Ecclectic tales from an independent wanderer…

Mexico

No Reservations

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Atop the Pindus Mountains, in the heart of Greece.


A term made famous by Mr. Anthony Bourdain, it’s my preferred method of travel.

But what exactly does it mean to say that you travel with “no reservations?”

That’s a question that can be a little be more difficult to answer, but more than anything I believe it’s a silent statement of traveling with both an open mind and an open heart.

For conversation sake & in more technical terms, here are my thoughts on the subject. Traveling with no reservations, specifically refers to these three things…

1) I truly do like to travel with no itinerary or hotel reservations. In many ways, I like to make my own way, go with the flow and let the journey engulf me in all its magic.
If I do opt for making travel arrangements, I usually limit them to the first and last nights of my journey. This can be extremely helpful if your luggage is lost as well, or if you know that jet-lag may be a reality for you after a long flight.
2) Always trusting my intuition, I NEVER turn down an invitation. A great example of this took place on my spring journey through Greece with Tripology Adventures last May. Following an incredible day of traversing mountain roads in a 4×4 caravan, a gentleman affiliated with the organization offered to talk me on a four-wheel-drive ride in a vintage Mercedes he had outfitted.
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The town of Karpenisi is located high in the Pindus Mountains and is recognized as having some of the cleanest air in all or Europe. Touted as being the Alps of Greece, this Colorado Girl can legitimately say that these peaks and valley’s made the Rocky Mountains look like Kansas. An avid off-roader (my first car was a Jeep Wrangler, Rio Grande addition complete with a front mounted winch & leopard print steering wheel cover) I absolutely jumped at the opportunity to do some real 4-wheeling in this picturesque landscape)
Outside of the hotel, I met my guide – Theodoros Gravanis & his retrofitted, army issue rock-crawler.
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Theo & His Rock-Crawling Machine

The vehicle had no seat-belts, no airbags, no top and was basically set-up to be an all around, trail tackling, mud-busting, mama’s worst nightmare death machine.
Thrilled, I jumped right in – thinking to myself that what Mama-Didn’t-Know, wouldn’t kill her.
The ride was crazy, exhilarating & adrenaline pumping fun with Theodoros dropping it into four-low, taking the vehicle nearly vertical down steep ravines and up blind hills. Surrounded by some of the most breathtaking scenery I had ever seen, I was in car junky heaven, all the while holding on for dear life.
Atop an incredible summit with 360 degree views, Theodoros even let me get behind the wheel and take it for a spin. Both of us swapping stories in broken English & Greek and each with shit eating grins of pure joy plastered on our faces.
My lack of “reservations” led to one of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip and in seriousness, an afternoon that I will never forget.
3) Don’t let yourself be reserved by habits, eating or otherwise that might possibly have you miss out on something spectacular. Food is another great example of this…
Once upon a time in Pacific Mexico, a family offered to host my travel companion & I for dinner in their generations old hacienda. On the menu, Lengua – Cow Tongue which very much maintains it’s look and tastebud texture.
Hesitant to try it, I closed my eyes, shoved it in and was amazed at the eruption of flavors that washed through my mouth! Incredible, delicious and again, something that I will never forget.
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Traditional Cuy – Rotisserie Guinea Pig at a Roadside Restaurant outside Riobamba, Ecuador

I can tell you so many similar stories – Like the time I ate the Guinea Pig or “Cuy” as they call it, at a road side restaurant in Ecuador. All the locals looked on as a tried my first bites, avoiding the toenails that were still attached and the leather thick skin from its open fire rotisserie for who knows how many hours. One nibble in particular didn’t taste or feel right and resulted in a silent, but very obvious gag. The on lookers all roared with laughter and in that brief moment, we bonded – my culinary right of passage.
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Roadside, Rotisserie Cuy Outside Riobamba, Ecuador

Just because it looks funny, smells different or is something you have never once pondered putting in your mouth, give it a go. Chances are, you won’t be sorry.

