A Weekend in Querétaro

Happy Friday!  Time flies when you’re having fun.  It has already been a few weeks since I spent a long weekend in Querétaro, a smallish city/largish town three hours north of Mexico City and a place firmly rooted in Mexico’s century-long struggle for independence.

I had been there just shy of one year prior – it was in Querétaro that Pamela and I spent our first Valentine’s Day.  My return trip was solo, as the g/f couldn’t get away.  I enjoyed myself nevertheless.  For starters, the weather was fantastic – hot and sunny, a 180-degree reversal of the four cold, rainy days Pamela and I had spent there in 2012.

Somewhat confusingly, Santiago de Querétaro (full name) played an important role in not one, not two, but three separate independence struggles.  In 1810, it was here that several disaffected Mexicans, including courier Ignacio Pérez, parish priest Miguel Hidalgo, and local heroine Doña Josefa Ortiz, plotted to overthrow their Spanish conquerors.  On September 16th of that year, Hidalgo issued his call to arms, and the day is annual holiday across all of Mexico.  Things were rocky for awhile and eventually along came the Americans, “reaching out” to help in their own selfish way.  In 1848, the bloody Mexican-American War came to an end in Querétaro, where the Treaty of Hidalgo was ratified.  Somewhere around this time, Austria came to the helm, and Emperor Maximilian I (of the Habsburg dynasty) went from loved to loathed as many finally grew tired of being governed by a foreign power.  Although he ruled from Mexico City’s Castillo de Chapultepec, it was in Querétaro that Maximilian met his maker, in 1867.  It wasn’t until 1917 that Mexico’s constitution was drawn up and put into law – in QRO again.  Got all that?  (Me neither.)

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Oscar 2012-13 – recap and reactions

It’s a curious thing about the Oscars: Millions of people watch the Sunday broadcast each year, talk about the show for perhaps five minutes at the office water cooler Monday morning, then never think about it again.  Seeing as it’s already Tuesday evening, post-Oscars as I write this, methinks this blog entry is dead in the water.  Still, I’m a completist, and I didn’t want to leave my Oscar predictions blog simply hanging in the GringoPotpourri wind without a proper bookend.  I’ll keep this brief, I promise.  No, really!

The Winners

So, not too surprisingly, it was Ben Affleck’s Argo as Best Picture, Life of Pi’s Ang Lee as Best Director, Lincoln’s Daniel Day-Lewis as Best Actor, and Silver Linings Playbook’s Jennifer Lawrence as Best Actress.  I called ‘em all, of course.  Supporting honors went to Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained and Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables.  Waltz’s win threw me for a bit of a loop; I had Robert DeNiro for Silver Linings Playbook, and in fact predicted that if there were any major category upsets they would be in favor of SLP.  Alas, ’twas not meant to be.  Django Unchained also earned Quentin Tarantino his second Best Original Screenplay Oscar; his acceptance speech was one of the better ones of the night, and about as humble as you could ever expect Tarantino to act.  I failed to predict either of Django’s Oscar wins; although I’m a big fan of the film I thought it would go home empty-handed, considering that Tarantino’s superior effort, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, lost in the Original Screenplay category.  Waltz won the same prize in that same category then; I simply didn’t think lightning would strike twice, nor so soon after his last win.

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Oscar 2012-13 – predicting the winners

I’ve been keeping busy of late, and my mind has been abuzz with blog ideas.  I want to write a few words about a recent weekend trip to Querétaro.  Meanwhile, friends have requested topics for me to cover, and I still have to put together a “Links” page to the blogs of other writers who’ve inspired me, entertained me, or helped me along the way.

But that’s all pushed to the side for a few days; this Sunday is Oscar night, and – amateur critic that I am – I thought I’d take a stab at predicting the winners.  Putting things in context, Lincoln leads the overall race with 12 nominations, followed closely by Life of Pi with 11 nominations.  That said, this year’s race seems one of the toughest to predict in years.  As such, it should be a good show.

Note that I’ve seen every nominated film in the categories covered below.  Oscar prognosticating is an expensive hobby!

