Category Archives: Latin america

A Recent Trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua (Part 5)

Recently I spent a couple of weeks traveling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was my first land border crossing in a while, and I think my second ever on a bus. I got to see tons of great things, learned a lot about Central America and myself, and got to relax and enjoy the world. All in all I’ll give it a 9/10. If you missed any of the previous pieces, catch up starting with part 1,  part 2, part 3 and part 4.

After having spent a week in Nicaragua doing humanitarian work I was on my way home. That meant going back into Costa Rica to fly out. I had a couple of days to kill so I thought I’d stop by a hot springs area and relax a bit. Only the directions for how to get there I found on the Internet were wrong. I was stranded at the Liberia, Costa Rica airport.

Time to check options. It’d be about 5 hours by 3 local busses, assuming time tables were correct, and I was pretty sure they weren’t given the rainy season tends to play hell on them. Taxi would be $150 minimum. Rental car would be $70 plus insurance and gas and is have to bring it back to an airport 100 miles away from where I was flying back home from.

Different strategy: lose a half day for better options, more certainty and lower cost. Going to San Jose would be about 2h or so and it would give 3 direct, fast bus options to La Fortuna the next day. And if I took the 6am bus I’d get there in the morning around 9:30. Also more flexibility. Perhaps a flight change to come home sooner. Yep. Good options.

So back into Liberia to the local bus station. Busses every hour from the country’s second city to its first. And the bus passes through Cañas on the way so I can check it out and see what’s up. If it looks like I won’t get stranded then I can bail on that plan. Sweet. I set off.

An hour later, Cañas looked very promising with several hotels and some shops. Not a city by any means, but not the jungle either. I’m up for an adventure so I’ll try the 5 hour, 3 bus option. If the next city is like this one then getting stuck won’t be an issue. Quick bus change and I’m on my way to Tilaran. Problem. No buses  to La Fortuna until the next morning. Oops. The info desk at the airport must have had bad info. Stymied again by the travel gods.

A quick stop at a cafe lets me talk to the folks at the hostel I’m supposed to stay at in La Fortuna. It ought to be $50 for a taxi. Alright that’s better than $25 for a hotel and a delayed start in the morning. Also cuts travel time in half. Found a driver with good English but he wouldn’t go below $70 even upon threat of losing the fare to somebody else. Boo. But I’m low on time, it’s raining and I want to knock out my travel. $20 extra to the travel logistics gods and I’m on my way along the gorgeous circum-volcanic lake road.

Dark fell an the rain fell harder. A torrent at one point. We pressed on and the rain feigned resignation. About halfway in, we were greeted with a set of parked cars. We stopped. The road was flooded near the lake and trees had been washed onto it. Bad news. We were advised to turn back. The rain had struck again. But a cabbie with a fare on the line is undauntable.

When we reached the spot we found the gossip to be true. But men clad in galoshes were fording the stream. I thought maybe I could do the same and hitch a ride with someone on the other side. Unnecessary. The heroes were rolling and floating the tree pieces out of the way.

So we watched the trucks cross the rushing river. They were all large diesel trucks or SUVs. We were in a small Kia.

“Que piensas?” I asked. What did the driver think? “Pasamos.” We pass. But not before both of us made the sign of a cross. And pass we did with an expression of joy and relief.

Arenal Hostel Resort is exactly as it sounds. Quite nice. Went to my room and dropped of my bags. Grabbed a bite to eat at the bar and my free “welcome drink” and went back to the room. Pulled the curtains closed to change and heard one of the voices on the balcony say to the rest of the group “don’t shut us out come and join us.” I don’t think they knew I heard but I did. So I did go and join them. It was a group of Germans and one guy from Mexico City.

The next day I signed up for the hot springs river – a free trip. Piled into the bus and headed over. I was expecting a kind of a resort but it wasn’t. It was a drainage channel under the road where the river was warm from the hot springs upstream. Since it was raining, though, there was a large stream of cold water that made staying warm a bit tricky. When we arrived there were a couple of small groups there. The driver was coming back in a couple of hours and we figured it’d be a boring wait.

