Mexico City on $100 a Day

Compelled to read every account I come across about travel in Mexico’s capital city – pieces like 36 hours in Mexico City and Why You Should See Mexico City Like a Tourist – I’m always bemused that the authors’ touts aren’t mine. But then again if you ask the Aztecs, Mexico City is the umbilicus of the moon, and it would take lifetimes to explore this ever-expanding, never-ending megatropolis.

When you’re traveling to CDMX (aka Ciudad de Mexico), don’t forget to pack some flexibility. Be ready to abandon carefully laid plans at the drop of a peso, because you never know what’s around the corner. Massive marches and demonstrations wrecked last November’s weekend plans, so I pivoted and made other plans.

Supposedly only Paris (or London, depending upon the source) has more museums than Mexico City, but who’s counting? In addition to its standard-bearers, the National Anthropology Museum and the National Museum of History, better known as Chapultepec Castle, both of which merit repeat visits and allotting no less than four hours for each, there are a number of museums that don’t make the usual lists of places to visit. Here are some of my favorites:

Antique Toy Museum

Franz Mayer Museum

Shoe Museum Borceguí

Museum of Popular Art

Telegraph Museum

Postal Palace

Museum of the Mexican Army and Air Force

MODO, the Museum of the Object of the Object

Museum of the Tattoo

Museo Soumaya-Casa Guillermo Tovar de Teresa

Maybe it’s art that piques your interest.  The  Museo Soumaya is known for its knock-out, over-the-top architecture as well as what’s inside. Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo. Museo de Arte Moderno. The National Museum of Art. The Palace of Bellas Artes

Culture is a genuine bargain in this town. The only admission price I had to pay to visit the museums listed here came to $4. The rest were free to Mexicans over the age of 60.

And then there are the stores. In the Centro Historico, small specialty stores can be found for just about anything, many selling only one kind of ware –zippers, buttons, string bracelets with the hamsa or evil eye, men’s belts, the kinds of corsets that no one’s worn since 1964, fake police and military uniforms, quartzes, tiny charms and doodads wholesale and retail, religious supplies, incense and priestly garb. Yet another store sells only body parts of dolls. Be a flaneur and explore. When you’re in another country or out of town, even a block dedicated to prosthetics can be interesting in an odd way. Even if you’re not there to shop, take in the architecture, step back into 150 years past, and marvel at the quotidian.

Visiting Mexico City without dropping in on one of its many public markets would be like going to Paris and not noticing the Eiffel Tower. Are you up for a lion hamburger or iguana sausage along with a glass of wine? Or maybe you just want to gawk at the array of edible pre-Hispanic bugs, exotic meats, and gourmet produce from hither and yon.  Mercado San Juan is the place to be, and right across from this market is another three-story market dedicated to flowers and another selling only artesania and curiosities.

La Lagunilla is one of the city’s largest markets, but Sunday is the day to go for its famed antiques market. Even though this antiques market is frequented by some of the city’s famous and wealthy, you’re better off leaving the good clothes and fancy electronics at home, dressing down just a bit.

If you’re not inclined to make the pilgrimage to La Lagunilla, every weekend is an antiques flea market at Parque Dr. Ignacio Chávez, also known as Tianguis de Cuauhtémoc. Some of the vendors who sell at La Lagunilla also sell here.

Wherever I go, I have to have my Chinatown fix. There are actually two. Downtown, the more established and larger one is fully two blocks long, selling the kind of Chinese food you ate in the 1950s, stores stuffed with gewgaws made in China, always crowded and everyone having a great touristy time. And then there’s yet another one, down in the Viaducto Piedad middle class neighborhood, populated by a more recent wave of immigrants, many of whom speak neither Spanish nor English.

Enough with history, it’s time to head over to Antara Polanco, a pet-friendly mall so fancy that the dogs being walked likely have better pedigrees than their owners. It was the first mall I’ve ever visited that required its canine visitors to register for a credential. The three floors of Casa Palacio, an upscale home store, will require hours to thoroughly explore everything you didn’t know you wanted, saving you from spending even more money at Hamleys (the world’s oldest toy store), Coach, L’Occitane, Apple, Dyson (Even vacuum cleaners take on magic properties at a mall like this one.), Kiehl’s, and more.

GETTING AROUND. Mexico City is a great walking city, but even the fittest need a lift around town. While CDMX has an extensive public transportation system that’s practically free, I’m at the stage where it’s just not my thing. It’s safer and easier to use a ridesharing service or secure taxi.  And you, dear reader, should do the same. You’re not in your twenties, you’re not some harried commuter, and you’re spending discretionary income to travel.

 A dozen Uber trips during a 6-day stay cost me a whopping $70. Cabify is a Spanish Uber-like company operating in Latin America, and its app bears downloading just in case Uber is swamped.