Best Picture

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Misérables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

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The Ugliest Building in Mexico

Avenida de Chapultepec bldg 2

This spectacularly-ugly building on Avenida de Chapultepec, near the Zona Rosa section of Mexico City, looks (from the above angle) like a solitary brick wall that the city forgot to demolish.  The Steren store on the bottom floor only makes the rest of the façade look worse in comparison.

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Sense and Sensibility

I love Mexico City more with each passing day.  This afternoon I had an errand to run that happened to take me to my favorite neighborhood, Coyoacán.  It was a glorious, sunny day and, with my errand done and my stomach growling, I popped into a small bistro for a bite to eat.  A common lunchtime option is “el Menú del Día,” which essentially includes an appetizer, soup, entrée, dessert, and water for a fixed price.  A gringo with simple tastes, I opted for the “Chicken Menu” and was pleasantly surprised when I was served bruschetta, lentil soup, chicken croquettes with rice, carrots, and cucumbers in yogurt sauce, steamed zucchini, flavored water, and a very interesting postre of figs adorned with chopped nuts and dipped in chocolate sauce.  Not bad for 100 pesos (about USD $8.50).

After lunch, I felt especially sated, and took a leisurely stroll back to the metro, noticing for the first time several charming restaurants and coffee shops that I had probably walked past a dozen times before.  The other day I observed, in my own neighborhood, a shrub that was trimmed in the shape of an osito (bear cub).  Why had I never noticed this before?  I am starting, finally, to notice the little things, things I was oblivious to.  I am starting, at long last, to actually understand Spanish when spoken to me.  Not always – not even half the time – but often enough that when I ask the speaker to repeat what he or she just said, it is muy claro the second time.  Living here has agreed with me so much that my senses have, I think, become refined with time.  

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Top Ten Mexico – The Country

Greetings, Loyal Reader!  If you’ve gotten to this point, you either like top ten lists, as I do, or you’re just trying to appease me.  Hoping it’s the former and not the latter, it’s time for another list!  (My previous top ten list – Top Ten Mexico City – can be found here.)

There’s so much more to Mexico than just its capital.  Of course, Mexico DF is the biggest and best city in the country – and you’d better believe it’ll make my country-wide top ten list – but you’ll also find beaches, ruins, and smaller cities and towns of note.  Any Americans reading this blog, take note: many U.S. cities offer direct flights to numerous destinations in Mexico.  Los Angeles, Houston, and Dallas seem especially well connected.  Start packing!

Top Ten Mexico – The Country

1)       Mexico City – I’ll try to keep this short, but I’ve basically summarized everything from my last list into my #1 ranking here.  The country’s capital and biggest city, Mexico City is correspondingly filled with more museums, parks, vibrant neighborhoods, revolution-era murals, bold contemporary art, historic buildings, political demonstrations, hopping nightlife, infuriating traffic, and all-out bustle than anywhere else in the country – or perhaps on the continent, even.  I’d go so far as to say that Mexico City is disproportionately “blessed” with cultural riches – even when compared alongside such similarly-old mega-cities as London, Rome, Cairo, and Beijing.  Love it or hate it, there’s certainly no other place like it in the Americas.  Surely 20 million people can’t be wrong?

2)      Colonial highland towns – Mexico City notwithstanding, nowhere in Mexico is the architectural footprint of Mexico’s Spanish settlers more distinct than in the country’s colonial highland towns.  Puebla, Cholula, Cuernavaca, Taxco, Toluca, Querétaro, Guanajuato, and San Miguel de Allende more-or-less surround Mexico City.  Today, most of these centuries-old cities and towns have the same sprawl as Mexico City, but their respective centers are bastions of picturesque architecture like something you might find in Seville or Madrid.  Shadows cast by Puebla’s enormous cathedral give its streets a claustrophobic feel.  Walls of many buildings in this magnificent old city are adorned with traditional azulejos (tiles), still a cottage industry in this otherwise-industrial region.  Nearby Cholula boasts the second-largest pyramid in the world – even bigger than the more-famous Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán (see #5 for more information on Teotihuacán), though you would hardly know it, as most of the pyramid is covered by a large grassy hill (which in turn is topped by a Spanish church!).  All of the other places merit visits as well, although I’ll save special mention for Guanajuato, city of tunnels, city of mines, and (perhaps despite itself) city of enchantment.  Indeed, Guanajuato is probably the easiest city to fall in love with in all of Mexico.

