the room. I don’t remember much about the details – I remember being surprised that it was a trans-vaginal scan (“to see the baby more easily” explained the tech), but later learned that this is entirely normal at the early stages of pregnancy when the baby is still so small. And then I remember holding Enrique’s hand very tightly and seeing up there on a huge screen the evidence I had been so incredibly eager to see: there was the baby! A few minutes later, we heard the heartbeat. We saw movement. The tech took measurements, pointed things out, and told us everything looked perfectly normal. After we wiped the happy tears out of our eyes and collected the printed photos (and digital copies on a USB), I saw another woman who quickly and expertly drew blood that would be used for the combination test in two weeks time. I was on a pregnancy high for at least another week or so – Enrique and I must have stared at those ultrasound photos for hours. It all finally seemed real.

My next midwife appointment took place when I was 11 1/2 weeks along, and this was my first “official” appointment. This time my midwife asked me detailed questions about my health, my history, took my blood pressure, and also took a sample of blood. Enrique joined me again for this one too, and we spent a good amount of time talking about the upcoming combination test scan, what kind of results we may get, etc. By the time this appointment had rolled around, my pregnancy “high” was in a battle with pregnancy paranoia. I saw the 12 week ultrasound as another big benchmark to cross, and looming in the near future was that magical 14-week mark, where the first trimester is over. I doubt I’m the first pregnant lady to feel paranoid about “what if….”, and I bought up some of those “what if” thoughts at the appointment. We chatted about everything, and she listened patiently and assured me that even by 11 1/2 weeks, my chances at miscarrying were already incredibly low. She was entirely unconcerned about my age (35). This appointment lasted well over an hour, and Enrique and I left feeling great. This was exactly the kind of pre-natal care I wanted and needed. I never felt rushed, and I felt that my midwife did care about me as a person, not just “patient 9837.” Again, I’m positive she has heard the same paranoid thoughts from hundreds of women in the past – but she never made me ridiculous or just brushed me off with literature.

I’ll be talking more about how valuable this part of pre-natal care has been through the whole process later on.

I went for ultrasound #2 when I was 12 weeks and 3 days, and everything on the scan was perfect. The baby really looked like a baby, and less like a tadpole (the head was more proportional to the body and we could see legs). They checked for markers of down syndrome and saw nothing visibly alarming about the development. Here’s where I’m going to get a bit emotional: seeing the baby up on the screen moving around and hearing the heartbeat was all I needed to see/hear to know that no matter what, everything was absolutely perfect. It was maybe my first moment of having a significantly strong feeling of just “knowing” something. When we got ready to leave the office, the tech explained that if the combination tests came back from the lab with nothing to be concerned about, the results would be sent directly to be via postal mail in roughly five days. If there was anything at all to worry about, they would send the results instead to my midwife, who would contact me to explain everything. As I mentioned previously, I had to pay about €150 for this test, which included the scan, bloodwork, and lab results. If you are over 36 years old, your insurance plan should cover this test completely.

I don’t know why, but I wasn’t worried at all. I didn’t obsessively check the mail. I didn’t worry that every time my phone rang it was bad news. I knew everything was fine. Just three days later my test results came in the mail (combination testing means a combination of the scan, my blood, and my age), confirming I was right. A 1/5000 chance of this, a 1/2500 of that – basically, we seemed to be in the clear. I very much appreciated that the letters were sent to me in english so I didn’t have to go through the process of translating anything – I never specifically thought to request this, but was grateful that someone along the way thought to put that request in.

Everything I mentioned above is more about the logistics. Now here’s a bit more about how it all felt.

During my first trimester, I didn’t feel so much more tired than I normally feel in the dead middle of winter when it’s dark and cold outside. My “symptoms” included bigger (and very sensitive) boobs and needing to pee a lot more during the night for about 2 months. And sure, those two months of needing to pee 4 times a night weren’t fun – it was pretty annoying to never get a full night of sleep. But that was really the extent of “signs that I am pregnant.” I never really had morning sickness or threw up, just a few weeks of very low-grade nausea  that was usually solved by eating and relaxing a bit. Even that low-grade nausea was gone by my 9th week… honestly, if I had no idea I was pregnant, it was the type of nausea that I might not have even noticed. I thought it was going to be more… intense? I thought I’d maybe feel more? I also had no idea what “feeling pregnant” was supposed to feel like, I just know that I really wasn’t feeling it for the first 12 weeks. I mean really, for the first three or four months, I knew I had this little life growing inside me – I read the weekly updates from babycenter, I saw the scans, I heard the heartbeat. But I didn’t get how there could be a little life inside me with a beating heart and organs and hands and legs without me feeling any different, other than uncomfortable because I was outgrowing all the bigger bras I had bought only 1.5 months ago. I’m kinda over-emphasizing this because if you read The Internet you’ll see a bazilllion articles about morning sickness, tiredness, moodiness, and a bunch of other unpleasant things. All I really had to show for my first trimester was a new collection of bras.

Sometime around 13 weeks or so I finally started to tell my friends and extended family, and everything started to seem more real. All the early-stage paranoia started to fade away and just turn into excitement. Around 15 weeks – once I got into my second trimester – my belly started to look a bit more bump-like (at least to me and Enrique) instead of just bloated. I wasn’t comfortable in my old jeans anymore and lived in leggings and dresses, and this is when I finally started to “feel pregnant.” Even though I enjoyed my first trimester, I also had my uber-paranoid moments, my sessions with google to figure out every single possible thing that might possibly go wrong and plenty of time where I just freaked myself out for zero reason. I think that’s all really normal. The only advice I would have wanted someone to tell me is this “You’re going to be a great mother and I bet all pregnant women feel the same way. And by the way, you look wonderful.”

If you are the friend or partner of a pregnant lady and she is telling you about a feeling that seems completely absurd, please don’t tell her she’s being crazy or give her that “wow, you’re nuts” look. And don’t tell her “that will never happen,” as I promise you, she probably has three bookmarks saved where that thing did happen. Tell her what I said above. I promise that some logical part of her knows she’s being a little nuts, and I promise, this phase will pass.

—–

My next midwife appointment was in my 13th week, and this is where things got interesting. Centering Pregnancy had started.

 

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Apparently, I’m having a baby in Amsterdam

After an amazing six weeks in Mexico, followed by two weeks in New York City, I returned home to Amsterdam in late January. I bought a bottle of Trader Joe’s folic acid pills with me. I was about 8 weeks pregnant – first pregnancy, first baby.

My main residence for the past seven years has been Amsterdam, though my commitment level to the city has waxed and waned over the years. The first 3-ish years, I was super committed. I spent a lot of time, energy (and money) to sponsor myself for a visa that allowed me the right to work as a freelancer, and gathered enough clients to support myself with work. I built up a great community of friends and built a pretty solid home base. Even though I lived in Florence for a couple of months, I always knew that would be a temporary thing.

After about 4 years or so, I was in a slump with Amsterdam. The weather, man. It wears on a person after that many years. Work was going well, but did I really want to work in advertising forever? I never learned the Dutch because I honestly never really cared enough to learn the language – doesn’t that say something? I mean, I left the Netherlands for two months in order to study Italian for 30+ hours a week in Italy for two months (for no real reason), but I don’t think I can say I spent 30 hours in five years trying to learn Dutch. Plus: my partner, the person I was in a committed long-term relationship with, had the exact same commitment issues I did with Amsterdam… only his were even worse. He had been coming and going since the late ’90s, but never really planning to live here long-term (even though one could argue that 12+ years in a city is fairly long term). We both spent a year in Mexico in 2012-2013, and contemplated making that a permanent re-location.

