In my last post, I promised you a forthcoming announcement on a new blog. Well, here it is!
Mango Blue is my new, joint blog with Helene. Whereas Helene was a frequent appearance in the Backpack Foodie’s blog posts, on Mango Blue she will co-author most of our posts.
Mango Blue also focuses on a different aspect of travel than the Backpack Foodie. While food will assuredly feature in our writings, with Mango Blue we want to broaden our focus to include many more aspects of travel and international development.
As for the Backpack Foodie: I don’t have plans to keep it up to date on a regular basis; but keep me in your bookmarks, because I will assuredly return to the format from time to time.
Anyway, go check it out!
Two years ago, I had made the decision to quit a fantastic job with BioWare, and travel the world. In July 2009, as I prepared to move my few remaining possessions back to my parents’ locker in Montreal, I wrote of an “itch on my soul“, of pulling at my chains deep in Plato’s Cave.
Two years later, the time has come for me to hang up the backpack, and move on from this blog. The soul itch isn’t gone; if anything, it’s greater now than ever. I just feel the need to scratch it in a different way.
I started to feel I had outgrown my blog when I met Manick in Kolkata, in February 2010. I consider the blog post I wrote about this unforgettable encounter, The Milk Alchemist, to be the best blog post I ever wrote on The Backpack Foodie. Yet at the same time, despite my unspoken rule—”Talk about people through their food”—I felt restricted by the subject matter of my blog. Also, I felt an odd sense of voyeurism in writing about Manick, a man whom I admire, in a manner which made him ‘exotic’ and fascinating for a Western readership.
This unease grew in May 2010, as I visited the Middle East for the first time. In Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, I felt incapable of putting down in writing what I felt about the people I met. For the first time, writing about food on The Backpack Foodie felt trite, insufficient. I felt that to write about the people I met on my blog would somehow diminish them, would be doing an injustice to their lives and their struggles. The food was better than ever, yet it was no longer what I wanted to write about.
Over the last few months, I have grown further dissatisfied, both with my travel blog, and my status as a long-term traveler. The unease I speak of can be felt throughout travel blogs, when keywords such as ‘independent travel’, ‘off the beaten path’, and ‘authenticity’ are involved. There is a sense of peril that our way of visiting the world does not connect us in a fundamental way with the planet, that we are but consumers engaged in another form of commerce.
The sad truth is, even when opening our hearts and minds to the places we visit, and even by traveling slow and long, making friends along the way, and connecting with people, we remain tourists. We may feel empathy for the people we meet, and we may even have a positive impact on their lives. But we as travelers are not members of their community. We are part of the traveler community, and we trade stories of these people we meet. We see the world through foreign eyes.
That, and not the hardships of independent travel, is what gets to me, in the end. I get along pretty well with the ups and downs of constant travel, to tell you the truth. What I miss is the sense of being grounded in a community, of calling it my own, instead of observing it as some sort of anthropologist with a flashy camera. I want to make a difference in the lives of those I meet, to call their own struggles my own.
I felt constrained by the format and theme of my blog because I felt constrained by independent leisure travel in itself.
But that doesn’t mean I want to stop traveling. Quite the opposite.
After a long period of introspection in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, Helene and I have decided to return to Canada, and prepare our first step into a career in international development. Towards this end, I will stop regular postings to The Backpack Foodie.
I will soon launch a new blog, which I will announce here on this site. Helene, who was a quiet presence on this blog, will become my co-blogger on our new website, as we chronicle our lives leading up to a volunteer posting abroad, and eventually, if all goes well, our experiences in that field.
My reasons for wanting to go into international development are numerous and complex, and I will expand on them in my new blog.
When our new blog is ready, I will announce it here. It’s my hope that you will find our new adventures as interesting as the ones of the Backpack Foodie, and will continue to follow me.
With this blog, I set out to write in a more literary style, knowing real well the tendency went in the opposite direction on most other travel blogs. I wanted to help people envision the other nations of this world, not as alien and filled with quaint charm, but filled with beauty and generosity, with humanity. I wanted to celebrate the essence of the places I went, instead of simply underlining their quirks. Reading back through two years of The Backpack Foodie, I feel I’ve succeeded in a few places. I hope you think so too.
Whether you follow my new blog or not, I wish to thank all of you, friends and strangers alike, who followed my adventures as The Backpack Foodie, and made this blog a heartwarming success.
The Backpack Foodie may be ending, but my encounters with people—and yes, food—will go on.
Thanks for reading!
—Daniel Roy, The Backpack Foodie
We had meant to travel through Mexico, and pursue adventure and food down to Central America. But somewhere along the way, the road led to the ocean.
