A Travellerspoint blog

March 2019

¡Viva México!

Traveling Backwards: Revisiting Mexico 11 Years Later

sunny

When one of my best friends announced that he was getting married in Mexico and wanted me to be part of the wedding I felt excited for him but nervous to be returning there after so many years. The thing is, I lived in Mexico eleven years ago – at the time I was a very young, very impressionable woman. Now I’m a not-so-young, very impressionable woman. In all seriousness though, a lot has changed since my time doing an internship at a homeless shelter in Mexico City. In fact, this blog was conceived at that time and I’m sure that those experiences and my perspectives would be wildly different were I to write about them now. One of the concerns that sprang to mind was how it would feel to see my old friends, and visit my old neighbourhood. Would they remember me? Would it all look different? How might this trip down memory lane impact my feelings about my time living there? I was also very aware of my relationship with fear and how that’s changed. When I lived in Mexico for those four months, I acted in foolish ways at times without anticipating consequences whereas now I avoid risk because I’m wholly aware of what the repercussions could be. Of course, it didn’t help that the Canadian government has a number of alerts about travel to Mexico.

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Before I go into much detail about my trip, I just want to provide a few disclaimers. I’m a fluent Spanish speaker who has lived in Mexico before so my perspectives are based on my experience meeting people and using services entirely in Spanish. I can’t speak to how accessible things would be in English unless I’m reporting on what my friends or boyfriend experienced. I’ll also mention that as a woman who has had some problematic experiences with men in Mexico in the past, safety may be more of a concern for me than others. I’m trying to paint an accurate picture of my relationship with Mexico, not pretend every trip is a blank canvas. In my opinion, every traveler brings their bias and should also be aware that the identity you wear on your sleeve when you travel may not be how you self-identify. I’ll finish off my preamble with this: just reflect on how you may be perceived before you go – it’ll ultimately make the trip easier.

The wedding itself was in Puerto Vallarta, which I had never planned to visit. I anticipated it being like Acapulco, and in some ways it was – for example, it’s packed with tourists, but fortunately in many ways it wasn’t because, for example, it’s incredibly safe. I will say that their airport is probably the least organized I’ve ever seen in my life. As it’s such a small place I assumed it would be a quick trip past customs and instead it took two hours from the point of disembarking to finally make it out of the building. This was in large part thanks to the many airport employees who were too busy gossiping to actually form lines and/or direct passengers. I voiced my discontent, and fortunately they seemed to take my words to heart. Unfortunately, my back was already killing me by this point (I learned my lesson – do not travel with a 20 lbs. backpack). When it came time to get to la Zona Romántica of Puerto Vallarta, I opted to catch a bus to save some money. Instead, I befriended a lovely couple at the bus stop who gave me a free Uber ride to town and inadvertently hooked me up with a private driver for the duration of the trip. I do not recommend taking a taxi from the airport if you can avoid it – they’ll charge roughly 320 pesos more than one of the buses. If you really want to travel in comfort, just order an Uber and save yourself some money for your nights out on the town.

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It felt appropriate that I was staying in la Zona Romántica on Valentine’s Day, even if I was alone. In fact, I was still able to get into a good restaurant (El Dorado) and treat myself to a nice meal. I also enjoyed long romantic walks along the beach at sunset punctuated by people trying to sell me massages, roses, and keychains. El Malecón is well worth strolling because it’s the main boardwalk of the city from which you can see vistas of the water and mountains, but also the plethora of statues, artists, and attractions. One of the strangest acts I saw was a clown who spent about 15 minutes making fun of where audience members were from and then proceeded to line children up from tallest to shortest. Somewhere between the silence and lack of laughter I grew bored and wandered away toward the Plaza Principal and Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (church). Fate drew me instead right through the doors of el Museo de Chocolate. I learned about how cocoa is harvested, mass production of chocolate and its use in Indigenous cultures, but more importantly I discovered tejate - a tasty prehispanic drink of maize, cocoa, milk and mamey from the Oaxaca region.

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Puerto Vallarta is a great place to relax. The problem is I’m not very good at relaxing. My hotel, Hotel Porto Allegre, really helped in this regard because it had a beautiful rooftop patio with views of the jungles, mountains, and water. I was able to keep my mind racing by reading the newspaper, but also feel at ease by soaking up the surrounding beauty. The best views I saw were on the hike up to the Mirador Cerro de la Cruz. I would suggest not following the makeshift signs that take you through a jungle shortcut and instead following the street. I would also suggest bringing water. Trust me, I learned the hard way. Somehow, I avoided kidnapping, and also heat stroke. Hopefully you manage to do the same.

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Puerto Vallarta has a number of nice neighbourhoods, and based on your interests you’ll determine which area works best for you. Some of my friends chose to stay in the Marina Vallarta for their last night, which is a cute spot for restaurants and bars as well as crocodiles. No word of a lie – there are real crocodiles that live and lounge in the waters of the marina. The crocodiles didn’t scare away my appetite, and when I visited I ate a plentiful portion of risotto at Porto Bello Restaurant.

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The wedding itself was held in a town called La Cruz de Huanacaxtle at a resort called B Nayar. I could write an entire blog entry about how weird this “hotel” was. Firstly, it turned out that it’s not a real hotel but rather a timeshare scheme or fancy Airbnb. Secondly, it took an hour and a half to check in because it turned out our suite had gecko feces all over, no lights in one of the bedrooms, a broken safe, as well as multiple broken patio/balcony doors. Finally, I woke up to no running water on my last morning there. I’ll just leave that there.

