Category Archives: Food

Highlights of Latin America

I had such an awesome time in Latin America it’s pretty hard to pick out favourite moments. But I’m going to give it a go anyway. Here are the best things I’ve seen and done over the past six and a half months, along with links to what I originally wrote about them.

Favourite City: Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso

Runner-up: Guanajuato, Mexico
Hilly cities with lots of colourful houses are clearly the way to keep me happy.

Favourite Capital City: Mexico City

Mexico City Cathedral

Runner-up: Santiago de Chile
Quite a contrast here between enormous, chaotic, slightly crazy Mexico City vs Clean, calm, orderly Santiago. But I could live in ’em both, I reckon.

 

Favourite Food: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
Best street food in Latin America from the Mexicans, whereas the restaurants were at their finest in Peru.

Best course: Learning Spanish in Guatemala
Runner-up: Learning to Dive in Honduras
Who knew learning could be such fun? Learning Spanish enriched my whole experience in the continent, and diving was way more fun (and way easier) than I ever thought it could be.

Favourite activity: Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru
Runner-up: Cycling tour of the wineries, Mendoza, Argentina

Favourite Hike: The Huayhuash Circuit, Peru

The Cordillera Huayhuash

Runner-up: The Lost City, Colombia
Again, quite a contrast. The Huayhuash took me to the most stunning mountain scenery I’ve ever come across, and was the toughest walk I’ve ever done. The Lost City was less visually appealling and easier on the legs, but made up for it by being with the best group of people I’ve me on the whole trip.

 

Favourite Natural Wonder: The Copper Canyon, Mexico

The road to Batopilas, Copper Canyon

Runner-up: The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Sorry Colca Canyon, you may be deeper but Mexico’s is way better. It also gave me my favourite journey, along the Copper Canyon railway. Meanwhile, Uyuni was like a trip to another planet.

 

Favourite off the beaten track place: Mexcaltitan

Calle Venezia, Mexcaltitan

I feel like a bad traveller. I was pretty firmly on the gringo trail the entire time. Except in Mexcaltitan, tough to get to, not a lot to see, but one of my favourite stops so far.

 

Best Night out: Sargento Pimientas, Lima, Peru
Runner-up: Mazatlan, Mexico
My last night in Lima was a chance to say goodbye to two good friends I’d been travelling with on and off since Colombia, accompanied by the best music I’ve heard in ages. Mazatlan on the other hand was an entirely random night out with three Mexican women who I was introduced to by a clown.

Favourite Beach: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Tayrona National Park

Runner-up: Mazunte, Mexico
Sleeping in a hammock on the beach in Colombia was pretty close to paradise. Meanwhile the waves in Mazunte kept me entertained for hours.

 

Favourite Market: San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
Runner-up: Oaxaca, Mexico
A pretty small hill town in Guatemala with the biggest, most sprawling market I’ve ever seen. Oaxaca was my favourite of the Mexican markets, especially for the crammed, smokey food section.

Favourite weird religious spectacle: Semana Santa in Guanajuato, Mexico

Semana Santa in Guanajuato

Runner-up: Meeting Maximon in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Catholicism may have its heart in Europe, but the way they do it in Latin America makes our version look pretty tame.

 

Favourite Country: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
I’ve probably bored everyone I’ve met on this trip to death by going on and on about Mexico. But I don’t care. I love it.

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Frog Juice and Fried Guinea Pig

So far on this trip I’ve eaten some strange things (grasshoppers in Oaxaca and ants in San Gil, Colombia), but I have to say the things I saw in Arequipa market have to take the biscuit.

As in all Latin American markets I’ve been to, there are plenty of stalls selling freshly squeezed juices and delicious smoothies. It’s just in Arequipa, the range of smoothies available contained the odd surprise – such as beer, milk & eggs. Which really sounds like one of the most disgusting concoctions imagineable.

Beer, Milk & Egg Smoothie

Beer, Milk & Egg Smoothie

Or so I thought until I wandered further into the market and came across this little stand.

