Geographically Humble Spanish Lessons

Whether or not you have a lot of free time, do yourself a favor and learn even just a few words of another language.  You don’t need wholesome reasons to do it either– it could be to get more bread at a restaurant, finally ask that person on a date, or to make sure mechanic doesn’t muss anything else up in your car.  To boot, I don’t really speak Cantonese beyond a few travel phrases, but given its staccato nature, it’s probably my favorite language in which to curse (唔該, early ’90s Stephen Chow and Ng Man Tat movies).

Thus, counting foreign language study as one of my hobbies, I will give everyone a brief vocabulary lesson in Spanish, using as a guide humble points of interest – no, they’re more like points of no interest to anyone but me – in Mexico, El Salvador, and Cuba.

Very humble.

As an example, take this sign by a bridge, or puente, in El Salvador.  I was en route between the city of Santa Ana and Joya de Cerén, the American version of Pompeii when I saw the inferiority complex in full swing.  Or, was it just laziness?

In Spanish, río means river and sucio means dirty.  Folks, if it’s that nasty, why not make it a río limpio (clean)?  If you’re curious about how dirty it might be, plan your visit today!

Puente Cara Sucia I

Really, the dirty face bridge?!  And it has a twin?

Yes, given that we now know that puente is bridge and sucia is dirty, the new word, cara, means face.  You will find these two blips on highway 150D near the Mexican city of Córdoba in Veracruz (state), and apparently back in El Salvador, too.

Somewhere along highway 145D a bit north of the Puente Chiapas in Mexico’s Chiapas state lies this fella.  Sorry, I mean this sign laden with irony.

Puente Sin Nombre literally means “Bridge Without a Name,” so you can either wax poetic about it, or let the Chiapas government know that calling it a Bridge Without a Name gives it a name.  Or, was everyone in on it?

This one is more on point.  Bienvenidos a Campeche = Welcome to Campeche (state).  Easy.  To the left of the sign, we have “termina Yucatan,” or “the end of Yucatan (state),” and “principia Campeche,” or “the start of Campeche (state).”

Now we’re getting into the weird.  Near Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco state, we’ve got this sign; to the north, Veracruz, to the east, Uzbekistan???  No, seriously…Samarkand(a)- besides being a suburb of Villahermosa – is a Silk Road treasure found in the Central Asian republic.  Perhaps I will write about my time there one day.   Oh, right-on the above sign, “reduzca la velocidad” means “reduce the speed.”

Meanwhile, how do they expect us to get to Uzbekistan from here?

Oh, I know.  A Cuban bus.

Cuban bus, near Viñales, “Transporting to the Future”

A Tale of Six Ceviche (in Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru)

Ceviche (seh-VEE-chay) – or, is it cebiche? – is one of Peru’s most famous culinary exports, though its origins are indeed a mystery.  It might have stemmed from the Incas, who discovered that chicha, or fermented maize, could help preserve seafood.  Perhaps it was the Spanish conquistadors from Andalusia, who introduced different citruses such as lime and orange to the region.  Or, did the Japanese, after their first wave of emigration to Peru in 1899, lend a hand in ceviche’s modern-day presentation?

No matter who created it, ceviche is one of my all-time favorite seafood dishes.  But, just like how pizza comes in many forms, the definition of ceviche is wide open to interpretation.

Though many countries in Latin America may make a claim to similar seaside fare, Peru’s is undoubtedly the most celebrated:

Whereas these days there are countless cevichería dotting Lima’s culinary scene, the classic way is to mix up diced fish, salt, chilies, red onion, and lime juice, with that last one added to cook the fish. Finally, place camote – sweet potato on one side, and corn on other.

And now the question you’ve all been wondering…what do you do with the spicy lime juice mixture after you’ve gulped down the ceviche?  In Peru, that delicious stuff is called leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), and can be consumed as a shot; it’s often though of as a cure for resaca, or hangovers.

Now that we know about the standard ceviche, what could anyone possibly want to change with the recipe, especially with something called tiger’s milk?

On that note, let’s switch national capitals, from Lima, Peru to Quito, Ecuador.  Ecuador has some really tasty meals, too, but their typical ceviche tends to have a tomato sauce-base (sometimes ketchup) and shrimp, and is served with popcorn and/or plantain chips:

What these two bowls might lack in aesthetic value, they more than made up for it in flavor!  Still, ketchup in ceviche…I hope it was used sparingly.  But, this does help me transition to the next country on our ceviche trip through Latin America, Mexico…

Why am I skipping over places like Colombia, Cuba, and Chile?  Simple…I haven’t tried ceviche in them.  Also, I could save the “three Cs” for another post.  Gotta strategize!