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The majority of the wedding party stayed at an all-inclusive resort, the Royal Decameron, in the nearby town of Bucerías. One of the things that turned me off about the resort was that they don’t allow Mexican tourists. It was mind-boggling to me when I found out because it would seemingly violate so many human rights/anti-discrimination laws. In any case, I found that disheartening. The wedding itself took place at the B Nayar. Although I found it a bizarre place to stay, it certainly was a beautiful wedding venue. The wedding took place on a beach looking out over the sea and mountains of Puerto Vallarta, which was a great spot to watch the sunset. The views were simply spectacular. The bride and groom were ecstatic, and it was wonderful being able to celebrate their love with a number of my friends. I was actually surprised by the number of people who attended given that destination weddings are a significant investment in terms of both time and money. It goes to show how much love surrounds this couple.

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After the wedding weekend, it was time for me to fly to Mexico City and begin my journey to the past. Of course, it was a bumpy ride. Literally. I got so motion sick on the flight that I couldn’t stop vomiting even once I was safely on land. Fortunately, my personal doctor arrived soon enough and we headed to our Airbnb for a grounded evening. We had chosen to stay in la Zona Rosa because I knew it was safe, and also full of fun. As safe as it is in la Zona Rosa, that’s relative to the rest of the city. So, as a Canadian, I had to readjust because when in Mexico it isn’t uncommon to see massive guns. Even in a nice café, Tierra Garat, in a safe neighbourhood, our thoughtful conversation about “cien”tipedes was interrupted by two men who ran by us with massive guns straight into the kitchen. After realizing we were the only people in the café who seemed to notice this, I asked one of the employees who then informed me that it was a security company collecting cash. With that assurance, we could return to our discussion about whether all centipedes have one hundred legs. Turns out I was wrong - they don’t.

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Overall, we really liked staying in la Zona Rosa but I’m glad we moved elsewhere over the weekend because I’m a light sleeper and it gets loud. We were right down the street from Kinky Bar, and it makes its presence known even on the weekdays. We really enjoyed the evenings because there was some fantastic people-watching from some really great bars and restaurants. Although we ate mainly Mexican food, we also enjoyed some other places like il Ristorante (Italian food), and Cafebreria el Péndulo (bookstore bar). A surprisingly good Mexican restaurant was actually in the mall Reforma 222. I had a delicious dish with mole at el Bajío, and my boyfriend and two friends ate quesadillas amongst other delicious dishes. It was nice to have a quiet space for the four of us to catch up, laugh and gossip without much distraction. It was also a good opportunity for us to remember that we’re in our 30s now and would rather have dinner in a mall than go dancing in a club.

Mexico City has a magical air about it. There are endless things to do, places to go and people to see. And unfortunately, we just didn't have the time to see all the people and places I would have liked. I planned our trip such that each day would be one zone. Our first day was spent in the historic center (la Zona Histórica) where we walked for seven hours in the sun (again, without much water). I would recommend only drinking bottled water while in Mexico, and making sure you actually drink enough of it! Again, learn from my mistakes. We started our day at the Torre Latinoamericana where we took in the best views of the city while enjoying brunch. If you’d rather not pay the price of admission, then visit the building directly across from el Palacio de Bellas Artes where you’ll still get a beautiful view of the downtown. Some of the key sites in that zone are: el Palacio de Bellas Artes (for the murals, and the shows), el Templo Mayor (where you can learn more about what ruins were unearthed while building the subways), el Zócalo (the main town square with the gigantic flag), Templo de San Francisco (one of many beautiful churches in the city), Citibanamex Culture Palace (home to interesting free photography exhibits), Sinagoga Justo Sierra (if you’re interested in the history of Ashkenazi Jewry in Mexico), el Palacio Nacional (to see some of Diego Rivera’s most prominent murals), and Plaza Garibaldi (for the live mariachi music, although I wouldn't go after dark).

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Although we rushed through these places in a day, it’s entirely reasonable to extend your visit so that you can really soak in the culture and history. There’s an incredible amount to learn, and you may not recall much if you’re too busy trying to make your next move. In fact, it was for this reason that we chose to spend an entire afternoon at the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia. We wanted to give this museum the respect it deserved given the gravity of the topics it broached. If you’ve read my other blog posts, you know that I like to travel to learn and often that takes me to some dark places. Visiting a museum that’s primarily focussed on genocide is not everyone’s idea of an ideal vacation, and that’s understandable. We left with heavy hearts, but we also felt lighter because the museum ends with messages of hope through tolerance. The museum is curated by people who understand that dark histories need to be balanced with the presentation of peace plans - for that reason, visitors will learn about the likes of Nelson Mandela and Ghandi before leaving. To me, the most inspiring part of that visit was the fact that we had to wait half an hour just to get into the museum. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon when people could be strolling the streets, they chose to spend their time acknowledging the atrocities of the past and present so that they can hopefully equip themselves with tools for tolerance and understanding in the future.

