Flashback – Meeting Toller Cranston in Mexico

Our sailing cruise in Mexico introduced us to many wonderful people, and while we were traveling inland to visit the colorful city of Guanajuato, I had a chance to spend some time with my lifelong idol and mentor-in-spirit, figure skater Toller Cranston, at his amazing home in San Miguel de Allende.

This post is a departure from the normal fare found on this blog. However, it is a post I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I just couldn’t find the words. The shock of Toller Cranston’s death over this past weekend opened a floodgate of emotions for me when I learned about it yesterday, and suddenly the words were there. So here it is.

San Miguel de Allende Mexico Street Scenes

A street in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Toller Cranston’s home for two decades

San Miguel de Allende Mexico street musician

A street musician in San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende Mexico Cathedral La Parroquia

San Miguel de Allende Cathedral — La Parroquia

Mexico window flower box

Flowers and window boxes on a house in San Miguel de Allende

Emily skating

I spent my childhood and youth on the ice.

As a child and young teenager, figure skating dominated my life, and I competed at a high level. At the time, spending six to seven hours a day on the ice seemed perfectly normal, because all my skating friends and rivals were doing the same thing. You couldn’t stay competitive with anything less.

It was only decades later that I realized that from age 13 to 16 I had put in over 40 hours a week learning to master the ice, to skate with abandon and grace, and to perform. It was a huge effort, but I loved it. I treasured every minute of being a skater, especially when an unusual Canadian skater, Toller Cranston, showed up in the world class competitions and opened my eyes to the vast potential of the sport.

Competitive skating is very conservative and is largely made up of cute little girls in pink dresses and the dour middle aged judges in heavy coats and sweaters who rank them.

Skaters pay their coaches big bucks to help them determine exactly what the judges want to see and then learn how to do it. The judges are not paid for their time but are reimbursed their expenses, and the skating we see on TV is a perfect reflection of what they have rewarded throughout skating’s ranks with good marks on their score sheets.

Little girl competes in Sun Valley Figure Skating Championships

A little skater shows me her medals.
I was like this nearly 50 years ago too!

If the judges want jumps with tight rotations, the skaters deliver. If it’s dizzying spins with many changes of position, they’ve got it. Fancy footwork — done.

Skaters learn very young not to let a single hair be out of place, and by age 12 the most elite among them are seasoned “professionals” that are well accustomed to being stars, signing autographs, dealing with fans, and receiving ovations.

Figure skating as an institution is slow to change, and it’s a world that is highly averse to rebellion. The judges can squelch any renegade with the flick of a pen. And they do.

So it was with total shock that this insular community witnessed Toller Cranston coming into his own in the mid-1970’s. He took on the Establishment in ways that the Hippies, who talked of such things, couldn’t possibly imagine. Brash, bold, outspoken and charismatic, Toller introduced drama and passion into skating to a degree that had never been seen before.

Figure skating judges at a competition

The judges call all the shots in skating. I was a judge at one time!

I was mesmerized. On the cusp of adulthood myself, I watched this man in awe as he battled for all he was worth to show the world his vision of what skating could be. He did moves no man had ever done, and no man would dream of doing at the time. Prancing on his toes, swooping his body into wildly rounded and angular shapes, and leaping into the air with total glee and nary a rotation, he was exotic, exciting, thrilling.

I don’t have any pics of Toller skating, but there are two wonderful pics here and here.

Competitive skating is a tiny world too, one where skaters know and “know of” each other even if they haven’t met. When my own skating career came to a screeching halt after I developed spondylolisthesis (probably from too many double axel attempts), Toller wrote me a letter of encouragement and sympathy.

Toller Cranston's House Front Gate

We arrive at Toller Cranston’s imposing front gate.

At the time, he had started “The Ice Show,” a fabulous new style of skating entertainment, and in his unique hand-written scrawl, he said he wished I could have been part of the group. I was blown away, unbelievably touched and absolutely crushed at the same time. I was 17 by now, and living away from home in a new life at a unique high school trying to come to grips with giving up skating. If I could have, I would have run away to be a part of anything he was doing in a heartbeat.

That thoughtful letter and those few words have stayed with me throughout my life.

Toller Cranston leads us through his garden

We follow Toller through his garden

Toller went on to take on far bigger worlds beyond skating, and I lost track of his many projects.

But the essence of what he did on the ice — his fearless pursuit of his passion, his daring moves that flew in the face of everything the skating world held dear, his steadfast commitment to doing what he believed in, and his utter whimsy and charm — continue stay with me to this day.

I’ve always wanted to live my life with a fervor and soul that is just as deep and just as free.

While our sailboat Groovy was anchored in Zihuatanejo, I became friends with Pamela Bendall who, at 57, was completing a 5-year solo voyage from Vancouver to Peru and back aboard her 47′ steel yacht, Precious Metal.

I discovered she was an Olympic alternate gymnast for Canada in the early 1970’s. We had a rare connection with each other as two women who had spent their girlhoods training to become top athletes, dreaming of perfectly executed tricks and polished performances under pressure.

As we sat on the bow of her boat eating potato chips together (an absolute no-no in our past lives), I casually mentioned that her countryman Toller Cranston had been my idol. What a surprise it was to find out that she grew up in the same town as he did.

“You know, he lives in San Miguel de Allende here in Mexico now,” she suddenly said.

Where? I’d never heard of the place. I made a mental note, but thought nothing of it since it was nowhere near the coast. A year later, however, Mark and I found ourselves exploring Guanajuato, just an hour away.

Pamela Bendall aboard Precious Metal

Former gymnast Pamela Bendall aboard her cruising sailboat Precious Metal

I checked the internet to see if Toller’s address might be somewhere online and discovered he had his house for sale. When we rang the doorbell at his estate’s imposing gate a few days later, a maid gave me a slip of paper to write my name on so she could give it to him before letting me in.

Then, suddenly, there he was at the gate, his hair slightly disheveled and his pants spattered with paint. We exchanged greetings, and he gestured for us to follow him. I asked if he remembered me. He turned back, with a theatrical swoosh, and looked at me pointedly. “I know all about you!” he said.

Mark was totally impressed, but I know drama when I see it, and this was obviously mostly for effect — and the effect was awesome.

Toller Cranston's House Outside-2

Wonderful outdoor seating by the garden.

We followed him through a lush garden that was utterly overgrown and stuffed to the gills with outdoor art pieces. Once inside his home, we discovered we had arrived right in time for a big Sunday brunch he was hosting, and his guests began arriving. He invited us to stay and have brunch too, and in no time a large circular table was packed with about 10 guests.

We found ourselves in impressive company, including Nat King Cole’s daughter and the parents of a halfpipe snowboarding Olympian. Mark and I were speechless listening to a fast repartee between everyone about art, art collections, art collectors, art history, and other highbrow things we know little about.

Paintings everywhere

There were paintings and artwork everywhere.

Suddenly, Toller announced to the table in a loud voice, “You know, Emily and I have a past…”

I froze as everyone turned to look at me.

“A skating past,” he went on with a sly smile.

I loved his sense of timing and flare — it was impeccable, even here at the breakfast table.

The conversation turned to skating, and more lightning quick conversation sailed over my head as they discussed skating champions of the last two decades that I don’t really know.

I stopped watching TV regularly in 1994, and have managed to catch only a rare glimpse of one skater or another since then, if I happened to be in a place with a TV when a skating event was on.

But when they turned back to discussing the skating greats of the 1970’s, I was right there with them, reminiscing about Janet Lynn‘s charm and John Misha Petkevich‘s soaring jumps.

Eventually, the brunch guests left, but Toller invited us to tour his estate and stick around a while.

He has made his living as an artist since his early teenage years when he attended art school, and every corner of his mansion was crammed with artwork, both his own and others’.

Our conversation turned to skating again, in bits and spurts of questions and answers, and slowly the quest I had been after when I first decided to knock on his door in San Miguel de Allende began to be answered.

Who was this unusual artist? How did he dare to be so free? What made him tick? What did he think about all day? And where had life taken him since he stood on the podium at the Olympics?

Toller Cranston's House Inside-4

Every seat in the house was surrounded by art.

In a few short hours that day and the next, a heavy cloak of sadness slowly wrapped itself around my heart as I listened — between the words — to what it took for this man to change the direction of the institution of men’s figure skating.

Toller came into skating at a time when all the flamboyant beauty of free skating counted for only 40% of the overall score. The other 60% of the score came from circular etchings on the ice called “figures” (and which took 75% of my practice time and every one else’s).

Toller Cranston's House Inside-5

Toller collected the pottery work of local artisans in Mexico

Wild passion and figures don’t mix well. Even worse, figures can’t be seen by anyone but the judges who walk around on them in rubber boots after the skater is done, as they study each tracing and take notes on a clipboard.

Toller developed a reputation for being “bad at figures,” although no one but he and his coach and the judges who saw them will ever know for sure. At the same time, he was up against a rival from England, John Curry, who, like him, sought to do more with free skating than merely jump and spin.

Rivalries drive us all to exceed our highest expectations, and the rivalry between these two men was a thrill to watch. John Curry was the ultimate technician, completing each trick with textbook precision, dead-pan expression, and exquisite grace. Toller Cranston was pure emotion in action, effortlessly grabbing the hearts of those who watched him. With every move in his many performances, he held a gasping audience in the palm of his hand.

Toller Cranston's House Inside-6

Artwork, artwork everywhere!

In the end, John Curry took all the big trophies and Toller was lucky to get third spot on any major podium, something I didn’t remember at all until he shared his memories with me. To my surprise, regret hung heavy in the air around us as he talked about his past.

He recalled with horror how the first figure in the Olympics was a right forward outside rocker, a beautiful figure that involves two very cool twisting turns that tie three circles together. Bad luck struck as he pushed off on the first half circle. His eyes filled with tears and he couldn’t see a thing.

That’s like totaling your car on the first half lap of the Indy 500.

Toller Cranston's House Inside-7

Every wall and surface held artwork

He had other tales of torment at the hands of ruthless, narrow minded judges, some of whom had judged me too. He wore a wry smile as he talked of a former skating star from the 1950’s who had visited him in San Miguel and had become openly emotional as he apologized for zealously and publicly slamming Toller’s skating vision and style when he was at his peak.

But did Toller know how much he was loved by his fans? I wondered.

Our conversation, which was really just stutters of comments thrown to the wind towards each other, turned to his art. We were flying through his mansion on this crazy whirlwind tour as we talked, seeing room after room after room. Huge canvasses and sculptures and unique decorations were everywhere.

Mark and I chat with Toller

Mark and I pause our tour of the art-filled estate to chat with Toller a bit.

We sat down in his living room to talk a little more in depth, and vignettes of his past gradually took shape before us as he talked.

“I paid for all my skating myself with my art.” He suddenly blurted.

My jaw dropped. That is unheard of. Not only is it nearly impossible to make a living from fine art, but Toller had done so as a young art school student, and he had funded an extraordinarily expensive skating career in the process.

What’s even more amazing is that, generally, every elite figure skater is sponsored. Even I had a sponsor, I told him, or I would have had to quit at age 12. His expression was haunted as he said, “No one ever sponsored me. I paid for it all myself.”

My respect for this man shot up a thousandfold.

Crazy art and toy horse in the bedroom

As the hours passed, we resumed wandering through his many bedrooms, through the corners of his home where he liked to read and watch TV, and into his brilliantly lit studio that was lined from floor to ceiling with windows. My emotions became a blur of confusion as I listened to him and took in his life experiences and overlaid them on my own.

“The world only remembers the winners,” he said grimly at one point. “They only remember the names of the champions.”

I was completely taken aback. Didn’t he realize that he had single-handedly changed men’s figure skating forever, regardless of whether his name was etched on an Olympic trophy? Didn’t he know that the people who change the course of history are the ones that are remembered?

Sculpture of a head with wild hair

A sculpture he was working on.

We were walking through his past, and my past with it, and there was so much I wanted to say and to share, but the words just weren’t there, and I’m not sure he would have listened anyway. I was elated to have a chance to be with him at last, but so frustrated for not having more time and more peace.

The household was abuzz all day long. Maids and neighbors wandered in and out at will, art students and art assistants zoomed by us repeatedly, intent on their missions in and around the estate. I marveled that Toller could think straight in all this chaos. Perhaps he thrived on it, but I wasn’t sure.

He was intrigued by our travels and asked us a lot of questions about the places we’d been and where we were going next. At the time, Mark and I were wrapping up our sailing cruise, a nearly four year voyage that had opened our lives up in ways we never dreamed of.

Toller Cranston's House Inside-3

We see room after room of fantasy artwork and even some elaborately decorated eggs.

We were just months from moving off our boat permanently and putting it up for sale. As we filed away precious memories of our voyage, we knew we were embarking on an exhilarating new phase of life as bigger, stronger and more experienced people.

Why had we started traveling full-time six years prior? Toller wanted to know. To change our lives and have an adventure was my quick reply.

“I need to change my life too,” he said wistfully. “I want to have an adventure.” He sounded eager. He talked of wanting to sell his estate and buy land nearby to build a new home.

00 651 Toller Cranston Studio

Works in progress in the studio

Eventually he bade us goodbye from somewhere in the middle of the mansion, and we left his home on our own, wandering through the maze of gardens in a stunned stupor, and making several wrong turns in the process. The encounter stayed with me for weeks as we prepared our boat for its final 1,000 mile journey, the Baja Bash from Puerto Vallarta to San Diego.