But there was always that thing that Amsterdam could do… give me one beautiful spring/summer/fall day here and suddenly I have no idea why I ever thought about leaving in the first place. The bikes, the friends, the weirdos, the seemingly unlimited amount of things to do which were all completely accessible and affordable, the absurd beauty of the city itself and all those canals… this is what has kept me around, and part of what bought us back. So it’s weird that even now, after 7 years of paying taxes in the Netherlands, I never really integrated myself into the culture. Amsterdam never needed me to integrate in order to give me an amazing life.

The neverending summer skies in Amsterdam. Living around so much water is wonderful.

The never-ending summer skies in Amsterdam. Living around so much water is wonderful.

Summertime in a city park in Amsterdam

Summertime in a city park in Amsterdam

Shouldn’t that be a complete shame? When I lived in Paris, I had french friends (along with a lot of foreign friends, sure). I struggled daily to speak French, but I always did when I was out. I took classes, I learned about the food, the culture, the people, the traditions, the “rules.” I greeted every bus driver with a “bonjour”, accepted that bread, jam, coffee, and juice was a full breakfast that for some reason cost €8, and learned to always inquire on discounts for being under 26-years old, for anything. Later on, during the two months I spent in Italy, I enjoyed learning about Italian culture and adapting to the Italian way of doing things. I traveled on the slow trains to save money, realized it was possible to (at least try) charm my way out of or into situations, and never drank cappuccino after 11am. The more I learned the language, the more doors opened up to me, and I loved it. In Mexico I did the same thing. I ate huge lunches and light dinners, I learned Mexican slang, expressions, and food. I put chili and lime on ice cream. I made friends with Mexicans who don’t have any idea what my personality is like in English. I became interested and involved in Mexican stuff – the holidays, traditions, etc. Every time I moved to a new country, the more I immersed myself in the culture, the richer my experience became.

Mexican Lunch in Puebla - enchiladas

This is about 4x the size of an average Dutch lunch. It was not hard to adjust.

I don’t know why that’s not true in the Netherlands. I have about a million more thoughts about the topic, but for now I’ll just leave it as a fact: my life in Amsterdam is amazing, rich, full of love, but I am in absolutely no way living a “Dutch” lifestyle, if one can even say there is a “dutch” lifestyle in Amsterdam (and let’s be clear: Amsterdam is Amsterdam, and in no way representative of Dutch culture as a whole in the Netherlands). Well, I can ride a broken-down bicycle over a sheet of ice in the rain while carrying a dining room chair, but other than that, I’ve chosen to entirely disregard a lot of the traditions, culture, and customs here.

I do love the poffertjes (small, thick pancakes) available in the markets

I also love the poffertjes (small, thick pancakes) available in the markets.

And yet Enrique and I are buying an apartment and having our baby in Amsterdam. I’m 22 weeks (more than halfway there!) pregnant, and both of us knew from the minute that pregnancy test turned positive that we would have the baby in Amsterdam. So. There was a lot – a LOT – to learn. The reality of having a baby super far from our families started to seem a little weird. What about cousins, uncles, aunts, grandmas and grandpas? I thought about my own childhood, and how much I absolutely adored and loved both sets of my grandparents. I’m used to living abroad, to maintaining my childhood friendships with visits every few years and skype and emails. But I’m completely missing getting to know my niece and nephew (1 & 3) in California, and now my baby will miss getting to know his or her cousins. Whew. But ok, breathe. My kid is also going to have a million advantages. He or she will grow up tri-lingual, in a city where being a tri-lingual six-year-old isn’t really even that weird. He/she will grow up in a really safe, beautiful city where the system more or less works (at least it works better than it would in the US or Mexico) – we’ll always have access to health care and schools. Both Enrique and I have friends with kids, and we’ll make more. We’ll learn Dutch, dammit, this time for real. My kid will grow up with a passport from birth (I got my first passport when I was 21), and will travel to new countries and continents as a normal part of life. He or she will be riding a bike (with me or Enrique) from a few months old. We’ll make visits back to our home countries and our families will come to visit us. We’ll rent out our apartment when we travel to subsidize our plane tickets.

It's stuff like this that can make a place feel like home, even if it is pouring rain outside.

It’s stuff like this that can make a place feel like home, even if it is pouring rain outside.

Those are among the types of thoughts I had in January and February, during my first trimester.

I was nervous. Nervous about approaching the Dutch medical system after spending so many years as an outsider. Nervous, suddenly, that not speaking the language would be a huge disadvantage. Nervous because there are so many stories from foreigners about their (negative) experiences. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was so insanely lucky. This baby was indeed a wanted baby, and I didn’t have any issues getting pregnant. I wasn’t sick at all during my whole first trimester. I knock wood as I write, this, but I’m having (so far) a completely easy, fun, exciting pregnancy… so there’s a huge reason to feel lucky.

Beyond that, I have been abroad for almost ten years now, and I don’t have one idea in my head that “this is the way it works” when you’re pregnant – and I think this is an advantage. I didn’t witness a lot of friends having kids in the US – or if I did, it was from afar. I do not think that the US or Mexico are shining, fantastic examples of countries that Do It Right. So I told myself to be open. Be open to the Dutch Way. See how it goes. Take it one step at a time. Start at the beginning. Wait, so where do I even begin?

Ok, number one: find a midwife.

Holbox, Mexico: the logistics

Where is it and why?

Well, it’s an absolutely beautiful Mexican island with almost no cars whatsoever in the Caribbean sea, so the “why” you should go to Holbox (pronounced: Hol-bosch) is a pretty easy one. But let’s start at the beginning.

Sunset in Holbox.

Eh, looks alright I guess.

Right after Christmas, Enrique and I were spending some time with his family – brothers, sisters, parents, nephews, nieces, in Cancun for four days. We stayed right in the middle of the hotel strip at a nice hotel with a great view. I had a wonderful time with his family and the ocean was great. But to be perfect honest: I really dislike Cancun itself in almost every way. It’s not my “type” of place to begin with, which is fine – everyone has their style – but I was surprised at exactly how much I hated most things about the place. I thought for sure I’d find something redeeming, right? I mean, it’s not as if I am immune to the powers of a nice hotel and clean beaches. It turns out that Cancun is actually even worse than I imagined and had exactly two redeeming qualities: I was with excellent company (Enrique’s family are wonderful people), and the showers had plenty of hot water and great water pressure.

The food was awful and expensive pretty much everywhere, and this is a tragedy. It is a tragedy to be in Mexico and eat awful food. It is a tragedy to ask for an “agua de sabor” and be told there are no flavored waters – not even jamaica – but they can give me a limonada (sparkling water with lime juice and sugar) for roughly 4 euros. I was anticipating the “expensive” part, but was not prepared for eating the same type of “Mexican” food that I could find in the Netherlands. The service in restaurants was also awful, which is another not-typical thing – I’m used to having friendly, quick, delightful service in Mexico (hey, tip culture, that’s what happens). There was no fresh juice on offer anywhere (another unheard-in-Mexico thing for me), only bottled. I’ll make another tragic statement: the best meal quality and service-wise I had the entire time was at a mall. A mall restaurant where some guy was walking around with giant sombreros offering to take pictures with people. The kind of kitchy Mexican restaurant you would except to find in any American mall. Except we were in Mexico.

I detested how tall the hotels were, and how they blocked out the sun after 3pm when I was on the beach. The landscape was ruined, the beaches were tiny and receding. To put it simply, other than hearing Mexican-accented english, I would have no idea that Cancun is even in Mexico. It could be Florida, California, Texas, or any other random place in the world.

