One month later, and at home in Cholula

It’s been one month and five days since we left Amsterdam. I’m sitting in my temporary apartment in San Andres Cholula, Puebla, Mexico, and thinking about some of the things I learned about long-haul travel, moving, and starting over.

#1 Flying long haul with my then 13.5 month old was exhausting but do-able, and we flew some random cheap airline. Learn from me – if you are flying long haul with a baby/toddler who can walk/climb/etc., – get extra legroom. Get bulkhead if at all possible. Not because you’ll be using the bassinet, but because you can construct some sort of bed on the floor – or at the very least, a play area that is something other than your lap. Also, bring a full-size pillow or a piece of foam or whatever that allows you to construct a bed.

Ayla is a sprawled-out-tummy sleeper. She fell asleep around her normal bedtime without too much of a problem in Enrique’s arms and then across our laps, but after an hour or two she wanted to roll over on her tummy. Try as she might to get comfortable, she couldn’t really find a way to sleep happily on her belly, which meant she was fairly restless. Still, had she been the only baby on the plane it all would have worked pretty well – the one thing that woke her up (over and over) were the other crying babies. Sigh. Not much you can do about that.

#2 We changed locations quite a bit over the past month. Flew to Merida, stayed there 9 days. Went to the beach (Chuburna), stayed there 8 days. Back to Merida, 3 days. Flew to Mexico City and then drove to our new home in Cholula, have been here about 2 weeks. Three very different climates and very different places. Ayla adjusted remarkably easy schedule-wise when we first landed in Merida – by the third night she was already back in her preferred schedule of 8pm sleep/7am wakeup. Then we moved locations to the beach, where we had to share a small bedroom with her – and she woke up every night at least once, and it wasn’t always easy to get her back to bed. Ayla seems to love new places when we get there. She gets all excited to explore and love to run around a new apartment or house. But at the end of the day – I think that moving around does indeed take a toll.

#3 What is fun for adults isn’t always fun for kids. Vacations have changed. Merida, for example. This city is just simply not the place to go to with a young toddler for three weeks. Why? All the fun stuff is at night, when the temperature cools down to a reasonable 27 degrees (instead of 34 which felt like 44). And for as much as we tried to alter her schedule so she would go to bed later, she was having none of it, she wanted to be in bed by 8pm. And in terms of daytime activities, the heat was simply too much. It was incredibly humid, no breeze, not a lot of shade, and no toddler-friendly public parks in the sense of paddling pools or playgrounds. We tried *everything* – museums (not so many, but we went for the A/C!), restaurants and … that was that. Well that, and running around the zocalo chasing pigeons or the little plazas around town. I’d absolutely go back to Merida, but I’d A) go in January or February B) wait until Ayla was at least three C) make sure we stayed in a place that was air conditioned throughout, not just in the bedrooms – or a place that had much better air circulation D) plan to stay about 4-5 days instead of 3 weeks.

#4 It got a bit tedious to just be me/Enrique/Ayla for 3 straight weeks. No other kids, no other friends. I wouldn’t do that again, for that amount of time, at Ayla’s age. I can spend 3 weeks just with Enrique, no problem. But with Ayla in the mix it’s so different. I’m pretty sure she was getting bored of us, and at the same time growing more clingy. When anyone else would give her attention she was all over it and again, I felt a bit bad. She’s at an age where she needs other people to play with that aren’t mom and dad all day, every day. I’m not shy and I can talk to strangers at parks and make a quick friend, but I can’t really do that if the park itself doesn’t exist.

#5 We moved to Cholula, and Cholula is perfect for us. The second we arrived in here, we found a playground. Ayla’s eyes lit up. Seriously. She hadn’t seen a playground with other kids running around in three weeks and she was so. freakin. excited. Then we found more playgrounds. More public spaces with grass and trees. And more kids. The weather is perfect – not too hot, not too cold. Our temporary house is big and comfortable and she has her own room with a new crib. We just got bikes. This town is just so typically Mexican in all the best ways – kids everywhere, dogs everywhere, beautiful views of mountains and volcanoes, random fireworks go off all the time, there’s almost always a high chair available wherever we eat, and there’s no real challenge in how to spend time, either alone or with Ayla. This is the kind of stuff you want if you’re moving away from home with a young toddler.

#6 Changes! We still do a regular bedtime routine, but we’ve dropped a lot of the other seemingly important stuff. She doesn’t sleep in a dark room anymore for her naps – that stopped once the blackout curtains came down in Amsterdam. She now sleeps through barking dogs, fireworks, marching bands, etc. She no longer despises cars (we’ve had horrible times in cars in the past) and now can sit happily in her carseat in the back while I sit up front with Enrique. I credit this a lot to the forward-facing car seat, which I think would be illegal or at least highly not advisable in the US at her age. But man. It’s a game changer.

#7 Speaking of cars and change – it didn’t make any sense for me to bring my (big, forward-facing) car seat from Amsterdam to Mexico. So we got here without one, and while we were in Merida we used uber and taxis almost every day. Ayla sat on my lap, in the backseat, with the lapbelt around us both. If there is any carseat law in mexico, no one gives a shit whatsoever. This was a very, very hard thing for my american/dutch/rule following/new mom brain to handle, but I did it for short distances (no more than 20 minutes) and within city limits (frequent stops, typically not going more than 30-40 km per hour at most). Uber made leaving the house in the heat of the day possible – if we hadn’t used cars, I can’t imagine what we would have done all day. Holding her on public transport (buses) wouldn’t have been any safer.

