HOUSTON SYMPHONY CHORUS
MEXICO CITY TOUR
August 23-29, 2005
By David D. Knoll
Once again, we are looking forward to the Houston Symphony Chorus' tour to Mexico City the last week in August, where we will be performing a concert version of Guiseppe Verdi's opera, Nabucco with the Orchestre Sinfonia de Mineria under the baton of Maestro Carlos Spierer, in the Sala Nezahualcoyotl at Universidad Nacional de Mexico (UNAM). Many of you have been on our Mexico City tours in the past. Others are visiting this exciting city for the first time. Over the years, some of us "veterans" of HSC tours have found lots of fun things to do during our free time in Mexico City, and this guide is intended to share our experiences with you to make your Mexico City adventure safe and more enjoyable.
We have also included our own Dr. Barbara Bush's "Tips from the Doctor" which provides important medical information for you in connection with visiting Mexico City. Dr. Bush will be making the trip with us, and has, as always, graciously volunteered to be our "family doctor" during the trip. Please listen to her advice, and maybe she'll be able to have a little peace and quiet and enjoy the trip with the rest of us, instead of a steady stream of chorus patients in her hotel room.
Where we will be. Mexico City is over 7300 feet above sea level, in a valley in the mountains of Central Mexico. Founded by the Aztecs as Tenochtitlan long before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, the city is ringed by beautiful mountains which, on a clear day, are visible in the distance. Try to spot Popocatepetl, the "smoking mountain," a snow-covered active volcano southeast of the city. You might be able to see it looking east along the Periferico Sur in front of the hotel. We usually stay at the Hotel Radisson Paraiso in the Pedregal region in the South Central part of Mexico City, an area of volcanic rock and beautiful tree-lined boulevards. As of this writing, we still have not confirmed the hotel information with the Orchestra. We have also stayed at a nearby hotel on the Periferico Sur, the Royal Pedregal. We'll update this Guide when we have more definitive hotel information. Some very expensive homes are located right around the hotel, and the area has a rather suburban flavor. UNAM is a short distance away.
The areas of the city are known as "Colonias," which are more like neighborhoods or subdivisions within the City. Think "River Oaks" or "Clear Lake City." Many of the nicer restaurants are in the Colonias of San Angel, Coyoacan, San Jironomo, Tlalpan, Polanco or San Miguel Chapultepec, all of which are within a 20-30 minute cab ride of the hotel. The hotel is in the Col. Villa Olimpica (yes, that's the Olympic Village; the Olympics were held here in 1968.)
The Radisson Paraiso is located along the Periferico Sur, a "Beltway 8" kind of expressway that runs around the Southwest part of Mexico City. It is across from the Peri Sur Shopping Center. Telephone number in Mexico City is 5927-5959. [Subject to change; the Orchestra still hasn't confirmed hotel arrangements.]
What kind of travel documents will I need? If you have a current passport, bring it. You will need either (a) a VALID passport, or (b) both a valid government-issued i.d. (such as a driver's license) and a certified copy of your birth certificate. If you're going to use your passport, make sure it hasn't already expired, and renew it as soon as possible. (Renewals can be done in the mail, and they usually turn them around quickly.) And, if you keep your passport in a safety deposit box, don't forget to get it out ahead of time! That sounds like painfully obvious advice, but it's based on sad experiences from former trips.
Will I need some Mexican pesos? It would be a good idea to have some Mexican pesos for taxicabs, snacks and incidental expenses. The current exchange rate is about 10.742 pesos to the dollar. So, it's pretty easy to figure out how much things cost in "real" money, by just moving the decimal point one number to the left. For example, 100 pesos is about US$10. The easiest way to get pesos is by using bank ATM machines, which will take dollars from your U.S. bank account and distribute them in pesos (you will enter your withdrawal as pesos; don't be scared to key in M$1000, it will only charge your account US$100). One machine is located right outside the hotel, and there are several others in the Peri Sur Shopping Center across the street. If you want to get some pesos before you leave, several of the larger banks will sell them to you at their downtown branches (but the exchange rates are generally poor). We would advise against using the cambios at the Houston airport (if your departure is very early, these facilities might not even be open when we leave.) We have discovered that the exchange rates are actually better at the airport in Mexico City, after you arrive (although your time to do so will be limited). Whenever you can, you will be better off paying for your purchases in Mexico City using your credit card. Most restaurants and stores accept your credit cards, and the issuer of the card will calculate a fair exchange rate on your bill. If you're not planning to use credit cards, you might want to plan to exchange about $50 a day for pesos, as a rule of thumb.