Anyway, this is just a bit of backstory to how we ended up in Holbox. I knew we would be in Cancun until the 30th of December, and I knew we wanted to spend New Years Eve on a beach somewhere, and that somewhere should be within a 5-6 hour bus ride of Cancun. I also knew that we were not the only two people in Mexico to come up with the idea of “be on a beach for New Years Eve,” so we started planning this out WAY ahead of time. After a ton of research on places all over Yucatán and Quintana Roo, I found Holbox. It seemed to be the anti-Cancun. A tiny island with about 1,500 residents. Popular activities seemed to include swimming with whale sharks, looking at birds, doing nothing, and chilling out. The Lonely Planet description pretty much nailed what I was looking for. Enrique had never been to Holbox and didn’t really know anything about it. So, that’s the story of why we chose Holbox, and we chose very, very wisely. Go to Holbox if you want the anti-Cancun atmosphere.

One way to kill a few hours in Holbox

One way to kill a few hours in Holbox

Perfect white sand beaches

Perfect white sand beaches and kite flying.

I would personally avoid the Island during hurricane season (if the storms get very bad, even most of the residents will evacuate) and I’d also avoid it during rainy reason. Rainy season will bring a lot more heat, way more mosquitoes, and very muddy “roads.”

How we got there:

Isla Holbox is about 3.5 – 5.5 hours from downtown Cancun, depending on how lucky you are with traffic and bus/ferry schedules. Here’s how we got there:

1. From the hotel strip in Cancun, we took a bus to the downtown Cancun bus station. This was about 40 minutes (more or less, depending on traffic). The bus ride was easy and there’s no reason to take a super expensive taxi.

2. Once at the station, we bought bus tickets to Chiquila – the port city that will get you to Holbox. We had to stand on line for a solid 20 minutes to get tickets, so alllllwwwwaaaaaaaays leave yourself time when traveling in Mexico. Fortunately our bus was ready to leave about 5 minutes after we got tickets.

3. Our bus ride from Cancun to Chiquila was uneventful. Getting there took over 4 hours. The bus stopped several times when we passed through the smaller towns, and a couple times people came on board to sell food (which I welcomed – turns out I was the kind of pregnant woman who needed to eat every 3 hours). There are no bathrooms on the buses and no bathroom breaks along the way. Use the bathroom at the bus station (cost: $5 MXN) before you leave.

4. We eventually arrived at the end of the line and got off in Chiquila. I quickly found a bathroom at one of the restaurants, and then we walked over to the ferries. This is impossible to miss, there’s only one real direction to go, and most people are going the same way, so just follow the crowd. It’s a roughly 5 minute walk, max.

5. We bought a ticket for the ferry (roughly $100 MXN one-way, if I’m remembering correctly). We went with the ferries that had both inside and outside seating, and plenty of space for luggage. There are also small boats that fisherman operate that you can chose to hire. I don’t think there’s really any real “posh” option, but our boat was just fine.

6. We said goodbye to the mainland and took a 30-40 minute ride over the lagoon to Isla Holbox. I didn’t feel seasick at all – these are calm waters, and the boats are rather fast. It doesn’t feel like sailing. I’ve been seasick before on sailboats, and I was a month into pregnancy at the time, so I feel pretty safe saying that unless you are extremely sensitive, you don’t have to worry about sea-sickness.

7. Upon arriving on the island around dusk, we were greeted with palm trees and sand and sun and everything else you would expect an island to have. And absolutely no cars or paved roads. I was in heaven. There were bicycles and golf-cart style “taxis” for transportation. We jumped in a golf cart taxi and got to our hostel (with all our stuff) for about $30 MXN. The taxi drivers seem to know all the hotels/hostels, so there’s no need to worry about that. We traveled down the dirt roads and I immediately felt like I was back in Mexico.

8. To return we basically did the same thing in reverse. There is no need to purchase tickets in advance for either the buses or the ferries.

TIPS: When you leave Holbox to go back to the mainland, there are two different ferry companies leaving from the port. There’s no visible difference in quality between the two (they are both totally fine and offer inside and outside seating), just be sure you get on the correct ferry. They leave once an hour up from about 5am to 8pm or so – you can pick up a schedule when you arrive. You can also buy your bus ticket from Chiquila – Cancun from the port in Holbox, which is what we did.

Enrique checking out the prices to get the ferry back to the mainland.

Enrique checking out the prices to get the ferry back to the mainland.

Here's the other place to buy ferry tickets in Holbox. They are right next to each other - you can see the schedule next to the guy.

Here’s the other place to buy ferry tickets in Holbox. They are right next to each other – you can see the schedule next to the guy.

When you get back to the mainland in Chiquila, make sure you get on the right bus! There might be between 2-4 different buses from different companies, and if you bought your ticket from “Company X” you can’t get on the bus from “Company Y.” I saw this happen to a couple travelers and felt pretty bad for them. You can buy a new ticket for the right bus once you’re there, but who wants to pay double? For the tourists I saw, the problem was that the bus they should have gotten on had left about 3 minutes before hand.

Remember the buses have no bathrooms. A little advance planning can go a long way. Don’t worry about the buses stopping to pick up local passengers as well, that’s all totally legit. They are not luxury buslines that only run from Ciquila to Cancun, but the buses are totally fine and comfortable, the roads are good, and the scenery is beautiful. However, in the smaller town you will be going over topes (speedbumps), and that’s just… Mexico. Strangely after 4 days in the non-Mexican-hotel-strip-Cancun area, I was delighted to roll over my first tope.

How we got around: 

We strolled around on our own two feet a lot, we rented bicycles, and we took the golf cart taxis when we needed to get to and from the ferry port with our bags. The island is really, really small (approximately 41.84 kilometers long and 1.5 kilometers wide, according to wikipedia) and only a fraction of it is inhibited. The rest is totally wild. If you stay for more than 3 days you’ll have it all pretty much figured out, and can easily do it all by bicycle or foot.

Riding on the beach

Riding on the beach

Where we stayed in Holbox:

We spent the first four days at Villas El Encanto Holbox Hostel, and we stayed in the private double room on the ground floor. We shared the bathroom with one other room, which was a family-style room of four people. The plus side about the hostel: The owners and employees were incredibly friendly, fun, and kind. Our room was spacious and cleaned daily, the double bed was comfortable, the A/C worked, and the internet connection was pretty decent in our room (oddly enough, I had to work while there, so that was important for me). It was right off the zócalo and about a 3-minute walk to the beach. The minus side of the hostel: our room was next to a very popular and busy (and absolutely wonderful and delicious) restaurant, and we could hear every single word, shout, etc., from the staff and customers. It was as if they were in the room with us. What can you do about it? Just deal with it, keep the window shut and the A/C on. I kinda hate using A/C and would have preferred to keep the window open, but that wasn’t possible. The other disadvantage is that depending on who is staying in the other room, the bathroom can get a bit scary. Again, hostel life. We were a bit unlucky with inconsiderate neighbors the first two nights who apparently didn’t know how to not put the toilet paper in the toilet (hello, clogging!) and who didn’t really understand the bathroom wasn’t private (hello, mess!). The second two nights our neighbors were much more considerate and everything was fine. One more minus, though I didn’t realize this at first: This hostel isn’t on the beach. Sure, it’s only a 3-minute walk. But trust me, being on the beach is best. Anyway, I would still recommend it, we had a great time there, had lovely service, rented their bikes, used the kitchen, and enjoyed the hot showers.

Immediately upon arriving in Holbox we knew we wanted to spend more than the four nights I had booked. We wandered around the island looking for other accommodation – and while most things in our budget were booked, we found a brilliant hostel/hotel combo right on the beach called Casa Maya. This place offered tents for people to camp, dorm rooms to share, or private bungalows. We went for the private bungalow at $800 MXN per night. On the beach. With access to a huge kitchen. WE LOVED IT. Very friendly, laid-back staff who cleaned the room every day and offered us coconuts to drink. We could leave the window open at night and just use the ceiling fan on low (though each room does have air conditioning), and couldn’t hear any distracting noise. The shower was great. There was a picnic table, hammocks, kayaks, body boards, etc., to use. Casa Maya was simple and perfect and suited us perfectly. Oddly enough, even though they told me the internet only worked well in the large common area, it worked perfectly in our room as well – which had a small table and chairs next to the window. Talk about the perfect work environment!

