Chip Review: Doritos Incógnita

Apparently Doritos are feminine, or else these would be Doritos Incógnito. Who knew?

Doritos Incógnita

Review

I'm thinking the gimmick here is that it's a surprise flavor. That surprise seemed to be curry flavor, heavy with turmeric and other spices you'd find in a curry ramen (my least favorite type of curry, but Melissa managed to eat some of these without complaint!)

The overwhelmingly limey finish that is pervasive in Mexican chips didn't skip this one, so you have to keep eating them to taste anything but citric acid and corn for a while. I bought these at a gas station food stop halfway between Oaxaca and Mexico City, so we had some questionable room temp cemitas with mayonnaise to chase down the lime and corn.

Overall, interesting but can't touch a normal Nacho Cheesier red bag of Doritos.

Rating

  • Adam: 2/5
  • Melissa: 2/5

Adios, Mexico

We're finally heading out from Mexico.  After two months and six days, we are saying our good-byes and headed to Guatemala for a few days (at the airport waiting for our flight as I write this).

Our two months in Mexico have been awesome.  They've had highs and lows, but overall, it's been a positive experience.  My favorite thing we've done was the cenote day in Merida; my favorite meal was probably, sadly, the Italian restaurant Oliva (also in Merida); I'm most proud that I climbed to the top of El Chiflon in San Cristobal.  I got extremely homesick toward the end of San Cristobal and Oaxaca, but thankfully Mexico City helped that out - it's a city that made me feel like I was home, complete with bike shares and subways and international restaurants and walkability.  With the exception of our two nights in Vallodolid (near Chichen Itza), I've liked every place we've been better than the last. We started in Cancun, then Tulum, Bacalar, Vallodolid, Merida, San Cristobal, Oaxaca, and ended in Mexico City.  Two months and we didn't even get to 2/3 (3/4?) of the country.

The end of San Cristobal and Oaxaca were pretty bad times for me.  I was so excited for Oaxaca, and while I liked it, I was just really down.  Most people who know me know I'm, (a) prone to anxiety and depression; (b) extremely close to my family; and (c) a homebody.  It's rough.  I've learned I can live without a lot of stuff, but at the same time, I like my home.  I like being able to veg out on my couch, cook whatever I want, have my own pillows, etc.  Having down days are okay.  When we first got to Mexico City, my mom told me that my Zia Iolanda, my dad's aunt who helped raise him, passed away.  While this wasn't a huge surprise, as she was 92 and had been in a nursing home, it was really difficult for me because I wasn't there with my family.  I wasn't there.  And yet, I feel like that snapped me out of my funk a little.  It's like - life is short (although in the case of many of my family members, not TOO short :)), I need to appreciate the opportunity I have right now.  And while I don't know how long we'll travel for (I still miss home!), I keep telling myself that even if we return tomorrow, I got to see things that most people don't and that I will look back on this trip fondly.  There are days when I don't think we've done enough, that we should be doing more, but then I know myself and I'm not the type who likes to rush, rush, rush.  And that's okay.

Anyways, just figured I'd write a post with an update and some of my perspective.  I'm pretty nervous for Guatemala, and I'm sad to say good-bye to Mexico and its incredible food, showers, and (for the most part) reliable internet.

Adios, Mexico!  Hola, Guatemala!

One Week in Oaxaca

Unlike most cities, we didn't research much about Oaxaca before arriving. On the road you hear of the attractions and ruins when you talk to other travelers, but for us the focus in Oaxaca was always going to be food, and we knew that before leaving New York. I'll save the food for another post, because Oaxaca deserves that much, and our two major excursions will have their own as well; this will cover the other exploration we did during our stay.

Guelaguetza

I can't talk about any our stay in Oaxaca without explaining the Guelaguetza (no translation). A fellow traveler in our shuttle to the Tuxtla airport was the first to mention that we were arriving in Oaxaca right as they entered their festival season: Guelaguetza. He explained that there are several individual festivals and events in the second half of July, such as the mole festival and mezcal festival, and the Guelaguetza itself.

During our stay, we learned a few things about the Guelaguetza, but never came to a clear understanding of what exactly it is. I've supplemented that knowledge with a bit of Wikipedia reading, and although I understand more of two themes of this event, I have no idea how they relate.

Indigenous Cultures and Dance

The most recognizable part of the Guelaguetza celebration is the dancing, costumes, and customs of the indigenous peoples of the modern state of Oaxaca. Wikipedia says that the Guelaguetza is a celebration that brings together the many distinct indigenous cultures in the area so that each one can demonstrate their dances, their style of traditional clothing, their culture and their food. As with many cultural expressions in Mexico, its roots are definitively pre-Hispanic, but it has changed since Hispanic conquest and arrival of Christianity.

It's important to understand that there many indigenous culture around Oaxaca, unlike the Yucatan where the Mayans still exist and are one large, cohesive culture. Due to the divisive mountains, the state of Oaxaca is known for its many microclimates (I've seen a mention of as many as 1000 microclimates somewhere, I think), and I think this extends to the people of the area as well. There are larger groups, but the state has many distinct cultures that speak mutually unintelligible languages and have their own culture and lifestyle. As an example, the treatment of women and their role in society can vary widely from one group to the next (see Zapotec women).

Given the historical difficulty of traveling in Oaxaca (mountains) and the diversity of the groups, the Guelaguetza is a gathering in July where people can display their culture. One of the most entertaining examples I saw was the pineapple dance: we listened to about 10 minutes of this on our ride back from the mezcal distillery from our Mitla tour.


I love the little girl shouting some narrative in Spanish.

Reciprocal Giving

The other aspect of the Guelaguetza is reciprocal giving, briefly mentioned in Wikipedia but covered in more depth at our cooking class. The chef explained that reciprocal gift giving is a important part of the collective culture here, publicly on display at the Guelaguetza. She gave examples such as the marriage of a daughter: rather than the woman's family paying for everything involved in a lavish wedding, they call upon neighbors and friends to provide the items needed as gifts. In this situation, the neighbor may give "a 10 kg turkey with feathers on" or "a large bag of maize," that would be used to prepare the wedding feast. Every gift given is carefully recorded, so that in the future the gift giver can call upon the father of the bride to give the same gift in return.

How exactly this plays into Guelaguetza is unclear. Perhaps it was a form a trade between the indigenous mountain peoples who may have specialized in producing different goods and foods. Or maybe it's a demonstration of an important aspect of their every day culture. I'm not going to read up extensively on this, so let me know in the comments if you happen to be well informed on Oaxacan mountain cultures and the Guelaguetza!

Modern Guelaguetza

So with that bit of history in mind, what we saw at this year's Guelaguetza was art, dancing, dresses, parades, and lots of side festivals. I wonder if the side festivals are traditionally associated with the Guelaguetza, or if smart festival planners just schedule them for the time of year when lots of visitors and mountain folk are in town. There are probably a couple of dozen individual festivals - the ones that we saw flyers for include:
  • Mole festival - expensive!!! Sold out and probably not worth it (at least $40 USD per person)
  • Mezcal festival - we went to this one! Totally worth it at $40 pesos ($2.25 USD) for unlimited mezcal tasting from at least a hundred distilleries
  • Tamale festival - One of Melissa's top foods, but this was way outside of town
  • Pozole - Another one of Melissa's favorites and also way outside of town
  • Mushrooms - Yet another one of Melissa's favorites and didn't start until after we left
  • Carne asada
  • Barbacoa - like bbq; tickets were sold out
  • Arteians - As in clothes and souvenirs. Was right next to the mezcal fest so we walked through this one. Nothing that we hadn't seen before
  • Manzanas - a.k.a. apples; was not a priority
Our participation in the Guelaguetza was limited to the Mezcal Festival and a noon dance performance at the Teatro Macedonia Alcalá. The mezcal festival was great, on par with Whisky Fest NY (I went in 2012) in terms of variety, ahead in production values (they had some demo distilling equipment on display there and great displays explaining the history and state of mezcal production), and was less than 1% of the cost.

