Volcanoes are very theoretical for Americans with only a few exceptions. But I have only seen 2 in my lifetime prior to coming to Mexico last year. My children love to draw pictures of them, complete with furious lava flows and billowing smoke. But on a recent Thursday morning in Dallas, a volcano near Mexico City was mightily interfering with my plans.
The great volcano, Popocatepetl, has awakened recently and in the last few weeks has been belching smoke, gas, and most importantly ash, into the skies of Mexico. Wind carries the ash all the way to Mexico City where it is deposited in a thin blanket all around. Volcanic ash gets into plane engines. Engines could potentially find this disagreeable. We do not like machines that travel at 30,000 feet to feel unwell, and thus, flights to Mexico City were being cancelled uniformly.
From the relative safety of the Admiral’s Club at the DFW airport (thank you Lori), we found ourselves and our vacation at the mercy of an honest to goodness, exotic, act of God. And there we sat. From a rather opulent sun filled, alternate universe, decorated with Eames chairs and well stocked with snacks and drinks, we waited to see if “PoPo” would choose for us to travel to Cuernavaca. The three of us vowed that should we not be able to fly, we might not tell anyone and just spend our vacation in the Admiral’s Club. However, an agreeable ticket counter operator recognized our companion, Jan. This happens. Inspired, she worked feats of computer derring-do, securing with the help of one Ruben, who is apparently the Great Telephonic Equivalent of Oz, the last 3 tickets to Puebla, a giant city with a tiny airport to which American Eagle was still flying. It seems one can land at the foot of a belching volcano as long as the breeze is blowing in the right direction.
[From the Catedral de la Asunción de María near the main square in Cuernavaca.
Once in Puebla, we were met on this dark, rainy, Mexican evening by our driver Paco. You might think having a dedicated driver is a bit of a spoiled move, but it isn’t. We started as three women in a town we didn’t know well, speaking a smattering of Spanish, though not enough to work out any real jam. Paco found us, got our bags, got us into the car on our sleepy way to Cuernavaca, about two hours away, for the cost of about $40 (U.S.) per person. That is an absolute bargain. Paco, and his colleague, Memo, made themselves available at any moment to take us to wherever we wanted to go. For less than a US cab to the airport, these men, who had great knowledge on cultural attractions and restaurants…in fact, they are trained and tested on these things…took us to towns such as Tepozlán and Taxco, and delivered and fetched us from late night dinners. No worries. No fuss. Simple. Safe. You can take cabs in Cuernavaca, and we did on occasion, but the drivers were inexpensive relative to the same service in the U.S., and such a wonderful part of our trip.
Paco, drove us through the late, rainy evening and delivered us to our new abode for the week. We were met at the door by Señor Ignacio, the caretaker of the home. When we asked for a little snack after our long day, he dutifully woke Señora Inez, who much to our grateful joy (and frankly, our embarrassed horror) descended from their apartment at one in the morning and prepared fresh guacamole. When we asked her, in our not enviable Spanish, about its recipe the next day, with abundant apologies for the late hour involved, she revealed nothing new to us…it appears that she is simply better at making it than we are. And to add insult to the injury, so to speak, we also personally witnessed avocado trees around Tepozlán several days later, so laden with fruit that I almost wept for the trees’ burden (hyperbole much, Kelly?). I just thought that the second key to Señora Inez’ great guacamole prowess is that she has the freshest of avocados with which to work.
[at our casa in Cuernavaca; some of the dishes prepared by Señora Inez]
So how did I get to Cuernavaca this time, and who were the players? Let me explain again that I have incredible friends. Lori Whitlow, who let me tag along last year to La Tavola Marche in Italy for her birthday party, made this trip happen, also. I’d go just about anywhere with her. When she brings her friend Jan along, well, there is no way I’m saying no. The term “best friends” is a bit over used in our world. Closer than sisters, finishing each other’s sentences, speaking in hilarious punchlines, and looking at the other with total admiration at all times, Jan and Lori are just fun to be around. They are positive, upbeat, adventurous, and driven. I’d love to be them, and I love to be with them. When our fantastic fourth had to drop out at the last minute (lunch soon, R.A.D!!) we brought along my friend, Tina, who is a barrel of fun, too. Tina joined us after a few days and connected us with the local scene in a way that we never could have on our own. Her first language is Spanish and she was my host for my first trip to Cuernavaca last year. She loves the city and knows how to navigate it. Great group.
