Like most border crossing, I did a little research prior to make sure things would go smoothly. Making mistakes at a border crossing is never a good thing. Weighing heavily on my mind was the somewhat odd requirements put forward on Mexico tourists (not counting the weekend border crossers). The FMT is basically like a tourist visa. It is given to tourists who are looking to spend more than a few days in Mexico or those who are heading farther inland than the frontier zone (20-30kms inland from the border). I had received a blank FMT when I entered from Guatemala and left it blank, in my passport. I had been asked for my passport a couple of times while traveling around on buses and I guess one of them did give me a stamp as I did have it authorized. The only other catch to the FMT is that you are required to pay @$22US as a fee. What makes it kind of weird is that you are required to pay the fee at one of the national banks not at an immigration office. You get a receipt and when you leave you hand the FMT and the receipt in as proof of fulfillment. Well, as it is one of those things that are not required immediately, I of course did nothing until it was time to leave and I needed it. The day before I left I Googled it and found a bunch of info posted by people with all their points of views. In general I gleened that it wasn’t something that could easily be avoided so I decided that maybe I should take care of this rather than waiting until the last minute. Heading into a couple of banks and receiving the “what the hell is that (but in Spanish)”, I just said screw it and figured that at worse I handed the $22 to anyone who would take it and who would let me pass to the other side.
Even though this was to be my last border crossing, San Ysidro (the opposing border town in the US) is not my parents address so therefore I had to figure out how I was going to get from Southern California to Central California. There are not too many chicken buses plying the routes, but I learned there was something close, Greyhound. It was no different, I kept myself in travel mode and looked at all my options in not only getting to Fresno, but also how I would get from the drop off point to my parents house which was way far from any terminals. The general route for most travelers was to cross, jump on the San Diego Trolley and once arriving in San Diego split off from there. Back to day one, my plan had always been to cross from Tijuana and then take an Amtrak train home (thats kinda different). I really wanted to employ this plan but the route would have required taking the trolley from the border to San Diego, grabbing an Amtrak train that would only reach Los Angeles, switch to a bus to Bakersfield (over the mountains, no trains), and then switch back to a train for the last of the stretch to Fresno. Way too much work for somebody who is all over the “fun” of hectic traveling. Another option was a flight from San Diego to Fresno, but being that I am a “hardcore” traveler (or at least used to be), there was no way that I was going to end my trip on a freaking plane. Another huge factor was the time frame. Most transportation with the exception of the plane ended up arriving in Fresno at night which is not a good idea especially when the transport hubs for Fresno are in somewhat sketchy areas at night. I seesawed between sleeping in the bus terminal until morning, paying $50 for an overpriced fleabag hotel, or god help me, a night bus which would arrive first thing in the morning and would make it possible for me to use public transport to get to my parents house. So in the end I booked a night bus on Greyhound leaving in the afternoon right at the border. So, in general, I had the day to waste time so I spent a lot of time at an internet cafe and eating fish tacos.
As evening approached I decided I would leave a couple of hours earlier than planned to compensate for some huge border fiasco that would occur when I tried to cross without my paid FMT. The Tijuana border is the most active border crossing in the world, so I was banking on them having some sort of emergency plan for when somebody didn’t know about the whole FMT thing.