I couldn’t help but feel that the cost of being a maverick, of striking out against tradition to do something bigger and better and more exotic than the norm, had been very high for him. Because of the sport’s rules in place at the time, and his fierce determination to pursue his own vision, Toller was never rewarded with the most important gold medals that are the badge of success and acceptance in sport.

Nevermind that many of the moves we see skaters doing today were his inventions. That doesn’t doesn’t put your name on the roster of history’s World Champions.

Doors from the studio into the garden

Glass doors to the garden from the studio

Yet, at the same time, I was bemused that a free spirit who turned his back on convention would have the slightest interest in being rewarded conventionally. Would the accolades of the Establishment, of judges who couldn’t see or accept his brilliance, really have meant something to him? Sadly, the pain of his losses in the highest levels of competition seemed as raw and as fresh to him now, in 2013, as they had been in the mid-1970’s.

It was agonizing to see that a man who had so bravely followed his own heart didn’t find the fulfillment of his vision to be satisfaction enough in itself, without the approval of the very people he scorned. I realized later that I had wanted my hero to have believed in his dream at all costs, no matter what, because heroes are larger than life and they don’t fall prey to the mortal foibles of things like wanting to be accepted and approved.

Glasswork in Toller Cranston's Garden in San Miguel de Allende Mexico

Elaborate glasswork decorated many charming corners of the garden.

Two days ago, we got the news that Toller died unexpectedly of a heart attack, at age 65, in his home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I was devastated. Of course, his timing was spot on once again. He died on the day of the men’s competition at the Canadian National Championships, which was also the rest day between two riveting performances by Jason Brown (who seems, for all the world, to be channeling Toller’s essence) at the men’s competition at the US National Championships.

Glass ornaments in an arch over Toller Cranston's garden in Mexico

Glass ornaments form an arch over the garden.

In pondering Toller’s life and death, I kept thinking of Steve Jobs’ quote about how we all have nothing to fear because we are already naked. I looked it up, and found it comes from the commencement speech he gave at Stanford in June, 2005, shortly after he learned he had pancreatic cancer:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Paints and paint brushes and decorated eggs

Paints and paint brushes ready for use on an egg decorating project.

I don’t think that when Toller opened his day planner for the week of January 18th, 2015, he skipped down to Saturday, January 24th, and penciled in “Exit This World.” But that is what happened. And I couldn’t help but think:

If you are nurturing a dream — to break whatever bonds hold you, to get a boat and go sailing, or to run off in an RV and explore for a while — go for it. You have nothing to lose, except time. Your dream is yours, and yours alone, no matter who applauds or condemns the idea. Give it wings with your own faith.

Toller Cranston and me - we share a past

We share a past…

After we got the sad news about Toller’s death, we went out to do some errands. As I climbed into the truck and turned on the radio, my thoughts couldn’t leave Toller’s lively breakfast table in his home, his crazy art-filled estate, and his darkness as bits and pieces of the stories from his past escaped his lips, soaked in bitterness.

Suddenly the radio erupted with the bright, energetic sounds of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture, the music I had skated to when Toller had had his greatest influence on me. It was the music that had carried me to Nationals forty years ago.

I sat back in shock. What a coincidence! I rarely hear that music on the radio. As my soul followed the high spirits of the piece, I felt chills running up and down my spine. I was covered in goose bumps. Without warning, tears suddenly began to stream down my face and I dropped my head in my hands.

I didn’t have a coherent thought in my mind, and I was overcome as I cried openly and the tears flowed freely down my cheeks. This music, thoughts of my mentor-in-sprit, Toller, and memories of that visit to his home that I been so fortunate to share with Mark all swirled around me in an overwhelming vortex.

In that moment, I have no doubt that Toller was reaching out to touch me — as he swung by on his way out.

 

Some clips from YouTube —

“Totally Toller” —

“I Pagliacci” (No one skated to Opera back then… good heavens!) —

Related Posts:

 
Although I wrote this post in January, 2015, it fits into our June 2013 travels right between our visit to Guanajuato, Mexico, and our stay at Casa Maguey on Mexico’s Costalegre.

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Guanajuato – Full of Song and Spirit!

Guanjuato has colorful streets

We were captivated by Guanajuato’s beautiful streets.

Early June, 2013 – Guanajuato continued to enchant us. The beautiful cobbled streets wound in and out and up and down, and all were lined with colorful buildings.

There was a cheerfulness about the place that was infectious.

As we were walking down a crowded street one afternoon, it seemed everyone we passed either gave us a nod, or a smile, or was laughing in conversation with a friend.

Incredulous, I said to Mark, “It’s just a happy city!” Behind me I heard a man’s voice say, “Si” I turned around and he grinned at me.

 

A colorful hillside in Guanajuato Mexico

Every time we looked across at Guanajuato’s hills,
we were amazed — again — by the colors.

We couldn’t walk ten steps without stopping to photograph something, and we both kept wandering off, attracted by some fantastic image that took us down an alleyway or up a staircase.

Guanajuato is truly photogenic, and we had beautiful sunny days to enjoy it.

Street photography in Guanajuato

Guanajuato is really fun for photography!

 

 

 

 

 

I think it is the colors of Guanajuato that will stay in our memories forever. Primary colors and pastel colors — they’re all there, making the hillsides look like they’ve been spattered from a rainbow paint can.

Plaza de la Paz Guanajuato

Even plaza de La Paz is colorful.

Everywhere we turned, the buildings were done up in vivid shades.

University of Guanajuato

Spiky roofline of the University of Guanajuato

 

 

 

But one building stood out against the crowd: the enormous and rather grand University of Guanajuato in the very heart of town. Imposing, yet ornate, it is bright white and has a series of spiky decorations around the top.

Nuestra Senora de Guanjuato

Inside the Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato basilica.

The city’s most impressive architecture dates back to the 18th century when the region was the world’s leading silver producer.

Since the indigenous silver miners were slaves, there was plenty of profit for the mine owners to spend in whatever way they liked, and the ornamentation in the churches, mansions and former government buildings reflect that immense wealth.

Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato

Teatro Juarez – a lavish theater at the center of it all.

Silver production continued to support sumptuous lifestyles in Guanajuato into the 20th century, and the stunning Teatro Juarez theater is a central landmark dating from that time. It was a thrill fto watch it light up in the early evening.

In front of the theater, the Jardín de la Union is the local hangout. Most Mexican cities have a town square, or “Zócalo,” where everyone can kick back with a beverage and a book or enjoy a conversation with a friend or just sit and people watch.

Jardin de la Union Guanajuato

Shade trees and shiny tiles surround the Jardín de la Union
— thetown square (or triangle!).

But this square is unique. For one thing, it’s not a square. It’s a triangle! Also, rather than cobblestone or paved paths, the wide walkways that encircle it are made of shiny, decorative tile laid in pretty patterns.

A stand of trees arches over this waking path. The trees are planted so close together and their foliage is so thick that they make an incredible shade cover for the whole place.

They looked like ficus trees to us. We’ve kept ficus trees as houseplants, but for us they haven’t done very well in a pot. Their leaves always seem to begin to yellow and then slowly drop off, one by one, until the tree is nearly bare.

Vegetable sellers in the street

Selling vegetables street-side.

Not these trees! Their vibrant green leaves are so tightly packed that in mid-day the whole area is dark under their shade, and it makes a great place to escape from the heat of the sun. We kept coming back and back and back again — as did everyone else in town!

But daily life is always humming in the streets beyond the Jardín. And in this town, you just never know what you’ll see.

Scooter carrying lilies

Delivering flowers…

 

Wandering around, we came across the many scenes we’ve become accustomed to: juice vendors selling fruit juices from rollable carts and people offering veggies for sale on makeshift tables and chairs they’ve assembled from shipping pallets and plastic buckets, or whatever is handy.

But it was the unexpected and whimsical sightings that kept us on our toes and laughing. We just never knew when we might glance up and see something unique, like a scooter rolling past. loaded with bouquets of yellow lilies. What a fun way to deliver flowers!

Horses and donkey in the street

We look up and see these guys coming down the street!

Traffic on the streets can be quite heavy, especially at rush hour, so we were astonished when we were out looking for a bite to eat and suddenly saw a pair of horseback riders and a donkey clip-clopping towards us on the cobbled streets. Was this for real? Yes!

We followed them back towards the town square but quickly lost track of them in the throng of activity. The crowds in the square had grown so jam-packed that when we stood on tip-toe and looked down the street, all we saw was a sea of heads, hats and the occasional waving hand.

Ballerina on Teatro Juarez railing

There’s a ballerina dancing on the theater railing!

Looking past all that, Mark’s jaw suddenly dropped and he pointed, “There’s a ballet dancer on the railing up there!’ I followed his gaze, and sure enough, a dancer in a leotard and toe shoes was posing on the stone railing in front of the majestic columns of Teatro Juarez.

Balloons released above Teatro Juarez

A group of people release a bunch of white balloons from the theater steps.

We made our way through the crowd and discovered she was in the middle of a photo shoot of some kind.

A photographer was nearby, and she assumed one graceful pose after another on the railing while he took a stream of photos.

As this gal was dancing on the side rail of the theater, a gathering of people holding white balloons had assembled on the front steps. What could this be? Who knows!

All of a sudden, they all let go of their balloons at the same time, and we tipped our heads back to watch the little white bubbles disappear into the sky. Then the group of people on the stairs broke up and everyone vanished into the river of humanity flowing around us.

Mariachi band walking

Mariachis doing the Abbey Road walk.

Guanajuato is not just a visual delight. It’s soul is steeped in music too. Everywhere we went around town we heard music.

Mariachi trumpet player

Music is the heart and soul of Guanajuato.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the Jardín, in the center of town, a myriad of outdoor cafes lines the square, and each boasts a mariachi band. These weren’t the little wandering three-piece bands we were used to seeing on the beach. These were full-on 8-member orchestras, complete with trumpets and violins in addition to the usual guitars.

The town square’s cafes are crammed together side by side, with no space in between. Music springs up from one cafe and then another, and frequently from a few of them at once. Periodically, a band takes a break, and the musicians take a load off and chat together under the shade of the trees.

Jardin de la Union bandstand

A band does a lively rendition of ?Stars and Stripes Forever.”

There is a bandstand at the center of the square, and one afternoon we noticed the crisp white shirts of a band sitting up there as they tuned their instruments to a clarinet’s A-note. Oooh – fun!!!

We found seats on a park bench and were amazed when the conductor tapped his baton on his music stand and the cacophony from the mariachi bands around the square suddenly stopped.

 

Kid running at the bandstand

Weeeee – two kids zoomed round and round the bandstand.

The band began to play a string of familiar pop tunes, and I found myself transported to my childhood when our town band would play in the bandstand on balmy summer nights. I started telling Mark about how all of us kids would get so wound up at these things, running round and round the bandstand, skipping and leaping and doing cart-wheels.

Suddenly, just as the band started a rousing rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a little brother and sister began to tear around the band stand at top speed. They ran in opposite directions, and each time they met, they’d stop and high-five each other and then take off again, laughing giddily as they ran.

Street musician in Guanajuato

People make music in every corner of Guanajuato.

Out on the streets of Guanajuato the music continued to fill the air, day and night.

Street musician in Guanajuato

There were street musicians everywhere.

Street musicians of every variety strolled up and down, playing for themselves and playing for tips. It is hard to find a street corner in this city where you don’t hear music.

guitar player on the bus

We were even serenaded on the bus!

Even when we clamored onto a city bus, a guy suddenly broke into song behind us. We turned around to see him standing in the middle of the bus strumming his guitar.

Musician statue at Jardín de la Union

A sculpture depicting the famous Callejoneadas.

But the most famous musicians in Guanajuato aren’t the mariachi bands or the bandstand band or the street musicians. It is the Callejoneadas.

The what? When I first heard this word I had to have the person repeat it three times. “Cah-yay-hone-ay-ah-das.”

An alley is a “callejón” (cah-yay-hone), and although most cities in the world have lots of alleys, they are often kind of dark and scary places sandwiched between the good stuff. In Guanajuato, the alleys are celebrated, and they harbor the lively soul of the central neighborhoods.

We watched in amazement our first night Guanajuato as a collection of men in renaissance garb gathered in front of the Juarez Theater. Carrying lutes and mandolins and stringed instruments of all kinds, the men mingled with the crowd, urging them to sit on the stairs and watch them perform.

 

Callejoneadas de Guanajuato

A wandering minstrel.

Suddenly they began to engage the crowd with crazy antics and songs. We couldn’t really understand what stories were being told, but when they persuaded two couples to come in front of the crowd to dance, we laughed with all the rest.

As the couples swung about, everyone around ua began to sing along. Everyone knew all the words to all the songs! Sadly, we didn’t know any, but we sure wished we did.

The callejoneadas start their nightly song-walk through the alleys.

The callejoneadas start their nightly song-walk through the alleys.

After a few songs and stunts, the medieval men in black began to walk out of the town square, strumming their instruments and singing as they went. The crowd of people on the stairs got up and began to follow behind, singing heartily in their wake. Then they disappeared into the alleys.

Donkey carrying wine for Callejoneadas

A donkey carries bottles of wine.

After a short while, the space that this throng had cleared was taken up by another group of musicians and the whole thing began again. The groups of singers gathered in several different areas around the town square, and it seemed there were dozens of these groups.