Casa Maya is there on the left. I almost never had my camera with me, but this is a pretty good representation of a view in Hobox.

Casa Maya is there on the left. I almost never had my camera with me, but this is a pretty good representation of a view in Hobox.

Holbox has accommodation of all types, including super swanky. The true budget accommodation is a tent on the beach, which I’m sure I would have loved when I was younger and in the mood to party more at night (pregnancy does decrease one’s ability to stay up around a campfire, drinking and dancing and drugging). But if that’s your style, that is there. Dorm-room hostels are in abundance as well, and like dorm-room hostels everywhere, they are what they are. What we did – getting a private room in a hostel-ish type place – is more our style of travel these days. We don’t like paying a lot for accommodation, especially if we’re going to be outside all the time. Plus, we still enjoy being able to meet travelers and socialize – we just want to be able to have privacy at the end of the day.

This is why you stay on the beach in Holbox. For these views.

This is why you stay on the beach in Holbox. For these views.

I have to say, if I was going to go on a “splurge” vacation and pay a bunch of money to stay somewhere swanky, I’d do it in Holbox. So many of the nicer hotels are absolutely stunning, and they have very strict rules about being eco-friendly and not building up anything too tall (anti-Cancun!!). I also never felt a snobby/exclusive attitude from any of the nicer hotels – they don’t try to “own” the beach around them in an obnoxious way.

Impressions of Holbox, how we spent our time, and what we ate:

We stayed in Holbox for 8 nights, which was perfect for us. We didn’t partake in any whale-shark swimming, or boat trips, or any excursions, so 8 days was absolutely enough time (I would have been ok with one day less). The industry in Holbox is fishing and tourism, and that’s that. Tourism is really starting to take off – I heard a few times that the island had never been so full, so booked up in advance. What I loved about Holbox is that it was a place full of Mexican tourists as well as Americans/Europeans/Aussies/etc. The people who live and work there are friendly and laid back. It’s a very safe place, with kids and dogs running around all the time – we didn’t even have locks for our bikes. And the food is excellent, so let’s start there.

Street murals in Holbox

Street murals

After 4 days in not-real-Mexico (Cancun), my mouth was watering at the menus outside the restaurants and real street food options. We may have gone a bit overboard at our first dinner, but I drank down my agua de horchata like I had never had one before. Corn tortillas, meat, tons of grilled fish, guacamole, real spicy salsas, queso fundido with chorizo… we ordered pretty much everything at the one place we could find that would accept credit cards (more on that later). We were in a state of bliss – Enrique even more so than me, after polishing off a few beers and some proper mezcal. The next day we spoke with a few locals to find out a bit more about the food. Here’s what we were told:

The fish that comes from the island is whitefish, lobster, octopus, and … maybe the calamari, I can’t remember. The shrimp gets shipped in from Campeche. There is a tortilla factory, so getting fresh, corn tortillas is no problem. Harder to find is local vegetables and fruit. You’ll figure out what fruit is in season pretty quickly, but you may not always see it available in the very small market that is off the zócalo. Coconuts are everywhere (really, all over the ground and the trees). You can buy fish from the fisherman directly, and obviously if you do that, you’ll get much, much cheaper prices. However, you might need to invest a bit of time to befriend a fisherman, figure out when they come in, etc. And of course you’d need a place to cook. Absolutely splurge on a lobster dinner – the lobster is amazing. Splurge on the loud restaurant next to the Villas de Encanto hostel – it was worth it. Service is friendly everywhere. And train yourself to a few eating “rules” of Holbox: breakfast is maybe until 11am, and you’ll have eggs of all types as well as other Mexican-style breakfasts (meaning tacos). Lunch is up until 2pm, maaaybe 2.30pm at the latest (a bit different from the rest of Mexico), and you should get a bigger portion of food. One of my favorite lunches was grilled octopus with rice and beans (and of course, a basket of warm corn tortillas and fresh salsas). Dinner is after 7pm and up until about 10pm (it ends earlier here than other parts of Mexico), and many restaurants seemed to start dinner even earlier and be full of blonde children around 6pm.

There are street food and comida corrida type options around the zócalo, and there is also an amazing, cheap taqueria (that took us until our 6th day to find) with more Mexico City and northern Mexico-style taco offerings. Avoid eating anything that isn’t Mexican food, really. Mexican food is what Mexicans do best (as opposed to say, pizza). Make sure you ask your server for tortillas any time you want – those should be given to you unlimited, and always warm. If you’re a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish, you’ll have options, but they will be more limited in Holbox versus other parts of Mexico.

Island food: mangoes, coconut, tamales

Island food: mangoes, coconut, tamales

Beyond eating fish to our hearts content, we also spent a good deal of time cycling around absolutely beautiful white, sandy beaches. We watched the sunset over the ocean on New Years Eve on a beach where there were maybe three or four other people off in the distance. I read books, hung out in the hammock. We swam and sunbathed. We had to make really hard decisions like “should I eat a mango or a melon?” “should I buy two tamales or three?” We talked to people and made friends. I must say, if you are a newly pregnant woman, there are few better places in the world to be than Holbox. I had the huge advantage that I had very, very little nausea and could eat just about anything I wanted, and wasn’t affected by the boat ride or bus ride (other pregnant women might find those parts to be torture). I felt amazing to be in the sun all day with the little tiny collection of cells starting to form into a person inside my uterus. I was 100% relaxed, well-rested (even more so when we re-located to the beach), and calm. It was the first New Years Eve where I didn’t have an alcoholic drink in my hand. After the clock struck midnight on the 31st, the Mexicans danced salsa in heels and ironed shirts, the non-Mexicans formed a conga line immediately (to which Enrique wondered “is it something in the genes that makes white people do that?”), the kids broke a huge pinata and screamed and yelled, and Enrique and I kissed and danced and welcomed yet another new year, together.

Late lunch/early dinner on New Year's Eve in Holbox. Not bad.

Late lunch/early dinner on New Year’s Eve. Not bad.

In the Zócalo for New Years Eve

In the Zócalo for New Years Eve

Some final general tips:

Mosquitoes are part of life on an island in the Caribbean Sea. So are ants, cockroaches, and animals in general. Do what you need to do to be okay with all that (one day the cleaning woman killed a roach for me – I had no shame, and she was a pro).

Animal life on the island - in the Holbox cemetary

Animal life on the island – in the Holbox cemetary

Holbox is not really a budget-friendly vacation spot. It doesn’t have to be expensive – if you can manage to make some of your own food and spend your time just enjoying the beach, swimming, cycling, etc., there really isn’t even so much to spend money on. But accommodation – even at hostels – isn’t cheap, and neither are restaurants. However, you can feel good that these really are small, local businesses and many of them take huge efforts to be kind to the environment. Remember as an island in the middle of a hurricane zone, they need to get a lot of things shipped in, and they aren’t that close to a major city. Chilquila is a small town, nothing more. If you’re after a very budget-friendly beach style holiday in Mexico, go toward the Oaxaca beaches on the pacific ocean.

There is one ATM on the island and it runs out of money pretty regularly. Come to the island with cash (we didn’t, and wished we had – we were super lucky we found a place to eat the first night!). Very few places will accept credit cards (though I was able to pay with a card at both hostels).

Remember if you’re going out to eat, try to make sure you’re sitting down somewhere by 9pm, 9:30pm at the latest. During busy times, the restaurants fill up quite a bit. While some stay open late, many don’t.

