Category Archives: Mexico

A Week in Paradise

We have spent the last week with our Minnesota friends, Jean and Ron and Lynn and Jim, at the Vidanta Resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It is a huge resort with at least eight residential towers, countless pools, a long lazy river, a golf course, and nonstop landscaping laced with boardwalk walking paths. It is the perfect place to relax.This is a part of the view from our balcony. That is Puerto Vallarta in the background with the Pacific Ocean in front of it and a river below us. We can watch the cruise ships arrive in the morning and leave in the afternoon. There is a nice sunrise for the early risers (I have no sunrise pictures to offer). The weather has been similar to San Miguel except the nights are warmer and it is a little more humid. It has been near perfect beach weather!We spent most of our time at this pool located adjacent to the ocean. The water was “walk in” warm. We had lunch most days in our pool lounge chairs with two for one frozen mango margaritas. Additional pool services were eyeglass cleaning and popsicles. I had a tamarind popsicle one day and that together with the tamarind chicken at Nirvana, has made me a real fan. I hope we can find tamarind somewhere in Wilmington!We also had iguanas that like to hang out at the pool. They are quite adept at snatching food when you look away. They also caused some screaming as they moved about the pool. Thanks to Jean and Lynn for the iguana pictures.We got off the grounds several days. On Sunday we went to a large craft fair in La Cruz which spread along the water front. We bought an art work made of tree bark. We went to Bucerías for dinner on the ocean one night. From left is Susan, Ron, Jim, Lynn, and Jean.Wednesday we went into Puerto Vallarta for a walk along the Malecón, a mile long esplanade beside the ocean.There were many people working for tips such as this man who had created an elaborate Mayan sand sculpture.This person created columns of balanced rocks.There was a performance by Mayan pole dancers who slowly rotate down from the top of the pole to the ground. One of the dancers is playing a flute and small drum as he turns. This purpose of this dance was to prevent or end droughts in ancient times. UNESCO has designated it an Intangible Cultural Heritage.Numerous sculptures line the Malecón. From left to right are Lynn, Jim, Jean, Ron, Bruce and Susan.

We fly home to Wilmington on Friday. Our Minnesota friends are returning to a snow storm on Saturday. While Wilmington had some nearby flurries this week, we will be returning to temperatures near 70. While it won’t be as nice as the weather we have experienced in Mexico, we are hopeful that spring is near. Our upcoming trips are the Greek Islands in June and Sicily, Malta, and a transatlantic crossing in the fall. Thanks for following our experiences in Mexico and we hope you will join us on our future travels.Sunset over one of the ponds on the resort with the ocean in the background.

Susan Dances on the Steps of Teatro Juarez

Tuesday was our last day in Guanajuato, so we made it a leisurely day exploring a museum, some shops, and studying the world passing by us in the Jardin.  When we passed the Teatro Juarez on our way home there was a large group of young students on the steps in front of the theater.  We had seen the same group earlier in a Dominoes Pizza and said we were thankful we weren’t eating there when they came in.  We learned later that it was a school group of first to third graders on a field trip from Leon which is about 45 minutes away.

The children were all jumping up and down, laughing, and clearly having a good time.  The teachers accompanying them were also jumping, running, and encouraging them to have fun.  We had seen similar scenes in Seville and Pamplona, but this group seemed the most happy we had seen.  I was particularly struck by how every single child was laughing and interacting with the other children.  I thought this would make a nice picture, so we stopped to take the following picture:As I was taking the picture I noticed that things quieted down and suddenly everyone was looking at us.  One of the teachers came over to us and asked if we would like to dance with the children.  Several bystanders said it was fun and encouraged us to do it.  If you know Susan, you know that she loves to dance.  Me?  Not so much.  So Susan went up with them to dance and I attempted to document the event.

First the children asked Susan questions such as her name and where she was from.  They then jumped up and down for a while until the teacher led everyone in the activity which I wouldn’t exactly describe as dancing.  There was a lot of head shaking which we understood to be checking to see if there was anything inside the head.  At the end the teacher asks the kids if Susan has earned the prize.  They all said she did.  The teacher then stood facing Susan so the children could see what he had in his hands behind his back.  He had a slice of pizza in one hand and a bunch of lollipops in the other hand.  There were advocates for both hands, but the lollipops won out.  If you would like to see one and a half minute video of the “dance”, click here.

