São Paulo vs Mexico City

Despite being born and raised in the U.S., when I first moved to São Paulo, I instinctively compared it to Mexico City, a place where I’ve traveled to throughout my life because of family. Being both Latin American mega cities, I can’t help it. The similarities are easy to spot, but it’s the differences that are the most interesting to me.

What’s Similar:

1. Social Life — Gatherings are spontaneous, you invite your friend of a friend of a friend, and you give a kiss to everyone in the room. There’s also no end time, and you say good bye about five times before you actually leave.

2. Bikes — Bike culture is slowly growing in both, thanks to the implementation of bike lanes and bikes to rent. On Sundays, both Mexico and São Paulo close off lanes in their major avenues — Reforma and Paulista respectively — for cyclists.

La Roma, Mexico City

La Roma, Mexico City

3. LGBT Nightlife — Mexico has la Zona Rosa, SP has Frei Caneca (plus the largest Pride parade in the world), but despite these two major hubs, I would consider neither city to be that queer-friendly.

4. O Jeitinho — In Spanish, there’s no real name for it, but both cities heavily employ the famed jeitinho, or creative solutions to everyday problems.

5. Bookstores — In both cities, books are expensive yet somehow bookstores are found everywhere. Not that I’m complaining, I just wonder how they stay in business.

6. TV — Both have their one nearly omnipotent network — Televisa and Globo — that are the major source for cliché telenovelas and government propaganda.

7. Traffic — It’s always congested, drivers need to have the instincts of a hawk, and pedestrians never have the right of way.

View from Ibirapuera, São Paulo

View from Ibirapuera, São Paulo

8. Appearances — They are vital. In both cultures, bad behavior is called being feo/feio, or ugly, and particularly on women, there’s pressure to be bonita and appealing.

What’s Different:

1. Formalities — Mexico City culture has much more formalities than São Paulo, evidenced by the use of usted. São Paulo is much more informal and relaxed. I’ve been called senhora a handful of times in São Paulo, but people generally say você. In Mexico, if a stranger called me tú, they’d be considered mal educado.

2. Informal Sector — Both have a strong informal sector, but it’s much more evident in Mexico City, where you can see people everywhere with their stands on the corners, performing at stop lights, directing you to park, selling just about any kind of item in traffic and more. São Paulo has these things too, but it’s not as intense as it is in Mexico.

3. Diversity — São Paulo’s immigrant history is definitely more apparent than Mexico’s. While Mexicans certainly don’t look alike, there’s much more diversity in São Paulo, physically and ethnically speaking.


4. Concentration — They’re both enormous cities, but Mexico is the national center for culture, commerce and government. Brazil tends to spread its sectors out, with the capital in Brasilia, and commerce and culture shared between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There’s definitely the sense that everything important goes through São Paulo, but it’s not the one and only center for everything like Mexico City is.

5. History — Mexico City’s character and history are evident the moment you set foot there. Hundreds of years of history are felt, in part because it was the capital of the Aztec Empire, Spanish Empire and now Republic of Mexico. São Paulo is a rather old city too, but it started off as a town and didn’t become an important city until several centuries later. In the Centro, there are definitely older looking buildings, but old as in late 19th century. Mexico’s National Palace dates back to 15th century Aztecs.

Post office in Centro, São Paulo

Centro, São Paulo

Centro, Mexico City

Centro, Mexico City

6. National Brands — In Mexico, American brands are king. It can be rather difficult to find Mexican brands, although that’s slowly changing with small indie labels. In Brazil, almost everything’s made in Brazil, and anything that’s not is 10 times more expensive. That said…

7. Patriotism — Mexicans make a big deal out of Independence Day, while in Brazil, you wouldn’t know it was Independence Day unless you consulted a history book. Mexicans tend to be very proud of their country, while Brazilians tend to not show any (until the World Cup comes around…and even then, until Brazil is disqualified.)

8. Corn — This is basically the backbone of my culture, so I take this one seriously. Both cities sell corn as street food, but in very different ways. In Mexico City, the roasted white elotes come with mayonnaise or crema, lime, fresh white cheese, and chili powder. Esquites are the same thing but in a styrofoam cup, with the corn shaved off the cob and in its juice, like a thick soup. In São Paulo, vendors serve steamed yellow milho simply with butter. They also have canjica, which is like a corn porridge with condensed milk, and pamonha, which are the same thing as Mexican tamales except they’re plain with no filling.

