Friday, December 1, 2017

Mazatlán: Stories are the Best Souvenirs

It's been years since I've visited Mazatlán, Sinaloa, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Maybe twelve. Up until that point, I'd traveled to Mazatlán at least five times. The tropical getaway was one of my favorite affordable beach destinations. It's actually close – only a two-hour and eleven-minute flight from Phoenix on American Airlines. And you can typically score some great vacation packages.

Updated Travel Advisory Earns Mazatlán Another Chance

But the first thing that I did when I got the invitation to visit the Mexican “Colonial Town on the Beach” was check the US State Department advisory for the fair city. You see, ten or so years ago drug cartel activity earned bad press for Maz. One of Mexico's most powerful criminal organizations is based in the state of Sinaloa. Yet the current advisory updated on August 22, 2017, states:
Defer non-essential travel to the state of Sinaloa, except the cities of Mazatlán, Los Mochis, and the Port of Topolobampo.
Since my travel in Mazatlán, as far as I knew, would be limited to Zona Dorada (the golden coast where many of the hotels are situated), the historic town center and direct routes to and from these locations and the airport, I decided to give Mazatlán another chance.

Dia de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead

I was so excited that my visit, hosted in conjunction with Fiesta Amigos, a conference of travel professionals, would coincide with Dia de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead. I'd never attended Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and was intrigued to learn more. (Read more at my blog post What is Day of the Dead? )

I was not disappointed. I felt totally safe the whole week that I was in Mazatlán and swam, body surfed, snorkeled, and did something I'd never done before: go deep sea fishing. But my most favorite experience was the Day of the Dead processional or what is called the callejoneada, or alley stroll. And what is so cool, you don't have to wait til next year to have a similar experience. Mazatlán’s carnival is coming up February 8-13, and you’ll find the same awe and appreciation of different cultures that I found on my latest visit.

Breath in the 'present moment'

We stood in the heart of the historic district, Plazuela Machado, waiting for whatever was going to happen next.  I wore a headband of the colorful flowers typical of the holiday. The balmy night was filled with anticipation, and when I looked at the children's faces, I was reminded of my own youthful ‘nights before Christmas’ hopefulness. The square was filled with families and us, the delegates from the Fiesta Amigos conference waiting for the Dia de Los Muertos callejoneada to start.

There's something beautiful about the unfolding of unknown rituals. I felt a sense of childlike wonder take over, and I let go of the need to control or understand what was going to happen next. On the other hand, the Americans that surrounded me needed to know what was next, and since they didn't, wanted to make it – whatever it was – happen on their own. There was a sort of culture clash going on.

“What are we doing just standing here?” pouted one of the American hipsters.
“Just standing here,” I thought to myself. “Really, it’s OK to simply stand and breath in the present moment of anticipation and excitement.”
“Let's just go! Let’s just start walking,” she demanded, pushing ahead. The treasonists in our group moved slightly forward while others held back. I imagined that from above we looked somewhat like an amoeba changing shape as we pushed against the crowd, and as the crowd pushed against us. I was happy to stand my ground and wait for whatever was going to happen next.

In time, three young Mexican public relations professionals arrived holding placards on long sticks that read, ‘Fiesta Amigos.’ They positioned themselves at the front and back of our group of about 150 people. The association had asked us to dress in white for this occasion and so we stuck out of the crowd as a seemingly amalgamous group between the handheld signs.

Finally, fireworks and bottle rockets signaled the beginning of the promenade and our big white amoeba started moving forward around the square.

I expected our group to move with the masses of others that had gathered in Plazuela Machado. But I was astonished to see that those not dressed in white parted to let us through. Parted to let us through? Families with baby carts, grandmothers, ninos and ninas stood on the curb or sat on walls smiling and sometimes waving as they watched us walk by. Waving at us?

I thought we had come to promenade with the locals, but instead, WE were the promenade and the locals were watching US! I learned later that the Fiesta Amigos had been processing in the Day of the Dead parade for years. Locals reached out to touch my arm and then pointed to the flowers in my hair. “Que bonita,” I heard several times.