We had made our way to the Pacific Coast, where the heat clogged our pores, and time clung to us like honey, slowing us to a crawl.
We had found Heaven at land’s end: Puerto Escondido, in the state of Oaxaca.
Bounty of the Ocean
Many know Puerto Escondido as a tourist town; and if it were just that, it would still be worth a short visit. The main tourist area is centered near the beach, along the Adoquín, a paved street that turns pedestrian in the evening. Puerto Escondido features many great beaches, lined with friendly restaurants and bars, where foreign and Mexican tourists alternate, and the various merchants hawk delicacies such as coctel de camarones (shrimp cocktail), fried plantain, fresh coconuts, and delicious coconut ice cream.
But walk down to the beach before the restaurants set up their parasols, and Puerto Escondido reveals a different scene. At sunrise, the fishermen of Puerto drive their narrow boats at high speed towards the beach, as fishmongers gather around them like pelicans to pick at the fresh fish.
In a world of seafood of questionable sustainability, the fishing community of Puerto Escondido is the real deal. Fishing is the livelihood of many fishermen, as well as their primary source of money outside the tourist season, during which they sell sports fishing and boat tours. All their fish is captured by hand-tossed nets, or by fishing line. Their morning bounty is a testament to the abundance of fishes along the Mexican Pacific Coast: on any day, you might find red snapper and tuna, but also a large variety of small, sustainable fish stocks, such as the goggle-eyed ojotón, or the white cocinero. These “poor man’s fish” (in the words of the Puerto fishermen) are a real bargain: for 20 Pesos (less than $2 US), you can bring home six ojotones, and enjoy them fried in garlic, with a splash of lime juice.
Go swim in the afternoon on Playa Principal, and you might have to dodge a fishing boat on its way to throwing a net in a school of ojotones. You can see the tiny fish flash their silver bellies as they jump out of the water near sunset, and from time to time you may swim right through a bunch of cocineros.
Treasures of the Land
Over the course of the three months we spent in Puerto Escondido, many people commented on how many treasures the Earth provided. They spoke of the fertile, volcanic soil of the Pacific Coast, and the countless fruits and vegetables that grow in it. Heavenly mangoes grow in such abundance that our gorging on the golden ataúlfo variety from the market raised a few eyebrows. “When they’re in season, so many fall from the trees that cars just drive over them,” explained our friend Juana.
Besides mangoes, we found countless other treasures in Puerto Escondido’s municipal market. Lettuce, carrots, beets, crisp onions, sharp garlic. Watermelon, pineapple, various types of mangoes, shiny red tomatoes, bananas, juicy limes, mamey, and crunchy apples. But also fresh, local coffee; delicious roasted seeds and peanuts; dark panela (unrefined whole cane sugar); cinnamon; herbs and spices. Dark leafy greens called hierba mora. Oaxacan chocolate. Farm-fresh eggs, from chicken but also turkey and duck. Squeeky quesillo cheese. Mango and tamarind honey. All fresh, and amazingly local, often grown or raised by the person who hands you your change.
In other words, a foodie Heaven on Earth; and that’s just the stuff we discovered as we explored the rows of the market.
Home by the Sea
And so, sunset after sunset, market visit after market visit, meal after meal, we lived the life of the Puerto Escondido long-term residents.
Our room on the second floor of Hotel Virginia, along with the communal kitchen, became our home. Juana, the kind and strong woman who handles the day-to-day at the hotel with her daughter Yesi, cooked fish, hierba mora or chicken liver for us, shared our mango smoothies and quesadillas, and taught me the basics of Mexican home cooking. Our friends Anuar, Nacho and Isa chatted and joked with us as I cooked huevos a la mexicana (scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onions and chiles) and cafe de olla (coffee with panela and cinnamon) in the morning, or when Helene conjured up a fresh vegetable soup at nightfall. Through their patient teasing, my Spanish improved by leaps and bounds.
As the wet season approached, the mangoes began to fall, hitting the tin roof of the kitchen like a sack of bricks. We ate breakfast, either homecooked at the hotel or at a restaurant near or inside the market. We stopped for espresso at Quebecois-owned Le café du marché, then returned to our room to melt from the heat under the ceiling fan. In the late afternoon the dampness and heat lifted, allowing us to stir again. We moved to the beach, laughed with the kind old woman who spoke less Spanish than me, played in the waves of the afternoon.
And before we knew it, three months had gone by. The foreign tourists came and went, then the Mexican tourists too. The insanity of Semana Santa gave way to the quiet evenings of “Muerto Puerto”.
And the time came for us to leave. Our hearts heavy, our eyes filled with the colors of friendship and plenty, we boarded the bus back to the big city.
