Thursday, May 31, 2007

Queretaro, back in my favorite(so far) Mexican city

there was an orchestra that combined traditional instruments with Mexican/Caribbean instruments and a dance group with dances from all over Mexico(the dancer is balencing a glass of water on her head, this is part of a dance from Veracruz)
Having just come down from the Sierra Gorda, I was pleased to find that there was a celebration going on in Queretaro with people from the towns in the Sierra Gorda. There was food, artisianas, music and plays all to celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of the Bio Reserve to Mexico and the world.
Video of the dancers! /short clips from google video
Traditional Jalisco dance

Traditional dance from Veracurz

taking the high road

the sierra gorda

the semi desert , ocotillo and cactus

The bus ride from Xilitla to Jalpan and then on to Queretaro was amazing and exciting. Exciting and a little scary because of the mountainous, curvy road. I am sure that the ride was not as dangerous as it seemed at times to be. After all, buses go up and down this road many times daily and I did not see any evidence of buses lying at the bottoms of the canyons. A little old lady got on the bus with me in Xilitla, she seemed to like sitting next to me because she was obviously scared of the curves and the views. By little old lady, I mean little, very literally. At few inches more than 5 feet I am short by US standards, but I tower over the older ladies; they are so tiny, but far from delicate. The current young adult generation of Mexicans are so much taller then the grandmothers and grandfathers, and sad to say, the incidence of obesity, is dramatically up. I can tell a difference in even the past few years. I guess I am going to have to stop making unkind remarks about fat Americans, wherever there is fast food, snack food, and soft drinks, obesity seems to be inevitable.
Sorry, I digress, back to the bus ride. I decided that I was on the bus, and there was I was nothing to do but to enjoy the ride, in this case being fatalistic was the only option.
Leaving Xilitla, you pass through very tropical, shade grown coffee country, reminds me of
Veracruz, indeed we not very far from the border of Veracurz. Steep jungle covered mountains and lush vegetation. However as soon as we passed El Lobo, on the Queretaro side of the mountain range, we were in the Sierra Gorda, the change in vegetation was so sudden it was a curtain closing on one act and rising for another, very different act. The vegetation was now pine and many different kinds of oak, with broader valleys. The oak and pine were intensely green and everything looked well watered and in full flush of late spring. However all is not as healthy as it seems from the bus.(more info. at end of post)Arriving in Jalpan, the surrounding mountains of the Sierra Gorda, were brilliant against the clear blue sky. I had been to Jalpan a few years ago, and I was impressed by the changes I saw there. When I was there a few years ago, Jalpan seemed a little scruffy, untidy and not particularly well cared for. Now it seemed as though every building near the center has been freshly painted, the Zocolo has been spruced up with new plantings and the city in general seemed to be proud of itself. I talked briefly to a tourist development guy, and he confirmed that Jalpan has been working very hard on making the city more attractive to tourists, in particular marketing the city as a center for ecotourism for the Sierra Gorda Reserva.
Then on to
Queretaro, passing through more of the beautiful Sierra Gorda, until the next scene change, just as dramatic, we reached the semi desert where the bones of the dry hills are exposed and I could see lots ocotillo(not a cactus Ocotillo can grow to a height of 30 feet and may live up to two centuries) cholla cacti and many other different kinds of cactus.

Quote from CNN article Mexico probably will surpass the United States in obesity rates for the first time next year as the nation adopts the fast food and sedentary lifestyles of its neighbor to the north.
"Obese and overweight adults went from nowhere in 1990 to 62 percent in 2000," said Barry Popkin, an economist and nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, citing a Mexican government study. "You are talking about an astronomical increase coming at a very fast rate and it's continuing."
Quote from CNN article

External links: Interesting account of nature walk through the semi desert of Queretaro

All is not well in the Sierra Gorda read more here

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tequisquiapan and beautiful trees

This town is about 45 minutes away from Queretaro. I walked down by the river and saw these beautiful trees, they look like they are related to cypress. One person I asked said they were called sabinas, but they look like the tree that grows in Oaxaca called a tule tree. These were very large and I was told very old trees. The horse gives some idea of the size of these trees.

around Xilitla

the kitchen in the home/hotel in Xilitla, notice that one wall is the limestone karst(cave) formation.

princess for a day

dresses for the aspiring princess

and for the costume party you can go traditional, or global media inspired.