#8 If I felt like I had no time to do anything before, in Amsterdam, my GOD if you travel/move with a toddler and there’s no one else helping out, any notion of free time is just simply gone. There is soooooooo much to do, logistics wise. So much. And yet Ayla needs to have her day too. So it’s slow-going to look for a place to live, to try to make friends/see old friends, to connect with grandparents, to get a bike, to replace a pair of sunglasses, to get a new phone, to go to the supermarket, to work, to get 10 minutes to myself to just chill out, etc.

The day we got to Cholula, we started making appointments with daycares and putting out the word to find a babysitter. Of course I’m quite picky about anyone that I’d leave with Ayla, but I thought that within 2-3 weeks we’d have found someone and done introductions and whatnot. It’s two weeks later and we haven’t even begun, due to Ayla getting really, scarily sick after we had been here about 4 days – which caused so many more logistics delays. If you move with your kid and don’t have an already familiar family member or babysitter, it will be very, very, very hard to truly accomplish all the little logistical things you need to accomplish. Phones, bank accounts, finding a dish rack, etc.

#9 Seeing Ayla with her grandparents (who live 2 hours away), and walking hand-in-hand with her grandpa: it cemented the idea that we absolutely made the right decision to move back to Mexico. But still – and anyone with kids this age knows this now – you can’t just drop your toddler with a grandparent and head out if that grandparent is essentially a stranger. It’s not fair to anyone. So slowly, Ayla will get to know her grandparents, and pretty soon we’ll be in a place where yes, Grandma and Grandpa can watch her for a few hours while Enrique and I get a break. Eventually. They are also older and slower, so they’re going to be the type to rely on electronics (and hopefully/maybe books?), rather than take her to the park. That’s fine, just needs to be considered that Ayla doesn’t have much attention span for electronics – I’m enormously proud that she has zero idea that the giant TV in our apartment has any purpose whatsoever, as she’s never seen us turn a TV on in her life.

#10 Ayla came down with an infection – from something she ate, drank, or touched. It was bad. Having a very sick child is the worst thing in the entire world. Witnessing Ayla’s clothes fall off her because she had lost so much weight broke my heart in a way that I’ve never felt my heart break before. While Mexico is a foreign country to me, it’s home to Enrique. So he knew how to look for a doctor, and what to look for. We are very lucky to live 15 minutes outside a major city (Puebla), so there are first-class hospitals and we can afford to see private doctors (which doesn’t mean they are any more skilled than the doctors who work in public hospitals – but it does mean a *lot* less wait time, which we were willing to pay for). Had this happened in the US and we didn’t have insurance that covered us there, I honestly shudder to think at what we would have spent. Either way: if you take your kid outside your home country for any reason, even for a day, make absolutely sure you are covered for health care costs.

#11 During the hard times of this whole relocation- either because of sickness, because of exhaustion due to Ayla waking up 3 times a night screaming because she was just simply scared and didn’t know where she was, or because of the days that we literally could not figure out how to keep her occupied in Merida, I must say I grew really tired of the “Babies adapt so easily!” comments I’d hear or read. Did Ayla adapt? Sure. In the long run, did it take her so long? Not really. But does that mean it was just totally smooth sailing and I went my days feeling well-rested and like a proud mama who was showing her child the world? No. It was all worth it, but that doesn’t mean it was always easy and always fun. I think this is an age where travel becomes harder. Not impossible, but harder. I think there are lot of things you can do with babies that are say, 5 months old or kids that are 3 years old that you can’t do with 14-month-olds.

There were plenty of nights, after Ayla was in bed, where Enrique and I would sit around and come up with a grand, fun, family plan for the next day. We’d be so optimistic! And then reality would happen instead: Ayla randomly decided that she was terrified of the pool we had in Merida, and that manifested into hating taking any sort of bath or shower (bath time used to be one of her favorite things to do, she’d cry when we took her out). Or she’d wake up at 5am in Chuburna and just simply not be willing to go back to sleep which meant a seriously cranky morning on her part and exhausted parents. Why did she hate taking baths for three weeks and then decide to like it again? I have no idea. Was it really because we didn’t have the same bath toys we used to have? Was it the fact that we didn’t have a real bathtub? Did she miss watching us fill the tub with water, like she used to in Amsterdam?

Even during our travels, we always had toys around for her (though not the amount we had in Amsterdam), of course. However, a few days ago the grandparents bought us a few of the boxes we had shipped, and one of those boxes included a whole bunch of toys. When I gave Ayla this pink dog that she used to play with in her crib, she squealed with delight, hugged it, and sat right down to start playing with it the way she used to. It was amazing to see. She remembered that dog. I don’t know how much she understands about this move, or what – if anything – she misses anything from home. But I’ll mention something else: she saw a plastic bicycle at the park the other day, similar to what she had in Amsterdam. She went right over and grabbed on to it as if it was hers.

I really need to get her a new bike.

