Xochimilco’s Neon Lights

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We arrived at the watery edge of the Mexico City UNESCO site of Xochilmilco after a long journey on the city metro line terminus: El Tren Liger.   Non-motorized colorful boats and barges slowly carry passengers down canals and around artificially created islands or chinampas.  This World Heritage site is all that remains of Pre-Hispanic Mexico City.  Here, there are nine docks or “embarcadero’s” where boats can be hired for a fixed rate.  This port pictured below is known as the “less touristy” Embarcadero Nuevo Nativitas.

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Chinampas of Embarcadero Nuevo Nativitas - Xochimilco

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Heavenly Site in Morelia

Templo de San Diego o Santuario de Guadalupe - MoreliaPastel flower chandeliers, gold, pink, red, and orange dominate the massive interior of Morelia’s most vibrant church.  Several European styles are at play here, but the color scheme is genuinely Mexican. Visitors arrive and pray for good health, fortune, and protection from evil in high hopes that the Virgin of Guadalupe is listening.  It’s a beautiful place to relax and admire its grand interior.  A need of a miracle is certainly not required.
Templo de San Diego o Santuario de Guadalupe - Morelia

Templo de San Diego o Santuario de Guadalupe - Morelia

Templo de San Diego o Santuario de Guadalupe - Morelia

12 Fiestas before Christmas

The church bells ring again at the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Salud in the former capital of the Purepecha nation.  This time it is the signal for a group of women wearing embroidered dresses and fastened with long colorful braids to begin dancing in the center of the church courtyard.  It is one of the many celebrations going on days before Christmas.  These begin on December 16th, and many know them as the Twelve Days before Christmas.  Ritual ceremonies, like this one, reflect how the Spanish influenced native culture here in Mexico.  They celebrate both Catholic Saints and ancestral gods of the indigenous people.  It is a wonderful site to witness.

Ritual Dancing in front of the Church of Our Virgin of Health - Patzcuaro

Fiesta at the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Salud in Patzcuaro

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The Sacred Tree

Mesoamerican Tree of Life in the Museo Nacional de Antropología - Mexico CityMany religions of the world use a “Tree of Life” symbol when depicting scriptures and teachings of their book of prayers.  Tree-shaped clay sculptures, or the Arbol de le vida, represent the connections between the living and the dead, man and earth, and the heavens and the underworld in Mexico. The colorfully painted clay sculptures contain religious and non-religious figures.  The candle and incense holders make them look more like a decorative candelabra than a religious icon. Their scenes usually include several icons representative of  Mexican culture and less often, depict an evangelical “burn at the stakes” kind of Biblical scene.

Calavera Tree of Life in the Museo Nacional de Antropología - Mexico City

Pieces inside the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia

House of the Wind

Tzintzuntzan is the former ancient capital city of the once powerful P’urhépecha people. Five semi-circular pyramids or yácatas sit above the quiet town center. The hill offers visitors panoramic views of Lago de Patzcuaro and park signs surrounding the site tell of a history of the area before the Spanish arrived. Many visitors experience a sense of spirituality after walking around the sleepy archeological valley above the lake.

The Pyramids of Tzintzuntzan

The Pyramids of Tzintzuntzan

The Pyramids of Tzintzuntzan

Beauty that must die in Tzintzuntzan

The fallen will always be remembered by loved one’s living in Mexican villages like Tzintzuntzan. Family and friends are free to fashion family plots as they see fit.  Cemeteries here are void of high maintenance.  There ar no green lawns, but instead there are colorful flowers, pictures, and personal offering left inside plots of the beloved and unforgotten who now lay under a bed of decaying beauty.

Cemetery in the center of Tzintzuntzan

Cemetery in the center of Tzintzuntzan

Cemetery in the center of Tzintzuntzan

Patzcuaro: Pueblo Magico

Landscape that some say looks similar to ones you see in the Hawiian Islands
The Mexican state of Michoacán stretches all the way from the Pacific Coast east through the colonial heartland of Mexico. Patzcuaro was once the capital of Michoacán and looks very much like it did after the Spanish rebuilt it over 500 years ago.  The area, with its interesting history, diverse culture, landscape and geography, makes for a fascinating place to explore.

Market day before the Dias de Los Muertos in Patzcuaro

What brought me here?

The Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead Festival) is the largest and most popular draw to this small town.  I later found out that Patzcuaro is well-known for many other celebrations centered around Christmas/New Years and Easter/Carnival. So, why not stay and see more.