Mezcal festival

Pozole Fest would have been nice

The noon dance performance was held in the beautiful Teatro Macedonio Alcalá near zocalo. I insisted we go because we kept missing the nighttime outdoor performances due to rain, lack of tickets and exhaustion. Fortunately it ended up being really cool!

Now we have no idea what they were saying, so we lost a lot of narrative sung by a female singer. Many of the dances were demonstrative enough to understand though, such as when one guy was jumping around with a marlin (Melissa swears it was a shark or a swordfish) prop on his head and three fishermen danced with nets and occasionally tried (and failed) to catch the marlin dancer. I'm pretty sure that dance was clearly about how indigenous people harvest corn in the fall...

The dancing women wore very colorful dresses in similar cuts but with different designs. A lot of the show was them presenting the dress and dancing in circles with the men. At the end, the women came out in groups of three with banners displaying their dance troupe's name and coat of arms (odd), so we wonder if each trio was a different town or if the entire show was one town's presentation.

The Teatro on the left

At the end of this show, the women went into the crowd and took audience members up on stage for some informal dancing. Sadly, I hadn't figured out what was happening when one of the women approached me and held her hand out. Naturally I understood none of what she said and thought they were asking for tips or something, so I waved her onto the next person and missed a chance to be part of the show. Oh well, even if I had understood perfectly, I would have had no idea whether these dance steps were common knowledge, so I probably would have declined anyway. If given another chance though, I'd definitely go up and make a fool of myself.

Line dancing with some interesting dresses

Santo Domingo

We'd heard that the Church of Santo Domingo was a big deal but didn't understand why until we made it there on our third day. It turns out that many of the good restaurants, bars, and mezcal shops are in the Santo Domingo part of town, as well as a huge, beautiful cultural museum on the church grounds.

We first tried to make it to the church just as the rain was starting one day and ran the last block or so only to find out that the church takes a break from being open for three hours every afternoon. Rather than wait in the rain we hid in a coffee shop for a while and visited the shops that some mezcal distilleries have set up in town. These shops are like information centers for a single distillery - the point isn't so much to sell mezcal, but to have some real estate in town that gets your distillery's name out there and lets aficionados sample everything you make - for free. I ended up buying a bottle of Del Maguey Chichicapa for less than half of what it would cost in New York. Melissa even bought an airplane sized bottle of a passion fruit mezcal crema! That may be the first bottle of alcohol I've seen her purchase.

We also kept dry in in the "Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca" (Institute of Graphics Arts) that was really a library with a small art exhibit in the front. It was a relaxing way to spend an hour, flipping through picture books about Amazonian and Siberian tribes in a quiet library while it rained outside.

Santo Domingo on a rainy day

So fancy with all that gold leaf covering every ornate surface

When we finally made it to the church, we were surprised to see that the entire interior is covered in gold leaf. I suppose for some people this is the height of taste, but it didn't do much for us. A guide just inside the church offered to take us on a guided tour but we declined, took a few pictures and bought a post card in the attached gift shop.

I'm going to blame the rain for the fact that we didn't initially notice the huge museum on church grounds. We only heard about it from our tour guide at the Mitla, so we went back on our last full day in town. It's astonishing because as gaudy and flashy as the church is, the museum is understated, elegant and serene. It used to be a Dominican monastery that has been converted into the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca and gardens.

Courtyard at the monastery museum

Also the courtyard

Serene hallway

This museum houses artifacts from a wide range of Mesoamerican cultuers, not just the local indigenous civilizations. They have artifacts ranging from Olmec stone heads (the predecessors to the Aztecs and Mayans), to desks used by one of the first presidents of modern Mexico.

One of the coolest displays is of artifacts from the ruins of Monte Alban, the major site near Oaxaca that we skipped (can only do so many ruins!). The centerpiece is a skull covered in a jade netting or mask that was discovered in a tomb at Monte Alban. We learned on our Mitla tour (Mitla is a town and an archeological ruin site) that the residents of pre-Hispanice Mitla learned of the conquistadors approaching, and emptied their own tombs out, moving their ancestors remains and artifacts to Monte Alban, which was never found and destroyed by the Spanish.

Maybe Olmec artifacts

The jade skull mask

Jesus cake artifact?

It's hard to overstate the incredible architecture in this former monastery, not that it was extraordinary but that it was such a big contrast from the church, and looked so great in its surroundings. I really liked the massive open windows that looked out from the shady hallways onto the sunlit Oaxacan city and mountainsides. These were popular Instagram spots for everyone.

I think we could have made it into the gardens on the museum grounds, but didn't see anybody on them when we looked out from the monastery windows the day we visited. It's too bad because they were quite well maintained and had a huge variety of spectacular trees, agaves, cacti (I swear some were single straight cactus tubes 30 feet tall) and other plants. Something to revisit if we return to Oaxaca.

I loved these enormous windows

Tall cacti in the gardens

Mercados

Like any good Mexican city, Oaxaca has some notable mercados: markets with hundreds of vendor stalls. We visited the pair of Mercado 20 de Noviembre (named for the Revolution Day) and Mercado Benito Juarez (named for Mexico's first indigenous president). These markets are right across the street from each other in the southwest quadrant of centro.

The 20 de Noviembre market is a dense network of stalls selling moles, tlayudas, snacks and meals. It had a couple bread and mezcal stalls but the majority were tiny restaurant stalls that seemed to have the same menu. We sat at one that had giant pots of colorful moles simmering and had our first tlayuda con chorizo, topped with frijolitos, super stretchy Oaxacan cheese (quesillo) and some vegetables. I got a mole rojo, a red spicy sauce, over a chicken leg and rice (mole is almost always served over rice). Both were really good; Melissa even liked the mole!

After entering the market, to the left there is a smokey hallway that extends out to the street. This is the "meat section," packed with stalls displaying thin cuts of raw meat draped over rods and cutting boards. This meat alleyway was intense; we couldn't figure what was going on until we talked to another travelers about it days later.

"Meat hall"

The way it works is the vendors all sell their meats in large portions, at the same price. When you buy a portion, they cut it off and grill it up for you over a hot coal grill right at their stall. While they do that you take a number and go find a seat or buy toppings to be prepared as well. Other stalls sold bunches of young onions with long green shoots attached, chiles, and other vegetables. For some reason we weren't allowed to by those, our "waiter" kept ushering us to a seat and ignoring our questions about "verduras y vegetales."

We were able to obtain some giant tortillas (almost tlayuda sized) and a saucer of spicy pico de gallo from a woman there who spoke some English. A few minutes later our cooked meat arrived at our cramped table. I think we got a marinaded pork cur, I thought the tacos were pretty good but Melissa only considered them OK. The smokiness and chaos of the hall makes eating here a challenging and unique dining experience.

Across the street is the Benito Juarez market, which has a much broader mix of offerings but much fewer ready to eat foods. I had struggled to find many mezcals in Oaxaca before we made it here, at one point getting really frustrated when a fellow traveler couldn't fathom how we hadn't seen them, didn't we know they were everywhere? Well the Benito Juarez market has many mezcal stalls selling a dozen or hundreds of different mezcal varieties. Most excitingly, one of the well marketed mezcals I saw here was selling for only half the price we saw at a fancy shop just a block from the market!