But more and more groups started showing up. Some of them had coolers of booze. And the rain stopped so the water got much warmer. The booze flowed cold and the river flowed hot, as lightning flashed in the sky. Someone had brought mud from the volcano and was giving out mud masks. Someone else found a condom in its wrapper (likely from someone else’s pocket) and made a balloon out of it. We batted it around like a beach ball among the 50 or so people there. When the appointed time came to leave we were disappointed to be going.

I spent a night in San Jose with a couple of the friends I’d met at the hostel. They made authentic Bavarian schnitzel for dinner – a real treat! And I got to meet their host family from a couple of years earlier when they’d been exchange students. It was great fun. We all stayed up past our bedtime drinking and laughing together.

The next day I was off to the airport back home. It’d been a great couple of weeks but I was ready for clean clothes and to get out of the heat and humidity. The trip was fantastic – I couldn’t have asked for better. Even the misadventures turned into great stories. It’s the kind of travel you always hope to have but seldom do.

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A Recent Trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua (Part 4)

Recently I spent a couple of weeks traveling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was my first land border crossing in a while, and I think my second ever on a bus. I got to see tons of great things, learned a lot about Central America and myself, and got to relax and enjoy the world. All in all I’ll give it a 9/10. If you missed any of the previous pieces, catch up starting with part 1,  part 2 and part 3, then conclude with part 5.

My time in paradise had come to a close. After arriving at Lago de Apoyo, Nicaragua from Costa Rica on a 12+ hour odyssey any place would have been good to sleep. What I found was a great hostel by a tranquil lake with great people and a hot sun.  My friend and I hopped in the taxi and headed to the airport to meet a larger group of friends.

Every year some colleagues, friends and I head to Nicaragua to do humanitarian work for a week. We join up with a group called Amigos for Christ who work alongside some of the world’s bottom billion, helping to remove them from that statistical designation. Teaming up with communities to get fresh water, improve sanitation and reduce the burden to the locals pulling themselves out of poverty. It’s good work done well.

But that part is boring to write about and to read about so we’ll skip it. Got to the airport to drop everybody else off and caught a taxi to the bus station. I was heading back through Costa Rica to go home. At the bus station they took care of me and spoke slowly. Made me first in line and printed out my flight itinerary for the Costa Rican border folks. This bus was full this time so not much sleep.

At the border there was a British lady complaining about getting a 60 day rather than a 90 day visa stamp. They gave me a 90 day visa – maybe just to piss her off. I have the feeling she was trying to circumvent the intent of the law. She also had fruit in her bag and complained that they took it. This isn’t the EU, lady. They ask you on the customs form if you have any fruits and veggies and I’m guessing you said you didn’t. Still, the process for her went much easier and the people were more friendly than the treatment the UK Border Authority gives.

I was planning on going to the area around another volcanic lake with hot springs for a couple of days. I’d read online that there was a daily shuttle at 2pm from the Liberia airport there. So I arrived after about 6 hours on the bus, grabbed some cash from the ATM in what I now knew to be the real local currency, US Dollars. Grabbed a taxi to the airport and got ready for the shuttle. 

But the Internet lied to me. There was no 2pm shuttle. I was stranded.

A Recent Trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua (Part 3)

Recently I spent a couple of weeks traveling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was my first land border crossing in a while, and I think my second ever on a bus. I got to see tons of great things, learned a lot about Central America and myself, and got to relax and enjoy the world. All in all I’ll give it a 9/10. If you missed any of the previous pieces, catch up starting with part 1 and part 2, then continue to part 4 and conclude with part 5.

After taking a bus from San Jose, Costa Rica to Managua, Nicaragua, then having myself an authentic Nicaraguan taxi experience I was happy to meet up with my friend. We caught up briefly then packed into the car taking us to our hostel for the next couple of days, Hostel Paraiso on Laguna de Apoyo. We arrived in the dark so didn’t get much of a chance to see the place. The kitchen was closed but they opened it up again to make us some crepes. They let us know the bar was going to close in about 2 hours but that the beer fridge was 24/7 – just write down what we’d drank and we’d settle up at the end.  Paradise Hostel? If not it’s damn close.

