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Best Mexico area to vacation for food (and culture)?

r
rotary11 Mar 8, 2008 07:33 AM

Hounds!

I need your help. I did a little search of this Mexico board and didn't find the answer to my question, so I'm hoping you can help. I'm planning a SOLO vacation of 4-7 days to Mexico and am trying to decide where to target. Outside of the U.S. border towns, I don't have any traveling experience in Mexico. Probably most important to me is to be in an area with really outstanding food culture where I'll be able to try a number of things. (Of course, I'm not talking about "resort" food culture, but rather where you can find amazing things on the street and in local restaurants.) Having a couple of cities close by that I can get to with this is top priority.

Also important:
-Reasonably safe for solo (male) traveler
-Presence of sea and mountains is a plus
-Would love some good history/ruins, too
-Not ridiculously/unbearably hot in the summer (I may not be able to make this one work)

So, Hounds, what do you think? Can you help steer me to the right region/cities? You haven't let me down before!

  1. DiningDiva Mar 8, 2008 12:33 PM

    Three placed popped immediately to mind - Oaxaca, Morelia and Mexico City. None of them would give you both mountains and sea, though.

    Oaxaca is the seat of the former Zapotec empire and home to the ruins at Monte Alban and Mitla. The mercados are alive and vibrant with food, vendors, activity and are never boring. You can watch chocolate being made from cacao beans. The food is some of the most interesting and delicious in Mexico. It is one of the premier art and folk art destinations and boasts many fine museums. Huatulco is on the coast of the state of Oaxaca and can be reached by bus from Oaxaca City. It will be hot and humid during the summer months, Oaxaca City is at a much higher elevation and will be cooler. Both will be moderately priced and safe for a solo traveler.

    Morelia is a charming colonial city in the state of Michoacan and has been declared a UNESCO Heritage city. I think 7 days might be too long, but you could also visit Patzcuaro which is only about 45-60 mintues away. From the cultural standpoint there are many colonial era buildings and museums since Morelia has close ties to many of the heroes of the fight for Mexican Independence. In Tzintzuntzan you can visit the yacatas (sp) which are circular pyramids built by the Purepecha. They are less impressive than Monte Alban or many of the Aztec ruins, but the site is a relaxing place to visit. Michoacan rivals Oaxaca in terms of native folk art (and in my opinion exceeds it, but that's just one opinion). For food in this area, your best bet would be to contact Cristina who posts on this board as she lives in Morelia and is very knowledgeable about local specialties and food. This area, too, is very safe for the solo traveler and moderately priced.

    Mexico City is the granddaddy of them all. The food is top notch, the markets immense, thriving and alive. And from the cultural standpoint it's hard to beat. World class museums, world world class arts and entertainment, world class food. It's got it all, including stifling traffic, too many people and more than it's share of crime. But, if you take normal precautions and don't take dumb risks or do things you would never think about doing at home, you would probably be perfectly safe in D.F. as well. If you stay at a major hotel and use the hotel services to arrange things like taxis or tours you'll be just fine. I think Mexico City is a place everybody needs to go at least once in their life. The energy is amazing.

    13 Replies
    1. re: DiningDiva
      r
      rotary11 Mar 8, 2008 01:42 PM

      DiningDiva--

      This is EXTREMELY helpful, thank you! On the map, it appears that Oaxaca and Veracruz are not that far from each other-- would you recommend a trip there if I made it to Oaxaca? I've heard it is a very vibrant city...

      Any recommendations from others?

      1. re: rotary11
        Veggo Mar 8, 2008 02:09 PM

        I embrace DiningDiva's high praise for the attractions in Mexico City. They can't be covered in a year, much less a week.
        Interpret your map more closely- Oaxaca is a potential day or overnight trip during a week's stay in Mexico City; Veracruz is east and far enough away to be a weekend destination for city-dwellers. Not at all practical for your itinerary.
        Also, if it is summer in Mexico and you are looking at salt water, it is oppressively hot at sea level. Mexico City is around 2.2 KM altitude ,and has a wonderful climate year around. But the largest city in the world is an anomaly in that it is the only large city not located on a river or an ocean.
        Continue with your homework because not every wish on your list is possible.

