Category Archives: Mexico

Showtime! The Day of the Dead Festival in La Paz Mexico

One of the young Catrina competitiors in La Paz, Mexico
The Catrinas and Calaveras of La Paz Mexico Festival Costume Competition
La Paz Mexico is a relaxed and comfortable city that transforms each fall. A creative frenzy takes over before the annual Festival de Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The fishing-village-turned-vacation-spot has hosted movie stars and nobility. It also inspired John Steinbeck to write his novel, The Pearl. No less than Jacques Costeau praised it as a scuba diving mecca perched on the Sea of Cortez. La Paz Mexico also hosts of one of the largest Day of the Dead festivals in the region and the whole city gets involved.
Young women dressed as Catrinas in La Paz, Mexico

Young women dressed as Catrinas in La Paz Mexico

It’s a family affair in La Paz Mexico

On the evenings of November 1st and 2nd throughout Mexico, families and friends gather to remember those who have died. Altars honoring loved ones appear in offices and churches. They overflow with Aztec marigolds, pictures, candles, decorative breads, and personal items. Home altars and cemeteries are central to the celebration in La Paz, Mexico. Generations gather to remember and to teach the young about their ancestors. It’s a festive time reaching back to the Aztec culture which celebrated death as a pleasant after-life with good company and no worries.
An office altar in La Paz, Mexico

An office altar in La Paz, Mexico

Where did the Catrinas and Calaveras come from?

North Amerian and European cultures see death very differently than in La Paz, Mexico. In the ancient Indian culture of Mexico, death is a woman. She’s called la Flaca, la Huesuda, la Pelona or La Catrina (the Skinny, the Boney, the Baldy or the Fancy Lady.) Her presence, bones and all, is welcome as escort leading the dead to join loved ones who’ve already passed and they spend eternity enjoying each others company.
The original Calavera de la Catrina by José Guadeloupe Posada

The original Calavera de la Catrina by José Guadeloupe Posada

Statues and period costumes were inspired by the political illustrations of artist José Guadeloupe Posada (1852-1913.) He satirized the upper classes during the reign of Porfirio Diaz. Since then many versions of the Calaca, the Calaveras or skulls and skeletons, wear fancy clothes. They are portrayed dancing and playing musical instruments with abandon.
The crowd cheers on the performers and competitors at the Dia de Muertos Festival in La Paz, Mexico

The crowd cheers on the performers and competitors.

I’ve visited cemeteries for Dia de Muertos in Tijuana (Read about that here) but was unprepared for the crowds and sweet rituals at the Festival in La Paz, Mexico.
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On the first night of the festival, I joined the crowd at dusk. The periphery of the huge plaza overflowed with displays of altars. Traditional foods filled vendors’ tables while families of all generations mingled at the free event.

Watch the Festival in this short video:

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Even horses are decorated for the La Paz, Mexico Festival

Even horses are decorated for the La Paz Mexico Festival

The night darkened as I walked through the plaza. Onstage a variety of vibrant dance troupes went through carefully crafted choreography. Comedians performed and the emcees kept things rolling. Then, in the crowd, elaborately costumed Catrinas materialized. Silent and regal, they were comfortable posing for pictures and each costume was more elaborate than the next.
The stage competition begins at the Day of the Dead Festival

The stage competition begins at the Day of the Dead Festival

As the night progressed, the stage cleared while emcees introduced a parade of women, men, and young girls. Each strutted across the stage competing solemnly for attention and the judges’ votes. Unfortunately for me, the winners weren’t announced until the following evening. 
A comedian onstage at the Dia de Muertos Festival

A comedian onstage at the Dia de Muertos Festival

One of the many varied dance performances at the Dia de Muertos Festival in La Paz, Mexico

One of the many varied dance performances at the Dia de Muertos Festival

One of the more creative dance performances at the Day of the Dead Festival in La Paz, Mexico

One of the more creative dance performances.

I don’t speak Spanish so the comedians’ performances were lost on me but it was easy to share the crowd’s enthusiasm. No translation was necessary. Also, not many know but I was an actress for years and always loved period costumes. Knowing how much work and commitment it takes to make these outfits and how much energy it takes to “stay in character” in crowds and onstage, made the Festival a deeply, thrilling night!
Royal bearing displayed at the Catrina competition in La Paz Mexico

Royal bearing in a young Catrina. 

The La Paz Mexico Dia de Muertos Festival

  • If you don’t have a car, have a taxi drop you off. When you’re ready to leave, walk a few blocks from the Festival site to the main street to catch a ride back.
  • Free and open to the public.
  • Held on the evenings of November 1st and 2nd every year.

Find out more at these websites:

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Pictures and video are from November 1st, 2017 and taken by Elaine Masters and Dave Rudie.
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The Catrinas and Calaveras compete in La Paz Mexico Pin 1

Time for a beach getaway? Where to stay in Puerto Penasco, Mexico

Palomas beach resort at sunset

Palomas beach resort at sunset

Less than four hours south of Phoenix there’s a dreamy beach getaway that’s mysteriously off most tourists radar. Puerto Penasco, perched on the northern shore of the Sea of Cortez, is an hour south of the US border but a world away from everyday concerns.

Looking into El Elegante crater inside the PInacate Biosphere.

Looking into El Elegante crater inside the PInacate Biosphere.

The drive south takes you through the wild reaches of the Sonoran desert. Twisting Saguaro cactus salute alongside the road. Beyond them, haggle-tooth red peaks dot the horizon. As you approach the city, signs for the UNESCO protected Pinacate Biosphere dot the highway. Striated black, red, and at times green, miles of Biosphere land lean towards craters. Volcanic cones slope up in the distance.

beach resorts on the Puerto Penasco Bay

Then roadside attractions emerge and you spy tall, scattered rectangles – the area’s high-rise luxury, beach resorts. Suddenly you’re in town. There are so many ways to enjoy the region – hikes in the reserve, renting ATV’s, golf, kayaking, tequila tours, nightlife, and a rainbow of dining options but the best beach getaway revolves around the bright blue and lapping sea.

Penasco del Sol Beach Resort Hotel

Penasco del Sol beach resort sign

I stayed at the Penasco Del Sol, a family-friendly, modestly priced, beach getaway. It’s set on the central beach of Rocky Point, a short drive from the fishing harbor and village. During the fall weekdays, the art-filled lobby and central pool area are relaxed and hushed. On the weekends, couples and families meet and stroll through on their way to soak in the tubs, enjoy the waterfall bar and walk the beach.

Tub time inside the Penasco del Sol beach resort

Tub time inside the Penasco del Sol beach resort

On weekday mornings I could walk the beach with only my shadow for company, but on the weekend crowds fan out from a stepped plaza. A half-dozen tents selling swim-suits to water-wings, food carts set up, and strolling musicians saunter through the beach crowds.

Penasco del sol lobby

Inside the beach resort lobby, there’s a curved bar open most of the day and the dining room serves breakfast buffets and menu items, with traditional specials on Sundays. Dinners full of seafood and local specialties are featured on the evening menu. In the mornings the coffee is strong and I always filled my plate with papaya, melons, and chilaquiles. There were eggs, sausages, local and Norte Americano options too.Penasco del sol room

My room was large enough for me to do some yoga before heading downstairs for breakfast and the day’s activities. In the next building over, condos and timeshare owners had their own pool and beach activities.

 

La Palomas Beach Getaway

On my last night, we enjoyed a steak dinner in the La Palomas Beach Resort and the band, Agua de Coco serenaded us with Jazz classics.

 

Palomas Beach getaway view from room deck

A room with a view at the La Palomas Beach Resort

 

Palomas panorama with sea

La Palomas Beach Resort

The Grand Mayan – Luxury beach getaway

About 45 minutes from town is the exclusive Grand Mayan, a Vidanta Resort. The members-only space is laid out with precision along a broad length of the coastline. A Jack Nicklaus Golf Course lies inland from the resort towers. A tempting, lengthy lazy river snakes through the property. Here members own condos and timeshare apartments which allow them to visit the pools and spas, restaurants and services. The spaces inside and out are palatial with expansion slated over the coming years.

One lobby inside the Grand Mayan property

One lobby inside the Grand Mayan property

The most exclusive rooms come with their own soaking pool as well as a jacuzzi steps from the bed in this beach get away.

The top tier rooms come with their own soaking pool as well as a jacuzzi steps from the bed.

The Dream Weaver Hotel

On the afternoon we went into town for lunch we strolled the Malecon and wandered the village. The town is packed with color and tourist shops. Just up a block from the busiest areas are coffee roasters, small galleries and I spotted the Dream Weaver Hotel.

This quirky place was created by host Diane and each room is unique. The courtyard and upstairs patios are full of local art, murals, reed furniture and there’s a view down to the beach below. These are budget accommodations for those interested in basic comfort, cooking options, and the authentic jostling of village life a few blocks away.

Dream Weaver Inn street view

Dreamweaver lower courtyard

Dreamweaver lower courtyard

I can’t believe it took me so long to visit this part of Mexico! It’s a little over five hours from my home in San Diego and about 3.5 from Phoenix. There is an airport but for the time being only charter flights are allowed.

I’ll be writing more soon about the food and adventures we enjoyed. Mexico is forever in my heart and I look forward to sharing this beach getaway with my family and friends.

This journey was made possible by the Rocky Point/Puerto Penasco Tourism Board. Thank you for hosting me. As always, all opinions are my own. Salut!

Penasco sign on beach

Here’s a Pinnable image to share:Beach Resort bliss inside the Penasco del Sol Hotel

Travel Notes & Beyond

Celebrating Baja Wine and Food – A day in the Valle

winemakers and chefs baja wine and food celebration
Baja wine and food makers making merry

Baja wine and food makers making merry

Salud! Glasses and conversation clicked. Three of us were deep into happy hour at Baja Betty’s in San Diego but the talk was all about our travels on the other side of the border. I’m fortunate to live close to Mexico and wander there as often as I can. Not one to skip an opportunity to dine deliciously and commiserate with fellow foodies, the year ended with a spontaneous escape to join a party full of Baja wine and food.

The field behind La Cocina de Dona Esthela

The field behind La Cocina de Dona Esthela

Our van from San Diego rumbled down a dirt road and into the parking lot of Dona Esthela’s Cocina in the midst of the Valle Guadalupe. We tumbled out after the two-hour ride, stretching as we wandered to the backyard, past the small group of men tending to outdoor grills and paused at the field fence where a small cadre of pigs, cows, and geese wandered.

Baja Wine and Food Celebration

Dona Esthela’s is always morphing (Read about her accomplishments in this earlier post.) On this morning several workers were demolishing the old latrines. The new ones, shiny with their fresh tile, were open across the yard just steps from the dining patio. As she has many times over the past decade, it appears that Dona Esthela’s home restaurant is expanding again. It was Monday and the restaurant was closed to the public while a celebration of Baja wine and food was in progress.

Dona Esthela and her Sonoran Chicken

Dona Esthela and her Sonoran Chicken

Beans, Machaca, fresh tortillas, salsa and cheese.

Beans, Machaca, fresh tortillas, salsa and cheese.

Well into the afternoon we were feted with platters of Dona Esthela’s famous machaca, grilled pork, spiced chicken and endless bowls of gravy-like pinto beans to slather over toasty-warm tortillas. Most of us started drinking well before noon. It would’ve been impolite not to! Wine bottles were cradled like favorite sons as vineyard owners appeared in the doorway and were ushered in with hugs and back slaps. Throughout the day they came and departed, their bottles uncorked and prized vintages savored. Soon a chorus line of empties stood near the door.

Pinata fun with Baja wine and food

Largesse brought me there. Fernando Gaxiola, the founder of Baja Wine and Food, is a master at curating experiences. This time he ushered a small group across the border but not before picking up four ‘special guests’ – pinatas – from a house outside of Tijuana’s Zona Rio.

Chef Andrew Spurgin and friends

Chef Andrew Spurgin and ‘friends.’

After our meal, we stepped into the covered patio to swing and cheer as the pinatas were demolished. Surprisingly enough my American compatriots swung hardest. There was no rancor from our hosts about the pinata model. In fact, one of the vintners said,”Kicking Mexicans out of the Napa Valley? Fine, come to the Valle. We have jobs here.”

