Standing on the steps of the Moon Pyramid with a view over the main plaza, with the Sun Pyramid behind us

Surprisingly, there’s only about three months left of our time abroad, living in Panama. With Christine on a teacher’s schedule, we don’t have much time to get away from the city and travel internationally – but in devoutly Catholic, Latin American countries, Easter can provide that opportunity for a vacation!

Our original plan was to put a new country under our collective belt – Nicaragua. Christine had a fellow Language Fellow friend living in the capitol city of Managua, so we quickly arranged a 4 day trip that covered Managua and the nearby tourist central of Granada. We were quite excited to see the nearby Masaya semi-active volcano, which Christine’s friend pointed out was only 15km from his home. Oh good! Everyone is okay with this, right? Nicaraguans don’t mind having bubbling lava cauldrons within murder-range of their homes? No? Okay then.

But obviously, the title says Mexico City and pyramids, not Nicaragua and volcanoes. So what happened? We were all set the morning of March 28th; we got to PTY airport with plenty of time, relaxed in our Priority Pass lounge with some complimentary drinks, and ambled casually to the gate when we figured it was about time to do so. The attendants at the gate scanned our tickets and then asked us to show our Yellow Fever certifications.

Wait, what? What certification?

Our hearts started to thump a bit as we stepped out of line and waited for a specialist to come over from her office to speak with us. A couple minutes later, we were told that Nicaragua requires a certification of health, stamped by the World Health Organization at least 10 days prior or more, verifying that you’ve received the Yellow Fever vaccination…if you’re coming from Panama or 11 other countries. We had thought that we had done our due diligence by looking up the CDC advisory page for Nicaragua. As you can see, it doesn’t even mention Yellow Fever, much less that its vaccination is mandated. But of course, that page doesn’t say anything about the requirement, because it’s written for Americans arriving from the USA. If we had searched for Panamanians traveling to Nicaragua, we would have found this page and things would have gone much differently. But we had failed to do our proper research, and now, there would be no trip to Nicaragua, no volcanoes, and no vacation. A lump rose in my throat as I stared down at my now-worthless boarding pass. We left the airport, found a Diablo Rojo bus and sat in thoughtful, frustrated silence for the two hour ride back to the apartment.

Christine, to her immense credit, didn’t give up. After three hours on a shaky VoIP phone call to Chase’s support line (she had purchased both our tickets via Chase’s travel portal) we discovered that we’d be able to get a complete refund in Copa Airline credits, valid for one year…complete, minus a $100 per ticket penalty. It was far better than we’d expected, though, and we quickly cast about online, searching for plane tickets for Friday, the 29th, that wouldn’t break our limited budget.

There was basically nothing, though. Panama might be a central travel hub for Latin America, but it’s a business hub… there’s no “last minute” cheap seats available anywhere. The only affordable option that kept coming up was Mexico City, where we’d be able to only spend an extra $220 for each ticket, on top of our credit, for a weekend getaway. We reasoned with ourselves though, that at least housing and food would be cheap – it’s Mexico City, after all!

So, the wheels of vacation turned in our favor thanks to Christine’s patience on the phone, and we were on a 9am flight to Mexico the next day. It would be her sixth time visiting the country, and my second… I loved the food and friendliness of the Mexicans on our visit to Oaxaca in 2015, so why not turn our disappointment from losing out on Nicaragua to excitement for the opportunity to visit one of the largest, most ancient cities in the world?

What kind of meat goes into tacos that you’re paying 17 cents apiece for? ….chicken and sausage, of course. Geez, they’re running a legitimate business here.

Mere minutes after leaving the MEX airport, we found a covered market next to the metro and the chance to eat 5 tacos for 15 pesos… about 90 cents or so. Although we’d be later teased that there was no way the chorizo and chicken in those tacos was safe to consume at those prices, they were slathered in onions, cilantro, and tomatillo sauce, so we were in heaven. Tacos in Panama City, for comparison, are usually one taco for $2.50, and that’s if you’re lucky. Have I mentioned before that Panama City is an insanely expensive place to get food? It is.

After checking in at the AirBnb of the wonderful Fabrizio and Mariana (we definitely recommend these two as friendly, hip young people with a cute little apartment) we immediately set off again to see if there was any sort of Easter-related activities we could partake in. Fabrizio told us that down in Itzatapalapa (I love the names of barrios and regions around the Central Mexico area) there might be a Passion reenactment going on, if we hurried. Well, we were too late for that (missed it by 15 minutes) but it turned out the main street of the barrio was athrong with people for a street carnival and fair. We found out that in Mexico City, Easter is such a huge holiday that kids are given two entire weeks off from school – the weeks before and after the holiday itself. We wandered the packed streets, eating cheap tacos all the way and examining the cheap (safe? maybe) rides and cheap trinkets that you could win with familiar shooting and ring toss style games. We rode an extremely fast Ferris wheel and while it was great at first, I found myself wondering if perhaps I had eaten too much cheap Mexican street food beforehand…