Worm and grasshopper hot sauces for sale

Mercado Benito Juarez goes far beyond mezcals though; we saw shops selling raw meat, tortas and tacos, trinkets, fresh produce, bread, candy (so many candy shops), toys, hats, swords, belts, clothes, house goods, pets (mostly lizards, guinea pigs and fish), chapulines, pastries, mole concentrates, hot sauces, and more.

The Rest of Centro

The rest of our time in Oaxaca City was just wandering around and experiencing some of what the city had to offer with no particular destination. The mezcal cocktail scene is vibrant; in some of the reading I've done, a lot of chefs at popular restaurants say they came to Oaxaca to explore this scene and end up staying. We visited one bar that only used the two or three bottles produced by a single distillery. They made impressive cocktails with their limited liquor selection.

One day we wandered into a beautiful little museum + library + church building that we still don't understand. Nice courtyard and architecture though.

I was actually surprised at how good the art scene in Oaxaca seemed to be. Melissa and I are probably best described as mildly indifferent to art: we appreciate some things and really like a few others but never seek art out and know almost nothing that wasn't covered in college courses (EDITOR'S NOTE: uh, probably don't know anything that wasn't covered in elementary school for me, when we used to have moms come in once a month to talk about artists). In Oaxaca, good, interesting, contemporary art galleries were everywhere; we walked into a few with really interesting paintings and bizarre sculptures.

Full wall hair painting

Some tableware that we liked

A common sight here are these tiny malls that are a collection of six to a dozen stores arranged around the courtyard of a colonial building. They usually host a mix of art (sometimes quite expensive), cafes, restaurants, mezcal shops and other small businesses. One in particular caught our eye: an artist who made ceramic bowls, cups, plates and other tableware. Melissa and I rarely like the same pieces of art, but usually see eye-to-eye on items like these.

The Santo Domingo area has a lot of rooftop bars and restaurants that offer amazing views on a clear Oaxacan night. We managed to get up to one for a decent drink and watch the sunset while the block lost power for about five minutes. I would have liked to explore these more, but it's not free to hang out on a rooftop for hours and it could be tricky to find the street entrances for those places!


Hover for Oaxacan blackout (picutres taken at different times of the night)

Arriving in Oaxaca

We left San Cristóbal after a month, took a poorly executed $200 peso shuttle ride to the Chiapas capital of Tuxtla, enjoyed a solid hour at a small but comfortable Priority Pass in-network lounge (thanks premium credit cards!) and boarded an hour and fifteen minute plane ride to Oaxaca City, Oaxaca.

The shuttle ride was poorly executed because it hadn't shown up at our homestay as promised a full 35 minutes after the pick-up time on our receipt. I ended up walking to the office where I booked it and we came to a scant understanding that we could come wait at that office and they would try to fix the situation. I ran back to Melissa still waiting at the homestay, we lugged our heavy travel bags to the office, and were eventually walked to a vehicle that would be charitably be described as a station wagon. After squeezing into the now full vehicle and meeting our new travel guests, we learned that there was still another couple to go in the already full "shuttle". Fortunately, when we got to their pick up point, they had bailed after waiting at least 45 minutes, and one woman got out, so Melissa was able to get a front seat for the window mountain ride (car sickness) and we had a bit of breathing room. The rest of the ride progressed without issue and a short bit later we were en route to Oaxaca.

Our path so far. Palenque is about 20% of the way to Merida from San Cristobal

Upon flying in you can spot some differences before landing. Oaxaca is still very mountainous; it's a lower elevation than San Cristóbal, but like that city it's surrounded by mountains and hills and a rugged landscape. Unlike San Cristóbal, it's not very green. This isn't desert but there aren't many as trees and grass is scarce; the vegetation is scrubby bushes and agave plants.

The Oaxacan airport was smaller than we expected but modern and nice. This was the first time I'd seen a viewing area next to the tarmac; apparently some people like to sit in these bleachers and watch the planes land? Or wait for loved ones to disembark (no jetway, we deplaned right on the tarmac)?

One thing we really appreciated at this airport is that you go to a counter inside the main building to buy your tickets for a collectivo into the city. It was priced by zone, so we showed the attendant where our hostel was, paid the Zona A price, and got receipts to present to the collectivos waiting to take passengers into town. You don't have to negotiate and wonder if you're getting a fair price or going the right way, and we got dropped off right at our hostel. I think the cost for both of us was around $10.

As we dropped off other passengers and saw some of the centro district, we could tell that this town had more money than anywhere we'd been recently, and was more liberal and modern as well. The presence of money and modernity is visible with the kinds of shops that are popular, the kinds of clothes people are wearing (or aren't), and how many tattoos you see (we'd barely seen any in Mexico up to this point).

Oaxaca, like most colonial Mexican cities, has a centro district of colonial buildings, churches, a central park or plaza (zocalo), and lots of tourists. Our hostel was just outside the Eastern edge of the centro to the North and East. We'd seen in some hostel reviews online that being close to all the action can be noisy at night, and most hostels were a bit outside of centro anyway.

A bit of centro Oaxaca

We had only booked two nights initially at our hostel, but after getting there and having a look around we really liked it and immediately booked another seven nights. We stayed at Hostal Mixteco Nava Nandoo, and it was the nicest, friendliest, best service hostel we've been to in these last two months. It's not that the facilities were amazing (they were pretty good), but rather that the people (family?) that runs it were the nicest and most attentive staff we've dealt with by far. They bent over backwards to help us figure things out and feel welcome, such as:
  • Calling local restaurants participating in the Feria de los Moles (mole festival) for us to find out where we could buy tickets
  • Bringing Melissa a pillow when she was laying on a common room couch (unasked)
  • Bringing us another extra pillow when they noticed we had kept the first one and it kept switching sides of the bed in our private room (also unasked)
  • Cleaning the private rooms while we ate breakfast every day. They were fast and must have been watching to see when we went to eat.
  • Moving other reservations around to let us stay in our room for the entire stay
  • Sitting down with us at the free daily breakfast to discuss the best tlayuda places and Mexican cooking through our broken Spanish
  • Sharing their mezcal with us and other guests on the rooftop
  • Literally giving us small gifts when we left, and I think I would have gotten a hug if I didn't have a large backpack on.
  • MELISSA: Also - great, reliable, fast, modern wi-fi that was never down.
The facilities were nice and the layout was really unique and cool. The building was centered around a tiny open air shaft down the middle, you can't even really call it a courtyard. There are three floors, with private rooms arranged around the center and large open (but covered) common areas on the roof. I'm pretty sure that the shower head had its own heating element attached to finish heating up the water. We ended up getting endless hot showers, a first for the trip. You can't even take endless hot showers in the states!

View from the hostel rooftop

The Town

As I said above, Oaxaca has a core centro area with its historical buildings, churches and commerce. Surrounding this is the rest of the city, many times larger than centro. If you go out far enough, the hills and mountains rise all around the city with many barrios (neighborhoods) built onto the hillside. I'm not sure if these are considered separate towns or part of Oaxaca city, as we didn't visit any of them, or much outside of the centro.

One of the coolest features on the surrounding hills was the auditorium, Auditorio Guelaguetza. It looks like a huge tent (or a bit like a tiny Sydney Opera House) up on a hill just outside the city, but visible from almost everywhere. Sadly we didn't get to visit any events there, but we did drive by it on our way to the cooking class we did and got an up close look. I imagine that the views here for night events are incredible; you'd be able to see all the city lights down the hill, spread out before you and creeping up the hillside barrios in the distance.