We hit the sack early so we could get a fresh start. Rumor had it swimming at dawn was not to be missed. In spite of my hatred of mornings I determined to do that. It was worth it in the chilly water and watching the sun come up over the rim of the extinct volcano in which we were swimming. Grabbed some breakfast to start the day. After an appropriate period of rest and caffeinating we grabbed some sunscreen and a couple of kayaks to paddle around.

After half hour the sun and exercise had us feeling warm but the water was cooling us down and helping us stay strong. So I challenged us to paddle around the whole lake. I figured it’d take another 1-2 hours and we’d be back in time for some rest and a shower before lunch. It wasn’t until halfway across the lagoon, a couple of hours in that I began to realize my sunscreen apparently hadn’t worked, and in the tropical sun on the water I was very exposed. We got back 3 hours after we’d left and my skin was already starting to look like a sunset in patches. Ah well, it’s the price of a good day’s exercise.

The rest of that day and the next I took it easy, just relaxing by the water’s edge in the shade. The bar/cafe area was perfect for that, attracting a stream of hostel guests, lake visitors and expats living on the shore. It was a great place to be and I enjoyed it thoroughly. My skin responded to the harsh treatment predictably, but the cool of the shade and the good times helped to soothe the pain. The aloe helped as well.

All things end, and so too my time at this lake paradise. The next week would see me reuniting with, working alongside and saying goodbye to old friends and colleagues. Doing humanitarian work in Nicaragua, helping to bring fresh water and sanitation to those who don’t have it. Humbling and inspiring work.

A Recent Trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua (Part 2)

Recently I spent a couple of weeks traveling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was my first land border crossing in a while, and I think my second ever on a bus. I got to see tons of great things, learned a lot about Central America and myself, and got to relax and enjoy the world. All in all I’ll give it a 9/10. If you missed any of the previous pieces, catch up with part 1, and follow up with part 3, part 4 and part 5.

Awoke at 6:30 to catch my bus from San Jose, Costa Rica to Managua, Nicaragua. Too early. No time to grab food at the station, luckily I still had some Lebanese burritos left. Although I thought I understood that you can’t buy bus tickets the morning of the bus, that wasn’t strictly true.

Hopped on the bus. Asked for a window seat and went to the back. An Australian guy came with me and we chatted. He’s been traveling for ten months through South America. Lived in Buenos Aires for a bit and Medellin, Columbia too. One more person who swears that’s one of the best cities in Latin America.

Bus ride was uneventful. Slept some. Looked at the gorgeous Central American scenery. Border was easy. Lots of people changing money (cambio men), selling stuff and begging. Routine-feeling 30 minutes later we were on our way. Around 5:15 or so, only 45 minutes late, we arrived at the Managua bus station. I fought off a few of the taxi drivers, letting them know I was going to take the bus to the airport, that I didn’t need their services.

I was going to walk around and see some more of the city but a guy started talking to me in very clear and only lightly accented English. “you said you’re going to take the bus? It’s in the other direction.” “Yes, but later.” “OK. If you’re planning on taking it after 7pm it doesn’t run because of the rush hour. And then after that it’s dark and a bit dangerous. Too far down that way is dangerous and the other way too. If you just want to like check Internet, have a soda or something then have a seat at this cafe. She makes great food too.” “Sounds good. Want to have a Coke with me?” So we talked a while. His family fled to the US in the early 80s during the civil war. He lived there until he was deported due to being arrested 3 times (3 strikes law). Lived in California, Miami, North Carolina. Name is Harold Bernard. His dad was half French and gave everybody French names. Interesting character.

We talked about an hour and it was starting to get dark so I asked him to grab me a taxi. He rode with me to do some translating and because in Central America you almost always want to have 2-3 people in the car with you just in case. The car was falling apart. We had to push it to get it started, the doors had no interior and it smelled slightly of burning oil. “This is the real Nicaraguan taxi experience,” Harold told me. At the airport I met a friend and we met the car that was going to take us to our hostel for the night.

Got to the airport and caught a taxi. 150 cords because I had a local who could get the good price. At bus station they took care of me and spoke slowly. Made me first in line and printed out my flight itinerary for the Costa Rican border folks. This bus is full.