Since we don’t speak Spanish, we didn’t fully understand what was going on.  If you watch the video and speak Spanish, we would be interested to know what the teacher that is jumping in and out of the video is saying.This small ten minute event is why we love to travel.  Everyone had a good time.  We enjoyed seeing so many happy children.  Has anyone seen comparable activities on school field trips in the USA? 

So now the time comes to compare Oaxaca, Guanajuato, and San Miguel.  While the first two are certainly a more Mexican experience, that also severely limits your activities.  We did manage to find two musical concerts in Guanajuato – one very good and the other OK.  While the day trips from Oaxaca were the highlight of the last two weeks, we preferred the ambiance and food in Guanajuato.  We feel that we have seen both Oaxaca and Guanajuato, so there is nothing to go back for.  In San Miguel, it is about the activities in an appealing town with a wide variety of good restaurants and the numerous people you can meet.  For an extended stay year after year, it is hard to top SMA!

By the way, did anyone notice how blue the sky was in the pictures of Guanajuato?  Neither of us can remember seeing a single cloud during the week we were there.   Comfortably warm in the daytime and comfortably cool at night.  Perfect weather!  We are now in SMA, so you will likely see far fewer posts from here.  I will only post if it is something new or extraordinary.  We are staying in The Folk Art Charmer, the same house as last year.

Don Quixote, Frogs, and Mummies 

While there is no obvious relationship between Don Quixote, frogs and mummies, it turns out they are all closely associated with Guanajuato.  I have found no logical explanation as to why Don is so popular here, but so far we have seen three statues of him and one large museum devoted exclusively to him.  The shops are filled with Quixote items. The city also has a month long international arts festival in October named in honor of the author of Don Quixote.  A sampling of Don Quixote statues from traditional to modern.

The connection with frogs is also obscure since the city is located in a semi-arid region in the mountains.  It is believed the name of the city originates from an indigenous language where the name means “place of monstrous frogs”.  Whatever the origin, the city has adopted it and frog souvenirs are common here.  There is also a collection of sandstone frog sculptures at one entrance to the city.

And finally, one of the most bizarre museums I have ever seen is one of the most popular attractions in Guanajuato.  Guanajuato suffered a cholera epidemic in 1833 which resulted in some mass burials.  For some reason, some of the cholera victims were disinterred around 1870 and were found to have been naturally mummified by the minerals in the local soil.  At this time, there was also a local fee for perpetual burials. Sometimes, those who didn’t pay the fee between 1870 and 1958 were disinterred and those in better condition were stored in a building.  The result is the Mummy Museum with a display of over 100 mummies ranging in age from a six month fetus to senior citizens.  Some of the mummies on display were recovered in the 1950’s after being buried for only seven years, so not all of the mummies are cholera victims.  I have not included pictures in the post as they are not for the squeamish.  If you would like to see two example pictures, click here.

There are plenty of attractive buildings and squares in town.The Teatro Juarez.  People like to sit on the front steps and watch the world go by.  It is almost directly across the street from the Jardin.The Jardin is so dense that it is hard to take a picture of it.  The limbs are a little low for people my height.  Still, I think it is prettier than the one in SMA or Oaxaca.  It is always lively and there are enough benches so you can usually find one.  It is surrounded by restaurants.The Jardin from the panoramic overlook.  That is a church in the front.  There are several small fountains hidden under the trees.The Basilica by day and by night.

Guanajuato is filled with stairs and narrow sidewalks leading off into the hills.  This is often the only way to reach a house in the hillsides.  This particularly narrow walkway is known as the “Kiss Alley”.  Legend has it that two lovers lived on opposite sides of the alley.  The woman was from a wealthy family and the man was a poor coal miner.  The families opposed the relationship so they had to sneak onto their adjacent balconies at night and exchange a kiss across the alley.  Unfortunately, the girls father found out what was happening and killed her boyfriend.  Despite this unhappy ending, the alley is now a tourist destination.

