Tijuana in 24 hours

It’s a trope that’s been with me since childhood, seeped through my skin, feathering out through my muscles, and into my bones: Tijuana is 70’s rock, it’s Carlos Santana, the Grateful Dead; it’s dive bars, lawlessness, a Vegas for long haired hippies.

Trope or truth, TJ is worth a trip.

Here you’ll find tips, a “how-to” guide on getting across the border, what to eat and drink once you arrive, and an experience that’s a sign of the times.


My top six tips:

  1. Bring your passport.
    • Your driver’s license won’t do in a post 9/11 world.
  2. Don’t change your dollars into pesos.
    • Everyone accepts dollars, though they might give you change in pesos, and your credit card will be accepted most everywhere.
  3. Use Ubers.
    • They’re ubiquitous, cheap, safer than taxis, and most businesses will freely give you their wifi password to hail one on the app.
  4. Drink the local wine and mezcal.
    • Yes, Mexico cultivates wine! And yes, pleasant mezcal exists!
  5. Eat everything,
    • including the crushed ant salt accompanying the mezcal at GSalinas and chili covered dried mangoes at Mercado Hildago (read on).
  6. Visit the wall.
    • It will make you reconsider borders control, immigration, and the resiliency of family.

Crossing the border 

Prepare: bring water, hat, passport

There are two border crossings, one at San Ysidro, the other 8 miles to the east, at Otay Mesa. My number one tip: check the news and border crossing times before you go! San Ysidro is the busiest land border in the world; 50,000 cars and 25,000 pedestrians make the trip every day, and the planned expansion and modernization of the border crossing will compound wait times during renovations.

For the most part, getting into Mexico is relatively easy, if you don’t need a visa (Americans do not). Getting back into the U.S. can be a more time consuming, with lines up to two hours long. I got lucky: I walked into Mexico on Saturday afternoon and walked back across the border to the U.S. Sunday evening; both crossings took no longer than 30 minutes.

While you should schedule your travel to avoid long waits or border closings, in the name of sensitivity, remember tourists make up only a portion of the thousands of people moving across the border everyday. The large majority are Mexicans who legally cross the border every morning seeking better wages north of the border in physically demanding jobs. Students of all ages begin arriving at the border crossing as early as 5:30am to attend school in the suburbs of San Diego. They take commuting to a whole other level, and it sounds exhausting. If you’re standing in the sun for an hour on your way back into the U.S., give yourself some perspective, and remember you chose to do this for fun.

Option 1: Take the trolley from San Diego to the last stop, San Ysidro, and walk across the border to Tijuana.

What you should know:

  • A 30-minute trolley ride from San Ysidro links Tijuana to San Diego, so if you’re carless like me and looking to get back and forth from SD, it’s best to use this crossing rather than Otay Mesa.
  • The trolley runs every 10-25 minutes, and will cost you less than $3. Find the schedule here.
  • Take water and a hat; entry lines can be long, but it’s rare compared to the lines leaving Mexico during rush hours.
  • I found the crossing to be an easy and pleasant adventure. There was shade, a huge Mexican flag undulating in the wind, and border patrol agents gave me their opinions on the best time to cross back into the U.S. the next day (ask them!)

    Option 2: If you’re driving, leave your car on the American side.

    What you should know:

  • Drivers can be in long lines for up to four hours, so if you aren’t road tripping beyond Tijuana, park your car at San Ysidro. It’s safe and accessible.
  • Tijuana is full of cheap and ubiquitous Ubers, so you have no worries when it comes to getting around the city.
  • From San Diego, get off the 805 at the exit marked, “last US exit, Camino  de la Plaza.” There’s a parking lot a block away from “Ped X,” the pedestrian border crossing at San Ysidro. Park there for about $15/day, and walk across.
  • If you absolutely must drive across the border, check and compare your wait times between San Ysidro and Otay Mesa crossings.
  • If you will be crossing the border frequently, get a Sentri pass, a pre-approved clearance much like Global Entry. It will expedite your crossing.

Option 3: Drive or walk across the border at Otay Mesa.

What you should know:

  • There’s a sky bridge! But wait…
  • The main benefit of the Otay Mesa crossing is it links you directly to the Tijuana airport, where flights to neighboring countries or other Mexican cities are cheaper than flying out of San Diego.
  • Like the San Ysidro crossing, you can park your car on the American side ($17), walk across the toll (also $17) skybridge to the airport, and board your flight without ever having set foot in Tijuana. It works so well that two million people a year have used this option since it opened.
  • If you’re driving, remember to check and compare your wait times between the two crossings, and get a Sentri card if you’ll be crossing frequently.

After making it through the border crossing formalities, I’m sure you’re thirsty for a local IPA and hungry for some tacos, and I know just the spot.

Telefonica Gastro Park

A fish taco made in the Yucatan panucho style, with refried beans ensconced between two layers of tortillas to form the taco shell.

From the road, Telefonica Gastro Park is nondescript, unlike the foodie heaven within. Pulling into a tiny, well-managed Tetris-like parking lot, I was surprised at how compact, yet expansive the gastro park was. Food trucks lined the perimeter, surrounding two levels of outdoor seating reminiscent of a San Franciscan parklet. Moving deeper into the park, I uncovered yet another food truck, this one offering salchichas (sausage) garnished with bacon jam on a chiabatta roll. BACON JAM! Deeper in the belly of Telefonica you’ll find locally brewed beers to wash down the gluttonous amounts of gourmet tacos you’re about to eat.

Telefonica took Taco Tuesday to a whole other level, and I will forever be disappointed by non-Tijuanese tacos.


A Low-Key Evening

GSalinas Enoteca Wine Bar warmed my heart…and my throat. Locally made wines and mezcals lined the walls of this tasting room, mimicking the coziness of a home library. The affable shopkeeper taught us the difference between mezcal and tequila. Mezcal is generally too smoky for my taste, but she recommend Don Mateo based on my preference. As she poured a tasting, I noticed five circular tattoos on her forearm: the phases of jUPITER. They mirrored the orange slices she placed on my plate beside a homemade spicy salt blend containing ground up ants.