We will come back to this place. And until then, we will dream of it.
How to Get There
Puerto Escondido is located in the state of Oaxaca, two hours up the coast from Huatulco towards Acapulco. It can be reached easily by bus, including from Oaxaca or Mexico City. You can also reach Puerto by plane. The bus ride from Oaxaca has been described as ‘hellish’ and ‘vomit-inducing’, so consider it carefully; there are (more expensive) flights available on small planes from Oaxaca.
Where to Stay
I highly, highly recommend Hotel Virginia. For three months, the hotel was our home, and the many people who work and live there became our dear friends. The hotel itself is pretty, the rooms are clean and fresh, and the prices are excellent. If you’re looking for something cheaper than a room, the mattresses and hammocks on the roof are great value, featuring a ceiling fan, lockers, washrooms, and a great view of the ocean. Check out more pictures of Hotel Virginia on Helene’s Flickr set.
If you go to Hotel Virginia, please say hi for us! We dearly miss our friends: Juana, Yesi, Lalo, Chuy, Anuar, Nacho, Isa and Juan, as well as the owner and administrator of the hotel, Alberto. ¡Les extraño, amigos y amigas!
Many amazing beaches are reachable by foot from the main tourist area. The most busy, and largest, is Playa Principal/Playa Marinero. This section of the beach is the most crowded, especially on weekends and holidays, and features a number of hawkers selling tasty and cheap snacks. The fishermen sell their fish in the morning roughly in the middle of the bay. Go at sunrise, and look for the crowds and the boats ramming the beach at high speed.
To the east of Playa Principal is Zicatela, a famous surfing spot. The waves are huge and strong, and thus too dangerous to swim; but this is the site of the legendary “Mexican Pipeline”, and host to international surfing competitions. If you’re eager to learn to surf, you can pick up lessons or rent boards on Playa Marinero.
You can also find beautiful Playa Manzanillo/Puerto Angelito, west of Playa Principal, a more intimate bay with clean water, and some good spots for snorkelling. Playa Principal is a great spot for swimming, but Playa Manzanillo is the most picturesque. There are many other great little bays further out, which we have spent less time exploring.
If you’re hanging out at Playa Principal, Manzanillo or Zicatela, look for a kind man in a hat pushing a blue wheelbarrow and announcing “nieve de coco”: this is Enrique, and his creamy, homemade coconut ice cream is absolutely amazing.
You’ll find the municipal market uphill, a fifteen minutes walk past the Super Che. Ask a taxi driver; or, if you’re staying at Hotel Virginia, catch the minibus (micro) marked “Faro”, which goes by every fifteen minutes. This bus will drop you right in front of the market for 5 pesos.
There are simply too many amazing stalls in the market to recommend a single one. Try them all! On Saturday and Sunday, smaller producers set up shop on the edges of the market, offering mouth-watering, exotic fruits, vegetables and herbs.
If you’re looking for a fantastic breakfast or late lunch, try one of the comedores that can be found on the edge of the market. Or, check out Las Margaritas, on the same street as the market (ask for it.) You can also grab a juice at one of the many juice stands, or enjoy a great espresso and chocolate croissant at Le café du marché, run by two friendly, cheerful Quebec girls who have made Puerto their home.
After a few weeks in Mexico, our travel intentions were simple: Helene and I would leave Mexico City, and travel slowly throughout Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas until we’d stumble upon a place we liked. We prepared for a long tour of Mexico, purging our backpacks for the hundredth time.
Then, two cities later, we arrived in Xalapa.
Remember our Happy Place in Thailand, which I raved about nearly a year ago? Xalapa, the state capital of Veracruz, is our Mexican equivalent.
And this time, I’m giving it away for free on this blog.
The Two Restaurants Rule
Given the nature of this blog, it should come as no surprise that a city will often charm me first through my taste buds. A few days prior, looking forlorn for a good, cheap restaurant in the port city of Veracruz, I first remarked to Helene about the two restaurants rule.
The rule goes like this: any city in the world is two great restaurants away from being a fabulous food city. From Chennai to Amman, from Yogyakarta to Vientiane: the moment I find a great, local restaurant, I feel ‘grounded’ in my new city. On the other hand, if a city fails to capture my culinary interest, I’m more than likely to jump on the next bus or train.
In Xalapa, we slipped into the first restaurant we found, La Fonda, a fancy but traditional-looking restaurant at the entrance to the picturesque Callejón del Diamante. The food was better than good.
Over the next few days, we tried glitsy cafés, fonditas (small, family-run restaurants), and tiny quesadilla joints: Xalapa shattered the two restaurants rule with ease.