We leave Wednesday for San Miguel de Allende.  We are looking forward to returning and have been reviewing what is going on there.  It looks like a busy week ahead!  There is a play, a festival, a folk singer, a chamber music concert, an art walk, and most of the Oscar winners showing at the pocket theater.  And this is all between now and Sunday!  We are also looking forward to seeing our friends Anne and Barry from a previous OAT trip.  That’s what we love about SMA, so much to do!

Two Gems and a Silver Mine

Today we ventured outside the city center to visit a former hacienda and a Mexican Baroque church.  Guanajuato is in the heart of the silver mining area of Mexico.  The Hacienda was created in the 17th century from the remains of what the guidebook calls a “metal refinery”, which I take to mean a silver refinery.  While the remains of the refinery have mostly been allowed to crumble, a number of beautiful gardens have been created and are maintained amongst the ruins.  Thus the grounds are filled with old stone walls, pots, cascading trees, fountains, benches, and plants of all types.  And best of all, virtually no one else was there.  It made for a very peaceful and relaxing atmosphere.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

We also visited the hacienda which was decorated with period furnishings showing how the one percent lived in the 17th century.Susan particularly liked the tall ceilings.

The church we visited was built by the co-owner of a silver mine in the area to give thanks for his good fortune.  He was very wealthy and spared no expense in building the church.

The church was built between 1765 and 1788 of sandstone and features elaborate carvings around the doors and windows.  The interior features three hand carved wood alterpieces covered in gold leaf.  I estimate that the depth of the wood carving is between six and ten feet.  The front alterpiece is first followed by the two equally large side alterpieces.

We wandered around a little after seeing the church and discovered we could also visit the remains of a silver mine.  Without knowing what we were getting into, we paid the admission and went in.  It turned out to be a guided tour in Spanish that descended some 200 feet deep into the mine on the original uneven stone steps.  Fortunately, there was a rope hand rail and someone on the tour who spoke English and did some translating for us.

This is a very small portion of the steps we faced to climb back out of the mine.  But the miners had it far worse.  They had to climb out with 150 pound bags of ore on their backs using only candles to see.  And they were paid about 15 cents an hour for their work!  To my surprise, the steps seemed shorter going back up than they did coming down.

We had used a taxi to visit both these places and were now faced with getting a taxi home from a relatively remote location, we stood on the street waving at the occasional occupied taxi for about thirty minutes.  We went into a nearby hotel and got them to call a taxi for us, but it never came.  We finally decided to take a local bus that had the word “centro” on it and hoped it would go somewhere we recognized.  When we arrived at a major street down the hill and the bus seemed to be turning away from centro, we got off and after a few minutes were able to hail a taxi.  He used the tunnel system to get from one side of town to the other.  There was a whole network of tunnels with several cross tunnels and several “Y” intersections.  It was another good day in Guanajuato.  Can you tell we are liking it better than Oaxaca?

A Night on the Town in Guanajuato 

Guanajuato is home to Guanajuato University which offers 153 academic programs ranging from high school to doctorate level and has 33,000 students in campuses in 14 towns in Guanajuato state.This is the main campus of the university located in the central area of Guanajuato city.  How would you like to look forward to climbing those steps every day?  I tell you this so you will understand that this is a lively, happening town at night and that there are a lot of young people around.

But Friday night we decided to do what the old people in Guanajuato do: dinner at a nice restaurant and the symphony.  For dinner we chose a nice Italian restaurant on the second floor overlooking the Jardin.We made our reservations the night before, so we were able to get a table outside on a narrow balcony.  By the time we left about 7:45, that street below us was packed with people.The green area behind me is the Jardin.  Much as we love the Jardin in San Miguel, this is the prettiest Jardin we have seen.  I had seared tuna with a mango salsa and Susan had medallions of beef with Gorgonzola cheese.  Neither entre was very Italian, but they were both delicious.

After dinner we went a few buildings down the street to the Teatro Juarez to attend the symphony.Like many historic buildings here, the theater is beautifully lit at night.  The theater is also elaborately decorated on the inside.This picture of the ceiling gives you a better idea of the nature of the decorations.The thing that seemed incongruous was the panels behind the orchestra appeared to be made from plain plywood.  The symphony orchestra was of similar size and quality to the Charlotte or Charleston Symphonies.  The program was over two hours long and the first half of the program included a guest mezzo soprano.  And what do you think the ticket cost?  $2.50 US each.  Try to find a deal like that in the US!

