comitán de dominguez

The best thing about solo travel is that you never have to be alone; there’s always another backpacker who’s down to pair up. And when you’re ready to set off soltera again, there’s no awkwardness about splitting up. “I think I’m off tomorrow,” and it’s goodbye. This was the case when semana santa gave me a full 9 days to explore southern Mexico. This trip, I met up with a Russian-American New Yorker who shared my idea for a tentative itinerary. We met in San Cristóbal de las Casas and made our way to El Chiflón, a series of cascading waterfalls in southern Chiapas.

Comitán de Dominguez is a stopover town between San Cris and El Chiflón. It’s a pleasant, calm city of only 140 thousand people. A lunch spot with the traditional zócalo. Warm weather. A coffee farmer selling hand-packaged bags of café molino to afternoon park snoozers and coffee shop snackers.

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On Calle Central Norte, just two blocks from the central square, we stumbled upon a tiny tostadería that opened up to the owner’s home. Tostadas are small fried tortillas topped with whatever you want– typically a simple salsa, chicken, and lettuce. The back wall of the cafe slides, closing off the courtyard and play space for family and neighbors’ children. We weren’t particularly close to the sea, but this place specialized in seafood. And the design felt more Brooklyn hip than small town Mexico.

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Mexico is a string of one contradiction after another, just like this boutique tostadería (which, be the way, is called La Tostadería.) The food is served on a cutting board like a hipster breakfast place, and a single flower sits in a repurposed glass soda bottle. But the menu is written in sharpie on neon pink and green posters. They’re taped to the counter as if the materials were an afterthought.

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I ordered the tostada de champiñon and an empanada de flor de calabaza (squash blossom). The prices are extreme when compared to market or street food in Tehuacán. But the care and presentation feels ornate. If a fried tortilla topped with mushrooms can be considered ornate. It was delicious, okay?

To get to El Chiflón, we then snagged seats beside bags of onions and potatoes on a run-down school bus. “Media hora,” said the driver when I asked about the distance. We had our informed suspicions about Mexicans’ ability to speculate travel time. Whether it’s an hour or two, they revert back to the automatic response: “media hora.” Nearly 90 minutes later, along a winding mountain road, we hopped off the bus and into a three-wheeled cab at the edge of the national park.

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The falls are striking. But what we didn’t expect were the cascading turquoise waters below: the river seemingly snaking through the tropics, leading to a long series of smaller falls. Families line both sides, picnicking, barbecuing, wading in the water.

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On our return, I bought a strawberry popsicle which promptly melted all the way down my arm in the wind. In the heat, I think I’ll stick with fried foods. It’s the responsible thing to do, really. And we turned back to Comitán for more.

La torta and other disputes

Once I thought I’d gotten a hang for a local cuisine and the language attributed to it– specifying that by sin carne I not only mean without beef, but also… um…. Do you have anything without chicken, fish, pork, and insects, too? Oh yea, and guinea pig. Sorry! THEN, my adoptive Mexican mom asks me if I’d like a torta for dinner when I get home from work at 10 p.m. No thanks, I tell her. I think I’ll make myself a sandwich– something savory.

In Colombia, this is a torta: tres leches, torta negra, or basically any two-tiered cake filled with jam and sometimes coated in bold, glossy frostings. Not, of course, to be confused with a tarta. When sweet and dessert-like, a tarta can also be a cake– a fruit tart, more often. In Spain, the tarta is the consistency of breakfast bread, and sometimes dusted with powdered sugar. But in Argentina, a tarta is a quiche: a savory, eggy crusted pie, often filled with jamón, spinach, or cheese and eaten for merienda alongside a piping-hot cafe cortado. Swap your a’s and o’s, border hop a bit, and you’ve got yourself an entirely different commodity.

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Eloisa gave me a strange look and held up a piece of bread. In Mexico, a torta is a sandwich, she explained. You can order one out or make it at home, and it’s always served on a crusty, thin white bread produced exactly for torta-building purposes, or on a bolillo, a short, fat baguette. It’s easy to request a torta de quesillo, skipping out on the meat and going for the stringy cheese instead.

No matter your type of torta, it nearly always includes lettuce, tomato, and avocado, with a layer of frijoles spread onto one piece of the bread, and mayonnaise slathered onto the opposite. Mayonnaise, it has been said, is Mexican butter. It’s everywhere, and it’s never refrigerated. (It’s ok! We’re just strengthening our immune systems!) And the magic thing about black beans on a sandwich is that the beans and bread work together to form a complete protein. As I’m learning in Tehuacán, beans can (and do) pair with everything.

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The above made-to-order torta costs only 12 pesos (about 70 cents) at an unnamed cafe on calle 3 oriente in Tehuacán. In many city restaurants, they’ll run anywhere from 10 to 25 pesos. (The cheaper ones tend to be premade, set out in a glass box.) Served on a tiny dish and set on Tehuacán’s favorite checkered table cloth, a simple lunch takes on the green-white-red combination of the nation’s flag in the most charming way. It’s simple food, really: vegetables, cheese, beans, and bread. When I want to duck out of the sun and grab a quick bite, a torta is exactly the satisfying, crisp sandwich that won’t break the bank (now that I know what’s what).

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