Posted by: Alex MacGregor | February 13, 2014

Poblanos y Cholula

In my ongoing work/play tour of Mexico’s heartland, I headed over the volcanoes west of Mexico City to the city of Puebla, one of the original major Spanish settlements in Mexico.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about lovely but troubled Morelia, the capital of cartel-ridden Michoacán. I raved about the area’s wonders, which sadly are going unnoticed due to the deplorable state of security in the region.

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Not to discourage visitors from Morelia, but Puebla is also a fantastic (and much safer) option, with a vibrant, grand center and lots of interesting stuff in the area. It’s significantly larger–the fourth largest city in Mexico, and with a massive historic district befitting its colonial past–but still retains its approachability. There are also probably a couple orders of magnitude more foreign tourists here than in Morelia (but still not too many).

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Like so many cities in Mexico, the cathedral is its centerpiece, and Puebla’s does not disappoint. Its facade graces Mexican currency, but the interior is what really impressed me.

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It helps that the lighting was perfect, but rarely have I ever been so taken by the beauty of a cathedral.

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The patterned domes reminisce Istanbul.

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The building is richly detailed throughout.

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I eventually peeled myself away (not before losing a lot of sunlight), and began to explore the town.

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The central park–with even more street clowns than Morelia’s! I had to carefully plan my path to avoid them, remembering a scarring experience being the butt of their jokes in Mexico City years ago.

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Avenida Cinco de Mayo is the city’s main pedestrian street. The Cinco de Mayo is actually the celebration of Mexico’s victory over France in the Battle of Puebla, way back in 1862. Apart from the United States, Puebla is one of the only places where it’s really a big deal these days.

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Puebla is famous for tiled building facades.

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I visited on a Sunday, and the city was definitely alive. Markets selling everything from food to crafts to fine art were everywhere.

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Since I had set off from Atlanta that morning, I missed out on most of this. This market east of town was being broken down into various old minivans and VW buses when I got there.

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I thought this was awesome: a wood-fired barbeque on wheels! I had to sneak a picture.

Karma quickly punished me. I’m not sure if it had anything to do with me taking the picture or not, but right as I was passing by, the horn thing on the side of the contraption went off. It was probably the most basic, animal terror I’ve felt in a long time. This thing was LOUD–so loud that everybody all around stopped and looked to see what was going on–and, as you can see, it was passing by just a few feet from it, and hemmed in by a wall. Just this awful, piercing, sickening blare that gave my left ear with a sharp ring. I couldn’t even tell where it was coming from until it was over.

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Puebla is famous for its food–especially mole (thick sauce made with chocolate and peppers). The term for someone from Puebla is Poblano, which ought to give an indication.

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Thanks to a massive Volkswagen plant (which also happens to be why I was in the city), modern Puebla has a large German community. Some locals have even bothered to learn the language, and other German companies set up shop in the city to take advantage of that momentum. Note the translation on this sign in the bus station.

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I knew I was cutting my time in Puebla short (it would definitely be worth a couple nights on any itinerary in this part of Mexico, in my opinion), but I took the time to make a day trip to another place whose name evokes a spicy food: Cholula–namesake of the hot sauce brand.

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Although Puebla offers a bunch of day trips to the surrounding areas, Cholula is the obligatory one: it’s one of the longest-inhabited places in Mexico, and is home to an interesting architectural site.

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Cholula is famous for having a whole bunch of churches, all built in fervent hope of converting the indigenous population that occupied the pre-Columbian city.

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I might well have been missing something, but the town itself didn’t seem especially spectacular. I mean, you can plop me down in any random Mexican city and I’ll have a great time exploring it, but I didn’t have a particularly easy time finding many of the churches, and the intense sun made prolonged exploration a bit trying (although far better than the ice storm Atlanta was getting pummeled by at the time!).

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But that’s no matter: Cholula’s trump card is that it has, by some measures, the biggest pyramid in the world.

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No, it’s not what you probably think of when you hear the word “pyramid”, but variety is the spice of life, right?

When the Spanish rolled through, this probably was so overgrown that they just thought it was a hill (and therefore in dire need of a church on top).

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One thing that’s cool about this pyramid that I didn’t get to do in either Egypt or Teotihuacan was go inside the tunnels. In those places, going inside the pyramids is either difficult or impossible; here, it’s part of the basic trip.

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Although you only get to go on one set route, the tunnels appear to form something of a labyrinth. Stairways lead to different levels, and the tunnels branch regularly.

It was right out of an old-school role-playing video game, like Final Fantasy. Which made me realize that wandering around in one of those labyrinths, in the dark, without knowing where to go, and fighting monsters intermittently would be freaking terrifying!

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Only a small portion of the ruins have been excavated. Although it’s nothing on the scale of Teotihuacan, it’s surprisingly cohesive and you can see a lot of elements from the old city–streets, alleys, and drainage features.

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And, of course, carvings!

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The church on top. There was some sort of ceremony going on, so I didn’t go inside or take many pictures…

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…except of the amazing view! Popocatépetl smoking in the distance, 17,000 feet high.

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The view back towards Puebla, which sprawls nearly to Cholula these days.

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And, lastly, the view of Cholula itself!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | February 7, 2014

Two Nights in the DF

My last stop in Mexico is among my favorite places: Distrito Federal. Mexico City. Caroline and I visited in 2009, so I spent most of my time checking about the pyramid and just did some cursory wandering in the evenings. No major tourist attractions this time.