There was one interesting incident during the symphony – a power failure in the middle of a number.  The theater was pitch black so the players could not see their music or the conductor.  They soldiered on, but were clearly losing their way.  Fortunately, the power came back on after about 15 seconds, everyone had a good laugh, and they picked up the number again where the power failure occurred.

It was an enjoyable Friday night in Guanajuato.

The Story of El Pipila

Mexico’s war of independence from Spain began in 1810 when the Mexican army under the command of Miguel Hidalgo first captured Dolores and San Miguel.  After those victories, they called for the surrender of the state capital city of Guanajuato.  When the Spanish refused, Hidalgo marched toward Guanajuato freeing prisoners and recruiting miners and forcing them to join the army.  In anticipation of the army’s arrival, the Spanish moved all of the wealthy families into the granary which has thick walls and resembled a fort.  Hidalgo’s army was ill equipped and they were having little success in capturing the granary.  Enter El Papila, an indigenous silver miner with a reputation for incredible strength.  He tied a heavy stone to his back to protect him from the shower of bullets, grabbed a torch, and made his way to the doors of the granary where he lit the wooden doors on fire.  With the doors gone, the army swarmed into the granary and slaughtered everyone inside.

While this was a great victory for the revolution, it gave the revolutionaries a reputation for brutality and caused them to lose support.  It also caused a split between Hidalgo and the other revolutionary leader Allende.  A year later, the Spanish captured both Hidalgo and Allende, executed them, and decapitated them.  The heads were sent around the country as a warning to those thinking of joining the revolution.  The skulls were then hung from the corners of the granary where local history has it they remained for ten years.  They are now at the Angel of Independence in Mexico City.  Hidalgo and Allende are heroes throughout Mexico and every city has streets, buildings, and monuments named after them.  This is the statue honoring El Pipila located on a hill overlooking Guanajuato.There is an overlook below the statue with a beautiful view of the city.  We took the funicular up to the overlook and walked down into the city.Here Susan is starting the walk down.  The map we have only shows the major streets.  Since many of the walkways are only pedestrian lanes, they don’t show up on our map.  This means that much of the time you have to navigate based on instinct.  In this case it was pretty easy: walk down hill and keep turning toward the city center.This is the granary which has been turned into a history museum.  It was only used as a granary for a few months before being taken over by the Spanish military.  Most of its life it has been used as a jail.Much of the bottom floor of the museum is a tribute to the heroes of the revolution.  We had drinks in one of the many plazas in the city center with the statue of El Pipila looking down on us from the hill above.

Hello Guanajuato 

I mentioned previously that Interjet was my new favorite airline.  Sadly, that is no longer the case.  Wednesday we were supposed to fly from Oaxaca to Mexico City and then change planes for a flight to Leon which is a 45 minute cab ride from Guanajuato.  Late Monday evening I got an email from Interjet advising that our flight to Leon was cancelled and giving me several numbers to call that didn’t work for me.  When I called their US number using MagicJack, I learned we could fly to Mexico City on Tuesday and overnight there or wait to fly on Thursday or Friday.  Since all these options were inconsistent with our guaranteed and prepaid lodging reservations, we decided to take an earlier flight to Mexico City and take a bus directly to Guanajuato.  This had the advantage of getting us to our apartment well before dark.  The kicker is that Interjet refused to refund the Mexico City to Leon portion of the flight.  After telling my tale of woe to several people, I learned that this is a pattern with Interjet and perhaps other Mexican airlines.  Does Mexico have a BBB I can write???

Mexico buses are very comfortable with plenty of space between seats, leg rests, seat back entertainment, wifi, a free lunch, and his and hers rest rooms.  This made the five hour bus ride as pleasant as the four hour layover in Mexico City and the one hour flight to Leon would have been.  Guanajuato is located in a valley surrounded by hills.  It has relatively few roads at grade.  Most of the main roads are in tunnels under the city.  The big buses are too big for the tunnels, so the bus station is located some distance from the city.  The taxi ride started out through beautiful mountain scenery with no sign of buildings or a city.  It then entered a tunnel and emerged in the heart of downtown Guanajuato.  We found our apartment with little difficulty.Our living room is behind the three windows on the white building.  We are located above a pharmacy and several other small stores.  We opened the front door to find this narrow, steep staircase up to our apartment.