Spooning on the deck at Cuatro Cuatros.

Spooning on the deck at Cuatro Cuatros.

Sunset at Cuatro Cuatros

The day wore on in sweet companionship then we piled into the van to ride back to San Diego, but not without another treat engineered by Fernando and company. On a hillside above the wide Pacific, through a gated arch we rode into the Cuatro Cuatros property, less than ten miles north of Ensenada. Sunset was racing to its conclusion and soon gilded everyone at the platform bar.

cuatros cuatros sunset

Monte Xanic Especialle

Monte Xanic Gran Ricardo

Cuatro Cuatros tentalows

Cuatro Cuatros tentalows

A few ‘very special bottles’ emerged alongside shots of Mescal. The views from the bar swept south to Ensenada and far north. Not far from where I stood, rows of swanky tents waited for guests to tuck in for the night. I look forward to resting there one day and waking to the sunrise glimmering on the waves below. This time, however, it was reward enough to have my Sentri pass help me cross the border swiftly. I was home in time to share tales of my Baja wine and food adventure with my family before bedtime.

Where to go on a Baja wine and food excursion:
Wineries to visit: (There’s dozens more!)

Thank you to Fernando Gaxiola and his team for making the trip possible. As always all opinions are my own. 

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celebrating Baja wine and food pin

 

 

Visit Rosarito – Beach, hotel and fine dining in Baja Norte

Visit Rosarita Beach at sunset
Visit Rosarita Senorita Archway
Long before it was full of Spring Break beach clubs and taco stands, Rosarito was a glamorous hub. Hollywood stars and U.S. servicemen partied at the few great hotels along the strand. I remember it differently as a kid. We often camped near the beach. I loved playing in the warm water with my siblings, a few feet from my parent’s teardrop trailer. One afternoon my mother had a big pot boiling on the back kitchenette and pulled a steaming red alien from the waters. It was my first lobster, caught by my dad who tagged along with locals. Over the years, each time we would visit Rosarito, the city had new amenities and returning now still excites me.
The beach and tower Rosarita Hotel

The Hotel Rosarito tower from the beach.

Camping has moved much further out of town now but finally I had a chance to visit the historical, Rosarito Beach Hotel. My young parents couldn’t afford the luxury then, but today travelers have the benefit of a generous exchange rate. Whether one of the traditional beach rooms, a villa, a suite in the tower or a visit to the spa, the hotel has managed to retain its historical, Spanish Colonial style while upgrading with all the amenities a visitor could want.
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Here’s a glimpse of a rest stop on the coast route to visit Rosarito:
Today, Rosarito is an easy getaway, less than two hours by car from my hometown of San Diego. It’s fairly simple to drive from the border but I prefer being a passenger and watching the changing landscape. The coastal route along the toll road is my favorite ride south. There’s also an interior road from Tijuana which, while more crowded, is actually shorter. Those not wanting to drive have the benefit of bus and van services too. I left the driving to others on the most recent trip while joining a few friends and enjoyed a pleasant, air conditioned Tiketon shuttle van from the border. Before I knew it, we were walking into the historical lobby of the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
Rosarita hotel lobby
We checked in quickly and walked from the historical side of the property to the newer tower. This is the part of the hotel that I’d often seen from the freeway on trips to Ensenada or La Bufadora. The tower lobby ceiling loomed over us and opened to a tempting, spacious pool and bar. I had to pass on a swim as we were meeting soon for Margaritas and a short tour of the spa.

Rosarita Hotel Margarita

Tower Bedroom Rosarita Hotel

Tower bedroom suite

The hotel is partly condos and members have their own pool – on the rooftop with the best views in the region. On one side is the ocean, on the other the hill country of Baja spreads to the horizon. Beaches stretch as far north and south as one can see. It’s a beautiful spot for a swim too!
The Rosarito Beach Hotel, members only, rooftop pool

The Rosarito Beach Hotel, members only, rooftop pool

Tower lower pool Rosarita Hotel

The view to the Tower pool from my room veranda

The original owner’s home has been converted into the Casa Playa Spa and a private dining space. Above the tiled entrance lobby, guest rooms are now service spaces for massages, facials, body wraps and other services. We learned that booking must be done in the spa itself and not to rely on the hotel desk.

Visit Rosarita Hotel Spa

The original home that now houses the spa and event space.

North of the hotel the beach area is spotted with big dance clubs that still roar to life on weekends but now there are more Mexicans partying than boozy, American college students. Weekends find families on the beach where tables can be rented by the hour, with or without umbrellas. Mariachis and food vendors come to you!
Susannas Restaurant
Dinner at Susanna’s
In the evening we went south from the hotel and stepped through a stone archway for dinner at Susanna’s. Susanne Stehr is a California girl who fell in love with the graceful beach style of Rosarito years ago. A natural interior designer, her restaurant is glowing with color and textures. Chairs are deeply upolstered, charger plates gleam as if in a home dining room and fresh creative dishes are served ‘California Style.’ Favorites include the Citrus Fruit and Sonoma Chicken Salad, Strawberry Salmon and Sonora Ribeye Steak entrees. Appetizers updated from local traditions like Jalapeno Cream Cheese Empanadas and Susanna’s Gourmet Tamales are moist and mild. The wine list overflows with vintages drawn from the famous Valle de Guadalupe wine region not 25 miles away.
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You’d think we would never eat again but the next morning found us in the hotel main dining room for breakfast. So hard to choose from so much! Soon after being seated the table filled with platters of (shredded, roasted beef) machaca and eggs, fluffy omelets, home made sauces and delicious breads accompanied by fresh squeezed orange juice and mugs of aromatic coffee.
Rosarita Hotel Dining Room

Rosarita Hotel Dining Room

Luckily there was time for a walk before returning to the border and we sauntered along the main road, passing cafes and restaurants, night clubs and shops. Across the beach road, neighborhoods stretched up to the main highway. Kids in uniforms walked past quickly on their way to school. There were several churches and more cafes full of locals. Here the village life style still works side-by-side with tourism. It’s a big part of why I love Baja and to visit Rosarito.
A food truck on the main street of Rosarito

A food truck on the main street of Rosarito

When you visit Rosarito enjoy the boulevard full of cafes and shops
Watch the video and subscribe to my YouTube Channel!

If you plan to visit Rosarito:
  • Crossing the International border takes a bit of preparation but recent improvements are making it easier and wait times shorter. Here’s a post about what to expect. I update it often.
  • Transportation around the region from the U.S. – Contact Tiketon for van pick up and prices: 619-428-0011 / To and from the Tijuana airport: 683-8113
  • Rosarito Hotel:  Reservations and questions.
  • Visit the spa: Packages and services by reservation only.  Email: spa@rosaritobeachhotel.com, Tel: 61-4-44-10, ext. 11364
  • Reservations at Susanna’s: 661-613-11-87 / Facebook: Suzsanne Stehr / Email: susanne@susannainrosarito.com / Susannasinrosarito.com

Thank you to our Binational Liason, Juan Arturo Saldaña Angulo with Tijuana Tourism and Convention Bureau and tour organizer, Alexa Williams Meisler. The trip sponsors were the Tijuana Tourism and Convention Bureau and Rosarito Beach Hotel with transportation provided by Ticketon and Turismo Express.

Visit Rosarito Beach Hotel

  weekend wanderlust April 2016

Five casual dining spots serving the best food in Tijuana

Telefonica Gastro Park is the center of where to find the best casual food in Tijuana
Just one of the delireously delicious dishes inside Telefonica Gastro Park

Just one of the delireously delicious dishes inside Telefonica Gastro Park

Ban the thought of filling up on nachos, rice and beans when dining on a budget in Tijuana. You can save the bucks for fine dining, and there’s plenty of that here, and still explore the city through it’s more modest eating establishments. Here are five places with fine brews and some of the best food in Tijuana. You will eat very, very well!

After 9/11 it wasn’t easy to enjoy Tijuana’s culinary scene, but cross-border systems are being stream-lined and now heading over for a day or dinner is becoming simpler. Long before the 1970’s spring break bacchanals in Tijuana, the city was the west-coast Prohibition escape for celebrities and mobsters. During WW2, it was the drinking hole for the Pacific Fleet. Tourism dried up with terrorism fears as new passport restrictions were enforced. Recently innovations have made visiting Tijuana much easier (Border crossing tips here) and cartel business has moved south of Mexico City. The area’s opened up again to its glorious heart – full of feasting and celebrating life through serving the best food in Tijuana.

Dia de los Muertos altar inside the Mercado Hildalgo

Dia de los Muertos altar inside the Mercado Hildalgo

Here’s a few of the fantastico places to find great meals and drinks that will help you save money for shopping and more travel:

The bustling center of Mercado Hildalgo a great place to find the best food in Tijuana

The bustling center of Mercado Hildalgo

1.Mercado Hildalgo – The oldest open marketplace in the central city buzzes with activity every day of the year. It’s most fun to visit during the holidays, when sugar skulls and decorations abound for Dia de los Muertos and other Mexican Celebrations. Fresh fruit, cheeses, cafes and bakeries surround a central parking area where a permanent Chapel rises and seasonal altars rotate below. If you’re courageous, look for roasted crickets or Tequila imbued with rattlesnake!

Eating fried crickets inside Mercado Hildalgo

One adventurous bite! I tried fried crickets – salty, crunchy and delicious!

2.El Taller, Baja Med Cocina – Not far from the Racetrack (now greyhounds rather than horses, and casino.) Their celebrated pizza innovations slice easily with the thin crust and fresh, original ingredients (escargot anyone?!) A bit trendy, the open kitchen and lengthy dining room is often packed.

The entrance to El Taller, Baja Med Cocina

The entrance to El Taller

3. Telefonica Gastro Park – Set up in a large lot at the base of the old Telephone building, this food truck/small business courtyard is packed with fresh, local and creative drinks and bites, many based on traditional recipes. Black Zapote tea anyone? Craft beers, long tables and hammocks make it a perfect hangout for a meal with friends. Save room for coffee and desserts!

Telefonica Gastro Park is the center of where to find the best casual food in Tijuana

 

Humo chef and friend inside Telefonica

Humo chef and friend inside Telefonica

4. Norte Brewing Company – Not everyone enters through the parking garage but it’s easier to manage than finding the Norte Brewing Companyentrance via a narrow passage set deep off Avenida Revolucion. The effort is worth it for the breezy space looks out over rooftops and the beer is stellar. Flavors rotate but inventive beers such as Foreign Club Robust Porter (Nitro y CO2,) Penthouse IPA and the thickly delicious, Sugar Daddy Chocolate Oatmeal Stout just might be on tap. If you’re a true craft beer afficianado, and very lucky, ask about Súpermash, which uses the nugget of the hop flower. The blooms come direct from Rancho Loza-La Casa Del Lupulo, precursors in the cultivation of organic hops in the valle de Guadalupe.

Norte brewing company is one of the best food in Tijuana spots for the casual drinker

5. Hua Huis, Restaurante de Mariscos – Now that the Tijuana airport bridge is open you can walk in and out of the country, airplane reservation in hand, simply enough. It’s a great convenience but you miss visiting Tijuana. Should you be heading in or out of the U.S. at the Otay Mesa border crossing and find yourself hungry, stop at the blue storefront of Hua Huis. The seafood is traditionally prepared as ceviche, grilled, or marinated, and the meats are tender as well. A small bar keeps drinks flowing too.

The modest storefront of Hua Huis Restaurane de Mariscos

The modest storefront of Hua Huis Restaurane de Mariscos

Hua Huis Ceviche Plates

Hua Huis Ceviche Plates

Here’s a brief video on where to find some of the best food in Tijuana:

Where to find the best food in Tijuana for casual diners:
  1. Mercado Hildalgo – The central market isn’t far from the CECUT cultural center in the Zona Rio.
  2. El Taller Baja Med Cocina: Full bar, sauces and salsas, and famous for their Pizza Baja Med
  3. Telefonica Gastro Park: Full courtyard surrounded by food trucks and temporary vendors. Dog-friendly and open to all ages.
  4. Norte Brewing Company: In Zona Centro off steps from Avenida Revolucion.
  5. Hua Huis, Restaurante de Mariscos: Seafood specialties served minutes from the Tijuana Airport

Thank you to our Binational Liason, Juan Arturo Saldaña Angulo with Tijuana Tourism and Convention Bureau. The trip sponsors, Tijuana Tourism and Convention Bureau and Rosarito Beach Hotel. And the transportation provided by Ticketon and Turismo Express.