Now, most border points that I have crossed followed a pretty basic order. You go to the current countries Immigration office and get your passport stamped “out”. Next you walk over to the new countries Immigration office and get your passport stamped “in”. My plan was that upon arrival at the Mexico Immigration I could plead ignorance (not exactly difficult) and get this FMT thing worked out. I had even worked it out so I had the exact amount in Pesos stashed in my back pocket so there would be a minimal amount of time necessary. I had walked the route the prior day so I knew the way to the Immigration areas, but had not gone down the sidewalk to see how things worked. I checked the guidebook map and got the spot where the Mexico Immigration office was so I felt a little bit more comfortable walking across the bridge and through the ramps to where lines of people were waiting. For some reason though, things didn’t feel right. My traveler sense is pretty good and so I started trying to figure out what was going on. Just following the walkway, there is no detours so its not like you can get lost of take a wrong turn. I didn’t pass any offices of Mexico flag waving buildings, but the area where everybody was standing in line sure was close to where the cars were passing over to the US side. As there was a pretty long line I had time to re-read the guide book and look at the map. I also asked a couple of people at different stages of waiting if this was the line for Mexico Immigration (in Spanish although one kid didn’t understand me and his mom had to answer, stupid Americans don’t know Spanish), and they all said yea, this is it. So, we moved forward and came to the gates. Beyond the gates was a big brick building and from what I could tell it sure looked like the border check point. Okay, I wrote it off as maybe they had both Immigration offices in one building as I have seen that before. Once we entered the building I noticed that the signing was in English and some combinations. It was odd because the English was the first and larger text and I thought that was a bit nice of the Mexican Government. Then I started to notice that the guards and officers working in the building had American flag badges on. Hmmm. Why would the Mexican Government allow US personnel to just wander around in their section. When we turned the corner I saw American Immigration control. Now, that was sort of not good and possibly really good. Somehow I had missed Mexico Immigration even though there was no way I could have missed it. I figured I was busted, but oh well, stupid tourist is my specialty so I got my stupid tourist face on and gave my passport to the officer. She asked what I was bringing in to the US and I told her tourist crap. She handed my passport back and I headed towards the glass door. I figured it would lead to some sort of second check point like at the airport, but when I pushed through the glass doors, I was outside. I had unwittingly scammed the Mexico government out of $22US. Whoo hooo. What a way to end my trip scamming and saving. America was going to be alright.
Good old Tijuana, or I guess now, poor old Tijuana. Much like everywhere else, the economy has ripped it a new one. Being a thursday though so I hope that maybe the weekend picks up a bit. Towards the evening there seemed like a lot more camera toting tourists so possible instead of being a rip roaring 24/7, lose all your inhibitions kind of place, they have cut it down to a roaring weekend and a bit. I spent the day just wandering around the center as well as the regular part of town which was like any other town just seeing what there was. As I was going to be crossing back on foot I figured I would take a dry run so that I would be familiar with where I needed to go. I found the longer route which took you across the vehicle bridge and then curves down to the immigration stretch. From the top you could see the well worn paths through the surrounding desert hills as millions of people in search of the American dream had forged. Unfortunately to get there you had to make your way past the Mexican wall which was some haphazardly bolted together sheet metal wall as well as the formidable Israeli like cement fortress walls. I was kind of intrigued be the whole keeping me out thing so I took a walk away from the hub ub so I could scout out my escape plans (had I not been a passport carrying American tourist). There were the walls of course, but more questionable were the camera towers placed along the walls. Not sure how effective the response rate was so figured that it would be better to hike it for a couple of miles to a more desolate area and do the night crossing.
Back in town I found an excellent restaurant serving fish tacos as the daily special. For 10P each you could have fish or shrimp tacos as well as a multitude of other seafood options. I had always been wary of fish tacos as to me it seemed like kind of an odd arrangement. In the north of Mexico, fish tacos are a signature dish so I figured I had better give it a shot as I wanted a base line if I ever had some in the states. I tell you what, that stuff was really good. You could also tell that we were close to the US as all of a sudden the portions doubled. I’m glad I only ordered three at a time. I ended up eating there three times before I left. Definitely will be an order option from now on.
The rest of the day was just confirmation that it was time to head across the border as I originally planned on soaking up the last of my Mexico trip for a couple of days. As I had been getting closer to the end of the trip I had started to spend a lot more time thinking about all the stuff I wanted to do when I got home and it became to the point that I was really getting ansy to get home and on to something new. So, I spent a couple of hours researching escape options as well as transport as my home town of Fresno is still pretty far from the border. Originally I had planned on taking the Amtrak train back to Fresno as I hadn’t been on that train since I was a little tike. Coming back on a train seemed a lot more adventure like as well. In the end though, it would have been a three step process as I would have had to take the trolley from the border to San Diego, take the train to Los Angeles, change to a bus to go over the grapevine (the mountain range seperating Southern California with the Central valley, and then change to the train in Bakersfield which would take me the few hours back to California. I also had to deal with time frames as I didn’t want to end up in Fresno at night time as I was planning on taking the public bus to my parents house (another couple of hours to research that). So, in the end I decided it would be better off to just grab the Greyhound bus (which I had never used and didn’t really know existed until I heard from foreign travelers using them to travel throughout the US).