#12 We made the right decision to move to Cholula. I think it, and say it out loud, several times a day. I love this town. I love that I wore sandals and a teeshirt today when I rode my bike to go pick up some zucchini flower quesadillas for lunch, along with a couple liters of fresh juice. I absolutely love the views of the volcanoes and mountains. I love that the weather is no longer an issue, that I can plan on taking Ayla out every single morning and we’ll never be too cold. The people in Cholula are generally friendly, warm, and easy going. The town has somewhat exploded in the past few years with new restaurants, cafes, bike shops, etc. There are enough public places for us to take Ayla where we all have a great time and we don’t need to spend any money. The other day I put Ayla in the ergo on my back and climbed the pyramid, just for fun. When we got to the top, I took her off my back and held her hands as she climbed the stairs, and I thought – wow. She’s going to grow up thinking this is so normal. That you just climb up a pyramid in the mornings to get some exercise, and then eat your tamale at the bottom. That’s just what you do.

We moved at the right time. It was perfect to have Ayla’s first year in Amsterdam – I had lots of support, friends, and took every advantage of living around so many parks. But I’m also so happy that we managed to get out before her second year – before our second winter. In a city where I really couldn’t afford regular childcare, where I didn’t really like the childcare options, and where my apartment was feeling smaller and smaller the more Ayla learned how to run around. I’m thrilled that I’m not dealing with the dark mornings, the super early sunsets, and the constant gray drizzle. Ayla doesn’t have a winter coat at the moment, because she doesn’t need it now – a jacket is good enough for the chilly early mornings. I love that there’s no waiting lists to get into the daycare that I want her to attend – and that we can afford daycare. It’s fun to see Ayla adapt to putting her toothbrush in a cup of water to rinse it off, rather than use the tap water. Or to see her “sing” along with music from the gas truck that drives by. There’s so much to do to continue to feel at home, but so far, so good.


From Amsterdam to Merida

Well, one of the reasons we wanted to move away from Amsterdam is because it’s a cold and rainy country. I’m currently in Merida, Mexico, where the temperature is 34 degrees (and humid) with a “real feel” of 44 degrees. I’ve been living in Celsius for long enough that I don’t really convert back to Fahrenheit anymore, but I had to look up what 44 degrees celcius is and had a small heart attack when I learned that’s 111 Fahrenheit.

So it’s true what every single person says when they talk about Merida: it’s fucking hot. Really, really hot.

First Day in Merida

Backing up a bit. I live in Mexico now. Myself, my 13.5-month-old-daughter, and my partner no longer live in Amsterdam. We survived the long flight(s), we got rid of almost all our stuff – even sold our apartment – and now we live in Mexico. We’re staying in Merida for about 2 1/2 weeks and then moving to our new/old home: San Andres Cholula, in the state of Puebla. So there have been a few changes in the past few months – I really wish I had written about everything as it was going on because looking back, it all seems like a blur. The fact that we really sold our apartment, got rid of our things, and made a very very big decision to officially leave the Netherlands – de-registering from the city of Amsterdam and giving up our residency and working rights – it still doesn’t quite seem real. But once we made the decision, we had to just run with it. Now that there’s a small toddler in the picture, we don’t have the same kind of time to just sit around and ponder and process and go back and forth the way we used to. Decisions happen much more quickly.

We didn’t buy an apartment in June 2015 thinking that we’d sell it 16 months later, but thanks the housing market in Amsterdam, we had the chance to sell at a huge profit versus renting it out. Despite that fact that I just became a home owner and bought a nice couch and bed and got curtains made and all that stuff – it really wasn’t that hard to say “oh well, let’s let it all go.” I briefly entertained the idea of shipping some furniture over to Mexico but that idea was squashed as soon as I realized it would come with a €4,000-ish price tag. Other than the bed, sofa, some kitchen things, and curtains absolutely everything in our house was second-hand. I was sentimentally attached to some of Ayla’s things and MAN I loved our bed, but in the end I either sold off or donated just about everything and didn’t really think twice about it. It started to sound funny to me that people seemed so concerned about our stuff and what we would do with it – this isn’t the first (or second, or third…) time that I’ve gotten rid of just about everything, packed a few suitcases, and moved countries. There are plenty of sofas and beds and bicycles and new toys for Ayla in Mexico, and it just makes sense to mostly start over. Right now we have three big suitcases, three carry-on suitcases, a stroller, and about 7 boxes that were sent via the postal service from Amsterdam to Mexico City. We shipped our books, winter coats, some gifts, etc.

I am very much looking forward to “settling” in San Andres Cholula, Puebla, Mexico. I want to get a nice, comfortable apartment with a great big sofa, a cute bedroom for Ayla, a nice big bed for us, etc. I want a dog, I want to enroll Ayla in some sort of daycare, I want to take regular yoga classes again and join a gym. But I also never want the reason I chose to stay anywhere to be because of stuff. Even if we stay in Cholula for the next twenty years, I always want to remember that if we want to go somewhere else, we can go somewhere else.

Eating in Merida

Basing our lunch options on which places have A/C

So I’m sitting here in this hot, humid city in Mexico and feeling quite free. All of our belongings can fit into 7 boxes and three suitcases. We have absolutely no debt. Enrique will start a new job in January, but until then he’s relatively free – which means I can continue to work easily enough (I work about 10-12 hours a week, remotely) and we can sort out our new life together, slowly and without a rush. And one thing we sorted out for sure is the fact that Merida is way too hot and humid for us to enjoy ourselves as a family, so fuck it, change of plans. We rented a new place at the beach and that’s where we’ll stay for the rest of our time in Yucatan. I’ve been trying to figure out what people in Merida do with small toddlers and all answers lead to “leave Merida and go to the beach/cenotes/etc” so it doesn’t make much sense for us to sweat it out in the middle of a city until the end of the month. I do love that Ayla is living in a diaper or just going naked, but I hate that she has about 15 mosquito bites and a slight heat rash.