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Like the US, Mexico’s capital is its own state-level district. But, unlike in the US, the entire country of Mexico revolves around its capital. It would be like combining Washington DC, Los Angeles, and New York into one city.

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Even though it’s decidedly working-class, central Mexico City is a great place to start exploring. This was a major focus of Spanish imperialism, built literally on top of the Aztec capital. Grandeur abounds.

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The Metropolitan Cathedral, right on the Zocalo, is exquisite.

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Mexico’s National Palace

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Centro is the city’s commercial heart. The streets bustle with activity.

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Gotta love the restaurant getting converted into a jewelry mini-mall without even changing the sign!

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The streets north and east of the Zocalo have always entranced me. It’s basically an endless, sprawling market that most people would probably avoid, but that I just can’t resist!

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In this district, grand colonial buildings have been converted into a spider web of specialized mini-malls. Centro has largely recovered from the blight of thirty years ago (when I imagine it resembled modern-day downtown Rio), but it’s still often criticized for not living up to its potential. As big-city historic districts go, it has no match in this hemisphere: Havana is the only place I can think of that comes close. Some people feel it ought to be smart and chic, like central Paris or Barcelona. Perhaps if this colonial mansion were a proper boutique hotel instead of a ramshackle clothing market, foreign critics would be appeased–but that would also be a whole lot less fun, wouldn’t it?

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If you’re looking to fill up on the cheap, the market district is a great place to do it. This is yet another plate of tacos al pastor–over the course of the trip, this became my go-to. If there’s any country worth putting your meat-restricted diet on hiatus for, it’s gotta be Mexico. I probably ate 50 tacos in the week I was there.

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Part of the reason these markets fascinate me so much is their connection to Tepito. If you walk due north ten blocks through the markets, Centro gives way to Tepito, a lawless market district.

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Tepito is sort of like the shadowy place Mufasa tells Simba about in The Lion King: “You Must Never Go There”. For me, Tepito ranks among Managua’s Mercado Oriental, Rio’s City of God, the western half of Lagos Island, Cite Soleil in Port-au-Price, and Johannesburg’s Hillbrow: all incredible urban no-go zones that I’d love to see up-close but probably never will. It’s so strange, given all the perhaps illadvised things we’ve done, that I can’t bring myself to simply walk ten minutes down a road and see what I see. Until I muster the courage, passing by in a taxi is the best I’ll ever do.

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Returning to the aspects of Mexico City that normal people care about, Centro’s more prosperous streets are west of the Zocalo, and have more in the way of nice shops and a pleasant sidewalk atmosphere. This area has been gentifying for years.

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A big-time cake display!

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One curiosity of Centro is that lots of the older buildings are sinking into the ground, owing to the Valle de Mexico‘s swampy beginnings. See how this building starts to taper off towards the right?

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This cathedral resembles a sinking ship…

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…while this city block has a notable bow to it.

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The buildings sinking into the ground can apparently pave the way for the avant garde. Take this old church, two blocks from the Zocalo. See how it’s sagging severely away from the street?

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Well, the floor in the inside is slanted just as much, so they apparently decided to turn the church over to installation artists. These audio-coordinated immersion tunnels were pretty cool.

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The interior of the church remains mostly intact, although false floors had to be built in several rooms because the slope is getting too severe. (Perhaps not the best centuries-old building to spend too much time in…)

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Some of Centro’s less-beleaguered historic structures, west of the Zocalo. Throughout Atlanta’s history, its wealth has always gravitated north. In Mexico City, the wealth has seemed to migrate west over the generations in a similar fashion.

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A ten-minute walk west of the Zocalo, you arrive at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a cultural center and art museum which certainly lives up to its name. Caroline and I visited this on our previous (pre-blog) trip, so I didn’t take the time to stop by this time.

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The Torre Latinamericano…

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…and Mexico City’s famously ornate post office are nearby neighbors of the Palacio.

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Being just a couple blocks away, I checked out DF’s Chinatown. Recalling Havana and Santo Domingo, I knew Latin American Chinatowns have a tendency to underwhelm, and are mainly just notable for the bizarre cultural contrast. Let’s just say Mexico City’s Chinatown didn’t buck the trend.

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Moving further west still, the Reforma is the backbone of a district called Zona Rosa, favored by foreign businesses.

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A touch of Gaudi along Reforma. Architecture and businesses are definitely up to western standards in this area.

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A few blocks off Reforma, I stumbled upon the Monumento de la Revolución on accident. (This is the best-case scenario when you lose your guidebook–aimless wandering leading to legitimately noteworthy places!)

A sprawling tent city surrounds the western half of the monument, akin to America’s Occupy Wall Street Movement. This seemed a bit more established and permanent than OWS in the US: if you look closely at the foreground, you can see that there’s a full-service taqueria within the tent city! (In hindsight, I simply can’t fathom why I didn’t stop by for yet more tacos. I need to get better at life.)

I wondered how free I was to wander around in the tent city, but nobody seemed to care.

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“There’s nothing sadder than to see happy slaves.” PRI and PAN are Mexico’s two main political parties.

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I took a trip up the monument for the view.

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Looking back towards Centro

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The tent city below. Note the police barricades in front of the palm tree in the center.