Moving on to one of my top three food countries, I had a friend in the state of Veracruz who found great joy in showing off her country’s food.  Who am I to argue?  In the case of the first photo, we tried a marisquería (mariscos = seafood) called Mariscos El Bayo.  On the menu, besides freshly caught crab were shrimp ceviche tostadas (tostada = big toasted tortilla):

Whoa, whoa, now they’re taking the liquid aspect away, and instead placing a slice of avocado?  Mixed feelings, to be sure.  Why can’t we have the avocado in EVERY ceviche – even if they are native to Mexico – AND get some piquant leche de tigre action?

Huh?  Now, you’ve taken away the avocado, used a very sweet tomato sauce, but raised the bar with a whole glut of different seafood?  That’s right, at Coctelería Cajun, in Ciudad del Carmen in the state of Campeche, shrimp and octopus are the norm.  Can’t complain about that.  Plus, it had oysters, crab, squid, and snail; no wonder it was called Vuelva a la Vida, or “{it} brings you back to life!”

By this point, you might be thinking, the ceviche looks great and all, but I furl my brow at these inexpensive-looking wares and utensils.  Popcorn, harrumph!

Fine.  I’ve saved the boujee – but equally scrumptious – ceviche for the last.  Enter, Agua & Sal, a cebichería located in the upmarket Polanco district of Mexico City.  They have delectable Peruvian and Mexican offerings of ceviche, as well as separate fish and seafood dishes.  Although I did try Agua & Sal’s mainstay Peruvian ceviche, and an excellent plate of scallops, I will highlight their cebiche a la leña:

Taking ceviche to another level, the leña, or firewood, lended a smoky, earthy flavor to the shrimp and róbalo, or sea bass, and the red onions and chile rayado (dried, smoked chile) salsa provided the welcome heat.  Really, I would go back in a heartbeat to any of these six places, and Agua & Sal…is no exception.


I hope that you’ve learned a bit more about the varying styles of ceviche today, and maybe you could even share where you’ve had your best plate, no matter where in the world it was!

2021 Pandemic Travel, from Mexico to Mexico (with a Brief Border Crossing Guide)

During a stint in Chicago a few years ago, I found that Frontier Airlines offered some really good deals to/from Harlingen, Texas (airport code HRL), close to the Mexican border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros.   Then, from one of those cities, it’s a cheap flight to where ever else in Mexico.

Selling corn by Reynosa’s main bus station, Mexico

Yes, why not escape those sultry winters for which Illinois is so famous?

Now, some might say those Mexican border cities don’t have the greatest reputation for safety.  The same could be said about many US cities.  Those two sentences don’t cancel each other out, but I also don’t wander around sporting ostentatious jewelry, Mamiya cameras, or Señor Frog’s apparel.

Having already become familiar with crossing from Reynosa to Hidalgo/McAllen multiple times, and then once from Matamoros to Brownsville, I felt comfortable testing the Texas border again last month, after having been in Mexico for a few weeks.

Even more amusing?  My destination*: Mexico, Missouri.

Now, to address the elephant in the room, as of January 26th, 2021, all international flights landing in the US require passengers to show negative COVID-19 test results, with few exceptions.  However, land borders are exempt from this.  I booked my ticket to Mexico before this was announced, and only ever book one-ways.

After a pleasant and delicious part-business/part-leisure trip to Mexico, it came time to say “hasta la próxima,” or until next time.  First stop, Reynosa, via Mexico City.

The new Reynosa terminal had just opened a few days prior, and it was certainly a world of difference from the older claustrophobic structure.  I guess it comes down to business people visiting maquiladoras, or mostly tariff- and duty-free factories, often near the US border.   From leaving the plane to hopping in a 280 peso taxi (pre-paid; I asked for a receipt, but they didn’t “have” any) to the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge. it took all of 30 minutes.  Not bad.

Once you’re deposited at the pedestrian bridge, you will find a number of dentists and pharmacies, extant primarily for Texans scouting cheaper prices.  It’s a bit grimy, though, and food options weren’t plentiful.  Though, I did manage to score some tasty parting steak tacos:

Found on Calle Zaragoza, I think this order of six tacos cost less than 50 pesos!