One remarkable thing about our trip (and off whatever topic I was on) – we traveled Amsterdam-Milan, 4.5 hour layover, Milan-Merida. About 13.5 hours of flying time and almost 24 hours of travel time. We were all beyond exhausted and jetlagged … but Ayla had herself sorted out by the third night, and she’s been sleeping fantastically. It was a lot of work to do that kind of travel with a 13.5 month old, but no scary stories to tell. While she’s breastfeeding less and less these days, I was still able to use that as a tool during the flight if things ever got rough, and I was so grateful for that. And I wondered if after breastfeeding I-don’t-know-how-many-times throughout the flight if she’d start to go back to wanting more milk during the day, but in fact the opposite happened: ever since our second day in Merida she’s dropped pretty much all daytime feedings and now only breastfeeds in the evenings. She is turning into a little girl, but when I’m breastfeeding her I still have my baby in my arms, and that feels so incredibly special.

One more full day in Merida, and then we’re off to Chuburna Puerto. I can’t wait.


The plan is to leave Amsterdam

“But didn’t you guys just buy a house? And have a baby? And now you’re planning to leave?”

… Yes. We’re planning on leaving October 9th, to be precise.

And it’s complicated. Ending a long relationship with a city isn’t easy. There’s not just one reason to leave, there’s a million little reasons, but I’m going to sum it up as best I can with the top two.

  1. We’re leaving Amsterdam because E’s work contract is up, and will not be renewed (this is not due to anything performance-related).
  2. We’re leaving Amsterdam because the weather is depressing and terrible.

Yes, the horrible weather is really playing that much of a role in the decision. The work stuff is the driving force, but the fact that it’s the middle of July and I had to put socks, pants, and a jacket on my daughter in order for her to play outside, under gray skies – I’ll be perfectly honest: it’s a truly depressing way to start the day. After she had her breakfast and played and crawled around this morning, it was 8.30am and she was BORED. She crawled over to the back door, doing her whiny cry. When I picked her up and opened the door, she instantly stopped crying and tried to wiggle away so she could escape outside. “But it’s really windy,” I thought to myself. “And gray. and chilly.” She cried as I closed the door. I felt bad as I lead her back inside – I mean, it wasn’t actually raining and it’s not like she was “demanding” anything crazy.

So we went out to the backyard, after getting ready. Getting ready, you ask? What do you need to do to get ready to go into your own backyard, when both myself and the baby were already dressed and fed? Well, I had to get a long-sleeve shirt and shoes. I had to find socks and a jacket for the baby. I’ve mentioned she’s not a fan of getting dressed, right? I wiggled her in her socks and jacket anyway as she protested. But once we were out, she was happier – and a quick glimpse of the forecast showed me to expect rain pretty much every day this week, so I figured we may as well take advantage of the fact that it was only chilly, windy, and gray.

I guess the grayness doesn’t really depress a 10-month old (I hope), but it depresses me. I did not wake up happy today. I did not take my daughter to our backyard happily, despite the fact that we have spent a LOT of time and effort to make our backyard beautiful and child-friendly. All last week I think there were maybe one or two days that I happily took her outside. The rest of the time was too cold, too rainy, or too windy (or usually all three at once). We’ve taken her to every indoor baby cafe in Amsterdam, we’ve taken her to cafes and restaurants, and we take her to the supermarket when we need to go just for an excuse to get her out of the house and do something, even though we live between two lovely parks and have a baby seat for the bicycle.

A typical day in July, Amsterdam

A typical day in July, Amsterdam – waiting for the tram in the rain

Now let’s just say you live in Amsterdam and make a pretty decent income (like I used to do when I worked in advertising), and you don’t have a baby. The weather still sucks just as bad, but you probably take a lot more trips to sunny places, because you can afford it. Even with a baby, and without my advertising salary, we’re doing good on the travel front: we spent over a month in California and Mexico back in March and we just did 10 days in southern Italy in June. But we can’t afford to just drop 500€ on a weekend in Barcelona at the last minute the way we used to. In theory, I’m completely fine with this as there’s not a single fiber in my body that wants to return to working in advertising, so I consider having less money but more free time to spend with Ayla a very fair tradeoff. And in theory, I love Amsterdam, and getting to take say, 3 or maybe 4 trips a year isn’t exactly suffering, right?

Well, the reality is that it sucks. It sucks to be stuck in Amsterdam with crappy weather most of the summer, absolutely unable to make plans in advance (like getting together with other moms) that involve being outside. Do you know how much we were looking forward to doing a nice long bike ride through the north this past Saturday? The plan was to pack up a lunch, put Ayla on my bike seat, ride around the little villages looking at cows and sheep and enjoy the scenery. We have a little tent for Ayla, so she could have her afternoon nap as mom and dad lay on a blanket and drink a beer while watching the bikes and water. All we need to have in order to make this happen is a warm, sunny, weekend day, preferably without too much wind (as that makes the biking part a little less enjoyable). It ended up chilly and rainy. So another day spent inside – well mostly inside. We ran out into the backyard anytime it stopped raining enough to let Ayla get a change of scenery.