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My boyfriend flew out before me on the Sunday evening, so I spent that time returning once again to la Zona Histórica in order to quickly buy a traditional Oaxaca style blouse from el Mercado de Artesanías la Ciudadela, pop into Cafe de Tacuba for dinner and catch a performance of folkloric ballet at the Palacio de Bellas Artes before flying out myself later that night. They have performances Sunday mornings and evenings for a very reasonable price – my seat was only 300 pesos. The repertoire is diverse and covers everything from Aztec dances to a summary of the revolution of 1910 (complete with dancing female soldiers). One of the more bizarre dances was called la Vida es un Juego and involved massive dancing toys – supposedly, the game is controlled by the devil. Again, it’s possible to see a lot in very little time but you need to decide if that’s the type of trip that works for you. If it were my first time in Mexico City, I would likely have slowed the pace substantially.

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If you have a week or more in Mexico City it’s well worth considering your daytrip options. A must-see is Teotihuacán – the ancient Mesoamerican pyramids built around 300 BC (well before the Aztecs). You can choose to purchase a tour, or attempt to get there by yourself. Remember that if you go with a tour you need to really do your research to ensure that it’ll allow you adequate time to explore the site, and remember that you’ll be paying a lot more. Many of the tours force you to make stops at markets where they’ll take a cut, rather than permitting you plenty of time to climb the pyramids. Also, be aware that there are multiple pyramids and you need to dress appropriately for climbing them. I saw some folks who didn’t understand that climbing a pyramid and going salsa dancing involved different attire. Although we dressed appropriately, our mistake was that we didn’t leave our hotel early enough to arrive there with sufficient exploration time. Because we left so late, we only arrived at Teotihuacán early afternoon, and the site closed at 5pm. The site entry tickets cost 75 pesos each, and even though we had such a short time it still felt like we got our money’s worth just seeing that incredible taste of Mexican history. When you factor in the tremendous crowds, our bad timing left us with enough time to climb only one pyramid: the Pyramid of the Sun. We had climbed a mountain two days prior, so we were excited for the pyramid climb and able to complete it within about 15 minutes (accounting for the lines). The view is incredible and really leaves you in awe of the ability of ancient peoples, and interested in learning more about their way of life. Walking the Avenue of the Dead, which takes roughly half an hour from end to end, also left us very curious about their philosophies on life and death.

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If you’re not taking a tour, you’ll likely need to trek to the Terminal Central de Autobuses del Norte where I’d suggest buying roundtrip tickets (you can buy an open return) for 104 pesos. The buses leave fairly frequently but they also stop frequently to pick up seemingly random passersby on the way so it isn’t as quick a trip as Google Maps may have you believe. For us, it took just over an hour and fortunately we were able to sit together on the way there (but not on the way back). We experienced some confusion around which gates to wait at, but ultimately the buses stop at a few so we weren’t left searching for caves to sleep in. If I were to go back, I would take more snacks and also make reservations at the only walkable restaurant – la Gruta, which also happens to be in a cave. When we arrived, we were told it would be a one hour wait, so we settled for street food instead.

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La Gruta would be a great place to dine because they provide entertainment like dancers and singers. All in all, it worked out fine though because we ended up back in Mexico City early enough to go for a proper meal at el Quebracho (Argentinian steakhouse) in the Cuauhtémoc neighbourhood. As it happened to be our last night together in the city, we dressed nicely and after our tasty dinner and dessert, we went strolling by the famous Ángel de la independencia on Reforma ave. Just as a quick note on dessert: there are amazing churros all over, but my favourite spot was el Moro. I surprised myself thinking about this but in all honesty my all-time favourite dessert in Mexico is fruit. You can find fresh fruit on many street corners, and it’s tropical too! The best street meal, in my opinion, is a licuado de mamey and a quesadilla con flor de calabaza – it gives the fancy Argentinian steakhouse a run for its money.

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For our last days in Mexico City, my boyfriend and I moved from our Airbnb in the gay village to luxury suites in Cuauhtémoc at the MX Grand Suites. I thought it was an excellent hotel. They were particularly helpful with last-minute requests like on the Friday night when a protest shut down a number of streets nearby and our Ubers kept canceling – the concierge called us a taxi, and walked us to it so that we wouldn’t be further delayed. The taxi had our backs and we weren’t late to our very important date. My friends were meeting us at the Arena México for Lucha Libre – Mexican professional wrestling entertainment. It turns out that my friends were able to get us VIP tickets which meant that we entered through the same doors as the wrestlers. Because the first luchador I saw was Místico he quickly became my favourite. That being said, without a doubt my favourite wrestling name was Terrible – he calls it like it is. Ultimately, the battle that most impressed me was the one-on-one, which just went on and on and on. I couldn’t believe the stamina of these men. Although it’s all staged, I’m sure, it’s still incredibly physical and these men knew the show had to go on and on and on too. It was a lot of fun attending Lucha Libre with my Mexican friends because they were able to fill us in on the back stories of the different entertainers, it was like watching a real-life multi-generational telenovela.