WHERE TO EAT. Sure, there the places that are included in those lists of the 100 best restaurants in the world, places like Pujol and Quintonil,  but there are plenty of others that aren’t nearly as precious and just as good.

Gardela is my latest favorite splurge restaurant, an Argentine steakhouse in Roma Norte.

One of the pioneers of the slow food movement, Restaurante Nicos, cab ride, reservations necessary, but worth the effort.

El Cardenal, a white tablecloth chain with affordable prices, serves up Mexican food at its best.

Macelleria Roma is a mid-range Italian restaurant in Roma Norte.

Jing Teng Restaurant Estilo Hong Kong is perhaps the most authentic Chinese restaurant in Mexico City. Located in the Viaducto Piedad area, it’s clearly not expensive and always interesting.

El Moro is all about churros, hot and cold chocolate, and coffee.

A block from the American Embassy is Les Moustaches, an old-school, white-shoe French restaurant.

A trek from the city center but an unforgettable experience is El Arroyo, the largest Mexican restaurant in the world, seating over 2000 diners and providing parking for 600 cars. The cost of a cab ride there is more than offset by the modest menu prices. Hosting diners ranging from campesinos to politicians and titans of industry, people dressed in everything from schmattes to tuxedos, the restaurant offers up a happy cacophony of piñatas, mariachis, and bands, but it’s best visited with a team of your own, because a party of two risks getting lost in the crowd.

WHERE TO STAY. There was a time when where I stayed defined who I was, but I’ve given that up, at least now that I’m a Mexican visiting Mexico City, no longer able to afford to sleep in Polanco and fancy venues.

Now I mostly stay at Stanza Hotel, because Roma Norte has become my stomping ground. The area is hipster central, and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. You don’t have to worry about wearing the right eye makeup or good pearls. An upper-class Porfirian neighborhood in the early years of the last century, it later became middle-class, then dodgy, not becoming gentrified until this century. The movie Roma was filmed in Roma Sur, an adjoining, more residential neighborhood.

Fancier, more intimate, more expensive, and a favorite among English-speaking visitors is The Red Tree House in Condesa, a swank area adjoining Roma Norte, tabbed as a Magic Neighborhood for Tourists. 

Bordering Roma Norte on the north is the Zona Rosa, which is ground zero for the gay community and recent Korean immigrants.  The Hotel Geneve, a historical property was the first to offer lodging to unaccompanied women – and the first to serve a sandwich in Mexico – is the place to stay in the Zona Rosa.

And now about enjoying Mexico City for $100 a day. Last November, I spent six days in the town, staying at Stanza Hotel, wandering around, visiting museums and whatever piqued my interest, stopping in at Chinatown and Antara, and eating in my usual when-I’m-alone style of eating when I get hungry at wherever looks appealing. I did not eat at anyplace downscale, and I didn’t eat any street food. My splurge meal cost $40 at Gardela. For the first time, I actually kept track of my expenses, and the total – hotel, food, and transportation – came to a whopping $630.

Whether you’re inspired to visit Mexico City or just want to learn more about the most fascinating city in the world, take in these resources:

Jesus Chairez. His Facebook page operates as a blog for this expatriate Texas writer, artist, and man about town.

David Lida, First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century

Juan Villoro, Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico

Francisco Goldman, The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle

Ilan Stavans, Return to Centro Historico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots

Josh Barkan, Mexico: Stories

Daniel Hernandez, Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century

Carlos Monsivais, Mexican Postcards

Jonathan Kandell, La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City

Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, I Speak of the City: Mexico City at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

How to Become a Champion Among the Living

We are the champions, my friends

And we’ll keep on fighting till the end

          — Queen, News of the World

Efraim would not become an American citizen until after the birth of his second child, even though he had spent eight years of his college education between Texas and New York a decade earlier. Establishing his own business meant long hours and never enough time for a family vacation, unless a weekend in Lake Tahoe or an overnight with the Indian Guides in Mammoth counted for something.

He would return to the Old Country for a year or two after university, heading back to the United States, never to see his mother or his father again. The family had been an affluent one, but he brought nothing with him, save a Rolex he bought in Switzerland, on the way back to the New World with his American bride and her daughter. Over the years, there would be not a single token or remembrance from the relatives back in the Old Country, not even a piece of silver, an ashtray, or a photograph.

He and his children’s mother would spend years divorcing, and when he was nearly eligible for Social Security, he would find a new wife, some two decades younger than he, from the Old Country. With age, his relationship with his progeny deteriorated, marked by more than the usual dissent found in most families. Cordial yet distant was the best characterization that could be placed on the ties. His eldest’s decision to adopt and embrace a religion, consume massive quantities of pork, and declare himself a Northern European, just like the family he’d married into, broadened the chasm between a father and son who never were close. Telling his youngest that, if forced to choose, he’d pick his new spouse over her any day did little for that father-daughter bond.