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Among the other guidebook-less wanderings, I ended up in a neighborhood of Mexico City called La Condesa. The friends I made on the local bus back from Teotihuacan that afternoon were headed there, so I tagged along, which was good because I wouldn’t have discovered this on my own. The area is home to lots of hip, local coffee and wine joints, and is definitely the sort of place I would actually want to live if I were to move to Mexico.

I mean, if a neighborhood has a two-toned living wall like this, it’s gotta be cool.

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And what’s this? Addictive salads?! After a carnivorous week, I was hungry for some major vegetables, and these just weren’t on offer in Centro.

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Thus began one of the most awkward parts of the whole trip. I don’t know the Spanish words for a lot of these things, and I often felt pretty foolish struggling to point things out through the thick glass and asking what things are called.

Me: “Como se dice esto?” (pointing at broccoli)

The guy behind the counter: “Brócoli

After a painful ten-minute ordeal, I was chowing down and ready to head back to the US.

Not a bad couple evenings of wandering in Mexico City. But, nonetheless, I’m picking up another copy of the Lonely Planet for my next trip!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | January 30, 2014

The Pyramids of Teotihuacan

Most people keen on seeing pyramids make a beeline for Cairo, which is unfortunately in a state of turmoil that would dissuade even me from visiting. But fear not, because you can still see some pretty incredible pyramids a whole lot closer to home.

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The ancient city of Teotihuacan.

I naturally followed the storied Cape to Milan tradition and shunned the many guided tours from Mexico City that lead to the pyramids. I figured that, heck, we’ve gone to way greater lengths in the past to avoid being part of a tour group–this one was a no-brainer.

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This meant a ride on the Mexico City Metro to the Terminal Norte bus station. Metros in developing world megacities can range from awesome to mediocre (to really terrible, but thankfully I’ve never experienced one of those), and Mexico City’s metro definitely falls on the awesome end of the scale.

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It’s fast, super cheap, has amazingly quick headways (I’m talking maybe three minutes during rush hour), and the system maps are adorned with these nice little graphics representing each station.

(Practical note: if you’re looking to save some time and you speak Spanish, head to the Potrero station and catch the express bus to the pyramids from there. It’s the same exact bus, and you can save an annoying metro transfer and twenty minutes of the bus crawling through inner Mexico City’s traffic.)

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An hour or two later, there you are.

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The southernmost set of ruins, where they lot you off the bus, is called the Citadel. The larger pyramids loom in the background.

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Intricate carvings.

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The Avenue of the Dead is a 2-mile long street that runs the length of the complex.

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The Avenue of the Dead

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Before long, you get to ruins of the normal residential areas of the city. These were my favorite parts of the whole complex.

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Over 100,000 people lived in the city at its peak.

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The different areas restrict access in various ways, but if you poke around enough you can wander back surprisingly far into the ruins and gain a sense of solitude–just you and the ruins. I speculated for a while about how these living quarters would have functioned way back when.

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The Pyramid of the Sun is the biggest drawcard. Since pyramid-measuring is subject to all sorts of subjectivity, I’ll just say this one ranks among the largest in the world and leave it at that.

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The sides don’t look that steep from below…

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….but it’s a completely different feeling once you’re climbing up!

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I tried to challenge myself by going up the entire thing without resting, and it definitely was no easy task, given the altitude. I stopped for about ten seconds at each one of the platforms to make sure I wasn’t going to faint–that would have been a pretty ugly scene on the steep, stone stairway!

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The top of the pyramid, where there used to be a grand temple.

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The view over to the Pyramid of the Moon.

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You really get a sense of the scale of the complex from up here. It’s massive.

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For a break from the crowds, you can walk around on the lower platforms, which I found offer a pleasing sense of geometry.

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Back on the Avenue of the Dead, the temples go on and on.

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The city was founded around 100BC, and lasted about a thousand years. It was already abandoned in the time of the Aztecs, and during the Spanish conquest.

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Colorful murals, such as these, would have covered all the buildings in the city.

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The Pyramid of the Moon, surrounded by numerous smaller pyramids.

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The whole complex from the top of the first level of the Pyramid of the Moon (the rest is closed off, but I had already climbed about as many steps as I wanted to that day anyways).

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Looking south down the Avenue of the Dead, perfectly backlit in the midday sun.

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Adjoining the Pyramid of the Moon is a restored palace.

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Carvings and murals within the palace.

At this point, I was two miles north of where you started and had been walking around in direct sunlight for three hours. I opted to leave from the north entrance and take my chances on transport from there. When I got to the road, a taxi driver was unfortunately the only person to ask for directions. Taxi drivers are terrible people to ask, since they can easily con you into riding in their cab (coincidentally, at the pyramids in Egypt a guy tried to do the exact same thing: he told us one entrance to the pyramids was closed, and that we needed to ride his taxi to the other–a blatant lie).

The taxi driver informed me that the “local” bus stops here, and for the express bus, I’d have to go back to the other entrance. He was being completely honest. I hopped on the first bus that came (it was lucky that a bus came right away, forcing the issue), which wound around city streets for an extra 45 minutes on the way back to Mexico City.

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I, along with a couple friends I made who also found themselves on the local bus by mistake, got off at the Indios Verdes metro station–a major bus hub in northern Mexico City–to save time. A lovely bit of chaos: buses, market stalls, and throngs of people. Welcome back to DF!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | January 22, 2014

Mines, Molé, and Mummies in Guanajuato

Have you been dreaming of a trip to Europe, but can’t find the time and money to make it happen?