Some of those standing curbside were dressed in Muertos attire, and I stopped to ask if I could take their picture. They would nod solemnly, and I would snap the picture.

We walked for blocks, snaking through the alleyways of historic Mazatlán until ending up at the Malecon, one of the longest boardwalks in the world. It was an incredible experience and one I am sure to tell stories about for years to come.

Make your own stories in Mazatlán during carnival. You know, stories are the best souvenirs... Learn more at

Stacey “Vagabonding Lulu” Wittig, travel writer, was a guest of  Reynolds + Associates public relations firm while researching this article. The opinions of the opinionated travel writer are her own. The information here is posted with the best of her knowledge, but there may be omissions or changes over time.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Don’t Miss these Five Joyful Experiences in Bangkok, Thailand

Don’t miss these five joyful experiences in Bangkok, Thailand. Discover why Thailand is called the "The Land of Smiles" when you experience these five "must-see" Bangkok happenings. I was filled with great personal joy at each of these special places, and I bet that you will, too.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market 

Take your camera as colorful photo ops abound in this mayhem of Thai vendors and waterborne souvenir hunters. I loved photographing the older Thai women skillfully maneuvering their long, canoe-like boats with just one paddle. The ‘J’ stroke, the ‘Sweep’ and the ‘C’ stroke – these elders, paddling from the stern, knew ‘em all. 
Many were out early to sell vegetables from their gardens to the canal-side restaurants or floating eateries. Later, I was happy to eat a bowl of Tom Yum Lemon at one of the floating noodle restaurants where I’d seen my favorite grandmother selling earlier in the day.

Tip: Get to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market as soon as possible as the tour buses start arriving at 9 am. Although being part of the khlongs (canals) jammed with boatloads of wheeling and dealing tourists is also an exciting adventure. The market officially opens at 7 am, but many noodle vendors open at 6 am.

Bang Kra Jao Bike Tour 

Oh, what a joy to escape the chaos of the city by cycling Bang Kra Jao, a green zone located adjacent to busy Bangkok. 

We sped through the jungle-like wilderness until arriving at the Emerald Way, a series of pathways, elevated two meters above the marshland. It took some concentration to keep the mountain bike between the hand rails ...and out of the drink. The rustic homes that we rode past were built on stilts to avoid seasonal flooding. 

“When I was a boy before these paths were constructed, I swam to my friends' homes,” said our twenty-something guide. Follow the unbeaten path through the park which is known as the "green lung" of Bangkok.

Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha)

You’ll be happy to learn that Wat Pho or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha is more than a temple. 

The complex includes the first public university in Thailand. Its school of Thai medicine is known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. As I explored various pavilions, I was delighted to discover medical illustrations showing pressure points used in the traditional massage modalities. 
The complex also houses Thailand’s largest collection of Buddha statues that were brought here by one of the kings after looting of ancient relics became a problem in Thailand. 

Tip: Be prepared to remove your shoes to view the gold-leaf-covered Reclining Buddha, which is 151 feet / 46 meters long. Wear clothing that covers your shoulders and knees.

Chaopraya River Cruise

Enjoy a Bangkok sunset while sipping French Champagne and cruising the Chao Phraya River. The river, long a trade route, reminded me of the Washington DC National Mall. National landmarks and royal monuments line each side of the waterway making for a perfect – and joy-filled – sightseeing expedition. 

And how easy to just sit back and watch as the Thai world goes by. Supanniga Cruise offers a choice of evening champagne cruises with drinks and Thai snacks or an exquisitely-prepared six-course dinner of Thai cuisine. 

I wondered how they could deliver such fantastically presented dishes from a boat galley. But they did!

Chatuchak Weekend Market

Expect to be overwhelmed by Chatuchak Weekend Market, AKA JatuJak or JJ Market, for short. Even the most-seasoned international travelers get a little starry-eyed at the immensity of this place. 