        1. re: Veggo
          Eat_Nopal Mar 9, 2008 11:23 AM

          "But the largest city in the world is an anomaly in that it is the only large city not located on a river or an ocean."

          Well not anymore anyway... not since Texcoco was drained, and several rivers diverted to make way for the concrete jungle =)

          Mexico City has dozens of great day trips... here are some outstanding ones:

          > Puebla City
          > Xalapa-Coatepec (Veracruz)
          > Cuernavaca
          > Queretaro
          > Tlaxcala City

          1. re: Eat_Nopal
            Veggo Mar 9, 2008 12:07 PM

            Tempus fugit, y agua, tambien, hermano :)

            EDIT: and man's tinkering with nature may be a contributing factor for most of Mexico City being a secondary/tertiary earthquake zone.

            1. re: Veggo
              Eat_Nopal Mar 9, 2008 03:10 PM

              I haven't heard that one... what is the theory?

              1. re: Eat_Nopal
                Veggo Mar 9, 2008 06:25 PM

                That the displacement of centi-billions of KG's of water has created sensitive shear lines from upward pressures beneath the mantle. The US embassy, on Reforma, near the "Angel" statue, may be the most vain address in DF, but it is technically in a primary earthquake zone. Drainage /diversion of water has been probably 90/10 natural/ man induced in the last millenium. Just my opinion; I can't speak for the Department of State. But Mexico City is still sinking and stressing its infrastructure.

                1. re: Veggo
                  Sam Fujisaka Mar 10, 2008 03:07 PM

                  Veggo, I won't hire you as a seismologist or engineer. Sediments, especially sands, essentially liquify during earthquakes, making them the worst to build on in quake zones. Here in Cali, earthquake damage is high where building is on old river beds. There is very little damage where I live: above the city a bit on a basaltic formation that bounces the quake waves back towards the city and valley plain below.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka
                    Veggo Mar 10, 2008 05:52 PM

                    You are correct in that the spongy nature of sediment accumulation magnifies seismic damage- as was the case in 1985 in which thousands of souls and buildings were lost in Mexico City's quake. The US Embassy there was built in the early 60's, long before the 3 earthquake zones of vulnerability in the City were identified. And since then, only limited personnel are permitted to live within a convenient distance to the embassy property. Other countries endorse the US criteria, and it partially explains the decline of the Zona Rosa area over the past 2 decades.

                    1. re: Veggo
                      Sam Fujisaka Mar 10, 2008 10:35 PM

                      Que vengas a tomar una cerveza conmigo.

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka
                        Veggo Mar 11, 2008 10:00 AM

                        Debemos, y mas, fumar puros. Entonces, we can both tell Bill Hunt what he missed out on :)

        2. re: rotary11
          p
          Pampatz Mar 8, 2008 02:19 PM

          Oaxaca to Veracruz is a long trip by road and probably you would be routed through Mexico City by air.

          DiningDiva's suggestions are spot on. Mexico City is a cultural and dining delight. Oaxacan food would come next. I live in Patzcuaro and frequent Morelia. I love living in the area and the arts and crafts in Tzintzunzun and Santa Clara are terrific. Temperatures are cool in the summer because we are in the rainy season. Usually sunny mornings, stormy afternoons and cool evenings. The food is not as good in this area, IMHO. Our favorites are Carnitas de Carmelo in Quiroga, several restaurants in Patzcuaro and Morelia.
          Use reasonable precautions and you should be safe in any of the areas you inquired about.
          Let us know what you choose and we can give you specific suggestions for the destination.
          Have fun planning your trip.