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After Lucha Libre we were contemplating whether to call it a night, but felt like our old selves would have been disappointed (and we knew it was our last time hanging out as a group, for this trip at least) so we headed out to an open-concept bar/restaurant called el Comedor. There was no dancing, just eating. Good compromise between wanting to live up to our partying past, but acknowledging our particular present. Catching up with my friends felt so natural even though we hadn’t seen each other in over a decade. We saw this couple a couple of times because, well, they’re just such wonderful people and were also integral to my time in Mexico. It also helped that my boyfriend and the husband hit it off instantly, and could communicate in English. One of my concerns before departing on this tour to my past was whether things would be the same. While there, I realized that things didn’t need to be the same to feel just as natural. Although we have grown and changed, we still get along and respect each other for who we are now. It was really special for me to be able to share that experience with my boyfriend too, because I think learning more about someone’s past allows you better insight into their present. I just wish we had had more time to catch up with more of my Mexican friends, but it wasn’t in the cards for this quick trip.

Speaking of my Mexican past, I wanted to spend time in la Condesa – the area I had lived in all those years ago. My boyfriend and I wandered the streets until we found my old house, and although I seriously considered ringing the bell to see whether the landlady still lived there, I decided against it. It was enough for me to just see that the house was safe. You see, an earthquake in September 2017 did a significant amount of damage to that neighbourhood, and in a sick twist of fate it occurred to the day on the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City that had killed at least 10 000 people. People often think about danger in Mexico as being restricted to person-on-person, and they forget the raw potential power of the earth. The spot that struck me the most was an apartment building near the fashionable Parque México that had been ravaged by the earthquake. It stood there wedged in between stylish condo blocks, totally out of place yet standing its ground. The bottom floor was still in use by a business, even though the floors above were shattered and uninhabitable.

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After wandering streets and sipping drinks at endless cafes, it was important for me to spend some time in the massive Bosque de Chapultepec. At over 1 600 acres in size, I’ve been told it’s the largest urban park in North America. Although it’s undoubtedly beautiful, it’s also not the kind of natural retreat you’d get at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York for example because it’s filled with vendors, museums, and even a castle. I couldn’t remember ever entering the castle, so my boyfriend and I decided to pay the fee, hike up the hill, and go for it. The information inside is entirely in Spanish so I played translator for him as we wandered the opulent halls, and paused to take in the gorgeous views of Mexico City. I really enjoyed learning about how the castle changed depending on who was residing in it. In a nutshell, the castle was first built in the 1700s and has served as everything from: astronomy observatory to a military college to a house for the president. Some of the history is depicted visually through murals, by Antonio Gonzalez Orozco and Diego Rivera, for example. And prior to 18th century development on the hill, it was already a spot of great importance to Aztec cultures.

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Speaking of the Aztecs, we did a day trip to Tepoztlán so we could hike up the mountain Tepozteco and visit the temple dedicated to the Aztec god of drunkenness and fertility (naturally the two would go hand-in-hand). Although we weren’t drunk or pregnant (although it would be amazing if my boyfriend were the latter), we still managed to enjoy the visit immensely. Like our day trip to Teotihuacán, we opted out of guided tours or private guides and instead took the subway to Tasqueña metro station and then walked to the Terminal Central del Sur where we bought our roundtrip tickets (134 pesos each). Our trip was eventful as the highway exit was closed, and the bus driver announced that he wasn’t familiar with the neighbourhood. After accepting advice from passengers, we detoured through the smoke from a massive countryside fire and eventually made it to the bus terminal in Tepoztlán. Our journey wasn't over yet though. From the terminal we had to walk for more than half an hour, and naturally stop for ice cream at the famous Tepoznieves, before we made it to the base of the mountain. It took us just over an hour to get to the top, but we were fortunate that there was no rain because it’s a messy path. In fact, large parts of the hike are just rocks and loose stones which definitely helped me sprain my ankle on the way down. I can’t imagine doing the hike in anything other than hiking boots or running shoes, but I did see some people struggling to do it in flip flops. Did they make it to the top? I can neither confirm nor deny. My boyfriend and I certainly made it to the top, and loved the views from up there. We also appreciated that there were water bottles for sale because by then we had finished ours (and were able to toss them in the garbage bins). Something that really surprised us both were the animals we met along the way like the coatis, which are sort of like Mexican monkey raccoons who are very territorial about the garbage at the precipice. The hunger in their eyes, albeit for garbage, definitely triggered our appetites and by the time we made it back to town we stopped at one of the first restaurants we saw: la Colorina. We basically ate our way through every town we saw, and enjoyed every bite.

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Hands-down my favourite meal (for the food and ambience) was at Antiguo palacio de Coyoacán in the south of the city, where I enjoyed sopa Azteca and tacos dorados. I particularly liked that we were sitting on a patio and could people-watch, although I was distracted by the man beside us who was watching telenovelas on his cellphone. I was ambitious in our planning for our time in southern Mexico City because I thought we may be able to visit Coyoacán, San Ángel, Desierto de los leones and Xochimilco in one day. At the end of the day we had made it to Xochimilco and Coyoacán. Upon further reflection, I realized that we could drop San Ángel from our itinerary because it’s a similar vibe to Coyoacán. Instead of rushing, we spent some time wandering the cobblestone streets and relaxing in the central plazas: Plaza Centenario and Plaza Hidalgo.
In contrast to the calm of Coyoacán, Xochimilco was more like a frenzied fiesta. Xochimilco is actually a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, and has an incredible history given how the landscape (and lake) has changed over time. It’s known as the Venice of Mexico because it’s full of canals and boats called trajineras which are ridden by mariachi bands, and vendors selling everything from huitlacoche (corn fungus) to dolls. Dolls have become integral to the tourist experience at Xochimilco given that there’s an island of dolls, which is quite unnerving if you don’t know what to expect given that half the dolls are dismembered or decapitated. We had set off from the Embarcadero Nativitas whereas in the past I had left from the Embarcadero Belem so depending on where you leave from and how long you want to spend on the canals you may see the original island of the dolls or the fake version – they’re both equally creepy, don’t worry. Our steady trajinera, Paola, took us past the dolls, the mariachis, and the hoards of other tourists with only a couple of collisions.