I hope that you enjoyed this post and will share! Three images to pin:

best food in tijuana bites and brews

Best casual dining for the best food in Tijuana

Best food in Tijuana Telephonica Gastro Park

Tastiest Breakfast Food in the World – Delivering the award

tastiest breakfst at la Cocina de Dona Esthela in the Valle Guadalupe
Tastiest breakfast food in the world - Machaca con Huevos, tortillas, cheese and beans

Tastiest breakfast food in the world – Machaca con Huevos, tortillas, cheese and beans

Merely two hours south of San Diego, deep in the Valle de Guadalupe, sits an unassuming restaurant. Inside platters of marinated, roasted meats vie for attention with griddle fresh tortillas, salsas, grilled nopales and home made cheese. This is the home of some of the tastiest breakfast food in the world and I arrived in time to see it made official. The long delayed award from Foodie Hub was about to be presented to chef Dona Esthela.
La Cocina de dona esthela - The home of the tastiest breakfast food in the world!
Rumbling down a bumpy and dusty dirt road, our van slid into a parking lot populated with cars and trucks. It was midweek and most of the Valle was still deserted. But the crowds are no surprise to the neighbors.
Tastiest breakfast food next door to Lomita Winery in Guadalupe Valley

Lomita Winery, next door to La Cocina de Dona Esthela

On the hill adjacent to Dona Esthela’s sits the sleek slab and arched winery, Lomita. Family owner, Fernando Perez Castro recounts how Dona Esthela’s grew with fondness. Fernando says, “The first time I ate there, I sat at her kitchen table and you felt like you were part of the family, invited to her place. She didn’t have a menu but served what she cooked for the family just before.” Dona has gradually been building her place out, but Fernando says the enduring secret to her success is, “The essence is still the same.”
Step into the kitchen where the tastiest breakfast food in the world is made:

 

Dona Esthela cooked for the Lomita building crew in early 2008, when there weren’t other choices in the neighborhood. Her fate changed when a popular Mexican telenovella decided to use the Lomita winery as their set. Soon the TV celebrities were eating at her table and posting pictures with Dona Esthela, tweeting and bringing their friends to the Valle location.
Dona Esthela and Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Foods plus telenovella stars.

Next to the cash register – Dona Esthela and Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Foods, plus telenovella stars.

In the kitchen of la Cocina de Dona Esthela

In the kitchen with Dona Esthela

Machaca and beans at La Cocina de Dona Esthela

Machaca and beans

Our little group was served a table full of incredible breakfast food. The award-winning Machaca con Huevo won over Foodie Hub contributor and blogger, Scott Koenig, over a year ago and led to the nomination of Dona Esthela’s place. Machaca was once a staple of Mexican cowboys who ate the dehydrated, shredded and fried meat in the early 20th century. At Dona’s Cocina I found the meat moist and full of complex, smokey flavor.
Dona Esthela Cocina tortillas and husband

Pitchers of fresh orange juice and baskets of wrapped tortillas were served by Dona’s husband.

We gorged and drank Baja wines provided by our guide, Fernando Gaxiola founder of Baja Wine and Food. When it seemed we couldn’t eat another bite, platefuls of Hotcakes de Maiz materialized. Dona has taken an American breakfast food and made it uniquely her own with a juicy batter full of fresh corn kernels. No syrup was necessary.
So much more on the menu!
I will definitely find my way back as the menu is packed with so many delicious options and daily specials. What a great day trip beginning with the tastiest breakfast food in the world!
“The secret in the flavor of our food is to cook it with love and care. And to be able to serve it on your table. It’s a joy. Be welcome. Our house is your house!!”
~ Dona Esthela
Dona Esthela, family and friends

Dona Esthela, family and friends

If you go:
  • Directions and location on the unofficial Dona Esthela Facebook page
  • Dirt roads be darned! Follow signs, make sure someone in the car has international GPS, and check out routes before you cross the border.
  • The restauant isn’t open on Mondays but don’t let crowds deter you. Pick up a few bottles of Lomita’s best and sip while you wait.
  • Eat inside unless the patio’s been completely screened. Flies can be a problem.
  • More about crossing the border through Tijuana on my earlier post here.

Proud to be part of these linkups:

weekend wanderlust April 2016

Visiting a magical village on the Tequila Trail

Mural inside Cuervo Mundo on the Tequila Trail
Mural showing the power of the Tequila Trail

Mural in the officially magical Tequila village

The Tequila Trail between Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara rises into the hills past volcanic fields of tumbled boulders. With trucks and bus traffic it can be slow going but looking out the window and ruminating as the landscape shifts is a fine pastime. Soon neat rows of spiked Agave cactus cover the hills. You’ve entered the land where Tequila was born.
Agave fields on the Tequila Trail

Photo courtesy of Visit Mexico

All of the Tequila in the world, about sixty million gallons a year, is produced in this region. In 1978 the “Appellation of Origin Tequila” was instituted. By decree no other agave-based drinks may be labeled as Tequila unless they come from the Mexcian states of Guanajuato, Nayarit, Micoacan and Tamulipas. If you love Margaritas or the sophisticated pleasures of sipping a fine vintage straight up, visiting the Unesco World Heritage Tequila region is a natural fit.
Agave field workers on the Tequila Trail

In homage to the agave field workers

Long ago the native Natua would cook agave bulbs in stone ovens and ferment the liquid. The liquor was called Mexicalli. When the Spanish arrived they added a distillation process and eventually the drink was called Tequila, the name of the area where the best of the best agave was grown.

In the Unesco town on the Tequila Trail
Everything about making tequila is intense. Some would admit drinking it can be too, but I learned just how important process, aging and color are to the experience. My education began along the “Ruta del Tequila,” in the town at the heart of it all, less than an hour from Guadalajara.
The angel of mercy waits outside the church on the Tequila Trail
Stopping in the shade on the Tequila Trail
Spanish-colonial architecture dominates the central plaza with its modest church. An arched colonnade shades shops, bars and restaurants featuring all manners of tequila but my visit focused on Jose Cuervo and the oldest distillery in the Americas, Mundo Cuervo.
A glimpse inside the Jose Cuervo Mundo on the Tequila Trail
Inside Mundo Cuervo on the Tequila Trail
Inside the gracious entry way, patios and sculpture-lined arcades spun off in several directions. There were tasting rooms, banquet rooms, a shop and a media center where we stopped to sit on church-style benches and watch a short film about the process and history of making Tequila. Then it was into the distillery itself. There was no mistaking it for anything but a working factory. The sweet, thick smell of roasting agave permeated everything. Dark corridors opened to stacks of giant agave bulbs waiting for pulping.
Graded agave bulbs wait roasting on the Tequila Trail

Graded agave bulbs wait roasting

The process at Jose Cuervo Mundo on the Tequila Trail
Luckily my small group were led down into the recesses where ancient casks sat behind locked gates. One cask was tapped and soon we were sipping the finest, the ‘Reserva de Familia.’ I’ll be looking for that smooth, sensuous liquid in any Tequila I sip for the rest of my life!
Casks in the basement of Mundo Cuervo on the Tequila Trail

Casks in the basement of Mundo Cuervo

Next we walked a walled pathway to a pair of tall wooden doors. Our host asked me to knock three times and the heavy doors swung open as Mariachis sprang into song simultaneously. Such a sense of drama!
mariachis serenade on the Tequila Trail
Garden Sculpture in Jose Cuervo Mundo

One of the many sculptures in the Jose Cuervo Mundo Garden

lunch is served in Jose Cuervo Mundo
it was the entrance to a private park where tall trees offered shelter from the hot afternoon sun. Tall sculptures dotted the grounds and on the far side of the expanse a table was set for lunch. It was elegant, delicious and hard to leave. We had a train to catch so napping in that gracious space wasn’t an option. Into the town we strolled.
Mural art waits on the Tequila Trail
Soon we joined locals in line at the train station. In a few moments the crowd broke into groups to board the different cars. My ticket was for the premier coach. Instead of benches, we sat at small tables and were invited to sip more tequila. As the steam train sprang to life, we toasted and played drinking games, even a version of bingo with dried corn kernels. On we rolled, past more hills full of the blue-green agave and finally into the grand city of Guadalajara.
Jose Cuervo train waits at the station on the Tequila Trail
Diversions on the Jose Cuervo Tequila Trail train.

Diversions on the Jose Cuervo Tequila Trail train.

There are several ways to enjoy the Tequila Trail. If you can’t make it to the train or village, step into Guadalajara’s Te Quiero Tequila Museum. It’s packed with artwork inspired by the liquor and a gift shop full of temptations. Don’t miss the upstairs gallery. It’s not the Tequila Trail but there, from floor to ceiling, is a another world of Tequila.
bottles in the Te Quiero Tequila Museum

Bottles in the Te Quiero Tequila Museum

Exploring the Tequila Trail:

  • Mundo Cuervo: The visitors and event center of the Jose Cuervo Distillery and Museum
  • La Rojena:  Tours of the flagship distillery, which continues to produce artisainal tequilas after 250 years.
  • La Casa Sauza: Casa Sauza distillery tour centers onthe three Sauza family patriarchs who fought to make tequila what it is today.
  • Central Plaza and the Church of Santiago Pastol: Claim a seat on a bench in the town’s main plaza. It lights up at night and locals lounge with friends.
  • The National Museum of Tequila: Savor the history and the culture of the region
  • Tequila Express Train:  Departs from Guadalajara for a guided tour of the Herradura distillery, lunch at a Mexican hacienda, live mariachis and folk dancing, and of course, tequila.
  • Jose Cuervo Express:  Since 2012, the Jose Cuervo Express travels across the agave landscape with the magic of yesteryear. Departures are Saturdays and from the station in Guadalajara to the Tequila Pueblo Mágico.
  • The Te Quiero Tequila Museum in Guadalajara at:Av. La Paz 2402 esq. Fco. Javier Gamboa Col. Lafayette

Looking for other things to do in the magical town of Tequila? Check out these Itineraries and activities. Here’s a post about more magic in Guadalajara too. 

Thank you, NATJASecretaria de Turismo Estado de Jalisco, the team at Guadalajara Destino Jose Cuervo, GDL Tours and especially, Sofia Velasquez of the Procesa Group for making this a chance of a lifetime experience.

Thank you also, Visit Mexico for pictures, where noted, and references. 

I hope you enjoyed the tour! Please share. Pinables:

Fire mural on the Tequila TrailMural 3 inside Cuervo Mundo on the Tequila TrailStatue in Cuervo Mundo on the Tequila Trail

Day of the Dead in Tijuana – From graveyard to market

Mercado Hidalgo Altar, Tijuana
Tijuana's largest Dia de Muertos altar in Mercado Hidlago

Tijuana’s largest Day of the Dead altar in Mercado Hidlago

In Mexico remembering loved ones during Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is mixed with reverence and ritual. Sugar skulls, flowers, washing gravestones, and family meals are a few traditional aspects. I witnessed and learned, when the Turiste Libre group walked me into Tijuana, although it felt a bit like going to a party where you don’t know the host.

Derrik Chinn, founder of Turiste Libre, Day of the Dead, Tijuana

Derrik Chinn, founder of Turiste Libre, greeting us at the border.

Crossing the border

The founder of Turiste Libre, American born, Derrik Chinn, made everyone feel welcome from the moment we met in the Otay Mesa border plaza, just south of San Diego. He has been polishing the Tijuana tours for years.

The plaza was a maelstrom of action. People of all ilk bustled in and out of the money exchange kiosks and little stores, carrying bags, suitcases, and boxes. Customs officers and border police strolled into the government buildings and sauntered through the plaza at the end of their shifts.