The Auditorio as seen from the museo at Santo Domingo

We got to our hostel around 5pm our first night, so after a bit of descansando and settling in, we set out on the fifteen minute walk to the center of the centro. Our hosts informed us that there was a convite, or traditional dancing gathering type of event in centro so we stopped by that first. On the pedestrian only street that connects the zocalo with the Templo de Santa Domingo de Guzman, we first heard then saw the convite: a mass of people and a stationary parade with giant spinning, dancing, paper mache puppets and other artistic parade props.

Now this is something where Melissa surely thinks I'm simply ridiculous, but I loved those spinning, hilarious puppets. Something about the grade school level faces (meaning no offense) and the bouncing and spinning motion just cracks me up. We never got to see much other than one end of the parade because of the crowd density (despite living in New York so long, neither of us has much tolerance at all for even moderately dense crowds). I did notice that someone was flying a drone over the celebration, presumably recording it from the sky. Some buildings nearby had rooftop bars and restaurants, but we couldn't find any easy ways up so we left the convite and headed towards the zocalo to explore more of the Saturday night activities.


For our fist meal in the city, we wanted something properly Oaxaceno, but despite this being a busy Saturday night with tons of people walking around and vendors set up, the only street foods we could find were hamburgers and hotdogs! Well, there were a lot of nieves (flavored ices), elotes and esquites and papas (corn, corn and freshly fried potato chips), but those aren't meals. We walked around the very New Orleans-y feeling zocalo until the rain really started and we had to run to a decent but touristy cafeteria on the square. Determined to start our Oaxacan food journey, I ordered the chapulines con guacamole, which we learned is really what it says, rather than being guacamole con chapulines.

Chapulines con guacamole, on a tortilla. Kind of gamey, not enough crunch

If you haven't heard it from this blog yet, chapulines are fried grasshoppers, popular throughout the Oaxacan state and beyond. They're usually fried with chiles, lime and salt, and range from tiny (think 5mm of pencil lead) to medium (a half inch of soda straw), to perhaps quite large if what I've seen online really exists (mouse sized). 90% of what we saw in Oaxaca were the tiny size, with the remaining 10% the medium sized. I never saw the giant ones, but remember them clearly from previous online research <image not wanted to be found>.

So for whatever reason, we both expected a bowl of guacamole with some chapulines sprinkled on top or mixed in. What we got was a bowl of chapulines with some guacamole spread on the plate. We ate some but they were pretty gamey and not very crunchy, and went unfinished.

Off to a good start on the Oaxacan food scene, we wandered the centro area a bit more that night before turning in. Prior to coming to Oaxaca (but after hearing and reading a lot about it), I predicted that it would be to Mexico what New Orleans is to the USA. Everyone talks about the amazing and unique Oaxacan foods native to the region, the hundreds (570) of mezcal distilleries, the unique culture, dress and customs. I think that aligns with New Orleans because it's probably the most unique food city in the states, being the product of French influence and southern ingredients. I doubt there's another US city with so many notable dishes solely attributed to it (etouffe, gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish boils, muffalettas, po' boys, hurricanes, the Trinity, beignets).

After our time in Oaxaca, we think that this analogy isn't far off. While we did experience a lot of music and culture here, I wouldn't put it on a level with New Orleans (that city is drenched in music). Oaxaca is known for many types of unique foods like moles, the chapulines, tlayudas, atoles, mezcals, memelas, the squash blossom quesadillas, Oaxacan cheese in general, and probably much more. We thought the zocalo area in particular had a New Orleans kind of feel with its balconied restaurants, but I can't say that architectural feeling extends beyond this area. Overall this is a useful but limited comparison for those who haven't been there, Oaxaca is a really unique place in a very diverse and fascinating country.

Chip Reviews: Crujitos and Submarinos Choco Bun

Wordplay

Crujiente means crispy in Spanish, so these means something like "little crispies".

Crujitos!

They were actually a huge departure from most Mexican chips, and a welcome one. They have the shape of thick fusilli, and as the name suggests they are crunchy (what chip isn't?). We ate this as our late night snack while watching the season 7 premiere of Game of Thrones on our travel laptop, so thank you to Crujitos for being there for that special moment!

The bag advertised queso and chile and I suppose I got that. I thought the flavor was kind of mild, not nearly as salty and flavor powder drenched as Cheetos. It's basically your standard "orange" chip flavor but with a bit of chipotle tang as well.

Because they don't make you compulsively eat more like many chips, they're kind of forgettable, but maybe that's a good quality in a chip? Seems like less of a health risk anyway.

Rating

  • Adam: 3.5/5
  • Melissa: 4/5

Bonus snack: Submarinos Choco Bum

This was a sweet snack supplement to our Game of Thrones chips. I have a soft (spongy?) spot for Twinkies so naturally I can't pass up a chocolate Mexican Twinkie.

I had hoped that since these were refrigerated they'd be a fresher and more "natural" tasting than Twinkies. They were but not: the bread was bone dry (better than "Twinkie greasy"), and while the chocolate cream filling was good there wasn't nearly enough of it. I didn't feel any better after eating these than I would after Twinkies either.

These came in a three pack; I tried one at the bus station where I bought it so I'd have a bite cold, as intended. But it didn't make any difference when I ate the other two at room temp a few hours later. Although edible, there's really no reason to ever buy Submarinos again unless it's the only sweet snack available or I really need a Twinkie taste.

Rating

  • Adam: 1/5
  • Melissa: 1/5

Staying on in San Cristóbal

After several extensions to our stay in San Cristóbal, we decided that we liked the small, cool mountain town enough to make it our home for a more permanent stay and to finally settle down for some Spanish classes. In addition to the many excursions available around San Cristóbal, we really felt welcome here and had mostly figured out the centro, traveler part of town. Plus it had probably the best collection of restaurants we'd seen so far. On top of that, after researching some prices, Spanish classes here were cheaper than the next several cities on our route by up to 50%.

Wall art at a Sancris gallery

Delicious looking polla a la lena, that we sadly haven't tried

We ended up booking a homestay with our Spanish classes. This is a common offering for foreign language classes in Latin America: you pay one price, and in addition to your classes (usually Monday-Friday), you live and eat with a local family. It can be quite economical to do it this way, especially when booking several weeks up front. It's also that it's a more immersive experience, since to communicate in the home, and especially at the dinner table, you need to really try to use your Spanish. This adds up to a couple extra hours of friendly Spanish practice a day.

For me though, the best perk of this arrangement is that you eat the family cooking that can't be found at tourist restaurants. We were lucky that our host, Christina, was both a great cook and a true Mexican abuela (grandmother). In many cultures, you simply can't replace grandmother's cooking; I know most good Italians (Melissa included 💕) will say that their nonna made the best {gnocchi, lasagna, fresh pasta, etc}. So, we were both pretty excited to start our homestay with Cristina.

The steps up to Iglesia de Guadalupe, not the ones we ran most days

Colorful colonial streets near the homestay

Longaniza tacos (a sausage like chorizo), nopale (cactus) pico, and habanero salsa at Cristina's

We started our classes on a Thursday to get two extra days of classes in, but didn't move in with Cristina until Saturday so that we didn't have to cancel our final reserved days at our hostel. We met our teacher Yasmina at 9 AM Thursday morning and started lessons promptly. Looking back on it, we were a bit unprepared: Melissa couldn't find her pen until the second class and we kept having to borrow blank printer paper from the school. We learned that Yasmina was native to Campeche, although she had lived in San Cristóbal for 20+ years, and lived in Los Angeles for a few years, so (really, very) thankfully we could fall back on English if we needed to be absolutely clear on some things. Another student we met had to request a change of teachers because hers only spoke Spanish and they wasted half the time just trying to understand each other.

