May 6, 2023

Ancient, modern Amman provides visitors soft landing in Middle East


A juice vendor in downtown Amman

Leaving our hotel with just a few hours sleep after a late-night flight from London, my husband, Tom, and I stepped out onto the streets of Jabal al-Weibdeh, a gentrifying hillside neighborhood in Amman, the capital of Jordan

The minaret next to a blue-domed mosque towered over neat rows of sandstone-colored houses and apartments. Cafe owners dusted off their patio tables. Springtime flowers bloomed in sidewalk gardens.

It was just 9 a.m. but already warm and sunny. We were headed out for a walking tour in downtown Amman - the oldest part of one of the oldest cities in the world - when I spotted a corner store. Before I could ask, the man behind the counter pointed to a cooler filled with bottled water.

"Welcome, welcome," said the owner of our neighborhood store

“Small, small,” he smiled, holding up a coin - the Jordan dinar equivalent of around 25 cents - indicating he couldn’t make change from the large bill I offered. 

“No problem. Free for you,” he said, refusing my offer to pay him later in the day. “Welcome, welcome.”

And so began our first day in Amman, a city continuously inhabited for 7,500 years, yet the capital of a country that only gained its independence from the British 77 years ago.

Located between Mecca, the holiest place on earth for Muslims, and Jerusalem, Jordan has played a central role in the history of the Old Testament (Moses and Abraham walked here); the Bible (St. John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River); and the Quran.

Yet while almost everyone is familiar with Petra, Jordan's major archeologic site; Wadi Rum, a desert valley area popular with rock climbers and hikers; and the experience of floating in the Dead Sea, few stay in Amman long enough to appreciate the most liberal city in the Arab world, and likely the most diverse.

Women who wear head scarves wear them in style

Bordering Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories and Israel, Jordan is predominantly Muslim with a large Palestinian population. It also has a significant Christian population, so it's not unusual to hear the Call to Prayer at a local mosque and church bells ringing at the same time. Cafes stock beer and wine for those who drink alcohol, and tea and shisha pipes for those who abstain. Head scarves for women are optional. Call it Middle-East Lite.  Amman provides a soft landing for first-time visitors in the Arab world. 

The Temple of Hercules

With 4.5 million people, Amman's city limits stretch far beyond the original old city built on seven hills or jabals. Towering over everything is the ancient Citadel with the ruins of the Roman Temple of Hercules and the Umayyad Palace complex built during the 8th century on the foundation of a Byzantine church. Next door is the Amman Citiadel mosque with a restored domed entrance chamber.

The Amman Citadel Mosque

The original mosque is believed to have had a wooden dome, like this one which was constructed towards the end of the 20th century.

Downhill  and a five-minute- walk to downtown are the remains of a 2nd-century Roman theater when the city was known as Philadelphia. The theater is still used for sporting and cultural events.

Getting around foot requires a steep climb up or down connecting staircases, often hidden from view but marked on Google maps. 

Stairs to downtown

A street decorated with colorful lanterns

Using as our base the Locanda Boutique Hotel, a cultural project where the names of well-known Arabic musicians replace room numbers, we devoted our time to exploring Al-Balad, the Arabic name for the old downtown and Jabal-al-Weidbdeh, the cultural heart of Amman, with its art galleries, museums and vibrant cafe life. 

Downtown bookshop

Around town with Osama

Osama explains the many varieties of olives for sale in the vegetable souq

Nine of us - all strangers before today - follow our guide, Osama, as he leads us across a busy street, stopping traffic by holding out his left hand. We’ve signed up for his “Taste of Amman Free Food Tour” through, a clearing house for locals who create walking tours in cities throughout the world. Tips are encouraged, but there’s no obligation and no set prices.

Downtown Amman

One of many downtown murals

We'll soon be weaving in and out of the souqs - an ancient labyrinth of covered markets for fruits, spices, vegetables and clothes. But first we stop in front of a mural depicting a face divided vertically down the middle, half male and half female. It's a statement about equality among the sexes in a commercial area lined with shops all run by men. 

This mural and many others like it painted on the walls of businesses and buildings around Amman are meant to encourage dialogue on gender issues Some of it is aimed at correcting a mismatch between attitudes towards women working (90 percent of men and women approve) and the low percentage of women (14 percent) in the workforce. 

Female literacy rates are among the highest in the Middle East, and more women than men are enrolled in college. But leaving children with a relative in order to to work is still considered unacceptable as is having a job that requires late hours and time away from a family.

“We don’t have oil,” Osama explains. “So we need to invest in human beings.” 

Our first stop is the oldest bakery in Amman where fresh loaves are stacked under a sign written in Arabic. Then we plunge deep into the crowded souqs stocked with vegetables we don’t easily recognize and shops where bins are piled with artfully displayed spices, teas, olives and almonds. 

Spice souq

Watermelons for sale: $1.50

Socks and underwear salesmen

At the top of one flight of stairs is the Dar Al-Anda art gallery, housed in two historic villas with an outdoor terrace and sweeping views. Another stairway leads to a little cafe that serves mint and lemon juice and sandwiches made with za'atar, a spice mixture made with toasted sesame seeds, dried sumac and other herbs, that Osama promises "is good for health and the brain."  

Za'atar sandwich on the terrace of Dar Al-Anda

At the bottom of those steps, we take special note of  the location of Habibah sweet shop across the street. The specialty is Kunafa, a layered dessert with a base stringy cheese similar to a mozzarella and the top layers of vermicelli soaked in rose scented sugar syrup. Clerks in white coats cut slabs from a pizza-size pan, weigh the slices, and charge accordingly. 

Kunafa at Habibah sweet shop

After two-and-a-half hours of waking and a stop for bottles of Jordanian beer to-go, Osama leads us up a long flight of stairs to his home where he has prepared lunch for our group. This part of his tour was not advertised on the Guruwalk website. Rather he informed us in an e-mail after we signed up that lunch would be included. Dietary issues forced him to learn to cook healthy foods at a young age, he explained. Those skills led to a job as a chef at a hotel in Petra before he became a freelance guide. 

As we take places around his dining table, he retreats to his kitchen, and reappears with appetizers called mezze- bowls of homemade hummus, yoghurt, baba ganoush, a peasant salad called fatoosh and baskets of pita bread. Restaurants all over Amman serve their own versions of these dishes. Guidebooks point visitors to a crowded downtown spot called Hashem, but Osama's recipes are better, and there's no wait for a table. 

We could have made a meal of the mezze, but there was a main dish to come, and one Osama was very proud to have mastered. It's Maklouba, a dish found a 13th century collection of Arab recipes,  popular throughout the Middle East.

Our walking group at lunch

Vegetables such as carrots and peppers and chicken or lamb are folded into a mixture of rice and 13 spices. It's all piled into a pot and cooked over the stove, then tipped upside down on a plate revealing the layers of chicken, rice and vegetables. 

Osama brings the pot to a side table, inverts a perfectly intact Maklouba, then places the platter in the middle of the table for us all to devour.

"Welcome, welcome," he says. We remember what he said earlier about investing in people, and leave a generous tip.

Osama inverts his Maklouba

Apr 25, 2023

Post-Pandemic London: Prepare for crowds and lots of changes


Coronation plans underway

News of a few major events in London slipped by me while I was planning a three-day stopover on our way to Jordan. 

The London Marathon, preparations for the coronation of King Charles and a major soccer match collided to bring thousands of extra visitors to town.

Had I done my homework, I would have realized that many of the roads and walking paths around Buckingham Palace would be blocked. And it wasn’t the smartest move to book tickets to see a performance of “Newsies” at a theater down the street from the Whembley Park soccer stadium. Kudos to the British for queuing under any circumstances. Otherwise we would have been part of a stampede for standing room only on two packed subway lines. 

A view of the London Eye from St. James park

No complaints though. In three days, Tom and I managed to visit great pubs, spend time at the British Museum, ride all modes of transportation, go to the theater, walk 7-8 miles a day, stroll through St. James Park via Buckingham Palace,  join a London volunteer greeter on a tour of the East End, and take a long walk along the Regent’s Canal and Little Venice. 

A canal boat ride along the Union Canal near Little Venice 

Arriving in London during an extra-busy time was a wake-up call that this IS a city where reservations are a must  for most everything. That goes not only for hotels and theater tickets, but for pizza, a pub meal or even admission into a museum or special attraction where entry is free. 

Whether you’re a first-time visitor or have been here before, but not since the pandemic, there’s lots to catch up on when it comes to making the most of a short visit. 


Uber now operates in London, and there are always taxis, but those are the most expensive options. In the past, we took Piccadilly underground line into town or the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station. This time, we opted for the new Elizabeth Line, a high-speed Tube line that connects Heathrow to Paddington, with connections there to other lines. The cost was around 12£ vs. 27£ for the Heathrow Express. One advantage is that you don’t have to buy a ticket. All you do is tap your credit card or mobile device when boarding. Same goes for other Tube lines and the buses. 

A ride on the London Tube


We withdrew 40£ from an ATM, but didn’t need it. Everyone takes credit cards or mobile payments, even for the smallest purchases, and more and more cafes and restaurants are no longer accepting cash. Paying with a tap card or mobile device is fast and efficient, but it brings up the importance of carrying a back-up card just in case one is lost or stolen.

 The British Museum. Entry is free but  make a reservation, or risk a long wait


They’re a good idea, and often necessary, even for attractions and museums where entry is free. The good news is you can book online in advance from anywhere. So if you want to go to the British Museum on a certain day a month from now, you can book a timed visit at no charge. The same goes for most restaurants, even pubs and pizza parlors. Looking for an indoor activity on a rainy afternoon, we were hoping to visit the Sky Garden, London’s tallest indoor garden inside a high-rise tower called the Walkie-Talkie building. Entry is free, but you must reserve a timed ticket online. By the time I realized we would need to book, all the slots were taken.


Happy to report that thanks to London’s diverse multi-cultural community, there are now many alternatives to the “Full English” spread of eggs, sausages, beans and mushrooms. We stayed at a Airbnb that didn’t include breakfast, an advantage because it meant we could breakfast hop around our Belgravia neighborhood to French, Syrian, Turkish, Georgian and Indian cafes and restaurants, all high-quality and healthy.

Entree, a family-run Georgian bakery near Victoria Station, was one of our favorites. Top choice was a healthy version of Georgia’s national dish, Khachapuri, a boat-shaped bread filled with cheese and an egg on top.

The Bear and Staff pub, a favorite hangout of Charlie Chaplin

Definitely eat at a pub, especially a “gastro” pub where the food is a cut above what you’d expect in a bar. Put off by the loud soccer fans drinking on the sidewalk outside? Book a table for the dining room. Most pubs, such as the Bear and Staff above, have small dining areas (reservations are a must) where you can enjoy the food, beer and ambience in a quieter setting. If it’s Sunday, go for the Sunday roast - beef, chicken, and these days, a vegan option made with nuts and spices. 

Tom enjoying Sunday roast at the Bear and Staff pub


Julia Gay has been leading visitors around her favorite parts of London for 15 years. She’s a member of London Greeters, an organization associated with the International Greeters Association, a group of volunteers that connect locals with travelers around the world. No money exchanges hands. Instead, you might treat your greeter for coffee or tea while touring, or make an online donation to the organization after the visit.

Julia Gay and us in front of a 300-year-old building that houses a bookstore and cafe

We spent several hours with Julia on a walking tour around London’s East End, an area historically populated by poor immigrants, now gentrifying with renovations of run-down flats once claimed by squatters. The area around Spitalfields and Brick Lane were settled by French Protestant (Huguenot) refugees, then Jews fleeing Europe and finally Bangladeshi immigrants who made Brick Lane the curry capital of London. Today tourists come for the Spitalfields arts, crafts and food market, art galleries and mural tours led by local artists. We came to meet up with Julia, and make a new friend.

 Murals and curry houses on Brick Lane 

Apr 16, 2023

London to Jordan: Where to find travel info during post-pandemic times

London's new 'Lizzy' Line

Who hasn't done some online shopping only to find "Suggested for you" link popping up on their Facebook page a few days later? This type of tracking seems pointless. If I already bought the shoes, why would I need another pair? But in planning a short stay in London before traveling to Jordan, the otherwise annoying prompts have proven useful.

The latest was a post about the new Elizabeth Line, opened in May of last year, providing Heathrow passengers a new public transport option for getting into the city.

"Twenty billion pounds. Two new tunnels, bored for twenty-six weaving miles, under the streets. Ten new stations, with platforms and trains twice the length of standard Tube trains, excavated and somehow placed alongside or under the existing network," according to a New Yorker description.

It's been three years since I've been to London, and I'm finding the usual sources for information - guide books and Trip Advisor reviews - outdated due to the Covid pandemic. 

Gilbert & George

That's where the Facebook links to news outlets such as Time Out London and CNBC and others have come in handy. I now know to take the "Lizzy Line" (£12.80 vs. £25 for the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station) directly to a tube stop closer to our Airbnb. Also new on my radar is the Gilbert & George Centre, a just-opened free museum featuring the Andy Warhol-like art of a well-known duo, now in their 80s; the Uber Boat, a commuter boat stopping at 24 piers along the Thames River that doubles as a budget sight-seeing cruise for travelers-in-the-know; and Secret London, a website filled with ideas for new discoveries. 

Finding ways to keep up on the latest trends and changes can be challenging when it comes to diving back into international travel. 

Airbnbs, for instance, have replaced traditional bed and breakfasts as affordable alternatives to hotels, but you won't find reviews or information on them in guidebooks or on Trip Advisor. 

Blogs, Youtube videos, and yes, even Facebook posts, have become more useful tools. AI sites such as ChatGPT will evolve once they begin to include more current data. Posts by young travel bloggers helped me uncover the latest info on paying for transport with contactless credit cards or mobile systems such as Apple Pay.  A few years ago, the pre-loaded Oyster Card was the preferred way to pay for London transport. Most locals no longer use it. This post explains why.

Here's a few more new resources and tips I uncovered while putting together our upcoming trip.

Avoiding non-refundable reservations

Travel insurance is tricky and expensive, but sometimes necessary if you're booking a cruise or other non-refundable types of travel. Check to see what type of coverage your credit card might offer (some, such as Costco, are dropping coverage) before buying an independent policy, but better yet, avoid non-refundable bookings when possible. Covid showed us how quickly things can change.

I searched for an Airbnb rather than a hotel or bed and breakfast in London, not only because they are often more affordable, but because many have a liberal cancellation policy. Our $125 room with a private bath near Victoria station offered a full refund within five days of arrival. Most B&Bs wanted at least a partial non-refundable upfront payment at the time of booking. 

Post-Covid, most U.S. airlines have retained a policy of allowing cancellations and/or changes with no penalty. You won't get a cash refund, but most offer a credit that can be used another time. 

This doesn't apply to some foreign airlines. Our round-trip flight between Seattle and London,  booked on Delta, could be changed or cancelled without a penalty. But a separate ticket on British Air between London and Amman, Jordan was non-refundable. On the other hand, our hotel in Amman, La Locanda Boutique Hotel, took no deposit.  A three-day van excursion from Amman to Petra, Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea, booked through Get Your Guide, was fully-refundable up to 24 hours ahead of departure.

Youtube videos

Youtube videos put together by tech-savvy travel bloggers can help travelers get the lay of the land before arriving. I'm hooked on blogger Mark Wiens' food and city video tours available on his Migrationolgy website. His in-depth reports cover destinations such as Amman, Dubai, Bangkok, Singapore, Lisbon and Mexico City, each with multiple videos beginning with his arrival in a city and ending with his last meal. 

Free or low-cost tours

Looking for a day-trip or short excursion away from a major city that would normally require renting a car? Consult Get Your Guide, a clearinghouse for short and inexpensive van or walking tours in cities all over the world. No payment is required upfront, and nearly all can be cancelled within 24 hours of departure with no penalty.

Private guides can cost $100 or more for a few hours of time, but there are many free or low-cost alternatives if you don't mind going with a small group led by a student, teacher or  sometimes even a professional guide hoping to drum up business on the side.