How much free time will we have? We will have plenty of free time for sightseeing, shopping, etc. while we are in Mexico City. But please remember that we are there at the Orchestra's invitation (and expense) to give a performance, and be mindful of our rehearsal and performance schedules as you plan your leisure activities. Here are some basics on the concert and rehearsal schedules. As of now, we are scheduled to have rehearsals with the orchestra and soloists on Tuesday afternoon, August 23, both morning and evening rehearsals on Wednesday, August 24, and performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Friday and Saturday performances are in the evening, leaving the days free. Sunday's performance is at noon. These rehearsals, like the concerts, will be held in the performance hall on the grounds of UNAM, the Sala Nezahualcoyotl. The Friday and Saturday night concerts will probably start at 8 p.m., the Sunday concert at noon. (Of course, our call times will be much earlier.) Buses will take us to and from the hotel for all rehearsals and concerts. It is extremely important that you show up before the posted departure times so that you will be on the bus. Otherwise, you'll have to take a taxi to the hall. If you decide to depart from the hall on your own rather than returning on the bus, please let one of the organizers know, as well as someone you sat near on the bus on the outbound trip. Every year, buses get delayed as we send people around to look for supposedly missing members who turn out to have made their own transportation arrangements. Whatever you do, please be considerate of the fact that a busload of people who are anxious to take advantage of their free time might be waiting for you.
We will have a break during rehearsals, and there is a snack bar in the hall that may be open at that point, but don't count on this. Bring your own beverage and refreshments just in case (but, of course, please don't eat in the hall itself). You may (in fact, should) bring a covered water container for the rehearsals. However, be aware that bathroom facilities are scarce, particularly during concerts. There will be a room in which purses and other valuables can be locked up during the concerts. This room is downstairs by the dressing rooms, a long way from where we need to line up to go on stage, so please get your personal items turned in early.
What about the Mexico City air pollution? We're sure you've heard many stories about the air pollution in Mexico City. Well, over the years (we've been doing these tours since 1988), we've seen the air quality in the City improve substantially. On some days, it may still be a bit of a problem, particularly when you add in the altitude factor, but these days you can actually see the mountains, and the government has imposed strict limits on automobile usage (i.e., depending on license number, cars cannot be used on certain days). You may be bothered if you have asthma or breathing problems, so make sure you have your medications. Please see Dr. Bush's "Tips" attached hereto. And remember that she will be there if you need medical assistance. While we have seen worse pollution in Houston when the ozone levels are high, Houston is at sea level, and breathing becomes more difficult at high altitudes.
Is it safe? Mexico City is a huge city with a population in excess of 21 million. There are big extremes in wealth and poverty. Don't be surprised to see beggars around elegant shops in the Zona Rosa or the malls. In addition, the drug problem is causing substantial turmoil throughout Mexico, heightened by the fact that there is an upcoming Presidential election. You may have read about a rash of recent kidnappings in Mexico City, and incidents involving renegade officers among the local police. Like any other big cities, you should be cautious and watchful, and aware of your surroundings. In general, it is probably no more dangerous than New York, Chicago or Houston, but a foreigner must be exceptionally careful. Use common sense. Don't leave your handbags open and keep your valuables in a concealed money belt if you have one. (Get the one you can wear under your clothing, rather than a "fanny pack.") Don't wear anything flashy, and leave your expensive jewelry at home for cat burglars. Make photocopies of your passport and important credit cards, and leave one copy at home and one in your luggage. (We were robbed on an HSC tour in Brussels years ago, and the photocopies of our passports were what enabled us to get back in the USA.) Travel in groups and keep alert, especially in crowded areas. Watch out for one another. We would strongly recommend avoiding the Volkswagen taxicabs, subways and jitney buses (they are the lime green mini-buses that travel on the main avenues along defined routes) even though you think you know where you are going. We have heard numerous horror stories about foreigners (and locals) using VW cabs, having them turn into a dark alley, and then being beaten and robbed by "police" officers. Wearing blue jeans, having cameras dangling from your neck and shopping packages will give you away as a tourist, and there are those elements in every city that would target tourists.