Well, up in the hills of Mexico’s Bajío region lies what might be the next best thing: the colonial mining city of Guanajuato.

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Squint your eyes and you could be in Italy or Spain. (And, with a new 4-hour nonstop flight from Atlanta on Delta, it’s a heck of a lot easier to get to.)

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I was lucky enough to come here for work! We recently finished a project in central Mexico, and we had to pick a nice nearby city for our annual meetings. (You might not be surprised to learn that I lobbied heavily for Guanajuato.)

Guanajuato is, in my opinion, among the very best colonial towns in the Americas. The only one I’ve seen to rival it is Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais, Brazil. And that particular place requires twice as much flying followed by hours on the bus, and it’s probably twice as expensive once you get there.

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At one point one of Spain’s most successful silver mining towns, Guanajuato developed as a maze of narrow streets and grand buildings in the bottom of a steep valley.

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The result is an effortlessly pedestrian-oriented city that has only a handful of roads open to cars. Streets bustle with activity day and night. The town basically has one major surface street that has one lane of traffic going in one direction–that’s it.

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Since the colonial lanes are inherently about as automobile unfriendly as they come, the city developed a unique workaround to accommodate vehicles: it uses the old mining tunnels as roads.

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The hills around town are all criss-crossed with tunnels.

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Occasionally, you’ll find stairways connecting the surface pedestrian streets with the subterranean roads.

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The city’s leafy central park, completely closed off to cars.

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Ornate churches and quiet plazas abound.

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Teatro Juarez–the city’s most celebrated building.

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The theater’s lavish interior.

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Mining relics.

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Lest you forget you’re in Mexico, a quick trip to Mercado Hidalgo will bring you right back.

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The market stalls out front cook up delicious meals on the cheap.

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My favorite Mexican breakfast: chilaquiles verdes.

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Caroline and I made a previous (pre-blog) visit to Guanajuato back in 2009. Here’s her about to dig in to some enchiladas molé.

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And here’s 23 year-old me at the town’s main mirador.

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The hills above town are much more typical Mexico. A quick walk from the colonial center brings you into a tangle of modern concrete houses.

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Kind of a fun place to wander around, actually.

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Ah, Mexico.

And what was that third M?

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Oh yes, the mummies. Guanajuato has, bizarrely enough, plenty of them on display in the local Mummy Museum. Some strange mix of climate, disease, and economic inequality caused a large number of mummies to be…generated? (I’m not sure what the proper word choice is here.) The big mummy-generating period was from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. In Mexico–ever a country to fixate on anything related to death–a whole bunch of mummies became a major tourist attraction.

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The Mummy Museum is indeed strange, but also culturally indicative and morbidly fascinating. Vignettes are written from the mummy’s perspective.

To keep things light, I’ll spare you all the pictures of mummies. Just take my word for it that they were numerous and horrifying.

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The museum takes the liberty to go beyond its core subject matter and eventually just focus on abstractions like death and “the beyond”. Using real human remains as props!

I’ve done my share of death speculation, so I can certainly appreciate it as a national sentiment.

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Boo!

That’s all I’ll say about Guanajuato for now. I need to hold back some stuff in case we go back and need to make another blog post.

But just so you don’t think I covered everything there is to see in Guanajuato, there’s plenty more: the one-and-only Diego Rivera was born here (his birth home is a museum), sites from the early battles of the war of independence are here, you can tour mines, and a major art university means there’s lots of cool artistic stuff around. It’s definitely worth a trip.

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | January 19, 2014

The Ancient Heart of Michoacán

For a taste of what Michoacán has to offer outside of Morelia, I took a day trip to the city of Pátzcuaro. Instead of going on an organized tour (not that I really saw any advertised, come to think of it–but I hear that they exist!), I opted to take local buses to get to Pátzcuaro. The journey turned out to be a bit of an ordeal, so for future visitors I’d recommend considering an organized tour if it’s a viable option.

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While comping down on a plate of tacos during my annoyingly long wait at the Morelia bus station, a fellow about my age seemed particularly interested in talking to me: asking where I was from, where I was going, and so forth. He said he was heading back to the USA. When I asked where he was going, he named a border city. I felt a pang of regret as soon as I asked, “So you’ll walk across the border?”–I didn’t mean to imply that I thought he was trying to go to the US illegally necessarily, but I simply lack the Spanish skills to convey that subtlety.

To my surprise he said, “Yes. Illegally.” Apparently the guy had lived in Texas and North Carolina building houses, but got deported (either after spending six months in jail or six months ago–my Spanish just isn’t good enough for this sort of conversation). He was just starting the long journey back to the US. I asked if crossing the border was hard, and he said it’s harder than it used to be.

Whatever your view on the issue of illegal immigration, it’s a lot harder not to sympathize when you’re talking to an actual person who’s caught up in it. Pro-amnesty groups trumpet cases that tug at the heartstrings: children with no memories of their home countries facing deportation, families torn apart by the churning gears of a black-and-white immigration regime. Well, I don’t know if this guy has a family or whatever, nor do I particularly care: he’s turning his life upside down (and risking it as well, no doubt) in order to make a meager living building suburban houses in the American sunbelt. It’s fine to debate the social and fiscal consequences of illegal immigration, but let’s not forget that he, and most other illegal immigrants, are just people born into a really crappy situation trying to make the best of themselves. There’s no need for the dehumanizing rhetoric amnesty opponents sometimes employ.