          1. re: Pampatz
            Anonimo Mar 10, 2008 02:35 AM

            We were in Quiroga yesterday, "pigging out" on Carnitas de Carmelo. It's a worth while, hands-on eating experience.

            However, don't overlook the second line of "barbacoa" vendors, a few señoras serving adobo-covered shanks of lamb/mutton, served as either tacos or in bowls of spicy red "consomé".

        3. re: DiningDiva
          Eat_Nopal Mar 9, 2008 11:17 AM

          Concur... Mexico City should be the anchor of any serious cultural & foodie trip to Mexico + a few day trips. No city in Mexico comes even close to D.F. (200+ museums, 100+ theatres, numerous Ancient Ruins... 100,000+ opportunities to find good Chow etc., etc.,)

        4. cristina Mar 8, 2008 05:52 PM

          Hi Rotary,

          Here in Morelia, you'll find mountains, safety, incredible history, excellent food, and cool summer temperatures. I know it's hard to believe that parts of Mexico are nearly downright chilly (no pun intended) in the summer, but that's what the weather is like in Morelia, Pátzcuaro, and the Central Highlands, where we're located. For the amount of time you plan to be in Mexico, IMHO Morelia would be the perfect combination.

          Have a look at this: http://www.mexicocooks.typepad.com, particularly at the food-oriented archives, and then email me for more information.

          Cristina

          1. r
            rotary11 Mar 9, 2008 08:42 AM

            What an interesting and extremely helpful series of responses! All three destinations sound lovely, and to be honest I had discounted the DF based on what might be some misperceptions of traveling there. After reading these posts, I'm considering anchoring myself in Mexico City and potentially doing a couple of day or overnights to Oaxaca and/or Morelia (both of which sound outstanding). Do you have any practical suggestions for reliably traveling to one or the other without incurring expensive airfare costs? Is there regular train service, for example?

            I think I will do a little research on each destination, which likely will create a few new questions, but I think this is a GREAT start. If others have additional suggestions, keep them coming in!

            Thanks to you all, more soon...

            1 Reply
            1. re: rotary11
              DiningDiva Mar 9, 2008 10:10 AM

              There are a lot of things in Mexico that don't always work, bus service is *not* one of those things. One of the easiest and most economical ways to get around Mexico is by first class or executive bus. Morelia is a 4 hour bus ride from Mexico City, Oaxaca is 8-9 hours.

              A big word of caution, don't be deceived by distances on a map. Just because places look to be close together doesn't mean the travel time is that short. The Mexican road system, outside of major metropolitan areas, developed differently than that in the U.S. and isn't quite as big, wide, fast or as efficient at delivering people from point "A" to point "B". Which brings up the issue of time. Mexicans have a whole different view, understanding and relationship with the concept of "time". It's far, far more than the stereotypical "manana" time and has it's roots in Mexico's early indigenous cultures. Mexican's aren't always as concerned about getting somewhere in the fastest amount of time or by the shortest distance. It's about the journey and the trip, not how long it takes to get there.

              If I can give you one piece of advice for traveling in this country, it is to make no value judgments, put your American (or European) beliefs about what is "right" and how things "should" operate on the shelf and leave them home. If you're open and can allow yourself to sink into ebb and flow of what is going on around you, your visit and experience will be more fun and more rewarding. Mexico is not the U.S., it's not Europe and it's not Asia. It's a massive, sprawling, vibrant and distinct country with a touch of magic and wonder that makes it unlike anyplace else. (And really, the whole topic of "time" is too involved to discuss here). I would MUCH rather spend a Sunday morning leisurely strolling up the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City (when it is closed to vehicular traffic) watching all the cyclists, being amused by the sidewalk sculptures and snacking on fruit, than sitting on a bus on the way to somewhere else.

              Personally, I would not split the trip up and try and do day trips. You'll see a lot of territory from a bus window but it's a rather antiseptic way to see the country. You would get a much better understanding of the country on foot, walking streets, spending time in markets, hanging in the zocalo, having a beer at a sidewalk bar, strolling through a museum, whatever.