There were practically no Americans in Cuernavaca. Or if there were, they were hiding behind the formidable walls that hide the homes from the streets. Truly, behind simple stone walls with broken glass plastered into the tops to further deter climbing visitors, are palatial homes with manicured lawns and arboretum-worthy landscapes. But we heard practically no English on our trip, save that from generous Mexicans saving me from my really comical attempts at Spanish. “You can talk to me…I speak English,” they would say. I was prepared for many conversations, “Puedo sacar su photo?” But when things got fast, or in uncharted waters, I had to rely on generous English speakers and charades. But one of the things we learned was that American tourism has dropped of precipitously in the last few years. We have all heard on this side of the border rumors of un-controlled violence. But Memo estimated that U.S. tourism in Cuernavaca has dropped up to 90% which is really stunning. And so it played out, we heard a lot of Spanish, Japanese, and European languages, but precious little English. Mind you, I’m not complaining. I feel like we were getting a much more authentic experience that way, but I do feel awful for the community which relies on tourism when a few bad apples and a lot of bad press, spoil it all. We saw no violence. We saw nothing shady, and we took rational precautions that people should anytime they travel (no walking the streets alone, drunk, at 1 a.m. dripping with jewelry). You wouldn’t do that in any urban center in America. This is not to down-play the realities in Mexico. I merely mean to say that we felt safe.
[Las Mañanitas outdoor dining area before the rain and during the rain]
One of our first stops for dinner was the famed Las Mañanitas. We had visited during the sunny afternoon to make a reservation and returned, as the sky was darkening, for dinner. This is the rainy season in Central Mexico. It rained every single night of our stay. Warm and sunny in the day, turned into sprinkles and often a deluge in the evening. At Las Mañanitas you are seated in the bar first. You are served cocktails and snacks and the menu is described. The menu is a force to be reckoned with, actually. It is about 10 pages long and runs the gamut, truly. So I opted for a Mexican plate so that I could have a little bit of everything without thinking too much. But, just as on my last trip, the sopa de flor stole the show. Las Mañanitas is a legend in Cuernavaca. You need to eat there to get a feel for the elegant side of the city. It is the restaurant that everyone associates with Cuernavaca. It is the beginning of the story. Once you have eaten there, you can then understand the other, must-see restaurant, El Madrigal. El Madrigal grew out of Las Mañanitas in that the owner, Ruben, was a long devoted employee and part owner of Las Mañanitas. After a rift with the remaining family of Las Mañanitas, he went out on his own and started El Madrigal. The stories vary only slightly in the telling. But the result is that there are two (and many more, actually) incredible, history and personality filled, dining spots in Cuernevaca. One speaks of tradition, and one speaks of elegance and modernity, with an undeniable tip of the hat to the old.
When we ate at El Madrigal this time, we were greeted warmly by the owner, himself. He personally went over the menu with us and we shared stories and photos of kids and grandkids. He told us that we were in luck that evening. A young man had arranged to propose to his girlfriend in the restaurant that very night. There were to be fireworks, a big banner unfurled on the lawn, dancing and a surprise visit by family that was in on the game. Our natural reaction was, “Dear God, we hope she says yes,” to which Ruben howled with laughter as though the thought had never crossed his mind nor that of the gentleman.
Our driver, Memo, recommended a salad, which I believe bore the name of the restaurant. It was lovely in that the dish itself was lined with cold smoked salmon. Then a beautiful pile of dressed fresh greens were placed on top of the salmon and it was covered in generous slices of a dry white cheese…something like gruyère. We also had an appetizer of Cochinita Pibil which Tina has been talking to me about for years. Finally! And it was worth the wait. Pork is slowly cooked, wrapped in a banana leaf, in a spicy and sweet sauce. Simple deliciousness wrapped in a fresh tortilla…with a killer salsa.
Fortunately, after the fireworks and banners, the very surprised and lovely girl said yes. There was much kissing, and hooting and hollering and clapping from the fellow patrons. It was very sweet. And then, as though by divine timing, the rain began for the evening. We went back to our casa, wondering at the lovely evening and the happy couple.
[The local craft market in Tepozlán; a tiny table full of giant mushrooms; candy for sale; puppies in a basket for sale; men playing in the market]
We traveled to Tepozlán for the Sunday crafts market. Last visit, we went on a regular market day. This was much larger with hundreds of craft vendors lining the streets in addition to the food vendors. We dined at Los Colorines, which was something of a chain I think, but quite good. We sat by the huge vats of bubbling sauces that lined a bar. Pre-made stuffed and fried chiles would be submerged in the sauce as they were ordered. Then they were plated, hot and wonderful. This is a strange preparation and my first worry is that the texture of the battered pepper would be lost, but the sauce was so good that I decided it was designed for absorbency, not crunch. My glass always remains half full. I would be a dreadful restaurant critic.
[Ladies making tortillas in the Tepozlán market]
Our driver had a gorgeous green mole dish. Green mole is made with ground pumpkin seeds. Fava bean soup was shared. The black beans were wonderful. I liked this spot. It was easy and good. I think it is, in reality, a chain of sorts. I’m not sure. But every meal we ate, we were excited to experience, whether is was ice cream in a little shop or gourmet dishes at fine restaurants. Our desire to enjoy our trip made everything more colorful and muy sabroso. We arrived early in town and by the time we finished lunch, the streets were teeming with families doing their shopping, and several walking with giant 32 ounce styrofoam cups of micheladas (a tomato recipe and a no tomato recipe, and a funny review…friends from Wichita Falls will recognize this as a cousin of the red draw) that looked quite wonderful. We opted for ice cream. And we gathered our few treats and headed back to Cuernavaca.