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After our time down south, we decided to have dinner with an old friend of mine and his girlfriend back in the center of the city. Neither of them speaks English, so I got to reprise my translator role. It really was a throwback to the past because my friend and I had worked together at a homeless shelter a decade ago and we’re now working in very different contexts. Listening to my friend give updates about the men we worked with really left me torn. It was also difficult to hear that the organization and shelter no longer exist. Apparently, everything shut down, and the only thing that remains of it is that some of the former employees now serve as consultants in the field of homelessness. The organization and shelter had such an inspiring philosophy: future-focused to equip the men with skills like cooking, marketing, and business by letting them run a local bakery. On top of that, it also ran programs for local youth to help them stay off the streets. It’s estimated that there are millions of homeless people in Mexico City, and there are a lot of people doing a lot of good work to help that population. Seeing old friends reminded me of the passions and interests I had living there, and the many caring people who helped me through some tough times, including some of the incredible men I worked with at the homeless shelter. Mexico City was definitely a trip through the past, and it reminded me of the importance of compassion and not letting fear drive how you live your life. I’m so grateful that I was able to be a part of my friend’s wedding ceremony in Puerto Vallarta, and spend time with my boyfriend and old friends in Mexico City. I loved reflecting on the things (and people) that matter in my present, and what I want from my future.

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Posted by madrugada 16:50 Archived in Mexico Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains churches mexico romantic_getaway wedding_season Comments (0)

America, Again

Touring the States eight times over 2018: Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, and New York

all seasons in one day

I never expected to visit the US more than once in 2018 (let alone eight times!), but my first trip fared so well that I couldn’t stop myself from revisiting my neighbours to the south. It all started with Chicago in February. Although the trip was family-focused, I decided to spend the last night alone. By alone, I mean going on a date with a handsome local at a pizza joint. To be fair, Chicago is a foodie’s paradise and beyond the delicious grease of a deep-dish pizza (Giordano’s is my go-to), there’s classic Japanese BBQ at Gyu-Kaku (beware it is a chain, though), or brunch at Allis (I’d recommend a cocktail and crème brulee) among a multitude of other options. I picked up more than just a few pounds while eating my way through Chicago, I also met my boyfriend (that handsome local).

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Chicago is an architectural gem! After one third of the city burned to the ground in 1871, it was rebuilt even bigger and better. A great way to learn more about its history and edifices is through the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise. Because I took the river cruise alone, it was easier to find a front-row seat… although my view was blocked by a fanny-pack yielding tourist for about half the cruise. I spent that time debating whether I liked fanny-packs, or whether I should defend my view. I decided to keep my opinions to myself: on both the fanny-pack and the selfish view-blocker. In any case, I think the cruise is a must-do, but ensure that you buy your ticket in advance and maybe motion sickness pills - it truly is called the windy city for good reason.

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After visiting Chicago three times last year, I’ve realized it’s designed for enjoyment come rain or snow… and there will be lots and lots of snow. Chicago’s climate is very similar to Toronto’s meaning that it experiences two seasons: intense cold and intense heat. One of the difficulties in either climate is the humidity. In the summer I find it worse in Chicago than Toronto because something about the humid heat there seems to function as a wake-up call for all the spiders residing in the continental U.S. As a committed arachnophobe, the summer of spiders in Chicago may be my biggest challenge to completely loving the city. In the summer, if you can make it through all the spider webs, it’s worth trekking to Navy Pier. It’s an entertainment hub beside the water, which is also a great spot to watch fireworks a couple of times a week. Another place I like in the summer is Millenium Park which offers summer concerts at Pritzker Pavilion. The iconic Bean (technically called “Cloud Gate”) is also readily available for all your selfie needs.

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If you’re in more of an indoor mood (i.e. it’s too cold outside to breathe), it’s well worth visiting the Art Institute of Chicago which was founded in 1879 and includes art by Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso and many other esteemed painters and sculptors. Another great thing to do in cold weather is to visit the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) for the breathtaking views and potential for sappy photos. My boyfriend and I went with his friend and girlfriend, and we realized very quickly that you need to have your poses prepared because if it’s busy you only get one minute when you’re on the glass floor. They aren’t messing around – they will usher you out after your allotted time. Quick tip: you get more time if you’re a larger group, so you can use it to split into pairs and do a group shot.

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Because Chicago’s neighbourhoods each have their own unique culture, the place you stay will really impact your trip. When I’ve stayed up in the northern suburbs like Highland Park, it’s made my trip more about exploring the Botanic Garden or the shops and restaurants of downtown Highland Park. It’s always more of a family feel, and for that reason we end up shopping more or visiting the beaches (in the summer). If you’re visiting the northern suburbs as a tourist and are looking to incorporate some learning and depth to your trip then it’s worth a trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. Although it’s not a typical vacation stop, I think it’s an important time to reflect on how seeds of intolerance have the potential to turn into dangerous movements of death and destruction because it means that we can all equip ourselves with the tools to fight that hatred. We have the potential to learn from our past, and help ensure others don’t experience the same injustice, and traumas.

