CACTUS, TACOS AND SOMBREROS – LET’S MARIACHI OUR WAY THROUGH MEXICO!

Hola Amigos! This is the local catch phrase throughout sunny Mexico and one we would hear many times during our trip to this ancient land of the Aztecs and the Mayans. Wanting to visit both the land and the sea areas of this huge country, MB (Monsieur Bleu) and I decided to start our journey in vibrant MEXICO CITY, home to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, amber cerveza, corn cobs and brightly coloured calaveras (skulls) and where street vendors pumped out plates of hot, delicious overfilled flour tortillas from dawn till dusk!

MEXICO CITY: What can I say? Home to over 21 million people, it is bloody enormous and you need a week, I think, to truly appreciate it. We had two days…😳 ! As usual, our time was limited and we really only wanted to see the major sites of the city, visit Frida’s azure blue home and the Aztec ruins in Teotihuacán, indulge in a taco or two and then mariachi our way to the famous beach areas of Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta where we would, hopefully, relax!

Days start late here, as the bustling, never ending night life for which this city is also famous, sends the masses into a constant state of hungover, weary bliss! Awaking on Saturday morning in our rented 1920’s brownstone apartment (conveniently located above the best bakery or panaderia/pasteleria in town) in the bohemian district of Roma, gave us the sugar sweet kickstart we needed after a bizarre first night dinner at a Mexican steakhouse called Angus which turned out to be a slightly glamorous version of a girly bar/hostess joint and where I was the only woman not sitting on the laps of suited men or singing in the band!

Setting off to tackle our frenetic first day in Mexico City and wanting to explore the sights of the old town centre, or Centro Histórico, we decided to take in the sun and stroll like locals through the streets around our neighbourhood, leisurely making the colourful one hour walk to our destination past street stalls, shop vendors and copious food stands already nourishing both tourists and locals with their first spicy feed of the day.

Centro Histórico is a maze of wide avenues and paved pedestrian walking streets and where the main plaza or zòcalo (the largest in Latin America) is surrounded by enormous and ancient hispanic buildings and throbbing with people from all walks of life. Huge stores like Zara and HMV occupy 18th century shopfronts whilst beggars, hawkers, street performers and musicians are frantically vying for your attention at every step. Maybe it was because it was Saturday or maybe it was always this busy, but we found the constant sea of human life bombarding us from every angle annoying and suffocating, and couldn’t truly appreciate the majestic beauty of the town due to having to hastily change direction all the time to avoid the constant barrage!

Beautiful shopfronts
Busy streets in Mexico City

Falling upon the huge open marketplace in the zócalo, filled with traditional Mexican fare touting everything from delicately embroidered clothing and handmade leather shoes to exotic food stuffs of all varieties, gave us the fleeting respite we craved as we inspected the shop owners wares. Leaving the market behind and venturing once again into the throng of the inner city centre, we stopped to take photos of the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral) and other various beautiful buildings which make up her heart. The large ruin site of Temple Mayor sits just near the cathedral and is a mammoth testament to the God of Rain and the God of War. Witnessing various “smudging” rituals performed on locals along with Aztec dances by bizarre winged and masked characters (the TV series The Masked Singer would go down well here) made for an interesting walk towards the more local side of town.

Temple Mayor Site
Metropolitan Cathedral

Finding a crudely set up massage stall run by a group of white cloaked folk, MB and I ran the risk of permanent spine damage and had a very good twenty minute rub down all whilst listening to jaunty mariachi music and becoming somewhat street performers ourselves (MB had his shirt off for a bit, I, thankfully, did not) all for the bargain price of $100 pesos ($5 USD)! Seriously needing food and a sit down, we trudged our way down street upon street of haphazardly built stalls selling everything and anything to everybody before we finally found a taco bistro. Strange but true, locating somewhere to eat for lunch was not an easy feat in this town or maybe we just were in the wrong area, but we searched high and low for a place that wasn’t an ice cream shop, closed till 5pm, asian cuisine or an expensive enclosed fishbowl style place with no atmosphere! Packed with a younger crowd of locals and with tiny tables spilling onto the street all featuring bowls of delicious, vibrant green guacamole with tostadas and bottles of refreshing cerveza, helped our childish needs to “feel Mexican” come to life!