There was a British lady complaining about getting a 60 day rather than a 90 day visa stamp. They gave me a 90 day visa. Much easier and more friendly than the UK Border Authority.

Maybe she wasn’t out of the country 3 days, that’s a question on the immigration form. I guess it’s to prevent living here on a tourist visa, as I suspect she is doing.

She also had fruit in her bag and complained that they took it. This isn’t the EU, lady. They ask you on the customs form if you have any fruits and veggies and I’m guessing you said you didn’t.

Napped sometimes. Watched scenery others. Got to enjoy about 6 hours of this and arrived at the Liberia dropoff point around noon. Grabbed some cash from the ATM in the local currency, US Dollars. Taxi to the airport and ready for the 2pm shuttle.

But the Internet lied to me. There was no 2pm shuttle. I was stranded.

Time to check options. It’d be about 5 hours by 3 local busses, assuming time tables were correct, and I was pretty sure they weren’t given the rainy season tends to play hell on them. Taxi would be $150 minimum. Rental car would be $70 plus insurance and gas and is have to bring it back to an airport 100 miles away from where I was flying back home from.

Different strategy: lose a half day for better options, more certainty and lower cost. Going to San Jose would be about 2h or so and it would give 3 direct, fast bus options to La Fortuna the next day. And if I took the 6am bus I’d get there in the morning around 9:30. Also more flexibility. Perhaps a flight change to come home sooner. Yep. Good options.

So back into Liberia to the local bus station. Busses every hour from the country’s second city to its first. And the bus passes through Cañas on the way so I can check it out an see what’s up. If it looks like I won’t get stranded then I can bail on that plan. Sweet. I set off.

An hour later, Cañas looked very promising with several hotels and some shops. Not a city by any means, but not the jungle either. Quick bus change and I’m on my way to Tilaran. Problem. No buses through to La Fortuna until the next morning. Oops. The info desk at the airport must have had bad info.

A quick stop at a cafe lets me talk to the folks at the hostel. It ought to be $50 for a taxi. Alright that’s better than $25 for a hotel and a delayed start in the morning. Also cuts travel time in half. Found a drive with good English but he wouldn’t go below $70 even upon threat of losing the fare to somebody else. Boo. But I’m low on time, it’s raining and I want to knock out my travel. $20 extra to the travel logistics teacher and I’m on my way along the gorgeous circum volcanic lake road.

Dark fell an the rain fell harder. A torrent at one point. We pressed on and the rain feigned resignation. About halfway in, we were greeted with a set of parked cars. We stopped. The road was flooded near the lake and trees had been washed onto it. Bad news. We were advised to turn back. The rain had struck again. But a cabbie with a fare on the line is undauntable.

When we reached the spot we found it to be true. But men clad in galoshes were fording the stream. I thought maybe I could do the same and hitch a ride with someone on the other side. Unnecessary. The heroes were rolling and floating the tree pieces out of the way.

So we watched the cars cross the rushing river. They were all large trucks or SUVs. We were in a small Kia.

“Que piensas?” I asked. What did he think? “Pasamos.” We pass. But not before both of us made the sign of a cross. And pass we did with an expression of joy and relief.

Arenal Hostel Resort is exactly as it sounds. Quite nice. Went to my room and dropped of my bags. Grabbed a bite to eat at the bar and my free “welcome drink” and went back to the room. Pulled the curtains closed to change and heard one of the voices on the balcony say to the rest of the group “don’t shut us out come and join us.” I don’t think they knew I heard but I did. So I did go and join them. It was a group of Germans and one guy from Mexico City.

Signed up for the hot springs river – a free trip. Piled into the bus and headed over. I was expecting a kind of a resort but it wasn’t. It was a drainage channel under the road where the river was warm from the hot springs upstream. Since it was raining, though, there was a large stream of cold water that made staying warm a bit tricky. When we arrived there were a couple of small groups there. The driver was coming back in a couple of hours and we figured it’d be a boring wait.