When did all this begin for me?
Although it is hard to say as my wanderlust set in at a very early age, I know that one specific trip ignited my current drive for adventure and changed my perspective as a young adult.
In 2003 following my first year of University study at the University of Colorado, my very non-adventurous mother and I took a trip to Spain.
A spanish major, I had done my research, spoken with many different people and developed an idea of what I thought the trip would be.
My mother and I departed Denver on a two and a half week journey without one single hotel reservation or plan in mind.
Upon arrival, we found the airport information desk and were given metro instructions and a tourist map. I’ll never forget the train arriving to the platform and the two of us staring at the doors as they refused to open. An attendant ran up to us and instructed us to “Push the Button.” Laughing and feeling a bit insecure, we jumped aboard, bags in tow.
We left the airport in Madrid on the Metro, headed for the Puerto Del Sol, an area of the city that my Basques, Spanish professor had insured me was spectacular. Happy to stay in a hostel, we were told at the airport information desk that we would find many there.
Emerging from the underground metro station, not only did we find ourselves in the middle of a holy parade, but we didn’t see a single Hostel. I asked a shopkeeper, showing her a map with the circled destination. She chuckle and in Spanish replied – “You’re simply not looking high enough…” and then with a grin gestured to the upper stories of the ancient buildings above us where sign after sign displayed “Hostel Aqui.”
The rest of our time, resulted in laughter, tears, adventures, debates about returning home early and ultimately stories that she & I still tell with smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts.
Go. Travel. Open your heart and let the world fill it with endless treasures…

Spirited Away in Mexico’s Sinaloa State

Los Osunas Agave Liquor

One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor…Los Osunas

If you think all tequila is created equal, think again.

In fact, not all tequila can even be called Tequila… Just like the french trademark on the name Champagne, referring to a sparkling wine, a simple trademark from Mexican State of Jalisco, prevents distillers from other regions of Mexico from even using the name.

However, whats in a name? Isn’t the real answer more about the quality of what’s contained within the bottle? Indeed.

With its incredibly fertile soil, the arid hills of Mexico’s Sinaloa State are producing award winning Agave Liquors, produced by distilleries using centuries old “know how,” handed down through generations of tradition and artistry.

Los Blue AgaveOsunas Blue Agave Distillery has been just such a family operated tradition since its inauguration in 1876. Producing incredibly smooth Agave liquor, the celebrated spirit was awarded Double Gold at the 2012 World Spirit Competition in San Francisco, making this particular distillery a prime example of craftsmanship and a fabulous destination to learn about the creation of their fine spirits while visiting Mazatlán, Mexico.

The bougainvilleas lined property, about 30 minutes outside the resort city of Mazatlán, creates a picturesque environment to spend the day. Encircled in the Agave plantation itself, colorful buildings erected in a hacienda style, reflect the warmth of the climate. The manicured landscaping accented with native flowers and plants is truly a sight to behold.Los Osunas

Although there are various species of Agave plant, Los Osunas only uses the blue varietal. A spiny succulent plant which thrives in arid climates, Blue Agave is the principle verdure for producing fine Agave Liquors. Reaching maturity within six to ten years, the fields are tended to with a meticulous eye, keeping the neatly planted rows in pristine condition.

When mature, the spiny plant is harvested at a time called the “Jima,” a laborious task that must be accomplished by hand. The men responsible for these harvests are dubbed “Jimadors”, cutting away the plant’s long barbed fronds using an old fashioned curved tool, referred to as a Coa. Often weighing up to 300 pounds, this heart of the Agave is where the magic of tequila begins. Once the leaves or quiotes are removed, the center of the plant called a Pineapple, or Piña (because this is how it looks) is completely exposed.Traditional Brick Ovens

Cut from the ground, these Piñas  are then taken to the distillery where first they are cut into halves or quarters, placed into traditional brick ovens buried deep within the ground and slowly cooked. This process transforms the plants complex carbohydrates into ferment-able sugars and softens the fibrous pulpy bodies.

Carefully removed, the baked Piñas are then placed into a Tahona. The Tahona is a traditional stone wheel, operated by a pair of mules or donkeys, which rotates the device around its circular orbit. A modern, mechanized version with gears and pulleys is also in use today, with Los Osunas often utilizing them both.