I lugged the suitcases up to the landing one at a time, while Susan protected the remaining suitcases still on the sidewalk.  Thank goodness we travel light!  But stairs were not to be our only problem.  By Thursday morning we determined that we had no hot water and that one of our propane gas cylinders was empty.  Our apartment owner (who lives in Oregon) was very responsive; and within a half hour of learning the problem, had a man carrying a large propane gas cylinder up those stairs on his shoulder.  He replaced the empty cylinder, relit the water heater, and all was well again.This is an entrance to one of the tunnels and also shows how the central area is surrounded by hills with houses covering the hills.  Pedestrians can also use the tunnels, but we haven’t done that yet.

Many houses cannot be reached by car.  The narrow steps continue to the right of the red building.  After seeing some of these alleyways, I stopped complaining about the steps to our apartment.  We chose an apartment accessible by car with a relatively level walk to the Jardin in the town center.  More on Guanajuato to follow.

Oaxaca or San Miguel?

We heard such glowing praise of Oaxaca from guests at The Red Tree House, we were expecting we might want to switch from San Miguel to Oaxaca in future years.  However, after staying here a week, our vote still goes to San Miguel.  Oaxaca certainly has some advantages.  First, walking is much easier here.  The sidewalks are mostly smooth and even.  However, you still have to be alert as there are a few sidewalks with holes and uneven areas.  They even have a nice pedestrian street.  Second, many of the major shows here are free.  In San Miguel, anything good is going to cost you with the money usually going to charity.This classical concert in the Zocalo by the Oaxaca orchestra  (no strings) was free.  And finally, Oaxaca seems more authentically Mexican with only a scattering of gringoes around.

Some of the downsides of Oaxaca for us were it was larger with many more people, cars had the right of way which made street crossing difficult, many more beggars and vendors, sales carts crowded the sidewalks, many menus were only in Spanish, and little English spoken anywhere.  There are many museums in Oaxaca, but they were mostly of minimal interest.I did love this exhibit entitled Siempre Verde (Always Green) at the Museum of Contemporary Art.  This left walking the streets and going to events.  While there seem to be a lot of events here, they were not nearly as easy to find as in San Miguel.  And a parade we would have loved to have seen, we never saw mentioned anywhere.  Another problem with events in Oaxaca, there tended to be a lot of talking before the event and between numbers.  This was always in Spanish, so it was of no interest to us.  And while there were a lot of nice churches and buildings, the hustle bustle atmosphere detracted from the walking experience.  As Susan says, Oaxaca lacks the charm factor that San Miguel has.The Soledad Church in Oaxaca was one of many nice churches, but it is still hard to top the outside appearance of the Parroquia in San Miguel.

The wedding processions in Oaxaca tended to have added features such as the giant, twirling balloon leading the way.The bride and groom followed the band.And the women carrying baskets of flowers on their heads was a new feature.

The food is good in both towns.  Oaxaca is particularly known for its mole which I happen to love.  San Miguel probably has more variety of non Mexican food, but we did eat at a Moroccan restaurant the other night.  There are a lot of attractive, reasonably priced restaurants serving good food in both towns, so that is a draw.

All in all, while Oaxaca was a great place to spend a week, for a month or longer visit we still prefer San Miguel.

Mezcal, Mitla, Minerals, and a Monster Tree

Monday we took an all day tour of some popular sites around Oaxaca. We started with the Tule tree in the churchyard of the city of Tule.  The tree is believed to be the stoutest in the world, that is to have the largest circumference.  In 2001 it was placed on a tentative list of world heritage sites, but apparently it didn’t make the cut.I said it looked like several different trees had grown together to make one tree, but according to Wikipedia, they have tested the DNA of the various trunks and it is all one tree.  The circumference of the tree in 2005 was 137.8 feet equating to a diameter of 46.1 feet as measured by wrapping a rope around the trunk.  Since the trunk is highly irregular, this is a larger measurement than its actual cross section.  If you smooth out the trunk, the diameter is 30.8 feet which is larger than the next most stout tree, a giant sequoia with a diameter of 29.5 feet.However you measure it, it is one big tree trunk!The church yard where the tree is located is pretty also.