Monday, May 28, 2007


From Aquismon I went to Xilitla, which is in the mountains where coffee is grown. The bus trip to Xilitla was fascinating, seeing the landscape change to very lush, tropical vegetation with lots of coffee growing under the canopy. The town itself is not very large, and it is probably best known as being the location of Los Pozos, the incredible surrealist sculpture garden creation of an eccentric Englishman who was said to be the illegitimate son of King Edward. From his mother he inherited a huge fortune and hung out with the surrealists in Paris with artists as Cocteau and Salvador Dali in the 1930s. Apparently his own poetry and art were not appreciated, to put it kindly. But he did help other artists and also helped to save the Watts Tower in California. He began to travel in Mexico where he heard about a canyon filled with orchids. He bought the canyon and added paths and more orchid varieties. Returning to England, he got word that a "white ash" had fallen and "burned everything" a very rare snow with disastrous results for his orchids. So for the next thirty years he built surrealistic structures and sculptures and created a garden that blends surrealism and the lushness of this jungle setting.

I spent the night in Xilitla at a house centered around a garden that was converted into a small hotel. The next morning sitting in the garden, drinking some local coffee, I was watching two kinds of hummingbirds battle over the territory of the hummingbird feeder. One type, the smaller species appeared to be the same kind we have in NC, the ruby throated, but the other was at least twice or three times as large. However the smaller hummingbird was much more aggressive and an aerial battle ensued. They got so involved in the battle they ignored me, and a few times actually flew and tumbled, brushing the tip of my nose with their wings.
The day was bright and sunny, not a cloud in the sky, and the walk was not that far, so I did not bring my raincoat. But I should have remembered this is a jungle.
I was close to Los Pozos when the rain began, so I took shelter under the palapa of a coffee finca (farm), asking permission from the coffee workers, of course. I waited for about 20 minutes, during which time the workers brought me some lichee nuts, and then went on the gardens.
I spent most of the day there, saw incredible butterflies; my favorites were the iridescent blues. The combination of the surreal sculpture and lush jungle was mysterious, beautiful, and strangely compelling.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Mexican stories

I was fascinated by the hair of this Huasteca woman, lots and lots of beatiful and intricately wrapped yarn, which is the typical dress of those who still wear the indigenous costume
an image from the Tenek culture (Huasteca)

Stories from the ¨real ¨Mexico. Resides helping me practice reading in Spanish, and finding out what interesting events are happening where I happen to be, local news is fascinating.
For example, I read a story several days ago when I was in San Luis Potosi.
The local police were called to break up two 80 plus year olds who were hitting each other. It seems that one elderly gentleman was visiting the town where he spent his youth and encountered the other elderly gentleman who had lived there his entire life. Well it seems that cause of the mano a mano was that 30 years ago, these two were rivals for the same women (now dead 30 years!) and as soon as they saw each other, old blood ran hot with the memory of the rivalry.
Another story, this time from C. Valles.
The Polica Preventiva Municipal (local police) was called to let out a man who had fallen asleep on the tomb of his mother, and thus was locked in the cemetery when it closed for the night. The article said the man was borracho (drunk) which also led to his falling asleep. Apparently all this made him confused that the police where there to arrest him when all they were going to do was let him out. He ran back into the cemetery saying ¨a los vivos son a los que tengo miedo, los muertos no hacen daño¨ which translates as it is the living that I fear the dead can do no harm. The police laughed and left him to spend the rest of the night in the cemetery.
The newspapers that cover lots of very small towns in an area report in great detail about the good and bad in these small towns. I was impressed at the willingness of the people in the town to make complaints or give compliments to the mayors of these villages. It would appear that is a lot of personal participatory democracy going on with some good and bad results.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Aquismon, and sótano de las golondrinas(swallows)