Even with recent upgrades the walk through the revolving border gate hasn’t changed much over the years. Once on the other side, passports are checked and it’s an easy exit into Mexico. Uniformed taxi drivers waited for business at the first street but Derrik guided our group to a pair of decorated, white buses commandeered for the day.

Turiste Libre bus in Tijuana

Turiste Libre bus in Tijuana

Dia de Muertos face painting inside the Turiste Libre Bus

Dia de Muertos face painting inside the Turiste Libre Bus

Tequila shots offered on the Turiste Libre Bus.

Tequila shots offered on the Turiste Libre Bus.

Our itinerary was announced and we were offered fortifying Tequila shots before rumbling off into the Tijuana neighborhoods, far from the tourist ruckus along Avenue Revolucion.

Family gathers inside the Puerta Blanca Cemetery, Tijuana

Family gathers inside the Puerta Blanca Cemetery.

Puerta Blanca Cemetery

In Tijuana the annual Día de Muertos calls for a visit to Puerta Blanca, the oldest cemetery. It’s also the resting place of the unofficial, folk saint, Juan Soldado. His story is controversial but his memory is revered.

Juan Soldaldo altar, Tijuana

Juan Soldado altar, Tijuana

Puerta Blanca Cemetery, Tijuana

Puerta Blanca Cemetery, Tijuana

Grave washers, Tijuana

Grave washers, Tijuana

Relatives lounged at family grave sites. Teenagers scrambled between stones, earning a few pesos for washing away the dust from the past year. Too soon we headed out to the street and off to an adventure of another sort entirely.

Entrance to Mercado Hidalgo

Entering Mercado Hidalgo

Into the Mercado

Mercado Hidalgo is Tijuana’s oldest, open-air market and home of the largest Dia de Muertos altar in town. The bus slipped into the central parking lot of the dizzying marketplace. We had over an hour to wander, shop, sample and watch the Aztec dancers.

Inside Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana

Crowds inside Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana

Shopping in Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana

Shopping in Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana

Aztec Dancers inside Mercado Hidalgo

Aztec Dancers at the central altar

Ave Maria Chapel, Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana

Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana

Inside the Hidalgo Mercado, Tijuana

Inside the Hidalgo Mercado, Tijuana

Tasting fried crickets in Mercado Hidalgo

I had to do it! Tasty, fried crickets in Mercado Hidalgo.

Lunch at El Taller

Shopping stirs the appetite and our last stop was El Taller, a Baja Med Cocina, for a communal meal of Mole Pizza and ‘mucha cerveza.’ The building was originally a screen-printing bodega but its cavernous space has been transformed into a comfortable, dining mecca. The pies, a far cry from the Italian based Mozzarella cheese and oregano style, were served on stands. The thin crust pizzas were piled with meat and a thick, spicy Mole that can only come from hours of tender cooking.

El Taller meal, Tijuana

El Taller meal, Tijuana

New friends were made during our full day of sight-seeing, story-telling, eating and drinking. If only I could say that crossing back into the U.S. was as quick and easy as entering Mexico, but that’s not the case. Too often it means standing in long lines before clearing customs. Lucky for me, I had applied for a SENTRI pass months earlier and the potential ordeal became a leisurely stroll back into the U.S.

Read more border and safety tips in my post about crossing into Mexico.

I’m so grateful to the Mexican people who let us gringos crash their party and it’s wonderful to see more visitors from around the world participate in Tijuana’s Day of the Dead.

If you go:

  • Find out more about Turiste Libre Tours
  • El Taller Baja Med – Much more on the menu than pizza!
  • Listen to my interview with Derrik Chinn on the Gathering Road Podcast
  • To get to Puerta Blanca, walk west out of downtown on First Street. The cemetery is in front of the Z Gas compound and closes at 4 p.m.

Hope you enjoyed the tour. Share on Pinterest!

Day of the Dead Tijuana Pinterest

Visiting Guadalajara – The magical Tlaquepaque Market

Mural in Tlaquepaque, Guadalajara

mural in Tlaquepaque, Guadalajara

Mexico loves holidays and celebrations. Year round there are days devoted to family and music, feasts and remembrances. It’s a mix of history, revolutions won, church holy days and family celebrations. I was lucky to be in Guadalajara for Mother’s Day and to play with the locals.
Tlaquepaque sign, Guadalajara

Tlaquepaque sign, Guadalajara

The art district of Talaquepaque isn’t far from the city center. The name Tlaquepaque derives from Nahuatl and means “place above clay land”. Historically it refers to a large part of the city, but today is focused in a shopping and restaurant area filled with galleries and markets, high and low.
A cobble stone path led me past restaurant courtyards spilling over with patrons. The lilt of guitars, accordions, and singing rose and mixed above quiet groups taking pictures and visiting. Women walked arm in arm, young men strutted with strollers, their broods following, and grandfathers carried babies. Everyone seemed to be eating and shopping. It was a uniquely Mexican crowd. Very few appeared to be foreigners.
dancing sculpture, Guadalajara

The spirit of Mariachi, Guadalajara

The central market, filled with flowers and fruit, cheeses and crafts, was closing as my girlfriend and I crossed the cathedral courtyard. We were on a mission to find something cold to drink and try out the chairs that are indigenous to the area.
Tlaquepaque chairs
The chairs are built of wooden slats criss-crossed to form the base and back. Smooth leather is slung across the seat. We found them near the plaza of El Parian, inside the block-wide arcade. Cafes and bars surrounded a center open to the afternoon sun. A gazebo was crowded with musicians. The vocalist, dressed in ruffled red, worked the crowd, flirting and waving from one table and another.
Singer in El Parian

Singer in El Parian

Before I left the avenue there was just time to walk through the Sergio Bustamente Gallery with it’s beautiful garden and rooms full of whimsical, strange and anthropomorphic creations. The renowned artist was born in Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico, but has lived in Tlaquepaque area since early childhood. Inside was a bright maze full of bronzes and brightly painted sculptures, canvasses and glass cases with fantastical jewelry. It was a little universe unto itself and a magical discovery. I’ve been charmed before by his large public sculptures along the Malecons in La Paz and Puerto Vallarta.
Bustamente Gallery, Tlaquepaque

Bustamente Gallery, Tlaquepaque

As we wandered back to join our group for dinner, we passed an inviting courtyard. It was an entrance to a small, bed an breakfast inn. Hotel Casa Campos was once a convent that has been turned into a guest house. My glimpse of the rooms off the patio convinced me that I’ll have to return and stay there one day.
Casa Campos Courtyard

Casa Campos Courtyard

The day was wearing towards twilight. It was time for dinner and we joined friends at the Santo Coyote cafe. Again the pattern of a modest entrance leading to a large space filled with art, people enjoying food, drinks and music opened to us. You just have to know where to enter!
Santo Coyote, Guadalajara

Santo Coyote, Guadalajara

It was a magical day, warmed by the embrace of all the families enjoying their time together. Guadalajara warmed my heart and I slept dreaming of Bustamente’s mythical creatures twirling with me on cobble stone streets in the moonlight.

Thank you to NATJA and the Tourism authority of Jalisco for organizing this introduction to the treasures of Guadalajara.

Boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta – Petite to palatial luxury

Villa Premiere Hanging Beds, Boutique Hotels Puerto Vallarta, tripwellness
The Cathedral in Puerto Vallarta's old town. Boutiqu.he hotels in Puerto Vallarta. Trip wellness

The Cathedral spire towers over Puerto Vallarta’s old town.

My heart jumps at an opportunity to stay in a unique place on vacation. The little hotels, BnB’s and Villas that have grown out of circumstance and the passion of owners instead of reliance on corporate business plans, inspire me. A big resort is perfect for certain kinds of trips but on a recent visit to Mexico, I found that the boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta are swoon worthy.

Location. Location. Location.
Banderas Bay is post card gorgeous. The Spanish colonial old town district skirts the water and slopes up towards lush green mountains. Tide pools and gentle waves kiss the Malecon boardwalk, with its treasure of fantastical sculptures. Over sixty years the area has been a magnet for expats, artists and film makers.
Tripwellness. Boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta. old and new mingle.

Old and new mingle in Puerto Vallarta.

In the 1950’s director John Huston was mesmerized by the natural beauty – even though originally there was no electricity or running water in the area where he filmed ‘The Night of the Iguana.’ In the film actor Richard Burton´s character declares, “This is Mismaloya, garden spot of the west coast. You will be grateful to me until your dying days for bringing you here. In all of Mexico, there is nothing equal to this.” Burton proved it as the world witnessed his love affair with co-star, Elizabeth Taylor. They married and returned many times to Puerto Vallarta.
Site of the 'Night of the Iguanas,' the John Huston film. Boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta. Tripwellness

Site of the ‘Night of the Iguanas,’ the John Huston film.

One of hotels where the Burtons and friends would dine is still open. The Rosita Hotel is across the street from the Malecon. Originally it was built with only 8 rooms but as it’s grown has retained the original Mexican architecture with tiled floors, archways and fountains. With 114 rooms looking out across the sea, and just steps from the heart of the city, the Rosita Hotel remains a favorite vacation place for visitors.

A room with a view - the Velas Vallarta resort. Boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta. Tripwellness

A room with a view – the Velas Vallarta resort.

While staying in Puerto Vallarta for a writers conference, I had a suite at the Velas Vallarta Resort in the Marina District where a row of towering hotels offer deluxe accommodations and all the amenities you’d desire. The beachfront breakfast buffet was full of temptations, peacocks strolled the grounds and huge iguanas lounged in the sun by the pool. It was a slice of paradise but what lured me to the colonial part of town was an invitation to visit the glamorously eclectic Rio de Rivera Villa Bed and Breakfast.

Rio de Rivera Rooms, Boutique hotels in Puerto Rivera, trip wellness

Rio de Rivera BnB rooms in Puerto Vallarta

The building rises three floors above the street and is directly across from the shallow waters of Rio Cuale about four small blocks from downtown. The original owner, ‘Silver’ Maria Cortez, hailed as one of the world’s top architectural lady designers, spun her magic through a series of suites, each with their own kitchen, sumptuously painted and furnished.
'Silver' Maria Cortez, Founder of the Rio de Rivera Bed and Breakfast , Boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta, trip wellness

‘Silver’ Maria Cortez, Founder of the Rio de Rivera Bed and Breakfast

N.Y Interior designer Billy Baldwin called her eclectic abode “the house of dreams” and since the 1960’s many famous visitors have dreamed there. Others, like the actor Kevin Costner, have relaxed between takes in the suites. Several movies have used the textured walls and antiqued furniture for scenes.
Rooftop pool at the Rio de Rivera. Boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta. Trip wellness

Rooftop pool at the Rio de Rivera.

Today the romantic rooms are lovingly managed by Silver’s grandson, Alejandro. The building with it’s luxuriously painted surfaces takes constant maintenance. Hungarian artist, Christina Molnar, is on-site weekly to update the gold leaf, the textured walls, resurfacing furniture and touching up murals.
Nemi Eco Villa pool. Boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta. Trip wellness

Nemi Eco Villa pool.

Conscious Accommodations
Of all the luxury villas tucked into the hillside around Puerto Vallarta none is quite like the Nemi Eco Villa. The luxurious property has 6 individual bedroom pods in four tiers that hug the hillside in Amapas. Each room has their own expansive ocean and mountain views.  They are completely constructed from re-purposed, sustainable or locally sourced materials.
View from the Nemi Eco Villas. Boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta. Tripwellness

View from the Nemi Eco Villas.