Before long, Efraim was in the middle of his ninth decade, and the realization that his plans to leave everything to his child bride would mean there would be no remembrance left for his own children. Somewhere along the line, he’d bought into a doctrine that his spouse should receive his entire estate and his issue nothing.

It was time for a plan. The only way he could leave anything for his children would have to come from current income, maybe bolstered by a home equity loan. And he knew that his two children wouldn’t go along with the plan unless their half-sister, the child of Efraim’s late ex-wife was invited. After all, he had known her ever since she was less than a year old.

He would take them on a trip to Spain to explore their family roots. It didn’t matter that there were no ancestors to look up, everyone having been ejected during the Inquisition. It didn’t even matter that no one could name a single ancestor who might’ve hailed from Spain. It was just the homeland, a place where people looked more like you than not.

Bird and Lark, the natural children, were reticent. After all these years, wasn’t it sort of ridiculous to get together and pretend to be one happy family? The stepdaughter, who loved nothing more than planning trips and searching for deals, would get on a plane just about anywhere if someone gave her ticket. Efraim approached Lark first, followed by her half-sister. Having enlisted those two, his next step was to ask them if they had a problem with their somewhat estranged and recently widowed-brother, Bird, tagging along, knowing they were in no position to refuse.

The stepdaughter took on the chore of researching flights, creating itineraries, finding lodging, and making plans. Efraim wanted everything planned out, day by day, in advance, and he wanted to pay for everything in advance with a credit card. No sense in losing the opportunity to pick up some miles. Armed with the credit cards, the stepdaughter spent winter evenings searching out deals, checking out Google Earth street views, logging on to Renfe’s website at some odd hour to snag the best discount precisely 60 days prior to departure. More emails circulated among Efraim and his children during these four months of planning than ever before, and binders were filled with confirmations and directions.

Finally, the perfect Madrid apartment appeared: 4 bedrooms, 5 baths, 4,000 square feet, a doorman building, décor straight out of Four Seasons, and a balcony overlooking Paseo Castellano in El Viso, walkable to Santiago Bernabéu Stadium and El Corte Ingles.

Lodging arranged, it was time to start booking tickets for the Prado, the Palacio Real, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Lázaro Galdiano Museum, the Alhambra and the Nasri Gardens, bullet trains to Sevilla, a slow train to Granada, another bullet train to Cordoba and then on to Madrid, a commuter train to Segovia, the obligatory flamenco shows, limos to and from the airport and everywhere else. Directions to Mercado de Chamartín and Carrefour were mapped out.

Nearly a month of togetherness was something this quintet had never experienced, and yet it somehow worked out. Never in their lives had that many meals been shared in succession, and there was the perpetual search for whole wheat baguettes, copious amounts of fresh fruit, and ham-free restaurants. Amazingly, the sojourn in Spain went off without any of the usual fights that accompanied prior visits, even if it did start to resemble a continuously looping My Dinner with Andre, punctuated by the only running game all five knew: canasta.

Efraim ended up spending the price of an average mid-70s Southern California tract house on the trip, but it would be money well-spent.

There’s a moral here: spend your money creating experiences and memories. All of the estate planning in the world means nothing if there are no warm and cozy memories behind it. Nothing can put the decedent into a less-than-favorable light, shattering families, than purse strings controlled from the grave. Frequently, the bequest might not be more than the price of a new car, something your heirs might’ve bought without that gift from you. Inheritances almost never solve financial problems.

The sterling that’s been stashed away in the bank safety deposit box so long that the fees exceed its value means nothing to today’s generations. If you love that precious silver and fine china so much, then get it out and use it daily. Each piece that might break is one less for the next generation to deal with. Enjoy it while you can.

Your hand-carved dining room furniture is only slightly more appealing to Gen Xers and Millennials than a Naugahyde Barcalounger, which is about as valuable to them as your grandmother’s mid-century modern television console was to you. Gen Xers and Millennials’ disdain for your crap isn’t a command for you to liquidate those prized possessions. Take pleasure in what you have, but realize that yours is likely the last generation on the planet to appreciate your worldly possessions.

Maybe travel isn’t feasible for you and your intendeds. Or it isn’t your thing. Spend the money creating new skills, memories, or even making a fantasy approach reality, both with your family and separately. A surprise and unaccompanied trip to Machu Picchu or New Zealand, serious music lessons, a harp, cooking school, or even new (and wanted) dog or horse, gifted while you’re still living, will leave your mark on the recipient longer than any bequest. And you’ll be around to share in the joy. You’ll be a hero instead of just a run-of-the-mill testator.

