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Northwest Traveler

Travel news, consumer advice and trip reports for the Northwest and beyond.

Category: Mexico
May 9, 2014 at 12:44 PM

Alaska Airlines renews nonstops to Cancún (with cheap fares)

Alaska Airlines is reviving its nonstop flights from Seattle to Cancún, Mexico, with cheap deals through May 15. The nonstop flights begin Nov. 6, with daily departures from Sea-Tac at 8:30 a.m., for a flight of 5 hours 40 minutes. Introductory fares start at $199 each way. The fine print: Purchase discounted fares by 11:59 p.m. on May…

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Comments | Topics: Alaska Airlines, Cancun, Mexico flights

September 23, 2013 at 10:56 AM

Flying down Mexico’s highways in a first-class bus

Modern Volvo buses are used by ADO, a prominent Mexican intercity bus line. This is the GL class bus, akin to Business Class. "Platino" is the top of the line bus. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Modern Volvo buses are used by ADO, a prominent Mexican intercity bus line. This is the GL-class bus, akin to Business Class. “Platino” is the top-of-the-line service. (photos by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

OAXACA, Mexico — You can still find the fabled “chicken bus” in Mexico, but if you’re traveling between sizable cities, that’s a long-outdated stereotype. Mexico’s modern intercity bus lines are among the best in the world — and also quite affordable.

Traveling overnight back and forth between Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas, I compared the two premium services offered by ADO (say “Ah-Day-Oh”), one of Mexico’s largest bus operators. The top-of-the-line “Platino” service, modeled after first-class airline comforts, has just about everything but a flight attendant plumping your pillow.

The first-class bus terminal in Oaxaca is modern and shiny, not unlike a modern air terminal in the United States.

The first-class bus terminal in Oaxaca is new and shiny, not unlike a modern air terminal in the United States.

At the modern and shiny first-class bus terminal on the northern edge of downtown Oaxaca, I discovered the first difference when I made the mistake of trying to check my luggage at the “ordinary” bag-check counter. I was pointed around the corner to the private, guarded Platino waiting room with its own bag counter, private restrooms, big-screen TVs, water cooler and free coffee. As I boarded, I was offered a free soft drink or chilled water.

The bus itself had only three seats across the width of the vehicle, in a two-and-one

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Comments | More in Mexico, Trip reports | Topics: bus from Oaxaca, first-class bus service in Mexico, Mexico bus

September 18, 2013 at 7:24 AM

Sacrificing chickens and pleasing the saints in Mayan Chiapas

Two young women in San Juan Chemula, Chiapas, wear typical garb for their Mayan town. Behind them is the church where shamans practice healing and rituals involved everything from colored candles to killing chickens to drinking Coca-Cola so as to burp out evil spirits. Taking photos inside the church is strictly forbidden. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Young women in San Juan Chemula wear typical garb for their town. Behind is the church where rituals involve everything from killing chickens to drinking Coca-Cola so as to belch out evil spirits. Taking photos inside the church is strictly forbidden. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

SAN JUAN CHEMULA, Mexico — I spent time in a whole other world yesterday, wandering among shamans practicing their healing arts with sacrificial chickens and clouds of incense, and taking part in a ritual to make corn liquor to be consumed during a celebration this week of Jesus Christ and the autumn equinox —  the “son” and the sun, as only a Mayan town in Chiapas could meld two ancient religions.

It was a short drive from the bustling city of San Cristobal de las Casas. The shamans were in the Iglesia San Juan Bautista, the town church in a municipality officially known as San Juan Chemula, but which the indigenous people call Mishik Banamil, or “navel of the world.” It’s ostensibly a Catholic church, and looks from the outside like many churches in many small Mexican towns. But a Catholic priest comes to this church only once a month for baptisms, and inside there are no pews, no seating of any kind, just aromatic pine needles spread thickly on the floor, and thousands of candles burning as a part of rituals aimed at everything from wooing more rain to curing depression. Supplicants prostrate themselves on the floor.