When we were in southern Italy, it wasn’t that complicated. We went to the beach. Ayla wore a little swim diaper and a hat. She took her afternoon nap in her tent while mom and dad drank a beer and went swimming (one at a time). When she was awake, she played in the sand and the water. It was… easy.

June in Southern Italy

June in Southern Italy

This morning Enrique and I were bitching about the weather, which almost feels like part of the morning routine these days. I told him that it doesn’t depress me, exactly. I mean yes, it’s depressing. But I’m not depressed, I’m angry. I’m pissed. I’m annoyed. And I have started so many days like this, and with each passing gray, chilly, windy, rainy day, I grow more and more annoyed. This deep-down pissed-offness is not going to go away with extra vitamin D supplements or a sun lamp or an extra yoga class or whatever bullshit suggestion people offer. Before there was a baby in the picture, one sort-of-good way of looking at the situation was that Amsterdam is a great place to work. I mean, if you’re inside all day, you may as well be inside all day in Amsterdam. And if you can afford to go out to dinner and drinks a few times a week, to have memberships to nice gyms and cinemas, to go away for long weekends to visit friends in Rome and Barcelona and Lisbon, it’s manageable – and you don’t need to be rich to be able to have a really nice life in Amsterdam. But now there is a baby in the picture, I very rarely go out after 8pm, and going to yoga a few times a week isn’t really bringing about the inner peace that I simply don’t have because parenting is harder when you are confined to the great indoors.

Deep breath.

Back when we bought our apartment (when I was 7 months pregnant), we went into it thinking “this is a five year thing.” It’s a lovely apartment and suits us well, but it’s small and not the kind of place that we’d want to stay for say, 15 years. But for a few years, sure. It’s cozy and cute and in great condition, and we have this amazing backyard that we put a ton of work into and hardly use. We have a place for storage, plenty of bike parking, nice neighbors, a great location near parks and supermarkets and a pharmacy across the street. We were in no rush to leave Amsterdam when we bought our place. We thought we’d enjoy Ayla’s childhood, see how things go with Enrique’s job, and then either upgrade to a bigger apartment after a few years or move outside the country (by the time Ayla was 4 or so). I wanted to see how things went, to allow myself to feel re-motivated to integrate a bit more, to make (yet another) effort to learn Dutch. We were open to the idea of the fact that we might just stick around forever – even though the weather is never going to magically improve, there still are a million reasons why Amsterdam is a wonderful city. Both of us craved things like stability and a chance to work at our careers. We wanted to get a dog. We’ve done so much traveling and adventuring and moving around that stability seemed absolutely lovely. That was the attitude that we had a year ago.

But there was unexpected news, work-wise. Enrique’s contract is up at the end of August and can not be renewed. I am working very part-time (about two afternoons a week), finally at a job I love and feel proud of, but it’s a job that pays me a fraction of what I used to make. In exchange, I get to spend a lot of time with my daughter, which is priceless. Enrique also spends a great deal of time with her – when I’m at work, he’s the one spending time with her. Neither one of us would have changed anything about this arrangement, and there’s no part of me that is willing to quit a job I love to return to advertising, just so we have the money to stick around a city where it rains all the time. My current job is something I can do from anywhere, so I can easily move.

So we’re moving away. And maaaaaaaaan I am nervous, because there is so much more to take into consideration that there used to be. It’s hard to figure out where to start, but we had to start somewhere – so we rented an apartment for three weeks in Merida, Mexico. A city that neither one of us has ever been to. The average high temperature in October is 32C, average low temperature is 22C. Regarding safety, “In Merida security rates are at the level of Europe, even among the levels of the safest countries in the world” (source). I don’t know if this is going to be our new home, but it’s a place to start. We’ll be warm.

When we got the news that Enrique’s contract couldn’t be extended, we made a concious decision to see this as an opportunity to get it right and make the move. We are choosing to leave to find something better, we’re not being forced out. If we really wanted to stay in Amsterdam, we could figure it out and make it happen – but instead it seems that there’s another adventure ahead of us – an adventure to find stability. At the end of the day, I’m ready to go. We both are.







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.


Valladolid, Mexico – the logistics

Where is it and why? Valladolid is a small city (more like a large town) in the Mexican state of Yucatán. It’s about 100 km/1.5 hours to Tulum, about 2 hours from Downtown Cancun, and maybe a bit more than 1.5 hours to Merida. It’s in the middle of the peninsula, not on the sea at all. I chose Valladolid as a starting-off point of a 6-week trip through Mexico mainly due to one reason: we were flying into Cancun, and I had no desire to stay in Cancun, so I looked around for places – in particular places that weren’t the super-obvious choice (eg. Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujers) – that would offer me something different. I’ve been to beautiful Mexican beaches before, I’ve seen great Mexican cities and mountains and towns … I was after sun, warmth, a different type of culture, and access to nature and swimming. I also wanted to keep this as inexpensive as possible. I knew that later on in my trip we’d have plenty of time for beaches, so beach was not a priority for me at all. New, different, interesting, and sunny, not far from Cancun. That’s what I wanted – and Valladolid was perfect.