Handmade clothes at the Market

After taco time, delicious as it all was, we made the ridiculous decision to attempt to visit the home of Frida Kahlo with no pre booked tickets. Wrong move! We chose to hire an UBER (excellent choice of transport here in Mexico City as it’s very cheap and reliable and would highly recommend it at all times) to drive us the 30 minutes to the other side of town. La Casa Azul, or The Blue House, the Frida Kahlo Museum is in the chic upmarket neighbourhood of Cayoacán. Open from 11am-530pm (closed Monday), a kilometre of people snaked around the cobalt blue walls, all waiting to hopefully snatch up tickets before closing time. We reluctantly joined the queue sweltering in the afternoon sun and managed to score some overpriced tickets online for the next day at 430pm via tripadavisor. (Only to discover when we came back the following day, that the tickets were indeed a scam and we never received them! More on that later…)!

Having, apparently, bought tickets for Sunday, we breathed a sigh of relief and jointly decided to walk back to our funky Roma neighbourhood, a mere 2.5 hrs, so we could take in some of the lesser explored areas this vast city had to offer and see how the locals lived. Visiting churches and taking photos of every monument ever constructed isn’t really our style, so no, we didn’t see all the popular sites of Mexico City, but we had a lovely time checking out odd little shops and family run cafes down side streets and indulging in fresh, warm churros from the side of the road. Life is better this way!

Reaching our home just as the heavens opened, but spying a lovely street about five minutes walk from our place along the way lined with many upmarket restaurants and bars (fabulous), we hoped our second night in this city would redeem itself and offer us a more low key dinner date than the first! We were not disappointed and managed somehow to secure an outside table at the famous Rosetta Restaurant on the fly…something which just isn’t done here as this particular restaurant is normally booked out months ahead! Gracias for low season! Set in an old, Spanish mansion, it has been voted one of the most romantic and culinary forward restaurants in Latin America! Little did we know…we just thought it was pretty!

Me at Rosetta Restaurant

A gorgeous Italian/Mexican fusion dinner ensued, all washed down with very fruity Mexican pinot noir and with a lovely waiter and happy staff, we would definitely recommend this place. Overtired legs and overall weariness from our huge day made us crawl off to bed just before midnight as the next and final day of our quick trip here was to begin early… we were off to the Pyramids! But only after, of course, a couple of much needed, legendary Mexican Margaritas! Olé!

Our new best friend UBER once again came to the rescue that sunny Sunday in August, as the thought of partaking in an expensive three hour guided tour by bus to the ancient Pyramids of Teotithuacán didn’t excite! About 1.5 hrs or approximately 50 kms out of the city, our very patient UBER driver drove us there and back for a bargain price of $1000 pesos ($55USD)…a much better and comfortable option by far! Birthplace of the Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest after Giza, and the Pyramid of the Moon, separated by the long Avenue of the Dead, the “place where gods were created” was said to have been constructed approximately 2000 years ago, but by whom, is still a mystery.

To climb these gargantuan Aztec structures, requires both brute strength and lungs of steel…the line up to climb the Pyramid of the Sun was so long, I think they are still there, ironically sweating buckets in the blaring sun and irrepressible heat! We conquered the smaller of the two, Moon Pyramid, out of sheer determination and for the photo opportunity alone, both of us nearly keeling over in the process! The experience is one of awe and wonder and the ancient murals and history of this mystical place was well worth the visit and the near cardiac arrest! Do your research (we didn’t) and please go if you can…it’s better than visiting a church any day!

We made it to the top!!
Pyramid of the Sun
Teotihuacán

Our pre reserved 430pm rendezvous back at Frida Kahlo’s crib urged us to quick step it back into the city, allowing us to feast on yet more strange taco concoctions for lunch in the bustling beer and bar area of Roma. Another UBER had us once again lined up outside the famous blue walls of La Casa Azure, only to be turned away due to the “no ticket issue” making us buy yet another two tickets at the final hour! Not a fun time at all! Anyway, we managed to get in and see this famous landmark (I wasn’t leaving Mexico City without this experience) and take a walk through Frida’s beautiful home, feasting our eyes on those magnificent paintings and witnessing first hand the turbulent life and times of this revered, tortured Mexican artist and icon. Another must see if you are in this part of the world and keen on art or just the amazing woman herself.