Traditional Tahona

From the Tahona, the extracted liquid is poured into fermentation tanks made of either wood or steel. Here, a little yeast is added and the wort (the liquid result of fermentation prior to distillation) is fermented for a number of days, prior to being distilled.Mechanical Tahona

After fermentation is complete, the wort is processed through a still. Blue Agave that is distilled once is considered Ordinario, often placed into oak barrels for aging, later becoming Añejo or Repasado Liquors. Agave that is distilled a second time, becomes Silver, yielding a crisper, clear product and a stark flavor contrast to its aged com-padres.

Bottling is the final step in the process, allowing the artisans to put their final touches on the presentation of their product. Information is provided on the label and a certain finesse is completed through the label design and closure.

Tequila StillRepasado Againg in Oak

Just like true wine connoisseurs, appreciation for Blue Agave Liquors can come in many different flavors and varieties. Attributing characteristics from soil, growing location and climate can all play a part in the final product’s flavors and finish, dazzling even the most advanced palates.

iSalud!

Mechanical TahonaRepasado Tequila


Solo in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo

Playa Coral, Isla IxtapaAn Article Written for http://www.CSTN.org

Having traveled solo throughout Mexico for well over a decade, I have a pure love for the country that has yet to be matched by any other. In recent years however, I have found it more and more difficult to track down destinations, especially along the coast, that still harbor the feeling of “old Mexico” through the cultural offerings, affordable pricing and good old fashioned (rather than cookie cutter) hospitality. Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo is just such a place. Seaside sister cities that embody the true heart of Mexico, cradling their visitors in an embrace of tradition, and tranquility spiced with a touch of modernity.

Playa Principal, Zihuatanejo Fishermen on Playa Principal Downtown Zihuatanejo

Only an hour north of Acapulco, on Mexico’s Costa Grande the still sleepy fishing village of Zihuatanejo (called Zihua by the locals) has a way of instilling you with a sense of serenity. The pace of life here is slower, relaxed, causing even the most hustle and bustle of visitors to slow down to the peaceful rate of the rhythmic ocean waves in the bay.Zihua Bay & Playa Principal

Getting there is a breeze as the small international airport located just outside the center of town has a number of direct flights from cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Denver through carriers such as United, Alaska, Frontier and Delta.

The hill-lined bay of Zihuatanejo is dotted with boutique hotels that range from classic and quaint to stunningly splurge worthy. The beautiful Villas Miramar, with traditional Mexican architecture and hand carved furniture, is located right along La Playa Madera making it walking distance to downtown. Family owned and operated, its 18 well-appointed suites with rates from $75/night make this beachfront piece of paradise easy on not only your eyes but also your bank account. Proprietress Irma Casas is an incredible hostess. Taking me under her wing, she shared tips for secret beach spots, stories about her family and even joined me for a beachfront dinner, where under a full moon we witnessed a female sea turtle coming ashore to lay her eggs.

Fishermen with Black Marlin, Playa Principal

Below the hills, along the azure blue water, Zihua Bay boasts four alluring beaches, each with their own distinctive personalities. La Playa Principal is located right in the heart of Zihuatanejo, laying the backdrop for local fishermen in early morning and consequently, the best location to gain the latest gossip. Fishermen gather each morning, coffee cups in hand, their boats lined up along the sandy shore before departing in darkness, passing the submerged statue of Jesus Cristo, blessing them in their endeavors.

Secluded Playa Las Gatas with placid waters, sensational snorkeling and nurse shark inhabitants, is accessible only by private boat or water taxi from the village’s main pier. A fabulous place to spend a day, restaurants dot the beach with Palapa Roofs (hand thatched with palm leaves) and offer great snacks along with cold drinks.

La Casa Vieja, Downtown Zihuatanejo

Eateries in Zihuatanejo range from touristy to traditional. Wherever I’m traveling, I try to eat like a local and was pleasantly surprised by a downtown favorite La Casa Vieja. With a menu full of traditional Mexican dishes, you’ll find this open air restaurant packed with groups of locals on Thursdays for traditional Pozole, or Sundays for brunch with the entire family. Warm and welcoming, it won’t be long before you are invited to share in conversation and community. Fish is fresh and local, cooked to perfection and beautifully presented. Finish your meal with something sweet along with a spectacular cup of coffee, steeped with cinnamon for a surprising kick. Traditional fried plantains, frozen key lime pie and flourless Mexican chocolate cake are all exceptional options.