Some say that the area reminds them of Hawaii.  After the crowds have left and the orange marigolds begin to fade, Patzcuaro takes on a different look.  The leaves fall, the rain stops, the skies clear, the days are warm and the nights are pleasantly cool. It gives photographers plenty of beautiful backdrops which helps to make great pictures of the town, its festivals, and the lovely scenery that surrounds the region.

What to expect:

Make sure you at least learn how to say Hello (Hola) Good Morning (Buenos Dias) Good Afternoon (Buenos Tardes) and Thank you (Muchas Gracias).  This is one of those wonderful places where people are friendly and  exchange greetings in public.  Don’t hesitate to be the first to greet a passerby when you are out exploring the area.

Patzcuaro’s sits up in the mountains and is about 2,140 m (7,020 ft) above sea level, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself gasping for air and/or feeling a bit hung over. It’s easy to become dehydrated and altitude sickness is common.  It’s important to stay hydrated and not push it.

It’s a quiet town, but they love firework’s here.  There’s always special events going that call for celebrating, so expect to hear them at any hour amongst other noises from dogs to music.

The towns along the lake have a history of being home to many highly skilled artists.  It’s a great place to pick up handmade hats, scarves, baskets, wood carvings, copper bowls, natural chocolate and more.  It’s also a wise way to spend since money will more than likely go straight to the artist and their family.

Patzcuaro has much to offer those looking for a place to see one of the most scenic parts of central Mexico.  There are many places to explore, natural beauty to discover and a great history to learn about.  What struck me most about Patzcuaro was the fact that the city and the region is full of charm, beautiful and fun to explore.

In a very practical sense,  Patzcuaro is very easy to get to.  There are several daily direct flights from the US to the state capital of Morelia, and it’s just a 4-5 hour first-class bus connection from Mexico City.  There are many apartments for rent in the area, so it’s wise to book one for a short or long stay instead of a hotel.  Not only is it good for the budget, but a great way to get to know the town.  There are plenty of wonderful options available on sites such as Airbnb and VRBO.  There’s a small but extremely welcoming and vibrant expat community that is always looking for new members.  They host weekly hikes, cocktail hours and offer great advise to those new to the area.

Need a break from the long winter..why not go to Tulum?

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Why Tulum and not an all-inclusive resort with more food and drink then you can handle?

Tulum is nothing like its spring break neighbor Cancun and its mega resort filled beaches of Playa del Carmen who lie just north in the Mayan Riviera coast of Mexico.  Mexico is getting it’s butt kicked tourism wise by the actions unruly public officials and drug cartels of the northern and central regions. Basically, stories like ones related to crime, murder and drugs sell papers to the press is having a field day.

Those pesky drug cartels and corrupt government officials

Well, Tulum is about the distance from San Francisco to Boston from where the real problems, however big or small they actually are, so it’s pretty safe.  Unfortunately, many would be travelers haven’t taken this huge distance into account and have stayed away as they are reporting a huge slump in tourism this year in Mexico.

Fortunate for me because I tend to avoid areas which get inundated with tour buses and the large drone like groups of people who funnel in and out of must see sites like Chichen Itza and the ruins at Tulum to name a couple.  I had been one of those day trippers some 15 years ago and had no intension in revisiting the area but did remember that it was very beautiful and most importantly warm.  I decided to take advantage of the bad situation, find a deal on airfare and hotel and take a break from the cold Northeast.

Do I stay on the Beach or in town?

When looking for a place on the Mayan Riviera and particularly in Tulum,  there is a huge savings if you stay off the beach.   But,  you have to ask yourself,  “Why I’m I going?  Is it for the ruins or the beach or both?”  For me it was both but if I had more time and less money the hotels in the center of Tulum would have been just fine.  This one looked good online and it’s called the TeTotum.  They have a small pool on the roof and it looked clean and kind of funky.  Then I found a place that was right on the water, was actually a little less because they were offering their low season rate (deal!) on the cabana due to low numbers and we had friends who had stayed there a few months prior.  It’s called La Via Laktea or The Milky Way.

Of course I obsessed over the reviews of those two and others near them with comparable prices.  I found that the beach is far south is the sandiest and on the edge of the Sian Ka’an Biological Reserve.  This means possible sea turtle and bird sittings and option to do a day kayak trip through the park.  My husband and I were lazy and passed but it was nice to have the option. Other resorts on the water were closer to the town center and cheaper for a reason.  They had very little beach. Not close to the vision of myself and my husband taking long walks on soft warm white sandy shore.   Cutting my feet up while walking on volcanic rocks and trying to find some was not in that vision.

