Friday, February 26, 2016

Travel adventure to San Agustin de Etla

There's a nine hole golf course about ten miles outside of town. It's the only one within 200 miles and the online reviews have been mostly negative.  I'm a golfer and I haven't golfed since we were in Tucson, about a month ago.  I didn't expect to golf while in Mexico and didn't bring any golf gear..  And golf involves mucho gear.  I didn't think I  wanted to go through the hassle and expense of renting clubs and buying balls, gloves, tees, etc. but the fact that there's a course in these Mexican hinterlands was getting under my skin. I wanted to at least see the course.

This past Sunday Dorothy and I took a local bus (7 pesos each, about 40 cents) to the city's biggest market, Abastos, which is in a poorer section of town and famous for the number of gringos who get robbed there.  From there we had to wind our way through a cavernous mercado to find the "collectivo" site.  These are vehicles which look just like taxis that go out to the villages surrounding city.  They don't leave until they're full - usually four or five adults and a couple of kids.  We rode with a mother, father and an infant.  About a half hour ride ($1.50).

The air polllution was bad and it seemed worse as it poured into open windows when we were stuck in traffic.  (Both Dorothy and I have had some respiratory issues while here and we think the poor air quality is a big contributing factor.  We fear that this may be the "fly in the ointment" re future trips.)

Area surrounding city core marked by lots of trash on side of road and grafitti scrawls on any available space.  Steep hillsides with houses piled on one another looked very vulnerable in this seismically rich area.

Death of a MonkeyEventually turned on to a bucolic road with plowed fields and wooded glens leading to San Agustin de Etla.  San Agustin is well known for its Center for the Arts (CASA). This 1883 textile "hacienda" was recently restored with the help of a major grant by Francisco Toledo.  (Toledo is an extraordinary contemporary Mexican/Oaxacan artist.  I encourage you to click on the link to see samples of his work)

 Here is his "Death of a Monkey" painting.

There were no Toledo works on display at the CASA unfortunately but there was an exceptional photography exhibit of the works of  Mary Ellen Mark who died in May of last year.  Ms. Mark was a world class photographer who called Oaxaca her second home. I was deeply moved by her photos. Here's a link to her obituary in the New York Times  and a copy of a photograph she took of the Damm family in Los Angeles in 1987


Dorothy and I left the CASA and decided to reach for even higher cultural heights by trying to find the golf course.  We eventually got a collectivo to drop us off at the entrance to the "Club de Golf Vista Hermosa".  The driver said that when we were ready to go back to Oaxaca all we had to do was to stand in the road to wave down a passing collectivo. No problema.

The golf course/club was underwhelming.  The parking lot was empty and the club house virtually deserted except for a man counting money in a darkened office and two women in white uniforms standing behind a snack bar counter.  Their beautiful, welcoming smiles seemed out of place.   The course was mainly a dried out brown and the lone tennis court suffered from a torn, dripping net.  The whole operation had clearly seen better days.  We shared a bottle of Victoria beer as we stared across the barren ninth hole fairway.  I decided to pass on golf while in Oaxaca.

9th fairway at Club de Golf Vista Hermosa
We worked our way across the abandoned parking lot back to the road.  There was little traffic on this hot Sunday afternoon as we anxiously sat waiting for a collectivo on a shaded curb.  After around ten minutes a new, shiny, big, SUV came down the road from the residential area that surrounded the golf course.  The SUV stopped next to us and after a few moments a darkened window opened and a smiling woman asked us what we were doing.  We explained and she and her male companion laughed kindly at our predicament and offered to drive us to a place near Oaxaca where we could get a taxi.  Without a bit of hesitation we hopped into the air conditioned, leather back seat.  The couple turned out to be real estate agents who spent a lot of time during the trip trying to convince us to buy a house on the golf course but we also talked politics, both US and Mexico and travel.  They had been to many of the places in Europe that we had visited.  It was an interesting, comfortable ride and a good opportunity to interact with republicanesque, wealthy Mexicans who happened to be as kind and warm as all the other Mexicans we have met.  They dropped us off on the outskirts of the city at a taxi stand and the ride back to the hotel was 50 pesos.  All in all a rich, fun, adventurous day.