Yet another summer storm approached as we left at closing time and back to the brownstone we went, via UBER of course! Sundays are not big restaurant days here and most of the top notch ones we had spied the day/night before were closed till Monday. However, we just happened to be living opposite a very cool Italian pizzeria that was miraculously open and wined and dined ourselves there, amongst its stone walls, till fatigue crept her way into our bones. We left early the next morning to catch our flight to Los Cabos on the Baja Peninsula, our next latin adventure, to experience a different side of Mexico, both historically and visually. We enjoyed our trip to this huge city but don’t feel the urge to revisit as we saw and conquered what we needed and another bucket list box has been ticked!

Finally at Frida's House!
Us as Frida & Diego!

LOS CABOS: Meaning ‘the capes’, it is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez and made up of four main areas (La Paz being the State Capital): Todos Santos, East Cape and the two most popular, San José – San José del Cabo, and its more lively and popular counterpart 30 minutes down the road, Cabo – Cabo San Lucas. The latter is the more well known part, being the seaside playground for wealthy Californians and the rich and famous, with all-inclusive resorts and hotels lining the coast and a time share haven for many US residents. MB and I decided to give both of these areas a good go and reserved Air B&B spaces at each, giving us a total of six days here in the sunny, southern most tip of the State of Baja California Sur.

“On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair…” thanks to the classic hit song by the Eagles, driving into San José del Cabo, was just like this: a dirt highway, flanked either side by huge, western movie style forked cacti, and a severe lack of street lighting. With the windows down and my head sticking out like an overexcited armadillo, after being cooped up in the city, I wanted to fully embrace this arid, dusty land!

Main surf beach in San José

San José is a much more relaxed area, with a long, golden sand surf beach stretching for miles, and in her heart centre, a small, quaint old town filled with pretty, colourful colonial style buildings and cobblestone streets. Art galleries, little boutiques selling silver, Mexican earthenware and leather goods and a smattering of quirky restaurants and tiny bars, all surround the main square. We stayed in a studio attached to a house in Gringo Hill, a hilltop area overlooking the main highway and beach, home to retired Americans and dotted with Spanish, hacienda style houses. Our Air B&B there was ok but not that great (highway view and too claustrophobic) so we pulled the plug on that one early and moved to our rental in Cabo.

In Cabo, we had rented the “poorest house in the best street” which was a little blue and white studio home with a huge deck and a garage in a hilly, prestigious gated community called Pedregal. This neighbourhood is known for its enormous villas perched on the side of the cliffs with views over the marina and the bay. Our place was lovely and just perfect for what we needed – spacious, quiet and private! We even had a BBQ which we fired up on the first night and enjoyed a home cooked steak dinner, washed down with some good Californian vino tinto, all with million dollar views!

View from our deck in Pedregal Estate

Regardless of where you choose to stay, the best public beaches are in between the two areas anyway and frequented by everyone from Cabo and San José, so living in either makes no difference in the end (as long as you have a rental car) apart from the nightlife! San José nightlife is much more subtle and intimate, being so small, and being there in low season made it even more so, to the point of dull unfortunately. Cabo nightlife is a complete 360 degree change and is over the top…huge clubs bashing out doof doof techno music on every corner, or pubs and crass Mexican food joints touting free tequila and two for one beers, louring drunk teens and biker types into their lairs! Basically a Spanish speaking version of Bali or Phuket! Take your pick!

BUT, saying this, we did eat at some lovely little restaurants in San José. Two in the old town, Restaurant Jasmine for a full Mexican experience and Casa Dom Rodrigo, another Mexican, yet more upmarket and near the zòcalo. Our favourite bistro though was Zippers! We frequented this very casual but lovely little beachside restaurant (literally across the highway from our first rental) three times even when we were in staying in Cabo. It was cheap and cheerful with a perfect view of the roaring ocean and the surfers, open all day and night AND wasn’t too far from the popular beaches! With lovely staff, live music and (another) typical Mexican menu, I had my first taste of lobster tacos here and was hooked!

Restaurant Jasmine
Casa Dom Rodrigo Restaurant
Lobster and fish tacos @ Zippers

Still on food (of course), in Cabo, we actually found some great restaurants slightly out of the way from the main party scene. For a homemade pasta injection, try Restaurant Doc, a small Italian wine bar and restaurant on the quieter side of town and not too far from our gated community. Run by an expat from Milan, it was cute and cozy and had kerbside dining so you could watch the world go by. For a more romantic rendezvous, on our final night, we frocked up and scored (yet again) the best table in the house at SUR, a fine dining restaurant on the main beach of El Médano serving Mexican fusion cuisine. With twinkling candles on the tables, attentive waitstaff and the sound of the waves…it was beautiful.