All officially licensed from the appropriate authorities, of course

There were so many things for sale next to the carnival – besides food of course, there was thousands of pieces of reddish pottery (which we saw in restaurants everywhere), wooden ladles at least a meter long (for stirring what, we wondered), all kinds of little plastic knickknacks from China, but more heartwarmingly, dozens of types of different little wooden children’s toys that looked hand made… perhaps cheaply made, and quickly, but wooden handmade toys for just a few dollars. Also, fried and spiced locusts! I remembered seeing those both in Jordan and Oaxaca the last time we visited.

At first I thought this might have been a temporary, paper maché addition for Easter… But nope, it’s steel and welded right onto the pedestrian walkway!

After a breakfast of fresh baked bread from Fabrizio the next morning, Christine and I took a bus from Estación Autobuses del Norte to one of México City’s most famous tourist sites – the ancient city of Teotiuacan. The line to purchase bus tickets stretched back for 20 meters and the buses themselves seemed to be arriving, filling in 15 minutes, and then speeding off with a cough of that famous Mexico City pollution. The ride itself was short, only 45 minutes, but we were all deposited a good half mile away from the entrance to the site at the side of the road and told to just walk a bit further up the path. Seeing the slow moving line of cars trying to get into the actual parking lot ahead of us, it seemed like this was probably a better option for both tourists and driver.

Another half an hour waiting in the entrance line (this would become a recurring theme on this, a holiday weekend in one of the world’s most packed cities) and having paid our 70 peso entrance fee, and we were free to wander the dusty paths of the archeological site. Hundreds of vendors had set up bags by the paths, or were even wearing their entire commercial ventures on their backs. Most of the items for sale were common trinkets like bracelets, shawls, and little statues, but I had been hearing an eerie sound for the past hour and was curious to figure out what was making it.

Mateo the jaguar seller

It turned out that the craftsmen had developed what I will call, in absence the knowledge of its proper name, the Jaguar Whistle. About the size of a fist (the medium sized one; they also came maybe 2 centimeters larger and smaller for plus or minus thirty pesos each way), it was brightly painted and sculpted as the snarling head of a jaguar, sometimes as a jaguar headdress with the scowling face of a warrior peering through the teeth. My chosen vendor, Mateo, was a good salesman and quickly taught me how to blow through one not with a straight breath, but with a buzzing “frtrtrtrtrt” roll through your teeth. The shape of the whistle shapes and deepens your breath and makes it sound just like a big cat’s raspy snarl. I’d never seen one before, and promptly paid my 100 pesos to receive a freshly painted (and smelly) new whistle. Mateo pointed out that all the vendors worked overtime to shape and paint thousands of new items right before major holidays, knowing that the tourist sites would see easily 10 times the usual amount of foot traffic, hence the sharp smell of the paint; the item I was holding had been made just yesterday. Well, no better way to help that paint dry faster then to blow on it constantly, much to Christine’s delight!

Praise the Sun!

Christine and I are more thrifty than educationally enlightened when it comes to most archeological ruin sites: we don’t pay for a guide or usually even a pamphlet (although we will take a free map if offered), we just make a beeline for the biggest, coolest looking thing we can see from the front gate. And in this case, it’s the Pyramid of the Sun. Wikipedia calls it the third largest known pyramid in the world (by volume, not height) with the largest being a massive step pyramid, also in Mexico, and the second being the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Oh well, at least I’ve seen two out of three now. The line was gigantic, and took about 1.5 hours to wait through (surrounded by Mexican children attempting to use their own jaguar whistles but only getting sad wisps of air through it; they hadn’t had the benefit of Mateo’s teachings so I showed a couple of them the proper blowing method. Their parents looked as thrilled as Christine!), carefully parsing our shared bottle of water and trying to keep our skin either covered by jackets or slathered in sunblock. Mexico City is at one of the highest altitudes I’ve ever been at, and the combination of thinner atmosphere and dry air was already wrecking havoc on us.

The moon pyramid, as seen from the steps of the Sun

By the time we got down the steep flanks of the Pyramid (so steep they had police officers helping people climb down the steps, and the “exit” steps were almost as slow-going as the “entry” steps due to cautious climbers) it was almost 2, so we mosied over to the Moon Pyramid at the end of the “Avenue of the Dead.” No one knows who the original builders and inhabitants of this religious complex were; even the name Teotiuacan was given by awestruck later cultures when the site was found again and is not the original name; it means something along the lines of The Place Where Men Become Gods, with the idea that any humans who could have built such impressive edifices must have been deified and raised into the heavens as a reward for their prowess. The names Sun and Moon Pyramid, likewise, are not original. Avenue of the Dead, though, seems a little silly and “edgy” for it to sound original; at least the Sun and Moon Pyramids are believable names!