How we got there: We took a looong flight from Amsterdam –> Cancun on Condor, an airline I’ve flown with before. It was fine – unremarkable enough. From the airport in Cancun we walked over to the ADO bus area (which is within the airport grounds) and bought a ticket to the downtown Cancun station (about 30-40 minutes). After one night in Cancun, we rented a car and drove to Valladolid.

Where we rented our car: It seemed pretty difficult/expensive to actually rent a car in Valladolid, so we used Tulum Car Rental in downtown Cancun. Their service was great in the sense that there were no surprises with hidden costs, everything worked, and the people were friendly. I would absolutely use them again. We spoke Spanish in person, but I made the reservation and communicated about pickup times in English with no problem.

The road from Cancun to Valladolid: Amazing. There’s zero need to take the quota (toll) highway – go for the libre (free) road. Compared to other parts of Mexico, the roads felt like… well, like not an issue at all. On the free highway you pass through some little towns where you can stop and eat, and it’s green and lush and flat the entire time. Perfectly safe and very easy.

Where we stayed in Valladolid: The beautiful and amazing Hostel la Candelaria. I booked through Hostelworld, which is where the link will take you. We aren’t really hostel-dorm-room types anymore, but I still like staying among groups of younger or like-minded travelers. The private room on the upper floor of this hostel was the best of both worlds for us – we had privacy (though we shared a bathroom, which was no problem) when we wanted it, but we could hang out in the beautiful garden and chat with other people when we felt social. The free breakfast every morning was delicious, the location was perfect, the employees were great, and the other guests were fun. Our room had two strong fans (I love sleeping with fans over an A/C). Wifi didn’t reach our room, which we didn’t care about (it worked fine in the garden and common areas). There were sinks to hand-wash clothes and a clothesline for drying. The water temperature in the showers fluctuated, but when I’m in a warm/hot climate, I really don’t care so much if I take one cold shower (it was mostly fine though). And as a nice plus, the guests of the hostel weren’t just limited to the under-22 crowd – there were at least a few other over-40’s there, and everywhere in between.

Impressions of Valladolid: We stayed for four nights, which felt like the perfect amount of time. Valladolid is tranquilo. Ask locals what they think about it? “Tranquilo,” in the most positive sense. Tranquil. It’s chilled out. It feels incredibly safe. I didn’t experience or see any problems with traffic. There are a ton of female police officers/traffic cops. Bike lanes – real, legit bicycle lanes – run in and out of the city. People walk and cycle easily. I don’t think I heard a single dog barking at night or fireworks popping in the streets. If I had only ever gone to Valladolid in Mexico and stayed for 4 nights (and I didn’t read the news), I would leave not having any clue that there is terrible poverty and violence and crime in Mexico. My fiancé grew up in Mexico City and has traveled pretty extensively throughout Mexico, and he said Valladolid was like no place he had been before. Tranquilo. Everything just seemed to work.

You hear the Mayan language, eat Mayan food, get tempted to buy Mayan clothes, and see Mayan people all the time, all over the city. The indigenous culture is everywhere, and not just on display for tourists. It just… is. Outside of the city there are Mayan villages all over the place (we were lucky enough to visit Xocen one day and spend some time with a family there). If you want to hear and see and explore an Indigenous culture in Mexico, Valladolid is a perfect place to start.

Valladolid nights

Evening in central Valladolid, Mexico

So what is there to do in the actual “city?” (it’s more like a large town, not really a city) Well… not much in the actual city, outside of shopping and eating and wandering. I guess that would be the down side, though it didn’t matter so much to us. We did find one super raunchy, fun bar where the beer was cheap, the crowd was clearly very, very local, and some (or maybe all) of the women probably didn’t present themselves as women during the daytime. We got some looks when we went in – you know the looks you get when you’re the only couple that is clearly not from the area and everyone inside knows everyone? Those looks. But I grew up in a small town, I know those looks. I’ve probably given those looks at some point. Anyway, it was completely fine after 3 seconds and we each drank a few beers.. Another night we found a different cantina with super friendly people. I mean, in general Mexicans are friendly and nice people, but these guys were just… the epitome of warm, friendly, and helpful. I liked both places, but kinda preferred the raunchy place. We gave it a half-hearted shot, but didn’t discover any real nightlife options. The city was pretty dead by 10pm, but there were always people hanging outside at the hostel. And I’m guessing if we cared more, we could have found more action, but we were more, well, tranquilo.

If you go to Valladolid, you should go there thinking it’s a place to unwind and relax. Enjoy the weather, eat the food, and most of all: get on a bike or rent a car and go swimming in cenotes and hike through Mayan ruins. It was super easy with a car, but even if we didn’t have one, we could have easily gotten to at least 6-7 different cenotes just by bike alone. After one day, you’ll most likely already be in the habit of waking up by 7am (to the bright sunshine), doing active stuff all day, and being exhausted by 10pm. My normal routine is as opposite from this as is possible, but I fell into my Valladolid routine happily and easily.