Bacon Wrapped Tuna Steak, La Casa Vieja Fried Plantains from La Casa Vieja

If your idea of a great beach vacation is a little more “All-Inclusive”, head up the beach, north to the hotel zones of Ixtapa. Here you’ll find a range of hotels that cater to families and singles alike. Given the All-Inclusive pricing, singles need not pay more for a room, as rates are based on a per person basis. Whether you feel like being in the heart of it all, in a hotel along La Playa del Palmer or off the beaten path, there is an area of Ixtapa that is just for you.

Ixtapa with El Palmer Beach From Above

Checking into the new 323 suite Azul Ixtapa Grand, (All-Inclusive from $195/night) the only thing that impressed me more than the resort’s incredible new amenities, modern styling, unbelievable view to the west and delicious dining options, was their incredibly attentive staff. Calling me by name, joining me for coffee in the mornings, and sharing in genuine conversations, all made me feel so welcome, as if the hotel really was a home away from home, all while creating a truly unforgettable experience.

In downtown Ixtapa, Ixtapa Marinayou’ll find a number of dining options, nightclubs and shops. The marina is a great place to begin your evening out on the town. Unique restaurants line the boardwalk and fill with people as the sun begins to set. Stroll down the boat lined promenade and find a spot that tickles your fancy. The harbor is a fabulous place to enjoy a cocktail and do some people watching, the warm demeanor of the locals and tourists alike will let you enjoy an evening on your own without ever feeling lonely.

If you’re ready to get your heart pumping, take the Ciclopista bicycle path from one end of Ixtapa to the other on a complimentary bike from your hotel. If running is more your speed, tie up your sneakers and pound some tree lined pavement. Beautifully maintained by the governmental agency Fonatur, the path is beautiful, weaving you in and out of jungle areas while keeping a comfortable distance from the main road.

Public transportation in both of the sister cities is safe, reliable and inexpensive (only about $1 per trip). With routes clearly marked on the front of the small buses, you ride comfortably, assured as to which direction you are heading. The only two buses you’ll really need head to La Playa Linda, at the north end of the Ixtapa Hotel Zone, and Downtown Zihuatanejo. Although some of the vehicles are newer and cleaner than others, passengers are friendly and always willing to lend advice on stops or other destinations around the area.

El Muelle at La Playa Linda

On the north end of Ixtapa is La Playa Linda, a long stretch of public beach that plays host to El Muelle to Ixtapa Island, or La Isla Ixtapa. Stepping off the bus you’ll pass through a conservation park where you can marvel at crocodiles from a safe distance. Snowy Egrets watch from high trees and vendors welcome you into their humble shops. Along the pier, fishermen cast their nets into the water below and children fill bait buckets with minnows.

La Playa Coral, Isla IxtapaThe pier is where your afternoon excursion begins. Paying $40 pesos (about $4) for a roundtrip ticket to and from the island, into a simple water taxi that quickly ferries you and a hand full of other passengers to one of the islands beautiful beaches.

About 2 miles from the mainland, the island is home to four of the most beautiful and fun beaches in the area. Palapa roofed restaurants line the shore of three beaches offering ice-cold beer and cocktails along with Mexican food favorites including made fresh ceviche served beachside. Each Playa has its own distinctive personality, catering to the type of experience you are looking for. I headed straight to La Playa Coral, which locals had told me provided some of the best snorkeling around as no boats or fishing are allowed in the crescent moon bay, creating a haven for its coral reef inhabitants.

Seaside Lunch Spot, Isla IxtapaOn the east corner of the Playa, you’ll find a humble restaurant called Princess Rebeca with red umbrellas and a clearly displayed menu of their offerings. In addition to the frosty Coronas that will run you only a buck apiece, owner/operator Karina Farías Salazar is known for making some of the best Ceviche around.

Choose a shady spot under an umbrella of your choice and enjoy friendly service, an unforgettable view, and the sensation that you may indeed be sitting in your own private Corona commercial. In the clear water at the beaches edge, you’ll see fish jumping and enjoy the tranquil rhythm of the soft waves as the roll upon the shore.

