Note: When I realized I hadn’t posted these notes from a trip to Spokane and Mexico in December 2016 and January 2017, it had already been more than 6 months. The notes were largely written at the time. I hope I managed to match the photos correctly. For future ease-of-understanding of the chronology, this post was posted on 8 August 2017 but is backdated to 31 January 2017.
“It’s going to get a little weird in here”, the woman behind the Alaska Air counter at the boarding gate announced. I knew the trip had officially begun. I had just gotten into Seattle SEA TEC on a connection via Frankfurt with a solid delay, and had hurried through the airport trying to catch this last leg to Spokane. I needn’t have worried: immigration, customs and security were efficient and friendly and quick. I made it just in time. Until we learned that our next plane, some smallish propeller thing, hadn’t yet arrived. “We have two flights to Spokane going out almost at the same time side by side, and the one on the right is delayed, and has in gave not yet arrived. It’s going to get a little weird in here.”
I instantly liked Seattle.
A quick propeller hop later I see my extended family at the Spokane airport (and later that night even my luggage joins us there).
As a little side quest, I got to test our brand-new Zephyr Berlin pants—we had shipped them to our Kickstarter backers just the days before. Expect to see more of them below in the snow and across Mexico!
This particular American family Christmas consisted of a screening of Star Wars Rogue One, lots of good food and sampling of even better craft beer (omg, the Pacific Northwest and their amazing craft breweries!), and lots and lots of board games: Settlers, Ticket to Ride, Survive, Pandemic, Pergamon, Rummikub, Citadels, Istanbul were all in heavy rotation around the clock.
Constant snowing allowed for excellent snow and outdoor action. Downhill snow tubing. Building a snowy Jabba the Hutt. Drive to Coeur d’Alene (Idaho), to watch over half a dozen bald eagles soar across the lake. A long stroll along the snowed-under waterfront park and old expo grounds with the roaring river and many bridges.
We made a snow Jabba
Lake Coeur d’Alene
Bald eagles at Coeur d’Alene
Spokane’s Radio Flyer
Spokane also has lots of cute little community-oriented shops. Auntie’s & Uncle’s is combined book and games store. Rocket Market is a small grocery store and gas station, but also clearly a hangout spot where locals socialize over great coffee and locally sourced snacks; if you tried to manifest Portland in a grocery store this would be it. A community center in Kendall Yards offers kids writing classes, reading space, and all the Arduinos and Raspberry Pis you could ask for to take your first into the the world of programming electronics.
We put the new Zephyr Berlin pants to the test.
A week later, and our bags lightened by a large shipping box that takes our winter clothes back home, we’re headed south. 3 hops by plane and a long bus ride bring us to Palenque, Mexico, heart of Mexico’s rich heritage of temples and pyramids. We’ll be spending New Years Eve in the temple-studded jungle.
Layover at LAX. The boarding pass check line is out on the sidewalk. Over the speaker an announcement: “We hope you have an exceptional experience at LAX.” What is this place?
Everything about our LAX experience, of this airport’s seemingly horrible infrastructure and disjointed structure, had a distinct feel of how a bad director would try to communicate a third world feel.
Arrival at Mexico
Mexico City. First tacos at Mexico City airport before heading on to Tuxtla Gutierrez.
The bus system works incredibly smooth. Over the shared entertainment system they screen a Spanish-dubbed version of Tarantino’s Hateful Eight. One passenger throws up behind us just as a character does on screen—perfect timing.
You got to love the hand-painted signage in Mexico.
7 hours after leaving Tuxtla G. we arrive in Palenque. Tomorrow is going to be all about ruins.
Small-town Mexico turns out very agreeable. Enchiladas all the way.
It’s Dec 31st, the last day of the year. Today’s agenda: The Maya ruins of Palenque. In the 7th and 8th century this was the place of the power in Maya culture, and in Palenque you can still see evidence of the that today. The ruins are gorgeous. The tombs were the stuff of dreams for archeologists and explorers, with diamond-studded royal skeletons hidden in sarcophagi covered in either poisonous coating or sprinkled with intense red dye. New chambers and cultural treasures have been discovered as recently as the 1990s, and only a relatively compact part of the larger ancient settlement has been excavated and made accessible as of today.
The Red Queen’s sarcophagus
These ancient stone inscriptions look almost like modern comics
It’s touristy, but in a pretty low-key kind of way, and very accessible if you’ re happy to climb the kind of steep steps that make up Mayan temples you won’t be disappointed.