But more and more groups started showing up. Some of them had coolers of booze. And the rain stopped so the water got much warmer. The booze flowed cold and the river flowed hot, as lightning flashed in the sky. Someone had brought mud from the volcano and was giving out mud masks. Someone else found a condom in its wrapper (likely from someone else’s pocket) and made a balloon out of it. We batted it around like a beach ball among the 50 or so people there. When the appointed time came to leave we were disappointed to be going.

A Recent Trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua (Part 1)

Recently I spent a couple of weeks traveling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was my first land border crossing in a while, and I think my second ever on a bus. I got to see tons of great things, learned a lot about Central America and myself, and got to relax and enjoy the world. All in all I’ll give it a 9/10. This is a series so continue reading with part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5.

When I first got to the San Jose airport I found myself dumped out into a sea of taxi drivers, without so much as a welcoming terminal to walk through. There were no ATMs I could find so I pushed through the waves and went to the calm harbor of the departure terminal where there were a few ATMs.

Unfortunately my ATM cards didn’t work. On the cafe wifi I called my bank and they couldn’t figure out why but asked me to try tomorrow. Not a good answer, I’ll be changing banks soon. I managed to take out some expensive money on my credit card and off I went to find the bus.

To take the local bus into town you have to walk around the parking structure out front. The cost was at the time 530 colones – about a dollar. And they take dollars, so if you can’t use your ATM card you’re not totally out of luck. A taxi dispatcher was helping folks find the bus to San Jose and helped me. Kind of him.

2-3 stops in a guy got on the bus. A man got up and offered the window seat but the new arrival begged off, saying his leg was bad and he needed to stretch it. Then he pulled out the cup and balls game. He took some money and gave some money in the first few games. But swiveling your head to engage people in the back leaves you open to someone lifting the cups and exposing where the ball is. One of the guys who’d lost a few dollars did just that. Lesson here is keep your friends close and your enemies in eyesight. Or don’t make enemies of the guy behind you.

I got dropped off in the center of town. Walked around the main pedestrian street. Not a lot to see and to do in San Jose. Great views of the mountains around though. Very few places have wifi.

Got a bus ticket for the 7:30 SJO-MGA. Will arrive at 4:30pm if it’s on time. Tickets aren’t sold on the bus apparently so if you want to get on one of the early AM busses you have to buy the day before. Otherwise no ticket, no ride. (This isn’t strictly true as I found out later in part 2.)

Ended up at a cool hostel in an old looking building. Not sure if its actually old or made to look like it. Decent bar and cafe with lots of places to juice up your tech gear.

Dinner at a Lebanese place. Got the schwarama and Lebanese cheese. The schwarama was described as two tacos but it was actually a more traditional wrap. Interesting that the dish wasn’t described as burritos. Maybe they don’t have those down here. Incredibly flavorful. Way too much food, but it fit nicely into a to go box. Hope the folks on my bus tomorrow don’t get too jealous. 😉

Casual Nightlife In Mexico City

I’ve been in Mexico City for a month now and I’ve had the chance to check out lots of great places. At night the city comes alive and Chilangos (residents of Mexico City) and travelers alike casually stroll around for a bite, a drink and a genial evening out with friends. The weather here is perfect for that – once the sun goes down the temperatures are just perfect for long pants and a light jacket. It’s really a nice lifestyle.

Of course being alone here most weekends I’m left to my own devices. Which suits me fine! I like nothing better than discovering a city by night. Strolling around, getting recommendations from people and the Internet and just going based on instinct. While I’ve marked most of the places below as bars, they all sell food as well so can make for a great stop after work or a dinner spot.

Crime in Mexico City

Mexico City has an undeserved reputation of being violent and unsafe at night. But I’ve never felt in danger here, day or night. While it’s not the safest place in the world, it’s a far cry from its reputation. As long as you take some basic travel safety precautions you’ll be just fine. The level of security and surveillance here (1 police officer per 100 people; 11,000 cameras) means the chances of committing a crime without anyone seeing it is low.  The murder rate is lower than in Atlanta. (Crime statistics provided by Wikipedia.)

Mezcal Bars

They say that with the first kiss of Mezcal you are introduced to it; with the third sip you fall in love. That’s true for me. Having never tried any type other than Tequila before arriving I both got to know and fell in love with the specialty drink.  If you haven’t already, check out my short primer on Mezcal to find out why I like it so much.