Once I had a plan and a route, it was pretty much hang around looking forward to adventures to come.
The not so mighty Tijuana river which sort of seperates the territories. You can barely make them out, but people use the left side of the bank as a staging area for mad dashes to the US. Coyotes (people smugglers are found there willing to take people across for pay. At night time it gets pretty packed.
In regards to prostitution, the only thing I could find were all these Mariachi hooker guys. They hung out under the archway with their instruments waiting to get picked up. Now, mariachi guys are not my thing, but apparently it’s somebodies. I guess the music business is slow.
Being my last day in the capital city, I had to stock up on my tourist stuff. As this was the end run, and I have been stretching the limits of my days away from home, I felt it prudent to bring a little bit of Mexico back with me. So, it was a full days worth of hitting different markets spread out amongst one of the largest cities in the world. Fuuuuunnnnn. Back at the hotel at sunset I had to do some weight cutting, eliminating some items that I wouldn’t need for this last leg of the trip. I originally thought that I would buy a large carry on bag and stuff that with all my goodies, but with the elimination of some items and some strategic packing I was able to max out my small size packs using the extension on all my straps.
After a farewell kiss to the bidet (I haven’t had the joyous butt cleansing since I left Thailand), it was about a forty five minute Metro ride to the entrance of the airport. That’s right, Mexico city has a metro stop right at the airport. Whoever planned that, whoever approved the plans, and whoever took the bribes to tell the cab mafias to stuff it, you are my hero. My flight was at 10:30P so by waiting it out and taking a evening/night run through the Metro system, I was just barely able to squeeze myself into a corner and stood the full 45 minutes it took to make the run. The only casualty though was at the stop where I was getting off, when I put my arm into the straps of my big pack I must have snagged my watch ($3US digital watch that worked and was also waterproof (Thailand)) and it popped off without me knowing it. As soon as I was out of the metro car I noticed my arm was not feeling right and knew my cool watch was gone. Damn.
While waiting for my departure, I hung out in the commissary area checking out the superinflated airport menus. When I happened upon McDonalds I was stunned when I saw they had a promotion going for a changing daily burger, fries, and drink for 35P ($3US). It was stunning because you could buy a bottle of water for 35P not food and there was McDonalds giving the backpackers a break. I am telling you McDonalds is the best. Billions and billions served.
And then I arrived. TJ. Tijuana for the uninitiated. The epitomy of Mexico (don’t be offended Mexicanos as I think Las Vegas is the epitomy of the US). My dream entry point back to the US. The fourth reason why I did the Central America route. Walking across the bridge or possible scooching under the fence and trekking it the back door way, cool. Arriving 1:30AM in Tijuana is probably not the most recommended time to drop in. Taxi’s pretty much had me by the balls because even as adventurous as I am, hauling my two stuffed packs and me six kilometers through the back roads of Tijuana at night time, not very good odds of success. 160P and I got a chatty taxi driver to drop me in the center of Revolution road (Revo). I was expecting chaos and massive amounts of partying, but what I got was church quiet. Absolutely silence and only a few people stolling the boulevard as the strip was pretty much locked up for the night. I stopped off at a motel which looked pretty nice on the outside with “just remodeled” signs plastered about and a promotional sign for 200P rooms. I checked into my room, took a stroll through the dead streets and picked up some snacks at a little convenience store and called it a successful transition.
Although I sort of cheated by flying, there were just so many things against bussing it all the way north. You already know my feelings about buses. The ride time was exactly 48 hours if I did one straight run (screw that). The minimum cost was going to be $125US and I ended up paying $130 for a plane ticket and it was like 3 hours and 40 minutes. Sure I missed out on a bunch of beaches, but beaches, enough already. I already had a plan for a return trip through the Baja Peninsula already so wasn’t really worried about missing much.