As they all made there way out into the streets in the early evening, we could hear their songs faintly wafting back to us from various corners of the city.

Donkey with wine on his back

His load will be completely empty in a few hours!

Now we understood why we had been seeing so many men in tights around town. These guys were the Callejoneadas!

We also discovered what all the donkeys we had been seeing in the streets were for.

Wandering through the alleyways on our way back to our B&B, we came across a group of minstrels and followers in front of a neighborhood church.

Callejoneadas de Guanajuato at night

The callejoneadas entertain a group in front of a church.

The minstrels were performing a skit, and every so often a roar of laughter would go up. A donkey stood off to one side, and the pack on his back was quickly becoming lighter as the singers grabbed bottles from the pack and poured wine into special little flasks that the followers were carrying with them!

What a hoot!! We found out later that this whole thing started back in the 1970’s, when a group of people from the university occasionally gathered in the alleys and wandered up and down the streets in the evenings singing songs. Someone would bring along drinks to share, and the participants would contribute a few pesos to whoever did the buying.

Juarez Theater Guanajuato

The Juarez Theater looks very grand at night.

Nowadays, this once impromptu event is a regular nightly party, hosted by university students and faculty.

The whole thing is very well organized, so it is not as spontaneous (and unruly) as it probably was when it first started forty years ago.

A ticket to participate in the festivities is 100 pesos ($8 USD), and along with great memories, you get a very cool souvenir wine flask.

What we loved about all this, though, was that the little B&B where we stayed was right on one of the most popular Callejoneadas routes.

Don Quijote statue

There are statues of Don Quijote
all over the place.

Every evening, if we were back in our room, we’d hear the troupes come by. I don’t know who was singing with more gusto, the wandering minstrels or their followers!

Fortunately, there must be some kind of agreement between the singers and the neighborhood residents, because all the noise and mayhem stopped before 10:00 each night!

Don Quijote statue

Don Quijote, like Mr. Magoo, stumbled in and out of trouble, quite oblivious to it all.

We soon discovered that Guanajuato has an affection for medieval things that goes beyond (or was inspired by?) this nightly music event.

All around town we kept running into statues and references to the Spanish medieval author Cervantes and his famous hero, the rather misguided — and Mr. Magoo-like — Don Quijote (or as my little kid’s ears always heard it: Donkey Hotey).

 

Don Quijote impersonator

This Don Quijote impersonator mingled with the callejoneadas in the town square

Why Cervantes and Don Quijote? Well, around the time that the wandering minstrels started serenading folks in the alleys of Guanajuato in the 1970’s, another group of university students began doing spontaneous performances of Cervantes’ works in the same neighborhood squares and church steps.

This blossomed into an annual event, and now Guanajuato’s Festival Cervantino is known internationally and includes operas, drama productions, film showings and live music with invited guest luminaries from all over the world.

The festival wasn’t going on while we were there, but we did see a fellow dressed up as Don Quijjote who mixed it up every night with the callejoneadas singers.

We were loving the free spirit of Guanajuato, and our curiosity about its origins soon led us to the edge of town and down into the mines where the silver was — and still is — mined in abundance.

 

 

 

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Guanajuato – Colors, stairs, tunnels and characters!

Guanajuato Mexico Artits's pallet

Guanajuato is a true artist’s pallet of colors.

Early June, 2013 – We had been in Puerto Vallarta for over two months, loving the fancy shore-side resort life, but the beautiful colonial cities in the interior of Mexico beckoned. Back in Zihuatnanejo, our friend Francisco (1/3 down the page), who sells pretty painted plates from a folding table on the street, had told us he had lived all over Mexico. When we asked him which place was his favorite, he instantly said, “Guanajuato.”

Colorful houses of Guanajuato

No one is bashful here about using bright colors on their homes!

Where? He repeated the name and then spelled it for us (a rough pronunciation is “Whanna-Whatto” ).

Even though Francisco is usually quite a jokester, he went on very seriously to say this was a place we absolutely should not miss. He explained that the city was built on several hillsides and there were lots of colorful houses, old cobblestone streets and alleyways, and that there was a community of artists and musicians that gave the place a special spirit. It sounded wonderful. Even though we had never heard of it, Guanajuato zoomed to the top of our bucket list.

Guanajuato Pipila Overlook

The bright colors of Guanajajuato make an awesome backdrop at the Pípila Overlook.

Guanajuato Cathedral Domes

The domes of Guanajuato

The bus from Puerto Vallarta to Guanajuato is a very easy and comfortable 10 hour ride (it goes direct with just one stop), and we arrived in the late afternoon just in time to see the breathtaking views from the Pípila overlook. Wow! Francisco was right. This place was incredible.

Every house was a different color, and no one was shy about painting their home lavender or turquoise or pink or emerald green. Several yellow and red church domes rose above the houses, and the grand University of Guanajuato building was a dazzling white in the center of it all.

We quickly discovered that Guanajuata is all about climbing up and down stairways. The heart of the city is in a valley on the ground floor, but the buildings rise up along the sides of hills, and the fantastic Carretera Panorámica (or Panoramic Road) encircles the entire city up above.

Funcular Cable Car Guanajuato

The funicular cable car makes it easy to get up and down.

 

 

 

 

After soaking in the magical view of the city from this overlook, we took the Funicular cable car ride down into the city center. How cool it was to creep down the mountain in this window-lined car and watch the buildings grow tall around us until we arrived in the throbbing heart of Guanajuato’s Centro.

Teatro Juarez Guanajuato Mexico

Artists’ paintings for sale outside the
stately Teatro Juarez

 

The main part of Guanajuato’s Centro is the Jardin de la Unión, a triangular city square that is lined with dense shade trees and park benches and has a bandstand at its center. A cacophony of music rises up from every corner of this park as costumed mariachi bands, sax players, classical guitar players and wandering minstrels serenade anyone and everyone within earshot.

One end of this park is anchored by the ornate Teatro Juarez, a stunning theater whose facade is defined by a row of elegant columns and a collection of sculptures on the roof. As we wandered closer to the theater, we noticed a street performer with a big clown nose entertaining a crowd on the steps.

Our cameras instantly sprang into action to capture his act and his audience, but this guy was even faster than we were. Suddenly turning his back to his audience, he wheeled around to face us and began to pose for us like a swimsuit model, contorting himself into all kinds of provocative poses. Everyone was laughing, but we suddenly noticed all eyes were now turned towards us!

 

Street performer mime at Teatro Juarez

A street performing mime with a clown nose plays games with us.

We played right along with him, encouraging him and shooting away, pretending to be high fashion photographers. The audience laughed and clapped — and then he rushed over to us with his hat out looking for a tip! The audience roared.

He’d pulled one over on us! Mark turned his pockets inside out in jest, but soon found a few pesos to reward his funny act.

The next day we saw him again. He instantly started miming and pretending to take photos of us! We responded by doing goofy poses for him. Suddenly, he rushed over to us, his wallet open as he fingered a dollar bill inside, as if to tip us.

Callejoneadas de Guanajuato

A Renaissance Man!

This was the spirit we found in Guanajuato. Fun-loving, free-wheeling and happy.

For the rest of our stay, all of our forays into town began and ended with Teatro Juarez as our main landmark, and the next day, just a few steps from the theater, we bumped into a man dressed in complete Medieval garb. What the heck? Out came the cameras!

Plaza de La Paz Basilica Guanjuato

Plaza de La Paz and the Basilica de Nuestro Senora de Guanajuato

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We quickly learned that dressing up and wearing costumes is an integral part of Guanajuato street life. Wandering away from the city park a few paces, we came to Plaza de La Paz and the beautiful brilliant yellow Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato. Talk about stunning! Not only did the vibrant yellow of this enormous building light up the whole plaza, but someone had decided to trim it in scarlet. What a combo – especially for a church!

Renaissance Man

Another man in tights!

I was just tipping my head back to admire this gorgeous cathedral when Mark nudged me and pointed. Right in front of me was another man in tights. What next? This guy was dressed a bit like Robin Hood. I whispered to Mark, “I bet he’s a drama student at the University.” Well, my whisper must have been just a little bit too loud, because the guy suddenly gave me a huge grin and a nod. “Yes!” he said in English. “We’re performing tonight at Teatro Principal. Come and watch!”

Plaza de La Paz Guanjuato

Plaza de La Paz

There’s nothing like a university town for action, energy, crazy stunts and the arts!

 

Mime in a fountain

A mime stays cool in a fountain.

Guanajuato has a whimsical soul, from performing clowns to men in Renaissance costumes to Crayola colored churches. So it was no surprise at all when we saw a man painted head to toe like a green copper statue rushing past us with a briefcase in hand. Whatever he was up to, we didn’t want to miss it! We quickly hustled along behind him to see where he was headed.

Bronze Mime

A bronze mime has a skull face under his sombrero

In no time at all, he had set himself up as a permanent looking water fountain statue. It was exceedingly hot in the sun, but he had a clever water pump setup where he perpetually poured a glass of water that dribbled into a pool at his feet.

The bronze statue a few doors down didn’t have it quite so good. He had baked in the sunshine so long that under his sombrero was a skeleton’s face with dark, sunken eyes. A little kid came over to him and giggled as he rolled his eyes at him.

Guanajuato's colorful streets

Beautiful colors on the streets of Guanajuato.

 

 

 

 

Guanajuato was rapidly capturing out hearts. There was an excitement in the air here that was palpable, and everywhere we looked people were smiling. Our trip to Oaxaca last year had been our favorite inland tour to date, but just like Francisco-the-plate-painter in Zihuatanejo had told us, Guanajuato was special.

 

Street of Guanajuato

There are no straight roads here.

The city is made up of a zillion little curvy streets and alleyways, and we soon got lost as one beautiful street after another drew us in. There are no straight roads in the entire town, and nothing runs in parallel either.

We just poked our heads around corners and were invariably smitten by what we saw. Then we’d head off down the alleyways to see what might lie around the next corner.

We passed many happy hours this way each day, zig-zagging from one end of the city to the other, and we fell into bed utterly exhausted with aching feet each night. It was so much fun!

 

Doorways of Guanajuato

Many doorways.

The thing was, we just never knew what we might find. Turning one corner, we both stopped short when we looked up and saw a donkey, burdened with heavy sacks, standing in front of an Oxxo store.

Donkey at Oxxo

A donkey at Oxxo?

These convenience stores are similar to Circle K or 7-Eleven — not the kind of place you’d expect to see a donkey tied up with a huge load of sacks on his back!

Colorful hillside of Guanajuato

Whatever your favorite color is, put it on your house!

But what really got us was the color. There are no inhibitions in this town. If your favorite color is purple, then paint your house purple!

We joked that the town council meetings where these colors get approved must be quite lively. But we later learned from a cab driver that this isn’t far from the truth. Building owners must get city approval for their color choices.

 

 

Casa de Pita Square

Our B&B was right off this square.

On the flip side, the municipality pays for all exterior painting and repairs. This is apparently true for all of Mexico’s “Magic Cities” (Pueblos Mágicos). And the type of paint is carefully specified — no gauche glossy finishes allowed!

One afternoon we looked between two buildings and saw a stairway that went straight up to heaven. This wasn’t just a one story or two story staircase. This was a set of stairs that went up and up and up.

Callejones de Guanajuato

The narrow alleys are called “Callejones”

 

 

 

 

We started up the stairs, just to see what was beyond the highest stairs we could see. When we got up that point, the staircase continued, with as many stairs above us as there had been below.

Guanajuato Callejones

We zig-zagged all over town on these fun little streets.

We walked up these stairs in the company of a few other people for a ways. But they stopped at various doorways, took out their keys, and disappeared inside. Their lives are lived entirely up and down, carrying groceries and everything else up six or eight flights of stairs to get home.

We continued trudging upwards, turning every so often to compare our height against the mountain on the far side of the city. A quarter of the way up, then halfway… it continued on and on.

Stairways up Guanajuato hillsides

The stairs head upwards with no end in sight on either side.

Looking down the unending staircase, we saw a man climbing towards us carrying a huge propane tank on his shoulder. He climbed slowly up towards us, balancing the tank on his shoulder no-handed.

Escalera de Guanajuato

A strong and well balanced man carries a huge propane tank up the stairs on his shoulder, no-handed.

As he neared us, Mark said something to him about the tank being heavy and the stairs being long and the work of carrying the tank being hard. He huffed and puffed once or twice, rebalanced the tank on his shoulder, smiled, and said, “Pan comido” (“piece of cake”). Then he climbed on past us and disappeared around a bend.

Wow. I wonder how many deliveries he has to make in a day?!

Living with your home on a staircase rather than a regular street is one very different way of living!! As we continued on, the view behind us became ever more sensational, but we wondered where the heck we would come out.

Dog on Guanajuato rooftop

Woof! Instead of living in the backyard, the dogs here have rooftop terraces.

We stopped to ask a group of older men that were chatting among themselves if we were actually going to come out somewhere or if we were wearing ourselves out for nothing and would find a dead end at the top. “Oh yes!” they said, “There’s a great view at the top. Keep going.” We took a deep breath and carried on, secretly wondering if the joke was going to be on us or if those men had been sincere.

Suddenly we heard a dog bark and we whipped around to see a cute little face peering at us from a roof terrace. Because the homes on this steep hill don’t have yards, all the dogs live on the roofs!

Finally, we came out at the top and were rewarded with an easy stroll along the Panoramic Road looking out over the entire city below. What a sight!