The architects are dedicated to providing an ecologically responsible experience without sacrificing luxury. The 40 foot pool is filled with chemical and salt free water, filtered water is provided for drinking, solar panels keep the lights, as well as the ice-based air conditioners, on. Locally sourced foods fill the tables. Staying at the Nemi (along with a dozen friends!) is high on my bucket list.
Adult only Luxury
Steps from the downtown district the Villa Premiere Hotel and Spa rises above the beach. Over nine years it’s won the Four Diamond Award and in the top ten of the Conde Nast Travel Readers’ Choice Awards. I saw why as soon as I entered. The staff is kindly welcoming, the lobby is filled with art. The meal I had in La Corona was one of the most creative and delicious I’ve ever enjoyed.
Lunch at La Corona inside Villa Premiere, Boutique hotels Puerto Vallarta, Tripwellness

Lunch at La Corona inside Villa Premiere

The pool lies sparkling near a tall Palapa and suspended beds are shaded by palm fronds. I could spend a day there! The suites face the ocean with the afternoon heat tempered by sea breezes. The Master suites are stunning with large patios featuring a private hot tub, lounging area and full kitchen.
Villa Premiere Master Suite patio, boutique hotels Puerto Vallarta, tripwellness

Villa Premiere Master Suite patio

With Mexico being so affordable, returning to spend several days in one of these boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta is high on my bucket list. Where will you be staying ?
Elaine fools around on the Malecon. Boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta. tripwellness

Fooling around on the Malecon. Sculpture by the artist, Bustamante.

Proud to be a partner with these blog networks. Visit their sites for more travel news and stories.

  

Swimming with Whale Sharks – Cancun Edition

Whale shark feeding.

Galapagos Whale Shark

Cancun sits like a string of pearls along the Yucatan peninsula. The waters are brilliant shades of blue, beaches are perfect for strolling, and sunsets legendary. It’s what lies beneath the ocean’s surface that many find most exciting. That’s where I went swimming with whale sharks while boating off the coast of Isla Mujeres just outside of Cancun.

The massive creatures return to the Cancun area each year between May and September. Their name is somewhat misleading as they are related to sharks yet are filter feeders. They’re in the Cancun waters to gobble up plankton while repeatedly swallowing gallons of water into their gaping mouths. The mouths seem intimidating when you’re swimming close but as long as you keep your distance the encounter is perfectly safe.

Chuck Nicklin filming a Whale Shark

Chuck Nicklin filming a Whale Shark.

For most swimmers the idea of being a few feet from a feeding behemoth is daunting but the fear soon evaporates when you go with an experienced tour guide. There’s no guarantee that you’ll see the sharks either. We took a boat from Isla Mujeres early on two consecutive mornings, planning to wait through the day to find them. One day was filled with the fish, the next very few showed up.

It’s a long boat ride and sometimes rough. For that reason motion sickness medication is advised and take it before you get on the boat. For those of us lucky enough to avoid motion sickness, I’ve found having a mild and filling breakfast helps immensely. Waterproof sunscreen and reapplying it several times through the day is important. A hat helps – but bring one that won’t fly off as the boat speeds towards its destination. Other than that tour operators usually bring water, soda and a light snack, especially if they know you’ll be out for most of the day. They’re there to help you and always appreciate tips at the end of the trip. Safety for you and especially the whale sharks is paramount for the tour operators in the area.

Guidelines for swimming with Whale Sharks include:
  • No more than ten people per boat
  • Buddy-system swimming – only two people allowed in the water at the same time.
  • No flash photography is allowed.
  • No touching or pestering
Whale shark feeding.

Whale Shark feeding. Photo: Tripwellness.com

Several ways to get close to the whale sharks from Cancun:
EcoColors Tours – fourteen years of experience and awarded Mexico’s Best Nature Tour by the Ministry of Tourism for their ecotourism, adventure tourism and environmental training.
Take the Cancun Ferry to Isla Mujeres and catch a whale shark tour with Ceviche Tours. They also operate under strict quality and sustainability standards. They’ll pick you up in Cancun, the Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen.
Celebrate all things whale shark-ish at the 8th Annual Whale Shark Festival.

In 2015 the festival, held July 18-24, includes an exhibition about the island, traditional dancing and delectable food. Stay at a nearby Cancun hotel and settle in for the fest. The festival benefits the Blue Realm Project and Amigos de Isla Contoy, two groups dedicated to conservation and education about marine life and ecotourism in the Mexican Caribbean.

If you enjoyed this, here’s more about swimming with Whale Sharks on the Pacific side of Mexico in the Sea of Cortez.

Written as part of the Hipmunk City Love Project.
 

Visiting Tijuana – Treasures of culture and food

Mural inside Caesars. Daytrip to Tijuana. Tripwellness.
Mural inside Caesars. Daytrip to Tijuana. Tripwellness.

Mural inside the famous Caesar’s Restaurant and Hotel. Photo: Tripwellness.

Most Mexican cities wrap around a main square. A church sits on one side and municipal buildings on others. That’s not true for Tijuana – which makes it an intriguing place for visitors from both sides of the border. Where is the there there?

It’s flung across the city from the Playa to the new airport, from the circling gate you walk through at the border to the southern reaches where roads lead to the Valle or coastal villages.

Visiting Tijuana is like a treasure hunt.

You may need a guide, a knowing friend, but certainly a good map to point to and a smattering of Spanish phrases to help your explorations.

Here’s some suggestions centering on a few more traditional and historical remnants of the city. In upcoming posts I’ll explore more recent trends in food and play.

Tijuana Cultural Center, Tijuana Day Trip, Tripwellness

Tijuana Cultural Center. Photo: Elaine J. Masters

One strategy is to visit the Tijuana Cultural Center first and move on from there to other neighborhoods. The wide galleries, theaters, fountains, plazas and architecture form a vibrant, proud heart for the city.
Tijuana Cultural Center courtyard. Tijuana day trip. Tripwellness

Tijuana Cultural Center courtyard. Photo: Elaine J. Masters

If you’re lucky a festival will fill the outdoor area with tents and food. A towering, central globe houses an Imax theater with state of the art technology. Many of the live performances, from theater to Opera and pop stars,  are free. The Center features historical artifacts from the Indian ages, a 1/4 sized Spanish Galleon to re-created arches from the heady Casino days. Special exhibits open eyes to new visual arts.
Fountain from the original Agua Caliente Casino. Day trip Tijuana. Trip Wellness

Fountain and photo from the golden days of the Agua Caliente Casino.

Outside a petite Aquarium full of Baja sea creatures is set alongside the Botanical Garden. Authors speak, musicians play and children create art in workshops throughout the garden. The Cultural Center offers a full immersion in the spirit of the region.
Mariachi family. Day trip Tijuana. Tripwellness.

Mariachi family playing on Sunday morning in Santa Cecilia Plaza. Photo: Tripwellness.

That rarefied  atmosphere may leave you literally hungry for more and the famous foods of the area are abundant in the Zona Centro district. In Santa Cecilia Plaza, a block from the towering downtown arch, you’ll find a walking lane crowded with restaurants and shops. There are families of Mariachis, dancers and lots of shopping. When I visited there were very few gringos to be seen.
Michoacan stew at La Tradicion. Day trip Tijuana. Tripwellness

Michoacan stew served in a Molcajete at La Tradicion. Photo: Elaine J. Masters

La Tradicion has a large, shaded patio and serves some of the best local fare. Try the Michoacan Stew and don’t fill up before dipping fresh tortillas in the juices gathering in the bottom of the Molcajete. Around the corner is the home of the Caesar Salad. While Caesar’s has changed locations along the boulevard over the years you wouldn’t know it.
The bar and service are first class inside Caesars. Day trip Tijuana. Tripwellness

The bar and service are first class inside Caesars. Photo: Tripwellness

The walls are filled with pictures of famous visitors, paintings are set into ornate frames and chandeliers pose overhead. The bar is long, carved and its wood burnished darkly. An impressive, classic Italian espresso machine (no longer working) looms over the bartender. A new machine springs to life on demand nearby.
Caesar salad ingredients at the ready. Day trip Tijuana. Tripwellness.

Caesar salad ingredients at the ready. Photo: Tripwellness

The service is courtly. Your salad will be prepared table side and the menu features many specialties. Don’t leave before you study the history on the walls.
Inside Pasaje Rodriguez. Day trip Tijuana. Trip Wellness.

Inside Pasaje Rodriguez. Photo: Trip Wellness.

Take a walk and explore several passages in the area. During Tijuana’s long ‘dark night’ the arts struggled when tourist  dollars dried up and young artists took over Rodriguez Alley with their music, murals and food. You can find Pasaje Rodriguez running from Av. Revolucioon to Av. Constitucion between Calles 3era and 4ta in Zona Centro.
El Popo market. Day trip Tijuana. Trip wellness.

El Popo market. Photo: Tripwellness.

A market Pasaje that is more traditional is El Popo, located at the corner of 2nd St and Ninos Heroe. The stacks of cheeses, fruits, santeria statues and candles, will have your senses reeling.
Guayabera shirts at Hand Art.

Guayabera shirts at the Hand Art shop. Photo: Tripwellness

If you were looking for a quality shirt or blouse there is a shop (Ave Revolucion 931 A between Third and Fourth Street) where the owner, Jack Doron, will point out the best details for choosing a man’s Guayabera, a woman’s blouse or dress. He’s been doing so since 1955. With luck he’ll show you his collection of sculptures in the back.
Hand Art owner and part of his sculpture collection

Hand Art owner and part of his sculpture collection. Photo: Tripwellness.

The light is dimming but you wonder what’s left of the glory days when Hollywood royalty would gamble and drink at the casino in the 1920’s?  Do the locals still go there to play? There are several casinos but the largest, the original site of the Agua Caliente Casino and Racetrack, still stands. It’s a date night or business destination with restaurants, lounge acts and bars. Greyhounds run on a portion of the original horse track into the late evening and a new, modern stadium looms nearby. The casino’s a swank, teeming place but there’s no glint of the original Art Deco glamour.
Remnants of the old casino days inside El Museo

Remnants of the old casino days inside El Museo. Photo: Tripwellness.

Your scavenger hunt could end downtown at an unassuming, corner bar and restaurant, El Museo Restaurante (Avenida revolucion 506.) Just past the tables on the street look up at a grand, pale green light fixture. It’s a relic from the original casino.
 The rattlesnake tequila at  El Museo. Day Trip Tijuana. Trip Wellness

Line up the shots! The rattlesnake tequila at El Museo. Photo: Tripwellness

While tourists and revelers order Margaritas, notice the glass cases. Peer into pictures and wander to the back dining room where memorabilia from the original casino days has found a dusty rest. El Museo probably houses the largest, remaining public collection from the original decadent days.
All is not lost. Before you head back across the border or to your hotel, toast to the old and new Tijuana. For luck try a shot of tequila from the bar top tureen with it’s coiled, marinated rattlesnakes. If not, the Margaritas are delicious. Salut.
If you go: 
Hand Art – Quality traditional clothing.
El Museo – Restaurant and bar with remnants from the old Casino
Agua Caliente Racetrack and Casino – History and location
Hotels:
The Grand Hotel – in Zona Rio
The Placio Azteca – Near Agua Caliente Casino
Thanks for the tour and tips from Senor Juan Saldana and the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau
                                               

Crossing into Tijuana – Border tips, safety and fun

Tijuana Cultural Center, crossing to Tijuana
Tijuana Cultural Center, crossing to Tijuana

The Tijuana Cultural Center has events, exhibits and performances year round.

Updates to this post are ongoing as border improvements for crossing into Tijuana are underway.
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I’ve been in love with Mexico since I was a child. My parents would think nothing of crossing into Tijuana to camp on the beaches outside of town. That was long before it became the Spring Break debauchery capitol, before the recession, before 9/11 and the drug violence turned tourists away. Times have changed and over the past five years, Tijuana has become safer to visit than many American cities. I’ve been walking across the border to dental clinics, taken a bus to Dias de los Muertos celebrations, and crossed for weekend explorations with friends. There’s a renaissance going on and it’s close – a simple walk or drive across the border.
“It’s actually been safe to go to Baja California for the past five or six years.”
David Stark, USD Political Science Professor and part of the University of San Diego’s 2014 Justice in Mexico Report.
The University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico report, published annually since 2010, shows that violence has declined for the third year in a row. There are still hot spots of concern far south of the California border where drug cartels persist, but the border near San Diego is safe. Travelers just need to be smart, be prepared and that should be nothing new. If friends say they’re worried about you visiting Mexico ask them: Should tourists stay away from California because there have been riots in Ferguson and Baltimore? Are there neighborhoods and times in your home town where you wouldn’t feel secure?
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Tijuana today is safe again for visitors. The rich history, Baja Med and regional cuisines, the color, music and sweet people of Mexico are waiting our return. (Read more about the food scene in Tijuana, Day of the Dead Celebrations and other cultural adventures.)
Dancers on a Saturday morning in Plaza Cecilia.