So the deal we signed up for was 3 hours of classes a day, for the two weeks plus another two days of classes for 12 days and 36 hours of class total. Our homestay portion was just two weeks, Saturday to Saturday for 14 days and 42 meals. Altogether that cost us a bit under $12,000 pesos (10% discount for booking two weeks) or about $650 USD. While this is not a small expense, our target it to try to keep average spending under $100 USD a day total, and this price gave us two weeks abroad for under $50 a day, plus whatever we spend on incidentals. This was even cheaper than some of the other schools in town, and looking back now we're very happy with the experience.

Cristina's House and Her Cooking

Our sources didn't lie, Cristina was a great cook. She cooked healthy, excellent, typical Mexican meals: chicken, moles, rice, vegetables, salads, soups, stews, tacos, pork, and more. Cristina made her own salsas: nearly every meal had a small pitcher of her blend of habaneros, onions and tomatoes (not too hot). One of our first meals had the best pico de gallo I've ever had, which illustrates the story of the food we ate there. We listened very carefully when she told us how she made it because we didn't expect it to be as simple as it was: chopped tomatoes, jalapenos, onions, white vinegar and salt. That's it, nothing we can't make at home in 10 minutes. So why was this the best pico I've had?

We firmly believe now that the produce here is simply better than almost anything we ever had in New York. This story repeated itself with tomatoes, chayote (a squash like vegetable that can be found in the states), pineapple, papaya, mango; just about anything fresh and flavorful was prepared more simply than we'd dare in our Brooklyn kitchen yet tasted better than it should. So much of what I've read about the cooking in other countries makes more sense now; when I read about people fawning over how simply prepared the food in Italy is, it never really made sense to me until I realized that the ingredients are just better.

A boozey coffee drink with espresso, Baileys and bananas at Carajillo, one of our favorite study coffee shops

Sunset from the homestay balcony

Double soup lunch!

The traditional serving style for mezcal: with sal de gusano (worm salt) and slices of naranja agria (called sour oranges but no moreso than any other orange I've had). This and the beer were a 50 peso special, so less than $3.

Melissa's first poutine! This was the small version at one of my favorite bars.
If you've never had it before, it's french fries, cheese curds (just cheese cubes here) and gravy, and you're missing out.

Not everything was simple to the point of trivial though, we got a very good mole twice (that had very little chocolate flavor, to Melissa's delight), once with pork and the other time with chicken. (For the record, Melissa has found that she likes Thai curries and Mexican moles a lot more than she thinks when she tastes them abroad. Indian curries next?  EDITOR'S NOTE: NO).

Our first night at Cristina's we got one of Melissa's absolute favorite foods: high quality tamales. These weren't home cooked (too much work to make fresh so Cristina just went out and brought back a half dozen to share). Home cooked or not, Cristina knows where to get the good stuff. As this was our first dinner, we learned how Mexico balances their eating throughout the day: a moderate breakfast, a large lunch, and a very small dinner. I think two tamales was all we ate for dinner that night, but with hearty late lunches we didn't need much for dinner.

The last notable thing about eating at the homestay was how healthy we felt. Many Mexicans on our trip have talked about how healthy certain things are (even mezcal...) because they're so natural, and clean, without pesticides, additives, preservatives, etc. We kind of roll our eyes to this because these claims are pervasive in the US to the point of being meaningless. I have no idea to what extent the food we ate was natural or clean, but we felt great.

I'm saving up many of the details of this trip for an optional Gross Post later on, so for now I'll just say that eating a ton of fiber, like a ton, seems to be really good for you. We've tried in our New York lives to eat lots of fiber and even supplemented with fiber pills for periods of time, but I don't think we ever hit critical mass. At Cristina's, we were eating beans at least once a day, often with breakfast. Those breakfasts always included a large plate of fresh fruits like apples, papaya, pineapple (not enough of that!), mango, or guayaba (guava). Most meals included some form of bread (which we avoided a lot in NY) along with rice and tortillas. Fried food was rare (empanadas once). A salad was often provided but Melissa ate more of that than me because it was never dressed (odd, but ok...). Most lunches included a vegetable side, such as squash, chayote, green beans or potatoes.

Another sunset melting into the mountains. The skies here give you several great pictures every day.

Street dogs have to stay warm!

No matter what she says, this is the happiest Melissa has been on the trip. We have named him Esquirmiendo because of his energy; he and his brothers were raised by some Americans that rescued street dogs here.

And this may be the second happiest Melissa has been. This little grey guy and his brown brother were raised by a Mexican man who spoke good English and claimed that their father was a champion show dog. They walked together with a forked leash and constantly bumped into each other and tripped over each other, hilariously. We saw them several times during our stay.

Although we were often stuffed after our meals (Melissa in particular struggled with the relatively large breakfasts), we never, ever felt the overeater's sense of regret, shortness of breath and fatigue we get after indulgent meals in New York. I did miss being able to go out and visit the interesting restaurants we saw daily, but we really learned a lot about ourselves by having nonstop home cooked abuela meals, and will be making some diet changes when we return.

The most notable tidbits we learned and saw by eating at the homestay for two weeks:
  • Tons of fruit at breakfast. So much. But really good: with papaya, quality counts and fortunately this was always good
  • The breads from the panaderias are OK, their pan dulces (sweet breads) are not our favorites; they're often not sweet enough to be desserts and aren't flavors we crave. Many are basically a whole wheat breadstick rolled in just a bit of sugar. I doubt I'll miss these but they weren't bad, especially the rare times we had some filled with custard (yum). EDITOR'S NOTE: all the pan dulces were just so dry!
  • Tortillas appear at every meal, and the way to use them is to roll them up into an empty tube and use them as an edible spoon, for moving foods onto the fork and absorbing sauce
  • Tomatoes seem to be good year round here, unlike the US tomatoes that range from mediocre to terrible until late July and August. The whole tomato curve here is just shifted higher, so hopefully the late summer tomatoes are even better
  • Italian food is not unknown; Cristina cooked us a respectable chicken cutlet with spaghetti
  • Habaneros may be less spicy? It's unclear, because her homemade salsa was not very piquant, but some other habeneros dishes were more in line with what I'd expected
  • Mole, especially mole negro (black mole, the top of the pile here) is a special food. It's a food that crosses every line of the society, they say that whether you're rich or poor, everybody eats moles at their wedding. We didn't eat mole negro at Cristina's (it's an extremely involved dish to make from scratch) but did learn a bit about the mole's special role in life here
  • Beans for breakfast can be great. Definitely going to try this at home
  • Cristina didn't care for pizza at all. Her grandsons definitely liked it though (rico)
  • Speaking of rico, when someone is cooking excellent meals for you every day and speaks another language you really focus on learning some words of gratitude. Rico means 'rich', but is used to described excellent, tasty food. Also: sabroso (tasty, flavorful).
  • This one was a bit odd: Cristina took her toast with just a spread of queso doble crema, a fresh, crumbly cheese (not cream cheese!) that was offered at almost every meal. We didn't love it; it was a bit like a feta or goat cheese but much tangier. Not bad but nothing we were going to make sure got in every bite. I tried the cheese and toast; it wasn't bad but I prefer butter and jelly. The doble crema queso is one of the few cheeses made in Chiapas (Oaxaca has a much better cheese scene)
  • We ate french toast without syrup. Never saw any. No idea what that's about, maybe it's expensive or just something she didn't know about or care for? Wasn't bad without but obviously french toast is better with syrup
  • All of the chayote we ate was really good, and heavily salted. That seems to be a key part of cooking chayote, we will keep this in mind next time we see it in the market. I plan to cook this vegetable regularly back at home.
  • Apparently we can go a long time without eating or missing fish and seafood. This really opens up the cities we'd consider moving to when we return (hello Denver and Austin!)
  • Aguas Frescas: these aren't uncommon in NY or any place with at least a moderate Mexican population. The "core" agua frescas, if you're unfamiliar, are jamaica, tamarindo, and of course HORCHATA. An agua fresca is literally a "cool water" drink, not a juice. I'm not sure if lemonade counts as an agua fresca, but it was in the rotation at Cristina's. I love jamaica, or hibiscus as it's more commonly called in NY, so this was nothing new, although it was quite good here. Horchata is our blog namesake and we did not have any at Cristina's, which is too bad because that would have been a great addition to the horchata gallery. Finally, tamarindo, made from tamarind; this one was totally different. We've tried tamarind things before, it's usually tangy, sour and funky and is not a flavor that either of us likes. Cristina's was so much better: sour and tangy but much closer to a good lemonade than a weird flat kombucha. We drank that readily when it appeared.
  • One the same note, since most of her aguas frescas and juices were made and served fresh, she had this amazing pitcher with a rod that connected to part of the lid and a disc on the bottom, so you could agitate the contents in the pitcher without shaking it to ensure the pulp and flavors were well distributed before pouring. Really helpful for something homemade like that.