Make sure you find that taqueria. Just ask around. It’s only open at night.

Be kind to the environment. Limit your waste, absolutely do not litter, and don’t put your toilet paper in the toilet (it goes in the trash can which will be close by – and that trash can is emptied every day).

Mexico City: The Logistics and how to get started

Where does one even begin to talk about the logistics of Mexico City? How can any one person say “here’s how the city works?” The first word I use when describing Mexico City is “big.” It’s huge. It’s full of people. It makes any other city I’ve been to look like a little village. It’s every adjective that you can possibly imagine, all at the same time. People love it and hate it. It would take a lifetime to figure it all out.

Before I get into my own attempt at Mexico City’s logistics – things like how to get around and where to go – it’s important for you to know this: my fiance, Enrique, grew up and lived there until he was in his late 20’s, and his parents still live there. I lived in Puebla/Cholula for almost one year (2012-2013), which is roughly two hours from Mexico City. Therefore I’ve been to Mexico City a lot – as a tourist from Europe (before 2012) and as weekend visitor when I was living in the country, and again as a visitor this past winter (Dec 2014). I’ve been a guest, a host, and a tourist, and I always had the distinct advantage of either being with a Chilango (Chilango = a person from Mexico City) or at least being somewhat close to my chilango somewhere in the city. So. Here we go.

Mexico City food market

Mexico City food market

Street mural in the historical center of Mexico City

Street mural in the historical center of Mexico City

Where is it and what do I really need to know right away?

Mexico City is kind of smack in the middle of the country of Mexico, but a bit more toward the south. It’s inland, not by the sea. The weather is relatively perfect year-round, never getting painfully hot or freezing cold. There is a reliable rainy season and a reliable dry season. The pollution, which used to be absolutely terrible, does not feel different these days than any other big city (NY, LA, Istanbul, London, Rome, etc). It’s not something I would have noticed at all if Enrique hadn’t pointed out one gray day that the grayness was due to more pollution, not bad weather. But overall, I’m used to blue skies and warm sun whenever I’m in Mexico City during dry season. And when I say “dry” season, I really mean dry – my skin and hair are super dry and crave moisture when I’m there, as there is very little humidity. The population of Mexico City itself is almost 9 million, but there are way more people than that in the city on any given day.

Mexico City (Ciudad de México) is officially México, Distrito Federal (federal district of Mexico), which is why you’ll hear everyone call Mexico City “DF”. It’s exactly the same concept of how Americans call Washington D.C. “DC”. When you’re in DF, you’ll hear the Mexicans call their city “day-efay”, which is “DF” in spanish – if you try to say “DF” in english it doesn’t really work (say “ciudad de mexico” if you can’t do the “DF” in spanish). Another thing to know: a lot of people within the country of Mexico will refer to Mexico City, DF simply as “México.” So if you’re in Puebla and driving two hours into DF, you’ll follow street signs that say “Mexico.” You’ll tell people “I’m going to be in Mexico for the weekend, sorry I can’t come to the party.” You can say “Ciudad de Mexico”, but most people don’t. It’s either “DF” or “Mexico.” Got it?

Street food

Selling tacos

The airport is big and international and very well connected to the city. It’s not outside the city limits, it’s really right there (keep in mind, Mexico City’s urban-ness seems to be never-ending). You can get from the airport to any location in the city with the metrobus, metro, city buses (peseros), taxis, etc. If you take a taxi from the airport you should pay in advance at one of the million taxi counters, which (in my experience) are all legal and all pretty much the same price to wherever it is you’re going to go. Expect to pay around 200 pesos if you’re going somewhere within the city. The metrobus that goes from the airport to the city is 30 pesos (instead of the usual 6 pesos) and the normal metro is the normal price of 5 pesos (there was recently a price increase, it used to be 3 pesos). The local buses (called peseros in DF, but also known as collectivos or combis elsewhere in the country) are somewhere between 3 – 6 pesos. If this is your first time in Mexico City, I would stick to taxis, the normal metro, or the metrobus. A Mexico City pesero is definitely advanced level and it’s better to use them once you know the city better.

DF has ugly and beautiful parts. It’s full of all classes of people, from incredibly poor to insanely rich. There are lots of places in Mexico City where you won’t feel a speck of insecurity, and then you might walk into a market that suddenly feels like something wrong is about to happen. It’s hard to answer “is Mexico City dangerous?” with one simple answer. Based on my own personal experience, I’d say no, it’s not. But I only say this because I’ve never seen anything dangerous, I never felt in danger, I was never mugged. I’ve been pick-pocketed in Naples, I’ve seen some violent fights in Amsterdam, my friends in Philadelphia have had guns pointed in their faces, but I haven’t had those experiences in DF. I’ve been sexually harassed way, way more in NYC and Philadelphia and Paris than I ever have in Mexico City, but this doesn’t mean sexual harassment doesn’t exist (it just means that for me, it existed more in other places). I’m (currently) blonde and tattooed, and I wear my normal clothes in DF. I’ve never been a short-shorts kinda girl, but I do like to wear form-fitting tank tops and flowy skirts when it’s warm outside. I think someone did grab my ass once on the metro. I’ve heard catcalls, and those are absolutely annoying, but they didn’t reach the level of crudeness that I’ve heard in the US.

Shopping in the historical center

Shopping in the historical center with a friend – we both dressed for comfort.

I have had the huge advantage of always being able to ask Enrique or other locals “hey, I want to go to blah-blah market with my other female friend, is that cool?” and locals will either say “oh totally, go for it, the tortas are amazing” or they’ll say “nah, I wouldn’t go there myself.” Make asking part of your routine when you’re in Mexico City.

Unfortunately for Mexico, there are a way scarier places than DF in the country. However, dangerous things DO happen in DF, and a sketchy situation in Mexico can be much worse than a sketchy situation in Paris or Philadelphia or Rome. You can get robbed, scammed, attacked, etc., in any of those cities – but there is kidnapping in Mexico. There is so much organized crime run by the narcos. There are disappearances within the whole country – way, way more than make the news. So you should take precautions, not feel bad about it, but also try keep it in perspective (comparing Mexico City to cities in the US is good for perspective, if you think the US is a safe place). You should ask Chilangos their opinion on the neighborhood you want to go explore or the bus route you want to take. Most of the time, the answer will be “it’s fine.” Most of the time, you probably wouldn’t even be close to accidentally wandering into a sketchy area. Most of the time, it’s worth it to go out of your way to find that market or pyramid or cafe or taco stand or party. But ask, and listen, and play it safe. Need a taxi? Ask a local to help if you are confused. “Taxi? un taxi seguro?” means “Taxi, a safe taxi?” and is honestly all you really need to say for a local to know what you mean. Don’t fuck around with taxis and your ideas that you lived in New York and you know what you’re doing. Taxi drivers run some pretty incredible scams in DF, and there are ways to tell what taxis are legit and what aren’t, but before you know 100% how to do that, ask someone else for help. Always, always ask. Ask a woman if it makes you feel safer (it generally does for me). The good thing about DF is there are pretty much always tons of people everywhere you go, because seriously, DF is full of people. And if something doesn’t feel right to you, don’t do it. Enrique has skipped taking certain taxis or going into certain bars or spending more time in certain areas when he’s been with me just based on the “this doesn’t feel right” feeling. There is always another taxi, bar, or area to explore.

This area reserved for women and children (at a metro station in Mexico city)

This area reserved for women and children (at a metro station in Mexico city)

So is it dangerous? It can be, from what I hear. I mean, we all hear things. But for me, I have to be honest, it didn’t feel dangerous. Ever. You will see poverty, you will see people who live on the street, you will be asked for change. I don’t think this happened to me any more in DF than it has in Rome. Keep in mind, beyond the almost 9-million people who live in Mexico City, the population of the metropolitan area is 21 million. Twenty One Million people. And if you’re in the center of the city, or on the metro during rush hour, or stuck in traffic, you will feel it.