From Taninul I went to Aquismón, a very small town between C. Valles and Xilitla. It was EXTREMELY hot, even the locals were suffering. My hotel had air conditioning, but even so it was warm. I spent some time in the local library reading the magazine Mexican Archaeology, very interesting and well written and researched magazine. The librarians were interested to hear that I was a retired librarian. I made arrangements with a guide to take me to sótano de las golondrinas the next morning at 5am. This is a huge sinkhole, one of the deepest in the world, which is home to thousands of swallows and parrots which exit the sinkhole every morning and return each evening.
Ok, then, my impressions..... I have a short video clip, which I will try to upload to Google Video, at some point.
My guide came by right on time at 5:00 am still dark of course, a very polite and very careful driver. We drove for a short distance on pavement and then for about 45 minutes or so up rough dirt and rock road. It was still dark when we got to the sinkhole where a family that acts as guides and caretakers of the entrance to the sinkhole greeted us. Had some cafe de olla and chatted and then took a short walk (although it seemed longer in the dark) to the sinkhole. I did not get any closer to the edge than a few feet, of course we could not see the bottom, but could hear what sounded like a large waterfall running somewhere very deep. However, what I was hearing was the sound of the swallows and the green parrots. At first light the exodus started a few swallows and then lots of very talky green parrots. Then lots more swallows and parrots. I was expecting all the birds to exit, but the guide said that the birds enter and exit all day long, with the birds that left early returning with food for the young birds in the nests deep inside the sinkhole. The structure of the sinkhole was such that the birds circled repeatedly, each time getting slightly closer to the surface, finally to burst forth and fly close over our heads. However, the returning birds dropped like a rocket heading for the bottom, I could hear the whistle of their wings as they plummeted.
The young man who took me to the sinkhole was in absolutely no hurry, I got the impression that he would have waited as long as I wanted and my driver, was sleeping in his truck, so he was not concerned about the time. We stayed for about 2 and half hours and then walked back to the entrance. The young man took the time to show me all the plants that could hurt you and all the plants and flowers that could cure you.
The trip back down the mountain was beautiful, saw a family herding sheep and goats and a few very small, isolated settlements, but for the most part the jungle seems to be relatively intact.
This was an experience that was well worth getting up early for, I got the impression from my driver that except for Easter week and a few other times, this site is very little visited, and certainly my experience as the only visitor to this incredible site was a high point for me.

video video

hot sulpher springs at Taninul

A VERY well endowed mermaid mural in the hotel. Obvious question, how could she stay underwater?

Every night parrots are sacrifaced to the local cave gods. I kept hearing some chanting that sounded like ¨he me du ran ti¨, not sure of the significance of this.

you can bliss out in hammocks or under the falling hot water.

view of the hot sulpher pool, deepest part was over 400 meters.

I had looking been forward to Taninul because I really like the thermal waters of Mexico, and I actually prefer the sulphur springs. Once you get past the smell of sulphur, which I personally do not find offensive, the hot sulphur waters are very therapeutic for the skin and induce a wonderful relaxed feeling. No matter how long you soak in the water, your skin never gets dry, only silky smooth. This water was about 42 centigrade, slightly hotter near where the thermal waters bubbled up. The hotel was tranquil with some Mexican families on Sunday when I arrived, but was almost empty on Monday. No music, no loud noise of any kind, parrots flying overhead was the loudest noise that I heard. I spent the days soaking, taking walks around the grounds and talking to the Mexican families.

