Mexico - Coast to the Mountains
With our pet-sit for the lovely Patches coming to a close and the upcoming sit in Oaxaca, Mexico right around the corner, Susie had scheduled a couple days for us in Bacalar, MX.
Taking a “water taxi” from Ambergris Caye, BZ over to Corozal on the mainland, and flying out of nearby Chetumal, MX was much cheaper than flying from Belize City. During our bumpy 90 minute boat ride over Chetumal Bay Susie started talking to a young Israeli woman who was out traveling Central and South America after finishing her one year stint in the army. She had already arranged a taxi from the port at Corozal, across the border at Chetumal and up to Bacalar, and agreed to share the ride.
We debarked from the boat and off we went with the Lincoln Lawyer! (well, maybe he was not an atty but it was a late model Lincoln MKZ) He helped us through the many lines at the tiny Customs & Immigration building and we were on our way to Bacalar, arriving just after the sun set at 9 pm. When we opened the doors to drop her off at the Jewish Community Center, a huge black cloud of mosquitoes swarmed in – yikes! The driver took us closer to the tourist area where we got some tacos and found a nice hotel close by.
Bacalar is a small town on the western side of Bacalar Lagoon, about 10 km inland from the bay. Originally settled by the Mayas, it was taken over by Spanish Conquistadors for its strategic location near the coast and the Hondo River. It has become a popular tourist destination over the last 20 years, for locals & foreigners alike, due to the beautiful Bacalar Lagoon. Covid has really hurt business recently, as it has in so many locations.
Known as “The Lagoon of Seven Colors”, Bacalar Lagoon has a white limestone bottom of varying depths, displaying many beautiful shades of blue from the reflected sunlight in the (formerly) crystal clear water.
Unfortunately, it has also been the victim of pollution from farming and development which has affected water clarity and quality in recent years. The lake is spring fed in many areas, with several cenotes around the edges, and has a remarkable inflow at the southern end called the Bacalar Rapids. This narrow channel is really more of a “lazy river” where folks can kayak or slowly float on tubes over amazing accumulations of Stromatolites, layered sedimentary formations that are created mainly by photosynthetic microorganisms such as cyanobacteria.
Having only one full day to explore we walked around the small town, visited the fort and the museum, picked up MX SIM cards and had some delicious food at a sweet artsy café. The lake was not busy, with dozens of tourist pontoon boats sitting at the docks. Up early next morning for a taxi back to the airport at Chetumal, and off to Oaxaca.
Our pet-sit in Oaxaca was unceremoniously interrupted by Hurricane Agatha which made landfall near there on May 30th. Marsha, our host was planning a vacation to the coast along there and most roads were rendered impassable. Marsha graciously offered her spare room for us anyway, which we gratefully accepted, having non-refundable flights. This worked out great, as she has organized a nice pickleball group that meets 3 days a week, so we were all set. We spent some enjoyable hours watching Gaslit with her, a good mini-series about Martha Mitchell & Watergate, and some of the Jan 6th Hearings.
Marsha’s lovely house was in the Jalatlaco Barrio, a very funky, artsy neighborhood with many little shops, restaurants and art galleries, a short way east of Centro. We felt very safe and comfortable walking everywhere from there to Centro, with many families of mostly locals and a few foreigners & expats out and about. Many of the streets were one-way and rough cobblestones, so auto traffic was usually slow. Wonderful street art decorated shops, cafes and private residences, and colorful flags fluttered over some of the narrower streets.
First things first, of course, and that means COFFEE in Susie’s world! She is slowly converting me, although my cup of joe must have copious amounts of sugar & cream, and caramel or whipped cream are a plus! And I usually prefer it iced, which is often available, but not always. So every day is a decision – go back to the last, best place – or find a better one. And we did find many good spots nearby.
And – the food was fantastic! Really wonderful and reasonably priced as well, especially coming from Belize. Oaxaca is famously called "the land of the seven moles" for the local variations of this delicious Mexican sauce. Different colors and flavors, they all begin with chiles – usually more than one. Mix in a variety of spices, fruits and nuts and you have a savory sauce to go with many traditional dishes. We tried chicken with 3 different moles: negro (chocolate, onions, garlic), almendrado (dark mole w/almonds) and coloradito (flavor from ancho chiles). The last was our fav by far – it was lighter with a slightly sweet flavor. Muy bueno!