What should I wear? Because it is at an elevation of over 7,300 feet, the days in Mexico City are typically mild (in the mid to upper 70's) and the evenings can be rather cool. August can also have late afternoon showers (one year we got caught in a spectacular hail storm as we were leaving the hotel for dinner.) The part of town we are in is rather upscale, and the Mexicans tend to dress up to go shopping and out to eat (even at lunch time). Gentlemen, many of the nicer restaurants may require a jacket (not necessarily a tie, but it would be easy to pack one) to dine in their main dining rooms, so it would be a good idea to pack (or wear) a sport coat or blazer. Ladies should have a nice dress or skirt-what would you wear to a nice restaurant in Houston? The Mexicans are very friendly and typically helpful. You will stand out as a tourist, however, and particularly, as Americans. Our best advice is don't dress down, but try to look your best. Avoid short shorts, blue jeans, tank tops, tee shirts, etc. (especially if you are going to visit any of the museums or churches). If the outfit you're thinking of is something you would wear to clean out your garage on Saturday, leave it home.
How do I get around? For chorus activities, the Orchestra will have buses available; they will pick us up at the airport, take us to rehearsals and performances, and, on occasion, be available for group outings. A few years ago, for example, one of the buses took about 35 of us over to Xochimilco (about 20 minutes away) for a couple of hours of fun on the boats in the floating gardens. Typically, we can arrange for these while we are there for a relatively simple gratuity (about US$5.00 [50 pesos] per person, depending on the time involved). The Chorus Council has a tour committee that will try to plan group outings at reasonable costs. We'll have more information on these tours later. There are a few things you can do on foot (i.e., visit the Periferico Sur Shopping Center, the pyramid at Cuicuilco or the Bosque de Tlalpan, a lovely treed and hilly park an easy walk south of the hotel), but most of the time you will have to rely on taxis. In the past, some of us have used the subway system or the "jitney" buses without incident; we wouldn't recommend doing that, but if you insist on doing so, we'd advise that you be especially watchful and know where you are going. We have heard reports of pickpockets roaming the subways.
For taxis, we would highly recommend that you stay with the "sitio" (radio) cabs that look like small private cars, and are stationed outside the hotel at a place marked "sitio" (makes sense, doesn't it?) They typically rent by the hour, and when three or four persons share them, you can have them take you to dinner, wait for you to eat, and then return you to the hotel for a cost of about US$10 or so per person. This is a much better (and safer) idea than trying to flag a cab at a restaurant or museum. As noted above, we'd recommend that you stay away from hailing cabs (particularly the little VW bugs) on the street. Some chorus members have had unpleasant experiences with them in the past. The VW taxis are actually being phased out as an air pollution measure.
Can I use my cell phone in Mexico City? We'd advise leaving your cell phones at home. Depending on your service, they may or may not work; if they do, the roaming charges are extremely expensive (i.e., $3.00 a minute). But more important, cell phone usage in Mexico City is dangerous. Cell phone pirates have been known to lurk around hotels and steal signals. One of our business associates got surprised with a huge cell phone bill on his return from Mexico City a year or so ago. He was in his hotel and left his phone in the room charging it, but that was enough for someone to pirate his number. We have heard that Telmex allows you to charge long distance calls to your home phone, or to AT&T, MCI or Sprint, but have never tried to do this. You can make arrangements with the hotel to make long distance charges from the room, at your expense, but it is also quite expensive. A better idea is to use telephone cards, which can be used at the public phones in the lobby. You can purchase them at the hotel. Or have your loved ones call you from the U.S. The hotel's main number (dialing from the U.S.) is 011-52-55-5606-4211 (if this doesn't work, try 011-52-55-5927-5959). [See note above regarding final hotel confirmation.]
What about medical and travel insurance? Since most of the cost of the trip (other than air fare) is being absorbed by the Orchestra, we wouldn't recommend travel insurance. With respect to your personal health insurance, our best guess is that your preferred provider network or HMO doesn't include physicians in Mexico City. If you have emergency care coverage, however, most group health plans will cover you if you have a sudden illness or injury outside the U.S. You will probably have to pay for the services in Mexico City (again, use of a credit card is most convenient) and seek reimbursement when you get home; we doubt the Mexican providers will file the claim directly with your insurer. To do this, you will need to obtain specific documentation from the hospital or doctor as to what type of care you received. Ask to have the bill translated into English if possible. Also, if you pay by cash, be sure to convert pesos to dollars as of the date of service before submitting the claim to your health plan. And, remember, we have our own physician, Dr. Barbara Bush, who will be making the trip with us and ready to assist you in an emergency.