There were definitely tourists in Valladolid, but it didn’t feel like a heavily-touristed area. I think tour groups will come by on buses in their “let’s explore Yucatan” tour groups and stay for a couple hours and then leave again, which is an absolute shame (for them). Because the city isn’t on a beach, I think it gets overlooked – and this is crazy to me. You could be at a beach in 1.5 hours if you wanted, but also… cenotes! I’ll have another post all about cenotes, but seriously, if you want to swim, swimming is everywhere. Nature and ruins are so easy to get to. The food is way better and way cheaper than you’ll find in crappy touristy restaurants in the beach towns. If you want to buy beautiful, artisanal  clothing or hammocks or anything like that, it’s all over the place. So listen up, especially east-coast Americans and Canadians that have to suffer through another terrible winter and are within a cheap flight/not too far of a distance: in December, I was wearing shorts and sandals, swimming every day, hiking through lush forests, and eating amazing food in an incredibly safe, chilled-out environment. Go there for a week. Recover you vitamin D deficiency. Eat ice cream as you stroll down the street at sunset, happily tired from swimming and hiking and being outside in the sun all day. It’s literally 2 hours from Cancun and buses go from Cancun –> Valladolid all the time (or rent a car). And remember: bring your underwater camera.

Cenote Selfie

Underwater in a Yucatan cenote

2013 Year in Review

On NY’s day I was in Mazunte, Oaxaca state, Mexico. I was swimming in the ocean by 9 or 10am, and it was one of the best new years of my life, really. I never had the experience of not being cold during that time of year before. After a wonderful break, Enrique and I returned to our apartment in Puebla and decided pretty quickly that we wanted to move out of that apartment and out of Puebla. We signed a short-term lease for an apartment in San Andrés Cholula and moved in at the end of the month – this turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

View from our apartment in San Andres Cholula during the day

View from our apartment in San Andres Cholula during the day

In the midst of packing up and moving to our smaller apartment in Cholula, I went back to Amsterdam for six weeks. It was my first time back in Amsterdam after almost 5 months away. I was pretty happy in Amsterdam, I loved riding my bike through the snow, seeing friends, and working on some “professional development” type projects.

Feb 2013 in Amsterdam

Feb 2013 in Amsterdam

But I missed Enrique and looked forward to getting back to Mexico, which was oddly enough feeling more and more like “home.” When I got back, and walked into our new place in Cholula, everything felt right. I immediately bought a green bicycle, joined a new gym, and got myself involved in doing 4-6 intercambios (language exchange) every week, and found the lovely group of people involved in Cholula en Bici. I spoke Spanish in public for the first time, I entered into friendships where we only spoke Spanish, and I made a promo video for Cholula en Bici in Spanish. Enrique and I hosted visitors, we spent time in Mexico City, Queratero, and Oaxaca, and really embraced pretty much everything about our life.

Walking into San Pedro Cholula, Mexico.

Walking into San Pedro Cholula, Mexico, from the Great Pyramid.

Celebrating the Spring Equinox in San Andres Cholula, Mexico.

Celebrating the Spring Equinox in San Andres Cholula, Mexico.

Street Food in San Andres Cholula, Mexico

Street Food in San Andres Cholula, Mexico

The view from our apartment in San Andres Cholula, Mexico

The view from our apartment in San Andres Cholula, Mexico

However, for a variety of reasons, we decided to return to Amsterdam once Enrique’s academic year was over. We both had the opportunity to get “upgraded” in our Netherlands residence permits that would allow us to get 5-year resident permits allowing us to work freely on the open market. That was a huge change for us – I was previously only able to work on a freelance basis, and Enrique could only work if he was sponsored by an employer. But this was a hard decision to make, and the night of my birthday (4 June) my heart was aching to think that I was leaving Mexico. I had friends – real, wonderful, Mexican friends, that came out to celebrate, dance, and sing with me. Sure, we were going back to wonderful friendships in Amsterdam as well, but man. It was tough. We had a goodbye party in late June, and I had a similar feeling. Volcanoes in the background, dogs and kids running around, friends showing up by bicycle to hang out in the grass, friends who came with pulque and artisenal mexican beer and mezcal. It was rainy season, the day stayed completely dry until the last guest left. Leaving Mexico wasn’t easy.

Birthday celebration in Puebla, Mexico. June 2013.

Birthday celebration in Puebla, Mexico. June 2013.

But July found me back in Amsterdam (Enrique arrived a few weeks later). I obsessively looked for work and started freelance producing again sometime in August. Enrique relaxed a bit and took some much-deserved time off while his residence permit was being processed. The summer in Amsterdam was absolutely beautiful, and we spent time at the beach, in the park, riding boats through the canals with big groups of very close friends, and found a great place to live in De Baarjes. By October, both Enrique and I were very much back in our routines and happy to be back “home.” We took a trip to Lanzarote (part of the Canary Islands), hosted huge dinner parties, and generally just lived a normal life. 2013 ended with us in Italy on a two-week vacation that took us through Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Florence, Bologna, and Venice.

Boating through the canals in Amsterdam, summer 2013

Boating through the canals in Amsterdam, summer 2013

Cycling around the North of Amsterdam in Autumn 2013

Cycling around the North of Amsterdam in Autumn 2013

Celebrating New Years Eve in Sorrento, Italy.

Celebrating New Years Eve in Sorrento, Italy. Saying goodbye to 2013.

We celebrated New Years on a balcony in southern Italy with a big group of friends, watching the sky fill up with fireworks, hugging and kissing everyone. The year ended in a very different location than where we started, but the most important thing remained exactly the same: we were together.