Dancers on a Saturday morning in Plaza Cecilia.

After 9/11 Americans stayed home. Borders once porous became narrow siphons. For Tijuana and the beach communities there was a huge shift. Vacationing families and hordes of underage teens could no longer simply drive back and forth across the border with only their drivers licenses. Once passports were required and were rigorously checked, traffic at the border slowed and long lines became the new norm. That is improving. Tourists are most welcome.
Tequilla tasting inside the classic Dandy del Sur.

Tequilla tasting inside the classic Dandy del Sur.

Today it’s simpler to get into Tijuana and back. Preparation is key.

Sentri Pass / Ready Lane

With so much culture less than an hours drive from San Diego it makes sense to apply for a Sentri Card for pre-approval and walk or drive quickly across. The Ready Line medical passes are no longer available. (Too many counterfeits, a customs officer told me.)

Which crossing to use: San Ysidro or Otay Mesa?

Getting into Mexico is usually swift. On your return, if San Ysidro wait times are horrendous, it’s simple to take a taxi or drive to Otay Mesa about five miles away. Traffic is usually lighter there for border walkers and drivers. See the App notice below.

Walk across the border into the Tijuana Airport!

The bridge into the Tijuana Airport is completed. Now anyone with a ticket in hand for flights leaving within 24 hours may purchase a bridge pass and walk into the Tijuana Airport. Flights around Mexico and South America are simpler to access (and often less expensive) than flying from within the U.S. Cross Border Express site often runs discount specials and parking advice.

Inside La Tradicion Restaurant in Tijuana.

Inside La Tradicion Restaurant in Tijuana.

Border crossing options: Walking across the border

New PED WEST Crossing – July, 2016

Tijuana: Walking across

  • Take the Trolley (Blue Line) to the last U.S. stop at San Ysidro and walk across. Check that the trolley is running late enough on the day you cross to return. Option: Park at the H Street ‘Park and Ride’ lot, take the trolley to the border and if the trolley isn’t running on your return, take a taxi from the border to your car in the lot.
  • Walking in documentation has changed. Carry your passport, even if you have a SENTRI Pass. Your passport will be stamped when you enter Mexico. When crossing back into the US you only need a SENTRI Pass or Passport.
  • How long it takes to walk into the US is in transition. The good news is that lines are being reduced. Much depends on day of the week and what time of day. Wish I could give you a formula but it varies.
  • Ped-West Bridge: At the time of this writing, everyone walking back into the US needs to cross on the new, Ped-West bridge. It’s about a kilometer, so be prepared for the lengthy walk. I’ve seen people overheating and unprepared, plus there is no place to sit and rest.
  • The pedestrian crossing going south, at ‘Puerto Mexico,’ near MacDonald’s at the end of the San Diego Trolley, is open to about 1/3rd of the old capacity (Oct. 2016.) Wait times vary daily. The improved Customs building is air conditioned and pleasant.
  • Don’t carry heavy items and risk overheating. Roller-bags help. There are often gentlemen at the Ped West bridge as well as entry to Mexico side who are happy to shuttle your luggage. Negotiate payment before you hire them.

Otay Mesa:

  • Park near the Otay Mesa crossing and walk across the border to the line of taxis. How long the walk takes changes with upgrades and wait times, walking distances are affected by construction. Improvements are happening quickly. Taxi into town (about 10 minutes) or to the airport (about 5 minutes.)
  • Stroll across the airport bridge. This is a private bridge and requires a fee but it’s a simple walk directly into the airport. You must have an airplane ticket for a flight within 24 hours to use the bridge. Parking lots are accessible on either side of the border.
Driving across or parking at the border – Directions

San Ysidro:

  • Be sure to get Mexican Insurance before you drive across the border. There are insurance stands near the parking lots or you can research online for the best price.
  • San Ysidro, one of the busiest border stations in the world, has new lanes opening going in and out of Mexico, making crossing quicker and more secure. The auto crossing lanes leaving Mexico at San Ysidro are often reduced due to construction, which is slated for completion in 2018.
  • Drive south on freeway 5 or 805 and exit at the last USA exit.
  • Parking: Park at the UAENO lot or Border Station lot, then walk across the new bridge to cross the border. It’s about a 5 – 10 minutes walk to cross. The Border Station Lot has a free pedicab available but you need to call and reserve a seat.
  • Park in one of the lots next to the trolley border crossing (behind the Jack in the Box or another lot in that area.) Prices run from $8 to $15 U.S. a day.
Otay Mesa:
  • Drive south from San Diego on the I-5 or 805 freeways to the 905 highway going east. Follow signs to the border or take the last US exit for parking. Highway 125, north/south, also ends at the border crossing. Once you have Mexican car insurance, drive across the border.
  • Drive across at Otay Mesa and park at the Tijuana Airport (a large, new and secure lot) and walk into the terminal.
  • Parking: Lot prices vary with proximity to the border. There is some street parking. The further lots have shuttles.
Quickest way to get back into the U.S.? Check the App or website.
When you’re heading home from Tijuana or Baja it helps to know what the wait times are for returning to the States. Check this site to find out the best times and days to cross.
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There are several Apps that will let you know which crossing is fastest crossing, either San Ysidro or Otay Mesa. They’re available for Android or Apple phones.
Set up your Tijuana itinerary with these resources
  • Lots of links for crossing the border of Tijuana from the United States.
  • Before you travel between the U.S. and any foreign country, visit the United States State Department website. It contains the most up-to-date requirements for documents when traveling abroad.
Every effort is being made to keep this post up to date, but is not guaranteed now that the border improvements are underway. Help me keep it current and comment below on what you’ve experienced. I look forward to hearing from you.
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Viva Mexico!
Thanks to the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau for introducing me to more of the city and region. All opinions, as always, are my own.

 

 

Diving Cenotes of the Mayan underworld

Diving Cenotes, Nancy DeRosa, Trip Wellness
Diving Cenotes, Trip Wellness

Preparing our descent. Photo – Dave Rudie

Ever since I first stood on the lip of a Cenote, the entrance to an underground river in the Yucatan, I longed to explore them. Once on a day trip from Cozumel, we followed a sign off the main road that pointed to an entrance.

A large ring of rock and vine gaped open in the jungle.

Within minutes we were peering into a wide, round pit and then followed stairs down to a platform. The water was still and dark yet as our gaze followed the glassy surface we could just spy light beaming in from the distance. Sunlight had pierced the limestone overhang just enough to illuminate a passage. We weren’t prepared to swim towards it but in that moment diving Cenotes rose to the top of my bucket list.

The underground rivers lace the jungle landscape south of Cancun and far to the west. For aeons rainfall has been sinking through fissures to underground aquifers, filling caverns and networks of caves. Mayans felt that the entrances were sacred and built their villages, their temples, near these sources of fresh water.

640px-Cenote Chica

Cenote Xtoloc en Chichén Itzá” by Salhedine – Own work. Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License via Wikimedia Commons

Many visitors to the region see their first Cenote at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Chichen Itza. The Spanish named, Sacred Cenote sits on the north side of the complex. According to post-conquest notes, the site was used for sacrifices and offerings. Bones of children and adults have been excavated from its muddy depths, along with many artifacts confirming that visitors from across the Americas made offerings there.

The place is surrounded with myth and legends. Local guides will speak about mysterious deaths for those foolhardy enough to fall in. Truth? I’m not sure but the stories chilled my interest to explore. I also had no desire to disturb the rain gods or the mischievous creatures known as aluxes, mythical guardians of the jungle.

Recently I returned to the northern Yucatan and made reservations at Villas DeRosa to stay near Akumal, one of the first Cenotes available to gringo divers. Aquatech Dive Center was founded by our host, Nancy DeRosa, who bought beachfront property there in the 1980’s. After exploring the rich reef life she and then husband, Tony, were introduced to the underground rivers and began mapping what they could. Interest has exploded since then with the theme park distractions of Xcaret, Xplor and Xel-Ha which draw tourists from Cancun and Playa del Carmen.

Diving Cenotes, Nancy DeRosa, Trip Wellness

Photo of Nancy DeRosa by Lia Barret

Listen to the Interview. Nancy DeRosa talks about discovering the Cenotes and life on the Riviera Maya.

Hear more stories of intrepid travelers on the Gathering Road Podcast.

 

The resorts may be fun but I wanted more authenticity; to dip into quiet waters with a guide and not trail along with a crowd of divers. Akumal gave three of us that opportunity. We set off from our small hotel and soon drove into the jungle to set up near the entrance. As the entrances are yards below the jungle’s surface we had to put on all our gear and climb down stairs to dive. Ocean water along the coast is bathtub warm, but the rivers are often 20 or more degrees colder, so we tugged wetsuits on and trudged down to the rocks below.

Cavern diving takes only an open water certification. You’re always within sight of rays creeping through the undergrowth to meet the surface where they bend and dip. Cave diving on the other hand takes hours of training and special gear. It’s not for the faint of heart. My family group was interested in just a taste of underground diving, so after going over safety precautions, signals and best practices with our guide, we slipped into the cool depths.

Josh Masters, Diving Cenotes, Trip Wellness

Josh Masters taking a break in the Akumal Cenote.

For over an hour we carefully swam past stalactites and fossils. We marveled at vines dipping past us from dozens of feet above. There was no sign of the mischievous, mythical aluxes, only a few small fish near the light. The water was spectacularly clear. It looked like we floating unless we moved through haloclines, vertical zones, where fresh and salt water mixed in blurry undulations.

diving cenotes, trip wellness

Elaine Masters surfaces inside the Cenote.

We surfaced in a few caverns to look for bats and passed ages-old towers rising from the depths, skimmed over sunken boulders the size of cars and followed the guideline back to our embarking point.

It was a relatively easy dive. We never went lower than about 45 feet and rose chilly into the steamy jungle air, thrilled by the adventure. If the idea appeals to you, it’s simple to snorkel through cenotes at the resorts mentioned above or join a guided tour to more natural locations.

If you are interested in diving Cenotes:

 

  • Contact one of the many dive guides in the area. We worked with Aquatech, the original Cenote diving center.
  • Rent a car to explore the region. Public transportation is irregular and the Cenotes can be down long, incredibly hot roads that you wouldn’t want to wander alone. The main roads are well maintained and traffic is usually light. We found many reputable car agents in Playa del Carmen. Watch out for the Topes, speed bumps!
  • Be prepared to pay entrance fees. The accessible Cenotes are on private land and charges are usually nominal per person. If you’re with a tour group, entrance fees are included.
  • Safety is the first concern when exploring a Cenote. Many people have been trapped, lost or suffocated due to poor preparation or accidents. Do not explore without a certified guide and carefully follow their instructions. The rest of diving Cenotes is easy.
  • Check out the encyclopedic book, Cenotes of the Riviera Maya, by Steve Gerrard, one of the first to explore the underground river systems in the 1980’s. A new version is due out soon. He still leads dive groups in the Yucatan

This post is linked up with Travel Photo Mondays – follow the link for some great pictures from other travel bloggers.

Surviving a hurricane – When family vacations turn into disaster

hurricane odile, family vacation disaster, trip wellness, elaine j masters
Autumn and Adam Bremmer with their babies, trip wellness, elaine j masters

Autumn and Adam Bremmer with their babies Christopher John and Emmett – with thanks to Kelci Parks of the Fort Bragg Advocate.

Expecting a relaxing seaside vacation, Autumn and Adam Bremmer took their two toddlers and ventured to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for a long birthday weekend.

What they encountered stretched their survival skills and endurance as they struggled to stay safe, escape the devastation and get home.

Most family vacations never encounter these challenges but you’ll hear the whole story in the podcast interview below.

