Journey Home: San Miguel de Allende

After our long stay in Oaxaca, we made our way to San Miguel de Allende on Sunday, September 4th. It was another big drive, but we left early and had plenty of time to make the trip. That was the part we got right.

This is a good time to remind anyone traveling the toll roads through Mexico that you want to carry plenty of cash.

About six hours into our eight hour drive, we stopped for gas and got a couple cups of coffee. We paid cash for the coffee. This would turn out to be an unfortunate error.

A little further down the road, we arrived at a toll both where they asked for 315 pesos (about $16.50). We were short on pesos and they didn’t accept credit cards or dollars, so we had to back out of the toll booth through the oncoming traffic, pull off to the side of the road, and climb up to the office area to get this sorted out.

After lots of waiting and a bit of confusion due to my imperfect understanding of Spanish, I learned that the solution was for me to hop in the employee shuttle that would take me to a bank in Jilotepec where I could withdraw cash, then take the shuttle back to the toll plaza. Emily and I were not thrilled about being separated with no means of contacting each other (we have one SIM card and it’s usually in my phone), but given that we had no other option, I took the shuttle. About 90 minutes after we arrived, we were on our way with *plenty* of cash on hand.

Even with our delay, we arrived in San Miguel de Allende well before dark and got moved in to our lovely apartment. The next day was Labor Day (thanks, unions), so Emily and I had the chance to do a little city exploration. We started off by walking the dogs to wear them out, then went back out for a trolley tour of the city. That helped us get our bearings, to a certain extent, and we spotted some places we’d end up visiting later in the week.

 

On our last day in the city, we went to the artisans’ market. It’s subsidized by the city, so the vendors are able to keep their prices low. It’s a huge market, about four blocks  lined on either side with stalls full of lots of great crafts. We picked up a sweet mirror with a metal and talavera tile frame (photo soon!).

We stopped in at a free concert by a string quartet at Bellas Artes, an art space in the courtyard behind the Templo de la Purísima Conceptión. Formerly a convent, the building was later named for Ignacio Ramírez (aka El Nigromante), a famous writer, lawyer, and atheist and repurposed as an art and cultural center. It was a great place to hear a concert and you can watch a clip below.

San Miguel de Allende is a pretty magical city and we had a great stay. Next stop, Guanajuato!

Journey Home: Two Weeks in Oaxaca

That’s right — two weeks in Oaxaca! It was awesome.

We drove from San Cristóbal to Oaxaca on Sunday, August 21st. As we drove toward Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas, we passed through toll booths that were abandoned by the government and taken over by groups of people. It wasn’t clear where our money was going, but we paid and continued along our way. We passed through the capital just in time — a couple days later we saw on the news that protesters were blocking the roads.

We stayed at a centrally located apartment with a nice patio area for the dogs to run around. It was a great spot that allowed easy access to restaurants, the Zócalo, and various markets in the city.

Emily remembered the Zócalo being a wide open area from her previous trip to Oaxaca eight years ago. This was not the case this time, due to the ongoing protests by one of the teachers’ unions in reaction to President Peña Nieto’s education reforms. Protesters had set up camps in the Zócalo and along many of the surrounding streets. Apparently the camps have been cleared for the upcoming Mexican independence celebrations. You can read a bit about the background of the situation in this article.

The food scene in Oaxaca is ridiculous. There is delicious food everywhere, from carts on the street to fancy-time restaurants. Impressive for its number of ingredients, mole is one of the local foods we learned to make during our cooking class at Casa Crespo. The chef teaching the class, Oscar Carrizosa, did a great job of explaining what was going on and giving each one of the six people in our class the opportunity to participate in the process. Luckily for us, we should be able to find most, if not all, of the ingredients back home in Austin.

During our second week, I took a Spanish class at Oaxaca Spanish Magic. In spite of their advertising group classes, I ended up with a one-on-one course at a very reasonable price. My teacher, Lili, was fantastic. She taught me a lot, helped me identify the holes in my Spanish knowledge (hello, subjunctive), and gave me a great list of topics to study and work on with a future teacher at the end of the week of classes.

On our last day in Oaxaca, we took a tour of the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. The building was originally a church and monastery for the Dominicans who worked tirelessly to convert the native peoples to their brand of Christianity. You can read more about the construction on Wikipedia, but the main points are that it was an active church and monastery until the mid-1800s, after which it was occupied by the military and used as a base. The military made a mess of things, destroying lots of the original art before moving out in the early 20th century. The church and monastery were restored starting in 1993, and the monastery now serves as a museum.

 

We spent last week in San Miguel de Allende — more on that soon — and are currently spending our last week on the road (!) in Guanajuato. It’s hard to believe how close we are to home.

Journey Home: Antigua and Huehuetenango

We drove into Antigua from Copan after crossing the border on Sunday, August 7. The descent into this beautiful city encircled by mountains and volcanoes is impressively steep and serves to transport you to its cobblestone colonial paradise. We stayed at a cute and quiet guesthouse in the southwest part of Antigua about a 15-minute walk from the central park.

Unfortunately, our arrival in Antigua coincided with my getting a cold. That put a bit of a damper on city exploring, but we still managed to go out every night and I did a ton of walking to run various errands, including navigating the labyrinthine market. It wasn’t a super eventful week, but we came away with a few souvenirs and memories of some awesome food experiences.