I anticipated a burning sensation, readied the orange slice by dipping it in the salty ants, sipped the mescal, sucked the juice from the orange, and basked in the glory of it all…even the ants. It was a delectable experience, with impeccable service.


 

Rest

I stayed in a ridiculously cheap Airbnb ($16/night) on one of the hottest nights of the years. Temperatures reached into the hundreds up and down the West Coast while forest fires raged. Apparently Tijuana is usually so temperate they don’t need AC, so there wasn’t any.  Unfortunately, this particular night was 102 degrees. I took five showers throughout the night to cool off, laying with sopping wet hair, getting a few minutes or hours in before I dried off and began sweating again. The house was in a decent neighborhood, a 20 minute drive from the city center, though it was only a $5 Uber ride. It fit me in my 20’s: looking for cheap places to stay, with less regard for comfort. Me in my 30’s found it to be too much like a bachelor pad. For less experienced travelers or those willing to spend more, you may want to look for hotels close to the city center, along Avenida de la Revolucion.


Breakfast

The best part of waking up, is Praga in your cup. They serve a damn good macchiato and with outdoor seating along the sidewalk, it’s the perfect spot to people watch while you sip. Breakfast is decent too, and it’s conveniently located diagonal from a fairly priced silver shop called Emporium run by a friendly bilingual gentlemen, and across from the restaurant whose chef famously invented the Caesar salad.


Mercado Hidalgo

Shop like a local: dried mangoes covered with chili powder (my personal fav), mariachi costumes, Donald Trump piñatas, traditional huipil shirts…Mercado Hidalgo has it all. It’s so much fun to browse and try the flavorful local sweets, unusual fruit, and sip coconut water right from the whole coconut.

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Tacos el Gordo

I have a soft spot (ironically) for anyone named Gordo, so I was convinced I had to visit Tacos el Gordo. Here’s another reminder to not judge a book by its cover: it wasn’t as mind-blowing as I had anticipated. It looked better than it tasted, but the atmosphere was delightful. Like an outdoor diner in the round, locals saddled up to the barstools to shout their orders, and the servers reminded me of high-school lunch ladies: sweet, no-nonsense caretakers. As I ate my taco a woman confessed to me that she drove all the way across the border from Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego, just for these tacos. Her name was Pilar, and she stood while she ate, still wearing her work uniform. There was a Tacos el Gordo closer to her house in the U.S., but she adamantly insisted they are NOT the same. I could relate–it’s like a pizzeria in south Jersey advertising “New York style pizza.” Definitely never.


A Tijuana Tidbit

People are weird…and I love it. An old man named Manuel Zazueta was inspired to decorate his car with a few trinkets 14 years ago, and it's become a Tijuanan oddity, with everyone chipping in and contributing to this weirdness that makes us wonder and smile. Neighbors leave happy meal toys, Legos, Disney figurines, Pez dispensers and Troll dolls in a donation box attached to the car. Don Zazueta became known as "El señor de los monitos," The Trinket Man. Sadly, Don Zazueta passed away from cancer last year, but Tijuana continues his tradition, and our day is injected with a healing dose of whimsy when his car goes by. 🚙😲 Thanks to Pilar, a stranger I met and spoke with while we ate tacos, for filling me in on this local gem. 🌮 📍 Tijuana, Mexico 🇲🇽 🐝 #thenoblebee #elseñordelosmonitos _ _ _ _ _ _ #tijuana #mexico #fbf #TLpicks #localhero #travelstoke #WorldTravelIG #LoveTheWorld #traveltheworld #disney #troll #wanderlust #IAmATraveler #pez #happymeal #create #travelblogger #GMC #carsofinstagram #weird #thetravelwomen #traveldeeper #womenwhoexplore #sheexplores #cancer #solofemaletraveler #tjtq #cars

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Pasaje Rodriguez

Pasaje Rodriguez is a small covered alley reminiscent of a less frenzied Moroccan souk, the Brooklyn of Tijuana. Artists can actually afford to live in Tijuana. This affordability allows unfettered creativity, as artists are unbeholden to day jobs or the siphoning of their creativity into the corporate world. The walls of the pasaje are decorated with colorful murals rivaling Bushwick’s, each with a socially conscious message. New age hippies sell handmade crystal jewelry beside an indigenous woman with her daughter selling traditional woven shirts and dresses (huipil). I needed no convincing to buy a huipil, since Frida Kahlo is my fashion inspiration and feminist hero. In doing so, I’m proud to support women’s work and a local tradition. I chose a pink and white dress, and a black shirt with shockingly red roses woven into the neckline.

Wearing the huipil I bought in Tijuana in Thermal, CA.

As an aside: it’s vital to support women’s businesses when you travel. Generally, women aren’t in the public sphere as often as men; they aren’t driving our taxis or vending in the street. Their work is largely invisible, done behind closed doors, so we have to be diligent about economically supporting their efforts. It’s something I challenge myself to do in every country I visit. Try it. You’ll be amazed at how segregated some societies are, or how educational barriers make it more difficult to communicate with women (if you don’t know the local language). My second reward, beyond my huipil, was this particular woman directed me to “café mas rico” further down the pasaje and she was right, it was muy rico.

The pasaje will continue to surprise you; as you head in deeper, you’ll find a comic book store, a ceramics studio, and coffee shops with a digital workspace vibe.

“Todos somos migrantes.” We are all immigrants.

 


 

The Ride

I headed to the wall dividing the U.S. from Mexico on a Sunday. I took an Uber there, observing people through the window. Eventually I asked the driver where the dark-skinned people dressed in Sunday church clothes were from–were they African? He said no, they were Haitian, and they came after the earthquake. He went on to say some people were upset they were still there, accusing them of siphoning off the welfare state. The rhetoric sounded familiar. He, however, didn’t perceive it that way, and said from his experience, they seemed like hard-working people who experienced a traumatic event and were trying to make a better life for themselves. I was relieved at his analysis and judged him to be a tolerant person.