3)      Chiapas – Oh, Chiapas.  Land of mystery.  Of steamy jungle and chilly highland villages.  Of Zapatista revolutionaries.  Of cascading waterfalls.  Of hybrid local religions, part-Catholic and part-Mayan.  Of crocodile-filled Cañón del Sumidero.  Of locals so shy they sometimes fear that having their picture taken will steal their soul.    Of the elusive fer-de-lance, a serpiente muy peligrosa.  Of San Cristóbal de las Casas, that impossibly-beautiful crossroads town.  Of sacred, cloud-covered Palenque.  Oh, Chiapas.  You’re worlds away from the capital with its assault on the senses, from the desert hinterlands of the north, from the volcanoes and agave fields of central Mexico, and from the country’s majestic sandy beaches.  Still, you are a region all your own, as much as part of Mexico as the next state.  My heart belongs in Mexico City, but you, Chiapas, may have possessed my soul.

4)      Guadalajara – Guadalajara is commonly referred to as Mexico’s “Second City.”  And although it is indeed second fiddle to the capital in terms of population, political influence, and other factors, the label is perhaps unfair.  Guadalajara is, after all, the most Mexican of cities.  It is in or around Guadalajara that the mariachi was born, that tequila is harvested, that the Mexican Hat Dance was written, that the rodeo came to be, and that the guitar was invented.  As such, Guadalajara is a city of tremendous energy, culture, and civic pride.  Its museums and government buildings are adorned with jaw-dropping murals, its Cathedral surrounding by four – count ‘em – four lively squares, its pedestrian streets filled with people, its universities among the most prestigious in the country.  Don’t be surprised to find yourself staying longer here than you originally expected.  Likewise, if you leave unimpressed, check your wrist for a pulse.

5)      Teotihuacán – The highlands around of Mexico City are home to several pre-Hispanic archaeological sites.  Tula, an excavated Toltec city to the north of the capital, is famous for its Atlantes (enormous stone warrior) figures.  Teopanzolco, in Cuernavaca to the south, features a pyramid-within-a-pyramid, one built by the Aztecs and the other by a people that came before them.  Tepozteco, atop a sheer cliff in the village of Tepoztlán and famous as the supposed birthplace of Quetzalcóatl, can only be reached by foot.  Each site is unique and worth seeing, yet none of them hold a candle to Teotihuacán, less than an hour by bus from el DF’s North Bus Station.  Surrounded by mountains and agave fields, Teotihuacán – which pre-dates the Aztec civilizations by several centuries and about whose original occupants little is known – has a spectacular setting.  More spectacular are its ruins, including the massive Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, the former being the third-largest pyramid on Earth.  Teotihuacán’s main thoroughfare, the creepily-named Avenue of the Dead, runs for two kilometers past dozens – hundreds, even – of ruins, and it’s believed that another two kilometers of city remain unexcavated!

6)      Quintana Roo – Although I’ve been passionate about geography since childhood, I always thought “Quintana Roo” sounded made-up, or that it was the name of a cartoon kangaroo.  It’s very much real, however.  Roughly speaking, Quintana Roo is the eastern half of the Yucatan Peninsula, running from Cancún in the north to Chetumal, near the Belize border in the south.  Quintana Roo and adjacent Yucatan State comprise one of Mexico’s least-populated areas, yet they are the country’s most-touristed region all the same.  Cancún and the Zona Hotelera have their merits, namely white sand beaches, gorgeous hotel pools, potable water, and an annual “Spring Break” cash cow that actually lasts about six weeks.  Nothing wrong with that.  South, east, and west of Cancún are numerous sites of interest: a trifecta of Mayan sites in well-preserved Chichén Itzá, coast-hugging Tulum, and jungle-shrouded Cobá; inviting cenotes (freshwater limestone caves that you can swim in); family-friendly Xcaret and Xel-Há; and offshore coral reefs near Cozumel, said to be one of the world’s best warm water dive sites.