Huasteca (San Luis Potosi state)

Shaman(?) in the market, and mountain coffee for sale.

different fruits and flowers for sale, these ladies probably came a long way to sell their products and were already tired as the market began

From San Luis Potosi, I went to Ciudad Valles which is in the altiplano, and this is the first time I have been uncomfortably hot. I would guess it was in the high 90´s at least so this was also the first time I thought I needed a hotel with AC. The people here are friendly, the town is rather unremarkable, but the next morning was Sunday, and there was a market where the indigenous come to sell and buy. They are called tinanguis and this type of market is my favourite kind, so I spent some there before heading on to the hot sulfer springs at Tanninul.
This area is called the Huasteca potosina. the indigenous people here wear very different clothes from the Náhuatl or the Otomi. I was told they speak Tenek and that it is related to the Mayan languages spoken further south and east in Mexico but I did not hear any native speakers.
From Wikipedia:The Huastecs were unusual as one of the few cultures that attained civilization and built cities, yet usually wore no clothing. They were admired for their abilities as musicians by other Mesoamerican peoples.
1450, the Huastecs were defeated by the Aztecs. ; the Huastecs henceforth paid tribute to the Aztec Empire but retained a large degree of local self government.
The Huastecs were conquered by the
Spanish between 1519 and the 1530s. With the imposition of the Roman Catholic faith, they were required to don clothing.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

San Luis Potosi

totally sauve..

church girls, I assume the first confirmation..

even the water storage was elegantly designed
San Luis Potsi the capital of the state of the same name has some of the most extensive and impressive colonial architecture of any of the colonial silver cites that I have been in. Here is a brief history of the city. It also has many impressive pedestrian only plazas with a grand scale that shows how grand and important this city was to this region. Zaragoza Street is the longest pedestrian only street according to what I have read, and after walking in it, I believe this to be true. Zaragoza Street runs from the train station at one end to the Gardens at the other end. The streets and historic center are very clean and well kept, second only to Queretaro in cleanliness... (No city beats Queretaro for cleanliness!)
I walked for a long time and I think I saw all the beautiful architecture that I wanted to see, the temperature was perfect and the people seemed relaxed and prosperous. I saw evidence of this in the number of status breed dogs, and the only sign I have ever seen in Mexico, asking people to pick up after their dogs. However, on one short block, I also saw the only prostitutes that I have ever seen on a public street, this was about 2 pm in the afternoon, and the street did not appear to be different in any other way.
The tourist office is friendly and efficient and they give out lots of information and great maps. I found out here that was going to be a ¨danza¨ in one of the public squares. Lots of people watching and lots of people dancing, it was beautiful. Most of the dancers were elegantly dressed, and the dancing was superb. Of course, I did not dance; white girls don’t have rhythm, por menos esta gringa no tengo ritmo nada!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Zacatlan de las manzanas

which means¨Zacatlan of the apples
They have wonderful fruit wines here which I can drink without getting a migraine and the food is wonderful in general. My favorite restaurant also has the best view in town.

view from La Miradora, my favorite resturant

another view from the garden below the restaurant

The flower clock in the main square

waiting for a government office to open
(notice how small the ladies are, a result I would imagine of poor nutrition when they were growing up)

La gringa, photographer of the ladies of the mercado

Note: this time the pictures are links, so you will have to click on the link to see.
This is my second day in Zacatlan, a town that serves as a center for the remote mountain towns in the area. Some of the towns are Totonac, some are Nahuatl and some are Otomi, (but who refer to themselves as Hñähñu ) each speaking a different language* and with different cultural traditions. Unfortunately, they all have one thing in common, they are all terribly poor.
Zacatlan sits on the edge of a narrow, steep valley so there are beautiful views all around the city. The main square is beautiful and well kept and has a unique flower clock with the correct time. The people are friendly and the indigenous ladies do not have the same reluctance to talk and even to have their picture taken, (unlike in Chiapas where it even be dangerous to take pictures of the local Maya) indeed they seemed flattered that someone is interested. I always ask if I can take a picture and if they are selling anything I will buy a small item. I also tell them how beautiful their traditional dress is and that they are beautiful too, which is absolutely true. I think the older ladies are especially beautiful; their lined faces have a grace that endures.
I arrived on Sunday from an early morning bus from Pauhuatlan and it was a market day. On a market day in Mexico a section of the city is converted into a Mercado with tarps covering the streets with venders of everything imaginable. One can find the best fruits and vegetables here along with all kinds of street food, probably some of the best food around, but I have a self-imposed rule about eating street food. Plunging into a traditional Mercado is like diving into an underworld of sights, sounds, smells, people all coming into the consciousness at once. I find it utterly fascinating. these are too heavy for my backpack
So back to the title of my post. La gringa, photographer of the ladies of the Mercado
I asked to take a picture of a lady selling some herbs she said yes, and when I showed her the picture in my camera, she got so excited to see herself, looked into the camera as if it were magic. It seemed clear to me that had never seem her image this way before. So without saying anything, I decided to see if I could get a color print made and return a print to her. Finished my walk through the Mercado, and was able to find a cyber place that could make a quality color print and returned to give the picture to her. To say she was excited is an understatement and it made me feel good to. However, all the ladies selling fruits and vegetables next to her now wanted their pictures taken too. How could I say no? I ended up taking, and printing, retuning 5 more pictures before I had to say that my camera needed recharging, because I could see where this was headed. I thought it was touching that if they knew they were posing for a picture they would remove the sweater and apron so that there traditional clothing could be seen and usually would strike a very serious pose.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Brujos on the bus