Colorful buildings of Guanajuato

We emerge at the top to see a spectacular view.

 

 

 

 

A few days earlier, when we were prowling along a different staircase, Mark had discovered a wonderful mural that depicted the story of heroism that put Guanajuato in the history books. Guanajuato was a town that was built by the immensely wealthy Spanish mine owners who set up shop in the mid-1500’s to extract silver, gold and other precious metals from the mountains.

Pipila Wall mural

Protected from musket fire by a stone on his back, Pípila torches
the front door of the stone granary, making way for the
first big defeat of the Spanish.

The Spanish enslaved the local indigenous people for over 200 years to do the miserably hard mining labor for them (mining slaves lived an average of just 5 to 10 years after they were put to work in the mines). When the miners and other indigenous people rose up against the Spanish in the Mexican War of Independence, the Spanish citizens and soldiers of Guanajuato barricaded themselves in the local granary that served very well as a fort because it had extremely thick stone walls.

A young indigenous miner, who’s nickname was El Pípila, strapped a flat stone onto his back for protection and took a torch to the wooden door of the stone granary, leading the way for a brutal indigenous attack on the Spanish inside. This was one of the first major defeats of the Spanish in the War of Independence, and Pípila became a hero.

Pipila Statue Guanajuato

A monument to the brave miner Pípila.

Universidad de Guanajuato - University of Guanajuato

The ladder of success at the University of Guanajuato.

Up on a hill in Guanajuato, there is a huge statue to honor this brave man, and as we emerged from our very long walk upstairs from the bottom of the town, we found ourselves face-to-face with this statue.

 Tunnels of Guanajuato

Upstairs – Downstairs… Guanajuato has an underworld too.

Stone arches in Guanajuato

Stone arches over the roadway leading out of one of the tunnels.

Guanajuato has stairways everywhere, and the University is no exception. Rather than the usual ten or twelve stairs that lead up to most university buildings, this staircase seemed to be a true ladder of success with many many stairs to get there!!

Ironically, Guanajuato is not just a town of hills and stairs and steep alleyways. We soon discovered that there is an entire maze of tunnels that wanders below the streets of Guanajuato. This underworld of tunnels makes a wonderful diversion for car traffic and also offers walkers a way to get from place to place in total shade.

Whether going up to the sky or down into the “subterreneo” below the city, we were loving our stay in Guanajuato, and we hung around for quite some time.

Where is Guanajuato? Here is a map showing some landmarks:

Map of Central Mexico

For sailors, Guanajuato is most easily reached from PV but is accessible from other ports too.

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Pátzcuaro – A “Magical City” with a colorful outdoor market

Patzcuaro Mexico sailing blog Hotel Chaluma

Our cute little bungalo on the edge of Pátzcuaro

Mid-February, 2013 – After our very full day of hiking among the monarch butterflies in the mountains near Morelia, we drove with our friends Joe and Nancy to Pátzcuaro, one of Mexico’s “Magical Cities.” These cities have been designated by Mexico’s tourism board as being particularly charming and fun to visit, and we were not disappointed.

We found a cute place to stay outside of town, Hotel Chaluma, which is made up of a row of small cottages. But for just 350 pesos ($29 USD) per night, it didn’t come with any heat. There was a fireplace in our room, but no wood.  The proprietor told us wood was available for sale from a neighbor, but we never managed to make contact with him. So we shivered in the brisk morning mountain air and laughed when we could see our breath.

Patzcuaro Mexico cruising blog hotel courtyard

Fancier digs in town.

There are finer places in town, and we peeked in the courtyard of one that had a very elegant ambiance.

Patazuaro Michoacan hotel living aboard blog

For an authentic old-time atmosphere, stay here!

You can also stay in more rustic hotels in the old historic buildings that are lined up in and around the town square.

Patzcuaro Mexico library mural living aboard blog

This mural on the back of the library depicts the Mexican state of Michoacán’s history.

We wandered into an old stone church that now houses a big public library. At the back of the room was a huge, colorful mural. There were images of ancient pyramids and Spanish soldiers in plated armor carrying spears on horseback.  There were vivid images of priests and ancient indigenous manuscripts being burned in bonfires.  People on their knees were enslaved in chains. We found out that this mural depicts the history of Mexico’s state of Michoacán.

Patzcuaro Mexico church cruising blog

One of several picturesque churches in town.

There are several old stone churches around town, and peering down a street we were drawn to one at the far end.

Patzcuaro Mexico market garlic seller sailing blog

Garlic for sale (just remember in Spanish it’s called “ajo”)

Patzcuaro Mexico market woman sail blog

A woman heads to the market.

 

As we approached, we saw lots of people milling around in front of the church, setting up blankets and tarps to sell produce and homemade food items.

It was Friday, and we discovered that Friday is market day when all the people from the surrounding villages and towns bring their goods to sell on the streets of Pátzcuaro.

We were fascinated by the hubbub. Everyone was busy, either hauling stuff into the market in handcarts or wheelbarrows, or shopping and filling their baskets with items to take home.

The air was festive and the place was hopping.

 

Patzcuaro Mexico mercado bags of beans

All kinds of dried beans for sale…

We have been to many a “mercado público,” or public market, in Mexico, but this one was different. Being inland and situated near farm country rather than near the touristy coast, the quality of the produce was fantastic and the prices were low.

Patzcuaro Mexico indian market wheelbarrow sailing blog

Bringing stuff to market!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patzcuaro Mexico indian market cruising blog

This was a busy market…

All the fruits and veggies were plump and ripe and uninjured. Handwritten signs advertised 10 pesos for 2 kilos of avocados (about 36 cents a pound). Same price for oranges. Dried beans were 16 pesos a kilo (about 60 cents a pound).

This weekly market is known as the “Indian Market” because so many of the people bringing their wares to town are indigenous people from the rural countryside.

Patzcuaro Mexico mercado fruit cups sailing blog

Colorful plastic fruit cups with Starbucks style tops!

Some of the vendors laughed and pointed at us as we passed.  We were the only gringos there.

The exotic air of this market was wonderful, and we couldn’t help but snap a zillion photos of the people around us.  We heard snippets of conversation about “fotos” and “fotografos” (photographers), and some vendors made funny faces and posed or gave us a thumbs up. Our own foreign oddness seemed to add to the jovial chaos around us.

Patzcuaro Mexico indian market

The women wore colorful, pleated, lace-trimmed skirts and shawls

Patzcuaro Mexico friday market

Lots of men wore hats and everyone bundled up because it was cold!!

The women all wore colorful calf-length skirts, often decorated with lace, and frequently pleated thickly in the back. Most of them had shawls of one kind or another too (it was cold!).

Some shawls were a simple rectangular scarf or wrap, but others had a collar and were shaped to drape over the shoulders with a clasping system to keep it all together.

We wandered among the throng, admiring the beautiful veggies and fruits, and wondering what some of them were.

Patzcuaro indian market vendors

People presented their goods for sale anywhere they could find space.

 

Lots of folks were selling homemade food items, including cooked tiny fish from the nearby lakes. There were hot sauces and diced fruits and veggies in plastic cups that looked like colorful frappuccinos.

Patzcuaro farmers market woman cruising blog

A woman lays out pails of small fish, both cooked and raw, from the nearby lakes.

Patzcuaro indian market eggs cruising blog

What type of bird laid these eggs??

One big box had dozens of tiny speckled eggs in it. We weren’t sure what kind of bird produced the eggs, or how the eggs were used. Ordinary chicken eggs were for sale too, and as is often the case at Mexican markets, you could buy the eggs individually in a plastic bag. So if you wanted only 7 eggs, that’s all you had to buy. Just be careful with that baggie on your way home!

Patzcuaro Mexico indian market woman living

There was something warm and friendly and inviting about this market

Patzcuaro Mexico market woman living aboard blog

The old ladies especially seemed to enjoy simply taking it all in.

At the far end of the market we found a lady selling gorgeous cactus flowers and irises. Each was unique in shape and color. They were similar to the “Christmas cactus” we see north of the border, but she had so many more varieties, and the flowers seemed much bigger.

Joe and Nancy bought two flowers with instructions from the vendor that if they put them in the ground in Ixtapa they would grow. No need for rooting them first in water. We’ll keep our fingers crossed, because those cactus flowers would make a spectacular addition to any garden.

There is more to see in Pátzcuaro, and there are intriguing other towns in the area, but our beloved sailboat Groovy was calling us home.

Patzcuaro Mexico cactus flowers sailing blog

Colorful cactus flowers.

 

We had left the boat at anchor in Zihuatanejo for four days, and we needed to make sure our home hadn’t drifted out to sea.

Michoacan Mexico steel bridge cruising blog

The brightly painted steel bridges turned golden in the afternoon sun.

Michoacan Mexico Infiernillo dam

We descend from the mountains towards the lakes.

Michoacan Mexico cactus

We’ll be back to see more of Morelia and Michoacán.

We retraced our route back down to the seashore, passing the lovely serene lakes and golden hued bridges followed by the thick cactus stands along the desert.

This part of Mexico had enchanted us, and our only regret was that our trip inland had been so short. With any luck we’ll get back to this area again someday and be able to spend more time enjoying all it has to offer.

But for now, Groovy welcomed us home without any hint that we’d ever left, and we resumed our floating life in Zihuatanejo Bay.

 

 

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Monarch Butterfly Migration at El Rosario – A Fabulous Daytrip!!

Contepec street sign Morelia Mexico sail blog

Not so easy to say these names!

Mid-February, 2013 – After our whirlwind tour of beautiful Morelia, we piled into the car with our friends Joe and Nancy and headed even further into the mountains to see the phenomenal throngs of butterflies that migrate there each winter. We were getting off into the hinterlands now, and the road narrowed dramatically and began to climb even more steeply, easily reaching 15% to 20% grades at times, while the town names quickly became very hard to pronounce.

Topes speedbump sign Morelia Mexico sailing blog

“Topes”

The thing that sets Mexican roads apart from roads elsewhere is the plethora of speed bumps, or “topes” (pronounced “toe-pays”). This is a very effective way to slow drivers down without having to post patrol cars and radar everywhere, but it sure makes for some hair-raising driving. The speed bumps are very steep, usually they are unpainted, and they are only occasionally marked with a sign. So you don’t know if a speed bump is there until you hit it and go flying.

Tlalpujahua church Mexico sailing blog

We spot a centuries old church in the distance.

A two hour drive in the Mexican countryside can quickly become a torturous “all eyes on deck” pavement scan while you wait for the inevitable jolt accompanied by the sound of scraping metal as the underbody of the car loses yet another layer of skin to the road.

Tlalpujahua Sr Monte statue Mexico cruising blog

Tlalpujahua was having a special festival.

Tlalpujahua Sr Monte fiesta Mexico sailing blog

There was lots of music…

However, the little towns we passed through were intriguing. One boasted a beautiful church we saw from the distance, and when we got there we discovered a huge festival was in full swing.

Tlalpujahua Sr Monte fiesta Mexico sail blog

Dancing…

A fellow told me the town was called “Tlalpujahua,” which is pronounced (“Tlal-poo-hah-wah”) and it was once a gold mining town and has churches dating to the 1500’s. Along with a huge outdoor market that lined the main street, they were celebrating the Day of Señor Jesús del Monte.

What luck!! Kids were dressed up in fantastic costumes, and they paraded in the streets and climbed the steep path to the church where they danced and sang and made music.

Tlalpujahua Sr Monte fiesta Mexico cruising blog

All the kids in town helped celebrate.

Tlalpujahua Sr Monte fiesta  Mexico sailing blog

Great costumes.

It was a colorful celebration, and every kid in town seemed to be a part of it.

Tlalpujahua Sr Monte fiesta Mexico living aboard blog

These machetes were real!

My favorite was the line-up of youngsters that were reenacting a sword fight, clashing their (real and sharp) machetes together while doing some dance steps and singing.

We wandered around town, fascinated by what was going on but not understanding what it was really all about. There was so much music and noise and hand clapping going on that we couldn’t have heard an explanation even if someone had been willing to try and give us one.

Kansas City Southern Train Mexico sailing blog

Kansas City Southern.

We jumped back in the car and continued our journey higher into the mountains. A very long freight train labeled “Kansas City Southern” went past pulling an endless stream of cattle cars that bore the same name on the side. We couldn’t tell if the cars were empty or full, but if they held cattle coming from or going to Kansas, those animals had a lot of miles under their hooves.

 

Haystack Michoacan Mexico sail blog

This is farm country.

 

We passed old style haystacks and horses in pastures, and eventually we made it to El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary.

Horse grazing Michoacan Mexico living aboard blog

Horses were grazing in the fields.

We hadn’t had any idea what to expect, and we were surprised to be greeted with several stages of fees: parking fee first, entrance fee second, and then the mandatory hiring of a guide to take us into the woods.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Michoacan Mexico sailing blog

Joe opted to catch a ride.

We are experienced hikers, and we couldn’t imagine it would be all that hard to find the butterflies. But when we protested against taking a guide, we learned that viewing the butterflies is an eco-tourism tour that helps sustain the people in this area.

The sanctuary provides a job base for the locals and, on that note, a guide — who was paid only tips — seemed like a fine idea.

The hike is an uphill, hour-long jaunt through the forest, and the locals provide rides on “caballitos” (little horses) for those who don’t want to walk. These cute little horses are just about my height, and I thought it was neat to be able to look a horse right in the eye.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Michoacan Mexico sail blog

The guides hoped we’d catch a ride too.