You might even be able to repair some the fissures that time may have inflicted upon your relationship with those loved ones. And you could become a champion in the process.

Now, let’s return to that trip to Spain just once more. You know how some moments are Kodachromed into our memory? May 13, 2012 was more than just an ordinary Sunday night. Plácido Domingo would perform during Real Madrid’s season-ending celebrations, and Efraim and his son were never happier that evening, walking on air back to their apartment, singing “We Are the Champions” in a language neither spoke. No amount of estate planning could ever conjure up that kind of bond.

Same Place, Next Year

The urge to fill my passport with more stamps than the person standing in line next to me might have had at immigration is over. I’m done with seeking out new places to visit. The days of thinking others might be impressed by what’s on my passport or a recitation of the number of countries I’ve visited are long over.

While that may mean that I’ll never see Vietnam, China and New Zealand, there’s still plenty of desire and opportunity to go back to places I’ve been to before. And that’s just what I do, returning time and again to the same place.

No longer is there the need to venture to far-flung corners of the globe to buy shoes of Spanish leather and Middle Eastern cooking tools and ingredients. All of that’s readily available, even at 3 a.m., courtesy of the Internet. Even biber salçası, the Turkish red pepper paste, and Lipton Yellow Label tea are available from Mercado Libre, Mexico’s version of eBay and Amazon. The department store sells purses made in Italy, French-made bras and Czech tchotchkes. Lebanese halvah and Polish chocolates can be had at the grocery store.

It didn’t happen overnight. It might’ve started with circumscribing my travel world to places where the people looked like me. That ruled out most of Asia, most of Africa, and most of northern Europe. Then I’d narrow it down to countries where the people spoke Spanish. Or maybe it didn’t.

It might’ve happened because I like to conserve time, energy, and money, which are in increasingly short supply. It might’ve happened because the older I get, the more I like to cut to the chase.

But the real motivating factor was none of the above. I wanted to go deeper, learning more about my destinations than If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. I wanted to use what I’d learned from previous visits, avoiding vaunted attractions not worth my time, peeling back layers, and going beyond. I wanted to own that destination, if only in my own mind.

My world didn’t shrink. It just became more concentrated.

Each time you return, you’re upgraded, just like those people who keep returning to Las Vegas. The upgrade might be physical — to a suite from a standard room at a hotel or a better table than someone just walking in off the street for the first time might snag — but the upgrade can also be mental, just because you know your way around a little better the second, third or sixth time around. A few times around the block, you’re no longer at your first rodeo.

The deer in the headlights look of a tourist gives way to acting like you know where you’re going.

There is something about visiting the same museums over and over again, each time taking them in through a different lens. Of course, there are always those temporary exhibits, but it’s always refreshing to revisit what you’ve seen before in the permanent collection. Las Meninas, housed at Museo del Prado in Madrid, looks much different at the age of 60 than it did when you were in your thirties. I can’t get enough Fernando Botero, no matter where his work appears. Each time I return to gaze at a Diego Rivera mural at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, I see more and different details not evident the time before. And you never know what’s newly in stock at the museum store.  But then I’m also a huge fan of museum cafes and restaurants.

The vendors at the Sunday flea market in Usaquen, a Bogota neighborhood, recognize me. And so did hotel bell staff at Diez Hotel in Medellin. I’ve learned which vendors at La Lagunilla Sunday morning antiques market sell pukka and which sell factory-fresh family heirlooms.

Not more than an hour after settling in, I’m at a café, pretending that it’s my usual haunt. In my mind, I’m a local.

A decade or so ago, I would spend a few days in Uruguay, returning a year later. The first time left me baffled, because it wasn’t as expected, having sort of an old, forgotten feeling about it all, a general sameness, not unlike old and yellowed linen from someone’s grandmother’s closet. But all of that gnawing feeling would draw me back a year later, when I found myself enjoying it for what it wasn’t. The sepia landscape of the year before was still not the technicolor of Buenos Aires, but it was also an oasis of calm, Argentine pretense erased. This time around, it made sense.

“Why are you going to Mexico again? You’ve been there so many times before. Why not go to Hawaii or on a cruise?”

Are my odd habits really any different from those who’ll visit Disneyland or Disney World year after year or who return to that same old cabin on Golden Pond?

I bask in the familiarity of it all. And assurance that things will be the same. You return to Whole Foods and a favorite restaurant in your own town over and over again. You might go to Chicago three times a year, seeking out the same Greektown restaurant and revisiting the same steakhouse. Why, there are even people who’ve been known to watch Turandot multiple times.

Once you’ve traveled a fair amount, you realize that the world’s all the same, but different, and the oner of travel just isn’t worth it. Comfort supplants adventure.