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If you’re looking for a lighter experience then focus on more of the tourist areas, in which case you will want to stay close to the downtown core, a.k.a. Millennium Loop. It’s most convenient if you can stay near Millennium Park or on the Magnificent Mile (I can vouch for the Marriott there) because that way you’re able to walk or commute quickly to most sites of interest. Personally, I like staying in Gold Coast and Lakeview too because I feel close enough to the busy downtown core while still enjoying the sounds of silence. To be fair, I mainly choose to stay where I’m welcome: with my boyfriend or my family. Assuming I haven’t done or said anything stupid that would make me uninvited… which is always a big assumption.
Every time I visit, I feel like there’s something new to explore. In the Gold Coast, I’ve really enjoyed going out for dinner with my boyfriend to Old Town – especially when that means burgers at Small Cheval. In November, we also went to a show at Second City (Chicago is where it originated), which was not only hilarious because of the content but also ridiculous because the audience participation only involved Canadians. Who knew I wasn’t the only Canadian obsessed with Chicago? Actually, I knew because every time I visit the only comment I hear is: “you’re so lucky – it’s my favourite U.S. city”.

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Three of my trips to the US in 2018 were for weddings: New Jersey, Minnesota, and Missouri. Minnesota is a fabulous place to visit in August because of the state fair. If you’re ever craving fried food on a stick, art made out of seeds, or pumpkins that need some Weight Watchers then it’s the place for you. Unfortunately, we went on a rainy day; fortunately, even the combined smell of wet goat, cow and sheep isn’t nearly as bad as the smell of wet dog. As long as you’re properly equipped (sunscreen and rain boots), you’ll be ready for the long lines ahead. Surprisingly, catching the bus (from Minnesota’s Mall of America) was easy and didn’t even require waiting in line. Even more surprising was that there was a line for breakfast at the Olde Main Eatery in Elk River (the town where the wedding was held) – although to be fair, the pancakes were well worth the wait.

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The wedding was a casual backyard affair with a travel theme because the couple met in Turkey, where they had already held the more formal wedding and civil ceremony. The Minnesota wedding was held in Elk River because that’s where the bride comes from, and it was fun to learn more about her heritage. Visiting a person’s hometown, and meeting their family, is always a great glimpse into what has shaped that person. I hadn’t anticipated that one of my friends and I would be de facto wedding coordinators and help set up the grounds the day of the wedding, but it became an opportunity to get to know the bride’s family on a deeper level. We bonded with them over scotch tape emergencies, and love of the bride. It was a beautiful wedding, and on top of that it was an incredible reunion because it meant I got to see three friends from many years ago. My fellow coordinator friend and I stayed together in the basement of a nearby house and heartily enjoyed our sleepovers. It’s silly to think that slumber parties are for kids. What adult doesn’t want a solid night of silliness with a friend? Of course, the wedding (and all its accompanying friend-time) was the highlight of my trip, but I’d say the locals (particularly at the vintage/antique stores in town) were fantastic too – I’ve never been in a kinder state than Minnesota. It felt like each person I met was paid to please. Although considering most of my interaction with locals was at restaurants, I guess they literally were paid to please. And they did it well.

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Missouri gives Minnesota a run for its money when it comes to kind locals though. The second wedding in the “M&M” states was held in St. Louis, and yes – they played Nelly at the reception, and yes, it was hot in therre. The St. Louis wedding came with a harsh reality check: my boyfriend is likely a better dancer than me. Although the wedding we attended in New Jersey came with an even harsher reality check: his father may be a better dancer than both of us combined.

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On another note, St. Louis, which was “founded” in 1764, had a key role to play in the history of slavery in the US. Slaves were sometimes sold at the Old Courthouse, while other slaves were emancipated there and others yet sued for freedom including Dred and Harriet Scott. Their legal action went all the way to the US Supreme Court where they lost the case, which effectively meant the US Supreme Court was sanctioning slavery thus being one of the triggers in the Civil War from what I understand. Full disclosure: I’m nowhere close to a historian – and have never formally studied U.S. history.

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St. Louis is clearly an important part of US history for its civil rights implications, but also its symbolism as the gateway to the west (because of its location near the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers) for pioneers going to Oregon and California during the 19th century. This history is represented by its landmark Gateway Arch National Park was built in 1965 and is the tallest human-built monument in the US (height and base width are 630 ft). My boyfriend wanted to ride the elevator that takes you through the arch, but I wasn’t too interested in turning into a sardine trapped in a little rickety tin with five others. I would literally rather eat a tin of sardines.

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St. Louis is also an outdoors paradise with Forest Park being a great spot for frisbee, soccer, or picnics and also housing the St. Louis Zoo, a history museum, art museum and science center (which also has an omnimax theatre). If you’re interested in medicine then Forest Park is also a great location to visit because you can check out Washington University on the way. Its medical school is consistently ranked in the top ten in the nation and first for student selectivity, so it may be worth a stroll to see if you can take in a free lecture or educational event. We did nothing quite so intellectual while in that neighbourhood, instead we made a stop at IKEA because clearly that’s a Missouri must-see.