I wished him the best of luck and headed to my bus.

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Finally, after three hours of combi-riding, waiting at the bus station, and riding the bus, I made it Pátzcuaro, a measly 30 miles from Morelia. I was plopped on the highway in the outskirts of the small city (making such a rush to get off the bus that I left my guidebook on the seat–sigh).

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Just a few blocks off the highway, the historic charm starts to kick in.

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I took a breather in the plaza of this little church and tried to catch my bearings (and had a nice handmade fresa y crema popsicle). I had studied the map in the guidebook before leaving it behind, but not nearly well enough to really know my way around.

Oh well. I’m a geographer, and I say I love to explore, right? Time to put my money where my mouth is.

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I saw some market stalls and recalled that the market borders one of the main squares in town, so I plunged right in and began to explore.

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After an agonizingly long time wandering around in the deceptively-large market, including lots of dead-ends and backtracking, I found Plaza Chica–one of the two main squares in town.

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Plaza Chica (“Girl Plaza”) is so-called for the statue of Gertrudis Bocanegra, a rebel organizer in Mexico’s independence war, who was ultimately captured and killed by the Spanish. I’m torn as to whether the name Plaza Chica is belittling to the female war hero, but I guess it’s not really my place to comment.

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This grand structure actually serves as the town’s library, unfortunately closed on the Sunday I visited.

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Once I got to Plaza Chica, I was far better-oriented and finally able to enjoy the town.

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Just about every building in the city is painted dark red and white, giving everything a mystical feeling. Everyone I talked to said I needed to come back for Day of the Dead–apparently Pátzcuaro is one of the original and most famous celebrations of the Day of the Dead in all of Mexico.

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The main cathedral in town.

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Plaza Grande, Pátzcuaro’s main square.

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Some of the best (read: least tacky) tourist stalls I’ve seen in Mexico, along the edges of the plaza.

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Art vendors around the Christmas tree (and wait…is that a Festivus Pole I see?).

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Since not much appeared to be open, I headed to Plaza Chica–which doubles as the local transport hub–to catch a combi to the other area attraction: Lake Pátzcuaro.

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But first, since I had forgotten to bring a towel with me, I headed back to the market to purchase one. Unfortunately a towel is a somewhat tricky thing to find. Especially because I forgot the world for towel (and it’s an easy one, too: toalla), meaning I had to describe a towel to random people, hoping to be pointed in the right direction. A towel is a moderately awkward thing to describe in broken Spanish.

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After a short combi ride I was at the cow-studded lakeshore.

(Note for travelers: you can easily walk from the lakeshore to the highway to catch a bus back to Morelia, but it’s too far to walk there from central Pátzcuaro.)

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The main attraction on the lake is the island of Janitzio. Boats leave frequently, and may or may not contain tiny Oakland Raiders fans wearing cowboy hats and fishing with nets.

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The boat is jammed with mariachis, vendors, and Mexican tourists: I was the only gringo in sight.

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The island coming into view. Kids never tired of dragging these rainbow-colored nets through the water during the half-hour ride. I’m not really sure what that was all about.

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The tiny but densely-populated island, with the statue of José Morelos on top.

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A Morelia-born guy who was raised in the Bay Area and in town visiting family talked to me on the boat, and he had an infatuation with Brazil. He asked me if the houses on the island looked like the favelas in Rio. I said that, come to think of it, they kind of do.

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The island has an abundance of stalls selling all manner of arts, crafts, food, and booze: a winning combination. No aggressive touts, either.

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Supposedly this place gets going big-time during the Day of the Dead.

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Steps, steps, and more steps.

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Finally, the top. José Morelos was a rebel leader, and namesake of Morelia.

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Inside the statue.

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Murals depict Morelos’ life.

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The steps get somewhat unnerving as you approach the top.

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Once you reach Morelos’ arm, there’s one final spiral staircase…

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…before the tiny mirador in his wrist.

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This spot gives you a great view of the old Tarascan kingdom, a pre-Colombian civilization that inhabited the lakeshore and islands. Pátzcuaro was the biggest city. Like the Aztecs, this was all ruined by colonization, but there are still ruins around the lake, especially in the beautifully-alliterative town of Tzintzuntzan. If everything had worked out better time-wise I was going to try to see some of them, but it was already getting late in the day and I didn’t feel like pushing the return journey too much.

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Pátzcuaro off in the distance.

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The playground at the foot of the statue. They still have the good stuff, down in Mexico. My most vivid memory of visiting Mexico as a child was spending far too long spinning around in one of those little enclosed merry-go-rounds like the one on the left, and then getting extremely ill.

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The obligatory eat on the island is this cup of tiny, deep-fried fish, which costs 10 pesos. They add hot sauce, lime, and salt to it. Yummy.

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Even more my style is the authentic michelada, a Mexican concoction that’s sort of like a combination of a beer, a bloody mary, and a margarita. I’m not sure what he was putting in to the drink, but every time the vendor asked whether I wanted an ingredient or not, I enthusiastically said yes. It was delicious.

The latino street vendor mantra of “serve the customer at all costs” was definitely in effect. The vendor asked what type of beer I wanted, and I flippantly picked Corona–all the light-colored Mexican beers taste the same to me, so I didn’t really care either way. Upon discovering there was no cold Corona, the vendor signaled to another person who instantly ran off to acquire the requested Corona. I didn’t even have a moment to tell him that it wasn’t necessary. Within seconds, the ice-cold Corona was delivered.