Hear the full story on the Gathering Road Podcast:



Want to listen on your MP3 player? Click here to download…

Hear more travel stories of adventure, courage and wanderlust each week on The Gathering Road Podcast. Also available on iTunes and Stitcher.

Tips to ride out a hurricane:

  • Make sure that your room is away from the waterfront and the open sea.
  • Avoid flooding by staying in an upstairs room
  • Pack the mini fridge with ice and turn the cold temp down as much as possible to keep food cold should electricity fail.
  • Stockpile water bottles and fill the bathtub with water for emergency use.
  • Close curtains and lock glass doors and windows.
  • Pile furniture against the curtains and windows.
  • Travel with close-toed shoes in case you need to walk through polluted water.
  • Help your neighbors – It will help avoid panic and reduce risk of other social unrest.
  • Always pack your medicines and necessities in plastic baggies. Have them ready to grab should you need to evacuate quickly.
  • Travel with an LED flashlight and make sure it’s charged.
  • Charge up all electronics well before the storm hits.
  • Carry extra baggies and pack one with toilet paper.
  • Carry protein bars, nuts and dried fruit in a baggie to keep energy up until meal time whenever traveling.
  • Keep your distance from animals that may be hungry, sick or injured unless you’re prepared and trained to help them.
  • If you find transportation, make sure they have fuel to get you to a safe place or airport.
  • Consider bringing a satellite phone and solar battery charger to more remote destinations.

More tips for disaster preparedness for drivers on this Trip Wellness post

hurricane odile, family vacation disaster, trip wellness, elaine j masters

Adam carries baby Emmet outside as the flood waters start to recede.

Help the recovery:

There’s lots of ways to help the recovery in Cabo San Lucas. Make a donation to a reputable charitable organization such as:

RedCross.org and you can read about their work in Mexico here.

Wavesforwater.org – Project Odile

Living Life Elevated.com – different charities and relief efforts to join

Look for donations centers for clothes, baby supplies and canned food perhaps instead of just sending money.

hurricane odile, cabo recovery, tripwellness

The clean-up begins.

Follow the disaster

Your tourist dollars will make a huge difference in recovery efforts and you’ll stretch your travel budget too. If you’re able join the relief effort and volunteer in the rebuilding it would make any family vacations unforgettable and fulfilling.

hurricane odile, cabo san lucas recovery, trip wellness, family vacations

Spa Time in the Riviera Maya – Cancun, Isla Mujeres and Chichen Itza

privilege aluxes cabana, isla mujerestrip wellness
Chichen Itza temple, trip wellness

Chichen Itza temple

Hot rocks, Mayan therapy and deep tissue relief

I haven’t been much of a spa gal. Late to the party, I’m determined to catch up with the many experiences and benefits that working spa time can bring to a busy life and especially while traveling.

Vacations offer a perfect opportunity to indulge while there’s more discretionary time away from work. You may also receive the greatest health benefits when you’re away from the pressures of a bustling schedule. Your body may be more open to healing and release.

Here’s three spa experiences that have made me a believer in the benefits of a spa treatments.

The Privilage Lux Hotel – Isla Mujeres

sea walls mural, whale shark, isla mujeres, trip wellness

Sea Walls murals with Whale Shark

After mornings snorkeling and swimming close to Whale Sharks in the waters close to Isla Mujeres, I returned to our lodging tired and happy, facing nothing more than an afternoon of leisure. Nothing was planned for hours except joining our loose knit tribe in the lobby to scout out dinner in the village streets. It didn’t take much convincing when my partner suggested that we see if there were openings for massage in the hotel spa.

privilage cabanaI was fortunate to book a session in the small bungalow that stood near the reflecting pool on the hotel grounds. It was open to the elements and sleekly styled in teak. I signed in at a desk that faced a bank of bamboo and was led to a small, fragrant room.

Even though my masseuse didn’t speak much English, she was a master in the language of muscles and sinew. She soon found the exact places where I chronically hold tension in my upper back. Expert fingers worked my spine and within moments I was floating in a blissful space between sleep and wakefulness. I enjoy deep tissue work, knowing it has the greatest benefit for my twisted muscles, so she leaned in with relish. With a slight hand gesture I was able to tell her when to lighten up and delighted sighs relayed my pleasure as the oil, aromatherapy and quiet music lulled me to the end of our session. It was the anecdote to an ailment I hadn’t realized had been hampering my spirit.

The Fiesta Americana, Coral Garden Beach Resort – Cancun

Fiesta Americana , Grand Coral Beach Cancun, trip wellness

Fiesta Americana , Grand Coral Beach Cancun

A research trip brought me to the elegant, towering Coral Beach Resort. Over several days my small group sampled the cuisine of the region at a handful of restaurants and hotels in the area. The work was pleasant and our schedule light enough for a morning retreat in the spa.

One of the resorts’ highlights, the spa fills the fourth floor with many rooms and features. I was led from the gift shop/ registration area, quietly lit and full of beautiful jewelry and sculptures made of natural stone, up a wide stairway to the changing rooms. Instructed to wear swim suits throughout, it truly made the experience simpler than managing towel wraps and robes.

Grand Coral Beach Cancun Resort Spa

Grand Coral Beach Cancun Resort Spa

I was led through a series of steam rooms and saunas, given cold-pressed coconut oil and aromatherapy, instructed on how and when to use cold sprays and was ultimately led to a large room with a variety of Jacuzzi and pools of varying temperatures. It was a meditative experience as there was nothing to consider or ponder; the sound of water and the simple pleasure of being soon stilled my churning mind.

In the last segment I was instructed to walk through a cool, winding trough where the water rose to my knees. A soft layer of river stones massaged the soles of my feet with every step and finally I was led to a spacious room where a series of spouts and fountains were arranged in an Olympic-sized, rib-high pool. It was the first coed spa experience. Hushed tones rose from a murmuring group of men and women who wandered between the different water features. It was a time of coming out from the meditative experience and visit, or to simply enjoy the wide open space textured with wood and stone, softly lit by enormous windows floating above the rest of the city. I felt like royalty to the end when we rested, drinking flavored waters before returning to our lockers and the real world.

Fishy feet

Fish spa at the Grand Coral Beach Resort Cancun

Fish spa at the Grand Coral Beach Resort Cancun

Once our work in Cancun concluded I had a morning to myself. A year ago a friend had gone to a spa in Hong Kong where her feet and shins were massaged after a tub of small fish nibbled away dead skin. I was delighted to discover the same service was available in the Coral Beach Resort and booked a session in the salon for a treatment.

To say that sitting with your feet in warm bubbling water while a horde of tiny fish swirl between toes and gently tug at heels is anything but odd would be deceiving. It tickled! This was no meditative experience – you can only be alert with your feet in fish bowls of hungry minnows. They seem happy with the work, are raised locally and managed by size, guaranteeing your safety. It was an experience I’d repeat and left my feet soft and clean. It felt like I was floating later while doing a little souvenir shopping before leaving for the airport.

Hacienda Chichen Itza lobby

Hacienda Chichen Itza

Mayan Rituals in the shadows of Chichen Itza – The Hacienda Chichen

One of the loveliest hotel experiences I’ve had was at the Hotel Chichen Itza, an eco-resort and spa. After driving through the jungle heat and past a small commercial district, we turned into the entry road for the inn. A giant tree towered over the circular drive, embracing all who entered in its tall shade. The open lobby above a wide, stone portal and antiques from the site’s decades as a center of architectural discovery framed the walls in between pictures of families and workers.

Hacienda Chichen Itza Guardian Tree, trip wellness

Hacienda Chichen Itza Guardian Tree

We were there to explore the Mayan UNESCO Heritage site ruins just a few hundred steps outside the compound. In our modest but comfortable room we discovered a brochure touting a Mayan spa experience and booked a couple’s massage. At the appointed time we entered a low building and were led into a room filled with herbs and flowers, stones and incense. A bowl of water sat on a pedestal with a layer of semi-precious stones on the bottom. Over that bowl our hands were ritualistically rinsed and dipped. The stones were placed in our palms and gently we were asked to select one as a talisman. I still carry that amethyst in my coin purse many months later.

Mayan healer with herbs, Hacienda Chichen, trip wellness

Mayan healer with herbs, Hacienda Chichen

There was gentle pan pipe music and a series of oils were massaged into feet, hands and head. Circular kneading movements worked weary muscles as we lay on parallel massage tables and drifted into a transcendent state. Too soon a soft whisper suggested that I wake and sit up. Mayan massage is an ancient art and we were fortunate to have the local medicine man’s daughter presiding over ours. You don’t have to be in Mayan lands to enjoy this style of massage as the art has been gaining popularity across the world.

If you go:

Privilage Lux Hotel, Isla Mujeres – Set across the street from the beach and within walking distance of the Isla public ferry, this Euro style boutique hotel has several restaurants (sushi included!), aside from the pools and swim up bar there are lovely balconies with ocean views and lots of shopping options near by.

Hotel Chichen Itza – Eco-resort that prides itself for being run by the Mayan people (owned by a European at the time of this writing,) the hotel is a quiet retreat with fewer than 100 rooms and bungalows. There’s a pool, dining in the small restaurant or on the veranda and a petite bar. Aside from the Spa treatments, the best feature is being able to walk into the grounds of Chichen Itza within five minutes and avoiding long lines at the central entrance. There’s a Mayan sweat lodge available for groups of 15 or more.

Fiesta Americana, Coral Beach Resort Cancun – One of the original, large resorts in Cancun, the Coral Beach Resort has several world class restaurant options (see Culinary Delights post), a series of pools, powdery beaches and proximity to a private boat over to Isla Mujeres. Shopping and nightlife are within a few minutes walk from the lobby.

Disclosure: The experiences and opinions are my own and only the Coral Beach Resort visit was complimentary.

Cancun luxury – Tastings in the Yucatan

Grand Coral Beach Cancun Resort, trip wellness
Cancun, trip wellness

This is not your typical Cancun adventure!

Think about visiting Cancun and what comes to mind – Impossibly blue ocean water and bathtub warm, white beaches, tall hotels, wickedly fun nightlife? Did you know that the peninsula perch is home to many flavors of Yucatan culture?

I’ve visited the area as a scuba diver several times, always focused on spending as much time in the water with its corals, turtles, rays and whale sharks, as possible. Food on a dive trip is not much more than a necessity – fuel to keep blowing bubbles. So it was with particular relish that I dove into exploring the fine dining options and more urban pleasures on a Summer Tasting Tour of Cancun luxury.

My first stop close to the downtown, nightclub district was at  the five diamond Fiesta Americana hotel, the Coral Beach Cancun Resort & Spa. Once I stepped into the lobby with its sweeping atrium it was easy to forget the intense heat and gritty street a block away. The hotel is a graceful sweep of towers and one of the more majestic properties in the area, which is a nod to the perfectly picturesque location – just steps from a daily boat to nearby Isla Mujeres with a lighthouse on the other side of the bay.

Grand Coral Beach Cancun ResortThe rooms are all suites and while most of the local hotels have become all-inclusive resorts, the Coral Beach Cancun offers more individual options for dining, spa services and recreation. The lobby opens to gardens that step down to a chain of pools and waterfalls that curl like a turquoise necklace just feet from powdery sand beach and cabanas.

DSCN3145Dinner on my first evening was in the elegant Le Basilic restaurant where each course of our dozen tastings was a revelation of French inspired craft and fresh local ingredients under the care of chef Henry Charvet. The restaurant is known also for the artist León Alva’s work, which cover the walls. We watched his, “Art Come to Life”, as he created a whimsical masterpiece while we dined.

Each dish was a more delicious and intriguing presentation than the last. I only wished I were sitting at a table window, being catered to while a sunburn warms my shoulders and toasting to the good life with my sweetheart. He’d love this style – a far cry from the usual buffet fare that other hotels offer.

Chef Le Basilic, trip wellnessThe next afternoon we had dinner deep in the lower reaches of the hotel, stepping into the tasting kitchen where the chef serves sample menus for corporate events. Our lunch was a series of exquisite discoveries each featuring authentic Yucatan spices and preparations. This was nothing like what passes for Mexican food back home in the states.