Joe opted to go on horseback, and he and his guide set off into the woods. Mark ran behind them, getting quite a vigorous (and dusty) workout in the process.

Nancy and I were directed to the walking trail, which is a different trail than the horses follow. The horse guides are shrewd businessmen, and they know that lots of people will change their minds about the $150 peso ($12 USD) fee for a round trip horseback ride once they’ve hiked a little ways up on the steep trail.

an Mexico cruising blog

Wonderful woodsy trail into the forest.

So a collection of horses and guides accompanied us for quite a while, patiently waiting for us to ask for a ride. Eventually Nancy saw the wisdom of arriving at the butterfly site rested, so she selected a horse and vanished into the woods after Joe and Mark, and that left me and my guide alone on foot on the walking trail.

My guide, Berenice, was 14 years old and a sophomore in high school. She lived in a town nearby and she said she guided two tours a day when she wasn’t in school. Today was a weekday but it was a school holiday, so she was out on the trail. She didn’t speak any English and she was very shy.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Michoacan Mexico sailing blog 260

Butterflies filled the air like leaves.

The path wound higher and higher. We were now at 10,000′ elevation (3,000 meters), and although I didn’t need my jacket, I knew if I stopped hiking I’d get chilled. We had heard reports of people getting snowed on during these wintertime butterfly excursions.

The woods were very similar to the woods in northern Arizona: full of evergreens and with a fine, grey dust underfoot. We stopped to take in a few views of the valley below, and as I scanned the horizon I saw brief flash of orange go by. Then I saw another and another. They were here… the monarchs!

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico living aboard blog

The pine trees seemed to have orange blossoms.

“There’s more up ahead,” Berenice told me. And sure enough, more and more of them floated by us until we turned a corner and saw literally thousands filling the air.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico sail blog

They loved these flowers…!

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico living aboard blog

The monarchs let us in close.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico sailing blog

Joe holds one up.

 

 

 

 

 

They clung to the pine branches so thickly that the pine trees seemed to be in bloom. The air was so full of orange butterflies it was as though there were an autumn breeze blowing tiny leaves around.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico cruising blog

These hardy souls are incredibly frail.

Mark and Joe and Nancy had already arrived at the spot when we got there, and they were playing with some of the butterflies.

Joe held out a flower and coaxed a butterfly onto it, and then held it up so we all could see. What a miraculous little animal.

 

El Rasario Monarch butterfliies Morelia Mexico sailing blog

So delicate…

Looking at them closely, although many were in fine shape, we noticed that many of them had faded and tattered wings, and they looked tired. There’s little wonder, as their north-south migration route is 3,000 miles between southern Mexico and the US and Canada.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico living aboard blog

All that orange mossy stuf is butterflies.

The butterflies have three different routes into the northern US states after they cross the border a little west of Brownsville, Texas.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico living aboard blog

Usually we feel lucky to see one butterfly, but here they numbered in the millions…

Some head northwest, some due north, and some northeast. Unlike birds that migrate long distances, though, individual monarchs don’t live long enough to travel the full migration path.

Wildflowers Morelia Mexico cruising blog

A little different than the tropics!!

Busily courting and mating here in the mountains of Michoacán, these monarchs will fly north in the spring to produce the next generation in the southern parts of the US.

Lupine flower Morelia Mexico cruising blog

Familiar mountain flowers.

The butterfly lifecycle of pupa to caterpillar to butterfly will take place, and then somehow the young butterflies will all know to continue the flight north that their parents had started.

Then the cycle begins again in one of the most complex animal migrations on the planet.

How do these delicate little guys do it? Tiny butterfly corpses were scattered all over the ground, with pieces of wings and bodies strewn among the leaves and flower petals, ready to decompose at the blink of an eye. These creatures are frail! Yet they doggedly get their species across 3,000 miles of treacherous ground twice a year.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico cruising blog

Commuting on horseback is common here.

We wandered among the butterfly laden trees for quite a while, enjoying this miracle that science can’t yet fully explain.

As we hiked back down the mountain path, we passed familiar wildflowers we see in the summers up north: lupine, penstemon and others. This had been a beautiful day in the woods, and Mark, a man who comes alive among the mountain pines, was completely in his element.

We made our way back to Morelia through small mountain towns where riders commuting on horseback are a common sight. After collapsing into bed, the next day we topped off our excursion into Mexico’s interior with a brief stop at the colorful town of Pátzcuaro.

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Morelia Mexico’s Magnificent Cathedral & Aqueduct – Awe-inspiring!

Infiernillo Dam Michoacan Mexico sailing blog

The lakes and mountains reminded us of Arizona

Mid-February, 2013 – This was our third season of enjoying boating in Zihuatanejo, and we wanted to see something new in the area. Our friends Joe and Nancy, who have a condo in Ixtapa, kindly invited us join them on a whirlwind driving trip to the beautiful colonial city of Morelia, Mexico, about 4 hours inland.

We packed some bags, left Groovy quietly swinging on the anchor in Zihuatanejo Bay, and jumped into the back of their car for a fun four days of adventure.

Infiernillo Dam Michoacan Mexico sail blog

Six bright yellow and orange bridges cross the river.

The sights were stunning right from the get go. The drive began at sea level and then climbed up and over some mountains, scooted back down along the cactus-studded desert floor and then soared into the mountains and pines once again. Along the way we passed the Infiernillo Dam and its lake which spreads out between the brown mountain peaks like a rich blue carpet.

Rio Infiernillo Steel Bridge Michoacan Mexico cruising blog

A quick pic out the back window…

 

There are six wonderful steel bridges that criss-cross the river, each painted vivid yellow or orange. The bridges winked in the sun at us as we approached, and we played with trying to catch something of their essence with our cameras as we zipped under them at breakneck speed.

Hay stacks Michoacan Mexico sailing blog

Unusual looking small haystacks dot the countryside.

 

 

 

 

It was an odd feeling to be back in a car on the highway again after nearly four months of leisurely, barefoot ocean living. Our socks and shoes felt clunky on our feet and the world whipped past in a blur. Little haystacks and vast valleys filled with farms seemed to open their arms to welcome us, and the scenery looked achingly like our beloved home state of Arizona.

Mexican hero José María Morelos y Pavón on horseback.  Morelia was named after him.

Mexican hero José María Morelos y Pavón on horseback. Morelia was named after him.

Arriving in Morelia, we were now at 6,300′ (2,000 meters) elevation, and the air was crisp and dry. This historic city was built in 1541 (the same year that Michelangelo completed his fresco “The Last Judgment” on the wall of the Sistine Chapel). The city was originally named Vallodalid after a city in Spain. It was renamed Morelia in 1828 in honor of José Maria Morelos y Pavón who was a hero during Mexico’s push for independence from Spain. In 1991 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sanctuario de Guadelupe Morelia Mexico sailing blog

Sanctuario de Guadelupe is relatively plain on the outside…

Our first stop was at the Sanctuario de Guadelupe which looked like a plain old stone church on the outside but is a jewel box of colorful decorations and gold leaf inside. We walked through the mammoth front doors and stood in awe at the back end of the church. What a sparkling and glittering space!

Sanctuario de Guadelupe Morelia Mexico sail blog

But inside it is a masterpiece.

This church was under construction from 1708-16. (For reference, J.S. Bach was a young, budding composer on the other side of the Atlantic at that time). The intricate sculpted patterns all over the walls and ceiling of this church are a feast for the eyes.

Sanctuario de Guadelupe Morelia Mexico cruising blog

Stepping inside this church was like walking into a jewel box.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sanctuario de Guadelupe Morelia Mexico sailing blog

Looking up into the heavens…

We wandered around soaking up this wondrous place, marveling at the elaborate and brilliant designs that filled every inch of the interior walls and ceiling. We wanted to yell across to each other, “Wow, did you see THAT? Have you been over HERE yet??!!”

Sanctuario de Guadelupe Morelia Mexico cruising blog

For centuries the devout have worshipped at this altar, and during our visit quite a few knelt down to pray.

But this is a church, and devout worshippers came and went throughout our stay, sitting in pews and kneeling in front of the altar, crossing themselves and murmuring their prayers. We felt a little guilty intruding on their private moments, wondering if we should silently tip-toe out and respect their privacy.

Sanctuario de Guadelupe Morelia Mexico sail blog 260

Every inch of the interior is meticulously decorated.

Yet the beauty of the place enchanted us. Maintenance people wandered around sweeping and running wires for some event, and that made us feel a little more comfortable about clicking away with our cameras.

Morelia Mexico cobblestone street cruising blog

Outside the Sanctuario de Guadelupe is a charming tree-lined
and pedestrian-only cobblestone street.

Mexico quincenero sailing blog

A young girl poses for her quinceañera (15th birthday) photos.

Mexico quincenero sail blog

Beautiful gowns are part of this wonderful celebration.

Outside this amazing church there is a narrow tree-lined cobblestone walking street that passes by stout colonial walls of houses and buildings. The walls are a bit imposing, but have a decidedly grand air.

How perfect it was when we came across a young girl dressed up for her quinceañera (15th birthday). This is a very important celebration for girls in Mexico, kind of a coming out party, and a full ball gown and photo shoot and elaborate fiesta are all part of the fun.

Callejon del Romance Morelia Mexico cruising blog

We walk down Lover’s Lane
(Callejon del Romance)

We joined the professional photographers to get some pics of her too, and suddenly she nervously mouthed “Mama” at her mother as the paparazzi moment became a little too much. The party was going to be a few days later, and her parents were visibly proud of their lovely daughter.

columns Morelia Mexico sailing blog

Historic Morelia is all about elegance from a bygone era.

Romance is definitely in the air in this part of town, and at the end of this street there is a narrow “Lover’s Lane,” (“Callejon del Romance”). This is a spot for hand-in-hand strolling and even some smooching, and we did our best to keep up the tradition while we were there.

Water flowed from a pretty fountain further down this lane, and pink flowers spilled from bougainvilleas clinging to the walls.

Morelia Mexico hand sculpture sail blog

An artsy bistro with a musical bent looks intriguing…

A tiny bistro and bar at the far end of the lane beckoned us in, and we peeked in the doorway to see a grand piano adorned with a sculpture of a large hand holding a miniature violin. This place had an artsy air and seemed to be a charming place to stop for a bite in the evening.

Callejon del Romance Morelia Mexico sailing blog

A fountain decorates the far end of Lover’s Lane.

Morelia is loaded with captivating places like that. Sculptures, fountains, columns and flowers are the kinds of ingredients that make up this city, and it is a place to linger and enjoy the sights. We didn’t have time to stretch out our visit like that, but we’ll be back…

Tarascas fountain Morelia Mexico cruising blog

The Tarasca fountain

crazy cross-dressers sail blog

Any town with character is bound to have characters…

Of course, since this is a city with character, it has its fair share of characters. Mark spotted a cluster of hot gals strutting down the street and instantly made a beeline in their direction. But the joke was on him this time, as the gals turned out to be a group of cross-dressers. They simpered and posed for him with delight.

Morelia Mexico aqueduct living aboard blog

Morelia’s 18th century aqueduct brought water into the city

One of the engineering marvels that sets Morelia apart from other Mexican colonial cities is its 4+ mile long aqueduct. As Morelia rose in prominence, Spanish nobility were encouraged to settle there, and the city grew rapidly. The aqueduct was built in 1785-1788 (near the end of Mozart’s life, just prior to the French Revolution) to supply the growing city with fresh water.

Morelia Mexico aqueduct living aboard blog

The aqueduct is more than 4 miles long and has 253 arches.

Morelia Mexico aqueduct living aboard blog

The late afternoon sun lights up the aqueduct’s arches.

There are 253 arches, and we were delighted when they lit up for us in the afternoon sun.

We hopped back in the car and headed towards the historic city center, hoping to catch the sunset on the cathedral spires. Of course, Morelia is loaded with pretty churches, and on our way there we had to stop and peek at another one or two…

Morelia Mexico church steeple living aboard blog

Beautiful old churches everywhere.

Morelia Mexico church living aboard blog

The door-within-a-door entrance to once of Morelia’s pretty churches.

 

 

 

The cathedral dominates the city skyline, piercing the heavens with two towering spires. It took over a century to build, starting in 1640 with the style of architecture that was popular at that time and ending in 1744 with a “more modern” style of architecture popular 100 years later. For reference, while the cathedral was in its latter phases of construction, Vivaldi was born, lived 63 music-filled years, and died.

Morelia Mexico cathedral at night living aboard blog

The cathedral lights up the early evening sky.

 

The sunset didn’t develop for us, but a rising crescent moon floated in the night sky above the beautiful stone steeples. We wandered around the plaza in front of the cathedral, trying to figure out how to get the whole thing in one image. Not possible!

Morelia Mexico cathedral at night living aboard blog

At night the cathedral is the pretty centerpiece of
the main city plaza.

 

 

A very short Mexican university student named Geronimo suddenly approached us, speaking in an unusually accented English. It turned out he was an English language major with hopes to become a high school English teacher or to work in the tourist trade in Cancun. Part of his homework was to go out and practice his English with tourists.

Morelia Mexico cathedral spire at night living aboard blog

One of the cathedral’s spires.

Morelia Mexico cathedral entrance at night living aboard blog

A crescent moon rises behind the cathedral.