Pauhualtlan, high in the sierra norte, very indigenous town, friendly but shy. I wanted to stay in the San Carlos Hotel, which was quite nice, but it had been booked by a group of dentists from Cuernevaca, so I had to stay in the much less beautiful El Jardin, but it was relatively clean, and quite secure. On the way to Pauhuatlan we were "entertained" by a brujo from Catemaco, card carrying member of the brujos association, and he had the card to prove it!He did a spell binding 45 minute spiel that had everyone on the bus (except me) totally believing in the amulets that he was selling. The final sell was when he took a glass of water and put something in the glass that made it look brown and nasty looking but "magically" instantly turned clear and pure when he dropped in his amulet. I think most of the people on the bus bought one, and then got a blessing with the holy water that he had created. One never knows what kind of entertainment can be found on a second class bus.
"Spell bindingly" beautiful vegetables, squash blossum quesidillas are wonderful!

(A brujo is a term for a witch or a someone who can perform cures or spiritual cleansing. Lake Catemaco, a large freshwater lake in Veracruz state is know as a center for this type of "profession". The brujo usually has a mix of Catholic and the enduring native beliefs)

off the map

Links to photos for this post:
papel amate bark
Step 2 fibers are soaked and put in place
Step 3 pounding and stretching
Step 4 designs are added
Just a few of my "guides"
From Pauhuatlan I wanted to go to an even smaller town called San Pablito, if I was “off the map before even more so now. San Pablito is even higer in altitude and more remote than Pauhuatlan. However, I think I have found the North Carolina connection here in this remote corner of the world. The combi driver spent 15 years in Durham and several people in this little town knew about Washington, North Carolina. This is a very poor, very traditional Otomi town. (the Otomi are one of the oldest native groups in Mexico). I wanted to see the making of paper amate and also visit a very traditional town. As soon as I arrived, I created a parade of children who wanted to meet me and of course guide me to their homes where the paper was being made. This fiber paper made from the bark of a fig tree, this very ancient process, as I understand the codices of the Aztecs was painted on this kind of paper.
I was lead into a warren of rooms within rooms, huge cooking pots, big enough to render a pig, which is of course what they are used for. All generations living together and all speaking in Otomi. This was amazing to me, because I had read that this language was dead or dying. What is encouraging is that all the children spoke this language and it was evident that it was being taught and spoken as the primary language in the home. Strange and exotic to my ears, very different from the Nahuatl (Aztec) language that I had heard before, it almost had a Chinese sound, in fact one of the people in town who spoke some English (learned in Chapel Hill, NC) told me that some linguists see some connection in Otomi and Chinese, although this sounds quite incredible to me, and I do not know if this is true. I felt and was completely safe deep inside the hidden rooms of the houses, before long, there was a parade of sorts with children who were just curious about me and followed along. I bought some papel amate, of course, some sheets of beautifully textured paper dyed with coffee, some with bougainvillea blossoms integrated into the paper and some with colors or tints. I was fascinated by the ancient language I heard all around me and fascinated by this way of living. Despite the poverty, there must be sense of security to have all generations living and working together. Unlike the US, I am virtually certain none of the old people will die alone in a nursing home.