I grant you that hygiene practices were a little suspect, but I will be damned if I wasn’t going to get one more Mexican meal before leaving to fast-foodsville.

Once you’re ready to cross to Texas, you can amble up the white gently-inclining wheelchair/luggage-accessible pedestrian bridge in the plaza.  Note: you will need to have a 5 peso coin (or I think 25 cents) to exit Mexico, although they do not have any exit formalities other than a turnstile.

Having done this trip a few times, I can’t estimate how long it would take to cross.  The average wait time for me was ~45 minutes, but you may want to take into consideration customs officers taking lunch breaks, weekends, holidays, etc.

Once on the Texas side – called Hidalgo – there’s…not much.  Duty free shops, comida corrida (fast food), shady taxis, and vans.  Luckily, Lyft operates in the area, and can whisk you away to the nearest large city, McAllen, and its convenient airport (airport code MFE):

Earlier, I said that my destination was Mexico, Missouri.  That’s partially true.  I was visiting family in the St. Louis-area, and wanted to drive around a bit, looking for really local bbq.  Noticing Mexico on the map, I made it so.

Going from this…

to this…

You might ask, why would you ever want to leave the southerly Mexico for this one?

Well, I have prepared a rejoinder, just for you: “I don’t know.”

I’d rather be in Reynosa

You see, there was talk of a giant tater tot stuffed with barbecue at one restaurant, and the fallback across the street sounded just as good.  Alas, due to a combination of the pandemic, and restaurants not updating their search engine details, no bbq for me.  And to throw salt in the wound, the best edible I could find in the area (i.e. that was open) was a sweet peanut corn flake snack from a chain store:

Taco, eat your heart out:(

The moral of the story? Crossing the Mexico-US land border = piece of cake, visiting Mexico, Missouri = better to go when it doesn’t look like the rapture just took place.

Local Drinks: Tejate and Pozontle (Oaxaca, Mexico)

I’ve trumpeted Mexico’s outstanding food before, but how about their drinks?  Does their array of natural juices, Prehispanic concoctions, liquors, and Jarritos nicely complement Mexican cuisine?  Yes, quite often, I must say!

On the topic of indigenous beverages, let’s look at a couple – tejate, and pozontle – which both originate in the present-day state of Oaxaca.

Fantasy: It’s a food market in Mexico, I am invincible!
Reality: It’s a food market (in Mexico), throw good hygiene to the wind.

Yes, tejate, the first of today’s two Pre-Columbian (before Christopher Columbus) drinks, is often seen in vats at markets and bazaars in Oaxaca.  Centuries before the Aztecs, the Zapotec peoples of contemporary Oaxaca were enjoying tejate.  Its ingredients include water, toasted corn, pixtle (ground roasted mamey pits; incidentally, pitztli means bone or seed in the Aztec language Nahuatl), fermented cacao beans, and cacao flowers.  The cacao was most likely introduced to Oaxaca from Chiapas state in Mexico through early bartering.

Generally, it is served in a bowl made of jícara, an inedible fruit from the calabash tree:

The Jícara Tree

I consider tejate a light and very frothy drink, a bit bitter and not too sweet.  Though there are indeed, differences in flavors, I had a similar opinion regarding the less well-known Oaxacan beverage, pozontle.

On a visit to a random market in Oaxaca, I stumbled upon La Pozontoleria, a small kiosk serving up this foamy and slightly sweet “shake” more easily found at rural wedding ceremonies in traditional hillside Oaxacan pueblos (towns).

Pozontle’s four more recognizable ingredients are water, panela (unrefined cane sugar), and ground specks of cacao and corn.  The cacao and corn are rolled into little spheres, which are then dissolved in panela water.  The fifth ingredient, called cocolmécatl, is a vine in the Smilax genus that when ground, causes the rest of the pozontle mixture to foam.


Many of us might be quite familiar with Mexican dishes.  But when it comes to Prehispanic drinks, that’s an entirely different world worth discovering.

Language Learning on the Road, Guanajuato-Style (Mexico)

And you thought you came here to learn Spanish…

On the way to the small but bustling city of Guanajuato, capital of the eponymous state – known for silver mines and narrow streets – I noticed that some road signs on the outskirts were written in three languages– Spanish, English, and Japanese.

マジですか (maji desu ka- really?)

Is it that hordes of newlywed Japanese tourists are lining up to consummate their marriage at El Callejón del Beso (aka The Alley of the Kiss)?