Okupa 205 – This bar is located along a quiet street in the Colonia Roma area. It’s not well marked and inside it looks like somebody opened a bar in their studio apartment for their friends and forgot to close the door. Small and intimate, with a jukebox to hold in high regard, packed with surf, old hip hop, early punk, etc.

They have a variety of Mezcals and beers, as well as cocktails. This includes standards like mojitos and others, plus some Mezcal cocktails. It’s the only place I’ve seen a lassi cocktail, and it’s fantastic!

Phil is the guy to talk to here. He’s got a passion for Mezcal, music and movies. He learned to speak English by watching old VHS tapes and listening to the Beatles.

Thursday they have 3 for 2 Mezcal. Wednesday is 50 pesos for any drink. Tuesday 2 beers for 50 pesos.

La Clandestina – This may be one of the best bars in the world! It’s incredibly popular with hipsters and the well-dressed Chilango set both. The wall behind the bar is filled with glass jars of Mezcal, from which portions of various sizes are sold. You can also buy the ones that are bottled for retail sale. Unfortunately my favorite, the Mezcagnac, isn’t among those for sale. In fact, about half of the varieties here aren’t for sale – they’re simply not made in quantities large enough to bottle and sell.

I’d say more about this place, but you need to experience it for yourself. Look for the place with no sign that’s too busy to get into with patrons spilling out onto the sidewalk enjoying craft brews and sipping Mezcal and you’ve found it.

Beer Bars

Mexico loves beer. That’s the conclusion I’ve drawn from the explosion over the last few years of craft breweries – up to 20+ now. And they turn out good beer with influence from around the world. This is increasingly replacing the giants like Corona and Modelo in bars and fridges around the country.

The Beer Box – “We wanted a place that doesn’t serve Corona,” the owner of the latest of the franchise store/bar told me. It has been very successful. Serving dozens of Mexican craft beers as well as about a hundred other beers from around the world, this place is a clean, modern spot to pick up some fine beers.

El Trappist – A beer bar for connoisseurs of Belgian style beers, as well as other fantastic brews from around the world. They also serve great meat and cheese platters.

Cafes

More than just coffee shops, cafes in Mexico City are as likely to be open at 1AM as 8AM. Many sell beer and wine alongside pastries and java. They’re a nice, quiet place to be at the end of the night with friends talking and enjoying the cool night air. This lends the city an European feel. Mexico City has quite a few local chains, as well as many independent coffee shops.

Cielito Querido – A Mexican chain that’s quickly become my favorite place to go for a caffeine fix, these are springing up in quite a few places. They make excellent coffees, as well as horchata – a cold Mexican drink made from sweetened rice, milk and nuts that has a slight melon flavor.

Cafebria El Pendulo – A combination coffee shop and bookstore with a few locations. On weekends local musicians play soothing tunes for brunch. Very classy places that make Barnes and Noble feel like Walmart.

Restaurants

La Cervecería de Barrio – More restaurant than bar, this chain has decent Mexican food and is always popular at night.

La Casa de Toño – Cheap, tasty eats.

Others

Cueva de Lobos – Cave of Wolves. It’s a loud rock and roll bar with live music upstairs and cheap beer buckets for sharing with friends.

Expendio de Pulques Finos – The jugs at the bar are some kind of fermented fruit drink. Don’t want to drink a lot of them but interesting nonetheless. 3 floors. Kinda reminds me of the places in Budapest that just take over an abandoned apartment and turn it into a bar.

Take a walk through the parks – Mexico city has many public parks. Why not have a nice stroll? Have a seat and watch others walking by, enjoy the cool breezes and chat with friends.

Hacking Telcel Recharging in Mexico

So I walked into a Telcel Mexico office and went through the 15 minute process of signing up. Great! Now I’ve got a SIM card and a phone number. This costs $150 Pesos and you get about $60 Pesos credit.

Next step is to add some money to it. You do that by buying prepaid cards for a certain value. You need to know the value of the package you want to buy first. In my case it was the 3GB of Internet for $399 Pesos. So I bought 2x$200 Peso cards (called “fichas”). They can’t apply these in the store or over the Internet, you have to call and apply them manually. The number is *333 and there are voice prompts in English to walk you through it. No problem, right?