Our next stop was a Zapotec weaving shop.  I have covered weaving and dying in previous blogs, so I will just show you an example of some of their weavings.

Our third stop was a mezcal factory.  Oaxaca is at the heart of mezcal production and is a very popular drink in the area.  Mezcal has several differences from tequila.  Tequila can only be made from blue agave while mezcal can be made from up to 30 varieties of agave.  Tequila and Mezcal are made in different states of Mexico with some overlap.  But primarily, the manufacturing techniques of the two are different.  Mezcal is traditionally made by small producers in a traditional manner. Mezcal is made from the heart of the agave, called the pina, after the leaves and roots are removed.  The pina is first cut into smaller pieces using an axe.The pieces are baked by piling them around an open fire pit and cooking them for about three days.  This gives mezcal its smoky flavor.The baked pina is then crushed using a horse drawn grinding wheel.  The resultin pulp is shoveled into a vat and covered with water and allowed to ferment.The product of the fermentation process is then distilled to produce mezcal, which is normally drunk straight, though we have seen it in many cocktails on menus here.

Next up was Mitla, another archaeological site.  This one dates to 800 CE, so it is more recent than the previous sites we visited.This building is essentially unrestored except for the fresh coat of red stucco on the bottom.  The building has a lot of architectural detail including various designs in the upper panels.  I originally thought the designs were carved, but a closer inspection reveals they have been constructed with small pieces of stone like a mosaic.The entire building has been assembled without mortar.  Oaxaca lies on the San Andreas fault, so this building has survived its share of earthquakes over the years.  This shows how well they built the buildings back then.

The final stop was the main reason we took the tour, Hierve el Agua.  This is esssentially a “frozen waterfall” made in a similar manner to the way stalactites and stalagmites are made in a cave.  There is only one other place in the world with a similar formation, Palmuke, Turkey.This is the ultimate infinity pool!One of the two frozen waterfalls.  That is not water, but the minerals left behind from evaporation over the years as water slowly trickles down the face of the cliff.It was a beautiful spot in a beautiful location and the perfect ending to a fun day.

Monte Alban

The Zapotec site of Monte Alban (translates to White Mountain) is located on top of a mountain ridge at the juncture of three valleys.  Located 1300 feet above the surrounding valleys, it has a commanding view of the area.  This made the site easily defensible and brought them closer to the sky, but it meant they had to level the ridge and bring many of the construction supplies from the valley below.  The area was first inhabitated in 500 BCE and became one of the largest cities in mesoamerica and the Zapotec socio-political and economic center for nearly a thousand years.  There is evidence of interactions between the people of Teotehuican (discussed in a previous blog) and the people of Monte Alban.  While Monte Alban is smaller than Teotehuican and has no monumental pyramids, we found it more appealing because of its scenic location and the more appealing design of its structures.The main plaza as seen from the top of the north platform.  Ceremonial platforms are located in the center of the plaza and residential structures are on either side.  The south platform at the far end is only partially restored.The ball court is reminiscent of the Mayan ball courts.  The sign here said the ball game was used to settle disputes and for religious rituals.  The ball is moved down the court by hitting it with your hips and elbows.  From my days volunteering at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, I know the ball used today by indigenous peoples playing a modern version of the game weighs as much as a bowling ball.  Ouch!  The sides of the court are not bleachers, but are used to deflect the ball back to the field.Numerous carvings of men in contorted positions were found throughout the site.  The facial features resemble the Olmec.  These were originally believed to be images of dancers, but they are now believed to be defeated prisoners.Some of the structures were left essentially in the condition they were found.Viewing the valley below.The platforms on the sides have a lot more architectural detail than other sites I have visited.

There were a number of stelae on the site.

While Monte Alban did not have the spectacular pyramids, we preferred the overall experience.