A satirical sign advertising a guided illegal border crossing…56% guaranteed.

I asked more questions, and he revealed he used to live in the U.S., in Salem, Washington. He didn’t choose to move back to Tijuana–he was deported. He easily admitted this to me, said he assaulted his ex-wife, was arrested, sent to prison and eventually to a detention center in Tacoma. He blamed himself “for getting into trouble,” but I couldn’t tell if he was regretful that he got caught or that he assaulted her. When he returned to TJ, he became a taxi driver, but was robbed at gun point, the thief taking his phone and cash, but not the car. He subsequently switched to driving for Uber.

The two stories are interwoven: as U.S deportations increased after 9/11 and skyrocketed during the Obama era, people returned to Tijuana without skills that matched market demand. Unemployment and homelessness increased, followed by crime, trapping the city in a cycle of further economic depression as media coverage of violent Mexican gangs scared tourists away. In the past few years the industry has bounced back to a certain degree. As the Uber made its way toward the wall, I saw a man shooting up, and others laying on a grassy area under a bridge, not unlike Tompkins Square Park in New York City. Personally, I felt relatively safe, though I did take precautions against walking at night and used Ubers instead of cabs, because drivers are traceable, vetted and cashless. There are still no-go zones for tourists and locals will let you know where those are, so chat with them. Perspective is important here: locals are much more affected in their daily lives by crime and governmental neglect than tourists. Speaking of which…

The Wall

The driver dropped me at Playa de Tijuana, wishing me well and directing me toward the wall–border fence, really. The fence was painted with affirmations of peace and togetherness in colorful happy tones. Families peered through the tiny gaps, into the eyes of their siblings, mothers, and cousins in America. A woman settled into a beach chair across from a gentleman on the American side similarly equipped, with the addition of a beach umbrella. The woman primped her hair and leaned in toward the man, toward the fence. I felt embarrassed to witness such a private moment rendered so public, so I moved on.

On the American side, border patrol agents, a bicyclist, two blonde women and two Border Angel activists mingled–not with each other, but with us through the fence on the Mexican side. I felt ashamed to be there, to so easily be able to perform the magic of walking through walls. Seagulls casually flew back and forth over the international boundary, mocking the people below. The fence seemed such a human folly, a superficial device to soothe crippling fear.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
                           –Robert Frost





If you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s time to perform the magic of walking through walls. The pathway is winding and vaguely marked. My fellow cross-overs and I look at each other for reassurance, but we’re all confused and unsure. Finally we enter a haphazardly constructed room with three U.S. customs agents scanning passports and asking questions some of us mistake for genuine interest. A dog on a leash roams, invades our space to sniff us out. A man, one of the cross-overs, is taken to a room with no windows for further questioning. I wonder what unsatisfactory answer he gave that prompted this walk of doom. I’m welcomed to America by the friendly customs agent. I offer a closed-lip smile in return, while silently wishing my superpowers were transferable.


Extra-time? Try these.

  • Mision 19 is good for bone marrow
  • Verde y Crema for beer tasting
  • La Mezcalera for a relaxed after-work spot
  • Los Remedios for a classic cantina
  • Auditorio Municipal Fausto for lucha libre on Friday night. That’s gotta be epic, and I’m so sorry I missed it. All the more reason to come back!

 

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Lisbon: A Walking Tour to Eat, Drink and Wax Nostalgic

New York City and I have an open-relationship, but it's fair to say Lisbon is my side piece. The fantastic, cheap wine, neighborhoods beckoning for a stroll, a burgeoning indie arts scene, locals who embrace diversity, music that ignites passion, food that sweetens the tongue: Lisbon is everything I love about life, and you will covet my side piece!

This walking tour itinerary is one of two I'll be posting. It's a lot to do in one day, so I recommend prioritizing your interests. For your convenience, I've sequenced it so the next site is nearby. This isn't The Amazing Race, and travel that stresses you out by making you feel like you have to tick items off a list under a time crunch is no way to vacation.

If you're doing it for the gram, make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes and bring a bottle of water because Lisbon's got curves and will wear you out. The hilly cobblestone streets are literally, and figuratively, breathtaking.


Bom dia!

Start your day off with an inexpensive, hearty breakfast at Café do Monte in the São Vicente – Graça neighborhood. It's got a funky, 1960's San Francisco vibe, so don't be surprised if you hear some Hendrix while you slurp your chai or sip your cocktail. From there, it's a 6 minute walk to Igreja e Convento da Graça, a church with a spectacular miradouro, one of Lisbon's many lookout points. You can even see Castelo de Sao Jorge, a medieval castle that traded hands between the Moors and Christians during the Siege of Lisbon in 1147. If you want to see the castle up close and personal, you're in luck: it's only a 10 minute walk, 15 if you factor in the hills. If an adrenaline shot is in order, walk along the high walls of the castle and look down at the expansive ancient city below.

For me, the most vibrant part of the castle is the confluence of cultures outside the wall. African men sell selfie sticks to tourists and play the balafon, a painter wearing a fedora and a bowtie dips his paintbrush in coffee to paint portraits, colorful tuks tuks toil up the steep cobblestone hills, and souvenir shops selling azulejos (tiles), cork purses and dishrags embroidered with roosters line the path to the entrance, interspersed with cafes where you can grab a bica (espresso) and rest your feet.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pSK-vtQW0io


Boa tarde!

From the castle, a 15 minute walk will bring you to Figueira Square, a transit hub alongside a grocery store where the locals shop. If the grocery store isn't your thing, I hope it's the weekend: food vendors cover the square offering all the pork you can dream of, gourmet cheese, luscious pastries and refreshing sangria. It's a terrific place to linger for a light lunch and al fresco imbibing, a luxury we Americans are too often denied (unless you're in New Orleans.)