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The real way to drink a michelada is from one of these awesome boots. Or, even more fitting, a boot with a skull sticking out of it!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | January 17, 2014

Morelia, Michoacán

Work took me to Mexico for the second time since November, so I decided to do a little bit of sightseeing on this trip. My first destination: Morelia, a city I have been fascinated to see for several years.

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Gringos love the colonial wow factor, and Morelia has certainly got it.

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Case in point: the city’s main cathedral is among the most impressive in Mexico.

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It’s even better at night.

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I stopped at the cathedral no fewer than three times trying to go when mass wasn’t happening (thus allowing for a proper stroll), but was thwarted each time.

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Oh well, still some amazing visuals!

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Being a primarily stone-facade city filled with ancient-looking arches, I was tempted to compare Morelia with Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Although Santo Domingo may have a leg up on Morelia (along with every other city in this hemisphere) in terms of sheer age, I felt that Morelia’s historic atmosphere far exceeds that of the Dominican capital, I’m afraid.

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Morelia’s charm doesn’t stop at its colonial grandeur. It has a legit sidewalk cafe culture that thrives day…

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…and night.

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The central park is among the most atmospheric I’ve ever seen, although I know from experience to keep a wide berth from the clowns wandering around entertaining people for tips. Their favorite prey is an unsuspecting gringo, who is sure to react comically to their silly questions and get an easy laugh from the crowd.

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The Mexican surplus of street vendors is in plain display. You find vendors specializing in everything from leisure conveyances for children…

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…to all manner of glow sticks. If you fancy an impromptu rave in the central park, acquiring glow sticks clearly won’t be a problem.

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You’ve got your traditional Mexican fare (this plate is tacos al pastor, made from pork sliced off the spit for 2 pesos, or about fifteen cents, each), which is far better than its American imitation.

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Morelia, a city of about a million and the capital of Michoacán state, is also big enough to attract solid options for international food and fine dining, too.

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I was surprised to even see a microbrew made right in town!

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Cutting-edge public art is on display.

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Despite being such a large city, it’s easy to escape the bustle of the city center.

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Neighborhood streets are quiet and colorful.

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Simple, unexpected charms, like this tiny plaza with its own little historic church, abound.

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The Callejón del Romance is a cobbled alleyway ideal for exercising the boundless Mexican affinity for canoodling.

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The ambiance is further enhanced by spitting fish statues, reminiscing The Little Mermaid.

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Morelia has so many quaint, colonial plazas that it’s easy to lose track. In all honesty, I’ve rarely seen a city in the whole world that’s more pleasant simply to stroll around and explore.

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So, at this point, Morelia probably seems kind of like the ideal Mexico, right? Amazing colonial architecture and history, vibrant atmosphere that blends the best of classic Mexico with the modern and chic, and an approachability and comfort that Mexico City clearly lacks–it’s all great.

So, where are all the gringos? My hostel was empty–it was just me and one Mexican traveler. My flight into town was completely Mexican, and if there were many gringos at the sidewalk cafes lining the central park, they sure were good at blending in.

Morelia suffers due to the state that it happens to be the capital of: Michoacán. Unfortunately, in recent years, Michoacán has become synonymous with drugs, violence, and cartels. It’s one of those places you read about on CNN articles, where some unspeakable atrocity occurred.

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Michoacán definitely has a Wild West feel to it, and the reputation for drug violence is sadly well-earned. Last year the federal government had to take over the port of Lazaro Cardenas, one of Mexico’s largest, because it had become overrun with drug smugglers. More recently (as in, the exact days I was there), vigilante fighters have clashed with both the government and cartels. Swathes of Michoacán are definitely no-go zones at present, and it takes a somewhat intrepid traveler to go even to Morelia, the capital. (In Mexico, typically the large cities are safest from political and drug-driven violence, although they have high rates of underlying crime.) Fortunately, Morelia sits far from the coastal instability zones.

The instability and violence is truly a shame. Not only is Michoacán one of Mexico’s most entertaining states to pronounce (up there with Guanajuato and Tamaulipas), but it contains exceptional splendors within its borders (some of which I’ll divulge in an upcoming post!).  Volcanoes, colonial towns and cities, ancient ruins, amazing food, wildlife, beaches–nevermind the rest of Mexico, I’d put Michoacán alone up against any Central American country for overall touristic interest. The fact that the world–Mexicans included–cannot enjoy Michoacán for all its treasures ranks among the great squandered tourist opportunities in the world.

That’s not to mention, of course, the pain and suffering of the 4.5 million Michoacanos who must live in this troubled state.

Let’s all hope the insanity in Michoacán–and the larger drug war that has plagued Mexico year after year–finally subsides.

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To end on a more positive note, Morelia is also famous for its aqueduct, which extends over a mile to the east of town.

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The aqueduct begins as a sidewalk.

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For the first bit, it even serves as the front wall for local houses!

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This aqueduct forms the backdrop of many bridal and quinciñera photoshoots.

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I followed the aqueduct a long ways. I was partly marveling at how difficult a feat it must have been to build this thing way back when, and how the aqueduct has been integrated into the city’s existing infrastructure. I was also looking for a restaurant recommended by the guidebook.

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The aqueduct starts to go through some pretty posh neighborhoods. Which in Mexico, isn’t exactly a good thing: instead of pedestrian bustle, you have parked cars a blank walls. It feels far safer in the bustling, middle-class areas.

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As the sun was setting, I eventually gave up looking for the restaurant and decided to grab a combi back to town.

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Before long, a combi pulled up and I was headed back to centro.

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Perhaps I was being paranoid, but at this point I began to get scared. The combi was completely empty, which is pretty odd. I heard the driver get on the phone with someone and say “estas listo?” (are you ready?). And then the combi crept down the road at a painfully slow pace–the slowest car on the road. I was worried he was staging a robbery, and I was a sitting duck.

I told the driver to stop and let me out far sooner than it made sense, leaving me a long walk back to the central park.

I guess the reputation of Michoacán may have gotten to me!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | November 19, 2013

To the Other End of the Erie Canal

My trip across upstate New York ended in Buffalo, at the opposite end of the Erie Canal from where it began.

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Unlike Albany, which was already a major city at the time, the mid-1820s completion of the canal was a gamechanger for Buffalo. The city quickly became one of the richest and fastest-growing in the country.

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Lots of grand architecture was whipped up in short order.

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Buffalo’s City Hall is an art deco landmark.

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A mini-Statue of Liberty on top of a skyscraper.

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The quality of downtown Buffalo’s modern architecture woefully lags behind Albany’s. This monstrosity would fit right in in downtown Atlanta!

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Buffalo’s downtown, while pretty well-preserved, felt deserted, with lots of historic storefronts either empty or serving as downmarket retailers. That’s not to say it was like the downtowns in Phoenix or post-nightfall Rio, but there just wasn’t much going on. Perhaps this is unsurprising: the city’s breakneck growth came to a screeching halt in the late 1950s with the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway, which made the Erie Canal far less prominent for commercial shipping. The city has been on a slow decline ever since.

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In fairness, I also visited the city during one of its (apparently frequent) windstorms; a windstorm can’t do much for a bustling downtown. It can, however, cause the leaves to blow into interesting patterns and tidy mounds on the sidewalk–kudos, Buffalo, for teaching me something new!

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Buffalo’s historic (and abandoned) main train station, lovingly adorned by the work of Inveread Atak Merk, Jr. A tagger with such a name has no risk of being mistaken for one of his colleagues.

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North Main Street, Buffalo’s theater district, is about a ten minute walk from the heart of downtown.

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The area appears to be where Buffalo has placed its bets as an urban renewal zone, and the road is currently being spiffed up on a large scale. Hopefully they can get this work done before the snow hits!

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I headed on Delaware Avenue to Buffalo’s millionaire’s row. I was surprised at how busy the street was with fast-moving traffic and urban renewal (not the good kind). This was the only shot I was able to get that remotely resembles a millionaire’s row.

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This synagogue was my favorite thing on Delaware. Cool building.

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Much more enjoyable was my visit to nearby Allentown, a counterculture district that is Buffalo’s answer to Little Five Points.

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Murals abound, conveying varying levels of political outrage.

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If I were to live in Buffalo (on account of the weather alone, that will forever remain an if), I’d definitely pick one of these cool old houses in Allentown!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | November 18, 2013

Heading Upstate

My latest work journey wasn’t quite so exotic as some of the other places I’ve been, but I still made time to explore and take some pictures during a recent trip to New York’s capital, Albany. Knowing next to nothing about upstate New York, I had zero expectations about the place, which is kind of a fun mindset to have, and one that’s difficult to achieve on a proper vacation.

I visited on a crystal clear (yet piercingly cold) day as fall was taking its last gasp.

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Albany, like Worcester, 100 miles to the east, is a pleasant, manageable city that’s still large enough to have everything I crave in a visit to the old northeast…

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…like narrow, colonial lanes…

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…ornate early 1900s architecture…

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…and, my personal favorite, the occasional intrigue and beauty of a decaying industrial monolith.

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Albany’s downtown itself didn’t seem to have a huge amount to see, so I strolled up to the government buildings that are the main reason Albany remains a notable dot on the map.

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During the 19th century, Albany was a pretty important place: as the eastern end of the Erie Canal and the capital of New York, it was one of the 10 largest cities in the country. Albany’s 1883 City Hall reflects its stature during that time.

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New York’s gorgeous State Capitol

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The building was so massive and ambitious that it proved too much for its hilltop setting, and the building’s foundation actually began to fracture under its weight. This huge staircase was added after the fact to hold the thing together, like a bookend.

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Around the southern end of the building is one of the more serendipitous things I’ve ever stumbled upon: Empire State Plaza.

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The area is truly impressive: a mini-Brasilia of modern architecture on top of the main hill in town.

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I had no idea Albany had anything like this!

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The Egg. Empire State Plaza may lack any creations of the famed Oscar Niemeyer, but I’m afraid it beats Pampulha, Belo Horizonte as far as an accessible way to see some cool modern architecture.

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Old and new(ish)

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I decided to take a stroll through the adjacent South End on the way back to downtown.

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South End is a typical northeastern rowhouse neighborhood. It definitely has its charming points…

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…but as I walked a little more it became clear this isn’t the best part of town. As I headed under the viaduct back into downtown, I found myself acutely aware of the laptop in my briefcase tapping against my thigh with each step I took. Which is probably quite silly, considering all the far sketchier places I’ve been: maybe we’re more sensitive to being in a rough neighborhood when it’s part of our own culture.