Never having been to Hawaii, at least not until I was well-settled in Mexico, nor having been on a cruise since the time we crossed the Atlantic in search of America on MV Britannic in the 1950s, I would return to Mexico several times a year. Landing in Mexico City, staying at the Camino Real Polanco, I would have my hair done at George the Jordanian’s beauty shop like the fancy ladies. There was no need to get out a map or even ask directions to Liverpool and El Palacio de Hierro. And I already knew my way around Chapultepec Park.

An airline strike one winter sent me driving to Mexico, which then became habit, and before long, I would find myself spending ten days or so several times a year at the Hotel Villa Montaña in Morelia.

And before you knew it, one thing led to another, which made all those repeat trips to Mexico so very worth it: I get to live here.

Recovering big-time gonzo labor lawyer Jim Karger, a denizen of San Miguel de Allende for the two decades last past, sums it all up in his blog, Slouching into Oblivion:

Travel is overrated. Most people travel not to experience new places but to talk about their experiences, or what they wish their experiences had been. Travel is a status symbol like a Mercedes. No one cares what you drive and they also don’t care where you have been.

Previously published in Voice of Experience: June 2022, American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division.

Cheap Thrills Away From Home

Nick proudly announces that he’d never paid more than $100 apiece for Broadway tickets. Marty insists that $409 for a single ticket to a single seat for Book of Mormon was a real bargain. That was still above my comfort zone, given that amount’s darn close to a partial pair of Ferragamos. Or a week’s worth of Skechers. Or maybe a sack of items at Sephora. I’ve got my priorities, you know. Debt and the kind of culture that generates reviews in places like The New Yorker just aren’t among them.

I’m not part of the lumpen proletariat, I do have an American Express gold card, have flown first class, have bought a Gucci purse or three, have owned French and Tumi luggage, and always check my baggage, frequently more than a single piece. I’ve never stayed at a hostel or Airbnb, because that’s just too close to camping. I prefer to stay at nice hotels, and if I can’t do as well or better than what I have at home, there’s no point in leaving home.

People are always asking if I caught some high-culture event or ate at some restaurant in TripAdvisor’s top ten when I’ve left home, even those who know me well enough to know what my answer will be. Upon returning from San Miguel de Allende, about 150 miles up the road from home, friends will ask about the great restaurants I ate at, only to roll their eyes when I tell them about the take-out grilled chicken from a roadhouse or a tapas bar at a swank grocery store.

My holidays are filled with regular things, regular meals at regular places, and souvenirs are just as likely to be regular stuff. What did I bring home from my last trip to Medellin? Shelf-stable fruit purees, cotton hand towels, antibiotics, some bar soap, a book about Frida Kahlo’s love affair with Trotsky, and a pair of porcelain monkeys. Plastic storage containers, odd condiments, bobèches, hot pads, wire whisks, hair brushes, eyeliner, and unique kitchen tools have found their way into my baggage on other trips, each bearing a tale guaranteed to bore any listener.

Shopping malls may be dying in the United States, but they’re thriving in Latin America and elsewhere. And they rank among my favorite destinations whenever I’m away from home. I’ll research what shopping malls to hit, because the mall is my version of high culture, a sporting event, and a self-guided tour all rolled into one. Malls are an opportunity to see ordinary people, local folks doing quotidian things, even if sometimes there might be a free concert, seldom lasting more than 20 minutes, which is long enough for musical entertainment anyway. Malls are microcosms of society, town centers, and harbor much more than mere mercantile.  Nail salons, beauty parlors, art exhibits, coffee shops, and nice restaurants beckon. At least one full day will be spent at a mall, no matter where I’m going.

Buenos Aires’ Patio Bullrich, Galerías Pacífico, Paseo Alcorta, Alto Palermo, El Solar de la Abadía. Montevideo’s Punta Carretas Shopping, Town Center in Boca Raton, Medellin’s El Tesoro Parque Comercial, Queretaro’s Antea Lifestyle Center, The Galleria in Houston, Honolulu’s Ala Moana Shopping Center, Denver’s Cherry Creek Center, Bogota’s Centro Comercial Andino and Hacienda Santa Barbara. I’d rather spend hours at any one of them (and have) than at the Met or the Getty Center. And advance reservations, long lines and admissions never come into the picture.

Even down-market malls have a certain appeal. The Centro Comercial Palacio Nacional is in the heart of the downtown Medellin harbors an amazing collection of the tackiest merchandise you’ll ever see, but the stores aren’t the point. Because it really did start out as the national palace, you’re really there for the architecture.