We were more than happy to oblige and were fascinated to find out that English was his third language. His mother tongue was Tzeltal, an indigenous language spoken by Mayans in Mexico’s state of Chiapas. He had learned Spanish in grade school. We had loved seeing the ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque a year earlier, and we were charmed listening to his accent and talking about the wonders of his hometown.

He was equally intrigued to learn that Tzeltal is taught at the school where we took a week of immersion Spanish classes last spring, Instituto Jovel in San Cristóbal de las Casas. If teaching high school English or working in Cancun doesn’t pan out, he could always teach Tzeltal.

Morelia Mexico aqueduct arches at night living aboard blog

A night drive along the aqueduct is a memorable experience.

One of our favorite things about travel, besides spectacular sights like these in Morelia and learning a little of the history behind them, is meeting unusual people we wouldn’t be able to meet in our old neighborhood at home.

Geronimo disappeared into the night to find some more folks to speak English with, and we drove away in heavy commuter traffic along the impressive aqueduct. The arches stood in a row like soldiers, iconic and proud reminders that Morelia was an important city centuries ago when Mexico was “New Spain.” Even in the hustle and bustle of today’s crazy, traffic-filled modern world, this city brings home the depth of Mexico’s Spanish roots.

In addition to beautiful old architecture and history, Morelia is also known for its nearby mountains where millions of monarch butterflies migrate each winter.  The next day we drove higher up into the mountains to see these lovely creatures deep in the woods.

 

 

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Huatulco’s Hagia Sofia (2) – Hammocks, hills, waterfalls and a Oaxacan feast

Hagia Sofia Huatulco has wonderful riverside hammocks

Mark gets a little hammock time

Thanksgiving, 2012 – Our walk through the exotic tropical flowers at Hagia Sofia had been exciting, but when our host Armando led us to a group of hammocks hung from trees by the riverside, they looked so inviting we just had to lie down awhile.  What a spot!

Armando has rigged these hammocks up with pull-strings, so as you lie on your back you can lightly tug on the string to get yourself rocking a little.  Such bliss.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco leaf in river

 

 

 

The river lazily trickled by us as we rocked in the hammocks.  One day there will be cabins near this part of the property where guests can overnight on these lush grounds.  I can imagine many a happy afternoon spent lolling in those hammocks by the river.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco dragonfly

Armando even had a little table set out with fresh, chilled juice-water ready and waiting for us. This water is lightly spritzed with juices from mangos and limes and sweetened with honey, all from his orchard. It was so refreshing in the heat of the day.

Mark spotted a leaf catching a ride downriver, and a dragonfly alighted nearby on a twig.  There was a peacefulness here that warmed our souls.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco orchard views

We stroll among the fruit trees on the hills

Refreshed from our rest in the hammocks, Armando led us out onto the crest of a hill where many of the fruit trees grow.  Groups of papayas, avocados, and other fruit trees we’d never heard of before studded the hillside.  Similar fruits were being grown together, but rather than being lined up in GPS-perfect rows, as we’ve seen so often on large commercial farms, the trees were scattered about.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco orchards

Views from the orchard

Of course, different fruits grow at different times of the year, but a bunch of pineapples that looked ready for picking caught our eyes.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco potted plants sailing blog

Potted plants waiting for transplanting

Hagia Sofia Huatulco pineapple

A pineapple ready for picking

Hagia Sofia Huatulco tunnel of tress sailing blog

A tunnel of trees

Off to one side there were rows of potted baby plants.  Over the years Armando brought bags of seeds back to Mexico with him from his many trips to Asia, and he carefully planted and nurtured them.  As we walked along he would proudly point out, “I grew that tree from seed, and that one and that one too.”  We said he must have a green thumb, a phrase that didn’t seem to have an equivalent in Spanish, but when he caught our meaning he gave all the credit to the men who work his land.

He has often consulted a Zapotec farmer (from the local indigenous culture) for his wisdom about the natural world and his great skill with plants.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco waterfall (sailing blog)

The waterfall was cool and inviting

At one point we passed a group of bee huts where he keeps his own bees for pollination.

Hagia Sofia waterfall

The rushing water gives a great massage

Hopping into his truck once again, he drove us to a spot in the river where there is a beautiful waterfall.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco outdoor kitchen in the woods

The outdoor kitchen in the woods is a delight

The water was cooler than the ocean water we’d been swimming in lately, but it felt really good on our hot feet.  There are changing rooms for visitors to change into swimsuits, but we had forgotten to bring ours (darn!).

Armando dove in with gusto and got a massage on his back from the rushing water.

As we drove back towards the flower trail we stopped at the plateau where the cabins will one day welcome guests.  What a beautiful view they will have, overlooking the orchard and the distant mountains beyond.

Back at the beginning of the flower trail, Armando’s chef Blanca had been busy all morning preparing a Oaxacan feast for us.  Working in a fabulous outdoor kitchen under a palapa in the cool shade of the woods, she made tortillas, fried up prickly pear cactus leaves and made some wonderful hot sauces.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco fruits for breakfast

The fruits and fruit-waters were delicious

 

To one side a spread of exotic fruits lay waiting, each labeled in Spanish and English so we’d know what we were eating.  Some of these things, like kumquats, we recognized but had never tried.  But the plate of bananas — tiny ones just the length of a ballpoint pen — really surprised us.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco bananas

We’ve never tasted such sweet, tangy bananas

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Oaxacan feast

Blanca prepares a feast for us on an outdoor wood-fired stove

 

There were three different varieties, one quite red, but the bright yellow “apple bananas” had a sweetness and tanginess that was intoxicating.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco (sailing blog) Oaxacan meal preparation

Our plates are filled with exotic, yummy goodies

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Oaxacan brunch at darling outdoor tables

We sit at a log table under the trees

We sat down for our meal in the outdoor dining room, a charming group of tables and chairs hewn from tree trunks and shaded by tall trees.  It was the day before Thanksgiving, and what a feast we had.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco ceiba tree

Tree Hugger

At the end of this magical day we made one final stop with Armando as we were leaving.  The biggest tree on the property is a Ceiba tree, an ancient wonder that is covered with spikes.  Armando gave it a big hug, showing us just how big around the trunk was.  The branches soared into the sky.

Hagia Sofia ceiba tree

The branches seem to reach the sky

 

 

 

 

Hagia Sofia Huatulco (sailing blog) ceiba tree thorns

Young ceiba trees have thorns

When these trees are young they are covered with thorns, making them extremely difficult to climb.  But as they age they have fewer and fewer thorns, and this big old guy was very huggable.

We left Hagia Sofia in high spirits after an inspiring day close to nature.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Oaxacan Kiss Ice Cream (sailing blog)

We stop for a Oaxacan kiss snow cone

We weren’t sure if the better part of the day was the scenery and our wanderings among the tropical plants or our time spent with such a fascinating entrepreneur whose a beautiful vision for profitable farming and eco-tourism in the hills of Oaxaca resonated so deeply within us.

On our drive back to the marina, Armando made a quick stop in the small town of Santa María de Huatulco for an “ice cream” sold from a cart in the street.  This tasty treat is called a nieve (snow) and is something like a snow cone but made with natural flavors.  The one I got was very milky and was topped with shavings of carrots and nuts. It was called Beso Oaxaqueño or Oaxacan Kiss.

Our few days of land-based living in the marina had come to an end, and we soon sailed out into the Bays of Huatulco once again, this time anchoring alongside the little village of Santa Cruz.

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Huatulco’s Hagia Sofia (1) – Exotic fruits and tropical flowers in a lush garden oasis

Armando Canavati Nader host and creator of Hagia Sofia in Huatulco Mexico

Armando Canavati Nader, host and creator of Hagia Sofia

Late November, 2012 – While staying at Marina Chahué in Huatulco, we took a day trip to nearby Hagia Sofia, a 350 acre fruit orchard and tropical flower garden.  Every so often in this life we are blessed with a day that is an utter delight from start to finish, and that was the kind of day we had at Hagia Sofia.

Tagamia Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

“Tagami”

Armando Canavati Nader, the owner and visionary behind this orchard, picked us up at the marina and drove us an hour and a half out to his stunning property.  It turned out that we were the sole visitors that day, and he gave us a tour we will never forget.

Armando is a man who is living his dream to the fullest.  There is something enchanting and greatly inspiring about those fortunate folks whose passion has become their life.  Armando radiates enthusiasm for his orchard and his vision for Oaxaca’s ranchers.

She Kong Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

“She Kong” – hangs down about six feet!

He has been fascinated by agriculture since he was very young, and he has a deep love of plant life and the earth.  His dream is to develop his orchard and flower garden to be self-sustaining and to become a model for other Oaxaca farmers.

Cuna de Moises - Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

“Moses’ Cradle”

Armando’s life wasn’t always about encouraging beautiful plants to thrive, however.  His grandfathers came from Lebanon and Bethlehem, respectively, at the turn of the last century.  One was just sixteen at the time — with a fourteen year old wife — and they worked their way across the ocean aboard ship.

As his grandfather later told him, he left his war-ravaged country only to arrive in Mexico on the eve of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.  Sometimes the grass isn’t really greener on the other side!

Anturio Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

“Anturio”

Armando’s granddad started a shirt factory in his new homeland, but it was Armando’s father, a truly gifted entrepreneur, who grew the enterprise, Grupo Manchester, to where it stands at the heights of international business today.

Regina Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

“Regina”

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Everywhere we turned something lovely was in bloom

 

 

 

Despite being a Mexican corporation, it was so named because Manchester (England) was the very heart of the world’s textile industry at the time.  The company now employs 1,000 workers in Monterrey, Mexico.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Some flowers almost didn’t seem real

Bridesmaids Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

The little flowers at the base are the “bridesmaids”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beautiful flower - Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Each flower we saw seemed more exotic than the last

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery Bridge

Walk two steps, take ten photos!

Specializing in men’s clothing, they manufacture some of the world’s biggest designer brands and export their products to Central and South America.

Although he wanted to study agriculture in college, Armando grew up supporting his father’s dream instead, becoming Manchester’s lead fashion designer.  He traveled internationally for decades in search of the best fabrics and to find inspiration for new fashion designs.

For twenty years he spent several months a year traveling in Thailand and the Pacific Rim.  One day, after admiring the basket of exotic fruits in his hotel room, he asked the owner of a Thai fabric factory to drive him out to a local orchard where he spoke at length with the orchard’s proprietor, learning about the climate, fruits and flowers.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery Rooster Tails

“Rooster Tails”

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery Cat Tails cola de gato

“Cat tails”

This encounter initiated his personal study of tropical agriculture, which burgeoned as the years went by.  Although his work kept him based in Monterrey, Mexico, his favorite state was Oaxaca, and he began to study which of the wonderful, exotic plants he saw in his world travels would do best in Oaxaca’s low hills.

Dreaming of a way to give back some of the good fortune he had enjoyed in the apparel industry, he began developing the idea of creating an orchard and flower garden — a Garden of Eden — where visitors could find respite from the workaday world in its lovely cabins and the harvest would support operations.

After visiting many, many properties in Oaxaca, he came across a former German coffee plantation that had long been in decline, and set about reworking the land in the early 2000’s to support as many varieties of fruits and flowers as possible.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Many flowers had this type of overall shape

Germans had flocked to this area 100 years ago to develop coffee plantations, but when the coffee market crashed in the late 1950’s, many of them closed, among them this ranch.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

The flowers were big with sturdy petals

Armando named his new property “Hagia Sofia,” which means, roughly, “Holy Wisdom,” and is also the name of the eastern Christian mother church that was built in Constantinople (Instanbul, Turkey) in 537 AD (it was converted to a mosque in 1453, is now a museum).  Armando has a daughter Sofia, as well, which also inspired the name.

“Oaxaca is naturally a very rich state,” he said to us as we drove onto the gorgeous, hilly, verdant property.  “But its people are so poor.  I want to teach them how to use this beautiful land in the most productive way possible.”

He went on to explain that most local ranchers grow corn, only because their fathers grew corn.  Two acres of corn can produce $500 per year in profits for these farmers.

Butterfly Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Thousands of butterflies flutter between the flowers

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery Hooked Leaf

A flower catches a falling leaf…

In startling contrast, they could be growing mangosteen fruit trees instead.  Two acres of land will support 200 trees which can produce 150-300 kg of fruit per year.  “That’s $40,000 in profits!” he said excitedly.

Mangosteen is a fruit native to Central America that is far richer in anti-oxidants and other healthful properties than just about any other fruit available.  An ounce or two a day of mangosteen juice is said to give radiant health and to fix all manner of ills.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Often sold in the US in multi-level marketing schemes structured like Amway, I remember seeing mangosteen juice for sale for $60 a liter at the fitness studio where I worked.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery Indonesian Button

“Indonesian Button”

Armando’s not kidding that mangosteen fruit is far more valuable than corn!

“But changing the way people farm takes time,” he went on.  “They have their corn fields in place already.  A mangosteen tree won’t produce fruit for 8 years after it’s planted and doesn’t reach maturity until 20 years of age.”  That is a long wait in a region where most people live from hand to mouth.

“This is a business that a rancher sets up for his children and grandchildren.  That’s why I am doing it.  I will have something beautiful and productive for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to inherit.  If a rancher plants his land with the right trees and flowers now, his grandchildren will be very wealthy from the harvest.”