Note: this time the pictures are links, so you will have to click on the link to see.
Everyone in town is working on making designs in the streets with colored sawdust, quite beautiful, for the procession that will walk on these designs later this evening. This is a very big deal for this small town and everyone is excited, lots of nautal speaking people from the mountains surrounding here. Most of the streets have been covered with designs.
Acaxochiltlan (remember in the Aztec language the x is an sho.) is a small town about 30 miles or so away from Tulancingo which you might be able to find on the map. This is the last day of week-long fair culminating in the procession of the Christ statue which usually hangs in the church. This a very sacred day for the town which is evident by the huge amount of labor that everyone puts into making the designs in the streets, everyone is excited, lots of Nahuatl speaking people from the mountains surrounding here. There is something quite moving to me to hear these native languages; it seems such a direct link to the ancient cultures Nahuatl (Aztec) has a lot of clicking and uses more of the tongue and teeth than Spanish. Waiting for the procession, these guys were pleased to have me take this picture, I could not resist the pose,
And at last JC has left the building!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Real del monte

cooking the pasties, this happens all day long

Real de Monte is a beautiful high above Pachuca that has a strange history that has left a food tradition that is only found is this area. Like the other cities in this region, the cities were original founded to exploit the silver and other metals. Sometime in the late 19th century an English company bought the mines and brought Cornish miners to live in the town and work in the mines. They brought the tradition of pasties, rolled dough stuffed with meat and or vegetables or fruit which are baked instead of fried like empanadas. These were convenient food to take down into the mines. The city has the feel of a Cornish town, with red tin roofs and is clean and neat. There is a cemetery with the graves of the Cornish miners who died here. I stayed at a hotel right above the most authentic and tastiest pasties in town, a dangerous place to stay; you can smell those wonderful pasties cooking right below you and every time you go in and out!
It is wonderful up here perfect temperature, I was getting kind of warm down in the lower altitudes. Since the pasties are so cheap 7 pesos for one it costs almost nothing to eat.


the garden in the church in this town
I had planned to go to the hot springs at the bottom of a river about 2 hours away by combi, but I had forgotten that May 10 is mother’s day in Mexico, and as you imagine that is a very big day. So the collectivos were not going to the hot springs (or so I was told) and a taxi was rather expensive, but my real concern was that I would get there and have a difficult time returning. So, I am believer in paying attention to the way things unfold, not I mind the effort and research to get to a place that I am interesting in, but traveling solo, I have to be sure that I am in charge of when I go and return and that I have a secure place to spend the night.
So…on the Real del Monte about the capital city of Pachuca.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Entering the high plains of Hidalgo state

One of the many parks and fountains in Queretaro.

Yesterday, May 8, I went to one of my favorite cities in Mexico, Queretaro. Queretaro is the cleanest city that I have ever seen anywhere. Each day the streets in the central historic district and washed and rinsed. There are public squares with fountains, trees, and restaurant with wonderful food. One can stroll from one garden square to another stopping to watch the children play in the fountains or to have a cappuccino.

I stayed at my favorite hotel, Hotel Posada de Matamoros, the price (20 UDS) is a great value and the location has only been improved since my last visit by a new internet café next door run by a very pleasant guy from Liverpool, England.

The next morning I left for a town in the state of Hidalgo, called Ixmilquilpan a traditional town in the high valley. Passing through the courntrisde on the bus, I saw cultivated fields interspersed by areas with cactus, Joshua trees and mesquite trees. The cacti are beginning to bloom! Lots of red, orange and yellow flowers just starting to open.

Tomorrow I head for a river flows from a cave. Some parts of the river are hot from thermal heat and the other parts are cool. This afternoon I found the place where the combis (vans with seats for local transport) leave for Las Grutas Tolantongo,