違います! (chigaimasu – wrong!)

It’s all about the auto industry.

On January 1, 1994 NAFTA, the tripartite free-trade agreement involving Mexico, the US, and Canada, came into effect. In short (i.e. for the purposes of this post), globalization swung Mexico’s lower-cost and less-regulated doors wide-open to manufacturing. (On July 1, 2020 NAFTA morphed into the USMCA, though many of NAFTA’s original provisions still ring true.)

GM opened its first plant in Guanajuato soon after NAFTA was introduced. Years later, other countries such as Germany and Japan followed, with VW, Mazda, and Toyota as the primary brands. This is in addition to the maquiladoras, foreign-run factories, often by the US-Mexico border, which typically produce goods for the company’s home base.

Thus, with the increase in Japanese car firms in the state came the need for Japanese engineers, technicians, and executives, some with families. In 2016, a Japanese consulate opened in León, Guanajuato’s largest city, to serve the thousands of recent expats in Guanajuato and nearby states. Since 2009, more than 80 Japanese companies have been established in Guanajuato alone, hence the need for a consulate.

Now, given that Mexico is also known for coffee, perhaps coffee ramen isn’t too far off?

Oaxaca’s Crunchy Tlayuda (Mexico)

Mexico, thus far, is one of my three favorite countries in which to eat –the other two being Japan and Turkey.  During my brief time in Southern California, I used to cross over to Tijuana just to get a series of lunches, and then overdo it by chomping on churros while waiting to get back in the US.

CHURROS, at the San Ysidro Border Crossing

After meeting some affable Mexican folks in my travels, my awareness of regional Mexican cuisines grew, as we started taking road trips throughout their delicious country.  I will cover more of these stories in later posts, but for now, we’re going to take a look at the tlayuda, the Oaxacan specialty that might count pizza as a distant relative…all the way in Italy.

In Oaxaca, the word tlayuda generally refers to a fried or toasted giant corn tortilla.   They were first consumed in Prehispanic times — that is, before Hernán Cortés started marauding civilizations in the 1500s; in the native Nahuatl language, tlayuda is derived from tlao-li, or husked corn, and uda, or abundance.

Tlayuda are eaten either with granulated sugar, or with any number of savory ingredients…

Tlayuda at El Milenario (Restaurant), Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

Time for the good stuff!  Savory tlayuda are first, smothered in a mix of refried beans and pork lard, the latter called asiento.  Then…whatever!  For the one above, I ordered it with ground chorizo, squash blossoms, quesillo (Oaxaca cheese; roughly similar to mozzarella), radishes, avocados, tomatoes, and a couple of flora unique to the region.

On the left, the green pod (and its seeds) is called guaje.  Although the pod is inedible, the seeds have an eclectic flavor profile, something of a grassy pumpkin seed.  More importantly, the guaje, being plentiful in the region during the time of Cortés, lent present-day Oaxaca its name.  Since the Spanish couldn’t pronounce Huāxyacac, the Nahuatl word for the plant, they abridged it to become Oaxaca.  So much easierright???

And on the right, pipicha, or chepiche.  Does it bear a striking resemblance to tarragon?  Yes…but the flavor is more like a citrus cilantro, with a hint of minty licorice.  Used by Aztecs and other ancient tribes to treat the liver, pipicha also are high in antioxidants, and can be used to cleanse the palate after a meal.  I felt that the flavor was quite strong, so I would recommend using it sparingly.


What would you put on your ideal tlayuda?

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways (Mérida, México)

Two years ago, I took a road trip with some friends around southeastern Mexico, starting and ending in Orizaba, Veracruz, ultimately getting as far as Cancun.  As I may have mentioned before, Mexico – thus far – is one of my top three countries for eating…thus, I was not only looking forward to exploring more of the country with locals, but also to trying new and familiar foods along the way.

For instance, there’s chocolate.  I’ve wondered why Mexican chocolate doesn’t get much attention around the world, in spite of being the ancestral home of Theobroma cacao, the Latin name for the original cacao tree.  Of course, colonial empires and globalization have played a role in spreading the harvesting of cacao throughout many tropical countries, namely the Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

Fast forward to my road trip, and the city of Mérida, located in the state of Yucatan.  Although counting nearly one million inhabitants in its metro area, its downtown area has a cozy feel to it.  Mérida is hot year-round, has boulevards lined with mansions built almost entirely thanks to rope, and owing to Mayan tradition, unique foods found nowhere else in México.