Hasta pronto!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Cuanto cuesta?

If I was a regular reader of this blog I'm pretty sure I'd be wondering what is it costing Ferd and Dot to do all this gallivanting around?  This vulgar topic is usually avoided by people of fine-tuned sensibilities but since I don't fit that category I'll dive right in.

Part of my motivation for broaching this sensitive topic is to show that we're not recklessly pissing away our daughters' inheritance but pissing it away very responsibly :)  I also hope this down and dirty money talk will  show that this type of international/intercultural experience can be very affordable and worthy of consideration by even the most frugal/penny pinching traveler.

I'm going to limit this discussion of costs to the six week Mexican portion of our trip.  I figure you're all fairly well versed on travel costs in the U.S. (all numbers listed below are for two senior travelers)

For many people traveling to Oaxaca the largest expense is airfare.  The straight round trip cost of Binghamton to Oaxaca varies widely but we've usually been able to find tickets for about $800 per person.

There are many ways to reduce this significantly

Fly directly out of a major hub such as Newark.

Use frequent flier miles (I use a United Mileage Plus Chase credit card to pay for just about everything and often have enough miles for "free" trips.)

Fly into Mexico City and then take a bus to Oaxaca. (Two adults can fly round trip to Mexico City out of JFK on Volaris for about $850 total.  Flight leaves at 2:30 AM.  Mexican first class buses are cheap and very comfortable.  Probably would have to spend night in Mexico City).

Cross into Mexico by land and then take a less expensive Mexican domestic flight.  On this trip we drove to Tucson and took a bus to Hermosillo ($54) and then an Interjet flight to Oaxaca via Mexico City. (about $330 with senior discount).    This route also meant staying in a hotel in Hermosillo ($45).  We will be flying from Oaxaca to Huatulco on March 7 on TAR airlines ($94) spending a week on the Pacific coast in San Agustinillo ($60/night) and then flying Interjet from Hualtuco to Hermosillo($320).   We'll spend a night in Hermosillo ($40) before catching a five hour bus back to Tucson ($54).  Again, these are the prices for two travelers.

As I noted in an earlier post,  the Mexican domestic flights we've taken have been significantly better than US domestic flights.

Another angle to reduce air fare may be to make a reservation via a Mexican web site.  I just went to Expedia's Mexican site and found fares that seemed to be hundreds of dollars less than their US site.  I'll need to explore this more.

Once in Oaxaca things are very inexpensive relative to prices in the states.   Our hotel room is costing us about $30 per night.  This includes a light breakfast,  daily maid service and a friendly, warm atmosphere.  As I've reported in previous posts, this is our fourth year at this same hotel and it feels like a home away from home.

We usually have one main meal in the afternoon (comida corrida).  Most restaurants have a special rate for this daily meal which usually includes a fruit drink, appetizer, main course and desert.  Usually about 60 pesos each.  So our total cost is about $6.50 US dollars with the dollar currently worth about 19 pesos.  An incredible value.

Every once in awhile we'll splurge and go to a fancy restaurant in the evening where meals will be double the comida corrida cost.  Last night we took a taxi (40 pesos/$2.11) to one of the fancier hotels in town (Hotel Victoria) to sit on their patio, watch the moon rise,  and have margaritas and tostadas (230 pesos/$12.10).  A very romantic, enjoyable evening. Cab back to the hotel was 50 pesos/$2.64).  So this splurge, special night out, cost us about $17.

We rarely spend more than $50 a day here including hotel.  Usually it's closer to $40.

I hope you're not too bored by this financial minutiae but the fact is this is a very real and important part of the travel experience.  The strong dollar has made the Mexico portion of this years trip significantly less expensive.  Last year the dollar was worth 14 pesos...about a 26% change from the current rate of 19 pesos per dollar.

The total cost of our six weeks in Mexico, including transportation to and from Tucson will be around $4000.  Worth every penny to me.

 I hope you find this information helpful and interesting.