For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, Jugo de Ranas means Frog Juice. Yes, that’s right, that tank contains lots of little frogs all waiting their turn to be popped into a blender and served up to a local – apparently they are great for helping women get pregnant and for those with memory problems. And sure enough, there seemed to be a steady stream of people coming up to give it a go.

Did I give it a go? Of course not. It looked disgusting, and anyway, I have nothing to prove on the frog front after having polished off a plate of whole deep-fried Mekong river frogs in Laos a couple of years ago.

Strange smoothies aside, Peru has quite a few other unusual culinary specialities to serve up, so the night my friend Adrian arrived from the UK (for a three week visit), we took the advice of our guide book and headed out to ‘the best restaurant in Arequipa’ – one specialising in local cuisine that was apparently so good it was picked out as one of the five highlights for the whole chapter of the book. Located ‘a few blocks east of the centre’ we decided we’d walk.

And walk we did. Further and further out of town. Down deserted, slightly-menacing looking lanes (in a city we’d been warned to be careful about after dark). Past the ring road. Past a sign announcing we’d entered the next municipality. Down a lonely dual carriageway. After an hour of walking we eventually realised there must be two streets in town with the name we were looking for, and decided we’d cross the road to jump in the taxi waiting on the other side of the street.

As it turned out, the reason he was there was because he was sat outside the (signless) restaurant. It looked shut, be he assured us it wasn’t, so we went in – to find the biggest restaurant I’ve been to in Peru. A huge affair with giant tables and a dancefloor. The kind of place you might go to on a bad office party – of which there were two in place when we arrived. After walking that long, we decided to go for it anyway, only to realise just after we’d ordered that the office parties were leaving, the DJ had stopped playing, and we were sat alone in a rather cavernous, empty restaurant (the guidebook had neglected to mention the place is only worth going to at weekends).

Still, we’d heard the food was great, so we’d ordered some of the native wildlife to try. Adrian went for Cuy, and I figured I’d give the Alpaca a go. Turns out I made easily the best choice. Alpaca is fantastic – like a tender, lean beef, it’s great in stir-fries and as a steak. So good was it I ended up having it quite a few more times later on in the trip.

Adrian wasn’t so lucky. Cuy is better known in English as Guinea Pig. It’s native to the Andes, and is quite the delicacy, apparently. I’m not sure I can see why. The traditional way to serve it is cooked between two hot stones. Whole. So what you end up with looks like roadkill, with its legs splayed and head squashed. It’s really not the most appetising sight in the world, and after staring, rather disgusted for a while, he tucked in. Only to find about five mouthfuls of meat. Rather him than me.

Arequipa Cathedral by Night

Arequipa Cathedral by Night

Other than our culinary adventures, I had a lovely time in Arequipa. Five days of chilling out and enjoying one of the most beautiful cities in Peru. Most of the town’s buildings are made of a nearly-white volcanic rock called Sillar. The Plaza de Armas is particularly fine, with the cathedral taking up the whole of one side, and the other three having terraces full of cafes with views towards the massive Volcan Misti rising up above the city.

Volcan Misti

Volcan Misti

Impressions of Mexico

When I wrote about my ten (pre-trip) favourite countries at the end of last year, Mexico was the winner. After spending six weeks there, I’m even more in love with the country than I was before. Here are some of the reasons why:

The colours

One of the first things that struck me about Mexico was how colourful the country is. chili, limes & tomatoes in bright green and red. Colonial cities with their churches and houses painted in shades of pink, yellow, red and terracotta. The delicate purple of the jacaranda trees and the dark pink of the bugambilia. Shops and businesses with premised hand painted in bright shades of every colour of the rainbow. The multicoloured outfits of indigenous women everywhere, especially in the Copper Canyon, Oaxaca & Chiapas. The deep blue of the pre-rainy season skies, and the even deeper blue of Frida Kahlo’s house. And all of them glowing brightly under a sun that feels twice as intensely as it does in Europe, which is going to feel very grey and drab comparison when I return.