[Cups full of pomegranate seeds in the Tepozlán market; food offerings; flags in Los Colorines]
Señora Inez treated us to a pie lesson. A Limon Torta. She made it with crushed Maria cookies and butter. She kneaded the crumb mixture like a bread dough and she filled the baked crust with the simplest of ingredients. We were shocked at how good it was. I say shocked because, with the oven broken, she baked the crust in the microwave. And it was excellent. Shocked.
Señora Inez took very good care of us. We were fed breakfast almost every morning to include juevos, green enchiladas, sopas, incredible green sauce, and arroz verde. We blurred the lines between breakfast and lunch and she responded brilliantly.
[Food in the Presidente Adolfo Lopez Mateos Market in Cuernavaca]
When Tina arrived, we ventured out more in Cuernavaca. One of our favorite stops was the Adolfo Lopez Mateos Market in Cuernavaca. I visited last year and was eager to return. Lori and Jan were very excited because they love the intersection of food and culture as much as I do. There are very nice regular grocery stores in Cuernavaca. But this is the big market. It is more like a bazaar and it is a profusion of colors and smells and sounds. It might be one of my favorite things in the city. It is divided up into sections like meat, vegetables, fruit, and housewares. But it is football fields big. It is huge. We bought hand towels and fruit and shopping bags galore. We looked at fish and pig heads and tripe and beef lungs. We bought candy. We asked questions and just soaked it all in. This is one of those occasions where knowing a little Spanish was critical to it being fun. There are so many questions to ask about moles, and peppers, and sweets, and of course, bargaining for bags. Do you like dried grasshoppers or minnows? They are apparently quite tasty. Though, I passed.
We also had the chance to reconnect with Aurelia and Manuel, friends of Tina’s. Aurelia was kind enough to reprise her lesson on Chiles in Nogada for us this year and now we all think we have a handle on the recipe. It is a sweet and savory, hot and cool, green, red and white national dish that is truly spectacular. I talked with La Senora, the lovely woman who owns the beautiful home in which we had our cooking lesson, about how there are different variations on the recipe depending on precisely what area of Mexico that you travel to, but the basics are always the same.
A poblano pepper is roasted, peeled, seeded, and then stuffed with a combination of pork and beef. The beef is sauteed with all manner of fruit and other curious delights such as plantain and citron. The sauce is, by definition, made with nuts. Aurelia uses pecans which I simply love, but apparently walnuts are common, as well. Whatever the variations, I assure you that it is a dish worth trying, and one that I will try to imitate soon.
We also had our one outing to a real taco joint with them. As Manuel stated in much more interesting sounding Spanish, “If you haven’t had tacos, you haven’t been to Mexico yet.” Being a true neighborhood taco stand, we were a bizarre sight…what with the camera and big blonde hairdos. But, we ate our way through several orders of tacos, beer and sodas like professionals, I think. I still love tacos al pastor and could eat a truck load. I should have just stood by the trompo and collected them one by one, saving our server the many trips.
Taxco is a town you should know about. I’ve not been to a town in North America that has such a European feel to it. Taxco is a silver town. Almost all trade revolves in some way around silver. It was once a major mining town which led to a reputation for silver-smithing. Now, there is less mining, but still plenty of silver work. Nearly every store is a silver shop of some sort. But the town itself looks like something off the Mediterranean coast, even though it is tucked in the mountains. I thought of Greece, looking up the hills at all of the white painted buildings perched here and there. It is a stop that requires plenty of walking up cobblestone paths but it is utterly worth it. We ate at a hotel, the Angel Inn, whose outdoor patios give an eagle eye glimpse of the world around. The food was…well great. All the food on this trip was great. Espressos, Tortilla Soup, more green enchiladas, more smiles, more laughter.
Our house was a bit of Morocco meets Mexico. It was a home open to the outdoors. It couldn’t have been sealed up had we wanted to. You walk from the living room right out to the garden pool. The tiny outdoor space was lush with tropical plants that were more tolerated than cared for and the result was wild beauty contained in a small space. We were very happy there. It is for sale, by the way. So many homes in Cuernavaca are for sale or for rent. I am now in love with the home option. With enough people, it makes financial sense and it is also more of a taste of the reality of the area. It helps you feel the town a bit more. And Cuernavaca is lovely. You can seal yourself up in an opulent home or hotel or only visit the big box grocery stores that are perhaps even nicer than the store just down your own street in America. Or you can get out and talk to the locals and walk through the churches and shop in the markets and eat in the restaurants that cater to the locals. I highly recommend the latter.
[A rose stand on the highway from Taxco to Cuernavaca]
Mexico City is an easy destination and the drive to Cuernavaca is a breeze. Cuernavaca is called the Land of Eternal Spring for a good reason. Consider it. I’ll be going back. San Miguel de Allende is on my list too. Mexico is beautiful, and I am more and more charmed by the interior. The mountains, the green tall mountains, the food, the people and the culture are not to be missed.
Recipes and posts inspired by these great friends: