A Travellerspoint blog

Phoenix, city in the desert

Until a few weeks ago, I knew as much about Phoenix as I did about Murmansk, that is, very little. It wasn't exactly on our list of top-100 places to visit but with the bottom falling out of our Christmas holiday plans, we unexpectedly found ourselves heading to this unknown city in Arizona. It was time to do some reading up and find out about places of interest nearby, such as the Grand Canyon. Our trip to Arizona turned out to be a real eye-opener, with stunning desert landscapes.



We flew into Phoenix at night so all we saw was a vast tablecloth of twinkling lights covering the Valley of the Sun, as it is known. It actually looked a lot like Mexico City, an unending expanse of urban development, spread over an area almost the same size but with a fraction of Mexico City's population. It wasn't until the next morning that we had a chance to see what Phoenix was really like in daylight. We drove to the Downtown area, easily identifiable from any spot by the tall shiny skyscrapers clustering together in the middle of an immense bungalow-height landscape. It was squeaky clean, new and orderly, but something was missing. Where were all the people? Where were the shops and cafés and the dynamic hub and buzz of urban life? Maybe it was because Christmas was just two days away but it looked like a modern-day ghost town. Little traffic, even fewer pedestrians, almost lifeless at that time. One sleek metro-train whizzed past us, and we saw a lonesome man strumming a guitar at the interesection of two grand boulevards while a second man, Ed the Hotdogger, was selling Italian or Polish sausages at his stand next to some traffic lights. To who, I don't know. At last, we found a small café which was relatively "crowded" and a little while later about 30 people turned up for the inauguration of the city's outdoor ice-rink where you could "go ice-skating in the desert". A stark contrast to the bustling crowds and noise and smell of street cooking in Mexico City, so alive and full of life.

Phoenix buildings

Phoenix downtown area

Modern buildings

Ed the Hotdogger at his stand

Warm jumpers and hats are needed in the morning when it's cold - a lady wearing a fun woolly hat!

Outdoor ice-skating rink

Cactus Christmas street lights

Christmas tree in the centre with moon

Phoenix is a HUGE sprawling city in the middle of the Arizona desert, which goes on and on forever. It took us almost one hour just to drive our way out of the vast metropolitan area when we headed north towards the Grand Canyon a couple of days later. It looked like a kind of urban patchwork quilt, built on a grid-like system, where each square is one mile long and has a similar pattern but with a few differences. The broad, airy avenues had lanes so wide you probably couldn't shake hands with the person in the next car even if you opened the door and stepped out. In Mexico City, we have severe problems just trying to avoid hitting each others' side mirror as we drive along. Orderly tracts of small, one-or two-storey houses with shady verandas crouched down low together, overlooked by palm trees and guarded by gigantic cactus plants. Each patchwork square seemed to have its own shopping centre, complete with a drive-thru bank, drive-thru fast food restaurants, some shops and services, plus a gas station and a church or two. Dentists or chiropractors rubbed shoulders with nail parlours and Denny's and Wendy's fast food restaurants, Bug and Weed stores chatted up burger bars, and supermarkets were squashed in between animal clinics and insurance offices. While we were there, the skies were deep, desert blue and the air so pure you could pump it up the oxygen tubes in a hospital. There was no sign of any litter on the roads which are populated by chunky pick-ups and well-behaved traffic doing an honest 35 mph in the town and 65 mph on the freeways.

View of Phoenix from the plane when we left

Blue skies

Spacious roads

River Salado at sunset

Empty freeways

Phoenix is definitely an "automobile city". Without a car or pick-up or some kind of private vehicle, you will not get very far. It is so vast and spread out that walking is hardly an option. On several occasions, we played a game. "Let's count how many people we see walking!" For the most part, we didn't get past 3, and our all-time high was 11. Unheard-of in Europe or Mexico. Taking a taxi anywhere would cost you a fortune. It cost $2.10 a mile and that was with the "Discount Taxis". Public transport was nice-looking but few and far-between. Thank goodness we had a car. Not the Jeep we had hoped for, but rather a massive black Dodge resembling a tank. Just to find a welcoming place to eat or somewhere to have a coffee, let alone any of the places of interest in the city, entailed a major expedition along mile after mile of boulevards with names like Camelback, Indian School, Baseline and Rural Road, all of which looked suspiciously the same. We felt we were in a labyrinth, going round and round in squares. Our conversations took on a confused monotony. "That's where we stopped yesterday!" "No, it isn't. There was a U.S. Egg on the corner, not a Whataburger." "I'm sure there was a Starbucks here yesterday!" I admit that as fleeting visitors, we obviously lacked inside know-how and were at the mercy of our rather hit-and-miss strategy.

Pick-ups are very popular

Taxis are not cheap! $2.10 per mile

The city's public transport system

Historically, Arizona has been influenced by a number of different cultures, including the Native American Indians and the Spanish. It was also part of Mexico until 1848 when the US bought a huge chunk the size of Western Europe of what was then northern Mexico for a mere $2 million, hence the widespread presence of Mexican tacos, burritos, and salsas picantes and restaurants with names like El Pollo Loco and Chipotle. In fact, in some areas you are as likely to hear Spanish spoken as English and many Mexican families have made their residence there. In its early days, all East-West streets were named after Presidents while all North-South streets had Indian names. It's hard to imagine but the city of Phoenix grew up as a typical far west town, with dusty streets lined with wooden buildings, wide enough to allow the horse-drawn wagons to turn around. In fact, in the late 1880s when it was founded, everything was within a walking distance of 2 miles. Then as the electric streetcar made its appearance, people began moving out as fast as they moved in, especially the wealthy residents. There were no limits on space. No wonder. The Arizona desert is immense and flat here. The town began to grow in size, adding new housing developments which followed a symmetrical, grid pattern, lined with trees to give shade in the high summer temperatures. Nowadays, modern-day Phoenix, which started life out as Pumpkinville in honour of the large pumpkins growing along the canals, continues to attract people, especially those in search of warm winters, heaps of sunshine, golf courses and cactus plants, and has become one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the US. It is truly enormous.

Spanish-style building

One of the many Mexican restaurants

A bit of both cultures - American and Mexican food

Hot and spicy sauces

Although we wanted to experience the American way of life, I have to admit that we longed for some good strong Espresso coffee. Instead we had to make do with tall, frothy Starbucks cappuccinos or mochas. We drank our coffees American-style, taking them with us in the car and sipping the scalding beverage over the following hour or so. Finding somewhere to eat proved to be a game of hide-and-seek, unless you want to eat burgers with fries three times a day. Where were all the real restaurants? You know, the type that serve up real food at a table with a tablecloth and wine in glasses. Unfortunately, as we were in Phoenix over the Christmas holiday, we discovered that most places were well and truly closed. Trying to find somewhere special to eat on Christmas Eve took us on a bewildering, frustrating hour's drive through the city until we found the Saddle Ranch Restaurant in Scottsdale and had a mighty steak, worthy of a hungry cowboy, with Californinan wine drunk from rather scratched wine glasses at a lamp-lit table. It did have a Far West feel to it though which made up for the lack of finesse. Over the other side of the huge wooden buiding, was a mechanical bull you could ride on after your meal. Maybe if you lasted a certain number of seconds on its back before being thrown off onto the sawdusted floor, you got your meal free. We watched several clients having a go. No-one lasted long.

Where to eat in Phoenix???

The Saddle Ranch in Scottsdale

The mechanical bull

Cowboy steak

A delicious dessert of double fudge Brownie with ice-cream and berries...

Scottsdale saved the day. Once standing on its own, it has now been swallowed up in the larger Phoenix metropolitan area, but still maintains its small town character in the centre. You could be forgiven for thinking you're in a Far West theme park. As you wander around the Old Town, the single or double-storey wooden buildings with verandas and porches are now colonised by shops selling Native American arts and crafts, leather cowboy boots and belts, gemstones and pottery, or eating places.

Scottsdale Old Town

Old wooden buildings

Horse statues around a fountain

You can go for a horse and carriage ride

Chillies hanging up

Christmas decorations

Shop selling Native American Indian crafts

Indian rugs

Far West style seats

Wind chimes

Two other places redeemed Phoenix for us: the Heard Museum, a delightful exhibition and information centre about Native American Indian culture, history and art, and Scottsdale Fashion Square, just one of the city's enormous shopping malls, which had Cristina buzzing around in an adrenaline rush, gawking at the teenage clothing shops and spending all her Christmas money. It's probably where our feet did the most walking, bar Scottsdale centre. Apparently, in the sweltering heat of summer, the immense air-conditioned malls are the place to hang out. These are the modern centres of American community life where you can shop, chat over a coffee or ice-cream, eat burgers or tacos, experience the Hurrican Simulator or Jet flights down the Grand Canyon, watch movies, eat popcorn, and wear out your shoes. I can't imagine what Phoenix must be like in the summer. Temperatures soar to 49 °C, on a par with Baghdad or Riyadh. Their record LOW temperature in summer is an incredible 36 °C, registered one July night in 2003. I sure wouldn't like to be around when that happens.

Indian exhibits in the Heard Museum

Scottsdale Fashion Square mall

Inside another huge mall

Two girls experiencing a hurricane inside a Hurricane Simulator

Shopping centre

To be fair to Phoenix, it does have a wonderful winter climate, stunningly clear blue skies and amazing desert landscapes nearby, decent drivers and loads of beautiful art and crafts. We have never seen anywhere so full of horse-themed items (we're horse-lovers) which meant we were spoilt for choice. As it was, the city was really our base for doing excursions to the Grand Canyon, the Apache Trail, and Sedona and not the focus of our holiday. And let's give credit where credit is due. It says a lot for the American pioneering spirit that a city that size has proliferated in the desert, where once a tiny mining town and trading outpost struggled to survive in the midst of the hostile elements. Little wonder they changed the name from Pumpkinville to Phoenix, symbol of rebirth, renewal, immortality... It more aptly describes a city arising from the ruins of a former civilisation, the Hohokam, in the middle of the desert which today is one of the fastest growing cities in the US.

Amazing Arizona sign

Posted by margaretm 05:23 Archived in USA Tagged city Comments (0)

Stunning Arizona

Our Christmas travels took us to Arizona. I had no idea it was so beautiful, so interesting. Here's a small glimpse of what you can see and do there....

Giant saguaro cacti

By-gone days

Desert landscapes

Canyon lakes

Vivid colours

Open roads

Ghost towns

Old vehicles

Views through the windscreen

Horseback riding


Cactus country

Blue skies

Native American Indian heritage

Traditional pottery

Woven baskets

Desert architecture

Beautiful sunrises

Village churches

Cowboy times

Grim reminders

Unexpected humour

Desert wildlife

Snow-capped mountains

Log cabins

Long drops

Grand Canyon colours

Characteristic towns

Cowboy boots

Nature's rock carvings

Red rocks

Elegant palms

The Earth's skin

Posted by margaretm 09:20 Archived in USA Comments (3)

Christmas lights in the Centro Histórico

!Feliz Navidad!

Feliz Navidad

The Christmas tree in the Zócalo


Christmas Day is just hours away, so it's time to wish everyone a very Happy Christmas from Mexico! Here are a few photos of the Christmas lights in Mexico City's huge public square, the Zócalo, where everything happens, and a few other places!














Posted by margaretm 06:17 Archived in Mexico Tagged traditions christmas_lights Comments (0)

Letter to Santa, Father Christmas, Papa Noel, Three Kings

This year I'm sending out a Christmas letter, in the hope that someone will make my wishes come true:



Dear Santa, Father Christmas, Papa Noel and Your Majesties, Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior (the Wise Men, Three Kings or Reyes Magos)

Peace and goodwill to all of you. I hope you are well and have plenty of helpers to assist you at this very busy time of year. It must be very stressful and that's not good for your heart. As you already know (because somehow you know everything), I live in Mexico City and would like to ask for the following things this year for Christmas. The list is quite long but as you will see, they are all such worthy things that I found it difficult to decide which ones I should include. I'll let you choose which you think are most appropriate.

These are some things Mexico City needs:

1. Some clean air to breathe.
2. Less traffic.
3. More bicycles and people being nicer to bike users.
4. A new public transport system which is efficient, clean and, above all, gets you to your destination in one piece.
5. Filling in the holes in the roads.
6. Watering the flowers along Reforma at a time that isn't rush hour.
7. A compulsory driving test for everyone and a specially difficult one for bus drivers.
8. Some African elephants in the zoo.
9. Unarmed policemen who don't shoot first and then ask.
10. An end to the dysfunctional legal system, impunity, presumption of guilt, crooked cops and cooked-up stories.
11. No earthquakes over 4.7 on the Richter Scale.
12. A decent education for everyone, no matter where they live, politicians included.
13. A ban on newspapers showing gruesome, blood-drenched photos and only reporting about violence and crimes.
14. A more equal distribution of water during the 12 months. Eight months in a row is too long without any rain.
15. Police cars which go faster than 20 kmph and don't use flashing lights except in emergencies.
16. Hiding of all ugly tangles of overhead wires and cables.
17. Punctuality or a re-definition of time, i.e. how many minutes are there exactly in half an hour? 30 or 49 or 167?
18. Proper jobs for everyone, including the "clown" man who stands at the traffic lights with a stuffed monkey on his shoulder, juggling.
19. Brand new buses so we can get rid of the ancient peseros.
20. Miraculous parting of the traffic when ambulances need to get somewhere in an emergency.
21. A ban on all kidnapping, corruption and narcotraficantes.
22. Fresh clean water in the lakes in Chapultepec Park.

* * * * *
Here are also a few personal requests for my family and me:

1. More hours of sunshine in the winter to warm up our house. It's very cold there.
2. Fewer calories in quesadillas and just a little less chilli in guacamole.
3. A nice big consignment of Marmite to last until the end of 2012.
4. A safe driver for Cristina and Marc's school bus.
5. A "vertical take-off and flight" accessory for the Toyota so Josep can get home quickly in the evenings.
6. An enclosed park just for Ozzy so he can run around by himself and get rid of his energy instead of dragging us around.
7. More patience to endure the traffic jams or a year's supply of interesting magazines to accompany us in the car.
8. Another hummingbird feeder which doesn't leak.
9. Cristina and Marc would like school to start at 9.10 am instead of 7.30 am.
10. Josep would like a magic wand to use at work and a little more humidity in the air to stop his nosebleeds.

Thanking you in advance and have a very Happy Christmas!

Yours sincerely

Me ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

P.S. Can any of you stop my Brownies from coming out of the oven like hard volcanic rocks?

Posted by margaretm 04:34 Archived in Mexico Tagged christmas Comments (2)

"La Magia de la Navidad" in Mexico City

Christmas magic...



I can remember clearly when I heard the first Christmas carol this year. It was the day after Dia de Muertos and I was in the supermarket, prodding some avocados to see if they were ripe enough to take home for a salad. Suddenly, my ears pricked up. I could have sworn they were playing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" in the background. It was the first week in November and here I was in short sleeves. The last thing I had on my mind was Christmas and snow.

Sure enough, a few days later, I was back in the supermarket doing my weekly grocery shopping when I distinctly heard "Santa Claus is coming to town". Really? But we were still a month and a half away from Christmas Eve. Looking around though, I noticed that the pumpkins and scarecrows and candy skulls had disappeared, as if by magic, and there taking their place was a tall Christmas tree and a band of cute polar bears in woolly hats and scarves, clutching chocolates. Wow! That was a quick and early transformation.

And so the Christmas season has stealthily been creeping up all around us in DF for the last month and a half. For some time now, Rudolph's red nose has been making him a laughing stock among the other reindeer and the Little Drummer Boy has been busily drumming as if to announce an early start to the Yuletide season. Frosty the Snowman's friends too have invaded the city, despite the visible lack of any snow around. Campañas sobre campañas are ringing and los peces en el rio, fish in the river, are also in a Christmas mood (for those who understand Spanish carols). You see, my ears have become adept at tuning in to the canciones de Navidad all around me. But it isn't just Christmas carols in the air. Mexico City has been undergoing a not-so-subtle change. One look around and you can tell that Navidad has arrived. To tell the truth, I think it arrived over a month ago.

One of the first signs was the disappearance of the golden marigolds or cempasúchil flowers along Reforma. With their golden locks drooping, they were dug up and replaced by thousands of bright red Christmasy poinsettias, zigzagging their way down the centre of the road. "Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree, how lovely are your branches..." Christmas trees of every size, colour and decoration are now almost as commonplace as traffic lights in the streets. It was mid-November when one with enormous crinkly gold Ferrero Rocher spheres caught my eye outside the Auditorio Nacional. In the hot sunshine, I hoped they didn't have any real chocolate inside as otherwise there would soon be a sticky brown mess trickling down. The shopping centres are obviously competing to see whose tree is the biggest and most luxurious. On top of that, if you happen to find yourself in Antara Shopping Centre in Polanco, you may even be surprised by a snowfall. Artificial, of course. Every day for the last few weeks, in the evening, it feels like winter has arrived even though you took off any jumpers long ago, around midday. Perhaps it's not so far-fetched after all to be singing "Dashing through the snow...." here in Mexico City.

Poinsettias along Reforma

Giant Ferrero Rocher chocolates

Huge illuminated Christmas tree in Polanco

Christmas tree in Antara Shopping Centre

And talking about bigger and better, it's very traditional to set up a nacimiento or nativity scene in homes to remind the family of the story of Christ's birth. But you will also see large ones colonising house roofs and gardens and this year, the largest nacimiento in the world can be found down at the Azteca Stadium. It's a life-size Bethlehem-type village with 500 figures in 57 scenes created by the Colombian pesebrista, Gustavo Cano, which you can walk around to get the feel of what life what like and what happened that very first Christmas. I can hear the Spanish villancicos playing already...Vamos a Belen....

Typical nativity scene

A nativity scene in a shopping centre

Traditional figures

Camel and posters inviting us to go and visit the biggest nativity scene in the world

Last week I was in the Centro Histórico where I was surprised to see a group of rather merry polar bears, enjoying a joke on the green grass in the Alameda Park. Funny place to see polar bears, was my first thought. Then I saw they were setting up an entire winter wonderland in the park for kids. Apparently, Santa Claus will be putting in an appearance here before he gets busy delivering presents on December 24th, although I'm not sure how he's going to get into some of the houses since there is a distinct shortage of chimneys around here. Maybe he doesn't need to since, like Spain, it's traditional here in Mexico for the Three Kings, Los Reyes Magos, to bring gifts to the kids on January 6th. The Kings too will be taking up their temporary residence here until then. For the last 40 years, Santa and Los Reyes Magos have been stopping off in Mexico City where thousands of children have had their photos taken with them and handed over their letters telling them what they want for Christmas. I heard on the radio that this will probably be the last year for this tradition since they will be completely remodelling the Alameda next year.

Polar bears in the park

A few Santas can be seen around the city

Santa on top of the building next to a Christmas tree made with poinsettia plants

Then as I made my way down towards the Zócalo, in the distance I spotted an enormous tree, a gigantic árbol de Navidad, whose angel was eyeing the tops of the old colonial buildings down in the large square. At least they've put the tree in the Zócalo this year and not near the Ángel de la Independencia in Paseo de la Reforma like our first Christmas here. It caused some of the biggest traffic jams imaginable, all for the purpose of getting into the Guiness Book of Records for the tallest Christmas tree. Not that this year's tree is much smaller. It towers over the nearby ice-rink which, in its turn, is also one of the largest in the world. Winter sports have come to Mexico City. As I watched the monitors skating, I wondered how on earth the ice didn't melt in the warm sun. Then the rink filled up with T-shirted novices, some of whom were having severe problems getting from one end to the other, but were obviously having tons of fun. Next we'll be seeing sleigh rides...

Looking down towards the Christmas tree in the Zócalo

Christmas has arrived in the Centre Histórico

Tinsel and illuminated decorations on the buildings surrounding the Zócalo

Feliz Navidad in lights, best appreciated at night

Looking down on the ice rink

Ice rink with the Cathedral in the background

Skaters enjoying some fun in the sunshine

And then there are all those makeshift stands set up along the road, selling Christmas trees, lights, reindeer, poinsettias and colourful adornos or decorations, often made of woven straw. The first year we were here, we couldn't resist purchasing a Rudolph, made ingeniously from twigs, since he looked so cute. He was accompanied by a few straw decorations. This year our tree and lights came from a stand which set up at the beginning of December.

Christmas stall selling trees and decorations

Stars for sale

Reindeer made of twigs

Stand with decorations

Mexican decorations made of straw

Colourful adornos

The Nutcracker Suite

I have to admit that one of my favourite Mexican traditions also reminds me of a Christmas carol."Oh-oh, Star of Wonder, Star of Light... ". All around the city, you'll see thousands of star-shaped piñatas, ranging from tiny to massive. In bright, shimmering colours, with tassles at the ends of the points, they are everything a Mexican adorno should be - eye-catching, colourful, ubiquitous, and stunning. Representations of the Christmas star which led the Wise Men to Jesus. Some have nine points, others have seven or five. Traditionally they were constructed around a clay pot filled with fruit and sweets which broke when the children hit it with a stick. Nowadays they are more likely to be cardboard and paper, not so hard on the head when they burst open.

Star-shaped piñatas

Bright colours

Stars on a building façade

Although Navidad has been creeping into the city for much longer, the official start to the Christmas season was the 3rd December when the Mayor switched on the lights in the Zócalo, inaugurated the ice rink and triggered off the massive parade of Christmas floats which made their way around the city centre. Britney Spears did her bit too, with a free concert at the Monumento a la Revolución. And now that Christmas Day is just around the corner, less than one week away, it's time here in Mexico for the tradition of posadas when they enact the scene of José and Maria trudging around looking for some room at the inn (posada). "No room, only a manger of hay..." as the carol says. When they eventually find one, there is a big party with piñatas for the children.

Inauguration of the ice-rink and Christmas lights in the Zócalo

Yesterday some of the newspapers "predicted" a historic snowfall in DF. Actually, they didn't so much consult the weather people as the Mayor's weekend programme. Despite a deep blue, cloudless sky, it snowed along the Eje Central during the Gran Desfile Navideño, a Christmasy parade, which was watched by crowds. Half a million people's "dream of a White Christmas" came true. From comments I saw posted, another half a million got caught in the traffic jams due to road closures. They would have done better on the Little Donkey.... Arre borrequito... (giddy-up, little donkey).

All this to say, in case you hadn't noticed, I love this time of year... the dark nights and twinkling lights, Christmas trees covered with adornos and creative nacimientos of all shapes and sizes, wondrous stars and piñatas, turkey and tamales, paz and goodwill, Christmas carols and villancicos, Father Christmas and Los Reyes Magos, regalos and sharing with friends and family, but also with those who have little or nothing. But especially, Christmas with Christ first, as in the word itself.

Roll on Christmas!

Christmas party for the girls at Casa Daya and their children

Ozzy in a Christmas mood!

Posted by margaretm 06:56 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

(Entries 46 - 50 of 470) Previous « Page .. 5 6 7 8 9 [10] 11 12 13 14 15 .. » Next