A return to the sun – Mexico part two

A bullet-point style post.

— From September 2012 – Jan 2013, I was living in Puebla, Mexico with my boyfriend. Puebla is a great city. It’s safe, it’s clean, there’s not much traffic problems, people are nice, there’s all the usual stuff you’d find in any city. But honestly? I think it’s lame. It suffers that secondary-city feeling (Mexico City is 2 hours away) in an unflattering way.

— I went to Amsterdam for 6 weeks in Feb/March 2013. I love Amsterdam. I love my friends there. I hate the weather. so much.

— Now I’m back in Mexico, but we decided to move about 10 minutes away into San Andres Cholula! Cholula is a university town, and I like it so much more than Puebla. I think 90% of the reason for this is that I can ride a bike everywhere.

— My Spanish is getting better and better every day. I’m doing regular language exchanges and my entire life is conducted in spanish outside the house. With Enrique I think we’re about… 70-80% in spanish. I have one American friend here, and if it’s just the 2 of us, we speak english. if there’s anyone else around, it’s spanish.

— I still need a lot of practice. Luckily Mexicans are talkative.

— Struggling with self motivation to work on video projects feels hard right now. I did make a video (and edited it myself!) in February while i was in Amsterdam but it’s not very good.

— Somehow even though I don’t have a real job I still feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day.

— I am going to eat Chilaquiles for breakfast. I am in a food heaven.

The documentary about Matipwili, Tanzania and Devergy

I’ve been talking about how I want to make documentaries for over five years. Or more. In fact, the reason I moved to Amsterdam back in 2008 was to do just that: I wanted to start over in my career, to work on projects I cared about, to get involved with a different type of work community that I didn’t really feel around me in NYC. Then I accidentally ended up working in advertising (oops). Which was/is great, don’t get me wrong. Advertising was what allowed me to live and work legally in Amsterdam, it paid the bills, and I learned a lot. Stumbling into freelancing was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

But now, finally, finally I can say I started and finished a project that I fully believe in. 100000%. I went to Matipwili, Tanzania and followed Devergy around for 3 weeks as they started their first pilot village, and hooked up a poor, rural community to a solar energy grid. You can see it on youtube and there’s more content on their site.

Phone charging in Matipwili (before Devergy)

Before Devergy built their grid, In order for the residents to keep their phones charged they would bring them to a small store than had solar electricity. There they paid a fee to charge their phones to a full battery.

It’s a 13 minute video. It will never going to be up on the big screen in a movie theater, but I know they’re going to project it on a wall in Matipwili, Tanzania, and that is an outstanding feeling.

I loved being on facebook and twitter and youtube and email yesterday. I love seeing people share the video and liking it and hearing the reactions. I love that Devergy is finally getting some attention for all the good stuff they’ve done over the past couple years. I love that the sound is in sync. Actually, I just love that the sound works. You know what’s kinda hard? Using a DSLR for filmmaking and a separate audio recorder/mic and being only one person. I literally did not have enough hands to focus, hold the camera, check sound levels, etc. So I trained everyone in Matipwili on how to be a sound person (if someone around me spoke a small amount of english, I promise you they held that shotgun mic), which was ridiculous as I barely had any idea how to work the equipment myself. However, it worked. I am still stunned about that.

Filmmaking in Matipwili

The kids were very eager to “help” and see all the camera and sound equipment

It feels amazing that some of the people in Matipwili have managed to see the video as well, and they like it, and they’re super proud. I had wondered about that back when I was there – there I was all up in these people’s lives, asking them some pretty personal questions sometimes pertaining to, you know, how poor they are. I wondered if I’d be able to make a movie that shows them with dignity. I wanted to do that because that’s what I saw. Yes, they are poor, no question about that. They eat the same thing every day, there’s no running water, many people live in shack-like houses, there are no good roads connecting the village to the city, etc. But they’re also just normal people. Some really liked to fix themselves up before I filmed them, some didn’t really care. They work, the kids go to school, and they live a rural-village kind of life. There’s gossip, politics, babies, weddings, all of it.

Matipwili residents

Matipwili residents

The way I felt after spending time there was that poverty is simply no longer a reason for people to not have access to electricity, when the electricity can come from the sun. I mean, if being poor is no longer a reason to not have a phone or access to the internet (via mobile apps), why not electricity? Of course, these are not the poorest of the poor people in the world. The truly destitute are those who don’t have enough to eat at night, who have no shelter. But in Matipwili, even with $1-2 a day, that is sufficient income to have shelter, food, clothes, a phone, and enough money to buy batteries/kerosene. Some people in the village already had TVs and radios and appliances, just sitting there not being used, because they were so ready to have electricity.

I think I portrayed the village as accurately as possible. it’s nowhere near the whole story, but for someone who was there for 3 weeks, the documentary is what I saw. I did not include all the boredom that comes with being in a small village all day, which I also think is a very real part of poverty as well – boredom, monotony.

I would be proud to show it to anyone from Matipwili or anywhere in Tanzania, because it’s real. The people aren’t portrayed any more or less than exactly the way they are.

Playing checkers with bottle caps

Playing checkers with bottle caps

It’s finally done. The pre-production happened in Amsterdam, it was shot in Tanzania, and the post-production all took place in Mexico. I do really, really like my life.