Once you’ve had a little time to relax from the short journey and are ready for your next adventure, simply let your waiter know that you would like to snorkel and they’ll quickly return with appropriately sized equipment and a guide who’s ready to take you into the waters and share the plethora of life with you. Immediately off the shore, in the midst of the crashing waves, the water is teeming with fish.

Ceviche Served Fresh from Pricess Rebeca Restaurant

Within the small bay, coral houses a number of fish, darting in and out of their seafloor homes in brilliant colors of blue and purple. Venturing further out towards the horizon, your guide stops and dives deep bringing up Sea Stars, Urchins, Sea Cucumbers and Spider Stars. Crawling around on the boogie board he brought along for just such displays, he lets you hold them, explains their biology and then carefully returns them to their exact locations along the sandy bottom.

The Pyramid at Xihuacan

Back on the mainland visitors to the area have a plethora of adventures to choose from including a new archeological zone, Xihuacan, opening early this year, nature preserves, world class surfing, golf courses, deep sea fishing, diving locations and award winning spas. Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo is a piece of paradise found for the solo traveler and is sure to be a favorite of any who visit.Artifacts from Xihuacan


A Dream Destination

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Oceanside Romance

Along the golden pacific coastline of Mexico’s Guerrero State, lies a pristine new property, its 5 star amenities exuding an air of excellence that is only surpassed by the accommodating attitudes of their enthusiastic staff.

With sleek modern styling, jetted Infinity Pool at Azul Ixtapa Grandsoaking tubs overlooking the ocean and complete sense of serenity, suites create the perfect atmosphere for couples looking to spend some intimate “we” time, in the resort’s adult only accommodations.

The hotel’s stunning infinity pool seems to slip directly into the waters of the pacific below. Sunsets silhouette Ixtapa Island, creating picture perfect evening memories.

The brand new Azul Ixtapa Grand, was constructed in 2012 by a privately owned group of investors based in Mexico City. Slated for a grand opening in February of 2013, the brand new property with 323-oceanfront rooms, five gourmet restaurants, three bars including a

lagoon style swim-up and an uninterrupted view to the west, is nothing short of

breathtaking.

Flor de Agave Restaurant at Azul Ixtapa Grand

World Class Dining


Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo: A Resort Destination Focused on Conservation

Sunset Over Ixtapa Island

Mexico’s Playa de Palmar is the countries longest certified clean beach. The once tropical plantation of Coconuts and Cacao, now plays host to some of the areas most prestigious All-Inclusive resorts. Each doing their own part to maintain the esteemed certification, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, has been pioneering the arena of biodiversity and sustainable tourism for the last decade.

A process that must be continually looked after, the accreditation involves not only limiting access of gasoline powered vehicles such as Boats & ATV’s, submitting water samples to the Federal Agency of Health, sifting sand for solid debris, but also maintaining the riverbeds and wetlands surrounding the surf.

Hatchling

Passionate about wildlife conservation as well, Sea Turtles are viewed as a “National Treasure” stated Francisco Camacho, the Director of DSPT’s Productos Turísticos in the Mexican State of Guerrero. “With four species of the turtles returning to Playa de Palmar every year to lay their eggs, we cannot stress enough, the importance of this beach to the survival of their species’.”

As a result, the governmental agency has been dedicated to the conservation of these magnificent animals for more than 50 years, including a rescue and rehabilitation facility for turtles injured by boats or other environmental elements. Education is provided to each resort along the Playa in order to train staff in how to handle the incubation of eggs and safe release of hatchlings 45-50 days after they are tenderly deposited into safely located cradle of sand.

Onlookers are allowed but kept at a safe distance by these individuals, employed to ensure the safety of the mother while she is ashore, digging her nest in the soft sand. Guests and their children are encouraged to participate in the liberation of hatchlings back to the sea, waiting for dusk when the beach and crashing surf provides the safest environment for these tiny treasures.

Infinity Pool at Azul Ixtapa GrandHotels such as the Sunscape Dorado Pacifico, and Presidente Intercontinental truly pride themselves on the effort they put forward for sustainability and Sea Turtle conservation. Pride that is tangibly evident through the excitement of staff when a turtle ventures onto their shores or as guests gather to help farewell hatchlings into the azure blue waters of the Pacific.