New York City: The Empire City

With all my trips to the States for work, it’s a wonder that I would ever go down there for fun. Well, last week that’s exactly what I did.

I have some family in New York and so we decided to drive down there on a long weekend to visit them. My cousin lives in a suburb outside of New York City so we spent most of our time there, but we made time to go into the city and check it out.

Grand Central Concourse
Grand Central Station, like Union Station but bigger and grander in every way.

I’ve been to New York City before but the last time I went was a year or two after 9/11. I don’t really remember that trip that much but I do remember driving past the site of the attack and remember seeing a void where the towers used to be.

I remember 9/11 quite clearly. I was a bit too young to understand the gravity of the situation but as I grew up and got a bit older, I realized that that event honestly changed the world. So many things are different because of the events of that day and despite not being American, it’s probably the most consequential event that occurred in my lifetime so far.

So, I made it a goal to make sure I visited the site this time around.

One World Trade Center
From the ashes, a phoenix.

It was kind of a weird feeling being there. I’ve been to other disaster sites before, like the Hiroshima Peace Park, and I remember how calm and soothing it felt there. The 9/11 Memorial, on the other hand, felt a bit eerie.

I think that that’s probably a result of the design of the place. You’re in the middle of a giant city with supertall skyscrapers and you just see two holes in the ground; water pouring into the void.

When I wasn’t by the pools and was just somewhere in the park, it almost felt like a regular park. But when I was near the pools and could hear the water, there was just this odd somber feel to it.

The North Pool
The North Pool.

It was made even weirder because my cousin was saying beforehand how she knew a person that died in the attack. The names of those that have died are etched into the sides of the pools and we were going to look for his, but we didn’t have to look far because it was literally right in front of me.

We were all so surprised that his name was literally right there. That was so strange.

The South Pool
The South Pool.

To me, the visit to the memorial was the most important part of my trip. In a way it felt like a mini pilgrimage to just go there. But as far as time goes, we didn’t actually spend that much time there.

I mean, New York City is a huge city with a lot to see and do. When you’re there on such a short amount of time, of course you have to go and hit up all the major sites.

Times Square is one of the biggest and so we made sure to go check it out. It’s kind of a neat place but it honestly kinda confuses me as well. It’s really just a rectangular public space with.. a bunch of ads?

One Times Square
I had no idea they left the ball up there during the year.

The atmosphere there was quite touristy and festive but for the most part I couldn’t really figure out what was so interesting about the place other than the fact that it was Times Square. It’s almost like it’s a place that’s famous for being famous at this point and people go there to just check out the ads and billboards.

We also went to Central Park, the most visited urban park in the world. Now, I love urban parks. I think they’re an incredibly great idea since it provides people with a place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and it also balances out the pollution a bit and emits some fresh air.

Central Park is huge so we didn’t have a chance to visit all of it. In fact, it would probably take a long time to do so since it’s such a big park. It was pretty nice though. I could totally see myself doing some long walks in the park or even renting a bike and going through it.

Central Park Skyscrapers
A giant park surrounded by supertall skyscrapers.

One of the smaller goals I had for my trip to NYC was to also grab a hot dog at Central Park. Why? I have no idea, it just seems like it’s a thing. So, despite everyone telling me the hot dogs are gross and that it was a bad idea, I decided to get a hot dog anyways.

It was ok. Nothing super special.

In continuation of the idea that NYC has everything, we also went and checked out some bridges. There’s a “secret spot” (that’s not so secret) in Brooklyn where you can frame the Empire State Building between the feet of Manhattan Bridge. That was a pretty sweet spot to take some pictures.

The Secret Spot
The not so secret spot.

From there, we walked up to the Brooklyn Bridge and walked across it. I didn’t expect that the pedestrian path was actually above the road and so that was kinda cool. The bridge itself has an interesting construction so it was neat to be up there and be able to see both Brooklyn and Manhattan.

That said, there was like a trillion people on that bridge and it was so crowded. It was really difficult to just take it slow and try to enjoy the view since there were so many people walking by, taking photos, or ringing the bell on their bikes.

By the time we walked to the other side I was really glad to be done. It probably would’ve been a much nicer walk if there was like, a quarter of the people.