We booked an afternoon food tour in Amman with GuruWalk that combines a historical walking tour with stops for traditional snacks along the way. It ends with a meal fixed by the guide in his home. There's no charge for the tour. Guests pay for whatever food they order. As always, a tip is expected, but there's no obligation on the amount.  You'll find similar walking tours offered by in various cities.  

Snacks on the GuruWalk food tour in Amman

The walking tour I'm most looking forward to is a meet-up in London with Julia Gay, a volunteer with London Greeters. The group is part of the International Greeters Association,   volunteers who love showing visitors favorite parts of their cities. We'll meet up at the Liverpool Street train station for a walk around London's lesser-known East End, with stops in Spitalfields and Brick Lane, known for its Sunday market and Bangladeshi community.

Mar 20, 2023

Delta passes the buck on code-share flights; so much for 'seamless' travel


Delta sells and books tickets on flights operated by Aeromexico

As a Delta Skyteam silver elite member, I always travel on either a Delta flight or one operated by a code-share partner such as Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Air France or Aeromexico. 

Since Delta sells and books the code-share tickets, I expect Delta to take responsibility when something goes wrong.

The airline, after all, promises "a seamless travel experience" with code-share flights, a system that allows airlines to sell tickets to destinations where they do not fly. 

In the case of its partnership agreement with Aeromexico, for instance, Delta says on its website that it is "focused on providing customers with a consistent experience when traveling between the two airlines. 

"By looking at all aspects of the customer journey together, and using technology to enhance the digital experience, the two airlines have established a foundation to benefit their shared customers by aligning products, polices and services."

This was not my experience with a multi-city itinerary booked through and paid for on Delta, but operated by Aeromexico.

Instead of taking responsibility for an error that almost left my husband and I stranded in Veracruz, Mexico, Delta passed the buck, insisting that "Aeromexico will have to handle the claim." No offer to help. No offer to work it out on the customer's behalf.

After three e-mails explaining the situation, and requesting either miles or compensation for a missed non-stop back to Seattle from Mexico City, a customer service agent, using the name Isabela Cook, refused to budge.

"We consider the case closed, " she wrote, "and we will not respond to any additional correspondence regarding your travel." 

So much for a "seamless" experience.

The problems began when we went to check in online for our non-stop from Seattle to Mexico City, and neither Delta nor Aeromexico would let us check in using their apps.

We arrived at the airport early to find a gate agent. Delta sent us to Aeromexico where an agent found glitch on our return connection from Veracruz into Mexico City. Someone had transposed the month and day of our return so that the return was booked for April 3 (4/3/2023) instead of May 4 (3/4/2023).

After 30 minutes or so of back-and-forth, agents from both airlines assured us they fixed the problem, and our return was set as originally booked.

It wasn't until we received check-in notices from both Aeromexico, and Delta on the day before departure, that I saw the flight from Veracruz to Mexico City had disappeared from from our itinerary. We were left with the non-stop from Mexico City back to Seattle, but no flight from Veracruz.

Sitting on the bed in our hotel room, I spent an hour on the phone with a Delta agent (Our cell phone plan allows free calls in North American, but if it didn't, we would have had quite a bill) while she worked with Aeromexico to find us seats.

The flight we originally booked was fully-booked. We finally settled for an early-morning flight that would have meant an eight-hour layover in Mexico City. The alternative was an Aeromexico flight from there to Los Angeles with a Delta connection to Seattle. This entailed going through customs and immigration in L.A., leaving security; walking to a different terminal to find a Delta ticket agent to issue our boarding passes; and reentering TSA security to reach our gate - all within a 1.5-hour window. We have both Global Entry (the fast pass for reentering the U.S.) and PreCheck (TSA fast pass), otherwise we might not have made it.

What I wanted most in contacting Delta after we arrived home was to find out how a portion of one's itinerary could be dropped without a notice from either airline. Had we checked in as both airlines instructed, we would have arrived at the airport in Veracruz without a ticket.

 And indeed, if Delta's hard and fast policy is to "not provide compensation if the flight is operated by another airline," then surely a goodwill gesture was in order since we had paid extra for the return non-stop from Mexico City to Seattle. I recalled a time when the entertainment system on a Delta flight to Amsterdam was not working. The flight attendant came around and credited extra miles to passengers' accounts.