The landscape

It’s not just all the colours that make Mexico look amazing. Even without them the place would be pretty special. Guanajuato, Zacatecas, San Miguel de Allende, Queretaro, San Cristobal de las Casas and Oaxaca are easily the match of historic cities in Europe in terms of the beauty of their architecture. The copper canyon is the most breathtaking piece of scenery I’ve ever seen. The beaches of Zipolite and Tulum are wonderful places to chill out, and are as beautiful as my favourites in Spain’s Formentera and Thailand’s islands. Even journeys are invariably stunning – it’s a huge country, and a very mountainous one, and almost every long bus trip I took allowed me to either see them rising up in the distance or to wind my way through them on narrow, twisty roads, such as the road from Oaxaca to Zipolite or best of all, the long descent to Batopilas. The Copper Canyon railway must be one of the finest in the world, especially the section that clings to the side of the canyon itself, and my flight from Guadalajara to Puebla gave me the spectacular sight of the twin volcanoes of Popo and Izta poking above the clouds.

The food

Mexico doesn’t just look gorgeous, it tastes and smells pretty great too, thanks to all the amazing food. It’s pretty impossible to write about Mexico without mentioning the subject. It’s hard to imagine food without chili, tomatoes, vanilla and chocolate – and yet European cuisine lacked all of them before the Spanish conquered Mexico. All the Mexicans I met are immensely proud of their culinary traditions and the variety of food they have, and for quite good reason. I don’t think I ate a single bad meal their, whether it was in nice restaurants or simple street-food stands. Aside from any individual dish, one the things that stands out most for me is the quality of the ingredients – the ubiquitous trio of lime, chili and tomato were juicier, spicier and sweeter than I ever find at home, and the pattern seemed to be repeated for everything. Fruit in particular was always fresh and packed with flavour. It’s hard to pick a single highlight, so I’m going to go with four, all of which I bought on the street. First of all is fruit with chili. Now I love chili, but had never been previously convinced at some of the uses Mexicans put it to, such as in beer or desserts. But eventually curiosity got the better of me and I had to try this popular snack, which is basically a fruit salad of various types of melon and mango covered in chili powder – and it’s amazing. Second would be the gorditas I tried in Zacatecas – a gordita is basically a fat tortilla split in half, filled and then fried. In Zacatecas I had one made with nopal cactus and chili. Not only was it the spiciest thing I ate in the country, it was also one of the best. Finally comes the humble street taco. I feel like I should be ending this section by describing some obscure dish only cooked in one little village on the first Thursday in April, hitherto undiscovered by the world of travel. But no, one of the best things in Mexico is the most common. Available everywhere, the simple snack of floury fresh tortillas, finely diced grilled meat (chicken and chorizo is my favourite), covered with a salsa of onion, tomato, coriander and lime, maybe some guacamole, and always a selection of chili sauces (smoky chipotle being the best in my opinion), really is hard to beat in terms of flavour and freshness. And all ridiculously cheap too.

The music

While the treats that Mexico has to offer for the eyes, nose and tongue are always delightful, the ears get a more mixed deal. Music is everywhere in the country, and it’s not always welcome. It feels like there is no escape from it anywhere. Buses blare out frantic reggaeton and Mexican pop even at 5am. It can be hard to find a restaurant or cafe that doesn’t have someone playing live, and the ones that don’t will invariably be playing the radio or MTV loudly. Gay clubs pack out to the sounds of local pop heroes such as Gloria Trevi (the Mexican Madonna, whose life story makes the original one seem pretty tame) and Yuri. In Guadalajara Mariachis stalk the streets, and in Mazatlan it’s the huge brass bands playing Sinaloense music. Even the pharmacies for some reason always seem to have huge speakers in the doorway blasting out some form of frantic pop throughout the day. English language music is not all that popular, so it’s no surprise that I heard numerous soundalike covers of a range of US records, most odd of which was a cover of ‘Another brick in the wall’. Inexplicably most popular of all are the various styles of music from the desert states in the north of the country, immensely cheesy love songs (there appears to be some form of law that requires all Mexican songs to include the word ‘corazon’ (heart) every dozen words) played by bands of men in matching spangly cowboy suits and hats, and which always comes with an oompah-style instrumental backing that makes them sound strangely Austrian. Strangely enough I even grew to like some of it by the end, especially the rather bonkers ‘Fine fine fine, very good very good very good’, which really has to be heard to be believed:

The people

Last but not least is the people. It must be one of the friendliest countries in the world, and I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with Mexicans about their country, something they are all very passionate about. They’ve also shown me a remarkable amount of patience with me as I’ve mangled their language in my attempts to communicate in Spanish.

I definitely plan to return – Mexico City is now one of my favourite cities in the world, and I’d love to go back and spend more time there. Guanajuato is another place I could easily see myself spending more time, and I’d love to return to Oaxaca state to hike in the mountains of the Pueblos Mancomunicados, to see Monte Alban, take a cookery course and return to the beaches of Zipolite and Mazunte to relax. Plus there are still loads of places that I didn’t get to see that I want to come back for – Baja California, the Chihuahuan & Sonoran deserts, the Cañon del Sumidero in Chiapas, the whole of the Gulf Coast, El Tajin, Campeche, Taxco, Morelia and Cuernavaca to name just a few. It’ll be interesting to see if I’ve peaked early in my trip – I hope not, but it’ll take something to topple Mexico.

In case you missed any, you can find all my Mexican photos here and read all my posts from the country here.

Mexcaltitan: Home of Aztecs and Prawns

When I first read about Mexcaltitan in Lonely Planet, it sounded pretty interesting. Its main claim to fame is that it is the mytho-historical home of the Aztecs. Legend has it that before the Aztecs only arrived in the Valle de Mexico, where they founded Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City is today), after migrating from an island named Aztlan. One of the more popular theories for the location is Mexcaltitan, a tiny island in the coastal lagoons of the state of Nayarit in Mexico.

Mexcaltitan from the air

Mexcaltitan from the air

When no-one I mentioned it to, either Mexican or other travellers, had even heard of it, it made it even more of a must-see – everywhere I´d been to so far had been firmly on the tourist trail, so the chance to visit somewhere a bit more obscure was very appealing.

Now anyone who knows me will agree that I can be pretty stubborn when I want to be, even with myself, so I wasn´t going to let the fact I´d only had two hours sleep (thanks to the previous night in Mazatlan) get in the way of my plans. So despite the mother of all hangovers, I embarked on a journey that took in a three hour bus-ride from Mazatlan to Peñas, a forty minute collectivo taxi to Santiago Ixcuintla, a half hour collectivo bus to the wharf, and finally ended up packed onto a wobbly lancha for the final half hour through the lagoon to the island.

One piece of anecodotal evidence to suggest the legend is true is that Mexcaltitan has the same street plan as Tenochtitlan did – the island is divided into quarters by four roads that intersect in the centre of the isaldn to form the main square. Linking these together is a circular road that runs all the way round the island. And that´s it – it´s a tiny place that these days is inhabited by prawn fisherman, and it lives a sleepy existence largely uniterrupted by modern life.

The very simple street plan

The very simple street plan

In fact it´s so small, that after getting off the lancha, it took me all of twenty minutes to see the entire island. But what a fantastic place. The circular street is a dirt road, with pavements three feet above the road, and is called Calle Venezia, as every year in the rainy season it floods and turns into a canal.

Calle Venezia in the dry season

Calle Venezia in the dry season

In the main square sits a little museum outling the island´s fascinating history, and a pretty little church. By the looks of the visitor´s book in the museum it seemed I was the first foreign visitor for several months, and that´s just the way I liked it, despite the lack of things to see or do, it was amazingly relaxed and pretty. Here the street kids didn´t annoy me by trying to sell me stuff; instead they were just fascinated with my digital camera, insisting I take dozens of photos of them (and their pet iguanas), just for the pleasure of seeing themselves on the viewscreen, which they all found first mesmerising and then hilarious.

Friendly locals & their iguanas

Friendly locals & their iguanas

After that there was nothing to do but head to one of the island´s two restaurants, to try the local prawns. It´s a good thing I like them, as that was the only thing on the menu, both as starter and main course. For starters, I was served a plate of small prawns, fried in chili and served with the inevitable salt, lime and salsa. Seeing as they were served shell-on, I first tried to peel one, only for it to dissolve in my hands. So the only thing for it was to pop the whole thing in my mouth, head, shell and all – and they were of course, delicious. After devouring the whole plate, the next course was delicious albondigas, made of prawn rather than the usual meat. Fantastic.

The local speciality

The local speciality

The whole place was so relaxing, I lost track of time and ended up leaving later than planned, jumping on the last lancha of the day only to find that the last collectivo had left, meaning my only way back to civilisation was to hitch a lift in the back of a pick-up, perching precariously on a couple of boxes of freshly-caught prawns heading to market. Two more collectivos and yet another bus later, I finally made it to Tepic, my overnight stop on the way to meet my friends in Guadalajara. All in all I´d spent nearly ten hours travelling that day, all to see a 400m round island with nothing to do but eat prawns. And it was worth every second of it.

Congealed soup anyone?

After my third disappointing experience of Portuguese cuisine last month, I had slightly higher hopes for Polish food. Overall it wasn’t too bad – certainly not as bad as Portugal, but with none of the complexities of flavour that characterise my favourite cuisines either.

The bad

I’ll probably be offending millions of Poles (and Russians and Ukrainians too), but our experience of the national soup (Borscht) wasn’t exactly great. Sour (through fermentation) is not really my cup of tea at the best of times, but when the fat in the soup starts congealing in front of you in the cold November air, it’s really offputting.

The average

My main expectation before going was that the food would be pretty hearty and stodgy. Our experience with dumplings and Pierogy (stuffed ravioli-like dumplings) confirmed that. Nice enough, but I think we were unlucky with them, I think in the right place and the right sauce they’d be a lot nicer.

The tasty

The best thing about large-scale Polish immigration to London has been the availability of a wide range of Polish sausages in local shops. Food-wise there’s not much more I love than a bit of spicey cured pork, so getting to try the local varieties was always going to be a hit. Fresh Kabanosy were even nicer than back home. Just a shame we didn’t see more of them in the restaurants, and that I didn’t get time to try more.

Even better was discovering the Polish version of the one thing I love more than cured meat: Pizza. Called Zapiekanki, they’re basically a half baguette topped with cheese and other toppings. The perfect way to warm up and fill up after a cold day pounding the streets…or rather if it would have been if the one I ordered hadn’t had the devil’s food itself – mushrooms – sneakily hiding underneath the cheese and Polish salami. I could have cried.

Final thought on Portugal

I’ve now been to Portugal three times, and spent about three weeks there in total. I’ve seen a fair bit of the country (the Algarve, Lisbon, Sintra, Obidos, Fatima, Batalha, Nazare, Coimbra, Figueira da Foz), and I’m a big fan. When I get back I definitely intend to explore more, especially the interior, and Porto.

But there’s one thing that’s been consistently bad: the food. Other than fresh fish (which I’m not a huge fan of), and the heavenly Pasteis de Belem, virtually every meal I’ve had has been pretty ropey (and don’t even get me started on the salt cod). Most people I’ve spoken to who’ve been to Portugal feel the same.

Spanish food rivals Mexican as my favourite in the world. I don’t understand how theirs is so good, when their Iberian neighbour’s is so awful. Or have I just been extremely unlucky so far?

A Pastel de Belem, Portugals main culinary redeeming feature

A Pastel de Belem, Portugal's main culinary redeeming feature