Walking the Brooklyn Bridge
So many people, not enough bridge.

Overall, it was a short trip to New York City, but it was a really good one. Not only did I have a chance to hang out with family, but I also had a chance to check out well, New York City.

I think New York City is a really special city. It’s one of the biggest cities in the world in terms of.. pretty much every metric. I feel like it’s one of those cities where you could spend your entire life in and still have a lot to explore.

New York City is a city where you can get lost in a forest of super tall skyscrapers. A city where you can take a breather and hang out in nice parks or by the water. A city where you can meet people and eat food from all over the world. A city that is incredibly modern but still have its fair share of history.

The idea of New York City is pretty nice and I’m definitely looking forward to the next time I go back.

Quito: The Equatorial City

Originally, my plan was to just make myself an extended long weekend trip to Mexico City and then go home. But then due to sheer coincidence I had a friend who was going to Ecuador to visit a mutual friend so I thought hey, what the hell, let’s continue heading further south.

So I did and it was awesome.

It’s kinda neat because through all of my travels, I’ve never once set foot in the Southern Hemisphere. That is, of course, until I visited Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

Monumento Mitad del Mundo
A monument to an imaginary line.

Quito is the biggest city by the equator. By virtue of that, it means I’ve officially the Southern Hemisphere. It also means that it essentially exists in a weather limbo where there aren’t anything that I would consider seasons.

All year round the temperatures are pretty much the same and the amount of sun they get per day is about.. 12 hours. Exactly half the day.

It’s pretty crazy when you think about it. As a person from Toronto, seasons are definitely a real thing. You can have temperatures dip to like -30 in the winter and rise to 30 in the summer and the length of the day varies so much throughout the year as well so honestly, I can’t really comprehend the idea that things stay so.. constant throughout the year.

Quito from Fundación Guayasamín
The weather is constantly cool.

In addition to that, Quito is the second highest capital in the world, with an altitude of about 2800m, so it’s not uncommon for travelers to experience something related to the altitude.

It’s wild.

Again, as a dude from Toronto, which sits at a comfortable 0m above sea level, it’s pretty crazy to get to a city that far up and be winded going up the stairs. Now, I’m by no means a physically fit person but even I can do that much.

But on my first day there we were going up these stairs at the Basílica del Voto Nacional and I noticed my breathing got a bit harder even if I went up just one flight of stairs. The church itself was beautiful and it gave a wonderful view of the city from above, but the climb up was actually pretty tiring just because of the altitude.

View from the Basílica del Voto Nacional
View from the Basílica del Voto Nacional.

I eventually got used to it, but on my second last day in the city, we took the TelefériQo up to the top of a volcano. The gondola ride itself brought you up to almost 4000m and again, the view from up there was amazing. But, at that altitude you could definitely feel it affecting you.

We took plenty of breaks and eventually found a place up there that would let you rent some horses to go sightseeing on. I’ve never ridden a horse before and I really wanted to so I was so surprised to learn that it was only $5 for a 25 minute ride.

That was so fun and definitely worth every penny. The view was nice, my horse was cool, and I got a chance to catch my breath. Wonderful experience all around.

Sightseeing by Horseback
Checking out some stuff by horseback.

Speaking of volcanoes, Quito is situated right in the Andes so it’s essentially in a volcanic mountain chain. That’s why the city is so far above sea level but it also means the city itself is surrounded by mountains.

Now, I love mountains and it’s always great to visit a city that’s surrounded by dramatic mountains. It also means that there are a lot of nice day trips out of the city to visit even cooler mountains. For example, we did a road trip out one day to visit Cotopaxi, a volcano, and Quilatoa, a crater lake.

Cotopaxi, an active volcano.

Both of those are technically not part of Quito but I thought they were worth mentioning. It’s neat because Ecuador in general is in a neat part of the world where you can find everything from the ocean, mountains, and even the rain forest.

Quito is kinda right at the middle of it so there’s a lot of cool opportunities to travel to different biomes. I would definitely love to do that next time I go. I especially want to go to Galapagos.

Anyways, back to the city. Quito was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s kind of wild to think that of the over 1000 sites across the world that this city was one of the original members.

La Ronda
The view from La Ronda.