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Armando’s orchard is getting noticed, and the town leaders all around Oaxaca are recognizing his wisdom.  When I asked him if the farmers hear him when he tells them to consider farming differently, he laughed.  “The town leaders all say ‘We need more Armandos!'”

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

 

 

The 500 mangosteen trees Armando planted 6 years ago aren’t the only exotic fruit he is cultivating in his orchard.  He has reforested his property with 15,000 trees, among them teak trees, bamboo and molina trees (which produce a medicinally valuable bark).  He has 20,000 plants in the flower nursery, raises 9 kinds of mangos, has 7 different types of bananas and 6 varieties of avocados.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

These leaves were two feet long

But the 500 meter long flower trail (signed in the local Zaptoec language, “Nesa Sti Guie,” in recognition of their culture and agricultural knowledge) was our first introduction to the property.

As we started on the path, surrounded on all sides by thick greenery and unique, brilliantly colored flowers, Armando joked that he is often asked how long a walk on the flower trail takes.  “I tell them, ‘For me, two months!  But for most people, a few hours.'”

We ended up spending the better part of a day wandering down this trail, marveling at the flowers.  “They look like they’re plastic, don’t they?” Armando said.  It was true, many of them were sturdy, thick and shiny, and we felt tempted to touch each one to verify it was real.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

The insects buzzed all around us and a river accompanied us on most of our walk.  Lots of trees had symbiotic vines that wound around their trunks, and we strolled under a shaded canopy of greenery the whole way.  At one point we came across a stand of cactus (“So people can see what the desert is like”) and at another stop we saw a hillside of coffee plants.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

As we walked among at the immense variety of trees, ferns, shrubs and flowers that grew so harmoniously with each other, it was impossible to imagine that the entire property was once filled with coffee plants and nothing else.  We were enveloped in a thick blanket of green, dotted with vibrant red, pink and yellow flowers.

When we finally emerged from this beautiful trail of flowers, Armando took us to the wide open crests of the hills where the views reached far into the distance. Hagia Sofia’s fruit trees were sprinkled across the hillsides, eagerly soaking up the sun on their way to maturity.

Next up on our tour’s agenda was a walk among the fruit trees, a drive to the locations where the visitors’ cabins will soon stand, and a memorable day-before-Thanksgiving feast.

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Yaxchilan and Bonampak – Haunting Ruins in the Jungle

Sail blog post - the remote Mayan ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas, Mexico were highlight of inland trip from Marina Chiapas.

Kim Tours starts our day with a big breakfast.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Cowboys on horseback hustle cattle down the road.

Cattle are hustled down the road.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver.

Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver. Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We all pile into our boat for an hour's journey to Yaxchilán.

We all piled into our boat for an hour's journey

to Yaxchilán.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take us to Yaxchilan Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Our guide.

Our guide.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We spot the edge of the Yaxchilán ruins through the trees.

We spot Yaxchilán through

the trees.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -

Hiking up to the

"Little Acropolis."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - The

The "Little Acropolis."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Entering

Entering "The Labyinth."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We emerge...

Light at last…!

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - ...in front of

We emerge in front of "The Labyrinth."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Green moss clings to everything.

Green moss clings to everything.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Note the boxy hieroglyphs above the doorway.

Note the boxy hieroglyphs carved

in the lintel above the doorway.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Structure 33.  When built by Bird Jaguar (752-772), this made quite a sight from the river.

Structure 33.  When built by Bird Jaguar (who reigned

752-772 AD), this made quite a sight from the river.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Structure 20.

Structure 20.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - King Bird Jaguar IV plays ball amid symbolism about his rise to power.

King Bird Jaguar IV plays ball amid symbolism and hieroglyphs about his rise to power.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - King Bird Jaguar IV's mother, Lady Eveningstar.

King Bird Jaguar IV's mother,

Lady Eveningstar.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -We're faster than that croc, aren't we?

We're faster than that croc, aren't we?

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Van ride for our leg into the Lacadón Forest.

Van ride for our leg into the Lacadón Forest.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Bonampak'a main plaza has shaded stelae and an enormous stairway with small buildings.

Bonampak's main plaza.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - The three doorways leading into the matchless rooms of Mayan murals.

Three doorways lead into three rooms of

matchless Mayan murals.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 1: Pomp and circumstance for the presentation of Chaan Muan II's infant heir.

Room 1: Pomp and circumstance surround the presentation

of King Chan Muan II's infant heir.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Mayans bound their foreheads to flatten them.

The detail -- nearly 1200 years later

-- was astonishing.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -

Celebrating with trumpets.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 2:  Prisoners are tortured by pulling out their fingernails.

Room 2:  Prisoners are tortured by pulling out their fingernails.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 3:  Nobelwomen pierce their tongues in ritual blood-letting.

Room 3:  Noblewomen pierce their tongues in ritual blood-letting.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Lintel above Room 1's doorway:  Chan Muan holds a captive by the hair.

Lintel above Room 1's doorway:  Chan

Muan holds a captive by the hair.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Modern day Lacandón girl.

She got a kick out of taking a

photo of Mark.

Yaxchilán & Bonampak, Mexico

March, 2012 - There are many beautiful things to see in the Palenque area and, for most tourists, rather than struggling to

drive on the little winding roads, the easiest way to see them all is by van tour.  Van tours are a big business in this region, and

almost all the vehicles on the small roads outside Palenque are vans filled with tourists.  Our van from Kim Tours picked us up at

7:00 a.m. for a 12-hour tour to the remote Mayan ruins of Yaxchilán and Bonampak.  After several hours on the road, everyone

in our group was grateful when the van stopped mid-morning for a sumptuous breakfast at a casual open-air restaurant.

Besides van tours, farming and agriculture play an important role

here too, and we watched with amusement as two cowboys on

horseback hustled a herd of cattle down the road while we were

getting back in the van after breakfast.  Those cows could trot

pretty fast!

After another hour or so of negotiating skinny, speedbump filled

roads, we finally arrived at the river that defines the border

between Mexico and Guatemala, the Río Usumacinta.  Here we

boarded a small outboard-driven boat with a canopy top for an

hour-long boat ride up the river.  Talk about remote -- these ruins

are really out there!

We were five

couples all together.

Two couples hailed

from Mexico City

and Argentina, and

they gabbed away in

Spanish with each other

and the guide.  The other

two couples were from

French Canada and

France, and they

chatted easily in

French.  We mostly

listened and enjoyed

the views.

The narrow river

meandered between

thick jungle greenery along its banks.  At long

last we spotted a tall pile of rocks between the

trees heralding our arrival at the ruined Mayan

city of Yaxchilán.

We climbed a steep, moist hillside trail and

suddenly found ourselves staring at the

familiar pyramid shape of a huge Mayan building, the "Little

Acropolis."  This building was extensive and had rooms and

windows and unroofed hallways that begged to be explored.

However, we were given only an hour to see the whole sight

and the "Great Acropolis" complex of buildings awaited us

further on.  If only you could go to a place like this easily on

your own and hang out for a few days...

Hiking back down and then up again,

we came to "The Labyrinth," a crazy

maze of winding tunnels that is pitch

dark inside.  We relied on flashes

from our cameras to light the way.

Finally shafts of light penetrated and

we emerged on the other side,

standing in front of a series of doors

into the Labyrinth and looking out

into the Grand Plaza.

The jungle here has been

conquered, seeded with grass lawns, and swept back to reveal these

impressive ruins.  But mossy overgrowth clings to everything.  As we

wandered past sturdy walls and rows of doorways, two thoughts kept

swirling through my mind:  what did this place look like when it was

newly constructed and filled with inhabitants?  And what did the

European discoverers think when they first found this large complex of

buildings in the tight grip of the

jungle in the mid-1800's?

It is mind-boggling to think that this

little bend in a nondescript, brown

silty river was once a very important

spot, a destination, a port for trade.

Today it would be indistinguishable

from the rest of the jungle

riverbanks if it weren't for the

sprinkling of tourists

arriving every few

hours in colorful

canopied boats.

Who built this stuff

and when?

Fortunately, Yaxchilán is loaded with doorway and window

lintels that are covered with square-shaped Mayan

hieroglyphic text, and they tell the story.  Unraveling the

meaning behind Mayan hieroglyphs began in the late

19th century, when the numeric system was first

deciphered.  Major breakthroughs came in the 1980's

(while studying lists of rulers in Palenque), and now

90% of Mayan writings can be read.  The history of

conquests, defeats and transfers of power in Yaxchilán

are surprisingly well known, right down to specific days

and years due to the detailed Mayan calendar.

The area was likely settled by 250 AD, but

the first historic text points to 359 AD when

Yaxchilán's first ruler ascended the thrown.

Rulers with evocative names like "Bird

Jaguar" and "Moon Skull" reigned for

centuries, each date of ascension to the

throne carefully recorded in stone.  One

ruler's wife, Lady Pakal, lived to the ripe old

age of 98.  That may not have been a typical

ancient Mayan lifespan, but the ruling class

obviously lived well.

The city reached its peak in the early 8th

century, and most of the ruins date from that

time period when the reigning king (who lived

into his nineties) went on a building spree.

The amazing thing at this site, besides the expansive

grounds filled with 120 or so ruined buildings, is the

detailed carvings on the lintels.  Passing under a

doorway you look up and see the most beautiful and

intricately carved stone just overhead.  The images are

clear, and archaeologists have sorted out what almost

all of them depict -- with the help of the descriptive boxy

hieroglyphs that accompany each one.

One relief shows King Bird Jaguar IV playing ball in the

ball court, a game that had deep mystical overtones in

Mayan culture.  The text around the images makes reference to

both blood letting and the decapitation of three deities leading to

three "dawnings."  Two dwarfs are marked with the signs of Venus.

It is thought that they figuratively sweep the path for this rising king

as Venus sweeps the path for the rising sun.

Now it helps to know a little background about this guy Bird Jaguar IV.  He was not born

in direct line to the throne, being the son of the 2nd wife rather than the 1st wife of the

king.  It seems his mother, Lady Eveningstar, was quite ambitious for her son, however,

and there might have been a power struggle after her husband's death.  She may have

even ruled Yaxchilán temporarily while she waited for her boy to grow up and take

over.  After nearly ten years her son was finally crowned King Bird Jaguar IV.

Another relief shows this woman, the ambitious Lady Eveningstar, dressed to the nines.

Yaxchilán and its neighbors alternated between being friends and enemies, making

alliances through marriage, and taking each other's kings captive by turns.  Victory

seems to have rotated between the city-states for a while, but Yaxchilán seems to have

come out on top in the early 9th century AD before

the entire ancient Mayan world slipped away into the

grasp of the jungle (possibly due to deforestation and

overpopulation).

One of the nearby rivals was Bonampak, and

fortunately for us, its unique ruins were our next stop.

First, however, we had to take another river boat ride

back to the van.  Waiting to see us off at the river's

edge was a very large, grinning crocodile.  Our

boatman took us pretty close to this fellow so we

could get a good look, but he assured us our

outboard engine was

faster than the croc!

The ruined Mayan city of Bonampak is situated in the

Lacandón Jungle where a very special group of

indigenous people, the Lacandones, make their home,

deep in the rainforest.  When the Spanish arrived in the

16th century, the Lacandón people retreated further

into the rainforest and were never discovered.

Although they had frequent contact with other Mayan-descended groups through the centuries, the rugged lands around them

helped them keep the world at bay, retain their identity and avoid the fate of most other indigenous groups for a long time.

Numbering just 650 or so native speaking Lacandón people today, it is only in the last fifty years that relentless logging,

ranching and tourism development have invaded their space and forced them to go through the conversions and changes that

the rest of Mexico underwent four hundred years ago.  Besides learning Spanish, many converted to Christianity (mostly

Protestantism).  Conversion was a change the men largely frowned upon because of its intolerance of polygamy.  But the

women favored the idea because there was very little ritualistic cooking involved (unlike their own traditions).  Ironically, the

recent introduction of TV and popular culture has largely brought an end to spiritual rituals of any kind among the younger

generation.

Today the Lacandones hang onto their traditions as best they can while

participating in the modern economy by working within the tourist trade.

They offer a peak into their world selling hand-crafted items, shuttling

tourists to ancient Mayan sites, taking them on tours of the rainforest, and

hosting them overnight.

At the edge of their land we were transferred into a van driven by a

Lacandón man in traditional dress (a white sack-like garment with wide

short sleeves).  He spoke perfect Mexican Spanish and wore an official

badge.  As I watched him behind the wheel I wondered what his

grandfather would have thought of his grandson chauffeuring international

tourists into his homeland in a van.  Would his own future grandkids want

to stay in the forest, hosting tourists and preserving the memory of a

vanishing culture, instead of joining mainstream Mexican society?

The main plaza of the

Bonampak ruins are

very compact.  A few

large, carved stelae

under shade canopies

are sprinkled across a

wide lawn.  An

enormous stairway

with small buildings

fills a hillside at the far

end.

We climbed the stairs and poked our heads into the first doorway of the little white

building half-way up.  Holy mackerel!  We were absolutely blown away.

Inside was a single room with a steeply vaulted ceiling, and every single square inch of

the interior was painted with extraordinary, brightly colored frescoes.  In the images

encircling the room people were engaged in all kinds of activities, wearing loincloths and

elaborate headdresses.

The side-view stance of each figure looked like those of the ancient Egyptians with the

feet placed one before the other and head in profile.  But unlike the Egyptians the

shoulders were shown in side-view rather than twisted with one shoulder forward and

one back.