Unless the service is down. For several days. Great, now you’ve got a couple of cards that are essentially worthless until somebody gets around to fixing the *333 service. That’s no fun. Internet to the rescue! There’s a way to bypass the system and enter the card codes directly! Here’s how to do it.

Enter *134*<CODE>#
Hit Call/Send

So if the code on the back of your card (what you just scratched off) is 1234 5678 90123 you will type: *134*1234567890123# and hit Call/Send.

Voila! You have now deposited the credit in your account. You can check that on your Mi Telcel account through the Internet. That’s also easy to sign up for, you give them your number and they send you a SMS with your temporary password.

To check your balance you can dial *133# but that seems to cost about $1 Peso each time, so use sparingly.

My biggest complaint is that the upload speeds are pretty low. Normally that wouldn’t have a big effect, but they’re so slow that it effectively means you can’t use data. 60 bytes per second is about my average upload speed. At that rate you make about one webpage request a minute and apps are all but unusable.

A Brief Introduction To Mezcal

If you haven’t tried Mezcal recently, or at all, you’ll probably be surprised to hear and taste how great it is! Its undeserved reputation largely comes from mass produced and marketed junk that makes its way to the US market. Made the traditional way it can hold its own with any of the finest distilled spirits in the world. But very little of the quality stuff seems to be available north of the border.

That’s probably because the traditional methods of manufacture limit production. Here’s a good primer on the history and manufacture of Mezcal. In short, quality Mezcals are made by hand from several year old agave, and many are made from wild rather than farmed plants. This makes them expensive and somewhat rare. Many distillers make less than 1,000 liters per year and some as few as 200.

Mezcal has many different ways of manufacture. The liquid can be distilled 1-3 times, aged (rested for a short time, “reposado”, or for longer “anejo”) or unaged (“joven”). The location, type of ground and species gives a different flavor. The variety in flavor isn’t as great as in Scotch Malt Whisky, but a good Mezcal that has been aged for less than a year can easily match up against a good quality Whisky aged 15 years or more!

This is in contrast to the way Tequila is made. Tequila is mescal, made with blue agave, using a different process, and must be produced in the Tequila region. Typically the blue agave is only a couple of years before harvesting and production is cranked out in massive batches by machine. That doesn’t always make for a bad product, but most of the Tequilas and Mezcals you’re used to tasting in the US are definitely what you’ll get here.

Mezcal is served straight and with an orange slice to cleanse the pallet beforehand. First, eat the orange. Then take a small breath. Touch your lips to the liquid and take in just a bit – this is called a kiss. I’ts said that the first kiss is like a strange encounter. By the third you’re said to be in love.

A Stroll Through Downtown Mexico City And The Zocalo

Panorama: Zocalo in Mexico City
This past weekend I took a walk downtown to the Zocalo. Past the modern and the Art Deco buildings. Past all the nice cafés with open seating and small patios. Past the weekend market and Alameda Central Park. Past the castles, churches and mansions. And into the main town square.

The weekend crowd was large and bustling. The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral looms over the Zocalo the way most of the churches I’ve run into in Europe can’t seem to impose themselves upon their square. The structure is massive and covers an area at least as large as the huge open area in front of it. Imposing buildings flanked the square, one monolith per side, making the space feel entombing for its openness. And the church here seems to be the center of gravity and attention, with the majority of the action and vibrance drawn towards it and a lesser amount of action orbiting the outline of the square.

There was a stage set up in the square this weekend. The site is often used for political demonstrations and protests so this was no surprise. But this weekend the stage was occupied by dancers and pop music. As I got closer I heard the distinct Psy style. Gangnam Style. Closer still, I saw t-shirts and posters in Korean. The song shifted to Psy’s more recent song, Gentleman. After a minute or so, back to Gangnam Style. The songs swapped back and forth with the people on stage apparently learning the different dance moves for each. Eventually it came to an end and the crowd, mostly Chilangitas (young women from Mexico City), cheered loudly. I’m not sure what this was but it’s clear that there’s a great love of K-Pop in Mexico City.