My last e-mail from Isabela Cook contained neither an explanation nor an offer to make amends. 

"Any further correspondence regarding these matters will be kept on file," she wrote. However, no additional responses will be sent. "

In other words, case closed.

Mar 12, 2023

Mexico for the Mexicans: Pueblo Magicos evoke traditional life


Fresh chicharron for sale in a Mexico City market

"Get ready to see a side of Mexico City you've never experienced," our friend Oskar smiled.

We were finishing spinach omelettes in the upstairs cafe at Pendulo bookstore in La Condesa, a chic neighborhood filled with restaurants and Airbnbs catering to digital nomads.

Now, with Oskar, whom we met in 2019 through the Global Greeters program, we squeezed into a crowded subway car with a connection to Mexico City's newest mode of transportation, the 6-mile-long Cablebus, a network of cable cars, designed not for sightseeing, but as public transportation for residents living in the hills above the city center.

Mexico City's Cablebus

Rooftop murals visible from the Cablebus

Riding in a car along students on their way home from school, we looked down on rooftops painted with colorful murals, part of a government project to improve the view for the residents of Iztapalapa, the city's poorest and most populous neighborhood.

Oskar pointed down to an abandoned airplane turned into a  library. Checking out a book here would be the closest many kids would ever get to a real plane.

After a couple of hours on the Cablebus, we got off and walked through a market close to where Oskar, 25, lives with his parents and brother. We sampled fried pork skins called chicharron, the authentic version of what we know as pork rinds; drank pulque, a drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant; and bought flowers for his mother, America. The day ended around their dining room table where we shared bowls of her homemade pozole, a traditional Mexican stew, and a red gelatin dessert molded in the shape of hearts.

Drinking pulque with Oskar

America Sandoval and her special dessert

It was the perfect start to a 10-day trip, most of which my husband and I spent traveling by bus through the state of Veracruz in Mexico's gulf coast region.

Our time with Oskar and his family set the stage for exploring a side of Mexico not well-known to foreigners, but beloved by Mexicans. These areas are neither beach resorts, nor drug cartel-controlled border towns where crime and safety are major issues. Mexico for the Mexicans, became the theme as we headed off to several small towns called Pueblos Magicos, recognized not for their famous sites, but because they evoke a sense of traditional life. 

The state of Veracruz

As a destination, the state of Veracruz is overlooked by most travelers. There are better beaches and colonial architecture elsewhere. But for those who have explored other parts of the country, and are looking for something different, discoveries are waiting to be made. Unlike in resort areas such as Cancun, or colonial towns such as San Miguel de Allende, your travel companions are likely to be Mexican families and couples on weekend getaways rather than American travelers.

You won't find much English spoken. You will enjoy comfortable rides on first-class buses; a sense of safety due to lack of pick-pockets or hustlers; restaurant meals for around $25 for two; coffee drinks better than anything Starbucks can produce; and uncrowded museums.

Our first stop was Orizaba, a town of around 500,000 nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains in central Veracruz, four hours by first-class bus from Mexico City. 

Flat, one-story buildings painted in bright colors line narrow streets leading to the historical center. Our Airbnb was unusual in that it was a complete and modern apartment in a newish three-story building with a sushi restaurant the top floor. 

Next door was a mom-and-pop shop where the owners sold drinks and snacks though a slot in the door. I bought water there twice until I discovered we were around the corner from the local version of Costco filled with Mexicans pushing huge carts filled with diapers and soda. 

Veracruz State Art Museum

Our go-to morning stop for coffee and chilaquiles was the modern Cafe-Cafe Bistro with a QR code menu and tables an outdoor courtyard. Down the street was the Veracruz State Art Museum housed in a 16th century former monastery, hospital and women's prison. 

Mexicans come to Orizaba on weekends to stroll though an open-air animal reserve along a six-mile walkway skirting the Orizaba River. Bridges link paved paths on both sides, making it easy to get up-close views of jaguars, monkeys, llamas and lions.