Something completely different – the cinema! Can’t remember the last time we went to the movies and some of our new friends had just been to see Top Gun – 3 times! So off we went in Marsha’s VW van to check out the latest Jurassic Park. We got a popcorn grandé, divided with half cheese and half caramel, a coke for me and traipsed into a nice stadium-seating theater with only four other peeps.
Good show – I always love a good dinosaur flick. A week later we walked the 35 minutes to the theater to watch the new Top Gun. Even better flying scenes than the first – so good! Our route took us along a busy four-lane road and through some parts of the city that I probably would not want to walk at night - same as Miami or Orlando, but plenty of folks around during the day.
One morning we signed up for a free walking tour with D'Jannh, a nice young local guy who guided us around the busy Centro Histórico and surrounding areas, pointing out the baroque Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, the Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude and the Zócalo with its Art Nouveau bandstand.
Oaxaca de Juarez is the capital of Oaxaca state, sitting in the foothills of the Sierra Madre at 1,555 meters, about 135 km from the Pacific coast in southern Mexico. The Mixtec and Zapotec first settled the area, followed by the Aztecs around 1440. The Spanish arrived and conquered in 1521, building cities and Catholic churches. After the Independence of Mexico in 1821, the city became Oaxaca, changed from Antequera. "de Juárez" was added to the city name in 1872, honoring Benito Juarez, a liberal politician and lawyer, and the first indigenous person (Zapotec) to be elected president of Mexico.
Today Oaxaca is a vibrant and thriving city of 715,000 souls, where tourism is now the primary industry. Locals from all over the southern part of the country converge here for festivals during Holy Week, summer holiday and New Year, and a growing expat community adds to the international flair. The climate is mild with warmer temps and more rain during the summer. It was perfect for us Floridians – warm days and cool nights.
Not wanted to take advantage of Marsha’s generous hospitality, we found an Airbnb just a few doors away, behind a huge door with a grinning skull wearing headphones. Once inside there were four apartments along the left side, with ours being the only second floor room. Aldo had his shop at the back where he specialized in suspension tweaks for motocross cycles.
Wednesday morning, we had a lovely Street Art Bike Ride with Diego of Coyote Aventuras. He led us around Centro and nearby environs, pointing out many of the numerous paintings and murals that were everywhere.
Some of the art is done gratis by newcomers looking to make a name, and others are commissioned by merchants or private citizens. Some pieces on public property are left alone, but others that are too profane or political are removed. Politics and social awareness do play a large part in many of the designs, not always evident to non-Spanish speakers. We visited an artist collective where we saw many designs protesting current politics and social topics. Seems this is a common thread throughout the world. A small B&W print of Franz Kafka’s head was pasted up at several locations around town, declaring "FK Para Gobernador for 2022". He is wearing a large hat inscribed in Spanish with “Turn all politicians into grasshoppers cockroaches”. I guess grasshoppers was not a serious enough sentiment.
Pickleball has been a real delight! We are slowly improving – there is a lot to learn to keep the ball in action. Marsha’s group has raised money to have three PB courts resurfaced and painted out on a basketball court, and they have purchased three portable nets.
When we arrived on the first morning, the court was covered with large, winged insects, with many more fluttering out of the sky. We began sweeping these Chicatanas off the court but local people immediately showed up, scooping them into plastic bags. The first major rain of the season brings these creatures out, and they are collected to create many different dishes, especially “salsa de chicatana”, which is a smoky sauce ground in a “molcajete” with garlic, salt and chilies. Um…we did not try any. Call me a wimp.
Overall, though, the food was fabulous! Some of our favorites: shrimp tacos at La Calenda (scrumptious sauce!); El Tendajon for shrimp fettuccini & Moscow Mules; eggplant sandwich at Gourmand Deli (gigantic); El Biche Pobre (pollo y coloradito mole); Chepiche Café (best breakfast eggs). Never had anything terrible, tho waffles at one place were luke-warm Eggos with one tiny corner stained with syrup. Haha. We could spend many weeks here trying out different cafes and restaurants, and usually get a full meal deal for 10 USD and under. Sweet.
It is approaching June 20, and our next pet-sit is waiting in Ajijic, another mountain town about 480 miles NW of here. Adios!