I continued walking around near the church, through the crowd. And through the buskers with their wares spread on tarps, pushed in carts and hawked with calls about the quality and cost of what was on offer. Hungry and curious I tried a snack I’d seen others eating. Onto a crispy blue corn tortilla was smothered refried beans, cilantro, sautéed peppers, queso fresco and some picante sauce. You eat it by breaking the chip-like tortilla and scooping some of the topping into your mouth. Kind of like nachos you can hold in your hand!

After finishing the snack I went inside the main entrance of the Zocalo church. (The church has many side chapels which seem to be for specific purposes: confession, baptism, etc.) It is as large inside as you would expect. But another difference between it and Northern European churches struck me. This is a pragmatic place, set to be used not just toured. Chairs were set up around the popular altars; a portrait of the Pope who had visited many years ago was an active area; a mass was being conducted. I was a visitor, and even in this touristic area, I was the exception. So I stopped being in the way and walked back into the bright sunlight.

I leaned in the shade and checked where to go next. Quickly I was set upon by a group of teenage girls. Likely many of the same from the K-Pop show. The lead one asked me in Spanish if I spoke English and if I wouldn’t mind answering some questions. I didn’t. So a quick scripted and recorded interview later I was on my way. Kids practicing English often want to speak with a native speaker so it’s not out of the ordinary.

But I was stopped several other times for interviews. At one point there was a line of groups of kids waiting to interview me. They all seemed to be doing this for the same school (I asked several groups)band were all about the same age. I can imagine the giggles as every student realizes that they spoke with me. And the stifled chuckles of the professor imagining how I’d spent my day at the Zocalo speaking with his/her class about my favorite sports, my name, age, favorite Mexican food, and whether I’d like to come back to Mexico some time.

Of all the interviews I gave today one stand out. The boy was alone, except for his videographer mother, in contrast to the groups of girls as most were. He had his questions printed out and carried a pen, rather than written long hand as others. He wore thick glasses and looked like McLovin’s younger Mexican brother. He also asked the most intelligent questions and noted everything on his script as it was being documented. I have the feeling he is going to be either a scientist or a reporter and I wish him luck in either endeavor (or in whatever he chooses).

As the sun dipped below the clouds in the afternoon I walked away. I realized my skin stayed warm even in the shade and that brought back the realization that Mexico City was close to the equator and high in altitude, making sunburn virtually guaranteed on my unscreened skin. So staying in the shade I walked to find a little cafe overlooking the Alameda Central Park. It was hard to find because you have to go through the nine-story Sears to get there. But it was worth it for the view and the coffee frappe. Sitting there (in the shade) overlooking the park and the Architecture Museum while the sun set was beyond just pleasant. The drink was emptied too quickly, as was my energy.

I headed back to the hotel tired but full of appreciation for the things I’d seen and the experiences I’d had. I told all the kids that I had Liked Mexico and would return. That wasn’t just a nicety for their sake, I meant it. Mexico City is a vibrant metropolis with many different sides. It feels both Latin and European at times, which is not surprising given its geography and history. But the two work well together, matching culture and insanity the way a merengue mixes a gas into a liquid with the help of a little sugar and lime juice. A pleasant treat.

One Poor Correspondent

“I’ve been one poor correspondent
I’ve been too too hard to find
But that doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind”
-America, Sister Golden Hair

I’ve been both busy and lazy but it’s no excuse for not writing more.

While I was in London everything was a bit too boring, normal and well-explored. And so was I. It wasn’t worth writing, let alone reading.

I’ve been living in Seoul, South Korea for a couple of months and that’s definitely worth writing about. From a Miguk (American) perspective there’s a lot of hilarity to be had resulting from expectation gaps and cultural differences. I’ve got some notes on that and, well, we’ll see how it goes with getting those hammered into reasonable posts.

And for the month of May I’m living and working in Mexico City. And this is what has got me back on the keyboard clackity-clacking out some new posts. A combination with some time on my hands alone and lots of things I want to capture have gotten the juices flowing again and that means new posts. Which is good.

You can always stalk me on Foursquare, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and Photosynth.

Talk at you soon!