Fortunately, the 15,000 vendor stalls are divided into 27 sections. And maps are provided to this ‘delight for the inner shopper in all of us.’ Although some sections are open on other days (check the website for details), the whole market is open Sat and Sun 9 am – 6 pm.

Travel writer Stacey "Vagabonding Lulu" Wittig was a guest of Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and China Southern Airlines while researching for this article. And as usual, her opinions are her own. All the information provided is accurate and true to the best of her knowledge, but that there may be omissions, errors or mistakes. Yes, this is the disclaimer. Cheers!

Friday, October 27, 2017

What is ‘Day of the Dead’ or Dia de los Muertos?

“What is Day of the Dead?” my friends ask when I tell them I am headed to Mazatlán, Mexico, for Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos festivities.
Photo by Eva Rinaldi-Wikimedia Commons
Day of the Dead is perhaps a misnomer since the colorful celebration takes place over two days, on November 1 and 2, rather than on just one day. The name could be also considered misleading by English speakers who typically associate the dead with sadness and maybe even a little macabre fear.

On the contrary, the traditional Mexican festivity is a time to joyously honor relatives and companions who have preceded us in death. The ethereal scent of crushed marigolds fill the air as altars or ofrendas are prepared in homes and businesses and decorated with flowers and photos of those who have died.
Ofrendas are also made for celebrities. James Brown ofrenda by carmichaellibrary via WikiMedia Commons

Threshold in time 

It is believed that this is a threshold in time and space when the dead can visit their families so favorite food and drink, including tequila, mescal and other liquors, are placed on ofrendas to attract souls of the deceased.
Photo by Carmichaellibrary at Wikimedia Commons.
The sacred tradition goes back before the Spanish conquest of Mexico to the time of the Aztecs and other indigenous people who held month-long festivals to honor the dead. The Aztecs celebrated during the ninth month of their calendar (August in our calendar). After the Spanish arrived, the Aztec festival was synchronized with the Catholic holy days of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. Day of the Dead has been morphing ever since into a truly Mexican experience. It must be remembered that traditions are distinctive in different towns and continue to change to reflect the local culture.
Aztec Queen Mictlancihuatl, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Mictecacíhuatl the “Lady of the Dead” of Aztec mythology watched over the bones of the dead and presided over festivals honoring the deceased, according to An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. Today La Catrina, a well-dressed female skeleton has become the symbolic hostess of Day of the Dead. Besides La Catrina, calaveras or skulls have also become icons of the fest. Skull motifs are seen on altars, costumes, special foods and even on tequila labels.

Life Continues Through Memories of Others 

During the day, families get together in cemeteries to clean headstones, fondly remember grandmothers and grandfathers and pray for them. The living bring picnics of food and drink and maybe even hire a band to play for this life-affirming celebration.
Photo by Jared Zimmerman via Wikipedia Commons
In many towns, people gather in the evening for a callejoneada or alleyway stroll. Live music and people with painted faces, dressed as La Catrina dancing in the streets lend a Carnivalesque vibe to the promenade. I am looking forward to learning more as I travel to Mazatlán to partake in the celebration and explore the liminal space. Read more at

Friday, October 6, 2017

La Taverna degli Orsi: a Gourmet Feast

After tromping the Alps of Piedmont, Italy, it's always a pleasure to replenish at a typical mountain restaurant. One that serves hearty stews of local vegetables and Fassona alla piemontese the renowned local beef and wine of the region. It's also an added bonus if the proprietor is willing to share amusing stories and sprinkle each course with laughter. Andre Tolasano, owner of La Taverna degli Orsi, is such a host. He calls his establishment in the Italian ski town of Limone "a typical mountain restaurant," but it is anything but ordinary. Every item on the ever-changing menu is skillfully prepared in his kitchen from the best available local foods and then perfectly paired with the appropriate wine.