Dining out. The Orchestra usually provides us with a nice breakfast at the hotel. Lunches and dinners are on your own. Mexico City has some of the finest restaurants in the world, and, compared to U.S. prices, they are relatively inexpensive. You can dine in a fabulous restaurant with several course dinner and dessert, drinks, etc., and walk away for under US$30, plus tip (it is customary to tip 15-20%). Lots of the old-timers know the "good" spots, and will arrange for small groups to head out to dinner. Try to hook up with a group of eight to ten people, and have fun! Since we Americans tend to get hungry by seven or eight o'clock in the evening, you can usually find a table in the finest restaurants in town. The Mexicans tend to have dinner around 9 or 10, so the restaurants will be more crowded then.
Unless you are wandering around with Larry Hitt, the "Street Vendor Gourmet," you probably don't want to eat at the sidewalk food stands. There are lots of nice lunch places in the Peri Sur shopping center, or at the hotel. The food is good and inexpensive. Buffets are very popular at lunch time. Many of the nicer restaurants are also open for lunch, with full menus. So, if a big meal in the evening is not your style, have a nice feast in the middle of the day, and then walk it off at a museum or in the park.
Here are some of our favorite restaurants in Mexico City:
San Angel Inn. Located at Diego Rivera 50, San Angel, this is a restored 18th century hacienda, with lovely gardens and grounds. It is wonderful for outdoor dining on the patio at lunch time, or in the elegant dining rooms for dinner (jacket required). Tel. 5616-1402. Try the crepas de huitlacoche, and the margaritas (not frozen, but ice cold and potent, good tequila).
La Hacienda de Los Morales. A big favorite of the HSC crowd. Elegant indoor dining at Vazquez de Mella 525, in Col. Polanco. Jacket & tie required for gentlemen; no exceptions. (There was a replica built in Houston about 30 years ago near Lakeside CC, but it is no longer in business.) Ask for the escamoles. Tel. 5096-3055. Or 5 281 4554.
La Taberna de Leon. Av. Revolucion y Rio Magdalena in Col. San Angel. An old estate home for a paper factory. Near the Plaza Loreto Mall. Wonderful old restaurant and nice shopping nearby. Tel. 5616-2110. Or try 5 616 3951.
La Fonda del Recuerdo. This is a place for genuine Mexican culture, including mariachis, flamenco dancers, music and good Mexican food. The hot peppers are hot (ask Chris Fair) and the atmosphere electric. Bahia de las Palmas No. 37 (near the Pemex Tower). Tel. 5260-2045.
Los Danzantes. Plaza Jardin Centenario 12, on the main square in Coyoacan. Larry Hitt, David Fox and I discovered this place a few years ago, and it is wonderful. Nouveau Mexican cuisine that is truly exceptional. Faces the square, and doesn't look like much from the outside, but don't be fooled! Tel. 5658-6054.
Hacienda Antigua de Tlalpan. Calz de Tlalpan 4619. Great place in Tlalpan, not far from UNAM. Works as an after concert late night dining experience (provided the concert doesn't run too late). Another old hacienda, with beautiful grounds and gardens. Try the sopa de flor de calabaza.
Cluny. One of my law partners in Mexico City introduced us to this French restaurant in San Angel a few years ago. It is famous for its crepes, which are a unique mixture of French and Mexican cuisine. Av. De la Paz 57, Tel. 5550-7359. They have a special crepe for Mexican independence that is in the colors of the Mexican flag.
And some others that have been recommended to us:
Villa Maria. Homero 704, Col. Polanco (near San Geronimo). 5 250-6932. Listed as a Mexican restaurant.
Arroyo. Insurgentes Sur 4003 (south of the Periferico Sur). Another traditional Mexican restaurant, described as a very popular spot on the weekends for families. Famous for barbecued lamb and other traditional Mexican dishes. Casual. 5-573-4344.
Rincon Argentino. President Masaryk 177, Col. Polanco. I've always heard great things about this place, famous for its steaks. 5 254-8775 or 254-8744.
Les Moustaches. This is another one that has been recommended to me. It is located in a Porfirian mansion at Rio Sena #88, a 2 calles del Angel, near the Sheraton and US embassy in Col. Cuauhtemoc. The cuisine is continental, and business attire is required. Live piano and violin music. 5-533-3390.