Orizaba riverwalk and zoo

Near the riverwalk is the Orizaba's other main attraction, the Teleferico or cable-car transporting visitors to the top of a mountain with forested walking paths, and views of Pico de Orizaba, a snow-capped volcano that is the third -highest mountain in North America. Long lines form on weekends, but when we visited on a Monday, there was no wait.

Gustave Eiffel's Iron Palace

Relaxing at a cafe is a popular pastime everywhere in the state of Veracruz, a major coffee producer. We sampled the local speciality, the Picardía Orizabeña, prepared with coffee liquor, condensed milk and espresso, while people-watching on the terrace of the Gran Cafe de Orizaba attached to the Palacio de Hierro or Iron Palace. Designed by Gustave Eiffel (architect of the Eiffel Tower in Paris), the art nouveau city hall was built from metal and wrought iron imported from Belgium in the 19th century when Orizaba was the state capital. Today the building houses several museums including a beer museum which dispenses free beer courtesy of Heineken International, owner of brewing plants in Mexico including one in Orizaba.


Four hours by bus from Orizaba is Xalapa, the current capital of the state of Veracruz, and the jumping off point for a visit to Coatepec (Hill of Snakes) and Xico, two Pueblo Magico towns in a premier coffee-producing region.

Rompope frappé

Quaint hotels, parks and shops line the streets of Coatepec, a short taxi ride from Xalapa. Organized tours cover visits to a coffee museum a few miles out of town but a better plan on a hot day is to cafe-hop about town, sampling cold concoctions. Among our favorites was a frappé (espresso, milk, crushed ice) spiked with Rompope, a Mexican eggnog-flavored liquor. 

Downtown Xalapa

With a population of 800,000, Xalapa is a hectic university and government town, probably not the best choice for those with a car, but we found it a convenient base for exploring by cheap taxis. Our hotel, the Meson del Alferez Xalapa, was a former colonial mansion in a residential neighborhood until the town built up around it. Now it fronts on one of Xalapa's busiest streets where police use ear-splitting whistles to control traffic. Surprisingly, its rooms were quiet, protected by thick outside walls and an interior courtyard.

Courtyard rooms at Meson del Alferez in Xalapa

A cook makes tortillas at the Meson del Alferez

Sometimes spelled Jalapa, the city gave its name to the jalapeño chili pepper grown in the surrounding area. Built on hillsides, Xalapa is set up in a way that almost everything worth doing requires a walk up or down steep streets. Parque Juárez is Xalapa's main square. Ringed with snack kiosks and shoe-shine stands, it doubles as the town's terrace with views of the valley below. 

An Olmec colossal head dating from 900 BC 

At the Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, the focus is on the main pre-Hispanic civilizations from the Gulf coast, with well-preserved artifacts displayed in galleries that descend the side of a lush hill. Noting that the museum was just two miles from downtown, we decided to walk. It took us an hour and half to wend through various neighborhoods to avoid hills and busy streets - well worth the effort, but once was enough. We took a $2.50 taxi back.

Preparing a lechero

Locals love their morning lecheros, Mexico's most popular coffee drink similar to what we call a latte. Many cafes serve it, but we waited until we reached the city of Veracruz to sample it at the Gran Café de la Parroquia, a 215-year-old cafe near the waterfront. 

With 40 mile-per-hour winds scrapping our plans for a walk, we took cover inside, and watched the ritual unfold. A waiter brings glasses filled a quarter of the way up with espresso. Then, with a tap of a spoon on the side of the glass, he signals the "milkman," another waiter who comes by with a kettle of hot milk. By pouring a stream high and slow, he creates a thick layer of foam on top.

 "Going to Veracruz and not going to the Café de la Parroquia is like not having been to Veracruz," someone said. 

Perhaps it was the Covid pandemic's effect on local businesses, but we couldn't find many reasons to spend much time in Veracruz. As attractions go, La Parroquia topped the list. 

Safe travels: The U.S. State Department assigns various levels of caution for traveling in Mexico, depending on the state. It advises against travel in six states, including the state of Tamaulipas where four Americans were recently kidnapped and two killed. It recommends reconsidering travel to seven other states. Veracruz is one of 17 states where the department recommends exercising caution.