Cristina's house was built with a very common colonial style floor plan: it was a large square with an open square courtyard in the middle. About half of it was two stories, the guest rooms were on the second story on the right, with a balcony looking out into her courtyard garden stuffed with trees and produce plants. She had at least: an avocado tree, a lime tree, a peach tree, tomatoes, many herbs growing fresh, and probably some other things that we didn't notice. We took one of the two guestrooms on the balcony; the other was empty for the entire first week and a Norwegian girl, Anna, moved in the second week (she was also taking classes at our school). The room was comfortable enough, and it was nice to know we'd be somewhere long enough that it's OK to unpack nearly everything and really own the space for a while.

After my only workout at Iglesia de Guadalupe, I saw some people on the church roof that happened to be from the free walking tour. I climbed up without any idea if I was allowed to and managed to get some good pictures. I still owe the guy who opens the gate $5 pesos...

A rare selfie from the roof of Iglesia de Guadalupe

Up ahead, those are the stairs we ran daily. Steep

The routine for two weeks of classes

You really miss some aspects of having a predictable routine after two months on the road, so the classes and respite from constant change was welcome. That is not to say that these two weeks were easy - in some ways they were the hardest stretch we've had on the trip so far. We took the early classes, so our basic routine went like this:
  • 7:30 - wake, descansar (relax) until breakfast
  • 8:00 - breakfast downstairs with Cristina. Either all carbs (toast, coffee, fruit) or occasionally Mexicano with some eggs scrambled with tomatoes, beans and tortillas. Another meal we will copy at home
  • 9:00 - class with Yasmina
  • 10:45 - a much needed break for 15 minutes. We'd often walk around a nearby block to see more of the city and get some air, or get a coffee or chocolate drink. Occasionally we'd run errands, such as our penultimate day when we split up to retrieve laundry and book our shuttle to the airport
  • 12:00 - after class, we'd walk a mile to the other side of town at the base of La Iglesia de la Cerrita or the Church of the Hill. Workout time. This is a huge hill with stairs, alternating very long steps and normal flights. Keep in mind the altitude here before judging our workouts, we're 30% higher than Denver and the thin air has an extremely noticeable effect as soon as you exert yourself. I would run as far up the stairs as I could, I got to at least 2/3rds of the way by the end but wasn't getting much closer to making it all the way. Melissa would hike up with our backpack full of rain coats, notebooks and water. We'd meet at the top and walk over to a little Mexican workout playground with odd bodyweight machines. I'd do a short strength session of pullups, dips and L-sits, and after we were all recovered, we'd take different routes on the way home and explore the city more. We found some great things this way, most notably a fondue restaurant that served a type of pizza made by a Mexican woman who spoke excellent English with an Italian accent. She'd lived in Italy for 20+ years and brought some of the food back to this part of the world. It was fantastic but we only ever grabbed a slice there so as not to ruin lunch. Other days, we'd go to an internet cafe and upload as many GoPro videos as we could for $6 pesos an hour (40 cents?) since it would have taken all week for one video at the homestay. We'd also run errands as needed, like visiting the only car rental agency in town.
  • 14:00 - lunch, although in week two the Norwegian girl had class 12-3 so lunch moved to 3. We preferred 2 PM but dealt with it.
  • 14:30 - 15:30 (or later) - descansar (to rest) in the room, digest, catch up on calling family, reading internet stuff, playing iPad games, and occasionally writing blog posts.
  • 15:30 - we'd go to a coffee shop to copy notes from class and study. We got a really good mix of coffee shops and saw more of the city this way by seeking new ones out, but we did have our favorites (Carajillo on Real de Guadalupe for Melissa!). On a particularly productive day, we might get to a shop early, do our individual studying, and head to a bar for a beer and to quiz each other in Spanish. Most days, it would rain sometime between 1 and 5, so some days we'd get stuck somewhere for a while, with the worst being the day before the homestay began when we stayed at a ramen and Korean restaurant for about 7 hours and ate two meals. I personally really enjoyed it when we were able to get to a bar, have a beer and quiz, and at one in particular, Melissa finally got her first taste of poutine at one of these bars! It's crazy how a Canadian food, that Melissa was always destined to love, evaded her until now.
  • 20:00 - dinner at Cristina's, conversations about weather and the prices of things in New York
  • 20:30 - relax upstairs finish any homework or studying before bed
Naturally we deviated from this a bit each day but that was the basic structure. It really wasn't easy, the language classes moved fast. We estimate that in 2 weeks we got through maybe a couple years of high school level language classes, although with less raw vocabulary. Yasmina said that if we continued on, we'd be done with all the grammar in 5 weeks total, and move on to fluency and refinement. Most classes we were learning 2-3 hours of new material, and then repeating and studying it for 2-4 hours daily after that. Our brains hurt. We tried really hard to talk to Cristina and her grandsons or other family members that visited from time to time in Spanish, and while they were understanding it wears on you to constantly work to use knowledge you just learned. We're not sure if we could have done more than 2 weeks there at the rate that we were going, and we liked our teacher and the material.

It can be frustrating at times too, and not just when you make stupid mistakes in homework and in class. Yasmina and Cristina were both pretty good about speaking slowly and mostly sticking to words that we knew, basic stuff. So while most of our interactions during the week are largely successful Spanish conversations with teachers, bartenders and baristas, on the weekend we got out of town and all of a sudden realized that we weren't as far along as we thought. Full speed speakers would leave us dumbfounded and we walked away from many interactions with 0% comprehension. We're glad we did the classes, and while we may try another 2 weeks later, we are glad we didn't book more than these two and we didn't do more than 3 hours of classes a day.

Overall

Overall, we got a ton out of this experience. Slowing down to stay a month in one place is a different kind of travel, and it's really nice to change it up like that. One of my biggest complaints was that 3 meals a day provided for doesn't let us try all the new restaurants we see. We skipped 3 meals at Cristina's: once we offered to fend for ourselves because she going out for a family celebration dinner (Italian place, fresh pasta), and the other two when we went to El Chiflon (Burger King and nothing). My complaint is tempered by the fact that it was good for me to eat at her house every day and try a new way of living. We both agree that if we could have one major quality of life upgrade, it would be to have a home cook preparing fresh, healthy meals every day (and to clean up!). Other than cost, the difficulty with that is that we love to cook and would still want to a few times a week!