The main beach in Cabo is Playa El Médano. It stretches for miles, has restaurants and day clubs lining the shore and also sun loungers and umbrellas to rent. It faces Land’s End and El Arco for which Cabo is famous, and the turquoise water is lovely, BUT be warned … it is VERY BUSY! Unfortunately, you never have a moment of peace where you are not hassled by souvenir vendors or fishing/boating trip sellers, and the cacophony of club music at all hours was not relaxing. MB and I found this heady combination very invasive and irritating, so we only swam here once, but we did, however, indulge in a great lunch of grilled octopus at one of the beach restaurants to compensate!

However…the two best public beaches in between both Cabo and San Lucas and totally free from vendors, house music, tequila tourists and other irksome details, are Playa Chileno and Playa Santa Maria. Both are easy to access, have amazing water, gorgeous golden sand, rocks to snorkel around and modern bathroom facilities near the parking area. FYI: There are no restaurants or kiosks at either, so make sure you pack a picnic and a beach brolly (you can honestly buy everything from one of the excellent supermarkets nearby and is not an expensive option) if you’re going to make a day of it … we did and it was one of the best times of our holiday!

Playa Santa Maria
Old Town in San José

If you are keen for a day trip or to just escape the rat race, we recommend taking a journey to the nearby picturesque town of Todos Santos, about one hour drive from Cabo and home to many surfers and arty types. Check out its famous Hotel California (nothing to do with the song we discovered) and the colourful buildings and little boutiques. We went on a day where it was raining so hard (a mini hurricane apparently) we couldn’t see the road let alone the town and were basically floating down the street! Unfortunately we didn’t get to enjoy the experience but hopefully you will have better luck! Another hour or so up the road and you get to La Paz, the capital of the State of Baja California Sur. Deemed the ‘safest town in Mexico’ it is where you can take the boats to go whale watching or deep sea diving. Even the famous French plongeur and marine conservationist Jaques Cousteau was a big fan and there’s even a monument dedicated to him on the seafront. Take a stroll along the malecón (waterfront boardwalk) for a bit of R&R, have a look around the little town centre or just sip a margarita in one of the bistros, watch the locals and take a breath before driving back to the hordes in the hub.

MB with Jaques Cousteau

On the morning of our final day, MB and I decided to hire a boat from one of the guys setting up his station on Playa El Médano to do the popular tour of the rock formations that make up the Arch of Cabo San Lucas or El Arco, where the Pacific Ocean becomes the Gulf of California. It is one of the ‘must-do’ trips when you are in this part of the world, so we couldn’t leave without the experience (much like the Frida Kahlo ‘Museum Moment’)! The private and quick 45 minute tour of the El Arco and Land’s End cost $30USD for two and it was well worth it. Having lost two days due to the mini hurricane, unfortunately this was the only time we could do this trip, but better late than never! FYI: You can also buy tickets from the many vendors bombarding you at the Marina if you prefer, all costs are the same.

The boat takes you for a comfortable and scenic ride around these breathtaking natural sculptures with Lovers Beach on the calm Sea of Cortez side (where, on other tours, you can snorkel and swim to shore) and over to the pacific side to see Divorce Beach, (aptly named as it is a turbulent, non swimmable area due to the dangerous pounding waves of doom)! If you’re lucky, spend some time feeding tortillas to escuelas of fish and get up close and personal with the huge local sea lions. It was great fun and amazing!

El Arco
Lovers Beach

Adios Los Cabos and thanks for the experience! To be honest, we wouldn’t go back there as it was too commercial for us, but we were grateful for the opportunity. Everyone is different and some people I have spoken to adore it there, so it’s a matter of opinion. Very beautiful of course, but lacking in authenticity. Our next stop on the agenda was back over to the mainland to dunk ourselves in the Bay of Banderas, Puerto Vallarta for our final Mexican fix!

PUERTO VALLARTA: Now this was our type of town! Straight up, we fell in love with it, as any place which boasts a Zona Romántica (romantic area) tops the charts! Comprising of four main zones: Zona Romátinca, Zona Hotelera, Nuevo Vallarta and South Zone, it is located along the Pacific coast in the heart of Banderas Bay (the largest in Mexico). Puerto Vallarta seems to have it all, combining traditional architecture and cobblestones streets with history, modernism, beaches and a tropical rainforest. MB and I only had three days here unfortunately and in hindsight, if we had known it was so sweet, we would have arrived earlier, as there were many inviting restaurants and hidden beaches that we didn’t get to experience.