Ambrosia. Periferico Sur 3395, Col. Rincon del Pedregal. Very close by; international cuisine. I think some HSC members have commented favorably. 5-645-8301/645-4730. Check for times; it may not be open for dinner.
La Guadalupana. Coyoacan. That's all I know. Perhaps someone can scout this one out.
There are many, many more, and everyone has a "secret" favorite that they will be eager to tell you about. Or pick up a travelers guide at the hotel, and find some new place that can be added to our list for future tours. Dining out is half the fun of Mexico City, so be brave and venture out. However, if you're tired and just need to eat right away, our hotel does have a nice restaurant with a limited but adequate menu. And if you don't have anyone to dine with, it's a good bet that if you go down to the hotel restaurant you'll find other chorus friends who will be glad to have you join them.
Sightseeing. Mexico City is a wonderful city full of interesting museums, cathedrals, galleries and archeological sites. Some are within a short cab drive of the hotel; others will take some time to get to. Depending on the availability of free time (rehearsal schedules often change in the discretion of the conductor), there are lots of great things to see in this city rich in culture and beauty. Here are some of our favorite sightseeing adventures:
National Anthropology Museum. You could easily spend a week here and cover only half of the exhibits of the anthropological history of Mexico. The various salas (halls) in the museum cover different aspects of Mexican culture, from the Maya to the Olmec. (I read a newspaper article a few days ago that indicated that there is an Egyptian exhibit on display there currently.) You can see the famous Aztec Calendar Stone and huge Olmec stone heads that make you think you've suddenly been dropped in the middle of Asia. A really spectacular way to spend the afternoon. In Polanco-Chapultepec, only about a 20 minute cab ride from the hotel.
Chapultepec Castle. Not far from the Anthropology Museum, this was the Hapsburg (installed by the French) Emperor Maximilian's (and Carlota's) castle. Good way to spend an afternoon.
Pyramides at Teotihuacan. These are the pyramids in a valley about 30 miles north of Mexico City long thought to be built by the Toltecs prior to the birth of Christ. Actually, they were built by a civilization earlier than the Toltecs, and the Aztecs discovered them and named the place "The City of the Gods" or "Where Men Become Gods." If you're adventuresome, climb the pyramid of the sun (at 216 ft. high, the third largest in the world) or the pyramid of the moon (which is smaller), but be careful, the altitude makes it a lot more difficult, and the climb down can be frightening. You can probably get a sitio driver to take you out there, and he will round up a tour guide for you to show you the pyramids, the grounds and the priests' living quarters, and return to the hotel. It's about an hour plus drive, and we would suggest leaving a good five or six hours for this one. It is, however, well worth it.
Frida Kahlo Museum. The artist and well-known Communist (she was Diego Rivera's wife and Trotsky's lover) Frida Kahlo lived in Coyoacan, and her house, which she shared with Diego Rivera, is now a very interesting museum. Londres 247, Coyoacan, only 20 minutes or so from the hotel. If you've seen the recent movie of her life, you'll want to see this, since we understand a lot of it was filmed here.
Zocalo, Metropolitan Cathedral, the Templo Mayor, the National Palace, the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Casa de los Azulejos. All located an easy walk from each other downtown, the Zocalo is the central plaza in the old section of the City. It is crowded and always the scene of great activity, particularly on the weekends. The Cathedral was built over the site of the ruins of the Aztec temple (the Templo Mayor) and the city of Tenochtitlan, which was destroyed by the Spanish conquistadores. The National Palace houses the offices of the Presidency and a Diego Rivera mural. The Palacio des Bellas Artes is an art deco opera house which also is the home of the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico. It was constructed in the early 1990's. We performed there during one of our Mexico City tours and it is a beautiful hall. And while you're there, located between the Zocalo and the Bellas Artes is the Casa de los Azulejos (the House of Tiles), a lovely building built by a man whose father told him he would never amount to a house of tiles. It is now a Sanborns and offers a nice place for a quick bite to eat and rest. Allow a good three to four hours to see the entire downtown scene.
Shrine of Guadalupe. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico. Legend has it that she appeared before an Indian named Juan Diego, who was just canonized a few years ago by Pope John Paul II. A basilica now is at the site of the apparition, which houses the cloak Juan Diego was wearing and which was imprinted with the image of the Virgin. On the way to the pyramids, and could be combined with a trip there.
