Our trip to Mexico, 2003
Jacqueline and I recently spent nearly two weeks in Mexico, a perfect tropical escape from the harsh, bleak winter weather we had been enduring almost without respite since November. We took advantage of a special fare on United Airlines and relied upon Expedia.com to book a room at the Hotel Prim, located two blocks from the posh Paseo de la Reforma, the main boulevard in downtown Mexico City. The hotel was very clean, comfortable, and economical. Generally speaking, however, prices in Mexico in dollar terms are not nearly as low as when I first traveled there in 1985. Back then, price levels were usually about 25% of U.S. prices, but now the difference is often negligible. Darned NAFTA! The day after we arrived we took the subway and bus about 25 miles north to Teotihuacan, an ancient city built by the Indians about 1,500 years ago. Not used to the high altitude (7,500 feet) and temperatures (near 90 degrees), we were exhausted from climbing the Pyramid of the Sun, the biggest such structure in the Western hemisphere. While there we saw two life birds; see the Wild birds 2003 archives page for details on all our bird sightings. The next day we went to Chapultepec Park and visited the historical museum in the castle on the hilltop that once housed military cadets who were the last pocket of resistance when the U.S. Army and Marines conquered Mexico in 1846. (That long-ago event is still fresh in Mexican minds.) We also visited the Museum of Anthropology, which has an enormous quantity of ancient Indian relics.
The day after that we took a first class bus eastward, passing through some amazing changes in terrain and vegetation. (Most of the passengers seemed more interested in watching the movie Big Momma, starring Martin Lawrence. I didn't know he could speak Spanish!) The bus climbed and climbed, crossing a high, pine-covered mountain ridge as we neared the twin volcanic peaks of Itzaccihuatl and Popocatepetl (which erupted recently and was still smoking!), and soon passed the city of Puebla. After passing a forest of cacti and climbing across an enormous mountain pass, we stopped in the town of Nochixtlan, where I saw a small bright red bird that I knew right away was a Vermilion flycatcher. Wow! I was really impressed by Mexico's modern highways, which are well guarded by army detachments at every toll gate. Finally, around six in the evening, we arrived in the city of Oaxaca (pronounced "wa-HOCK-a). We savored fine regional cuisine (chapulines con guacamole) at an outdoor cafe, and soaked up the wonderfully relaxing atmosphere of the zocalo (the Mexican word for central plaza, where everyone hangs out at night). Contrary to what a taxicab driver had told us, Oaxaca is thoroughly inundated with tourists, including Americans, Europeans, and Japanese. With all of the bright lights, gaudy balloons, and merchandise being hawked from every corner, it made me think of Las Vegas. Too bad, since the architecture is splendid and the Indian culture is quite vibrant. We heard South American folk music, rock and roll, and a mariachi quartet serenading tourists. In a jarring contrast to the idyllic cafe life, on the other side of the zocalo there were few dozen communists "laying siege" to the Government Palace. They left after a couple days, and their graffiti was quickly painted over. Anyway, we found a very nice, comfortable inn (El Posada del Rosario) next to the main market, and spent the next few nights there. It was very close to the center of Oaxaca, so we were within walking distance of almost everything. Our main objective was the archeological site of Monte Alban, a complex of pyramids built by the Zapotec Indians on top of a mountain just west of Oaxaca. They actually leveled the mountain top, reshaping it into a plateau. The view from up there is awe-inspiring, and of course saw many new birds. We also stopped at the Santo Domingo Church and cultural center, as well as the Museum of Philately across the street. I couldn't believe my good luck: the biggest museum for stamp collectors in all of Mexico was located right here in this quaint provincial capital! It was quite a history lesson in its own right, and I bought a few stamps as souvenirs. I bought a booklet on bird watching around Oaxaca, and we went to one of the most highly recommended spots, the town of Teotitlan del Valle. We hiked about a half mile to a dam and reservoir, a stunning oasis of greenery amidst the parched desert surroundings. It was at least 95 degrees, which made it impractical to continue any further on the road, so I missed my big chance to see a blue-hooded euphonia. The craft market back in town didn't live up to its reputation, and we bought nearly all our souvenirs back in Oaxaca.
For a variety of reasons (including a State Department warning about bandits) we decided not to go to the Pacific coast and make a big loop via Acapulco, but instead "retraced our steps" back to Mexico City a day early to give ourselves more time for sightseeing there. We took the subway to the historic and well-to-do district of Coyoacan, near the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). By sheer luck we stumbled across a lovely park filled with pine trees, palm trees, cactus, and assorted shrubs, and saw several more life birds, including some black-headed grosbeaks, warblers, and a hummingbird, all at very close range. Later we snacked at a cafe near the cathedral where an antiwar protest was underway, and then caught a bus and train further south to the suburb of Xochimilco, home of the famous floating gardens. Our boat ride was very pleasant and relaxing, but I was a little disappointed at the heavy development along the shore, which no longer looks like the park it once was; I was also a little annoyed by the high prices and constant commercial come-ons. It's basically as much of a tourist trap as Wall Drug, SD. Our return flight back home to the U.S.A. was without incident, and I was surprised how easy it was to get through the security, immigration, and customs checkpoints. Though glad to be home, I was dismayed to see all the snow still on the ground as our plane approached Dulles Airport. We just missed President Bush's press conference on Iraq. Fortunately, our VCR recorded the two episodes of the Fox drama series 24 exactly as programmed, so we were able to keep up with that riveting (and chillingly relevant) story line.
My overall impression of Mexico today is that it is continuing to make great progress toward modernization and democratization. It has a long way to go, however, before it can be considered to be a real bastion of liberal capitalism; for example, the only places you can buy gasoline are at the state-owned Pemex stations. As for politics, there is massive, well-organized resistance to the major privatization programs. The election campaigns waged by the three major parties are largely professional and not too demagogical, at least. President Fox's rural development initiative is a worthy and desperately needed measure to counteract the population explosion in urban centers, but he lacks a congressional majority and can't get much done. I think it's fair to say that the United States has a bit of a public relations problem in Mexico. Most of the media outlets there are proclaiming that Americans are being brainwashed by power-mad warmongers, or something to that effect. Very sad...