              There are lots of direct and non-stop flights into Mexico City from most major U.S. airports. On most carriers you have to change planes in D.F. (Mexico City) in order to reach other cities within Mexico. Continental Airlines, however, flies small jets non-stop from Houston to about 20 small cities in Mexico. There are 1 or 2 flights a day into Morelia and Oaxaca making both these cities very accessible directly from the U.S.

              You could easily spend a week in Oaxaca doing the ruins, the markets, the museums, and the craft people. Mexico City is enormous and you would need far more than 7 days to even scratch the surface of what's available to you. And because it is enormous, you always have to factor in the travel time from one destination to the next in the city. A week in the central highlands touring around Morelia, Patzcuaro, Santa Clara, etc. would be relaxing and ample time to get a feel for the area. Don't feel like you have to rush and don't feel like you have to see everything at once in a short period of time. You can't.

              You asked up-thread if you should consider a side trip over to Veracruz from Oaxaca. As others have said, the bus trip is longer than it looks and in the summer Veracruz City will be really hot and humid because it is on the Caribbean. If you can stand hot and humid for a day or 2, Veracruz *could* be an option. You could do a whirlwind of the sights in Veracruz City and then decamp for Xalapa (which is also spelled Jalapa), Xico, Coatepec, etc. which are smaller cities up in the mountains where the weather will be more temperate at that time of year. I'm not sure that this would really fulfill your food and culture criteria as well as the other locations would.

              I think your best bet would be to home base in one city, explore that, and the immediate surrounding area, to your heart's content and don't worry about day trips to places that are hours away by bus. You'll make yourself nuts trying to stick to an overly ambitious schedule, which will only serve to encroach on your enjoyment of the trip. Any trip to Mexico should be about enjoyment, not covering a lot of ground in the shortest amount of time :-D.

            2. damonster Mar 10, 2008 02:11 PM

              Rotary11
              I went to Oaxaca about three years ago (solo as well), and really enjoyed myself, walked around a bit during the day had lunch in the zocalo, maybe a nap in the afternoon and then generally back to the zocalo for the evening meal as well. Always lots of people around and the area was great to just sit and people watch.
              Going to Mexico City on March 13 (solo again) so i'll see what it's like soon, really looking forward to this trip, planning on eating lots.

              2 Replies
              1. re: damonster
                cristina Mar 10, 2008 02:45 PM

                Damonster, your trip to Mexico City might be a bit different than you expect. You'll be there during Semana Santa (Holy Week), when everyone in Mexico who *can* take a vacation, *does* take a vacation. The vacation period is two weeks, during which time Mexico City becomes a shadow of itself. Some restaurants will offer their usual menus and some will offer a *menú cuaresmeño* (Lenten menu). Some that specialize in red meats close on Fridays until Easter. Some restaurants and businesses close completely during Semana Santa and Semana de Pascua.

                I'm sure you'll find plenty to do and see nonetheless, but it's always good to have a heads-up when you might find things a bit different than expected.

                Link: http://www.mexicocooks.typepad.com

                1. re: cristina
                  damonster Mar 10, 2008 03:31 PM

                  Thanks for the heads-up didn't realize til after I'd booked that it was over the Easter period, I'll make the best of it anyhow and I will be going back sometime this summer, just not sure when yet.

              2. Eat_Nopal Mar 10, 2008 02:55 PM

                A little outside the scope of this thread... but I just wanted to point out to any American travelers out there reading this thread... thinking about a trip to Mexico City.... many of the European visitors do itineraries that are way off the Travel Site / Book beaten path... there are many hotels located outside of the Tourist zones but near Subway stations... that are perfectly clean, comfortable & safe for about $30 to $40 (restrooms included NOT hostels).... the relevance is that you will be in a common neighborhood dining at places frequented by the Mexico City populace... and the food at the most popular neighborhood eateries is usually leagues better than your Mid Level touristy places like Cafe Tacuba, Fonda Santa Clara etc., and is a fraction of the price.