Credit: Passamal

Credit: Passamal

Credit: Raul Macias [raulmacias.com.mx]

Credit: Raul Macias



Five Places I’d Return To

There’s still a huge part of the world I yearn to see, but certain places I have visited remain forever imprinted in my mind. Prompted by the Booked.netTop Destinations to Go There challenge, here are five places I’d return to in a heartbeat:

paris - Garnier Opera House

1. Paris
Truth be told, I was a bit reluctant to go because I wanted to use the travel opportunity to see somewhere less popular, less obvious. But when I arrived, I literally gasped at the sight of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and I realized, there’s a reason why this city is so celebrated. It was also my first time visiting a place where I didn’t speak the language, which was humbling to say the least, and forced me to get creative. At one point when a waiter forgot how to translate the name of a meat in English, I asked him what sound the animal makes.

New Orleans

2. New Orleans
Despite being in my home country, this was much different than what I was used to. (Greeting strangers — what a concept!) I went there during Mardi Gras season but a week before Fat Tuesday, so I was able to see local neighborhood parades and celebrations. On our first day, my friend and I went to Cafe du Monde, which serves simply beignets and chicory coffee, and went back every day for the remainder of our stay. My favorite detail was seeing Mardi Gras decorations everywhere like it was Christmas (including decorated pine trees!)

santiago de chile

3. Santiago 
A few years ago back in the U.S., I volunteered at a social justice-oriented cultural center founded by Chileans recovering from the former dictatorship. I happened to arrive in Santiago a few days after the fortieth anniversary of the military coup (their September 11th, literally), and its legacy and efforts to preserve the collective memory were very much present. I left with a deeper understanding of the cultural center, the people I had worked with, and of course Chile. The city gave me an incredibly good feeling through its architecture, nature and friendly people. It’s also amazing to me that you can drive an hour east and reach the mountains or drive an hour west and reach the ocean, all the while passing by vineyards.

mexico city

4. Mexico City
If Mexico City could be summed up in one word, it would have to be stimulating. It is forever a busy, chaotic, messy city but with a lot of color, culture and beauty. There are Aztec ruins in the middle of downtown, alongside centuries old churches, fashionable boutiques, crafts markets and packed bars. Most importantly (for me), there’s nothing like going to the market to eat a blue corn quesadilla stuffed with squash blossoms. It’s the city with the best street food ever.

salvador bahía

5. Salvador
Located in northeastern Brazil, it’s known for two things — its Carnaval and its strong African roots. I’ve never experienced the former, but the latter can be felt everywhere, through its food, slang, rituals and sounds. On every corner there’s music, whether it be blaring from a parked car stereo or from people improvising with trash cans. It’s a very relaxed city, sometimes to a fault, but the people are always friendly and willing to chat. This place has stayed with me in such a way that I feel an immense sense of joy when I smell dendê oil and remember eating acarajé on the beach.

I’m nominating five blogs to take on the challenge: Grobetrotter, Ella Está Por Embarcar, Journeying Jeff,  The Travelling Chopsticks, and Braless in Brasil. It’s simple – 5 places you’d return to with 5 photos and 5 nominees. The winner, picked at random, will get a new iPhone 6. Rules and regulations here.

And of course feel free to add your favorite destinations in the comments!


Bolivia in São Paulo

This weekend I stumbled upon the celebration for Bolivian Independence Day at the Memorial da América Latina. I don’t have any real connection to Bolivia, but it’s always comforting for me to find a Latin community here. I smiled when I heard a woman selling water, pronouncing it like the Spanish agua (AH-wah), instead of the Portuguese água (AH-gwah).  I was surprised then to hear so much portuñol from adults, and Portuguese from the kids. I guess it’s natural though. Overall it was a fun, interesting experience to try good food, watch dynamic performances, and learn about the Bolivian community here.


Bolivian treats for sale.

I learned there’s a Bolivian feira every Sunday in Praça Kantuta in the neighborhood Pari.

Booklet handed out, detailing immigrants' rights and available resources. Also seen: Sexual health and wellness booths, information for obtaining a visa, calling cards and ads for remittance companies.

Booklet handed out, detailing immigrants’ rights and available resources. Also seen: Health and wellness booths, Bolivian community newspaper and a sign saying “Get Your Visa Here.”



Mayor Fernando Haddad made an appearance.

Mayor Fernando Haddad made an appearance.

These delightfully soft alpacas are advertising calling cards to phone home. Other sponsors were remittance companies (that aid money transfers) and a Bolivian airline.

These delightfully soft alpacas are advertising calling cards to phone home. Other sponsors were remittance companies (that aid money transfers) and a Bolivian airline.

I had the lechón (not pictured but delicious), common in many Latin countries but with varying sides. This version came with steamed potato, sweet potato, plantain and salad.

I had the lechón (not pictured but delicious), common in many Latin countries but with varying sides. This version came with steamed potato, sweet potato, plantain and salad. I also tried mocochinchi, a juice made from dried peaches and cinnamon, similar to Chile’s mote con huesillo. 


The bolivianas on the bridge twirled around to the music, reminding me of the ala das baianas in Carnaval.