Xochimilco. These are the "floating gardens" and the last remnants of the Aztec method of constructing Tenochtitlan on straw mats floating on the lake. Colorful boats ply these canals, and there are some carrying mariachis and vendors. Very easy to get to from the hotel, and a nice way to spend an hour or two floating on the canals. As we discovered a few years ago, it is great fun with enough people to get two boats and have races and other competitive activities. See our website for pictures of our 2002 tour for our visit to Xochimilco.
Franz Meyer Museum. Hidalgo 45. Nice museum of applied art. Some of you may have seen pieces from this museum at a special exhibition held at the MFAH in the summer of 2002.
Diego Rivera Mural Museum. Colon and Balderas, in San Angel, not far from Frida Kahlo museum (see above). This was built to house Diego Rivera's murals.
Shopping. If shopping is your thing, Mexico City offers lots of unique opportunities to find really nice bargains on silver, souvenirs and leather goods. Some "bargaining" is expected, but be pleasant about it. Here are a couple of shopping ideas:
Zona Rosa. Near the Reforma and Insurgentes Avenues, and the Independence Monument not far from downtown and Polanco-Chapultepec. Lots of boutiques, small shops and sidewalk cafes. The Insurgentes market has a huge array of silver with good prices.
Bazaar del Sabado. As the name implies, this market is open only on Saturdays, in Plaza San Jacinto in San Angel. Lots of arts and crafts. Mostly open air, but with some shops in a little arcade which includes a restaurant. Great spot for people watching. Also includes art in the park, where artists display their paintings and sculptures around the square and along the sidewalks a la "New Orleans." I found a nice oil painting by a Mexican artist there on our last visit, and several HSC members found bargains on serapes, art work and jewelry.
Peri Sur Shopping Mall. The Peri Sur shopping center is across the Periferico from the hotel, and has lots of major department stores such as Liverpool and Sanborns, as well as numerous other smaller shops. There is a drug store and several fast food places there.
Polanco. There is a residential area behind the Hotel Nikko, Presidential Inter-Continental and JW Marriott in Polanco that has some very upscale boutiques and shops. Between Horatio and Presidente Masaryk in Polanco are two shopping centers, Plaza Zentro and Plaza Mazarik, that have high end stores like Fendi, Louis Vitton, etc. and restaurants like La Valentina. If you go there, bring lots of money.
Day trips. These really depend on time, which we will have in abundance this year. In years past, we have been able to take bus trips to Cuernavaca and Taxco (the silver shopper's heaven) or Puebla. This needs to be a planned event with probably a professional tour guide (and bus) to put it all together. We are looking into various tour opportunities, and will have some possible tours posted for sign-up at the hotel, with cost estimates. If you want to venture out on your won, you may be able to talk a sitio cab driver to take you, but it's better done on a bus. If you are interested in planning these events on your own, we would suggest talking to the concierge at the hotel. It is particularly important, if you want to venture out on any of these trips, that you allow plenty of time to return to the hotel in order to meet our rehearsal and performance commitments. Here are some details about day trips that are possible to fit in:
Cuernavaca. This is the colonial town of "great trees" about an hour and a half south of Mexico City where Cortes lived when he retired. Maximilian and Carlota also had a place here. The weather is perpetually springtime, and there are a number of excellent restaurants off the central square for a relaxed lunch. The cathedral, at the corner of Hidalgo and Morelos, was built in 1525 and is among the oldest in the country. It's much more relaxed than Mexico City, if you're looking for a town steeped in colonial Mexican culture but with a slower pace.
Taxco. About 100 miles southwest of Mexico City (on the other side of Cuernavaca) is Taxco, a beautiful town of quaint colonial houses that cascades down the mountainside, with small cobblestone, twisting streets reminiscent of old world towns in Europe. Centered around a lovely plaza and the Santa Prisca church, a gorgeous Mexican baroque church on the main square, the real attraction is silver. This is very high quality, one of a kind silver, not what you typically find in the mercados. The silversmiths and their workshops are here, and silver shops are everywhere. Getting to Taxco is even more interesting if you go the mountain route (buses usually don't go this way, because the road is too small) along which you may see numerous working burros or a roadside vendor selling iguanas, not to mention some lovely views. Allow at least two hours each way.