Give me a day at El Corte Ingles, and I’m better entertained than I would’ve been at the Prado. Far more exciting than a museum, a wander through Harrods’ Egyptian Hall and Crystal Rooms costs nothing. The architecture of the flagship El Palacio de Hierro in Mexico City is breath-taking. Even high-end drug and dime stores like Boots and Sanborns harbor treasures I know I won’t find at home.

I’m impelled to search out Chinatowns wherever I go: Chicago, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Calgary, London. San Francisco and China don’t have the franchise on Chinatown.

Even grocery stores, ranging from little corner abarrotes, bodegas, kioskos, to supermarkets and all the way up to Carrefour, are mustn’t-miss cultural attractions. It’s fascinating to explore new produce items, puzzle over why the meat department is filled with tons of cured meat, chuckle over the offerings over on the gourmet aisle (Pace picante salsa and hard taco shells, anyone?), gaze upon twelve kinds of quinoa, inspect interesting crackers and cookies.  I’m still sporting shopping bags from Carulla with the same pride that attaches to those from Draeger’s Market and Trader Joe’s.

Always beckoning are antique stores and thrift shops, even more entertaining when I’m on a mission. I shop for monkeys, most often the ones impersonating humans. One friend is always on the prowl for Hawaiian shirts, another for antique brandy snifters, and yet another has yet to see a Breyer horse that she can’t pass up.

Finding yourself in an odd part of town filled with stores you never knew existed – one specializing in belts, another in dog collars, one selling zippers and only zippers, and yet another specializing in cabinet pulls with a door knob store next door—is magic. I’ve taken taxis clear across town to visit a Home Depot-esque places in foreign countries, just to see what’s selling, satisfying my curiosity about what a stove might cost, pawing through the garden department for seeds not sold where I live.

Street vendors call out to me. I rarely buy, but I always gawk. A cure-all made from live snail ooze, battery-operated electric flyswatters, lighted walking sticks, a pistol that shoots soap bubbles, cell phone time, pirated merchandise, sponge rats, fake eyelashes in fantasy colors.

The organ grinder mesmerizes me, always evoking the memory of one I saw years ago with live bear tethered to the organ.

Hippie and flea markets may be the same the world over, all surely run by some worldwide hippie market syndicate that prescribes the essentials: candles, soap, odd oils and potions, incense, chocolates, tisanes, herbal remedies, musical instruments made out of gourds by political prisoners, patchouli and El Condor Pasa wafting through the air, indigenous clothing, and some craft made from recycled materials like vinyl records or wooden lasts.

There’s a blessing somewhere for those fortunate to watch a living statue set up at the beginning of a shift and deconstructed at the end.

And then there are the hardcore markets: Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Mexico City’s La Lagunilla Sunday antiques market, which means donning combat clothing, checking anything of value back at the hotel. These are living, breathing museums where all sorts of treasures are for sale.

I don’t understand why people take guided tours when striking out on your own is so much more fun. There’s no cheaper and more interesting way to see a city than by hopping on a commuter train or bus and riding to the end of the line or until boredom sets in and then dovetailing back.

Sunday tango in the streets of San Telmo, a Cuban a capella concert in Merida, a dog show in Sevilla, the juggler playing a harmonica while riding a unicycle in Amsterdam, and a bazaar of new designs and a clown workshop in Bogota all provided lasting memories without costing a dime. Even right here in my hometown of Morelia, fascinating and free entertainment abounds. Grown people, some of them even doctors and lawyers, painting designs on fabric, the stuff I’d roll my eyes at, at least until I realized the participants, chatting away, and having a great time doing what they were doing, left me happier just for watching them. Orchid shows, caporeia exhibitions, dancing horses from Apatzingan, and the Sunday art market in Parque Las Rosas, and book fairs compete for my attention.

And then there’s the matter of eating. Too many friends plan their travel by restaurants and TripAdvisor ratings, and I’ve even accompanied them on those jaunts, forced to stand in line for the opportunity to shed far more money than the dining experience warranted.

Don’t get me wrong. I like to eat, and I like to eat well. I just resist planning and spending outrageous sums of money.

Now, I’m no fan of food trucks or street food, and where I can comfortably plant my derriere is just as important as what goes down my gullet. It’s not all about the cheap; it’s more about the timing and convenience. The rest is just serendipity.

A cup of regular black coffee served in a china cup, along with a domino cookie, for less than a dollar in a sidewalk café populated mostly by city hall employees in Envigado. A Monday meatloaf special in a New Orleans diner of no memorable name. The best cochinita pibil in Merida, located just by asking two lawyers on their smoke break where they would have an ordinary lunch. Those great and incredibly inexpensive meals are still fondly remembered more than some expensive repast at a destination venue like Commander’s Palace or The Russian Tea Room (which I dearly loved for the décor).