Some nice trees in centro

Cristina's incredible mole.

The clouds hung low on the surrounding mountains on one of our last days.

A peak into the homestay garden and courtyard.

We did sneak in plenty of snack foods outside of the meals to keep it interesting. San Cristóbal has some excellent bread shops - particularly notable was an "artisanal" panaderia that had hot, crusty onion rolls and chocolate & strawberry Danishes. We sampled many chocolates, the local Starbucks equivalent is a chain called Cacao Nativa selling chocolate drinks ranging up to 100% pure cacao. The bar Con Tenedor (with a fork) had really good poutines and great mezcal specials. Our school was in a complex called La Casa Del Pan (the house of bread), which housed a vegetarian restaurant with cafe, specialty food shop, a Zapatista theater, a yoga studio (and reiki...), a garden where much of the restaurants food is grown, and AirBnb rentable apartments. We met the owner of Casa del Pan and saw one of these apartments, it was recently redone and stunning. Third floor, great views of the city and mountains, with a beautiful wood finished interior and creative bathroom. It was way out of our price range but worth if if you're considering a nice vacation in San Cristóbal.

Oh and the last thing about Casa del Pan: even though this was a vegetarian, nearly vegan, restaurant, every time we left class for our break, the entire place smelt like grilled cheese, or melting cheese and butter, or buttered toast. We could never quite pinpoint exactly what it smelled like and never figured out what they were cooking that made that smell, because we never saw a bit of cheese or butter in the entire place. Vegetarian secrets maybe?

In the end we were sad to leave San Cristóbal but had to move on if we were ever going to finish up Mexico. And even though we felt great living on Cristina's cooking, we want to sample a wide variety of foods here, and we like trying new restaurants and specialties. We booked reasonable flights to Oaxaca from the regional airport, had a bit of an adventure getting up there when our $400 peso shuttle never showed up (they hired another driver but with a much smaller vehicle...) and caught our flight for Oaxaca at 1:30 on Saturday. We're glad to have met Yasmina and Cristina, tried Cristina's cooking and stayed in San Cristóbal for just about one month.

Cascada El Chiflón

As Melissa is writing now, next to me in an internet cafe with decent upload speeds in downtown San Cristóbal, we've been in this town for about three weeks now. In that time we've done many (although far from all) of the excursions from here with the notable exception of El Chiflón, a series of waterfalls about 2.5 hours south east of the mountain town.

We were on the fence about it after Misol-Ha, which was an incredible sight this time of year, but our German driver (and others) said it's different enough and worth the trip. So on Wednesday of our first full week of Spanish classes we decided it would be good to get out of the city and drive down to this site.

Fortunately the drive was dramatically better than the one to Palenque. We may top the Palenque drive in Guatemala or Nicarauga, but we're in no hurry to do so. This one had a few topes out of town and some curves but we were able to be at the speed limit probably 90% of the time, versus Palenque's 5%.

Teopisca, a small town on the highway down to El Chiflón, with a very well manicured zocalo, or central park

The car is another story though. This was the third car we rented in México, and they've progressively gotten more expensive (to us, although not much) and cheaper (in car quality). Out of Cancún was great, power everything, air, lots of room, USB power, etc. Out of Merída was fine, manual windows and locks and a hatchback but we only needed it for one day and a fine VW. Out out San Cristóbal, we had a Nissan Tsuru, which as I'm researching now (we didn't know this when we rented) is about the cheapest and worst car that exists in México.

The Car

The car rental salesman said we had a 2014 Tsuru, although they haven't updated the design in 30+ years. It looks like maybe the first company car I ever remember my dad having, although shittier. It was a manual, which isn't a problem in general but this transmission sucked. It didn't have power steering... I don't know if I've ever driven a car without power steering, and Melissa can attest that it really, really sucks. 90° turns in the city were agony. Fortunately on the highway you don't need to do a lot of turns that hard.

Nissan Tsuru, from Carbuzz

Unsurprisingly, no power windows, locks, trunk, etc., but that doesn't matter as much. On the uphill out of the city we were worried that it might top out at 60 kph (about 40 mph) but it was better in lower gears on hills and we were fine hitting speed limits.

As I'm writing this and searching for a bit about the car, I've very quickly found articles saying how terrible it is, how unsafe it is compared to modern cars, and how it just won't die as popular cheap car and taxi cab here. Thus forms an important lesson learned for us, and tip to other travelers:
Tip: Do not rent a Nissan Tsuru. Check the car model and don't dip into this tier of cheap rentals.
Fortunately Melissa is a great driver and we got through the trip perfectly fine. The oddest thing is that I could hear the gas sloshing around when we came to a sharp stop or hit a tope. I've never actually heard that sound in a car before although I'm sure the gas moves in all cars. Disconcerting.

The Falls

We allotted about 3 hours to get the falls (Google said 2:20 but best not to trust it too much here) and made good time, arriving around 11. The park itself is one of the better ones we've been to in a couple of ways: it was not white, first world touristy. We were the only non-Mexicans that we saw there all day: one family lived in the States but was first generation from México. A nice bonus for these demographics is that it was not very commercial or predatory: no kids offering to "watch our car" while we enjoyed the falls, no paying twice, once for the government and one for the attraction, and the cost was only $30 pesos (less than $2 USD) and free parking. The downside is that there wasn't much in the way of food there, mostly chips, fries and drinks, but that worked out fine for us.

The stiller water is brown, not so fun for swimming this time of year

The first falls, Supiso, or the Sigh waterfall. Neat but alone is nothing too special, smaller than some we saw at Agua Azul.

Starting out, we tried on our improving but quite limited Spanish to figure out how wet we would get (lesson from Misol-Ha), how far we'd be walking, if we'd be swimming and if we should count on revisiting the car between phases. We learned that the entire hike is about 2km, so more than I'd want to do in board shorts (women have it easier in that regard), the water isn't clear and good for swimming this time of year (what a surprise), we'd get misty-wet (half true) and we figured that we would plan for that and not really count on returning to the car to change clothes or reload our bag. All of these details are important; you don't want to assume you won't get very wet, hike with electronics unprotected and end up a mile from your car when the best wet attraction appears.

The third falls, Velo de Novia (Bridal Veil falls). Really nice shaded (and slightly flooded) clearing at the base

The grounds were nicely maintained - at the very beginning we walked by the cabañas where you can stay overnight on the premises. The first part of the hike is kind of a muddy river, with a decently nice fall appearing a couple hundred of meters in. There are five individual falls at El Chiflón in a series, so we started ascending on slightly more difficult trails and went off to see each fall in turn. The first two were slight detours from the path; I liked the clearing at the second one in particular. Since you're at ground level for these and haven't done much work yet, we didn't spend too long at these.

The third one is directly on the trail and is probably where a lot of people end their exploration. It's massive, there are amazing lookout points there, and in the wet season you get to choose the level of wetness you'd prefer by the lookouts you visit. The point on the trail keeps you almost completely dry, the second lookout goes from a heavy mist to straight hard rain, and the third will get you soaked almost as bad as Misol-Ha. I went to all three on our return from the peak, Melissa kept the bag dry at the trail lookout.


Our first peek at falls 4 and 5, from after fall 3. The railings we saw are highlighted when hovering

On the way up we'd seen the zip lines (tirolesas) that you can pay extra to do and people zipping down. There is 600 meter tirolesa that is not very steep, and at the dry lookout for the third waterfall is the start of the 400 meter tirolesa that is steeper and presumably faster. We skipped them on the way up in favor of shortening trip back down.