How we got there & how to get around:

We’ve gone to DF by plane, car, and bus. I don’t really think it’s necessary for me to explain how to reach one of the biggest cities in the world, so I’ll use this opportunity to emphasize once more how insanely gigantic Mexico City is. If you plan to arrive by bus, there are a lot of bus stations throughout the city, so figure out exactly where in the city you’re staying and plan to arrive at the bus station closest. You can easily spend 2-3 hours in traffic in DF if you arrive anywhere close to rush hour, which can be anywhere from 7am-9am and then 6pm-9pm. There’s also a mini-rush hour around 2-3pm. The traffic is horrible. Terrible. Do not take what I’m saying lightly about the traffic. Plan your entire day around it. Is the metro a picnic in the sun? not at all. Is it better than sitting in a pesero/taxi/car for what seems like forever to go 3 kilometers? Yes it is. Walk. Walk as much as you can, or ride a bike (cycling is becoming more and more popular in DF, so go for it). The other somewhat nicer option is to go around as much as possible by metrobus. The metrobus is an above-ground bus with its own dedicated lane, so it will go much faster than the peseros or cars. The metrobus also gets very crowded during rush hour, but at least it’s overground with windows that open and is somewhat better than the metro, even if you’re smushed.

Mexico City's public bike-sharing program, the eco-bici

Mexico City’s public bike-sharing program, the eco-bici

Chilangos are used to being smushed into public transport and are, by necessity, aggressive about getting in and out before they are killed by the doors closing. You will need to learn how to do this as well, because you will have seconds to get in and out of a crowded metro/metrobus. Rush hour in Mexico City is no joke, and it’s more hardcore than NYC (though they are comparable). On both the metro and metrobus, the front portion is reserved for women, children, and elderly people. You will end up seeing perfectly healthy young men in these parts as well, though by and large Mexican men are the types that will not keep a seat if a woman is standing nearby. The woman/children/elderly thing is a bit more enforced during rush hour times.

You need to take the chaos and hugeness of DF into consideration when planning out your day. There is so much to do and see that you don’t want to get trapped in traffic or rush hour and spend half your day just getting from point A to point B.

Where we stayed in Mexico City:

Enrique’s parents live in the south part of the city, Coapa. When we stay there, we’re close to Coyoacán and Xochimilco, so we spend time hanging around those areas. When we’ve gone to just hang out with friends, we’ve rented apartments through Air B&B in La Roma, Condesa, la zona rosa, the historical center, Coyoacán, or places with friends. I would recommend all those neighborhoods as potential place to stay, all for different reasons. Here’s a super quick breakdown:

Historical Center (Centro historico) – if you’re traveling with a friend/partner and enjoy a bit of chaos. If you want to be close to the famous zocalo (the main plaza), which is one of the biggest city squares in the world where there is always something going on. If you want to get right into the heart of all the action, eat your weight in street food, and become overwhelmed by art and music. It’s intense, it’s fun, you’ll get easy walking access to museums and galleries and amazing food. Do take a bit more caution in this area, as it is absolutely full of people (and tourists) and some of the surrounding neighborhoods are a bit tough.

Street food, DF

Street food, DF

La Roma or Condesa – a great location for single travelers or really, pretty much anyone. These areas have moved way beyond “up and coming” and have full-on gentrified to become trendy, beautiful, fun, safe areas. It feels a little calmer in these parts while still very much being part of the city – the way Brooklyn can feel calmer than Manhattan. You’ll have easy access to artisanal beer and mezcal, these are great neighborhoods to ride a bike, there are plenty of markets and access to public transport, and these are very green areas of the city. The neighborhoods border each other and La Roma is one of my favorite parts of Mexico City.

Bike traffic lights in DF

Bike traffic lights in La Roma

La Zona Rosa – Mexico City’s “red light” district. A very good area if you want to party, if you’re younger and good looking and want to show that off, or if you’re into gay nightlife. It’s also great if you just want an easy location that is within reasonable walking distance to the historical center and close to everything. It’s not a seedy area at all, it’s just full of clubs and restaurants and young people doing young-people things. It has a slightly more “mall” feeling than areas like La Roma – you’ll find more chain restaurants and whatnot. I stayed here when I was in DF with 8 friends, and it was absolutely perfect for our needs just because the location was so great and there were a million bars and cafes close by. Watch your pockets, take a bit of extra precaution at night (and please don’t buy hard drugs off the street, really) but if you want to go a bit wild and you’re under 30, this is a good area to do that.

Coyoacán – I love this area. It’s amazing. It’s like a city within a city – it has its own zocalo that is full of activity at all times. Day markets, night markets, music, dancing, so many bars and restaurants, street food, fancy food… anything. This is where Frida Khalo grew up and where the “blue house” is that she shared with Diego Rivera. This is where you can visit the house where Leon Trotsky was killed. The neighborhood is full of art, families, dogs, kids, old people, poor people, rich people, students… and it’s quite green and colonial, so it’s a lot more beautiful than other areas. The disadvantage is that it’s further away from other parts of the city, and not really well-connected. You’ll find more peseros serving this neighborhood. But remember, taxis are pretty affordable, cycling is possible, and you always have your own two feet.

Bikes have the right of way in Coyoacan (but watch yourself, it's not Amsterdam)

Bikes have the right of way in Coyoacan (but watch yourself, it’s not Amsterdam)

Outside Trotsky's house

Outside Trotsky’s house

Regarding Air B&B: I’ve had both good and bad experiences in DF with Air B&B. Apartments can … vary, let’s say. Water is always an issue. Was the gas tank recently refilled? is the water pressure stronger than a trickle? Is it freezing inside at night? Take the time to read all the reviews. Ask the host if it’s ok to put the toilet paper in the toilet (a lot of the time, you shouldn’t). Central heating is not common at all in Mexico, so even though it’s a warm city, you can oddly enough find yourself more cold inside than outside, if it’s an older apartment.

Some of my favorite things to do in Mexico City

1. Eat. And then eat some more. and then keep eating. This is one of my favorite places in the world to eat food. From street vendors, markets, mid-range restaurants, fancy restaurants, seriously… all of it. I wouldn’t even know where to begin saying “this is where you should eat” because it is so seldom that I’ve had a bad eating experience. But here’s two places I always, always go back to:

Salon Corona in the Historical Center (Av. Filomeno Mata 18, Cuauhtémoc, Centro, 06000) – this is your proper taqueria/cantina style restaurant. It is run like a well-oiled machine. You can just keep ordering tacos here and no one will stop you. Excellent place to see if you really speak spanish, because those spanish classes you took in school aren’t going to help you get through the menu here. Everything comes as a taco (in a small corn tortilla), a quesadilla (small corn tortilla with cheese), torta (a big sandwich) or a torta with cheese (a big sandwich with cheese). “Gringa” means a white flour tortilla (slightly bigger) instead of a corn tortilla.

Part of the menu at Salon Corona, Mexico City

Part of the menu at Salon Corona, Mexico City

Enrique’s in Tlalpan (Insurgentes Sur 4061, Tlalpan Centro, Tlalpan, 14000) – this is your “I want the best mexican food ever in a nice restaurant but I’m not trying to be super formal about it, however I want to sit down at a nice table and eat like a king” kind of place. It’s not cheap (though it’s not overpriced either). It is delicious. Everything. Every. single. thing. The mole, the pulque, the tacos, the soup, the rice… but my favorite is the barbacoa (goat meat). The food is 100% authentic Mexican. Large mariachi bands might start playing while you’re eating. The service is wonderful. They have mezcal.