I couldn’t have imagined a more relaxing place then this 5 kilometer beach at the tip of Tulum.  My husband and I spent four days seeing Mayan ruins, swimming in the blue water as we were looked over by a very demanding and cute yellow lab and his shy or just introverted Chow sidekick.  We never got their names but it was your typical transient relationship.  I hope to see them again soon.

There are very few complaints of the trip as a whole.  It was a bit chilly  and it did rain on the first day, but it all worked out.  It was 58F at night and 75F during the day…but in NYC it was 15F at night and 25F (brrr) during the day mixed with snow.  It’s understandable…I like to think that the Rain God Chaak was just doing his job and giving the area much needed rain for spring crops.

Short summary:

Where to stay on the Beach: La Via Laktea 9.5 Kilometer on the beach road south.  The road to Sian Ka’an is 10 kilometers long so just about there.  Expect to go over about 12 speed bumps before you see in on the left or beach side.

Where to eat at on the beach least one night or more: La Slowteria (review) La Slowteria (Facebook) about the 5 or 6 kilo mark on the Tulum Beach Road…look for the signs since you can’t go too fast here anyways.

A must try: Cocos Frios or cold coconuts sold at stands along highway.  Just look for signs along the way from Tulum to Coba.

A visit to Chac the Rain God @ Chichen Itza

Don’t go to Chichen Itza…you can’t walk up the Pyramid anymore…it’s crowded with locals selling junk…it’s hot and there’s no cover…blah blah blah. Of course I ignored all of that and joined the masses in a pilgrimage to the ruins of this member of both UNESCO and new member of the 2007 New Seven Wonders of the World group.

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Unfortunately it’s not all rainbows and unicorns for this site and any others as individual members struggle to manage the sudden popularity of the location. The motivation for most who want to be on such lists is not just for recognition but the gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s money first, then comes physical impact and unanticipated events like accident injuries and death, and then what they need to close off to protect both visitors and physical structures afterwards.

The huge increase in money flow, via grants and admission prices, does help preserve and rebuild. The peripheral things like pollution and change in the landscape (like increase surrounding infrastructure) will do a lot of damage to an area that has remained untouched in centuries. So basically, being on these lists can also be counter productive if the site is poorly managed.

Chichen-Itza popularity has made it a “must see” for large groups for passengers needing to take a break from slot machines and work off calories inhaled from all you can eat buffet. The decision to close the stairway of the main Pyramid or El Castillo’s became final in March 2006 after an 80-year-old free style cruising woman from San Diego tragically fell to her death on January 4, 2006. Many who travelled afterwards were disappointed and surprised that the officials would do something so extreme and close it off to everyone, but these things and others happen when the masses arrive with their check lists.

The day I decided to check out the treasures of Chichen Itza was not a typical or ideal day weather-wise to see the sights. There must have been a goat sacrificed to the Rain God Chac the day before because it was a little messy but still walkable. The forecast for the day called for light rain and clouds. This lengthen my window to check out the ruins since I didn’t have to worry as much about sun exposure. I’m a bit on the pale side which is expected from someone whose been living in the cold winter shadows of the Northeast. The weather seemed to keep the visitor numbers down, so capturing the sites on film or SD card was not difficult. Disappoint was only felt by the numerous souvenir totting vendors. All the sudden everything was a dollar. Vendors clamored to get whatever peso they could get from the brave garbage bag covered gringos. Good for me and bad for them as they tried to keep the goods dry and looking like new after each downpour.

The crowds seemed to be mostly traveling in packs so taking pictures only involved having to place myself strategically in-between groups. The site was peaceful and all that could be heard were the sounds of an approaching downpours and various vendors displaying their ability to make jaguar sounds with some sort of wooden whistle. Probably costs a dollar for one. I feel for the parent who was pestered into buying one for their child whose fast becoming bored and missing their Ipad, and for those within ear shot of that family back at the ship/resort.

Chichen Itza is well worth the trip especially when you combine it with some R&R on the beach in Tulum. The area is very safe since the Yucatan providence is one of the wealthiest in Mexico. Another attractive quality Mexico has right now is that the USD seems to get you far. Don’t mind the media who has seemed to make other travelers abandon their plans because of the increase of violent crime . It’s always best to just read up on travel advisories before booking, use common sense (Luna Blue’s article on travel to Playa del Carmen) and be travel savvy. There’s a reason military trucks with machine guns mounted on them all over the roads. They don’t expect to use them but they do provide the feeling of being safe from the scary unknown. It’s no different to what I see in Penn Station or Grand Central on any given day since September 2001. Worse things have happened here in the recent past and people aren’t staying away from NYC.

A trip to plan: will it be Stoic Russian or Festive Mexico?