Outside of the ruins but still inside the national park border, the low key hotel Maya Bell offers a cozy setting for lunch with an acoustic backdrop of howler monkeys.
We were still in a walking and exploring mood. A 20 min stroll brought us to a group of bars, restaurants and hostels called El Panchan, which our guide book curiously labeled “legendary” (I was preparing for the worst). It ended up looking like a place that once was home to the alternative backpacking crowd: small paths through the jungle, a semi-resident howler monkey, a few bars, little path lights shaped like mushrooms. Today it mostly looked like it is home to no one in particular. It’s as if the old crowd moved out and on, and nobody really new moved in. That said, the decidedly mainstream restaurant at the entrance looked like it was fairly popular with the locals even as the bar right behind it seemed to ever only host a small contingent of stoned long term travelers. (It is run by German expats. The Kässpätzle on their menu give them a away.)
We headed back to Maya Bell for dinner and crash early. We had a 5:30 bus to catch.
Our hotel hosts an enormous, or at least enormously loud, New Year’s Eve party. Around 3 it transitions from live music to drunk karaoke. Our room isn’t insulated against this at all. At 4:30 we get back up. I’m grumpy, but not for long: We’re off on a 6am bus to San Cristobal.
San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristobal de Casas is the center of Chiapas with its many (seven?) tribes that descend from ancient Maya. At about 2000m above sea level the light is crisp and the air starts feeling just that little bit thinner.
The bright, delightful colors of Mexico really shine in the mountain light.
A balloon vendor in San Cristobal
Keeping it real in San Cristobal
Global pop culture franchises are omnipresent
Colors of Mexico
Colors of Mexico
Colors of Mexico
San Cristobal is also a the city where the Zapatistas emerged on Jan 1st, 1994 – 23 years to the day before we arrived in town. There are references to Zapatistas everywhere here: figurines, postcards, books, graffiti. The politics around Zapatistas are complex, especially how they fit into the the larger political ecosystem. Modeled as a resistance movement in the mid-1990s they fought four the rights of indigenous people in this region, but there are also seemingly odd alliances with protestantism (the region is dominated by Catholic church), so some indigenous peoples supposedly them, others don’t. Because they emerged in the mid-1990s, during a wave of worldwide anti-globalization movements and in the early days of the internet, they seemed to speak a new language than their 1960s style predecessor leftist movements, which brought them global attention despite their very regionally limited sphere of influence. Anyway, the point is that even today you can’t walk 100m without seeing zapatista paraphernalia for sale.
Na Bolom’s beautiful courtyard
Frans Blom, co-founder of Na Bolom, was a member of the Explorers Club. It seems like this would have been a fun club to be part of!
We stayed at Na Bolom, a museum-cum-accommodation founded by a researcher couple who in the 1940s through the 1960s researched, documented, and fought for the rights of indigenous people. It also happens to be a gorgeous place to while away some days, with sunny courtyards, library and a large garden.
Witnessing any movement of a cash transporter, like maybe to fill up an ATM, is a bit of a spectacle to me given I’ve lived my life in places with strong gun control or at least no “open carry” legislation. Even when the truck is in traffic, 2-3 men with shotguns head up the truck to secure the transport. Every now and then we see pickup trucks with people in the back holding shotguns or automatic weapons. If they wear any uniforms it’s unclear what kind. I’ve been seeing a lot of heavy firearms these last few days.
We instantly fell in love with a local coffee shop, Carajillo Slow Coffee. An excellent place that works with local coffee farmers (and also roasts locally) and has been around for 5 years. Naturally there’s also a hipster-ish craft beer place down the street. There’s something about finding these places, so globally similar in atmosphere and style yet so deeply rooted in local craft, that is just beautiful.
With its beautiful cobblestone streets and local crafts, its ubiquitous great, popping colors, and the ever-present fantastic local food there couldn’t be a better place to experience Chiapas.
Mexico’s bus system is excellent. The network is dense, busses are plenty, prices are low. Reserving tickets by app couldn’t be smoother or easier. In the better classes, busses are very comfortable, too. Distances are long and roads windy, though, so the ride from San Cristobal to Oaxaca City would take a some 10 hours. We decide to cheat a little and fly.
We decide to cheat a little and fly one leg.
Back to Tuxtla and onto one of these 30-or-so propeller machines that’s not significantly larger than the luggage tractor. The flight is short, the view of the mountains spectacular.
