Sunday, July 29, 2012

Travel: Making Connections in Mexico City

Mexico City -- After many years traveling primarily through Cancún on trips between Mérida and the U. S., I've begun to pass more often through Mexico City. Although it can be a nail-biter, I've discovered that it has advantages.

First, when I tote up the long hours spent shuttling between Mérida and the Cancún airport, going north by first heading west through Mexico can be quite a bit quicker. Another time advantage is that you can arrive at the Mérida airport sixty to ninety minutes before flight time rather than the two to three hours officially required at Cancún.

While you will spend more time on planes when going through Mexico City, without having to take the Cancún bus, you get to your destination quicker. Even when traveling to Florida -- just across the pond from Yucatán -- the flight west to Mexico City and then back east again, waving "saludos" to the Yucatán as you fly overhead, takes perhaps five hours less than a Cancún departure if you factor in the Mérida to Cancún bus ride and longer airport waiting time.

Second, prices can be competitive. Over the winter months I found cheaper tickets going through Mexico than through Cancún, when bus fares and transfers to the Cancún airport are factored in. Summer prices are up, but I am hoping that they will slide again this fall.

The downside is that sometimes itineraries through Mexico City (on AeroMexico, for instance) leave one hour between arrival time there and the scheduled take-off of my connecting flight. Mexico City airport is large and has two terminals, so making tight connections can be hectic. I guess it is possible to ask for longer connection times, but this would negate part of the time saved by going through Mexico City.

I definitely recommend that Mérida friends heading north try Mexico City as an alternative to Cancún. However there are a couple of things to keep in mind when making a connection in Terminal 2.

The first bottleneck is security. Sometimes the lines are long.

Then there is Immigration. If you live in Mexico and have an FM2 or FM3 residency visa, you have to stop in at the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) module in the airport of final departure from Mexico to get your exit document stamped. The INM desk is usually efficient, but sometimes you have to wait. If you hit a long security line and then have to wait at INM, you can miss your connection. If you have a tourist visa, you've already got your paperwork (you turn it in to the airline at the departing gate or check in) and don't have to worry about this part.

On my last trip there was another wrinkle. When I arrived in Mexico City with an hour to connect, security was pretty quick. However when I got to the INM desk about 8:30AM, no one was there, the computer screens were dark, and there was nothing, no papers, no sign, and no indication that the post was even in use. An information monitor indicated that my flight was boarding. It's a long story, but after a frantic fifteen minutes I finally found someone to stamp my paperwork so I could board my plane.

The other critical factor is the timeliness of your first flight. If you arrive late into Mexico City, it may be difficult to make a tight connection. On this one all you can do is hope.

Considering all this, I still prefer the Mexico City route to Cancún and the bus. Here is what I recommend, if you decide travel from and to Mérida through Mexico:

First, if you prefer to avoid stress, are not fast, or travel with children or the elderly, find an itinerary that gives you plenty of time to make your connection in Mexico City. Two hours should be sufficient to run the gauntlet, hit the restroom and get to the gate before your flight starts boarding. You're still way ahead of the game, time wise.

If you do find yourself on an itinerary with a tight connection, minutes count. Request aisle seats in the front of the plane on your first segment and travel light so you can get out of the plane quickly.

Once out of the jet way in Mexico City, walk fast. You can gain a few minutes' advantage by quick-walking in the long hallways between your arrival gate and the security area. If it's crowded smile and say, "con permiso," and people will make way.

After passing security you have more walking to do. Do not yield to the temptation yet to go to the restroom or stop at Starbucks. First make a beeline for the Immigration desk (walk on the moving walkways) with your completed immigration form in your hand.

If you have done all this, you've done your part. When I once missed my connection, AeroMexico was nice about re booking me on the next available flight. And actually, although I spent two extra hours sitting in the airport, the trip was still shorter and more restful than the Cancún alternative.

For Mérida residents, traveling abroad through Mexico City instead of Cancún is not always the best choice, but given these considerations it definitely is worth checking into.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Wanderings: The Hills of Querétaro

A horse grazes along the edge of a cornfield, Tenasdá, Querétaro

San Ildefonso Tultepec, Querétaro -- Every summer I spend a few weeks here in rugged high country of the Municipality of Amealco, along the southern border of Mexico's Querétaro state. I come to the area to teach, but always have free time to explore and enjoy the countryside.

The weather is changeable and the air a bit thin in this place more than 2600 meters (8500 feet) above sea level. The earth is red, and during the summer rainy season the land is green. The verdant hills and mountains, fields and forests loudly call an observer's attention. However I also find myself lowering my view. Everywhere there are wonderful things at my feet.