The trip in May came down to two locations.  Mexico or Russia?  My husband and I had our usual debate.  We breakdown each place and do the pros and cons, look to see what the weather is like when we can travel, find out if there are any holidays that could get in the way of travel, and write down the initial costs of going.

We decided on Russia.  The weather is nice, the end of May will allow us to travel without the hassles of May Day and Victory Day that fall at the beginning of the month (parades would have been a sight but maybe another time) and we could use our miles with Capital One.  The free flight helps when we think about how the costs of hotels, restaurants and all the other chiselers Russian we will meet along the way.   At least we expect it.

So the plane tickets we decided upon are with Finnair.  This way we won’t be flying through Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle, have a chance of getting a decent vegetarian meal and we get One World sky miles.  The half hour turnaround in Helsinki is going to be a challenge.  A carry-on in this case is required.

We will only be staying for 11 nights so booking hotels or hostels beforehand is necessary.    There isn’t much room for a side trips on this one.  Moscow and St. Petersburg are both known to be very expensive cities.  It was tricky finding a budget price that’s within a reasonable walking distance to Red Square.  There were plenty of hostels that were very close and have good prices but for the most part were bunk style accommodation and reviewers on the particular booking site seemed to be mostly 18-24 in age.  They may have been an option 10 years ago.

Another option was renting a flat.   This is nice because they usually have a kitchen (good if you are looking to save money and have diet restrictions), and have privacy.   These are usually best if you are on an extended holiday that runs at least a month.  The rates looked reasonable on a site called http://www.getorussia.com but if you read the fine print the quoted rates are based on a month or more.  A few days stay goes up at least 30%.  So that wasn’t an option.

With a little more  research on Thorn tree and basic google searches I found a place called the Petrovka Loft. This place looks good through pictures they and travelers on http://www.tripadvisor.com had posted.  There gets to a point where I have to just believe the reviewers.   I found that they are listed on http://www.hostelworld.com.  I like using this site or http://www.hostelbookers over others like Expedia and Orbitz because a reservation only requires a 10% down-payment.  The remainder is paid when you arrive.  If you don’t like it for some reason you don’t lose too much money if you keep on walking.  It’s also a trust issue between yourself and the hotel.  I have had the times when I show up at a hostel and they haven’t a record of my reservation.  It’s always safe to make contact ahead if possible so they know you are coming.  This may just prod them to check their bookings from outside agencies and update yours and other reservations.

The fun has momentarily ended.  It’s time to gather documents for putting together the Visa application.  Each country that requires a visa has their own system.  Some are easy at the border stamps (they just really want cash) and others require filling out questionnaires and forking over large sums of cash.  Russia is stuck in the pre-Pesrestroika days. The questions are pretty much aimed at figuring out if you are a Jason Bourne character whom they are trying to prevent from entering the country or just an innocent tourist wanting to take pictures and spend money.  The questions are like an employment application.  I wonder if they ever call up your previous employees and ask them questions about your character and if you legit?   I had visions of the person on the other line not having a clue that I worked there since it’s been so long.  Let’s just hope they believe I have written only the truth.

The Russian Federation is very thorough with each applicant.  Visitors are required to get an invitation from a hotel, travel agency or person living in Russia.  Basically, someone who will be responsible for you  while in Russia.  These days it’s just another money-making tool but you have to do it.  The hotel you have booked can either vouch for you or they can recommend a travel company to process the paper work.  We just paid the $30 used http://www.getorussia.com.  It took less than 5 minutes on the internet.

Now, my  (1) valid passport with at least  two clear visa places available (2) a 1″ 3/8 X 1″ 3/4 photo of myself not smiling and showing my shoulders up (3) questionnaire is filled out, I have a copy of (4) my invitation, and  now all I need to do is get (5) a  $131 USD money order from the bank.  I hope I don’t forget anything when I head to the Russian Consulates office in the morning.  I’m fortunate to have a Russian Consulates office in town so I don’t have to mail off my passport and nervously await for it to come back to me via U.S. Mail or Fed-ex.

The process takes anywhere from 4-20 business days.  I’ve got some time but these things seem to end up taking more than you think.  Now, I have to go look for more trip information including what our hotel options will be in St. Petersburg, train schedules to St. Petersburg and what there is to do and see in each city.  After that, a good nights sleep because who knows how long it’s going to take me to get through the consulates office tomorrow.

Maybe I should have gone with the room facing the Caribbean and the days of sipping margaritas on the beach…naahh

Click here for more information on obtaining a Russian Visa

For a quick guide of St. Petersburg click here

For Moscow click here