When I’m traveling, just as at home, my main meal is midday. The menú turístico (tourist menu) has never let me down, and it’s usually an opportunity to enjoy several courses at a fixed price for far less than a la carte. Upscale grocery stores usually have a deli with an eating area, often a great opportunity to pick up something tasty for a light supper. I’ve enjoyed duck tacos, Lebanese platters, Peruvian ceviches, and pastel de choclo from grocery store takeout.

Food fairs, gatherings of regional cooks, celebrations of traditional cuisine, even charity barbecues have served up great food at affordable prices, and each of those was even better, because I’d just stumbled upon those events.

Even for those who aren’t fast food franchise fans at home, McDonald’s in Lima and Pizza Hut in Madrid command visits for intercultural exploration, fueling their passion more than Astrid y Gaston and Botín.

That Swarovski-encrusted car at Centro Comercial Andino in Bogota remains far more vivid in my mind that any Bruegel art, and I’m sure I’m not alone in finding Kinky Friedman more appealing than Phillip Glass. Call me easily entertained.

Previously published in Voice of Experience: June 2020, American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division.

The Call of Colombia


Let’s get this out of the way: there is no U in Colombia.

“Colombia? That’s the last place in this hemisphere I’d want to go to for vacation,” warns Gabriel, my dentist of 35 years, a well-traveled, sophisticated kind of guy who thrives on adventure and whose very own father came from Ecuador. “You couldn’t make me go there.” Never mind that we live in one of those places that’s on the U.S. State Department’s no-go list. You would’ve thought I’d suggested a winter holiday in Detroit. But then his reaction mirrored most of my friends’.

When I pitched this piece to the Voice of Experience editorial board, you could practically hear the eyes rolling. You’d think I was urging travel to Venezuela or Somalia. Let’s just say the board’s enthusiasm about Colombia piece was less than audible. Colombia has long been the poster child of the unruly society that many associate with Latin America.

“But you’ve already been there,” other friends tell me, issuing the same refrain I’d hear forty years ago when I kept returning to Mexico. Never mind that these are the same people who return to France and to Italy and even to Disney World year after year.
Upper-middle class bachelor parties in Mexico have started opting for a long weekend jaunt to Colombia instead of old-time standbys of Cancun, Cuba, or Las Vegas. It’s been making the New York Times lists of up-and-coming places to visit, and it’s got Lonely Planet’s endorsement.

“The only risk is wanting to stay!” A little over a decade ago, the Colombian export commission and tourism ministry launched an advertising campaign explicitly intended to ameliorate the country’s “most dangerous” reputation in South America. But the odd logic practiced by the U.S. State Department would continue to play Chicken Little, issuing a Level 2 Exercise Caution advisory for Colombia with a Level 3 Reconsider Travel advisory for some regions. Forget what you saw on Narcos, Romancing the Stone, and Scarface, will you? Like the readers of VOE, I’m not traipsing off into FARC territory or trying to score illicit sex and drugs. There’s no question that Colombia is security-conscious, but frankly, I’ve felt more danger lurking right in front of Neiman Marcus on N. Michigan Ave. in Chicago on some random Tuesday afternoon.

Twice the size of Texas and France, four times bigger than Italy, this country packs in loads of landscapes—two coastlines, the Andes, Amazon rainforest, deserts, big cities, middling villages, rivers, lakes, jungles, valleys, and savannahs—and the second-highest biodiversity in the world. It consistently rates as one of the happiest countries in the world, according to the World Happiness Report. Its position near the equator means that there’s very little variation in temperatures throughout the year, although the higher elevations are cooler than the lowlands. In Bogota, it’s possible to experience all four seasons in the span of an afternoon. This is a place where the sun rises early and sets early with very little change throughout the year.

Colombia’s first allure to me was its ease of access: a 4-hour affordable flight from Mexico City. Even from the U.S., flights to Colombia are relatively inexpensive. High quality and good value would come later as selling points.

My favorite venue, and consequently the site of most of my travel in Colombia, has been in the Andean Region. Bogota, Medellin, coffee and quaint towns, all at an altitude, are my idea of a great holiday.

Retail Therapy

So many visitors to Latin America are enchanted by traditional markets, dancing natives, folk art, nature hikes, and visits to coffee plantations. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve enjoyed that stuff, too. But nothing fascinates me more than a visit to the mall, and Latin America has some of the best ones in the New World. Arlene Dávila’s El Mall: The Spatial and Class Politics of Shopping Malls in Latin America explains how and why Latin American malls are light years from Mall of the Americas. They’re for more than just shopping because malls create and host a Main Street, a cultural space, restaurant venues, events, and plenty of opportunities to just people-watch. Whether it’s Bogota’s Centro Mayor (the largest in South America) or Centro Andino or Medellin’s El Tesoro Parque Comercial, I just can’t get my fill, easily spending the better part of a day easily entertained at any one of them.
And then there are the treks to antique stores, flea markets, hippie markets, pop-up stores, and even grocery stores, all sources of never-ending exploration.