Plus, due to its recognition as being one of the safest cities in the country and with that, a sizable expat population, they’ve got some fine places eat and drink.  Places like Ki’XOCOLATL, a small chocolate shop adjacent to Santa Lucia Park.

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways, Ki’XOCOLATL (from left to right, “brown sugar, cinnamon, achiote, allspice, and habanero;” honey is in the container on the central plate)

Though there are some debates as to the origins of the word chocolate, it no doubt stems from Nahuatl, a language spoken for centuries in rural parts of central Mexico; xocolia means “to make bitter,” and atl refers to “water.”

When it was first discovered nearly 4000 years ago by pre-Olmec cultures, it was consumed in its naturally bitter state, ground into a paste with water.  Subsequent civilizations started to add in what was organically found at the time in Mexican jungles and rain forests, namely honey, chilies, and vanilla.

After a long stroll through downtown Merida, I wanted to sit down and relax with some sweets.  Ki’XOCOLATL offered hot chocolate, two ways, I as I deem it.  The first method was the contemporary style, sweetened with sugar.  The latter, evoking how Olmecs and Mayans may have enjoyed it, started off by merely being the bitter cacao seed heated up with water.  The waiter served it alongside honey, brown sugar, achiote – a yellow-orange seed typically used to add color to foods, allspice, habanero, and cinnamon, although cinnamon hails from Sri Lanka.

Although the ancient hot chocolate took a bit of getting used to, I admit that the modern one was the best cup of it I have ever tried.


Where have you tried your favorite cup of hot chocolate?  Whether it was in Mexico or somewhere else, let me know!

Three Tamales and a Cup of Atole in Atzacan, Mexico

As of today – and since many years back – my top three countries for food, in no order, are Mexico, Turkey, and Japan.  There are plenty of countries out there with excellent eats, and I’m still missing what I believe to be heavy-hitters in the culinary world (the biggest one being Iran), but for a variety of factors, those three places are tops.

Thus, having friends or family in those destinations also works out swimmingly.  Whether it’s local knowledge, language help, or having someone who doesn’t mind mouthing off to line-jumpers, you will cherish the experience.

Case-in-point, let’s take a brief look at the city of Atzacan, located in Mexico’s Veracruz state.

Downtown Atzacan

Last year, with friend who called the region home, I visited the small municipality of Atzacan.  For those linguists out there, the name Atzacan derives from three Náhuatl (a group including the Aztecs) words— atl, or water, tzaqua, or stop, and can, or place; in other words, “the place where the water stops.”

Founded in 1825, Atzacan is best known for its maize (corn) and beans, as well as an annual festival in April celebrating Santa Ana (Saint Anne), its patroness saint.

Beans Vendor at a Food Market in Downtown Atzacan

Of course, we were there to eat.  Given the spectacularly diverse terrain in this part of Mexico – among sloping hills and tropical valleys, volcanoes and thus, fertile soil also pepper the landscape – my friend was tipped off about tamales and atole as being local specialties.

This was a cool find for at least a trio of reasons.  One, it’s Mexican food, so it’s mostly likely going to be delicious.  Two, it’s a locavore’s delight.  And three, my tamale knowledge was woefully limited until that day.

Although the tamal can be found in countless forms stretching from Mexico to Chile, I couldn’t believe how many types there were just in Atzacan!  Given how filling tamales are, we only sampled a few:

Chocolate Tamal, Strawberry Tamal, and a Cup of Corn Atole (not seen, the Rapidly Devoured Coconut Tamal)

Again, given the terroir of the region surrounding Atzacan, ingredients as diverse as berries, chocolate, coconut, pineapple, bananas, and many other things could be mixed in with the masa, or nixtamalized corn dough, to prepare the tamal.

As for the atole, the hot drink made of masa, cinnamon, water, and often raw cane sugar (piloncillo), it’s a particularly heavy pairing with tamales, though no less tasty.  Over time, atoles, too  have come to be prepared with guavas, pineapple, nuts, and other naturally sweet ingredients…though its most famous cousin, champurrado, is made with masa, water, and chocolate.

My short visit to Atzacan was something of an eye-opener.  Not only did it provide more context to the breadth of super-local Mexican cuisine, but it also made me appreciate a bit more places that take pride in what they produce for themselves.


Have you visited Atzacan, or anywhere in the state of Veracruz?  Are you a fan of tamales and atoles?