Desperate, we entered a dingy-looking and empty fondita outside of peak hours. At the next table, an old woman slept soundly, her head tilted back, mouth hanging open. “There’s no way this’ll be good,” I thought.
“Please come back soon,” said the kind old woman, after, as we paid for our fine quesadillas. “This is your home.”
In Xalapa, finding a bad meal is a challenge.
The Smell of Coffee
If Xalapa’s excellent food wasn’t enough, the city has another ace up its sleeve to sway a wandering backpack foodie.
The coffee in Mexico may not draw the foreign crowds, but the country features a few coffee-producing regions that take great pride in their local crop. The verdant mountains of the state of Veracruz, where Xalapa nestles, is one such region.
The small town of Coatepec, twenty minutes away from Xalapa, is a center of coffee production. As a result, Xalapa features an impressive coffee culture. Walk along Primo Verdad, and you’ll discover the unmistakable aroma of roasting beans.
Xalapa teems with coffee houses, almost all selling local coffee, from the chic Espresso 58 and Café Chiquito, to French-inspired Petit Café, or laid-back Café Kali, roasting their own bean next door.
By far our favorite, though, was cozy Hojas Verdes, where owner Silvia welcomed us with the kindness and smile of a grandmother. Her americano is earthy and rich, the unmistakable flavor of life in Xalapa.
Colors and Mountains
There’s a lot more to Xalapa than food and coffee, of course. The center features colonial architecture, and the colors of the houses all around town explode with warmth at every turn. Flowers grow everywhere, in a riot of colors: no wonder Xalapa is called “the city of flowers”.
On sunny days, the mountains rise around the city, complementing the hilly relief of Xalapa, the verdant masses of the nearby mountains swallowing the horizon.
After a month in the mountains, the beaches of Oaxaca beckon. We leave Xalapa like we leave a home, knowing we’ll be back to visit at a later time.
Where to Go
Xalapa, Veracruz, officially known as Xalapa Enriquez, is located two hours away from the port city of Veracruz. The ADO bus line reaches it easily from DF. From the bus terminal in Xalapa, it’s a short local bus ride to the historical city center.
Coatepec can be visited easily on a daytrip from Xalapa. The best option for a bus is from the market known as “Los Sauces,” behind which you can find Excelsior buses headed for Coatepec.
Where to Eat
Restaurants are in absurd abundance in Xalapa. Although they are too many to list here, here are a few of my favorites. The streets of Xalapa are made complex by the hills and slopes. As a consequence, I won’t include specific directions here; the center of Xalapa is compact, though; ask friends or your hotel, and they’re bound to know these names.
La Fonda is located at the entrance to Callejón del Diamante, at the corner of Enriquez street. Callejón del Diamante features many other cafés and restaurants, as well as street vendors hawking handicrafts. La Fonda is more pricy than a fondita, but the food is undeniably excellent.
La Casa de la Abuela is a smaller, cheaper restaurant, down on Allende. The comida corrida (set meal) is a mere 35 pesos ($3 USD), and features fresh, hand-made, delicious dishes.
Near the park known as Paseo de los Lagos is a tiny pozole restaurant which I heartily recommend. You should find it by the line-ups in the evening; if not, ask around, as it’s famous locally for its delicious, hearty pozole.
For a delicious, home-style comida corrida at lunchtime, it’s impossible to beat Tierra Mia, a true fondita, complete with handmade tortillas. Go, and you’ll be rewarded with a delicious meal for the mere cost of 25 pesos ($2 USD).
Xalapa is crawling with coffee houses of all kinds and sizes, and the majority of them serve an excellent espresso or americano. You’ll find a high concentration of them on Primo Verdad, east of the cathedral. My favorite is Hojas Verdes, one block further north from the cluster of cafés. They also make an exceptional carrot juice for 75 cents US.
Xalapa features two neat spots for running:
The Paseo de los Lagos is a family-oriented park southeast of Parque Juarez, where broad paths circumnavigate pretty artificial lakes. The place is popular with families on weekends, so get ready to dodge a few kids if you go on a Sunday afternoon.
The Cerro de Macuiltepetl is a beautiful mountain park a bit further north, with a well-marked 4.5 km running path that goes up and down the mountain.
A Note on Weather
If Xalapa has a downside, it’s its winter weather. In January and February, beautiful, hot sunny days alternate with chilly, fog-soaked moments of misery. Keep this in mind if you go in winter.
It’s an honor to be sharing this award with so many great travel writers from all walks of life. Thanks to Morocco Tours for the award; this, along with the occasional encouraging word from visitors, is the blood that fuels this non-profit travel blog.