A little later we’re headed into Oaxaca City, population half a million. The outskirts look so generic we might as well be driving through the sprawl around Miami, but once we’re in the old center Oaxaca welcomes us with beautiful old buildings, lovely galleries and art and design, and more cute and inviting restaurants, bars and coffee shops than we can count.
Balloon vendors at Oaxaca City
Local archeological findings
Tip: Alebrijes, stunning animal figurines hand-painted with incredibly detailed geometric patterns. The high-end ones at gallery Voces de Bocal are jaw-droppingly beautiful.
We visit the workshop of the Jacobo and Maria Angeles where they are made, and end up with a few of our own. The whole village of St Martin makes the them, it’s a half-hour drive or so south of Oaxaca.
A large alebrije in the making.
At this table, alebrijes makers train to gather experience.
Alebrijes are available in various styles and across all ranges of price and detail. I loved the ones by Jacobo and Maria Angeles.
The gallery of J & M Angeles
Part of our haul: This owl from the gallery of Jacobo and Maria Angeles
Tip: Q Tiene is a high-end store for women’s fashion designed and made locally. Designs draw on local traditions but are decidedly contemporary and playful. These dresses would easily work in London, New York or Berlin just as well.
Tip: Ceviche with almond sauce at La Popular.
People watching from the bus
Colors at a local art museum
Monte Alban. The first urban layout in the Americas. An initially Zapotec (later probably also Oltec) settlement, this was the capital of the the region around 400-800 AD (or so), and it is was a distinct state, with a working administration (priests). More importantly to our visit, it’s one of the Americas’ most important archeological sites and event today looks impressive. Situated on a mountain at the intersection of three major valleys, the views from these pyramids go on forever. It’s a magical atmosphere.
At a bus station, the local take on the usual global pop culture franchises.
A seemingly never-ending 10-11h bus ride brings us to San Angostillo (via Puchuctla?), a tiny town – pop 290 – on the Pacific coast of Mexico. It’s gorgeous, a little paradise of one street and one long-term beach. This is as chill as it gets.
One town over, there’s a little more party. Here it’s as laid back as can get, and with good food to boot.
Swimming here is tricky, this coast is full of hard-to-read treacherous currents. But there’s easy, beginner friendly surfing to be had. (An hour north of here, there’s someone serious world class surfing to be had at Puerto Escondido, but I don’t want to die today.)
San Angostillo sunset
Above the break, pelicans lazily swoop along, scanning for easy prey.
An easy 10 min stroll leads to these neighboring town Menzunte. It would be seem to touch cater to more of a laid back party crowd, but Menzunte has a small but important turtle center. This region of Mexico is one of of the largest and most important turtle hatching regions of the world. It’s small and not fancy, but you can learn a bit about different types of turtle and the efforts to protect them hole watching them seem gracefully in aquariums.
Having come down with a bit of a hefty fever, I find myself lying flat on my back on a doctor’s bench in a dark room, staring at a seal-colored ceiling with four circular fluorescent lights. One of them is broken. The paint peels off the walls and ceiling. We communicate through a mix of broken English and Spanish. The doctor uses her iPhone a lot—for translation or for the diagnosis I’m not sure at the time. I shouldn’t have worried: Within moments she’s ruled out all the the dangerous options of my vague mix of symptoms, diagnoses my light infection and gives me all the medication I’ll need. The cost of the whole process, including medication, is under 25 euros.
Beach life grows on me.
Beach life grows on me. If it weren’t for my brief sick spell I’d have oscillated between surfing, snorkeling, reading and drinking fresh limonadas all week long and not have regretted a moment. As it is my activities start out sporty early in the week and as my fever keeps me (as a precaution more than necessity) out of the water I skew more towards listening to podcasts in a shady hammock and reading. On day 3 I subscribe to The Atlantic from my phone.
Tiny airports are the best.
Aeropuerto Puerto Escondido (PXM) is a tiny and excellent airport. It’s a tiny parking lot, a tiny square main hall, and two small gates. We had come to Puerto Escondido earlier in the day to see if the town a bit and ended up having lunch at the beach. From there, taking the cab to the airport, check-in and security – the whole journey beach to airport – took less than twenty minutes.
Landing at Mexico City I confirm a sneaking suspicion: My body adjusts slowly to altitudes. Even if the 2.5K meters above sea level register in my head as a slight buzzing pressure. Note to self.
Accidentally booked this SUV from the airport.