I met Andre, who goes by the nickname, Prince, at his restaurant while on a Hedonistic Hiking gourmet walking holiday. We hiked high into the Alps during the day and at night, our small group of sixteen reconvened for gourmet feasts. Dinners always included local fare and this night, Prince had hand-written our menu cards and entitled them "Bear Night." For the name of his restaurant,  La Taverna degli Orsi, means Tavern of the Bear and the mountain restaurant was decorated with the mammal's motif.

We munched on homemade sausage and sipped Spumante Brut Rose by Josetta Saffirio, a light-colored bubbly, as Prince told how he made the sausage with garlic brought from his hometown of Caraglio, an Italian village known for the pungent plant. The intense 13.5 % alcohol content of the wine, made from Nebbiolo d'Alba, the quintessential Piedmontese wine grape, said Prince, washed out the garlic taste.

After the aperitif, we were presented with the first of three appetizers. "In the Piedmont region it is typical to have three small appetizers before the main course," Jackie Parsons, owner/operator of Hedonistic Hiking told me later. The first was a not so small, a crispy walnut, celery and pear salad topped with a generous slab of moist cheese. "It's made with goat cheese of this valley," announced Prince, pouring more of the Rose'.

Prince then opened a Roero Arneis DOCG Daivej from the winery of one of his best friends. Deltetto winery has been producing wines in the prestigious Piedmont wine area since 1953. The white wine had a smooth mouth feel and its aromas of pear and fruit complimented the salad and the second appetizer, a pastry hand-stuffed with salad and topped with Basne iaido sauce.

"Much too much food and much too much wine, but who cares?" said one of the hedonists, Guy, who had come all the way from Australia for this adventure in eating. We were watching Prince at a side board prepare the wine glasses for the next course. After uncorking the bottle he conditioned the first crystal goblet with a bit of the wine, swirling the glass with a flourish of his elbow. He poured that bit from the first glass to the second and did the same swirling motion. He repeated the procedure for the next fourteen glasses signaling to us that this next wine was special indeed. 

He then turned to us and announced, "My best friend is Barbaresco, the next wine. It is very tannic, but with a soft taste… It goes very well with the next course, local veal raised by my family. The wine is a bit sweet on the tongue with a subtle licorice taste. 

The main was a roasted veal stew cooked for eight hours and served with potatoes and a finger-sized squash. In Italy, the term 'veal' means meat from calves up to a year old, differentiated by the Italian word for ‘veal milk’ that denotes the younger version, which we in other parts of the world would consider veal.

A Muscato accompanied the dessert of berry cake finished with French cream sauce. And as if that weren't enough, once we were all finished with our dessert course, we were offered grappa, the grape based Italian brandy digestive.

Prince knew that it would be a perfect ending to the "Bear Night" and another gourmet feast with Hedonistic Hiking tours.

Stacey "Vagabonding Lulu" Wittig is a travel writer based in Flagstaff, Arizona. She writes about hiking, food and wine. Disclaimer: Vagabonding Lulu was a guest of Hedonistic Hiking gourmet hiking holidays, yet all opinions are her own.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Least-Known Secrets from Experts at Angel Fire Food and Wine Roundup

This last weekend I attended the Angel Fire Food and Wine Roundup high in the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico. I got to rub elbows with celebrity chefs, taste $80 bottles of wine with international wine experts and learn insider secrets on how to smoke and barbeque. I picked up a lot of good tips at the cooking demonstrations and wine tastings, so I’d like to pass them along to you.

Celebrity Chef Harry Soo at Angel Fire Food and Wine Roundup

Never rub a rub

When TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters reality show’s head cook Harry Soo speaks, backyard barbecue wizards listen. In the fun cooking demo with Harry, one of the world’s top BBQ contenders, he said “Never rub a rub. You should pat the rub in.” Makes sense! I loved his demonstration about smoking meat because Dan and I just bought a smoker and I’ve been a bit intimidated to use it much. With Harry’s encouragement and tips, I now feel confident. Another lesson learned: shake the bottle of rub before using. “The big particles might have settled to the bottom,” said the founder of Slap Yo Daddy BBQ Even coating of the rub is one of the secrets to his success. Others are his personal line of rubs and sauces, available online.