Puebla. This is everyone's favorite old colonial town, located about two hours east of Mexico City. Famous for its Talavera tile and onyx, it is known as the City of Churches. The first Bishopric founded by the Catholic Church in the New World was here, organized not long after Cortez conquered the Aztecs. There are numerous fine examples of Mexican baroque churches and colonial architecture here, but don't miss the Cathedral. It is actually more ornate than the cathedral in Mexico City, gilt with gold and silver (and it is not sinking, either). There is a huge pipe organ in the center, and enormous marble altar and columns that simply overwhelm. If you're hungry, mole was invented here (reportedly by a nun in a panic to make a meal for a surprise visit by the bishop) and if you've never tried it, this is the place. There are lots of shops for tile and pottery shopping (how you get it home is your problem) and watching the artisans craft their wares. Their workshops are sometimes open for visitors. The way to Puebla is interesting because you must go over a pass in the mountains near Popocatapetl, the smoking mountain. Also, the Cholula pyramid is on the way to Puebla. It is the largest pyramid in the Americas, but largely unexcavated. The Spanish built a church on top of what they thought a large hill, that turned out to be the pyramid. Tunnels have been dug into the edifice which are open for tours. Some of the surrounding structures have also been excavated, and you can see how large the complex was in its prime.
Other neat things to do. If just walking and soaking in the scenery is what you want, we'd recommend the following:
Bosque de Tlalpan. The Bosque de Tlalpan is right behind the hotel. Great spot for a morning walk or a jog. You can climb up the mountain and see great views back toward downtown Mexico City. Lots of eucalyptus trees and other beautiful flora. Lots of activity always going on in this Park, from Tai Chi to chess. Very nice spot for a quick walk after breakfast.
Chapultepec Park. This is the Mexico City version of New York's Central Park. It covers over 2100 acres, and houses several museums, a zoo and an amusement park. It is the place for all Mexican families to congregate on weekends.
Pyramid at Cuicuilco. There is actually a smaller pyramid about a fifteen minute walk east of the hotel at Cuicuilco near the Olympic Village. This pyramid pre-dates Teotihuacan. In fact, its people probably fled the volcano which engulfed it (and the entire Pedregal region) and later built Teotihuacan. We haven't been there, but hear it is an interesting site. Walk east along the Periferico Sur across Insurgentes. According to one chorus member who has been there, it is worth a visit if you've got a spare hour or two and would like to take a tourist expedition on foot.
TIPS FROM THE DOCTOR
By Barbara Bush, MD
As a member of the chorus, I will be volunteering medical assistance while on tour. Typically, I will offer "office hours" in my room right after breakfast daily and you can contact me at other times during rehearsals or my room (message if I'm not there). My room number will be announced when we get there. Since I can't carry every medicine known to man, you will need to bring your own personal medicine bag and pay attention to the information I am providing here.
Montezuma's Revenge. Traveler's diarrhea is a common result of a trip across the border. It results from ingesting contaminated food and drink. Clearly the first thing to do to help ward it off is be smart and avoid unsafe foods such as foods from a street vendor, off temperature foods, seafood such as sushi or raw oysters, unpasteurized milk. Unpeeled fruits, like an apple, may have been handled and rinsed in contaminated water. The same goes for raw salad veggies.
Of course, DON'T DRINK THE WATER. Don't forget, ice cubes are water! Be sure hot beverages are truly hot, usually hot tea and coffee are OK. Bottled, carbonated beverages served in the bottle or can are OK (including beer). Wine is OK. Carry bottled water with you in your luggage in 2 liter size and keep refilling that smaller bottle you'll carry with you at all times, esp. rehearsal. Do not drink from the water fountains at the rehearsal hall. The hotel water is filtered and should be OK for brushing etc, but don't fill your water bottles from the tap (see below under altitude, also). On a practical note, I find that, as I drink up my bottled water, I have more room for bringing back souvenirs and dirty laundry.
For prevention, my usual advice is to take chewable Pepto-Bismol tablets: 2 tabs before each meal beginning 1 or 2 days before the trip and continuing 2 days after return. The tablets are easier to carry than the liquid, taste better and require no water to take. It does not usually interact with other meds when taken separately. It doesn't cause general side effects such as sun sensitivity or nausea, as do oral antibiotics. [Note: Pepto causes black stools, don't be alarmed. Pepto should not be used if you're pregnant.]
You should bring Immodium tablets with you. These would be used for treatment, not prevention. I will have appropriate antibiotics etc. if needed.