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While in St. Louis we stayed in an Airbnb in the Tower Grove South area. I enjoyed strolling the streets and looking at the historic homes. It’s a very quaint neighbourhood with lots of local eateries, and a very calm feel. There’s also a beautiful park (aptly named the Tower Grove Park) that’s located adjacent to the Missouri Botanical Garden. I’d highly recommend staying in this neighbourhood, if you have a car. The most fun I had in the city was without a doubt at the City Museum. It’s a playground for adults – equipped with endless tunnels to climb through, ladders to climb up, and ballpits to jump into! There’s even a ferris wheel on the roof, and then you can take a slide down to the floor below for some post-ride tequila shots. If you’re going to go (and aren’t used to being on your knees for extended periods of time), you should definitely ask for the free kneepads at the entrance. I’d also suggest you dress sporty, unless you’re planning pure photo opps – in which case you may as well just check out the many restaurants and bars around town.

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We happened to visit St. Louis in October and the weather was ideal. We were comfortable in t-shirts and shorts, and also got to celebrate some spooky Halloween themed fun at the zoo and at a cute bakery named Chouquette where they roll out a Harry Potter menu for the month (complete with fresh pumpkin juice and all). If you’re more interested in real meals rather than fantasy snacks, across the street you’ll find Olio Mediterranean Restaurant which is absolutely worth making a reservation for – we enjoyed dinner on the back patio. Unfortunately, I felt sick during our dinner so I was only able to stomach a small soup but my boyfriend definitely benefited from my nausea because it meant even more fantastic food for him.

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Hands-down the best meal we had last year on all our trips was at Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge (Boston) in the summer. They serve local New England cuisine for a fair price given the fresh food and amazing ambience. I found more past than present in Boston given that the city was “founded” in the 1600s. We literally walked through history as we followed parts of the Freedom Trail visiting Boston Common; Park Street Church where an abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, gave an antislavery speech in 1829; Old South Meeting House (built in 1729) where the Boston Tea Party was launched in 1773 by Samuel Adams; and Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, which were built in 1742. Faneuil Hall is a great place to find plentiful clam chowder, if you decide to indulge in tourist tropes. Instead, I gorged on mac and cheese. Seemingly, you can take the girl out of Canada, but you can’t take the Canadian Kraft Dinner addiction out of the girl.

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Boston and its surrounding areas are well-known for academia, which makes sense given the plethora of post-secondary institutes there. My favourite campuses to wander through were Harvard University, where my sister who’s studying there acted as our de facto tour guide, and Boston College. We had fun pretending to still be students, although it was more fun pretending we were actually fit and attempting to climb the 294 steps of the Bunker Hill Monument. To be fair, we were able to climb all the way to the top which was a step ahead of some of the other visitors. Unfortunately, the stairwell is really narrow so make sure you get your steps in before the trip so that you’re not that tourist who shuts down the monument because you can’t make it all the way up or down. And yes, that actually happened while we were there.

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The trip to Boston was also an opportunity for a meet-and-greet with my sister and my boyfriend. We decided to break the ice on the water with a sunset cruise (Charles Riverboat Cruise Company). It was the perfect opportunity to see the sights, and get to know each other (including my quirks, unfortunately). Before the stories went too deep into childhood, the cruise was over and we were en route to Cambridge for more to explore. Although we stayed in Boston, if I were to go back I would stay in Cambridge. I found more to do there at night than in our area of Boston (Dorchester/Codman Square). As well, it’s close enough by train that you can still commute freely.

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While we were visiting Boston there was a map exhibit at Harvard University’s library; however, when my mom recommended that I go she just told me to check out the “Boston special maps” but she didn’t specify where (i.e. that it was at Harvard University). Google Maps, in all its wisdom, sent my boyfriend and I instead to the Mary Baker Eddy Library’s Mapparium at the First Church of Christ, Scientist. It turned out to be an excellent detour because we were able to see a snapshot of what the world looked like in 1935 through stained glass. It was also worth it for the look of confusion on my mom’s face when I thanked her for sending us to the place that put Christianity on the map. I’m not sure if she was more taken aback by my awful humour or the fact that we had accidentally discovered this world of colourful Christian stained-glass maps.

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Speaking of stained glass, a last-minute trip to New York City for St. Patrick’s Day involved a lot more than just churches and cathedrals, although the St. Patrick’s Day parade was a major highlight. I went on this trip with a close female friend who happens to be very petite, which made it easier for me to sneak her into a VIP section at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the parade. It also made it a lot easier for the Archbishop to presume she was a child and pose with her for a photo-op alongside other children. The highlight had to be when he hugged her and kindly said “I’m just so glad you’re here”. Boy was I glad I was there for that too.

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The parade requires considerable planning, and as an attendee it’s important to get there early and remember that the crowds will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It goes without saying that if you’re in New York City over the holidays any of the typical tourist traps are going to be even more full of people. When I went back to New York in December with my boyfriend, Times Square was exactly as I remembered it – so full of people you can’t walk (although not enough people to dissuade me from making it to the M&M store); Central Park felt more like a zoo of people; and Brooklyn was my refuge.