BBQ expert Meathead Goldwyn holds 20 lbs of Texas Waygu Beef

Trim off the bone

“The bone cannot flavor the meat,” said Chef Meathead Goldwyn, “but what it can do is much up your cooking.” The celebrity chef demonstrated grilling with buttery Texas Waygu beef from A Bar N Ranch. “Bones are a heat shield – perfect for the reentry of the space shuttle, but not for cooking. Boneless allows you to cook more evenly.” 
Meathead Goldwyn is the founder, barbecue whisperer, and hedonism evangelist behind the world's most popular outdoor cooking website, and author of the New Your Times Best Seller Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling

Vagabonding Lulu and Irby Wood at Angel Fire Food and Wine Roundup

This wine is a steal!

At the Wine Appreciation Seminar, I tasted eight superb wines with pricing points from $19-82, but the one that blew my proverbial socks off was the 2009 Chateau Lassegue, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, France. The Bordeaux blend had an earthiness of mushroom and dark fruit flavors. I tend to enjoy Old World wines best, but why, or why did I have to so love the $82 bottle of wine? The tasting led by Irby Wood, second generation Jackson of Jackson Family Fine Wines (think Kendall-Jackson) was a way for me to experience high-end wines. Insider secret? Wine expert Irby, who travels the world from California to Chile to France with his family’s wine business, says this bottle is a steal at $82. And with my wine sleuthing experience, I think I might be able to find an even better deal. 

Spook Keller, founder of Atomic City hot sauce

Spice up your Pina Colada with Radioactive Hot Sauce 

OK, us hot lovers have tried hot sauces in Margaritas and Bloody Mary’s, but this is the first time I’ve seen heat added to Pina Coladas. What a taste treat! Because each variety of pepper has different measures of spiciness and heat activation times, if you blend the precise recipe of many pepper varieties, you can come up with a “smooth” heat. You can find this harmonic blend of spiciness in pepper sauces from Atomic City Foods, Los Alamos, NM, The flavor-forward condiments won’t burn out your mouth. Who else but an engineer from the Los Alamos atomic lab could invent such a perfect concoction?

Atomic City Piña Colada Recipe 
4 oz pineapple juice
1 oz white rum
1 oz coconut cream
½ tsp Agave syrup
1 tsp Atomic City Caribe sauce

The annual Angel Fire Food and Wine Roundup showcases Western hospitality in a relaxed mountain environment. The friendly and social celebration is ideal for anyone who appreciates the best in exceptional cuisine, cooking demonstrations from top chefs and wine tastings hosted by professional sommeliers.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Kindness of Strangers: Camino Angels on the Primitivo

While walking along cow pastures and woody stands, I had not seen a soul for the past three hours. But I was accompanied by huge thunderclouds, hanging heavy with the rain that seemed destined to come. The low clouds refused to release, and I silently prayed for the showers that would dampen the oppressing heat and humidity that had been building all afternoon.
I was walking the Camino Primitivo, an ancient pilgrimage path that connects Oviedo in Asturias to Santiago de Compostela via Melide in northern Spain. While trekking, I was also editing and updating a Camino guide book for the route for a London publisher. I was not surprised how much the lists of restaurants and accommodations had changed since the last edition in 2013. 
With the growth of interest in walking the various Caminos that spider web through Europe, there was sure to be many changes and additions. But I was surprised by the amount of construction in the backwoods of northern Spain that was changing the actual route.
Course changes meant that I needed to document those route deviations in the Camino guide book. I needed to stop, make notes and maybe retrace my steps to ensure accuracy. The frustrating search for San Salvador de Soutomerille, a small 9th C church, had me back-tracking through hot, farm fields. I finally decided that the ancient chapel must be on the alternative route that, although I was sure I had taken, I must not have followed. My 23-pound pack seemed twice as heavy as it did that morning when I left O Cadavo. I spent two extra hours and retraced three miles combing the remote countryside.
 That was the reason that by 4 pm I was walking alone. My pilgrim friends would have checked into Albergue Casa da Chanca, the place where we’d agreed to rest for the night, hours ago. I still slugged along under the sweaty heat of the pregnant clouds. I was climbing towards Lugo, which lies on a hill surrounded by three rivers. As I climbed, I got nearer and nearer to the clouds that were turning black. My prayers were about to be answered.