                A great option for people interested in longer trips, with great opportunities for cultural immersion and to really get the city are the 1,000s of Pensiones. A Pension - which is derived from the word Pension as in a Retirement Fund - are generally homes of aging Empty Nesters or Widows etc., that rent out rooms mostly to Students... are usually located near Universities... and thus convenient to subway stations... usually offer Home Cooking packages (which is incredibly invaluable if you are serious about getting to know Mexican chow beyond Restaurant food)... and will run you $50 to $100 per week.

                7 Replies
                1. re: Eat_Nopal
                  Sam Fujisaka Mar 10, 2008 03:13 PM

                  Nopalito, that is really beautiful and thoughtful advice.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka
                    b
                    bronwen Mar 10, 2008 03:28 PM

                    If I had to pinpoint the cities where I've had the best meals/food I've eaten it would be - Patzcuaro (a fantastic spot which specializes in fried white fish from the lake), Mazatlan (shrimp), Merida (Italian food), Puerto Vallarta (Cafe des Artistes), San Miguel de Allende (Bubambilia's), Mexico City (San Angel Inn), Guadalajara (Cocina something or other), lobster on Isla Mujeres.

                    1. re: bronwen
                      Eat_Nopal Mar 10, 2008 03:34 PM

                      Yeah... but if you had to choose a base of operations... I got Mexico City.... so I will see your Patzcuaro white fish and raise you some Golden Trout Mixiotes in Malinalco.... Cafe des Artists and Bugambilia's are both comparable to restaurants in D.F. but only D.F. offers 100+ restaurants at that level or better, Lobster on Isla Mujeres & Shrimp in Mazatlan are tought to surpass... but the quality of seafood available in D.F. is only marginally inferior.

                      1. re: Eat_Nopal
                        Veggo Mar 10, 2008 09:35 PM

                        EN, ahh...Malinalco. The Mexican golf equivalent to Augusta National. And the local trouts and scenery. You have struck a tender chord :)

                        1. re: Eat_Nopal
                          cristina Mar 11, 2008 08:13 AM

                          Pátzcuaro white fish? Ick. Pátzcuaro isn't famous for its seafood, given that it's several hours from either the shore or the major markets of the DF and Guadalajara, and the white fish is farmed now, not caught wild in the lake.

                          Let's talk about Pátzcuaro corundas and uchepos instead, and atole de grano, and enchiladas placeras...all the delicacies that are best eaten in street stands, not in restaurantes de manteles largos.

                          I'll see your golden trout mixiotes and raise you a bowl of atole de grano, eaten on the street in Pátzcuaro's small plaza.

                          And SAM! How wonderful to see you here again. Where've you been?

                          Link: http://www.mexicocooks.typepad.com

                          1. re: cristina
                            Eat_Nopal Mar 11, 2008 02:09 PM

                            Hey... I was checking out your blog and saw the Zinacantan post... you might be interested in this (at the bottom of Page 1, and top of Page 2 you will find some things from Zinancantan and los Altos de Chiapas):

                            http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list...

                            1. re: cristina
                              Anonimo Mar 12, 2008 03:25 AM

                              I am in (almost) complete agreement with Cristina.
                              (I live close to Pátzcuaro, and IMO, the best food, outside of private homes, is in the mercados or from selected street stalls.)
                              There is very nice, if not world-class seafood at Mariscos La Güera, on the edge of Pátzcuaro, where the Calle Tena joins the highway to Sta. Clara de Cobre. It's a well run and locally very popular restaurant.

                              Atole de Grano is to me, representative of the essence of Pátzcuaro cooking. But you must eat it there, from a cheap china bowl, and not "para llevar", for the full ambience.