Arroz con mole

So delicious. Rice with mole at Enrique’s.

Enrique in front of Enrique's

Enrique in front of Enrique’s

2. Drink. And specifically: mezcal and artisanal mexican beer. Dear god, the mezcal options in DF are no joke. Another drink to try: pulque, and if you can find it, pox. If you want something that isn’t alcohol, try the gigantic, fresh juices that cost 10-20 pesos.

Mezcal and a cocktail

Mezcal and a cocktail

3. Look at art. Mexico City is so full of art it’s overwhelming, and so much of it is free or the cost of entry to museums is very inexpensive.

Lost in the crazy artwork of Siqueiros

Lost in the crazy artwork of Siqueiros

4. Play dominoes at cantinas with friends while eating and drinking.

Playing dominoes in a cantina. Me and my partner lost fairly miserably.

Playing dominoes in a cantina. Me and my partner lost fairly miserably.

5. Go to museums. If I started to write about museums this post would never end. Just be sure to leave a lot of time for museums, because it’s an absolute pleasure to museum-hop in DF.

Inside the Museo del Templo Mayor

Inside the Museo del Templo Mayor

6. Go to the Torre Latinoamericana  (Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas 2, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, 06000), and take the elevator all the way up to the restaurant (tell the elevator operator “restaurant” when you get in, then follow the path until you’re there), which is around the 50th floor. The restaurant itself is pretty bad, so try to avoid eating there unless you really, really only care about the view. Instead, have a drink at the bar at sunset and enjoy the view – it’s up here that you will see how huge the city is (If you’re scared of heights, this isn’t the best place).

View from the top of the Torre Latino at night.

View from the top of the Torre Latino at night.

It's not every bathroom where you want to take photos, but when you go to the bathroom at the Torre Latino, bring a friend and a camera

It’s not every bathroom where you want to take photos, but when you go to the bathroom at the Torre Latino, bring a friend and a camera

7. Go to markets. All of them. Explore them. Some are better than others, there’s probably a million lists online that all talk about the best market for this or the best market for that.

At a market in Xochimilco

At a market in Xochimilco

8. Meet locals. Mexicans are by and large really friendly, and chilangos are no different. The people are a huge part of why I love Mexico City so much (I am obviously biased here!).

9. Go to Teotihuacan. It’s about an hour from DF (remember to plan around traffic!), and reachable by bus. It’s so incredibly worth it, no matter how many ruins or pyramids you may have seen in your life. Bring sun protection (ideally a hat) and be ready to spend the day.

10. Dance. Finding places to dance, to be loud, to drink, to shout… they’re everywhere. Sometimes it feels like the entire city is dancing, shouting, running, shoving, drinking, and kissing. Man, the kissing. you will see so much kissing in DF.

My last trip to Mexico City was mid-December, 2014. Enrique and I stayed mostly with his parents, and enjoyed all the usual things – family, meeting up with friends, drinking and eating, typical stuff. We had been in Mexico for about 3.5 weeks (a little more than halfway through our overall trip) when everything changed: I found out on Christmas Eve that I was pregnant.

The day our lives changed dramatically. 24 December, 2014.

The day our lives changed dramatically. 24 December, 2014.

After over four years of being together, and just over a month of being engaged … we were thrilled. Clearly everything would be different… but this night in Mexico City, we ate dinner with the family, tried to act normal, and I subtly gave my glass of wine to Enrique to drink for me after toasting.

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas: The Logistics

Where is it and why? San Cristóbal is the “cultural capitol” of Chiapas, a beautiful state in southern Mexico that boarders Guatamala. It’s about 80 km from Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the administrative capitol. We spent five nights in San Cristóbal for a few different reasons – it’s kind of “on the way” between Valladolid and Mexico City, I’ve never been there before, Enrique has been there before, several times, and loved it. I have friends that raved about their time there. And we had a friend coming to join our travels from NYC – his first time in Mexico! It seemed like a good place to start. Plus – coffee, chocolate, pox, and mountains. No other reasons needed.

How we got there: This is something to pay attention to, because it was really easy but it’s really not described in any kind of good way that I could try and learn beforehand. E and I decided to fly to Tuxtla Guiterrez (TGZ) from Cancun. The flight was only about an hour, and though we had to leave at 6am, it was worth it. We paid $80 USD for one-way tickets on Viva Aerobus, and that included paying in advance to check a large bag. There are also a million different ways to arrive via bus, but honestly? The bus wasn’t that much cheaper, and it would have been about 17 times as long. We missed out on visiting places along the way between Valladolid and San Cristóbal, and I know some of those places are truly beautiful. So if you have the time and want to explore, take the bus. A good rule of thumb in Mexico is to always take “first class” buses on longer-haul trips (4+ hours) and travel by daylight instead of overnight. That being said, there are plenty of places in Mexico that I would feel absolutely comfortable taking second-class or combi buses and traveling at night, even if I was alone. For example: Valladolid – Cancun, or Puebla – Mexico City. Anyway, we didn’t take the bus. We took a plane. It was a fantastic decision. TGZ is also only about 1.5 hours away from Mexico City by plane.

TGZ is a small, clean, neat airport. If you need to meet someone there like I did, you don’t have to make plans in advance about a location to meet – anyone coming through the arrivals gate will see you (it’s a very small airport). There’s a restaurant upstairs with perfectly adequate airport food (honestly, the molletes were great) and free wifi throughout the airport.

To get from the TGZ airport to San Cristóbal de las Casas, the easiest way to go (if you are 3 people) is to take an official taxi to the center of Tuxtla Guiterrez. Just tell the driver your ultimate destination is San Cristóbal de las Casas and you want to get there via collectivo, and he will drop you off exactly where you need to get the right bus. The Tuxtla Guiterrez airport is kinda in the middle of nowhere and the ride from the airport to part of the city where there are buses takes about 30 minutes. If I remember correctly, you need to pay for the taxi at some sort of official stand in the airport, so you’ll pay a real, set, legit price.

When you get out of the taxi, you’ll be around a bunch of large vans/small buses. Tell the guy who is standing around outside you’re going to San Cristóbal, and he will put you on the right bus. Our bus (more like a big van) was very modern and clean and could fit about 15 people. No one was standing up, but they do wait until every seat is full before they go (which doesn’t take long). That bus ride will take about an hour, and it goes through beautiful scenery, so sit by a window and enjoy. I wish I could remember exactly what we paid – but again, the prices are set. You will pay the same amount per-person as everyone else, so if you’re paranoid about getting ripped off (there’s no reason to be), you can watch what everyone else pays and comfort yourself.

Upon arriving in San Cristóbal, you are within walking distance to pretty much everything. You can also take local buses or local taxis around if you have a lot of bags. We opted to walk to our hostel, thinking it was a bit closer than it was, and wanting to explore …  but we could have taken a taxi for something like 40 pesos. Next time.

How we got around:  The city itself isn’t very big and we mainly got around by walking. You can also chose to cycle, though the streets aren’t very bike-friendly (hilly, cobblestone, potholes, uneven pavement, etc). I would have cycled if I was taking a trip out of the main city area, but to just get around the city center, my feet were the best option. To visit some of the nearby towns, we took a large van (that was part of the tour) and when we wanted to explore other areas around Chiapas, including the Zapatista Territory, we rented a car for the day. We chose the can rental place that was recommended to us by our hostel. I’m pretty sure the car had no insurance whatsoever and it wasn’t fancy at all, but it was perfect for our needs. Driving around the mountain villages in Chiapas is beautiful, but it’s a good idea if your driver has previous driving-in-Mexico experience. There was no aggressive traffic, and the roads were okay-ish, but you share the road with a lot of large trucks and motorbikes, and topes (speedbumps) are everywhere in various states of construction.