I can kinda see that though. The historic downtown portion of Quito is quite nice and really well preserved. A lot of cities have historic centers that have been dramatically changed throughout the years. Maybe they constructed some newer buildings or demolished some older ones, or maybe they just let it get run down to the point where it doesn’t look that nice.

But Quito’s is different. It’s quite well preserved and there are a lot of cool buildings that have stood the test of time. For example, there are a bunch of churches there but my favourite one is the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. From the outside it doesn’t look too special but then you go inside and it’s just, a golden spectacle.

Quito Historic Centre
The outside of the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús.

They didn’t allow people to take pictures inside (in an attempt to keep it preserved?) but I’m telling you now that it was really cool. I’ve been to a lot of churches in my time but I’ve never been to a church that elaborately decorated.

They also have this giant statue near the center of the city. It’s slightly elevated on a small hill/mountain and it depicts a winged Virgin Mary standing on a dragon.

Now, I don’t know about you but just that description alone is pretty badass. The view from there is also pretty spectacular too. And what made it even better was that you could take an Uber up to the statue and it only costs like 2.50 USD because Ubers are dirt cheap there. So great.

El Panecillo
The guardian of the city.

Since this was also my first time in South America, it makes sense that the food would be different as well. They eat a lot of corn down there and there are a lot of different types of corn that I’ve never seen before.

But, by far the most interesting thing I’ve had the opportunity to eat was cuy, guinea pig.

I’m all for eating new animals and when I was given the chance to eat this one I couldn’t turn it down. But, to be completely honest, it wasn’t very good. There wasn’t a lot of meat and it just kinda tasted like weird pork. For that price it didn’t seem like it was worth it since regular pork is better and cheaper.

Roasted guinea pig, with teeth and all.

But hey, now I can say I’ve eaten guinea pig before and that just adds to the list of unconventional animals I’ve tried.

From a geographic point of view, I think Quito might be one of the most interesting places I’ve been to. Between the altitude and the fact that it’s at the equator, it means you experience a lot of things that you might not experience at other cities.

In all, I really enjoyed my trip to Quito. It was definitely a plus that I had friends there that could show me around but the city itself was quite beautiful and I feel like there’s a decent amount of stuff to do. I could definitely see myself going back, if anything just to transit to go to other places in the country.

Mexico City: The Aztec City

So in my constant pursuit of visiting as many countries as possible, I booked a last minute trip to Latin America to visit some friends. This was an interesting trip for me since it marked the first time I’ve went anywhere in the Americas outside of Canada and the United States.

One of my friends is in Mexico City for the summer so I figured it would be a good opportunity to go visit since I’d have a place to stay and someone to show me around. The timings straight up worked out well so I just decided to go.

Reforma from Chapultepec Castle
The view of Reforma from Chapultepec Castle.

A lot of Canadians go to Mexico but most of them end up going to some resort or something and don’t really get to experience the “real Mexico”. I’ve never been to a resort but it doesn’t necessarily strike me as something that I would be interested in. Regardless, some people were surprised I’ve never been before since a lot of people go.

So this was my first foray into Mexico and of course, no resort for me. I went to Mexico City and just DIY’d the entire trip. One of the things I love about traveling is to see how other people live and experience a different slice of life. Of course, when you’re a tourist it’ll never be exactly the same but it’s still a bit more authentic when you’re wandering the streets of the city as compared to just chilling at some beach.

What I found the most interesting about Mexico City is that it was built over the ruins of an Aztec city. Legend has it that the Aztecs wandered through the Americas until they found an eagle eating a snake while standing on a cactus. It just so happened that this happened on a lake and so they decided to build a city there.

Tenochtitlán, the city Mexico City was built on.

It’s quite an interesting story and when you’re in the historic downtown area, you can see a bunch of the ruins that they unearthed over the years. We joined a free walking tour which brought us around the area and told us some of the history that pertained to the city. It was a pretty nice tour and our guide was incredibly knowledgeable.

Between the tour and my visit to the Museum of Anthropology, I learned a lot about the Aztecs and their city. You see all these renderings of the city when it was the Aztec capital and it’s absolutely crazy to think about.