                    2. SteamboatMary Mar 10, 2008 05:27 PM

                      My vote goes to Oaxaca although the Yucatan would follow. I am female and travel to Oaxaca as a single traveler frequently (next trip for a month in May). The food is unbelievable. While I've tried the names, La Olla, etc. my favorites are smaller places that are just there on a side street with a plat du jour/plato del día for about $2.50US. On the last trip found a new place a little fancier called ¿Qué Lejos Estoy? just up the street toward Santo Domingo from the Stamp/Postal Museum.
                      I dine alone and with friends with no problem. Not close to the ocean -- six hours, if lucky, to the Pacific. México City is six hours by first class bus; also frequent not too expensive flights. History -- deep and interesting; good ruins becoming even more understood in recent years (try to see a copy of the codices). In the mountains so temps relatively the same year round; summer is rainy season. If you're also into plants - the Botanic Garden behind Sto. Domingo. You must go with one of the scheduled groups; the English speaking lady can be tyrannical. Have fun whereever you go.

                      1. sweeterpea Mar 10, 2008 09:05 PM

                        Really informative post! We will be heading to DF this fall and probably staying in La Condesa -- wondering if anyone had any recommendations for restaurants in this area?

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: sweeterpea
                          Eat_Nopal Mar 11, 2008 08:28 AM

                          Condesa is a very dynamic, trendy & cosmopolitan area... in terms of dining it reminds me of Midtown Manhattan or San Francisco... there is a lot of good, stylish, mid priced places... most of the City's standouts aren't in Condesa but its also a place where the average is pretty good. Because its so dynamic there.... even a 2 year old recommendation might be stale... so as always in Mexico... go where the locals hangout... if its not busy... don't eat there... if its recommended by Lonely Planet or some publication like that.... triple check with locals before eating there.

                          With that said

                          Condesa D.F. (Franco-Mex)
                          Contramar (Mexican Seafood)
                          Los Caprichos del Emperador (Austro-Hungarian)
                          Pata Negra (Spanish)

                          Are generally considered to be among the Top 100 restaurants in D.F

                          1. re: Eat_Nopal
                            sweeterpea Mar 11, 2008 09:02 AM

                            Thanks, EN. Looking forward to our stay.

                        2. m
                          magfoodguy Mar 14, 2008 08:05 PM

                          Just returned recently from DF. Cominda at Cotramar was one of the best meals I have had in a long time and definitely a scene. We also ate at Pujol which was very good. Its great just to visit the various mercardos.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: magfoodguy
                            Eat_Nopal Mar 14, 2008 08:21 PM

                            Yeah its hard to beat D.F.'s mercados... did you try Mercado San Juan? Its not much too look at but its quality, exotic products make Citareli's seem like a corner bodega.

                            1. re: Eat_Nopal
                              sweeterpea Mar 15, 2008 12:17 PM

                              Loooove mercados. Will be definitely checking one out.

                          2. s
                            staceyinNC Mar 21, 2008 01:36 PM

                            I'll add my voice to those who've suggested Oaxaca. I've been to Oaxaca five or six times (on my own) and DF twice (also solo). Both places are rich and vibrant -- with weeks' worth of culture and food. But if you've never been before, I think Oaxaca's the best place to start. More manageable than Mexico City -- and the food is really special. The people are friendly and eager to help (especially given some civil unrest a while back that has too greatly diminished the number of tourists visiting there. Great culture; Oaxaca is the most indigenous state in Mexico, and the arts and crafts are spectacular, challenging and interesting. There's one street near the zocalo that smells of chocolate; you can watch mole being made. And the Saturday market is not to be missed -- especially if you're a food lover. Mexico City is fascinating -- and I suppose that by virtue of size alone it has *more* to offer. But the depth of Oaxaca's offerings (in both food and culture) is extraordinary, and for a first-timer it's a wonderful introduction to Mexico.

                            Regardless of where you go, have a great time -- and I hope you have a chance to go back a second time and visit whichever places don't make your itinerary this time.

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