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Comments | More in Mexico, Trip reports | Topics: Chiapas, Mayan town, Mexico visit

September 17, 2013 at 6:00 AM

They’re free, independent and ready to party in Chiapas

Fireworks lit the front of city hall in San Cristobal, Chiapas, during Independence Day celebrations that started Sunday. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Independence Day fireworks on Sunday light the front of the 1885 city hall in San Cristobal, Chiapas. Zapatista rebels seized the building in 1994. Sunday just brought grumpy teachers. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — I didn’t get the fake mustache or the giant sombrero, as I’m told is the custom for celebrating Mexico’s Independence Day. (Darn, the stands were sold out of fake mustaches by the time I was ready to commit.) But I did put on a big hat. And I got my face painted. Sort of.

OK, I got my hand painted.

I guess I was caught up in the giddiness of the day. Or maybe it was the thin air in this mountain town at 7,200 feet.

It was a red, white and green Mexican flag on the back of my palm, with matching glitter, courtesy of one of the ambitious roving young boys at Monday’s Independence Day parade in this city, considered the cultural capital of Chiapas.

One of the enterpriseing boys offering on-the-run face painting during the Independence Day parade in San Cristobal. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

One of the enterprising boys offering on-the-run face painting.

The boys toted cardboard boxes with pots of paint and glitter stuck to the top and scooted through the crowd collecting 5 pesos per paint job — about 37 cents U.S.

The parade, which featured high-school bands, angry teachers and what must have been just about every unit of the Mexican military, along with their mortars and bazookas, was the finale of a brisk 24 hours of Mexican patriotism. Mexicans reserve the biggest splurge of celebrating for the night before Sept. 16, their official day of independence.

The teachers were a part of nationwide protests against recently passed education reform championed by Mexico’s president. In Oaxaca, before I left on Saturday, teachers had blockaded streets leading to the zocalo, or city square, and there was evidence of a similar action in San Cristobal on Sunday. I wondered how passionately Mexico’s federal holiday would be observed in Chiapas, perhaps best known outside of Mexico for the 1994 Zapatista rebellion that saw the seizure of San Cristobal’s city hall. But by sundown Sunday,

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Comments | More in Mexico, Trip reports | Topics: Chiapas, Chiapas celebration, Mexican Independence Day

September 15, 2013 at 6:43 PM

Microfinance brings smiles to these beautiful faces of Oaxaca

Juana Chavez Ruiz works at her loom behind the Dulizun Cafe run by her granddaughter-in-law, Teresa Lopez Montano, in Teotitlan. (photos by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Juana Chavez Ruiz works at her loom behind the Dulizun Cafe run by her granddaughter-in-law, Teresa Lopez Montano, in Teotitlan, near Oaxaca City, Mexico. Both women have received loans from En Via, a microfinance organization. (photos by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

OAXACA CITY, Mexico — As it can be anywhere, life can be hard for some in Oaxaca. You see poverty here, in the street beggars. Urchins selling cheap crafts show a desperation sometimes. But there’s happiness, too, with the pleasures of good food, loving family and a beautiful place to live. A local program called En Via helps promote the well-being of women in Oaxaca Valley villages by providing microloans to help them start and maintain their own businesses, from weaving workshops to small tiendas or farm plots where they grow garlic or raise a pig or a few goats, spreading the benefits throughout their families.

Visitors to Oaxaca can help En Via’s efforts by taking a $50 half-day tour during which they get to meet and ask questions of loan recipients. In turn, proceeds from the tours go for more loans.

A face can tell a lot about a place. Here are a few of my favorites from

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Comments | More in Mexico, Trip reports | Topics: En Via, Mexico, microfinance

September 12, 2013 at 7:03 AM

Oaxaca Mole Challenge: And the winners are…

Brownie points for presentation of the mole at La Olla Restaurante in Oaxaca. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Brownie points for presentation of the mole at La Olla Restaurante in Oaxaca. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Readers urged me to try the mole (“MOHL-ay”) at La Olla Restaurante on Calle Reforma (No. 402) in Oaxaca, and my Moon guidebook noted it has become a favorite with visitors and residents from the United States. The latter may be a plus or minus depending on whether you want to be with a local crowd or with other Estadounidenses. (That’s the preferred name here for folks from the U.S. — “estados” means “states,” and “unidos” is “united.” I’ve found that others who live in The Americas sometimes resent that U.S. residents claim “American” for their own.)