Getting Cultured

Just as Buenos Aires calls itself the Paris of South America, Bogota is tabbed the Athens of South America, and for good reason. Bogota boasts over fifty museums, all at prices ranging from free to only a few dollars. This is culture at a price I can afford. In Bogota, the Museo del Oro, the Museo Botero, and the Museo Nacional are right up there with the best anywhere. Medellin has the Museo de Antioquia, with its world-class Botero collection, the Botero sculptures scattered throughout the city, El Castillo Museo y Jardines, the Museo del Agua, and the Museo Casa de la Memoria. But what is really memorable is simply stumbling across some museum housing something that you’ve never really thought much about and then visiting it just for a clean bathroom, some shade, or to bide time, only to be pleasantly surprised. I still chuckle at how I came across and actually enjoyed museums dedicated to philately and numismatics, subjects I’d never really considered interesting.

It doesn’t take a lot to entertain me in Colombia. Just wandering around can be entertaining enough, but coming upon an unexpected event, like the Bogota International Book Fair, a bazaar for new designs, a clown workshop, a dog adoption fair, or an exposition of women-owned small businesses, is always a highlight. Planning a trip around some event means higher prices and higher expectations, but just picking up the local newspaper to see what’s going on doesn’t.


Because I’m usually travelling alone, I never plan meals at some destination restaurant or even one well-ranked in Trip Advisor. I just stop at whatever looks good when I’m hungry and in the mood. Some of the most memorable meals have been at restaurants I couldn’t even identify again by name, simply because they were situated within a museum or recommended by the owner of some ratty antique shop as a good place for lunch. The $2.50 chicken fried steak and a $.65 cup of coffee (freshly baked cookie included), both consumed in Envigado, a suburb south of Medellin, stand out in my memory as much as the $20 steak I enjoyed later in the day in El Poblado.

Colombia isn’t the place to go looking for fine wines. Carulla’s liquor department had a lonely bottle of Colombian wine. But it is the place for artisanal beer, coffee, fruit of every hue, bread, and, of course, arepas. There are the fancy restaurants, the world-famous Andres, Harry Sasson and Leo, and just about every ethnic cuisine under the sun. Traditional Colombian cuisine comes across first as bland and well-fried, but upon reflection, it eventually all comes together as simple, honest, and straightforward fare, devoid of pretense and harboring no mystery ingredients. It’s just home-cooking: Ajiaco, a chicken, corn, and potato stew, and Bandeja Paisa, a platter filled with pork-flavored beans, rice, ground meat, chicharron, plantain, chorizo, hogao sauce, avocado, and lemon. Even the traditional breakfast dish, Recalentado, made up of last night’s meat, reheated with some rice and beans, is surprisingly satisfying, reminiscent of the Spanish rice many of us remember from our childhoods. If you like beer, cheese, and charcuterie, Colombia’s the place for you. Liking none of that, I spend my time looking forward to fruits not easily accessible elsewhere, like lulo and mangosteen, and the coffee.

Getting around

Bogota and Medellin both have excellent public transportation systems and traffic that would make Mexico City’s traffic problems look Lilliputian. But taxis are plentiful, safe, and cheap. Uber and its kin are just as available.

Domestic airfare is a real bargain once you learn to book on the airline’s site as if you were in Colombia, paying in Colombian pesos. Doing that will deliver an airfare that can be more than 50% cheaper than booking on the U.S. site in U.S. dollars. And you can still use English on the website. You may need to notify your credit card issuer that you’re virtually in Colombia ahead of time when you’re buying plane tickets that way.


The rate of exchange for the Colombian pesos to the U.S. dollar is 3,284 to 1.

Foreigners visiting Colombia as a tourist are exempt from paying the 19% hotel tax. This doesn’t apply to tours and some package plans.

Foreigners also are eligible to receive a refund of the V.A.T. for certain purchases.
A 10% tip is automatically added to all charges for food and beverage, even at Starbucks, but it is optional, as is explained on the additional 8” of every receipt that accompanies a purchase.

For convenience and to avoid ATM fees, many of us are accustomed to withdrawing the maximum possible from each visit to an ATM. Colombian ATMs routinely limit the transaction to the equivalent of $125 USD. Only Colpatria and Citibank have more generous limits: $265 and $375. Use your credit card whenever possible to cut down on the need for frequent trips to the ATM.

You are going to love the place. It is as if the Germans were running South America. And I mean that in a good way, too. Think about tranquility, well-mannered tidiness, red bricks, and even fried food. Just don’t talk about Pablo Escobar.