You’re talking about a conquest-centric civilization that performed elaborate rituals and regularly conducted human sacrifices to the gods. A civilization that decided to build their capital in the middle of a lake because of some bird they saw. It’s amazing.

I can only imagine what the Europeans thought when they first arrived and saw them; it must’ve been incredibly terrifying.

The Aztec Sun Stone
The Aztec Sun Stone.

But alas, all empires fall and the Europeans took over, eventually forming modern day Mexico. This is a pretty classic story of the Americas but it’s interesting because I’ve never really put much thought into it until I looked at the names of the places in Mexico City and realized that a lot of them weren’t in Spanish, they were in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.

It makes sense because you’d imagine the people would keep the traditional names of places. Canada is like that too. Pretty much all of our places are named after some European thing or based off of a word from an Aboriginal language.

It was a bit of an odd realization but it made me realize that Mexico and Canada are more similar than I thought. You have some land that had a native civilization that was essentially taken over by the Europeans and now it exists as some weird (but interesting) mixture of cultures.

Trotsky's Tomb
Trotsky, Mexico’s Soviet connection.

Looking past the historic aspects of the city, Mexico City has all of the things you’d expect from a big city. It has a big and modern downtown area which is located around Reforma, a large street that runs through the center of the city.

There’s a lot of stuff to see and do around Reforma and I spent a decent amount of time walking around there.

It was a pretty nice walk. What stood out to me was that there were a lot of statues and monuments scattered around that area. It’s not a huge surprise considering how it’s a giant boulevard so it would be an ideal place to put these things, but there were so many.

Of course you had the statues of key Mexican figures and events, like the Monument to the Revolution and the Angel of Independence. But then you also had some random stuff like Roman gods and goddesses and I’m not really sure how that relates to Mexico.

The Monument to the Revolution
The Monument to the Revolution.

But I think by far the highlight of my visit to Mexico City was on my first night when me and my friend went and watched Lucha Libre. It was one of those things that we kinda just decided to do for fun and we didn’t really expect much from the show.

We showed up and got terrible seats so we decided to just take over some empty seats until we got kicked out of them. We swapped seats like this a bunch of times throughout the night but it was totally worth it because we had a much better view of the show.

Lucha Libre Introductions
Wrestler introductions for one of the rounds.

And man, the show was awesome. The commentary was all in Spanish and of course we’ve never followed it before so we had no idea what the storylines were, but the crowd was incredibly hype and everything about it was so fun. It was like two hours of solid fun for $10, really can’t complain.

The crowd got so into it and there were so many people yelling and cheering and booing that it was so hard to not get sucked into the hype. The wrestlers also preformed some genuinely awesome moves like ones where they would jump from the ring, over the ropes, and smash into a dude on the ground.

Of course there were those comically laughable moments like when three dudes would “kick” a guy on the ground, but they just all added together into this package of fun. Highly recommend; it was great.

Lucha Libre
This show is ridiculous.

Lastly, the food was pretty great too. Ever since my visit to San Antonio last year I was really excited to try Mexican food in Mexico since I figured if it was that good in Texas it had to be better in its origin country.

It was definitely good, but also different than I thought. For example, whenever I think of tacos the image of Taco Bell always comes into my mind. Now, Taco Bell sucks but the image of a taco where you have like, lettuce, meat, and other stuff wrapped into a tortilla is pretty much how I’ve always envisioned it in my head.

But the taco places I went to in Mexico City certainly looked different, but were also incredibly tasty. On my first night in Mexico we went to three taco restaurants and had three different types of tacos. All of them were great and I would totally go back and have more.

Steak Taco with Cheese
A steak taco with cheese.

And of course, you can’t go to Mexico and not try some tequila. Me and my friend went to a few bars and I got some cocktails made from both tequila and mezcal, another agave-based alcohol. I think over the years I’ve come to understand that tequila is probably my favourite liquor. So, I thought they were great too haha.

Overall I had a pretty good time in Mexico City. I honestly wasn’t there for that long and I felt like I could’ve stayed another day or two. I think that’s probably a good sign that it was an interesting city. It’s such a large city that I think there’s a lot to do and explore. It should be pretty fun to spend some more time there and check out some of the less touristy things.