From Figueira Square, you're perfectly positioned to take the number 15 or 27 tram to Torre de Belem, about a 35 minute ride. The Belem Tower was built along the Tagus River in 1515 as a defense system against invaders and was additionally used as a customs check point to partially fund the kingdom's extensive maritime explorations (and subsequent invasions). Both the invasions and excursions are what make Portuguese architecture, food and culture so diverse; still it's necessary to recognize the brutality behind the beauty.

The exterior of the tower is more impressive than the interior, and even if you buy a ticket in advance, you could wait in line for over an hour to enter, so skip it. Rather, head on over to Pastéis de Belem, the home of the best pastel de nata in Portugal. There you can have the sweet egg custard on the very grounds where nuns invented them 200 years ago inside the Jeronimos Monastery next door.

For a peaceful reprieve from the hot sun, pop into the monastery for 10 Euro. It's a peaceful reprieve from the bright sun, and the cue is likely shorter than the one at Belem Tower, though the architecture is much more impressive. Vasco de Gama is buried inside. A quick visit (under an hour) should do ya.

From there, the Museu dos Coches (the National Coach Museum) is only 7 minutes away. Built for Portuguese royalty during the 16th to 19th centuries, the world's most valuable collection of horse drawn carriages now sits in a former horse riding arena. Coming from Amish country myself, a carriage museum seems quite provincial; however, this museum is unlike any I've ever seen. Too regal for princesses even, it's like the Disney princesses' moms parked their carriages for a "how to kill the evil witch" convention, and we get too ogle the red velvet and gold silk interiors, gilded cherubs, and hand-carved 400-year-old wheels while they plot and plan.

I'd venture to guess you're tired and need some down time. These next two places are not must dos, so if you're pressed for time, or just need a quick rest and recuperation, don't feel the pressure to squeeze them in. The evening plans are musts while in Lisbon, so prioritize them.

From the Coach Museum, take a tram or walk to LX Factory. The former industrial factory is an artist haven and houses vintage shops, a rooftop bar, restaurants, and a bookstore. You could spend a whole afternoon here, especially if an exhibit or concert is on the agenda. The bookstore, Ler Devagar, is a bookworm's dream come true; an books from floor to ceiling. It's a place meant for lingering, embodying that authentic Lisboan attribute of slowing down and eating the pastries. Speaking of which, the chocolate cake at Landeau will change your life.

As an alternative, I recommend taking the tram from Torre de Belem back toward Cais Do Sodre, and getting off at Corpo Santo. Walk 2 blocks to the Tagus River (Rio Tejo) and you'll bump into Pitcher Cocktails, one of Lisbon's quiosques de refresco (refreshment kiosks). Sip and stroll, or sit and soak up some vitamin D.


Boa noite!  

Bairro Alto is the nocturnal neighborhood of Lisbon; it comes alive at night. Revelers spill out of bars and onto the narrow cobblestone streets. There's a joie de vivre in their chatter, both from their lips and their shoes striking the cobblestones.

After you're refreshed and rejuvenated, head on over to Taberna Portuguesa in Bairro Alto for dinner, where you'll find Portuguese comfort food at its finest. Plates of cheese, bread, jam and olives await you, though they're not free like the breadsticks at Olive Garden, because this is real food! Order yourself a 2€ glass of wine, and consider the 30€ tasting menu; it'll give you a good sense of Portuguese homecooking and won't break the bank. Bom apetite!

After you've had your fill at Taberna Portuguesa, head to Tasca Do Chico, an intimate, cozy fado bar popular with locals and tourists alike. Fado is Portuguese blues, and it will rip your heart out. Accompanied by a guitar, a fado singer will pour her yearning, regret, hope, and eternal sadness into each word. You'll understand, even if you don't speak Portuguese.

Make your way through the swinging Western saloon doors of Tasca do Chico and you'll be hit with a double dose of nostalgia and romanticism, for which there is no cure. Fado singers begin around 8:30pm and will instantaneously enrapture you. The dim light and the wine will lull you into a state of tranquility, only for the regretful tones of fado to make you wince in empathy.


Up soon: another walking tour that takes you through Lisbon's most diverse neighborhood to its most lavish district, to a food market straight from Anthony Bourdain's wet dream, and into Lisbon's indie art scene. Stay tuned!

 

Azores: Running with the Bulls in Terceira

Every Sunday from May to September, Terceira Islanders take to the streets for “tourada à corda,” a celebration of tradition, tenacity and togetherness. Touradas are similar to running with the bulls, except this bull is at the end of a long rope, which allows for the five men called pastores to control its direction and advance (to some degree). Another distinction is that the bull is not killed at the end of his run, though I doubt this fact will mollify PETA or any vegans.

The tourada has a state fair vibe to it: mobile vendors sell whole crabs, ice cream and donuts, older men in short-sleeved button-down shirts tucked into their starched blue jeans line up behind street level barricades while women and young children sit along the volcanic stone hedge walls that are prevalent in the Azores. 

Young men, eager to prove their bravery through bravado approach the bull head on, stomp their feet and wave their arms. Once the bull charges, it’s imperative to have a nimbleness about you, to react decisively and climb a wall ninja style.

Across many cultures the bull represents determination (AKA stubbornness), unpredictability, stamina, and an unbreakable will. The 400-year-old tourada tradition plays with this symbolism, and provides Azoreans with an adrenaline rush I’m not sure any other local activity could. Maybe cliff diving? Bars and restaurants offer highlight reels of the most spectacular leaps, dives and dodges. On occasion, a man misjudges, falls prey to the bull and is trampled or gored to death.

I was initially apprehensive, but the longer I watched, the more anxious I was to participate, even wearing a dress. I spoke to the pastores during an intermission, while the bulls were crated and spectators bought snacks.