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The night before, I ventured into the Lark Street neighborhood for some Indian food (one of my go-to cuisines when I’m plopped down in a random city). The area is indicative of an unsung demographic trend. Much of the discussion of immigration in the US is focused on Mexican immigration to sunbelt states, particularly working in agriculture and construction. However, the northeast, which is largely wealthier than the sunbelt but is losing American-born workers to the sunbelt, immigrants from around the world step in to fill higher-paying service jobs of various skill levels. Worcester, for instance, gets about the same amount of immigration as Jacksonville, while Providence outdraws Nashville.

These skilled immigrants who backfill the disappearing American-born workforce are highly clustered by nationality in seemingly random patterns: immigration to Providence is dominated by Dominicans and Cape Verdeans, while Worcester is a magnet for Ghanians and Iraqis. This district of Albany seemed heavily Bangladeshi. Hence all the Indian restaurants.

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Back downtown, I wanted to check out Albany’s Hudson River waterfront. Unfortunately, Albany’s waterfront is marred by transportation corridors running between it and the city, just like so many other urban waterfronts around the globe.

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To address this problem, they built a brand new, beautiful footbridge to connect downtown with the river. At least that saves Albany from being like Santo Domingo, where a single crossing over to the Malecon probably lowers your life expectancy by a week.

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The chilly Hudson.

Albany was a surprisingly nice place to visit. If you’re ever passing through, I’d definitely recommend stopping for a stroll!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | September 6, 2013

Belo Horizonte–and Home

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We chose as our departure point from Brazil the sprawling capital of the Minas state–Belo Horizonte–which is convenient to the colonial mining towns.

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In a lot of ways, Belo Horizonte is similar to Atlanta. It has about 5 million people, grew up as a regional trading hub during the 20th Century, and therefore lacks many of the historical buildings and attractions you might expect for a city of its size.

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Like Atlanta, what few historical buildings it does have are interspersed with modern highrises.

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Our first activity in BH was a stroll through the municipal park.

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Unfortunately, this park just didn’t do it for us. We visited at 4PM (around the time when the centers of many-a-Brazilian city start to shut down), and things seemed decidedly sketchy. It was mostly desolate, with the occasional group of guys hanging around and not a police officer in sight. I’m not sure why, exactly, but this was by far the most worried we were about getting attacked during our whole trip–we both agreed on this separately after strolling around for a few minutes in uncomfortable silence. I’m sure we were in more danger in Rio or, especially, Salvador, but this felt worse. I quickly consulted the map to find the best route back to the streets.

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We eventually found the cops, all in a perfectly useless clump attending to their myriad horses.

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We decided to head south to the posh Savassi neighborhood for dinner. If BH is like Atlanta, then Savassi is its Buckhead.

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At least in the sidewalk cafe districts we didn’t feel much worry about getting mugged!

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I couldn’t tell exactly what this store sells, but it looks way cooler than your typical Buckhead boutique.

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Protest-related flyers around town.

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BH is surprisingly expensive, so we resorted to staying in a neighborhood called Santa Teresa, just across the train tracks from the Centro. Travel between Centro and Santa Teresa requires a stroll down this viaduct, which was fascinating for the antiquated industrial blight that it overlooks, and unnerving for the isolated stairways plunging from the viaduct down into said blight.

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No, Santa Teresa BH doesn’t have the endless charm and appeal of Rio’s Santa Teresa–the Santa Teresa, a hillside neighborhood steeped in rugged charm. (We didn’t even get a chance to properly blog about Rio’s Santa Teresa–next trip!)

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But BH’s take on Santa Teresa does have its Boheiman elements scattered here and there.

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The main tourist attraction in BH is Pampulha, a mini-Brasilia of modern architecture set by a nice lake. The buildings in the area are designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the man who largely made Brazil synonymous with modern architecture.

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The Igreja de São Francisco, one of his most celebrated buildings.

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Pictures weren’t allowed inside, so this is as well as I could do taking a picture through the glass. Interesting architecture and art, to be sure.

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Running low on time, we soon realized how isolated a place Pampulha is. This is the same great criticism of Brasilia: that its attractions are extremely sparse and not easily navigated on foot.

Eventually, our expectations narrowed, as our evening departure time drew nearer. We went from wanting to see another building to simply wanting lunch. When it became clear that no restaurants were to be found, we decided we just wanted a bathroom. That, too, was too much of ask of Pampulha, so we settled for a bus stop and headed back to Centro.

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For future visitors, I would highly suggest planning some form of transport besides your own two feet. A bike would be great!

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And, after an unfathomably long bus ride into the countryside, our Brazil adventure ended at the Belo Horizonte airport.

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Future visitors will be reassured to know that their Small Claims needs can be handled conveniently at the airport…just in case.

Ciao, Brasil!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | September 3, 2013

More Churches in Mariana

A short bus ride outside of Ouro Preto is the city of Mariana, a colonial town that has grown into a regional commerce hub.

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Like its more famous neighbor, Mariana is replete with photogenic colonial lanes, but it makes a nice break from the tourist bustle of Ouro Preto.

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Mariana’s most impressive churches, sitting side by side.

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The newer parts of town are typical Brazil–a wonderful mix of concrete buildings, lively street life, and timeworn infrastructure.

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