Coral Beach Cancun Resort, Trip WellnessDishes included a delicate stack of Nopales, a curl of grilled octopus and slices of fish, as well as pork along with an artistic take on the indigenous barbequed beef stew. Mango and Tamarind Margaritas flowed pre-meal and Mexican wines were poured for each course.

Nopales, Coral Beach Cancun Resort, trip wellnessThe next evening we ventured to the Ritz-Carlton Cancun for tastings in two of their finest restaurants. First, we were led past the ballroom and down a long hallway to the Viking Culinary Center, built for guests interested in exploring how to create some of the local dishes. The chef works at his own cook-top while cameras capture each slice and sweep of his spoon. Four cooking stations ring the room; each full of everything necessary to master a meal. Of course table settings waited on the counter and a sommelier hovered near to pour – all of it just steps away from the glimmering Caribbean sea.

Ritz Carlton Cancun Culinary Center, trip wellnessA few sips later we slid into elevators to the relaxed and rarefied atmosphere of the Club Level. An open bar and appetizers tempted and each room, remodeled in soft colors and sleek lines, opened to ocean views.

A few minutes later we were ushered into the Club Grill, a Jazz and Supper Club where a pianist stroked a baby grand to life. The old world paneling and proportions of the dining room lent an English, hunting club ambiance and I learned that the Club Grill is considered the more masculine of the two fine dining restaurants at the Ritz.

Club Grill, Ritz Carlton Cancun, trip wellnessExecutive Chef Tyler Thaxton presented us with an Amuse Bouche of Iberian ham, house mustard and tomato jam. The second course included Arbequuina olive oil and Heirloom vegetable Escabeche before serving white broad beans and grilled tuna with Valencia orange sauce.

The culinary artistry didn’t end there as we were next led to Fantino, the more feminine, Mediterranean-inspired, dining counterpart for a small soupcon of seafood risotto, herb crusted lamb loin with seared vegetables and a Chocolate and cherry ‘delicia.’ This summer tasting menu couldn’t have been more delicia-ous.

Zama Beach Resort, trip wellnessOur last two meals on the tour demanded a bit of travel outside of central Cancun. A short boat ride from the high rise district is petite Isla Mujeres where we slipped past the tourist center to dock near Zama beach resort, not far from the Mayan temple ruins at the southern tip of the island.

As a diver I’ve been alarmed at the rapid spread of Lion Fish in Caribbean waters. The invasive species has no natural predators in the area so I was heartened to hear that Lionfish tiradito (a local preparation) is also one of the favorite items on the menu. It was light and tasty.

Octopus, Zama, trip wellnessOur meal, in the shelter of a giant Palapa, was a tour de force of local spices and dishes. One course included Tikin-Xic – a hefty fillet of fish in an axiote sauce wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Various spices are traditionally drawn from the jungles nearby. A trio of pastes flavored many of the dishes with tantalizing complexity. My favorite was octopus grilled and blackened with Recado Negro – a pungent, almost smokey paste.

Three Yucatan spice pastes, trip wellnessThe final meal of the tour required that we drive about an hour south along the Riviera Maya. If you’ve ever been on the highway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen (Party town and launching point for Cozumel,) you’ve passed towering edifices and gateways that announce the entrance to different resorts dotting the coastline.

riviera maya, trip wellnessOur destination was the Cocina de Autor, a five diamond restaurant, where the chefs search for new techniques and technology. Science and taste delivered.

riviera maya, trip wellnessThe effects were mesmerizing and have led this restaurant, ensconced in the Grand Velas, Riviera Maya, to be recognized by Food and Wine Magazine as one of the “100 Best New Food and Drink Experiences in the World.” After sampling each bite, sip or swallow I couldn’t agree more. It was an evening unlike any other.

That’s just an introduction to what waits in Cancun when you reach beyond the prix fixe, buffet tables. If you’re able, spend the time and money to have one of the best meals of any vacation at one or all of the restaurants described. I won’t hesitate to visit the area again.

If you’re truly dedicated to exemplary dining consider coming to the Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine and Food Festival. There’ll be more than 25 gourmet events, including gala dinners, cooking demonstrations, a tasting village; sommeliers will pour from over 50 wineries and celebrity chefs are coming from Europe and across the Americas. Find out more at CRMFEST.com

This post was inspired by the Summer Tasting tour that I attended as a guest – all opinions are my own.

Time to visit Mexico – again and again

balloon teotihuacan mexico

Great travel writing can stir up the shallows, the fondly forgotten, the murky areas of memory and past experiences float up into clarity – surprising, fresh and newly remembered. That happened this morning when I found myself, phone in hand scrolling through a long article in the NY Times about returning to Mexico City.

Plagued by street crime and horrific thefts in the 1990’s tourists fled the grand city even though it was never embroiled in the narco-trafficing terrors that still linger in deeper pockets of the country. Tourists have been returning and in truth, some of us never stopped going.

ensenada movie star mural, mexico, trip wellnessI grew up camping on beaches in Baja long after Hollywood celebrities first marked the urban area as a playground. Remnants remain in Ensenada where murals in the colonial halls give fading witness to stars like Rita Hayworth, Bing Crosby and others, gambling, drinking and dancing.

Much later I started a series of pilgrimages to the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan, longing to see the pyramids, seeking renewal after the ravages of divorce and found it. My teacher, Victoria Allen, had been there many times over decades spent studying with don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, and descendant in the Nagual tradition.

balloon teotihuacan mexicoIn Teo, in ‘classrooms’ along the Avenue of the Dead, I rediscovered the healing aspects of ritual as we quietly let go of that which no longer served us in private ceremonies that Victoria gently led. The echoes of deep traditions fed my spirit and I’ve returned a half dozen times to that nourishing space, “the place where man becomes god,” where I found healing and strength. The stones echo with whistles from vendors selling the ceramic toys from baskets. European visitors trek the Avenue with maps in hand. The intrepid climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, dazzled by the views and flummoxed by the beauty of butterflies bouncing along invisible air currents. The smaller Pyramid of the Moon stands adjacent, yet in an exalted position at the top of the Avenue.

To be there on a Solstice or Equinox is powerful. Then the white garbed medicine men and women bring their acolytes to do ceremony amidst the stones.

teotihuacan, visit mexico, trip wellnessDancers come in full feathered regalia from dozens of groups with their own songs and colors. All are invited to join in and pay homage to natural rhythms too often dismissed in our digital age.

teotihuacan, solstice, trip wellness, visit mexicoOn one of those pilgrimages I reached out to my group to see if anyone was interested in spending a day or two exploring Mexico City before returning home. Luckily my friend, Pamela, agreed. She had lived there decades earlier as a young wife and anthropology student. I discovered an exotic, sophisticated and culturally overwhelming miasma… To be continued.

In the next post I explore Mexico City twice!

My hope is that as the border jumping visits become more frequent, tourists won’t just visit Mexico for suntans, cheap booze, drunken spring break bacchanals and all-inclusive resorts, but to cherish and learn from the rich, deep cultures waiting there for us to recognize their presence and that we may quietly renew our exhausted spirits – culturally, through cuisine, art, ritual and architecture.

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE PARTS ABOUT VISITING MEXICO?

 

 

Spring break travel to Mexico – U.S. edition

Tequilla girl, Trip Wellness

Tequilla girl, Trip Wellness, spring break travel

It used to be crazy, easy fun. You’d leave San Diego for some Rn’R with a few friends, your drivers license and some cash. The road to Ensenada was swift and Hussong’s Cantina beckoned. Carousing to mariachi’s and rock n’roll, drinking to all hours, sleeping when needed – spring break travel was easy but that was a simpler time.

Getting away from school, hitting the road, finding some sunshine – all sounds like fun, but doing it with care will get you home with great memories instead of stories of woe. The freedom of spring break travel to Mexico has inspired movies and novels but in real life crossing the border takes a bit of diligence.

The Center for Disease Control recently published safety tips appropriate for anyone going into Mexico, one of the most popular and inexpensive spring break destinations, whether you live on the west or east coast of the U.S. A few of their tips are included below.

In Mexico:

  • You need a valid passport or a copy of your birth certificate to return to the United States. Keep it with you in a safe place.
  • Drink only bottled water, sealed soda, wines or beers and keep clear of ice. Tap water in Mexico and many other countries is not purified in the same way as in the U.S. Don’t risk spending days of gut-wrenching pain or worse.
  • No open containers on the street or you may be subject to trouble with the Federales.
  • Street tacos are a tempting treat but be cautious. Some travelers look for street vendors who have women and children in line. As a rule, fully cooked food that’s served freshly hot is safer than anything that’s been stored at unregulated temperatures.
  • Avoid salads and fruits that aren’t peeled. Again it’s the exposure to tap water that might cause problems.
  • Wear sunscreen. Hours in the hot sun can do more to ruin your vacation than most anything. Who needs the pain?
  • Health insurance with specific coverage outside the U.S. is advised. The further you go and the bigger the investment makes trip insurance a good idea as well.
  • Avoid getting tattoos or piercings. Sanitation and regulations are not the same for needles and accessories.
  • Don’t take the risk of getting STDs or HIV – Bring condoms and practice safe sex.

A savvy traveler uses street smarts and trusts their gut reactions in any new situation whether it’s across town or the planet.  Have fun and watch out for your friends. May your spring break travel to Mexico be the stuff of dreams.

Nature up close – Swimming with whale sharks, Baja, MX

One might think that swimming with whale sharks would be exotic, mysterious and cool. In many ways it’s not. You have to go to great lengths to get into the water with a major pelagic. For some it means traveling to Antarctica and spending the equivalent of what a small house costs. For many it’s a cruise up Alaska’s Inside Passage where the water’s dangerously cold and at best you can kayak close to an iceberg and hope a whale surfaces.

I was gifted with the opportunity and today I swam with two whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez. It may sound dangerous but really the worst that could’ve happened was being whacked in the head with someone’s giant camera lens. This week I’ve been traveling from one dive spot to another with a small cabal of dedicated underwater photographers. They talk F-stops and ISO settings late into the night with a passion I marvel at. It wasn’t until I slipped into the water and paddled close to a feeding whale shark that I understood the lengths they’ll go to, the physical exertion, the dedication and patience they’ll expend to get the great shot.

I was there for another reason. I wanted to be close, to witness these large creatures in their native habitat. I would’ve been happy to watch from the boat, but in league with my compatriots got into the water with them. We had motored for over an hour into the shallow feeding waters of the natural bay where the whales feed. It wasn’t long before the circling boat spied one gulping up air and plankton nearby. Quickly, cameras ready, five divers at a time slipped into the water and paddled close to the creature.

The size of the mouth was shocking. As I swam in, it swerved close to me several times and just the breadth of the head is startling, especially as it suddenly moved into view from the  murky water. In a few seconds I was closer than expected and the whale kept moving closer, I back paddled careful not to touch. We looked, eye to eye for a second and she was gone.

I tell myself that the whale could’ve finished the encounter at any moment by diving down, but it was probably as befuddled as we were with how best to proceed. Perhaps it’s used to these puny, human creatures appearing quickly, paddling close and then disappearing again. It did continue circling near us for several minutes until with a swish of its tail it slipped further out into the bay. We scrambled back onto the boat exhilarated and exhausted. The sun was starting to set and the captain set us on a course to the port. I was satiated and felt a deep gratitude for the experience. As the others jumped in for one more pass, I stood on deck smiling and singing a little Sanskrit chant to Ganesh that I’m fond of, and the whale twisted away from the swimmers, up to my side of the boat, then forward out of view. I felt somehow acknowledged and so thankful.

It’s my hope that these experiences don’t only harvest great video or pictures that win awards or garner acclaim for their authors. This was a singular gift especially in a world of want and difficulty. We need these reminders that great beauty continues unabated and independent of banking crises or job security. We need photographers and artists to remind us that such connections continue to exist and are accessible, if only from a picture or a video. We are mostly made of water. We breathe the same air as that creature gulped. We too eat and need to keep moving to stay alive whether we have the chance to go swimming with whale sharks or not.

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