Where we stayed in San Cristóbal de las Casas: Nothing is better than a personal recommendation, so when my friends told me they loved their stay at the Posada del Abuelito, I didn’t really look around further. It was perfect for us – Enrique and I had a private room (with our own bathroom) and our friend Evan stayed in the dorm room. The posada was wonderful. There was definitely a younger, backpacker vibe, but E and I (35 & 42 yrs old) didn’t feel out of place (probably a lot to do with staying in our own room). There were friendly travelers from all over, lovely common areas, and incredibly helpful and friendly owners. The (free) breakfast was amazing, and the amount of heavy, wool blankets they provided was very generous. There is no central heating in the posada (or generally anywhere in Mexico). In mid-December, the days are rather warm – 16, 17 degrees Celsius. But the nights dip down to about 6-7 degrees, and frequently the insides of buildings feel even colder than the outside. If you go in the colder months, bring sweaters, socks, and bury yourself under those blankets. The bars and cafes tend to keep their doors and windows open no matter how cold it is, so the key word: layers. If you are used to central heating, it will be an adjustment for you.

Impressions of San Cristóbal de las Casas: I was rather in love with the entire state of Chiapas the minute I landed in the airport. The drive to San Cristóbal was so beautiful, and the roads in Tuxtla were chaotic and loud and Mexican. We were arrived on the 9th of December. As we walked through the city we passed through the Zocolo and there was a massive parade going on for what I’m sure was a reason but we couldn’t quite tell what it was. The city was full of fiireworks popping, colors, people shouting, music, and happy chaos. The air was fresh, in that specific way mountain air is. I was delighted – it was the complete opposite of Valladolid. As much as I enjoyed my tranquillo stay in Yucatan, my mouth was watering at the sight of all the new food options and my ears and eyes were delighted to see a part of Mexico that felt a bit more familiar.

Tamales and hot coffee for sale

Tamales and hot coffee for sale

Outside a market in San Cristobal de las Casas

Outside a market in San Cristobal de las Casas

I suppose I could write pages about this city, but I’m trying to just stick with impressions and suggest a few things to do. The streets were completely uneven and mostly cobblestone. The sidewalks were raised off the street by a good half-meter or meter in some places. When it was cloudy or after sunset, it was cold. Not freezing, but cold. Street sellers are everyone, selling pretty much everything (though the only thing you’ll want right away is a sweater, which you will have zero problem finding). The food – from restaurants or street food or ingredients purchased at the market – it’s all incredible and affordable. The people are, overall, incredibly friendly. Drink pox and mezcal. Eat everything, deal with any stomach consequences later. Talk to everyone, walk around, find the hiking trails that start in the city and take you up the mountains in no time. Wear layers. Always wear layers.

Myself, Evan, and Enrique exploring the center of San Cristoba

Myself, Evan, and Enrique exploring the center of San Cristobal

Every day I was overwhelmed by everything we did and saw, but at the same time, we kept feeling like we weren’t doing that much. We visited two indigenous communities, San Juan Chamula and Zanacantán, and we did that through the organized tour the posada put together. I am usually not one for organized tours at all, but this was a really great exception to make, and I would highly, highly recommend it. We spent hours in each community with a very experienced, knowledgeable, indigenous guide. He knew the people in the communities well, he spoke the local language, he was able to advise us on when it was ok to take photos and when to leave our cameras in our bags. My general feelings about guides is that they make me miss out on a more authentic experience, and it this case it was the exact opposite. We had time to wander about on our own, which I really appreciated.

Colorful Corn in Zanacantán

Colorful Corn in Zanacantán

Woman in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

Woman in San Juan Chamula, photo taken with permission

Another day, in our rented car, we drove up the village Oventic in Zapatisa Territory. This we did totally on our own. It was almost the 20th year anniversary of the uprising, and Enrique (who works with indigenous issues and who happened to be in Chiapas 20 years previously) was incredibly motivated to visit the place where it all started. When we entered, we had to provide our names and reasons for visiting – and here again, I might recommend that instead of doing this on your own, maybe try to find a tour group of some sort. The residents of the village were incredibly friendly and let us in, and they want to tell people their story and have visitors, but – they want to tell their story. Because Enrique is a university teacher and does talk about the Zapatista Uprising as part of his lectures, they were happier to let us in and spend time with us than if it had just been me and Evan saying “we think this is so fascinating and we just want to hang out and see what’s going on.” But after we left, Enrique explained that they are more willing to spend more time with say, university classes, or researchers, or NGOs, or maybe a per-arranged group, then just three random tourists.

Para todos tod, nada para nosotros - Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico

The translation means “We are going to give everything, but we don’t want anything.” For example: “we will empower you, but we are not asking for power.”

Mural outiside Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico - Zapatista Territory

A translation of the words on the book means something like “Independent Education creates a world where many worlds can exist.” Translating the spanish directly doesn’t quite work with english – if you have a better way of saying it, please let me know!

Anyway, we entered, and were accompanied by one member of the community the whole time. He seemed maybe 18-25 years old, soft-spoken but very friendly, and advised on us what was ok to photograph and what we shouldn’t photograph (nothing crazy, just don’t go up to people and take pictures of them if they don’t want, but feel free to take pictures of the murals, landscape, etc). Enrique and our guide spoke the whole time while Evan and I took pictures and wandered around. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip – being in the village, understanding it’s proximity to the other villages and the nearest city, and then imagining the revolution starting and what the revolution became – it was absolutely amazing to see this all with my own eyes. I highly, highly recommend visiting this place.

Oventic Chiapas School

“In the Independent Schools in the Zapatista Territory, we teach from the time of infancy about the spirit and conception of a collective world.” (better translations welcome!)

Another day we went hiking. Another day I suffered a bit the consequences of too much Mexican street food and took it easy. Another day we visited the churches and markets and I did some shopping. There are tons of bars and restaurants, everything within walking distance. We went out at night and got swept up in the festivities surrounding the 12th of December – el Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe – which were non-stop, insane, loud, and amazingly fun. People were constantly running to get to one church or another, carrying the Virgin with them. Parties were happening at the church, around the church, behind the church. Parents dressed up their kids, the fireworks kept going off, dogs were barking. But when we were ready to go to bed, our posada was a wonderful place of tranquility, and we slept buried under 5 wool blankets.

San Cristóbal de las Casas is worth more than five days. The state of Chiapas is a place I could see myself traveling around for months. Word of advice, if you are driving around from one place to another and you happen to see sings like this:

Goat meat, chicken soup, chicken, meat, quesadillas, tortillas made by hand

“Goat meat, chicken soup, chicken, meat, quesadillas, tortillas made by hand”

… you stop and eat some of the most delicious food you’ve ever had. The most delicious food in Mexico always seems to be at the most basic roadside restaurants. Even if you’re a vegetarian, go in and get a quesadilla. It will be one of the best you’ve ever had.

San Cristóbal felt incredibly safe. While I was with my traveling companions a lot, I also spent some time on my own, and didn’t think twice about it. There are tons of travelers in this town from all over the world, including lots of solo travelers – so other than exercising the same type of precautions you’d practice in any other place, the only advice I’d have is to go with patience (things happen – parades, traffic jams, protests – so take it easy regarding schedule) and remember to be respectful. Don’t shove your camera in the face of an indigenous woman selling sweaters on the street and don’t assume you know everything because you read an article on Wikipedia.

The Mexican flag features an eagle devouring a serpent (on top of a Nopal). This is a slightly different take.

The Mexican flag features an eagle devouring a serpent (on top of a Nopal). This is a slightly different take.

And really, bring sweaters if you go in the winter.