7)      Oaxaca – Though a long drive from the capital (and a long drive from anywhere, frankly), Oaxaca city is pleasantly reminiscent of much, much, much bigger Mexico City for its colonial architecture and surrounding ruins, and blessed with a warmer southern climate.  Benito Juárez grew up around here, and Oaxaca’s residents are rightly proud of the fact.  As such, they treat their city with pride.  The Zócalo is filled with perfectly-pruned trees and its buildings lined with ground-level restaurants.  The gold altar of nearby Santo Domingo Church glistens with fresh polish; none of the churches in the capital are so lovely.  The low-rise city buildings always seem freshly painted, in that colonial style I’ve alluded to in past blogs (primary colors for the exterior walls, with doorways and window frames typically painted white or gray).  Oaxaca has, IMHO, the best street food in all of Mexico, and you’ll be certain to devour it after seeing not only Oaxaca City but also its surrounding attractions – the Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán and Mitla, the carpet-weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle, and any number of mezcal distilleries, among other place of interest.

8)      Pacific beaches – The title of this entry may seem a bit generic, I’ll grant you, knowing that Mexico’s Pacific coastline stretches for some 3,000 miles.  Still, while I generally prefer the country’s inland destinations to its coastal ones, the Pacific coast of Mexico has some wonderful beaches – and not all of them are crowded.  A few highlights from north to south: Lover’s Beach, Cabo San Lucas – this much-photographed beach (and the rock arch next to it) has the unique distinction of fronting two bodies of water: the Sea of Cortez on the east, and the Pacific on the west.  Swim or snorkel in the former and don’t even think about setting foot in the latter.  Playa Zicatela, Puerto Escondido – P.E. walks a fine line between idyllic beach community and soon-to-be-mega-resort.  See it before it crosses over.  If you’re a surfer, so much the better.  Playa Zipolite, Oaxaca State – this is what Puerto Escondido was just 20 years ago.  Fans of Y Tu Mamá También should note that the film’s famed secret beach locale was somewhere around here.

9)      Cemeteries – Call me morbid, but I love cemeteries.  Spooky yet beautiful, haunted yet peaceful, cemeteries are great places for quiet strolls, thoughtful meditation, and artsy photography.  Mexico’s great cemeteries (panteóns) – oft-forgotten behind high walls and wrought-iron gates, are imposing labyrinths of beauty.  The best of them – Guadalajara’s Gothic-style Cemetery Belén (caretakers hadn’t gardened in awhile when I visited, and I found the place to be much spookier as a result of the overgrowth), Guanajuato’s claustrophobia-inducing Municipal Cemetery (complete with a très-creepy mummy museum), and Mexico City’s sprawling Civil Cemetery (home to the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons housing the remains of Diego Rivera, Dolores del Rio, and others) – sometimes seem like places you’d expect to find in Eastern Europe, or in New Orleans perhaps.  Seek out these places on a cold, cloudy day – and bring your camera, for the fallen leaves, gray skies, and crumbling tombs make for fantastic pictures.

10)   Cervezas – It’s no secret that Corona is the #1 imported beer in the U.S., and for good reason.  It goes down smooth – even better with a squeeze of lime – and is just flavorful enough to remind drinkers of better times and warmer weather.  But to drink just Corona is to barely reach the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  As regards Mexican cervezas, you can easily call Mexico the “Germany of the Americas.”  Sol, Tecate, Dos Equis, have all penetrated the U.S. market as well – but while eminently drinkable – you’re still missing the best of the best.  I’ve become a huge fan of Negra Modelo, especially the obscura (dark) variety.  If you can, try a Michelada, which essentially takes any beer (often Negra Modelo but any brand will do) and adds a healthy squeeze of lime, a not-so-healthy sprinkling of salt, and – sometimes – a dash of spicy peppers.  If you find yourself in Mexico City around the holidays, look for Noche Buena, a seasonal ale as smooth as it is expensive (by Mexican prices, anyway).  A year-round favorite is Indio, frustratingly hard to find outside of the capital.  I could keep going but I’ll stop here, as this blog is making me thirsty!