I set my pack down under the sheltering arms of an oak, opened my pack and as I reached to put on my raincoat, the skies opened. Hunching down, I fit my rainfly around my backpack as the rain pelted down. I was getting hammered and as I stood up to survey my situation in the thunderstorm, I knew I’d have to stay in place under the tree on this lonely farm road for a while. I could see a barn at the intersection ahead of me, but it looked deserted and locked. I thought of my friends sheltering in the albergue. I was looking forward to reconnecting with them for dinner; this surely put a kibosh on that.

For some reason, I looked back up the tree-lined road where I’d just come. Maybe I heard something that caused me to look. But there, up the lane, were two Spanish people walking their dog. The country couple huddled under a big umbrella, which maybe seemed so large because they were so short of stature. The man held the umbrella in one hand and his wife’s shoulder in the other. As the rain pelted sideways from the wind, he pointed the umbrella towards the gusts and steered his wife to another oak on my side of the road. Their Golden Retriever crouched at their ankles.

After an afternoon without seeing anyone, they seemed like angels to me. They appeared out of nowhere, and I thought, “They’re old folks, walking their dog. Their home MUST be close by.” I waved a hand of welcome, and the woman waved back. We stood under our prospective trees for what seemed like 20 minutes. I had no idea how far I was from Lugo, but it was already after 5 pm, and I was giving up hope on meeting my fellow pilgrims for dinner. I felt sad that after such a frustrating day, I would miss the compassionate companionship of fellow walkers.

When the storm finally let up, the villagers began walking. I waited, and we trod through the light rain together. We only smiled and laughed since none of us had a handle on the other’s verbal language. After about a mile, and the third country intersection, the wife pointed to the right and said, “Camino.”

I said, “No, yo voy a su casa. You quiero un taxi.” No, I go to your house. I want a taxi.” They both smiled and motioned onward. And we kept walking and walking. So much for my theory that old people take short dog walks. Another twenty minutes, I could see a line of row houses through the twilight drizzle. We must be reaching the outskirts of Lugo. “Esta es la casa de mi amigo,” she smiled. “Llamará un taxi para ti.” This is my friend’s house; she’ll call a taxi for you.

Muchas gracias,” I cried. The door opened, and the wife explained in rapid Spanish as I slid, dripping, into the entryway. I was happy to have the introduction because the friend spoke no English and I couldn’t understand her Spanish. She left me standing on the linoleum at the door to go upstairs to get her millennial son to call a cab.

She came returned to ask me a question, which I couldn’t understand. After repeating it three times, she went back upstairs to retrieve a huge, thick cotton towel. Toalla! Towel! That’s the word I didn’t recognize. Then she asked me if I needed a shirt – I could understand the word camisa. No, the towel would do, I somehow explained. I felt bad about all the water on the floor that was dripping off of me, my raincoat and my pack. But I helped her mop it up. The kindly mother made her son come down to explain that the taxi would be here soon. His English was about as good as my Spanish.
The taxi arrived and whisked me to Albergue Casa da Chanca. The ride was only five minutes long, and I realized how close I was to town when the thunderstorm had broken loose. Rodrigo and Ximena, my pilgrim family from Mexico, welcomed me warmly. They laughed at my stories of misfortune and Camino angels, and I had fifteen minutes to unpack and dry off before we went back out into the rain for a late dinner. There, over octopus and white wine, I repeated my story of the kindness of strangers to Lazlo and Peter, our Hungarian friends.

Stacey “Vagabonding Lulu” Wittig, a travel writer based in Munds Park, has written three books about the Camino de Santiago. Go to Amazon at