With another free day to wander I hit a couple of places that I wanted to see but were closed on Saturday and Sunday do to the civil unrest and no work day Sunday. One of the places which I was interested in seeing was an old building right off the plaza that is actually a pawn shop. Kind of interesting when you have the city palace, the main church, and a pawn shop sharing the main plaza. I guess as history goes and why a pawn shop was allowed to stay in its location is that it has been doing business like that for as long as the plaza was there so it became its own entity and then tourist attraction. The few blocks off of that side of the square is all dedicated to jewelry as well so I guess it fits and creates a good lead in. Smart marketing. How it works is like any other pawn shop. People who are in need of cash bring in their jewelry, salespeople make an appraisal (most of the time just weighing and giving gold/silver related prices). If they accept they take the appraisal ticket to a payment window and they receive their cash. I am not sure if they receive some time themselves to buy the merchandise back or if it is a completed sale like a normal pawn shop. Inside the building there are some other financial services, but there are two large salons with a bunch of cases and tons of used jewelry all with price tags up for sale. It was neat to walk around and take a look at all the different stuff. I am not a jewelry connoisseur so can´t tell if the stuff is a good deal or not but there were quite a few people looking around at the stuff. I wasn`t able to take any photos inside the salons but in the main halls they had some nice stained glass which I can never resist taking photos of (Israel/Palestine).
Walking back through the Zocalo (Central plaza) to catch the metro, I noticed these guys lined up against the church fence. What they are are freelance handyman. They basically line up out there with their tools and a sign that states their specialty and wait for customers who will shop them and then take them to wherever to fix whatever. Pretty neat concept.
After a stressful time tourist crap shopping (which is jockeying for position with long bus rides as not my favorite things to do), I took a stroll back to my hotel instead of using the Metro. Just down the road from my hotel I saw this really cool cafe/sandwich shop. It was kind of an oddity so I went to check it out. One of the highlights to visiting Mexico city is going to watch the Lucha libre events (basically WWF Mexican style). As I missed the couple of events a week that they had when I saw this place I figured that I had to go in to make up for a missed opportunity. The place was owned by one of the retired luchadores (wrestler) and was now a very popular lunch spot. They made primarily sandwiches and some typical fare in an old cafe style set up. On the wall were many different masks as well as all the memorabilia from his time as a wrestler. The sandwich maker looked just like the newspaper clippings and photos but he was kind of young so I am thinking it was probably a son. Down the same road were also some old school 1940-1950´s dedicated coffee shops with the old memorabilia and photos. The places were very classic and not touristy as all as they were constantly filled with locals having a coffee or snack.
If you could down this thing in fifteen minutes it was free. Didn´t see any photos of past winners so don´t think it is possible. The regular sandwiches are pretty damn good though although a bit pricey.
I wanted to pick up a few things while I was in the capital city, so I headed out to some of the outlying markets which allowed me the opportunity to play on the metro. I have already gushed enough about how much I like Metros so won´t bore you with more, but really, for 3P you can ride all across the city without nary a hassle. Had I been in a city without a Metro and required to use normal buses or combi´s, it would have been a “not worth the hassle so staying in my room and watching tv day”. It really makes a massive cumbersome mega-city feel like a easy and convenient destination. I spent most of the day bouncing around the North, South, and West parts of the city just checking things out. I ended up buying a few things so it wasn´t all metro surfing, but even then, it was a relief as I dread shopping to know that at any time I could just run down a few steps and be back at my hotel with minimal hassles.
Mexico has a ciclovia (bicycle day), one of the best ideas I have come upon while traveling. The last one I got a chance to attend was in Bogota, Colombia. What happens is, the government supports Sundays day of rest and family day. They basically shut down some of the most popular routes throughout the city and make them pedestrian and bicycle only, shutting out all motorized vehicles. This allows people to get out on their bikes or feet and to take a stroll through their town without having to worry about getting run over. Now, it isn´t just some way out unused roads, but the usually busiest city center and touristic routes especially around parks and historic areas. I am not sure how far MC ciclovia area runs, but usually they have a route that runs throughout the city where you can ride your bike without worry. It really is a great effort by the government because almost every road had police officers making sure that no traffic was allowed on the roads in these areas. For the people, it is really great because families with kids can bring them out and they don´t have to worry about them getting run over. It also generates extra income as vendors ply the areas catering to the bicyclists and pedestrians out on a stroll.