Other reasons to watch what you eat:
Hepatitis of all varieties is all over Mexico. This includes Hepatitis A, B, C and some that haven't been labeled yet. Dirty food and utensils can also carry parasites such as those which cause ameobiasis. If you're pregnant or have a compromised immune system, you should of course, be especially careful.
CDC recommends for adults the following vaccines should be considered:
All adults should have DT (diphtheria-tetanus) boosters every 10 years. If you haven't had the measles, a measles vaccine is normally given at age 1 year as MMR and a booster is recommeded before college.
Hepatitis A vaccine is a good idea for us all, but especially if traveling.
Hepatitis B vaccine is also available if intimate contact or a prolonged trip is planned (6 days doesn't qualify as prolonged but your sex life is up to you).
As we will not be in the jungle, malaria preventives will not be needed.
At this altitude, it is cool and mosquitos are not really a problem
THERE ARE NO CURRENT HEALTH ALERTS FOR MEXICO CITY AREA
Altitude. Remember Mexico City is about 7300 feet above sea level (1/2 mile higher than Denver!) If you have asthma, heart disease, sickle cell or any reason for breathing difficulty, be sure you are taking all your preventive medications and bring your rescue meds such as inhalers or nitroglycerin tablets. If you have had troubles in Colorado with the altitude, this is a warning and you should be especially careful to pace yourself. Age is not always protective, anyone can get altitude sickness. Drink plenty of fluids (non-contaminated, of course), as one dehydrates rapidly at altitude. Warning: too much alcohol increases dehydration and likelihood of altitude sickness, not to mention wrong notes. Singing at altitude is a challenge, not only for breathing but also, because of dry mouth and stamina. Bring those water bottles everywhere. Altitude sickness can cause dizziness, nausea, breathlessness, and headaches. Notify me if you are experiencing these symptoms.
Watch it especially on hiking up that big pyramid. I don't want you to become a sacrifice to the Gods! And FYI, there are no elevators in the concert hall and we perform on the UPPER level.
Use SUNSCREEN. Though cooler, you are more likely to burn at altitude.
Air Pollution. Unfortunately, Mexico City has become one of the most polluted cities in the world (and that's saying something when you come from Houston!). The combination of thin air and smog or smoke is horrible on your breathing and, therefore, on your singing. Since I can't say "don't breathe the air" you should begin your allergy medications before you leave, if you're not already on them. Typically, I actually treat more respiratory illness down there than diarrhea.
Miscellaneous. Do not pet or aggravate animals. Rabies is common, esp. in stray or wild animals. If you have any nasal congestion before flying, use Afrin 12 Hour to open the Eustachian tubes to the ears. This will help to avoid pressure injury to the ears. We need you to hear to stay on pitch, after all.
Medications. Be sure to bring enough of your regular medication, esp. asthma meds., to cover the entire trip, and spares in case you drop your pill down the drain accidentally. Carry the meds in a prescription labeled bottled. Customs both ways can be picky. Particularly if you take any controlled meds, a written prescription might be advised. Your meds should be with you as carry on , not in the checked suitcase which might get lost (although spares could be checked).
Try to maintain your regular routine on meds and diet. If you're diabetic, carry a snack at all times, just in case. If you're on blood pressure or heart treatment, this is not the time to eat a ton of salt (like on a margarita).
Be sure to bring any meds that you only use occasionally such as respiratory/allergy meds, acid controlling meds, or spastic bowel meds. You know best what works, so bring it.
Your Personal Travel Health Kit:
*Personal prescription medications and routine over the counter meds
*Allergy meds including antihistamine (Benedryl or Clariten) and decongestant(Sudafed), plus any nasal sprays such as nasal steroids or decongestant such as Afrin 12 hour or nasal saline spray for moisturizing nasal passages.
*Anti-motion sickness medication (we move in buses and the ride to the pyramids is especially long).
*Tylenol, aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve) or other med for pain or fever
*Immodium for diarrhea.
*COUGH DROPS and cough suppressant such as Vicks 44
*Antacid such as TUMS or Maalox
*Antibacterial ointment such as Neosporin
*1% hydrocortisone cream such as Cortaid
*Antibacterial hand wipes
*Moleskin for blisters
*Mild sleep aid
Talk to me if you have individual concerns..
Have a fun and healthy trip.
Please note that this is only a tentative schedule, and could change. We will have more rehearsal information when the Orchestra finalizes the schedule.