A few pics, for your viewing pleasure:

Plaza Santo Domingo 2

Above photo: Plaza Santo Domingo, just one of many highlights of a visit to Mexico City.  (You may recognize this image; a compressed version acts as my blog’s header photo.)

Below photo: Guanajuato, as seen from above.

El Pipila 20

Chichen Itza - day

Above photo: Chichén Itzá, on a rare cloudy day.

Below photo: Pedestrian street in colonial Oaxaca.

Calle Alcala - Oaxaca

Lover's Beach 18

Above photo: Lover’s Beach, Cabo San Lucas.  I’m standing with my back to the Pacific and looking towards the Sea of Cortez.

Below photo: Colonnade of tombs, Cemetery Belén, Guadalajara.

Pantheon 20

Top Ten Mexico City

I love top ten lists.  Call me a geek if you want, it’s okay.  Whatever the list, if it’s a top ten something, there’s a good chance I’ll read it.  I probably have read it.  Top ten Presidential quotes.  Top ten Seinfeld episodes.  Top ten ballparks.  Top ten Chicago hot dog shacks.  Top ten one-hit wonders (yes, A-ha is in there).  Top ten movies of the year.  Top ten movies by genre.

Don’t even get me started on travel top ten lists.  Lonely Planet has dozens of them.  Travel + Leisure has dozens more.  From “Top Ten Places to Ring in the New Year” to “Top Ten Multi-Day Hikes” to “Top Ten Places for Wildlife Watching,” you really can pick your poison.  (Note: If I named any of those without crediting the actual publication in which they appeared, please accept my apologies.  I really just pulled ‘em out of thin air.)

For my blogging (and your reading) pleasure, here’s my own top ten list – city-specific, to keep the list manageable.

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Oscar Nominations 2012-13 – reactions

The Help star Emma Stone and 2013 Oscar host Seth MacFarlane woke up bright and early today to read off this year’s Academy Award nominations.  They were not the only ones at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, as hundreds of reporters were on the scene for the big scoop, hoping to make the evening papers.  I was with them in spirit, of course, watching the live broadcast from my apartment.  And although it was 7:30 out here and not 5:30, that was still damn early – for me at least.

As expected, there were a few surprises, but the actual list of nominees closely mirrored my own predictions from yesterday, with most categories predicted to 80% or 100% accuracy. (Best Director notwithstanding.  Yikes!)  Lincoln leads the race, with 12 nominations including Best Picture.  Life of Pi is a close second, garnering 11 nods.

For now, I’ll try and hold off from commenting on who I think will actually win, though I make no promises.  Here we go….

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Oscar Nominations 2012-13 – predictions

Today’s blog is not about Mexico.  Nor is it about the series of events that led to my moving to Mexico.  Before I fell in love with travel, I fell in love with movies – since I was a child, actually – and although I don’t obsess about them to the degree I once did, they still provide much enjoyment in my life – especially when I’m not traveling.

Oscar season is a particularly fun time of year for me.  I always enjoy predicting the nominees before they are announced, reacting to them when they are (well, not at 5:30 am when they’re read off, but later that same day), and watching the big show, typically the only night of television that – at least in the U.S. – rivals the Super Bowl as the year’s most-watched broadcast.

In years past, my conversations about the predicted nominees were limited to a few seconds of office water cooler chit-chat, and a couple hours’ worth of internet movie message board postings.  I always made it a point to see as many of the nominated movies as possible, so most of my moving-going friends simply couldn’t keep up.  I’m a bit behind this year, as some movies released in the last months of 2012 still haven’t opened here (Les Miserables, for example, doesn’t open until February 15th).  Still, I’ve seen two-thirds of the contenders, and the amateur critic in me has come up with my own “wish list” of nominees.

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