After the third fall it gets tricky. It's not that the trail isn't well maintained, it's just really hard, steep and slippery. Lots of semi-polished limestone rocks embedded in concrete, so we had to step carefully on the concrete to keep our step. It was also not a lot of stairs, but more slanted walkways, which I don't quite understand as it felt much more difficult to keep your footing on those.

A stranger ziplines down the steep tirolesa

The fourth fall was probably the best. Massive, soaking, great views and a difficult climb (for us). There's a nice large clearing with some tree cover (so it's not wet) that has great views of this fall. Further out from there was an extremely muddy and wet path jutting over the landscape and river a bit for better pictures. I went out there in my sandals (should have just done that one barefoot) to get some videos with the GoPro in its waterproof enclosure. The most incredible thing about it is that the mist is so thick, and the sun that day was so strong, that I had a tiny personal rainbow surrounding me that only I could see for that entire walk out to the end.

The approach to the wet part of the fourth falls, Arcoiris or Rainbow Falls

The mirador or lookout point for the Arcoiris. This area got wet

The mists from Aroiris, and pervasive rainbows on a sunny day

We spent some time at this one to break before the final climb to the fifth fall, and talked a bit to the first generation family from Mississippi. They had an adorable four year old girl with them who spoke excellent English and loved to talk about her family and her exciting trip to Mexico.

After a bit of rest we geared up for the final, steep climb to the top. I have to note at this point, that at the beginning of the hike, maybe between falls #1 and #2, Melissa spotted a tiny railing really, incredibly far up the mountainside. She said "Is that a railing? I can't believe people go up that far in the dry season, that's nuts!". I said jokingly, "Too bad, we're headed up to that point," figuring it was closed off like the caves at Misol-Ha.

A rare selfie at the peak, the tamer mirador for the Quinceañera falls. Less wet and messy up here but the hike was an effort.

Looking back on where we came from. I think where the road in the middle meets the forest is where the park entrance is, so we walked at least half of the way from that. You can almost see the next range of mountains in the far distance.

Well, the climb to the fifth fall was the hardest yet, slippery, dangerous (absolutely no injuries and only 1 real fall beween us!), and you can tell that even though it's hard work getting up there it's going to be worse coming down. We met a few people on the way up who told us to keep going, it's not much further. Sure enough, after a good bit of upward hiking, we ended up at the final fall. This one is much shorter and wider, like a big triangle, and while it's not the most impressive fall there, it definitely has the best views back down onto the valley where we started. I'm not sure if this valley has a name, but it's unlike what we've seen in the Chiapan highlands so far. We've driven a lot and seen lots of beautiful, small valleys with the next mountains over fairly close and clear. This valley was massive, with the next range barely, or possibly not at all, visible in the distance. I'm pretty sure that the road we could just barely see coming out of the jungle from this view is where we drove in and bought our tickets to the park. It's nuts to be up there and know that you've hiked most of that distance, and see just how much that vertical hiking has added up. Definitely worth it.

I've had a hard time finding the elevation gain you do on this hike, one web page indicated that it's a kilometer up, and since some of these falls are a couple hundred meters alone, I'm going with that. We hiked over a vertical kilometer (me in sandals) and we're both proud to have done it.

The top fall summitted, we headed down to the ziplines at fall #3. Now, I knew going into this excursion that the weight limit for the ziplines is 100kg (220 lbs) and I wasn't under that when I last weighed a few weeks ago. Not the kind thing that is going to stop us so we figured we'd see what the deal is when we got there. Tuirns out the weight limit now is 95 kg, over 10 pounds less than expected, and they don't really make exceptions at the steeper zipline. Melissa kindly told the operator that I was around 100kg, but he made me weigh in when he saw me and I tipped the scales at just under 105kg. In my defense, this was immediately after I checked out the wettest lookout point, so I was quite literally 105kg soaking wet. I dried off a bit and took of my shirt and got down to 101, but that's still more than 10 pounds over and I can only take some many clothes off.

A (GoPro) shot from the quite wet mirador looking at the extremely wet mirador of Arcoiris

So after much persuading, Melissa agreed to do this zipline that she had already paid for and meet me down at its landing. I have to assume it was great, all I know is that she must have hit the break hard because she came in pretty slowly.

Fortunately, the second, longer and less steep zipline was a bit more flexible, and when I said I weighed 101kg he let me buy a ticket and suit up for this one without a weigh in. Some people say that ziplining is an ok but kind of silly touristy thing to do, but I had never done it in my life and I'm currently a tourist, so I'm happy that I was able to do this one. Not very scary at all, and while when I set out it looked like I'd only see the tops of trees, you do go over an opening and body of water that I tried to get some GoPro video of. Working the wooden hand brake at the end is kind of fun too.

Those two ziplines total 1000 meters in length, so they accounted for roughly half the descent by distance (not time!), so after wrapping that up we got out of the park, found our car exactly as we left it, and headed back. Now I hadn't had a torta in a while (lots of abuela cooking and they're just not so common here), but the area around the falls park didn't have much food at all. Fortunately for me, Melissa had the brilliant idea to step in Comitan, the city closest to the falls, where she saw a Burger King sign, so that I could finally try the Dorito Whopper that they have here. Brilliant.

The Burger King was in a slightly loco mall, apparently most of Comitan goes to try international fast food on the weekends? Unlike the fast food places in Jamaica, the Méxican places have extended menus with lots of local variations, so we got the Dorito burger and some Burger King Jalapeño Poppers, along with some normal food for lunch. I have to say, the Dorito Whopper actually kind of exceeded my expectations. For whatever reason I simply can't pass up these pop culture food mash up things (pop tart pop-up in New York, KFC's double down years ago...) but never expect them to taste any better than the sum of their parts if that. (Melissa start the eye roll now). The Dorito Whopper was actually slightly better than the sum of its parts, and the extra crunch element the chips brought was great. Would definitely recommend.

That and a cookies and cream nieve (ice cream bar) got us uneventfully back to San Cristóbal, where we promptly rested for 36 hours after the hike, sun, and quad-killing, painfully careful descents from El Chiflón.

If You Go

  • Wet season and dry season are quite different. We saw almost no one swimming in the wet season, and the water is not clear or blue at all, although for the white water falls that doesn't matter much, only for the pools.
  • Cabañas looked great, there's not much else to do there but they seemed like a good spot to stay, and possibly base out of to visit Lagos Montebello and other attractions nearby. Comitan is probably better though, less out of the way and a bigger city with amenities.
  • If you want to see everything in the wet season, you will get wet. Don't bring unprotected electronics or other articles.
  • As of July 2017, the weight limit for the zip lines is 95kg, and they are strict on the steeper one.
  • Flip flops are doable if you're quite comfortable with them, waterproof shoes or strap on sandals are better. It's slippery and muddy in places.
  • Many blogs suggested to visit this on your own instead of in a tour with Lagos Montebello, so that you have time to explore it all. We agree. The roads down there aren't bad, but we were advised to go through Comitan (10 minutes slower) rather than take the lesser road straight there, which we did and worked out well for us.
  • Food there is light, fries, plantanos, chips, beer, water, juices, sodas. Closer to the park entrance there were restaurants but they didn't look too compelling.
  • This is not big on the gringo backpacker and tourist circuit, so it's mostly Mexicans and you won't here or be able to use much English.
  • We took about 3 hours to go all the way up and down, and we did not rush at all. It can be done in less but I wouldn't recommend planning only 2 hours.
  • There are grills and little covered huts in the lower parts by the river, which looked great for a picnic lunch. They weren't crowded, and I doubt it would be hard to claim one and cook, although some of them are probably a little wet on the ground in the wet season.
  • Don't rent a Nissan Tsuru.