Typical house in Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta

We stayed right in the centre of Zona Romántica (about 30 minutes drive from the airport) where beautiful white washed and red roofed Spanish houses perch precariously on the side of near vertical streets. Trust me…high heels are not your friend here, plus your thigh muscles and heart get a free workout at least twice a day which was welcome after all those tacos I had inhaled! Our little place was lovely and central and provided us with breathtaking sunset views from our balcony every night and apart from the mishap of getting slightly electrocuted by the shower head, it was perfect!

Steep streets!
View from our balcony

Downtown Zona Romátinca is home to a long seafront boulevard or malécon which is perfect for a stroll day or night to check out the many restaurants, bars, clubs, tourist shops and outdoor sculptures or to just sit and watch the deep orange sun set over the bay. The famous Church of Our Lady of Guadeloupe is just around the corner from the main square and a drawcard for tourists as is the large open air market which sells all sorts of Mexican handmade crafts. The LGBTTTI 🌈 community is also especially well catered for here, with speciality shops (MB bought a fabulous pair of sexy, hot pink swimming trunks), bars, massage outlets and exclusive hotels on the waterfront.

Having hired a large jeep 4WD (for which we were eternally grateful after tackling the slippery vertical streets) allowed us the freedom to drive everywhere with ease and discover! There are many beaches along the coast, most of them being only accessible by boat, but Playa Mismaloya, a fisherman’s village just down from Puerto Vallarta’s very own Los Arcos rock formation, is famous for being the setting for the 1964 movie “The Night of the Iguana” starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner! The glamour, though, has now been tarnished (courtesy of the many pushy boat trip sellers) as it is mostly used as a gateway to ferry tourists and locals to hidden coves and beaches.

Our Lady of Guadeloupe
Sunset on the Malecón

We spent our first day lunching and swimming on the main beach of Los Muertos, where there are plenty of lovely upmarket restaurants in the sand and luxurious, cushioned sun loungers. The souvenir vendors were out in force again here and bombarded us every minute which detracted from the beauty of the spot. More tacos and some lovely local vino blanco helped ease the pain as we tried to relax on our chairs opposite the new Los Muertos Pier (which reminded us of a small version of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai)! The beach of El Holi, a long stretch of shimmering sand and surf, is the play ground for most of the big all-inclusive resorts and hotels. It is fine for swimming but there is NOTHING else there! BYO everything if you are spending the day!

A favourite spot we discovered was a lovely little laid back beach area called Bucerias (a one hour drive from PV). Meaning “place of divers” it is a very cute little village in Nayarit, with loads of typical Mexican restaurants along its shore and some very reasonably priced markets (which I raided) in its centre. Whilst sipping on a tangy margarita that was bigger than my head, and chowing down on coconut prawns, I purchased some lovely pieces of silver jewellery, all of which would have been double the price if I had bought them in Los Cabos or Puerto Vallarta town! Who said tequila doesn’t help you make good choices? A further drive north takes you to Punta de Mita where you can hire a boat over to Islas Marietas to visit gorgeous Playa de Amor or Hidden Beach (a beach in the middle of a huge rock) but, unfortunately, the onset of bad weather and time constraints didn’t allow us to do the trip. Story of our lives!

Hidden Beach
Bucerías

We drove around Zona Hotelera and Nuevo Vallarta, but found them too modern and ugly, due to many high-rise condominiums and popular hotel chains, and the beach seemed to be inaccessible unless you are were a resident! No problem for us though, as our charming little old town area had more than enough to keep us excited, enchanted and occupied! Having indulged our latino inspired appetites during daylight hours, we opted for some more international cuisine after sunset, enjoying meals in some cosy and romantic restaurants dotted around our aptly named Zona! The best was at Café des Artistes, a modern, French themed bistro (of course), literally around the corner from our rental apartment, where we savoured a memorable meal to celebrate MB’s anniversaire and our final evening in magnetic Mexico.

Our whirlwind trip to this area of Northern America finally came to a close, but not without an interesting story or two! With a silver sombrero dangling from my wrist and a colourful calavera adorning our home, our memories of Mexico will never be forgotten.

…”Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?”…Frida Kahlo

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