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In fact, on both trips I stayed in Brooklyn for one night. It gave me an opportunity to explore Brooklyn Library, Prospect Park, and Crown Heights. I even befriended a local coffee shop owner on the first trip en route to Brooklyn and really enjoyed the vibe at his place: the Breukelen Coffee House. It’s located on a really nice strip replete with other restaurants and cozy bars. My favourite was Chavela’s, which served great Mexican dishes. On the December trip, I also got the chance to explore more of Brooklyn by going to Williamsburg, which is unofficially known as a hipster’s paradise. We started our time there with some fresh and delicious Joe’s Pizza before wandering to the Brooklyn Bridge – which is a great vantage point from which to see the city sights.

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Another spot with great views is the lower end of Manhattan. Once you’ve walked by the Charging Bull statue, and visited the Occulus Mall (totally worth it), I recommend heading to the Staten Island ferry for a free roundtrip ride past the Statue of Liberty. You won’t get up close and personal with her, but you’ll be able to get a good view. You may even be surprised by how petite she is – although you wouldn’t mistake her for a child.

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New York is loaded with culture and comedy so on our March trip my friend and I decided to visit the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. While in Harlem we also headed to gospel Sunday brunch at Sylvia’s Restaurant – if you do nothing else, do this and make sure you book in advance. It’s a fun experience because you’ll be sweetly serenaded while eating fried food. Or you’ll be roasted while sipping something salty. Either way you’ll have fun.

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Any time I’ve been in New York I’ve spent most of my time in Manhattan, and I’d recommend the Blue Note Jazz Club, and the Comedy Cellar. Although the comedians were hilarious (especially Michelle Wolf) at the comedy club, beware that there is a minimum spend on top of the cost of tickets. The amount that I shelled out for a small meal was no laughing matter.

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Speaking of high prices, on our romantic getaway in December we met up with some of my boyfriend’s friends who wanted to test out Katz’s Deli – the American equivalent of Montreal’s Schwartz’s Deli. I had been there a few years back and remembered the sandwiches being as high as the prices. Nothing has changed. Just like the gospel brunch, I recommend going with a group because you’ll want to share your food – the portion sizes are wholeheartedly American.

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Something else that’s distinctly American is Christmas at the Rockefeller Center. It’s worth checking it out once. Although I can be curmudgeonly when it comes to costs and crowds, there is something magical about New York at Christmas time. Even the walk to the 9/11 Memorial had a slightly mystical feel to it as we walked through parkettes with lights strewn about. Overall, the 9/11 Memorial is an important site to visit because it illustrates the trauma and resilience of the city and its people. From bustling business place to eerily quiet memorial site, there’s something otherworldly about the visit.

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The last place of interest I’d recommend visiting in New York (but not in winter), would be the High Line. It’s hard to describe why it’s worth seeing, but picture yourself walking through an elevated garden amidst a sea of concrete, looking down on the grey but looking ahead to green. To me, it felt idyllic. My December trip to New York was spurred by a wedding in my boyfriend’s family in New Jersey. We decided to go to the wedding, but also have a quick romantic getaway in New York City as the wedding was nestled away at a banquet hall in a small town in Aberdeen County, New Jersey – not exactly the epicenter of culture, or cuisine. My snotty attitude aside, I really enjoyed the wedding. It was really inspiring watching how the bride incorporated her Zoroastrian faith and the groom weaved in his Ukrainian Jewish heritage. It was also a good chance for me to practice Russian, and by that, I mean smile, nod my head and repeat “da” over and over.

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In terms of accommodation, I wouldn’t recommend staying in New Jersey when visiting New York unless you’re into a long commute. While we were sightseeing in New York my boyfriend and I stayed in Brooklyn at a standard hotel chain, the La Quinta. It worked well for us because we had breakfast in the morning, and were located within walking distance of the subway and bus routes. I was surprised though by the number of missing items: from no telephone in the room, to no water in the breakfast kitchen. But at the end of the day, we had a bed to come back to and a locked door to permit privacy so no real complaints from my end. When we transitioned to New Jersey we stayed at an Airbnb in Matawan, Aberdeen because it saved us time getting to the wedding and cost half as much. Call me old-fashioned but I wasn’t expecting Airbnb prices to be the same as hotels in New York. I also wasn’t expecting the prices in Manhattan to be so high that we had to stay elsewhere. In all honesty, I preferred staying in Brooklyn because it feels like there’s more authentic daily life there while Manhattan, to me, feels more manufactured. I will admit though that staying two nights in Manhattan at the Off Soho Suites Hotel in March was far more convenient for seeing most of the tourist sights, so you have to think hard about what you prefer: convenience and cost, or quirk and cost-savings.

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All in all, I feel really lucky to have been able to see so much of the U.S. last year. I feel even more privileged to have been able to meet such wonderful people, my incredible boyfriend included. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking about places and make assumptions about what the people there will be like but the beauty of travel is that you can shatter your preconceived notions over a slice of pizza, or on a rooftop ferris wheel. America is definitely a diverse country with unique histories in each corner of each state, and to me it seems well-worth a visit not only to the big cities like New York and Chicago but also to the smaller towns like Elk River. At the end of the day, travel reminds us that we’re all human, and there’s a lot of beauty in meeting the faces of endless places.

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Posted by madrugada 20:21 Archived in USA Tagged food architecture new_york history urban halloween chicago rural christmas usa cambridge massachusetts boston st_louis pumpkin illinois minnesota missouri new_jersey elk_river mid_west valentine's_day state_fair romantic_getaway wedding_season Comments (0)

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