In anticipation of our drive to Mexico, we drove to Huehuetenango, Guatemala on Saturday, August 13. That put us within two hours of the border. We didn’t have a hotel reservation when we rolled into town, but I had found a couple options online. The first one we arrived at, which I had tried to call the day before, was obviously completely booked. There were tons of cars parked behind the hotel, and when I walked in to try to find the reception desk, I came upon a wedding reception instead! We bailed on that one and drove to our next option.

The Hotel Premier, which sounds fancier than it is, had rooms available. However, the receptionist informed us that there was a disco that night from about 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Emily and I discussed it, then opted to book a room anyway. The price was right, and we had earplugs and sleep aids. We actually managed to get some decent rest that night and got up early to make our way to the border.

 

The border crossing into Mexico was relatively uneventful. Nicaragua let us out, and Mexico let us in after a bit of back and forth with the dogs — we missed the agricultural/animal checkpoint and had to backtrack. As soon as we could, we stopped to get tacos (yay, Mexico!). We ended up pulling into San Cristóbal de Las Casas at about 4 p.m. local time.

We’ll be posting updates on our week in San Cristóbal and our subsequent trip to Oaxaca shortly!

Journey Home: Nicaragua and Honduras

On Sunday, July 31st we started our drive back home to Austin. We’re driving mostly on the weekends, since Emily needs to work, so we’ll be taking about six weeks to get home. Our planned arrival date in Austin is September 18.

Day one of the journey started out great. The drive to the border was fairly long, but easy. Exiting Costa Rica was no problem — we ran ahead of the huge group of Tica Bus passengers, presented the appropriate papers for ourselves and the car, and got through the border without incident. It was a rather unceremonious farewell to Costa Rica.

Our entry into Nicaragua was a little trickier. It turns out that the people who are there to help with processing paperwork at the border are authorized, but authorized doesn’t mean free. We did get through the whole process of temporarily importing the car, passing through immigration, and getting a certification from the vet for Penny and Theda to enter the country pretty quickly, but we also got taken for a bit of a ride. That won’t happen again.

We also had a bit of trouble exiting the border area when an agent noticed that we didn’t have a front license plate. That plate was stolen a couple weeks ago, but we played sorta dumb (I’m good at that) and after some conversations with a few officials, we got border boss-level permission to enter Nicaragua with only one license plate. Phew!

Even with all of that messing around, the border crossing took less than two hours, which we count as a major success. We rolled into Granada at about 3:30 p.m. and got settled in our cozy & comfortable room at the Hotel Casa San Francisco. I was familiar with this place because I stayed at a casita owned by the owners of the hotel when I visited Granada earlier this year. The hotel is just a few blocks from Calle La Calzada, which has a few pedestrian-only blocks lined with many restaurants and street performers. We enjoyed the walkability of the city, which led to our car being parked on the street the whole time we were there. Each night, we payed a guard a couple bucks to watch the car, which is common practice in these cities where petty theft is apparently common.

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A park I found in Granada about a kilometer from our hotel. It was an important find, since these walled Spanish colonial cities lack abundant green space for the dogs to relieve themselves. 

On Tuesday, August 2nd, we relocated to León, which put us within two hours of the Honduras border. We found a room on AirBnB at Hostal El Nancite, which is a guesthouse run by John, a talkative expat from NYC and his Nica wife. Emily and I enjoyed being near the center of action – close to the León Cathedral, a great bakery/restaurant called Pan y Paz, and other restaurants and attractions. One of our most enjoyable meals was procured from the ladies grilling various meats and other savory delights behind the cathedral at the edge of the market. Paired with some Costa Rican beer, it was a fairly perfect dinner.

After a few days in León we packed up and proceeded to barrel through Honduras in just two days. We crossed the border on Friday, August 5 after talking to lots of officials, waiting for the customs officials to get back from lunch, and jumping through all the hoops. (Honduras wants so many copies of documents! Where do they all go?) We spent one night in Tegucigalpa at a Hyatt in the equivalent of The Domain in Austin — a fancy-time mall-like area with hip restaurants (and Chili’s) and condos. We had a great night there, including a tasty meal at the nearby wine bar and a cocktail at the hotel’s rooftop bar.

 

We rolled out of Tegucigalpa on Saturday morning. After getting lost in the city a couple times (GPS was having trouble), we made our way to Copán Ruinas. This was one of the two nights on the trip that we didn’t have lodging booked in advance. We stopped by the place we stayed on the way down last year, but they were full. After some hunting around, we found a room at Carrillos Hotel, a small, modestly-priced place on the edge of town. It was also conveniently located around the corner from a restaurant specializing in pupusas, a food we’ve recently come to love.

We woke up bright and early on Sunday, loaded up the car, and rolled over to the ruins to make up for missing them on our trip down to Costa Rica last year (“Don’t miss the ruins,” say all the guidebooks). I’m pretty fascinated by ruins and imagine people living out their lives there — at it’s peak, Copán and the surrounding area was home to about 20,000 Mayans. Emily was more into the adjoining scarlet macaw sanctuary, which was really cool. We’d seen these birds flying in pairs from far away, but up close they’re spectacularly beautiful and loud. We have no intention of becoming birders, but if there is such a thing as a “gateway bird,” the scarlet macaw would seem to fit the profile.

After checking the ruins off of our list, we hopped in the car, crossed the border into Guatemala, and arrived in Antigua. We’ve been here for five awesome nights and will hit the road tomorrow to make our way closer to Mexico before making our penultimate border crossing on Sunday.

Antigua anecdotes coming soon!