At this time of year, dozens of species of flowers are visible along roads and trails.  Sometimes one solitary bloom is all I ever see of a particular variety.

Other types of flowers grow in vast colonies that carpet the ground with yellow, pink, red, purple and blue. The blooms may last a few days, or as long as a week or two. Later-flowering varieties replace those past their prime, so the color patterns are constantly changing.

Other flowers grow in small clusters. This is interesting country because although during this season the land can be waterlogged and muddy, the area also experiences a cool, desert-dry winter when grays and browns are the dominant colors. Cactus and other plants common to arid climates are common.

The nopal, or prickly pear cactus grows well here, and this is the season when the tunas (fruit) ripen, offering a sweet treat to passers-by willing to deal with the large nail-like spines on the leaves and tiny hairlike needles found on the tunas themselves.

I was tempted by this cluster of perfectly-ripe tunas, and picked a couple for myself and my companion. I enjoyed the delicacy, but paid for it afterward, spending about ten minutes pulling the tiny spikes from my fingers.

Tender young leaves of nopal also are good eating. With spines carefully shaved off and the leaves diced or cut into strips, nopal makes a nice addition to salads and cooked dishes, with a flavor and texture slightly reminiscent of asparagus.

Several varieties of champiñones (mushrooms) pop up around here during the dampest days. I saw these growing under a fallen log. Not being an expert on mushrooms, last week when I spotted them I took nothing more than this photo.

However, when I came into the city of Querétaro Friday for a weekend off, I found myself dining on tacos of champiñones a la mexicana (local mushrooms fried with tomato, onion and green peppers) and sauteed nopal at a local restaurant.  

I have been trying to improve my diet by eating more natural and vegetarian foods. I'd had flor de calabaza (squash flower) tacos a few days ago. Perhaps the unfinished business of wild nopal and champiñones had stayed unconsciously on my mind all week.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The "Beach Onions" Mystery

"What a strange thing. It's an onion!" I heard my friend Victor call out in Spanish, as we walked along the beach.

On a late December afternoon we were walking along the Yucatan's northern fringe at water's edge, kicking at chunks of coral and scanning the tide line for something interesting, when suddenly we stumbled upon this object.

As soon as I'd processed the day's "language learning moment," realizing that my friend was not talking about a certain strong-tasting edible root, but rather in general about plant bulbs (of which onions are just one example), I bent over to take a look.

Although it did resemble an edible onion in color and texture, obviously this bulb was something different. It still had the remains of green leaves at its top, and some threads of root remained attached to the base. As we walked further, we found quantities of these uprooted plants, strewn among shells and seaweed clumps along the shore.

Victor commented that they looked a lot like the wild lilies that grow near the coast. He in the past had pointed out these plants growing here and there near beach access roads and in dunes along the Yucatan coast, although I've never seen them in flower.

But what we kept wondering was, "how did these bulbs get here?" It was pretty obvious that they'd floated awhile and then washed up on this spot. Did someone dump them? Why did they dig them up in the first place?

As we speculated, we decided to collect a few, so as we beach combed we selected those in better condition and piled them where they would be visible and easily found as we returned to the car. Some were rotted and badly damaged, but we gathered about a dozen good ones for a little experiment.

The bulbs were planted in my garden a few days later, and within two weeks had begun to sprout new leaves. They did greatly resemble the wild lily plants commonly seen along beach areas around here.

As they grew, what was surprising to me was the size of these plants. After about six months, the leaves have reached a length of more than a meter (40 inches). Then they began to flower in late June, exactly six months after being put into good soil. The blossoms confirmed that these are the local plants we suspected they were.

 And what a fantastic thing the blooming of these plants is. It is not a flashy flower, in fact it is so spindly that from a distance it might easily be missed. Its six swordlike petals have a look reminiscent of orchids to my eyes. The stamens and anthers, with bright orange pollen at their ends, lend the flower a spidery, delicate elegance. This sizable bloom measures about 23 centimeters (9 inches) across. The stalk which supports this flower has had at least eight buds, which seem to bloom one at a time, consecutively. A flower lasts a day or two, with a new blossom opening as its predecessor wilts.

As for the "Beach Onions" mystery, I believe that coastal erosion is the reason that these bulbs are washing up on the shore. It seems to be an indigenous plant, common along the coasts, and this area of the Yucatán coast north of Mérida has some serious problems with erosion of beaches. I am guessing as beaches recede and dunes wash out, that some of these plants might manage to survive by floating to new habitat. However I imagine, from seeing the many damaged and rotted bulbs along the beach that day, and from the slim chance that a bulb would be tossed high enough up a beach to root and thrive, that the majority do not survive.

If my readers have other theories or information, or can help with identifying this plant, I'd appreciate comments.