We weren’t allowed to climb to the top of the smaller Moon Pyramid, only to a platform about halfway up it,  but its position at the far end of the site allowed for some good pictures looking down the Avenue with all the little temples and the Sun Pyramid proudly overseeing.

That night, back at our Airbnb, the four of us were chatting together when the electricity suddenly went out on the entire block. It seemed like as good an excuse as any for us all to go and find a pub, so we took a half hour walk along the Paseo Reforma main Street to Regina Street, a pedestrian walkway with a lot of trendy little bars and nightclubs. I had the opportunity to try a locally made Imperial Porter which was expensive by Mexican standards (120 pesos or $6.66 at the moment) but was delicious. Christine tried a “Curada” which is pulque, a common Mexican fermented cactus water, mixed with a flavor of your choosing. After we tried Fabrizio and Marianas pitcher of Curada Zapote (mixed with the jet black and sweet zapote fruit) Christine thought that the Avena (oatmeal) one sounded good. Well, one thing was for sure, we definitely got more of the pulque flavor coming through on that one – but not to poor Christine’s benefit. Soon afterward Fab and Mariana caught us all a taxi home so she could lie down and rest her churning stomach.

Sympathizing with Christine’s upset stomach, Fabrizio cooked us an authentic Italian dinner at 1am!

The next morning was Easter Sunday and also April Fool’s day, so we began the day by heading to the Historic District of the city and seeing the almost completely destroyed ruins of the great temple of Tenochtilan, the Aztec/Mexica city that the Spanish “Nuevo España” had been founded on top of. Of course, Catholic Europeans would not have missed a chance to humiliate their captive locals, so after razing the great temple down to its foundations, they built an ostentatiously massive cathedral right next to it to send all their new converted-by-the-sword Mexica subjects to. My own obvious feelings on colonialism aside, the cathedral was quite beautiful on the inside and we listened to a sermon in progress for a few minutes from the rear galleries. There were police officers standing beyond the gallery making sure that tourists didn’t try to get unholy on the place and proceed any further to take more pictures and be inadvertently disruptive.

Outside the cathedral, however, some native people were holding a worship service of their own to Queztalacotl. Sans sacrifices, thankfully.

We caught the excellent Mexican metro from the Historic district down to the main central park of the city, where we had a relaxing 20 minute walk with several thousand of our new close friends, enjoying their holiday. Street clowns were out in force, drawing large crowds and bringing up children from them to pantomime with. Vendors of course were everywhere (sunglasses for 10 cents, anyone?) and people were walking more dogs than I think I’ve seen in half a year in Panama city.

nom nom nom statuary

Our destination was INAH, the national anthropology museum that we’d heard good things about. Admission was 70 pesos yet again (seems to be a common foreigner price in the city) and free for the locals on Sundays, so once again, the place was packed. The museum is laid out into 3 two story buildings, facing toward a sunny inner courtyard with a pool, with each of the three buildings covering a different period – the ancient pre-historical, the pre-Mexica cultures like the Toltec and Mayan, and then the last building being reserved for the most recent and final native culture, the Mexica (which most people know as the Aztec). Of course there are a lot more relics from that latter culture since it only ended 400 years ago vs thousands.

While perusing a time line of the Mexica’s wanderings, I noticed a Matt Groening cartoon on it! What are the chances…

While the majority of the relics and items being presented didn’t have English translations of their signs, Christine knows me well enough after a decade that she knew what I’d find interesting and translated for me if she thought I’d like something. Also, the larger signs introducing groups of exhibits together were usually written in both Spanish and English so every time we entered a new area, I’d immediately scout out its English signs so I’d have at least a basic idea of what was going on, and whether or not I should stay and turn my puppy dog “please translate” eyes on Christine. Overall, I’d say that for $3.86 the museum is definitely worth seeing for any English-only gringo that might find themselves in the city, and if you’re fluent in Spanish, it’s a must-see. We didn’t even have time to check out the second floors in each building or walk around much in the outdoor exhibits!

Oh don’t you worry, Teotiuacan, I hadn’t forgotten about YOU since yesterday…

There was enough time left in the evening to grab some delicious plates of mole-drenched tacos and some savory Micheladas (ingredients: 20 oz of dark beer, a half ounce of worcestershire sauce, and a salted rim – oddly addictive!) at the nearby Los Panchos restaurant and catch a bus back home. Tomorrow afternoon we’d be catching our flight back to Panama – and hoping that the country hadn’t initiated a yellow fever certification requirement while we were gone!

Well, at least we got to see Nicaragua from a distance (that’s the main lake in the country, with its two main volcanic islands in the middle)