We moved on to

the next doorway

and found another similar room with a

totally different story to tell, and likewise

inside the third doorway.  Wow!

Bonampak's construction began in the 6th

century, but the paintings were completed

in 790 AD.  This was the same time that

Charlemagne was rising to power in

Europe and the Vikings were beginning

their raids in England.

These murals were "discovered" in 1946

when a Yale researcher was brought to

them by a Lacandón guide.  The

Lacandones had revered the murals and

worshipped at the site and never shown

them to outsiders before.  Sadly, in an

effort to document and preserve them

(hadn't they been preserved already for

1,150 years?), the scientists covered the

murals with

kerosene which

brought out the

colors temporarily

but weakened the

plaster so it started

to flake off.  They

photographed like

mad, but today the

photos they took

are considered

incomplete and Yale

has renewed their

efforts to document the

paintings.

Standing there, jaw agape, however, I didn't

care how much the paintings had faded in

the last 60 years.  They are magnificent.

The expansive story-telling nature of the

paintings and their incredible detail had all of

us visitors oohing and ahhing to each other

in the doorways.

We later learned that the first room depicts

the presentation of the son and heir of King

Chan Muan II and Lady Rabbit (a

noblewoman from nearby Yaxchilán), in 790 AD, with great processions, trumpet playing and fanfare.

Unfortunately the city was abandoned before the infant came into power.  The second room depicts the

violent conquering of an unknown enemy.  Among several gruesome scenes, the unfortunate captives are

being tortured by having their fingernails pulled out.  The third depicts a royal celebration, including ritual

blood-letting that the noblewomen performed by piercing their tongues.

Like Yaxchilán, the lintels over the doorways are highly decorated,

and the image carved over the first door shows King Chan Muan

holding a captive by the hair.  Not only is the carving beautifully

executed, but the original blue painted background and some of the

red trim can be seen even today.  Astonished by their good

condition, I had to ask the attendant if the lintels were original -- and they

were.

While I was standing in awe of all this, trying to twist my body so I could

get the best possible shots of the murals despite the restrictive tourist

barriers, Mark had wandered off down the hill.  When I caught up to him

he excitedly showed me a photo of a little Lacandón girl he had taken.

These ruins were her playground, and she climbed among the trees and

played with sticks in the dust as she watched the tourists coming and

going.  Mark tried to talk to her, but Spanish and English got him nowhere.

Then he handed her the camera and showed her how to take a picture of

him and she grinned.  They traded taking pics of each other and giggled

at the images on the back of the camera, all language barriers gone.

We got back to Palenque exhausted but happy.  It had been quite a day.

But after a rest day in town we were ready to go again to see the famous

Agua Azul and Misol-Ha waterfalls.

Click here to see more from our adventure travels in Mexico.

Find Yaxchilán and Palenque on Mexico Maps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Agua Azul & Misol-Ha – Waterfall Adventures in Mexico

Sail blog post - traveling inland by bus from Marina Chiapas, we toured he incomparable waterfalls outside Palenque, Mexico: Misol-Ha and Agua Azul.

Misol-Ha waterfall, a thin, pure stream.

Behind the falls, Misol-Ha waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Behind the falls.

Through the trees, Misol-Ha waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Misol-Ha.

Four-year-old Amina.

Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Agua Azul's falls are wide and fast.

Crashing water, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Agua Azul.

Tumbling into turquoise pools, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico Serene aquamarine pools, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Agua Azul's pools of turquoise.

Little Amina goes

swimming.

Visitors get photos of themeselves, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Everyone gets photos of themselves at the falls.

Vendors at Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Vendors in palapas line the falls.

Eating mango-on-a-stick, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Mango-on-a-stick.

Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

The falls tumble down many layers of boulders.

Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico Van tour, Agua Azul & Misol-Ha waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico.

Our companions get into another van.

Comitán's Santo Domingo Church, late 16th century.

Comitán's Santo Domingo, built in the late 1500's.

Santo Domingo Church, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Santo Domingo steeple.

Church steeple, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Lots of church steeples in this town.

Church bells, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Lots of churches to visit in Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Modern sculpture in the Zócalo, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Modern sculpture in the Zócalo

Mayan woman, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Happy old vendor, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Lovers in the Zócalo, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Patio of wooden columns, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Patio of wooden columns.

Flowering trees in spring, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Spring is in the air.

Hilltop view from Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Hilly streets offer views into the surrounding

countryside.

Tenem Puente ruins & Spring Equinox celebration, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Crowds take seats on the Mayan stadium stairs.

Tenem Puente Spring Equinox performance, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Performers appear on the 1200-year-old ruins.

Spring Equinox at Tenem Puente, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Blowing a conch shell, spring equinox celebration, Tenem Puente, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Blowing on a conch shell.

Dramatic headdresses, spring equinox performance, Tenem Puente ruins, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Mayan rituals for the deceased victim in a spring equinox celebration at Tenem Puente Mayan Ruins, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Rituals for the dead victim.

Marina Chiapas at dawn.

(Photo courtesy of Capt. Andrés Reyes Prudente).

Agua Azul, Misol-Ha & Comitán, Mexico

March, 2012 - Besides the mysterious ruins of Yaxchilan & Bonampak, the Palenque

area is bursting with beautiful natural features as well.  We hopped on another van

tour, this time to see waterfalls.  We went with a no-name tour company, one of dozens

selling tours in town.  It was cheap, this was just a day trip, and all we really needed

was transportation to the falls.  We sat behind a very seasoned Central American

traveler from North Carolina named Tom who was just starting a four-month tour from

Mexico to Colombia.  His itinerary, unlike ours for some reason, included both the

waterfalls and the Palenque ruins.

"I never have any expectations

when I get on a bus in these

parts."  He said knowingly.  We

had had plenty of bus

adventures, so we nodded with

him, almost as knowingly.

Our first stop of the day, after

bouncing over the rough roads

out of town, was the magnificent

Misol-Ha waterfall.  A thin wisp

of water flowed in a steady

stream off a cliff into a cool, wide

pool.  We followed a short trail

down to the falls and discovered

we could crawl underneath a rock

outcropping behind them.  The fine

mist that sprayed us all was

refreshing.

Our group was in high spirits in the

early morning air as we piled back

into the van.  Young European

backpackers dominated our group,

including a pair of gorgeous, tall,

leggy, blonde Danish girls up front

and three boys from Switzerland, Austria and Germany speaking German together in the

rear.  A little four-year-old Mexican girl, Amina, from Playa del Carmen in the Yucatan, sat

next to me and asked to see our waterfall photos on our cameras.

A very comical and rudimentary conversation in Spanish ensued as our chatter wandered

to our granddaughters and she told us about her cousin.  There's nothing like having a

four-year-old native speaker show you just how poor your command of Spanish really is.

Her giggles and funny faces made it clear we sounded pretty goofy to her.  Luckily her

grandma bailed us (and her) out a

few times when our conversation

reached a total impasse of

incomprehension.  We were quite

humbled when she later talked up a

storm with the van driver!

Our next stop was Agua Azul, a

series of cascading waterfalls that

rushes over stair-stepping boulders

and lands in the most exquisite

turquoise pools.  Wooden viewing

platforms encourage tourists to take

their time soaking in the views and

posing for photos.  The water

thunders down the rocks from

several directions and then rests for

a bit in shades of aquamarine before

sliding on.

The tour vans line up outside the park

while visitors are granted anywhere from

an hour to an afternoon to enjoy the falls

and pools.  Lots of young travelers

eagerly donned their swimsuits and

jumped into the water.

Vendors selling all kinds of snacks and

trinkets under makeshift palapas line the

sides of the waterfalls at various levels beside the endless wooden stairs going up.  We climbed up

and up and up looking for the top of the falls.  The clan of young boys from our van rushed ahead

and later reported that there was a fantastic swimming hole

a mile or so away.  We never got that far.  Instead we

settled at a picnic table to enjoy eating mango on a stick (a

great way to eat mangos!) and watermelon slices in a cup.

After a few wonderful afternoon hours at these rushing

falls and placid pools, we all made our way back to the

van, a little damp, and rather tired at the end of a great

day.  The drive back should have taken just an hour, but

this was a budget van.  It turned out that not only had our

North Carolina friend, Tom, not been taken to the ruins in

Palenque as he expected, but the European travelers with

us were not returning to the town of Palenque at all.  They

were headed in the opposite direction to San Cristóbal de

las Casas, some 5 hours away.  Huh?

Apparently our van was supposed to meet another van on the

road somewhere and transfer the travelers over.  Problem

was, "where" and "when" were not well defined, and although

we all stood by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere

waiting for over an hour, the other van never showed up.  Tom

just nodded knowingly with a smirk on his face.

Luckily we all had lots to talk about, comparing notes about

what we'd seen in Mexico, and talking about what we missed

most from home.  The young German fellow said he missed

his wiener schnitzel terribly, and we all missed our favorite dark

beers from home.  Travel is wonderful, but homesickness for

familiar things steals over you once in a while.

Eventually the driver hailed a van labeled "San Cristóbal" and payed

for five tickets out of his own pocket so our companions could get to

their promised destination.  That van was already full, so I can only

imagine what everyone thought when five extra people and their

luggage were piled into and on top of it for five hours of travel on

twisty, miserable roads filled with speed bumps.  Tom said he'd just

catch a cheap combi van to the Palenque ruins on his own the next

day.  No problema!

We could have easily stayed in Palenque another week, but

disturbing news from family in the US began to take on a more and

more urgent tone, and we decided it was best to begin our trek out

of the jungle just in case we needed to fly back soon.  In the bus

station I saw a poster for a huge Spring Equinox celebration at the

Palenque ruins.  Oh my!  We were leaving the Mayan world on the

eve of the equinox!  You can't do that!!  Oh well.

The distance from Palenque to Puerto

Chiapas where Groovy was waiting for

us is only 550 miles, but it is two long

days of bus travel.  We decided to

break it up by stopping in Comitán, a

colonial city we had glimpsed from the

bus window on our way to San

Cristóbal and that had perked our

interest.

After spending several weeks plunk in

the middle of the touristy Gringo Trail,

surrounded by fellow travelers from

foreign countries, it was a delightful

change to walk the streets of Comitán.

It has all the colonial charm of other similar towns, but has

not been singled out for tourism development in the same

way.  Everyone on the streets was a local, or at least

Mexican, and all the happenings around town were put on

by the locals for the locals.

It is a hilly town, with a multitude of church spires piercing the sky.  The

Santo Domingo cathedral is the oldest, dating to the late 16th century,

some 50 years or so after Comitán was conquered by the Spanish.

Santo Domingo sits on the edge of the Zócalo, or town square, and while

we wandered among the beautiful shade trees and colorful flowers in the

late afternoon, we listened to the priest giving a sermon to his flock,

broadcast over speakers on the outside of the church.

The Zócalo is the heart of the town, and people hang out in the park doing all the fun

things that parks are made for: relaxing, people watching, selling stuff, buying stuff,

and, of course, enjoying each other's company in a romantic setting.

While wandering around I

looked up to see a huge

poster advertising -- a

celebration of the Spring

Equinox at the local

Mayan ruins of Tenem

Puente!  That afternoon!!

What luck!!!

We quickly jumped into a

local combi van and

headed out to the ruins a

few miles away.  This was

a hugely popular event

and the van was stuffed

to overflowing with

people.  It was full body

contact on all sides for

everyone.  Every

bare limb, thigh,

elbow, etc., was

pressed tightly

against those of fellow

passengers on each side.

We all breathed each

other's breath, except

those lucky enough to be

near an open window.

Dads stacked their kids

on their laps, oldest ones

on the bottom and

toddlers on top.

We learned that the

Mayan city of Tenem

Puente was at its peak

between 600 and 900

AD, although it was

occupied until 1200 AD.

It wasn't discovered by

archaeologists until 1925.

Unfortunately, when we

got there the ruins had

been closed off for the

celebration, so we saw

just the first building which stood opposite a hill of

staircases so common to Mayan sites.  Those stairs make

perfect stadium seating, and as they quickly filled with

hundreds of people I got a chill thinking of

how the ancient Mayans had probably sat

there just like we were now for their own

gatherings over a thousand years ago.

Suddenly a trumpet sounded and some

figures appeared on the building.  The men

wore enormous feather headdresses and

scrambled over the ruin.  An announcer

had talked for a while about the

performance before it began, but I couldn't

quite catch all the details.  The performance

depicted a battle, a killing, and some rituals

related to the death of the victim.  I think I

had expected something mystical involving

the alignment of the setting sun and the

buildings and some fascinating connection

to the Mayan calendar.  But this dance and music celebration had its own special

magic, especially as I scanned the crowd and realized that more than a few among

them may have had ancestors that lived inside these ruined walls when they were first built.

We took the overnight bus

to Tapachula that night, and returned to our sailboat Groovy in

the morning.  The boat, the marina and the world of cruising

suddenly seemed very foreign in those early dawn hours.  The

Tehuantepec had quieted down for a few days and boats

were arriving from Huatulco at the marina hourly.  As we

caught the dock lines for the incoming boats our groggy minds

were still far away, filled with the vibrant images of the jungle.

Soon, however, we would be immersed in reality and thrust

back into modern American life on a long road that eventually

led to northeastern Arizona.

Find Palenque and Comitán on Mexico Maps.