At the start of the next round, I joined the older men in jeans at a driveway lined with hydrangeas. I didn’t even see the bull coming our way, but I followed the tide of men scurrying up the driveway, laughing maniacally. It reminded me of sneaking into haunted (abandoned) houses as a teenager, the thrill of the unknown eliciting giddiness, the perceived anxiety worse than any real danger. Later, the pastores amused themselves by letting out the rope’s slack and allowing the bull to chase me, the only woman runner, all the way to the safe zone, demarcated by two white stripes on the road.

Pastores removing rounded-tip brass covers from a bull’s horns.

The mere fact this tradition continues to exist ruffles some feathers. Maybe it is time to phase it out, though I’d approach it from the perspective that men dying in an attempt to prove their masculinity is problematic, rather than an animal rights issue. Something I’ve come to realize through living for over two years in a rural South African village as a Peace Corps volunteer is culture is more deeply embedded than a tick after a long hike. Merely proclaiming “it’s wrong, it’s evil!” without understanding the history or value behind the tradition doesn’t motivate practitioners to reconsider. Speaking up against what you perceive as injustice is a moral imperative, and part of an informed advocacy campaign is one which appreciates the value in the why, and offers alternative traditions. Practitioners must be partners in the change process, not simply on the receiving end of intolerance, benevolence or cosmopolitan ideas. As long as the touradas are tied to masculinity, and without a meaningful substitute, they will continue despite condemnation or deaths.

After being chased by the bull, with adrenaline still coursing through my veins, I walked around the corner and through the airport parking lot to hop on a 30 minute flight. Next stop,  Graciosa.

The Fisherman

Like so many Azorean men, he was shirtless and tan. His fishing rod was primitive: made from a 15 foot long bamboo rod, there was no reel; instead, the fishing wire ran its length, plopping into the water at the tapered end. With each heave, the rod wiggled up and down over the ocean. The Fisherman continuously rolled chum into balls in his left hand, while heaving the rod with his right, hiding the hook in these morsels.

I took some shots of him from a distance, like I was on safari. A boy about 9 years of age stood beside him, and nudged The Fisherman to alert him to what he already knew-my camera was aimed at them. The Fisherman glanced in my direction, then shrugged at the boy. I imagine The Fisherman had a cologne called Eau du Insouciance, and he bathed himself in it that morning.

I closed the gap between us, saying, “Bom dia. Any luck?” He responded in English, but it took me a few sentences to realize his accent wasn’t strictly Azorean; it was somewhere between Boston and the Azores. I was curious. I asked questions and was rewarded with stories: He was born in the Azores, and his parents moved to Lowell, Massachusetts when he was 7. He grew up there. Though his parents moved back to Sao Miguel, he stayed in Lowell. He thumped the right side of his chest with a closed fist, pointing out the tattoo of an older man’s face. His dad, with whom he shared a name, died just a few years ago and he moved back to Sao Miguel to take care of his mother, who was sick. I silently wondered why the tattoo of his father was on the right side of his chest, and not over his heart. He hated it here–life was so slow paced he found it unbearable, there was no work, and he felt trapped. I felt empathetic, but didn’t feel sorry for him, because I envied his access to the breeze, the view, the angle of the sun, even the slowness.

He was a good looking man with a fit body. But something was off, and I didn’t quite know what. His eyes were bleary and deep-set. I imagined they receded like a hairline, after years of negative experiences. They reflected a defeatism that his words didn’t overtly betray. My intuition whispered to me, but I couldn’t interpret its message in the moment; still, I trusted it would eventually reveal itself and I unconsciously set a boundary on how far I wanted this interaction to go.

Travel is a commitment to openness; openness of mind, to adventures, experiences, people, conversations, and food. Early in our lives, logic is held up as the ultimate guiding system, over intuition. Yet, women and people of color must hone their intuition to stay safe. We’re often told we’re being fearful, paranoid, anxious or sensitive in reaction to subtle yet pervasive inequality, so we begin to doubt ourselves, wondering if we’re just being bitchy, high maintenance, or putting up a wall. A “laid-back” woman is the Holy Grail on online dating sites, and the “angry black woman” is such a trope that we rarely reflect on what is going on in the lives of women and people of color to make us justifiably angry, high-strung, and wary.

When we’re not experienced in listening to our intuition, the voice can feel small, nagging, nebulous. It may be difficult to immediately decipher its meaning, so we may bury it, push it aside as insignificant or devalue its meaning in a world of big, brash words and instantaneous judgement, rating systems and feedback. When we undervalue our intuition and trust logic more than our feelings, we doubt ourselves and capitulate to other peoples’ visions of ourselves. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t investigate our feelings, or we should throw off all logic and rationality. It is to say we should hone both skills equally. In the balancing act between self-protection and embracing new, unfamiliar travel experiences, conversations with strangers and spontaneous adventures, we’re sure to sometimes slip and fall, but listening to our intuition provides equilibrium.

Three months later, as I was writing about my trip to the Azores, I wondered about drug use in the Azores. Drugs are legal in Portugal, but I wondered if that was the case in the Azores. In doing research, a strange “coincidence” occurred. Though I wasn’t specifically researching The Fisherman’s story, and didn’t even know his full name, I discovered he did 5 years in prison in Massachusetts, and was deported back to the Azores. He was married with 5 children.

Sometimes the hook is hidden in morsels.

 

 

Azores: Exploring Sao Miguel

The streets of Ponta Delgada in Sao Miguel are lively, but I suspect most people come to Sao Miguel for the natural beauty, plenty of which you’ll find below.

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I’ve written on what to eat and what you need to know about renting and driving a car because duh, food is good, and driving is the most efficient way to get to all the otherworldly places in Sao Miguel, from the hot springs to the hilltop church to the hiking trails and back into town to sing along with traditional dancers.