As Saturday was a bit tense with all the marches and protests, I decided to hit up the historic area to see if stuff was open, but alas, Sundays things are closed so it was pretty much more of the same but with more people taking advantage of the weekend to take a stroll. Outside of that not much to do or see, so hit some of the off sites and visited some of the vendor markets like the technology plaza.
Being saturday it should have been a good day to do some strolling. However, it was a day of marches and protests so all the businesses were shut down and groups swarmed the historical center. It was a hub of activity, but a little lackluster as all the museums and historic sites were also closed.
Mexico city is massive. It is humongous to the nth level. It however is laid out fairly well and with a good smattering of walking you can hit the highlights in a couple of days. Now, if you wanted to get a good grasp of the city and were of the inquiring mind (likes sites and museums), you could spend a month without doubling up on anything. Add to that the international flair in food as well as the mixture of all the latino cultures and european influences, it would take years to absorb it all.
For me it was just strolling around taking snapshots of things that I thought were interesting. If you were really into photography, it would be another one of those places you could get stuck for a while as everything ranges the extremes.
So in no particular order and to use up my memory space, here goes.
A major part of a trip to Mexico involves the old Montezumas revenge. It is like a tourist activity on its own which gets a lot of headlines, but not much popularity. Don`t drink the water, don`t eat the food, don`t brush your teeth with tap water, etc. It is a major topic of any Mexican vacation, so I was looking forward to it. For some reason though, it seems that I have become somewhat diarrhea resistant. As I traveled throughout Central America with no ill effects, I started to believe that maybe it is strictly a Mexico thing where the government adds e. coli or shigella to the water much like in the US but where they add fluoride and chlorine. But after almost three weeks of eating and drinking strictly street food with nothing to show for it, I guess I am just going to miss out on a big part of going to Mexico, kind of like missing Tijuana. As a matter of fact, the last two-step that I had was in India on the northern Himalaya ride I took and where I got my strength back from eating Momo`s from the monks temple. Oh well, I guess I am now at the iron gut level of being able to eat diarrea out of a sick pigs ass. Not sure, but I think I can.
It was a well devised plan my trip to the pyramids. After doing my last and final ruins explorations, whooooopeeeee, I grabbed my stuff and caught a passing bus back to the capital. For many people who hear Mexico City, they think of one of the most populated cities of the world with all the crushing antagonisms that go with it. Being so, I wanted a smooth transition. Arriving at the same terminal I had already arrived and departed from all that was needed was to take the Metro into the area where my target hotel was. For those who have not read my prior romances with metros, I love cities that have metro routes. Nothing is difficult when there is a metro. Even when you are lost, wandering around usually entails running into a big “M” sign pointing to steps leading down into the tunnels. From there you can get anywhere and as long as you know what terminal you need, you can get there. Although metros are a great way to get around a massive city, you have to be careful especially when you are just arriving or departing as trying to take the metro during rush hour with all your stuff can be a bit of a disaster waiting to happen. That was also a reason for a detour to the pyramids and a early exit. I just needed to keep my metro time somewhere between 10am and 4pm and there would be a lot less hassle. Even though I had to make a change of train, it was no big deal and for the princely sum of 2P I was in the heart of downtown MC and on the search for my hotel. I only had some general directions from a traveling website that recommended a good hotel which was not listed in the guidebook. After going into the wrong hotel because I associated the name incorrectly, thankfully they were booked, although at the time I felt like I was screwed, but when I went back to my list to look for number two option I found out I had gone to the wrong place. A few questions to bystanders later and my bags were in my room and I had accommplished my goal of getting to my destination with a minimal of hassle.
The rest of the day was scouting around my local area figuring heading into the central zone was better left for a full day. Being a major metropolitan area with colonial period and earlier influences, I thought that the city was very similar to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Hmmm, I forgot to take pictures so I will show you a picture of my Bimbo Penquino`s animal collection that I have been carrying around throughout Central America. They were a free gift when you bought Penquinos (Hostess cupcakes). There are fifteen different animals but I was only able to get 8 different animales with a lot of duplicates. Not sure they will be going with me much farther as I have been scouring Mexico and not being able to find the bonus pack. I guess some kid will be happy if I give them away. Not so much travel related, but reason why I was fat.