There was no crowd when I visited La Olla but the few who came in were not Latino, so maybe the guidebook is correct.

All that aside, the mole was the thing.

But first I have to rhapsodize about

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Comments | More in Mexico, Trip reports | Topics: molé, Mole Challenge, Oaxaca

September 11, 2013 at 7:00 AM

Blessed mole and smiling faces at Oaxaca mercado

Oaxaca's Mercado 20 de Noviember is a home to local artisans, in crafts as well as lunch plates. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Oaxaca’s Mercado 20 de Noviembre is a home to local artisans, in crafts as well as lunch plates. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

OK, so a reader in Oaxaca points out that there are a lot more ingredients than chocolate in mole negro. Be that as it may, it’s the chocoholic in me that doesn’t mind eating the same dish several days in a row.

Whether it was for the mole, with a sort of cinnamon shimmer among the coffee-colored pool of creamy goodness, or for the sweet proprietress, who urged me to have a little more after she saw me clean my plate, I got a big crush on Comedor Maria Teresa, one of a score of little sit-down food counters in the Mercado 20 de Noviembre (named for the street it’s on). In between bustling about like a happy free-range hen with plenty of hungry chicks to feed, the proprietress even offered to take my picture after spying me photographing my food. She reminded me of my Aunt Pat from Boise.

The mole was quite good, and the rice here was a step up from the white blight served in some of the fancy restaurants. Not only did it show some natural color, but there were a few things to add more character, including chepil, a wild local herb. My hostess brought a green sprig for me to taste; it was sort of a cross between arugula, maybe, and a weed that used to grow in the woods by Coal Creek when I was 7.

And while some guidebooks and people who’ve learned the hard way may discourage you from eating anywhere but

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Comments | More in Mexico, Trip reports | Topics: molé, Oaxaca, Oaxaca market

September 10, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Diving into mole in Oaxaca (where dinner is chocolate-coated)

OAXACA, Mexico — Like the other kind of mole (popping out of a front lawn), the edible mole from Restaurante Los Pacos Santo Domingo popped into my consciousness and took immediate frontrunner status in the Mole Challenge. Of course, the first contender naturally does that, but there’s serious star quality here. Perhaps the sheer volume…

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Comments | More in Mexico, Trip reports | Topics: molé, Oaxaca, Oaxaca restaurants

September 8, 2013 at 4:23 PM

Hola from colorful Oaxaca, where a good lunch gets you hopping

The capital of the Mexican state of Oaxaca is full of color and art, such as this mural peeking from an archway off the downtown pedestrian mall. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

The capital of the Mexican state of Oaxaca is full of color and art, such as this mural peeking from an archway off the downtown pedestrian mall. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

OAXACA CITY, Mexico — Sometimes when I travel I like to use what you might call culture-shock therapy to convince myself I’m not in Seattle anymore.

So today I ate grasshoppers for lunch. Yeah, that did it.

They call them chapulines here in Oaxaca, where I flew on Saturday to attend a week of Spanish-language school, fodder for a future travel story. Fried till they’re crispy, and served with a bit of guacamole on the side, the ‘hoppers are a local specialty.

I’ll be attending four hours of classes in the mornings starting Monday, but I’ll have afternoons to explore the city and nearby villages and report a few times in the Northwest Traveler blog.

Fried grasshoppers -- called chapulines -- are a Oaxacan specialty. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Fried grasshoppers — called chapulines — are a Oaxacan specialty. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Thursday, I’ll tour a nearby village with an organization that does microloans to local women to help them start their own businesses selling crafts, running a shop, making candles for the local church, etc. Proceeds from taking visitors to meet the aspiring entrepreneurs goes toward making more loans.

Next Saturday, I’m taking the night bus to San Cristobal de las Casas, a historical colonial hilltown in Chiapas, where I’ll join in the celebration of Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16. Should be interesting in a place known for the Zapatista Rebellion of the 1990s.

Meanwhile — gustatory grasshoppers: They came in a mound inside a fried tortilla bowl. These were tiny grasshoppers, so I had to peer closely to see the legs and, uh, antennae. They were dark, reddish-brown with

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Comments | More in Mexico, Trip reports | Topics: eating grasshoppers, Mexico, Oaxaca