Caldeira Velha

Between Ribeira Grande and Lagoa do Fogo (the Lake of Fire) sits Caldeira Velha, naturally heated hot springs in the middle of a tropical forest. It’s a img_0295 visual feast for the eyes: rich green plants and rust colored boulders span the hot springs, while birdsong echoes throughout the jungle. Absorbing this surreal scene from a pool of hot thermal water is curative for body and soul.

Tips:

  • The official parking lot is small, so use your parallel parking skills, and finagle a spot along the steep switchback curve of the mountain.
  • Entry is super cheap: only 2 Euros. It’s worth much more.
  • Changing rooms and showers are available, but there aren’t any lockers. They provide a basket to carry your items between the two springs. I had to remind my NYC state of mind that I was in the Azores, and it was highly unlikely someone would steal my stuff while I soaked.
  • There are two pools-one hot, one warm (and more photogenic because it has waterfalls, but I preferred the hot one).
  • Wear a dark colored bathing suit. The water’s minerals stain light colored suits.
  • Take a waterproof camera.
  • Caldeira Velha is very touristy, but it’s unlike any place I’ve every visited, a tropical rendition of Myvatn hot springs in Iceland.

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Vila Franca Do Campo

Vila Franca Do Campo was the most developed town on the island until the 1522 earthquake destroyed it and buried thousands of locals alive in a landslide. The rebuilding efforts were slow to advance, so the capital was transferred to the current seat in Ponta Delgada. Today, Vila Franca Do Campo is known for two incredible landmarks: a hilltop church, and a surreal volcanic islet just off the town’s shore.

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Ilheu do Vila Franca

The islet was immediately visible when I pulled up along the waterfront. I’d never seen such a magical landmass, and have never had occasion to use the word “islet.” It’s fitting. The islet is a tiny volcanic island off the coast of Sao Miguel Island, centered around a crater lagoon where a volcano imploded and collapsed in on itself. Radical!

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Ilheu do Vila Franca is perfect for an afternoon of snorkeling in the crater lagoon and picnicking on the narrow beach. You can rent snorkel gear along the waterfront. A ferry leaves the pier every hour, though I was supremely unlucky: Hurricane Gaston was headed towards the Azores, making the water choppy and rough, and the ferry was cancelled. Enjoying the weather from under a tree near the pier, a tan, rotund, shirtless man wearing a gold chain offered his opinion that it would be at least two days until the sea would be calm enough for the ferry to cross. I’d be gone by then, having moved on to Graciosa Island. I was so disappointed, but that’s the thing about the Azores–the weather can dash your best laid plans.

Tips:

  • If you like to plan ahead, you can buy the ticket online for six Euros.
  • You’ll need to bring all your own food and beach supplies, as there are no amenities. Like much of the Azores, the charm can be found in the tranquility of nature.
  • Snorkel gear is for rent along the waterfront.
  • Check out videos of the Red Bull Cliff Diving Championships to virtually explore the majesty of the cliffs.

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Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz

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Visible from the center of town, Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz (the Chapel of Our Lady of Peace) sits on a mountaintop over looking Vila Franca. I set off to walk (the New Yorker in me wasn’t used to all this lazy driving), but I soon realized the sun was too hot and the road too steep to do so without a hat, sunscreen, or water, so I went back to the car and drove up. Good thing, because the road was steeper and longer than I suspected, perfectly designed to hermit religious scholars away from the villagers and temptations below.img_6670

The parking lot is bursting with hydrangeas, a bouquet of gratitude to the holy woman who exemplifies peace. Ten flights of stairs before the entrance to the church symbolize the Hail Mary prayer and the tilework (azulejos) depicts the mysteries of the rosary. The view is amazing, and so worth the pilgrimage up the mountain.

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Furnas

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Furnas is a town in the eastern section of Sao Miguel Island. The area boasts a chartreuse colored lake, an enchanting mossy forest, volcanic vents that shoot boiling water and mud to the surface of the earth, and a relaxing hot spring.

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The lake, Lagoa das Furnas, sits on the edge of the main attraction, the Caldeiras das Furnas. Steam emanates from cracks in the Earth’s surface and the bubbling mud, boiling water and smell of sulfur is a reminder that I’m walking on a volatile volcano. Why would people live here?! It’s fantastic and mind-boggling.

Thirty minutes at the caldeiras will do, and if you’re hungry afterwards, get yourself a plate of cozido das furnas, the local stew. Curious about the cooking process and ingredients? Check out my post here.


Poca de Dona Beija

The more hot springs, the better! Poca de Dona Beija hot springs aren’t as wild or natural as Caldeira Velha, but they’re still soothing after a day of hiking.img_0329 Amenities include a parking lot, changing rooms and lockers, and at 4 Euros for the entry fee, it’s a bargain spa experience. The sulfur will stain your bathing suit orange, so wear an old or dark one. Five different hot pots offer a range of temperatures, from hot to warm, while artificial waterfalls massage your aching neck. There’s also a gift shop with artsy jewelry, a rarity aside from the airport shops. They’re open until 11pm, and if you don’t have a towel, you can rent one there.

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I visited at night, after a day of hiking. I would have gotten better photos during the day, especially of the rust colored rocks, but bathing outdoors at night is so romantic, and I prefer romance to evidence.


Salto do Prego hiking trail

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Roca de Velha

If you’ve ever wished Avatar was real life, this trail is for you. Moss shrouds thick sinewy roots while leaves as large as my torso, thick and deep green, sway in the light breeze. I breathe in the unfamiliar perfume of Roca  de Velha. In yet another nod to Portuguese exploration, the flower is endemic to India. Since it’s arrival in the Azores, it’s become an invasive species. img_5730

Like a crescendo, the trail rose and the roaring, soothing sound of falling water became unmistakable. The forest opened up to spaciousness, to a jungle amphitheater, the star of the show a picturesque waterfall above a chilly rock bottom pond.img_5912

Point your GPS to the village of  Faial Da Terra. It’s a relatively easy hike, only 30 minutes to the waterfall, and under two hours roundtrip if you swim or have a picnic, though it is steep at sections and can be muddy.