The airport cab turns out to be a huge white SUV. We glide through the night, arriving in true gangsta style. Even with my very, very limited Spanish I understand than the driver non-stop interrogates Michelle about her religious beliefs.
In the center of the historic old town lays Zocala, the central plaza. Presidential palace and the cathedral rub shoulders and it might be easy to miss the maybe most important thing about them: They, and everything else here, is built on top of Aztec temples. And not just any old temples, but the ones that made up the center of the Aztec universe.
The Sun Disc
A giant carved stone, the Sun Disc, was found here and it’s thought to signify the very place where Aztec mythology saw an eagle appear on a cactus, snake in beak: The symbol of the center of the universe and reason the Aztec capital was centered on the this very spot. Today, the symbol of Eagle with snake on cactus is also a the center of the Mexican flag.
The eagle grabbing the snake is part of Mexico’s founding myth.
All of the these temples and government buildings were torn down or built over by the Spaniards and hidden under their own representative edifices: hence the cathedral and presidential palace. Part of templo mejor, the main temple, are excavated and accessible today in a museum. The Sun Disc is on display in the most excellent anthropology museum.
A viewing platform from the LatinoAmericano, a 60s style skyscraper, drives home just how big Mexico City is. With its 25 or so million population and an overall seemingly relatively low build it extends on and on in all directions to the horizon.
Leaving the fever district (Mexican City) to the North you enter Mexico State. Right around the border, a gondola line crosses the highway. It’s an actual transportation system, not for touristic use. The area is a mix of industrial, highway and low cost housing, and around we see the hillsides full of colorful houses. Without the gondolas it’d be tough to get across the thread highways.
Tlacoyos are oval-shaped fried cakes made of masa, stuffed with cooked or ground beans, cheese, fava beans, chicharron or other stuff. Wikipedia describes them as “somewhat torpedo-shaped”, but still pretty flat. We had some made with blue corn flower so that they were a deep purple color. Incredibly flavorful.
Tip: Restaurant La Guapachosa (Av. Oaxaca 31 Local B, Puebla, Foursquare) is an excellent cute little low-key eatery at the very northern tip of Roma Norte. Doesn’t look like much, but oh boy is their slightly-updated take on traditional Mexican food yummy.
Tip: GoodbyeFolk vintage and local designs
The Museum of Anthropology is absolutely worth spending an afternoon in. Learned a lot!
The Museum of Anthropology
The world’s first book, if I remember correctly.
Local craft at the museum shop
Just outside Mexico City, you can find some of the world’s most relevant & impressive pyramids. Don’t miss them!
The pyramid of the sun
We stayed in Roma Norte, a lovely (and by the feel of it, heavily gentrifying) neighborhood that made me feel right at home.
The local coffee shop
We followed the white rabbit, and it led us to a lovely tiny designer store
A local design museum, the Museo de Objeto de Objeto, is lovely and absolutely worth it. When we were there, they had a great exhibition of domestic life—particularly kitchens—throughout Mexico’s history.
A Holy-Mother-Maria tortilla maker
Turns out IBM used to make kitchen scales
There’s excellent sneaker shopping in Roma Norte, too.
Mexico City has lots going on. We spend some time exploring not just Roma Norte and the city’s museums but also Condesa, Zona Rosa, Juarez, Frida Kahlo’s old neighborhood, and others. A few memorable moments:
A day trip to the canal network in Mexico City’s south can be quite nice. It’s pretty aggressively touristy, and the boat trip operators put on quite a hustle, but this mariachi band made it worth the trip.
Colorful houses on the side of a hill on the way to the pyramids
There’s excellent street food all over the city. The little food stalls around larger subway stations are a treasure trove of fantastic snacks. If you’re looking for a slightly fancier setting and/or “upscale” street food/gourmet food, Mercado Roma is pretty good.
Lucha libre? I wouldn’t miss it! The performances are great fun, in a totally over-the-top kind of way. Grab some pop corn and a drink and lean back. It’s like a less polished version of WWF, with great audience engagement. There’s tag teams, yelling, throwing of popcorn, high fives. There are bands, and insults, and chases through the audience. It’s so worth it.
The roles are announced unambiguously up front, and might reference the day’s events: Who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy? There’s never a doubt. When we were there it was the day of Trump’s inauguration, so one of the libradores was waving a trump flag—he was the bad guy. The arena went into a frenzy of booing.
Lots of matches! We were lucky, our apartment was just around the corner of the arena.
Libradores know what their audience wants. This one’s taking photos with a young fan.