Traditional dancing

After dinner one night, I heard music in the open air plaza of Igreja Matriz de Sao Sebastian, the Church of Saint Sebastian in the middle of town. Rows of locals sat in chairs facing a raised stage where traditional dancers in white shirts, the men in tweed pants, the women in bright pink and blue woven skirts, twirled in a complicated partner dance. The women’s hair was covered by blue woven fabric, looking very “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” Azoreans are incredibly ethnically mixed as roving bands of sailors stopped over in the islands, and these outfits were reminiscent of their Flemish heritage.

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Some songs were joyful, others measured and tempered. The song that resonated most deeply with me was full of saudade, a word that cannot be fully translated into English. It is simultaneously melancholy and nostalgic, somewhere between our romantic notions and salty reality. As thousands of immigrants, like my great-great-grandparents, left the nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean and made a home in the USA, they certainly must have felt saudade at the distance between homeland and adopted home, not just in geography, but in yearning for lush jungles, verdant vistas, fresh sardines for dinner, and a shared history and language.

116 years, 5 generations and 4 planes later, I was making my way to tiny, remote Graciosa, my ancestral homeland.


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Azores: Car Rental Quirks

A word on renting a car in the Azores. It’s necessary because public transportation is infrequent and won’t get you to the most remote, most stellar places without embezzling hours from your exploration time. If you’re in an AirBnb, your host will likely have a friend who is willing to “lend” you his car for $25/day, and in this case, there’s no need to book in advance.

If you survive the cliffs, hills, and careening drivers, you’ll be glad you didn’t waste your time on the sporadic and time consuming bus system. Read on for some Azorean driving lessons learned.


Hills + cliffs + stick shift = death trap

I rented in Sao Miguel and Graciosa, and took a taxi in Terceira because I was only there for a few hours. Graciosa is small enough that you can traverse the island, including it’s interior, in a few hours. There’s a smooth network of highways across Sao Miguel, but the beauty lies on the backroads, through green hilly hedged fields bursting with hydrangeas, cows living it up in farmers’ fields. In stark contrast, the streets in the city centers are alarmingly narrow, leaving you to hold your breath while you hope you don’t smash either sideview mirror into another car or someone’s house. Careening is the best way to describe the style of driving here; it’s like locals avoid slowing down so they don’t have to downshift for any reason, even a good one, like making a left turn. Not only that, but the ubiquitous San Franciscan-like hills are nerve-wracking to an American used to automatic drive.

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The most treacherous of these experiences occurred when I pulled down a lane to get a view of the waterfront, only to realize it was an insanely steep dead-end followed by a cliff leading down into the Atlantic Ocean. A bystander encouraged me to simply reverse back up the lane, but I couldn’t lift my foot from the brake to the gas quickly enough without the car sliding forward, edging closer and closer toward the cliff. A man leisurely smoking a cigarette stared at me blankly. In two minutes time, his entertainment had transformed from a serene sea view to witnessing a woman provoke a death trap. Hesitating to get involved, he eventually took a position behind the car, motioning for me to turn the wheel this way and that while shouting directions in Portuguese. So here I was, doing a 19 point turn in a street that couldn’t have been more than 7 feet wide, sweating profusely from the fear that I might end up trapped in a car under the sea like James Bond, except this was no Lotus Esprit. I cannot believe I, and the car, escaped unscathed.


The quirks of driving in the Azores:

Signs, signs, nowhere are the signs

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I prefer these over, “Rt.240E,” don’t you?

On both islands the signage confirming you’re on the right track is sparse, and in every case I had to drive much farther than I was comfortable without reassurance that I was headed in the right direction. Rely on your phone’s GPS. Or ask an Azorean farmer for directions.

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Blind turns, lane merges and roundabouts  img_0262

Slow down! And rely on these see-around-the-corner mirrors.

Parking

Not nearly as stressful as alternate side parking in img_0266Brooklyn, but, people park in the traffic lane, so swerving or slamming on the brake for oncoming traffic is the norm, as already narrow streets become one way.

When you park, hug the wall, and pull in your mirror so it doesn’t become a casualty for the cause.

 

Cows

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Cows in truck beds, cows blocking the roads (be careful!), cows in the fields making some delicious Sao Jorge cheese. They’re amusing.

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Views

They’re gorgeous and plentiful. I’m thankful for the independence a car provides, so I can ogle these vistas for as long as I like before moving on.

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The law

And finally, I was pulled over by a police officer who told me I had made an illegal left. I apologized, but he sighed as loud as a donkey and dramatically rolled his eyes. Whether he was more frustrated by my mistake or my English, I wasn’t sure. Thankfully, that was the extent of our interaction, and he waved me on. Phew.

 

Azores: What to Eat in Sao Miguel if You Don’t Eat Seafood

Even Beyoncé Can’t Bribe Me

I’m deprived, uncultured, basic even. At least, everyone who hears I hate seafood–literally anything from the sea (except canned tuna!)–tells me I’m missing out. Indeed, going to an island in the Atlantic Ocean known for its fishing img_4885industry makes for some dining difficulties.

Because of this barrier, I was driven less by yelp recommendations lauding the fresh catch of the day and more by hunger and curiosity during my short three day layover in Sao Miguel, the largest of the nine Azorean Islands. I was making my way to remote Graciosa, the Azorean island my great-great-grandparents came from, and the only way from either the U.S. or mainland Portugal was to pass through Sao Miguel Island first. With only two flights to Graciosa from Sao Miguel per week, both of which require flying 20 minutes to Terceira Island to either hop a ferry or a connector flight, I decided to allow myself a few days to discover Sao Miguel’s natural wonders. Overall, my taste buds weren’t overly impressed with anything specific (except the pineapples!), so I amused myself with engrossing conversations, learning about distinctive cooking processes, and getting myself into some ridiculous situations.


Bad vegetarian

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baguette and Sao Jorge cheese
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passionfruit soda

I was hungry for a light meal after landing and yelp told me the vegetarian spot Rotas da Ilha Verde was nearby. I trounced over around 3pm, but it was closed. A café was open next door, but only serving espresso and cigarette smoke. Lesson 1: Most places close at 3pm and reopen for dinner at 7pm. So I wandered and came upon a blue-tiled restaurant called Casa de Pasto Taveres. It was open, but empty.

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bife de vaca

From a hand-written menu I chose bife de vaca (beefsteak) and maracuja (passionfruit) soda made in Sao Miguel. Chunks of passionfruit floated in the glass.

The bife de vaca was hearty, stewed in garlic, onions and red pepper. Over the next week, it would become my go to meal when I couldn’t decipher anything else on the menu and wasn’t feeling adventurous.

The table, like every other in the Azores and Portugal, came set with crusty bakery-fresh white bread and cheese that was an additional, not included, charge. It’s always worth it, and I hope you set your carb-free dairy-free deliciousness-free diet aside. From the sobremesas (desert) menu, I chose “um café.” Lesson 2: Coffee is always an espresso in the Azores and Portugal.


Chocolate Salami

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to go to the grocery store. Knowing nothing of how it tastes, this was the most incredible item I found.

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Volcanic Hot Spring Stew: Cozido das Furnas

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Not a grave!

A perk of living on a volcanic island is that you can let the Earth do the cooking for you!

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As simple as Blue Apron?

Fill a pot with cabbage, carrots, beef shoulder, pork shanks, blood sausage, yam, and potatoes, bury it in the ground, let it sit for 6 hours in volcanic steam vents, and viola! You’ve got cozido das furnas, “hot-spring stew.”

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“Boiled meat” doesn’t sound as appetizing as “cozido das furnas.”

Cozido das furnas at Restaurante Banhos Ferreos cost me a pretty $16, and as person suspicious of that much meat, it was surprisingly delicious! I even ate the blood sausage, which may have been my favorite of the meats!

The story continues past the meal…in typical Sao Miguelian fashion, my parking spot was narrow and steep. In trying to turn the car around in a 16 point turn, I got stuck between the building and a raised platform, revving the engine while I attempted to ramp up backwards without sling-shotting too far forward.

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Apparently I was quite loud and annoying during my ordeal. A waitresses came out and asked me, “Is it a normal car?” I stared at her deadpan, on the verge of laughter, wondering if she meant to insult me. I said, “No, it’s stick!” She smiled and responded, “Yes, so normal for me. Can I help?” I had been working at it for at least four minutes, had just began to sweat with frustration, so I gladly accepted her offer. She turned that sucker around in less than 30 seconds! While I was relieved, I chided myself for underestimating a woman who was “merely” a waitress…and for not shooting a video of her extraordinary feat.


All in Flavor, Say Aye!

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Merely four food trucks lined the pier in Ponta Delgada at sunset. You could say the industrious couple cornered the market on fresh, local ingredients; the other trucks served hot dogs, pizza, and soft-serve ice cream. Tonight’s special at Areguinha (The Sweet One) was simple: fava beans with carmelized onions, an “ancient recipe with spices from Morocco brought back by the pirates…I’m trying to make you into a pirate,” said the chef, winking. If that’ll help me on the road to owning a boat, then bring on those fava beans.

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Opening just a month ago, the couple meticulously put together a fruit salad for me, complete with Sao Miguel’s ubiquitious pineapples, while I waited for my fava beans. The unhurried locals and tourists walking along the pier to enjoy the cool breeze occupied my imagination while I impatiently waited 25 minutes for a bowl of favas.

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I kept my musings to myself, for fear of distracting the chef and further delaying his painstaking process. Served in a biodegradable bowl, with a fork of the same material, the fava beans were worth the wait, and I was happy to support the first hipster food truck in Sao Miguel.


A Farmer’s Market and Fresh-Squeezed Juice

Mercado da Graca is a good stop to pick up fresh ingredients to cook at home/your AirBnb. It’s a covered open-air farmer’s market selling local fruit, vegetables, cheese and all kinds of locally caught fish. Pineapples might as img_4905well be on Sao Miguel’s flag they’re so ubiquitous (and more succulent than the average). It’s here you can buy the buttery, tangy Sao Jorge cheese, made in the neighboring Azorean Island of the same name. I lived on this cheese! With a soft local-style English muffin called bolo levedo and a locally made tangy maracuja jam that I’ve never seen in the U.S, it was my go-to road trip snack for my day-adventuring.

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One of my favorite finds at Mercado da Graca is Sabores Local Foods, where I stopped to get a freshly squeezed pineapple juice from Ricardo, the head-honcho. The ingredients are different everyday, depending on what’s fresh in the market. Strangely enough, I literally ran into Ricardo on Terceira Island a few days later, and he shared his insights on island comparative politics.


Desperation

One evening, I returned to Ponta Delgada late from adventuring around the island all day. I was hungry, impatient, and desperate, so a bland queijo tostada (cheese toastie) on white bread from what can be best described as a outdoor corner store shamefully came to be what I chose to put into my body that evening. The exciting part was when the local biker gang started to gather nearby. I found myself wondering like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “Are you a good witch/biker club, or a bad witch/biker gang?”

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Leftovers

Associacao Agricola, on the northern shore, is decent for a dinner after a day at Caldeira Velha (the natural hotsprings), but I wouldn’t make a special trip for it. I had their acclaimed steak, but wasn’t impressed, and it’s quite expensive by Azorean standards. On the plus side, their bread was luscious and I tasted vinho verde for the first time. Highly recommended! It’s crisp, light and summery, and pairs well with dinner in the Azores!


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Restaurants, cafes and bars line the pier in Ponta Delgada.

What and where did you eat in Sao Miguel? What do you avoid eating at all costs when you travel?