Category Archives: Arts and Culture

Mexico’s Colonial Cities

Just for a moment, put aside your preconceived notion of Mexico. You know the one…beaches, beaches and more beaches, complete with heaping doses of sun, sand and surf. Well, it might be time to expand your cultural horizons and discover the true character of a country steeped in a vast and colorful history.After the conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521, Mexico was the richest and most prized possession for the Spanish Empire. For 300 years Spain not only ruled Mexico, but also worked diligently to model it after the mother country. The result: a Latin country dominated by European ideas, architecture, monuments and art. The modern day Mexico has more standing legacies to this Spanish colonial era than any other country in the world. (In fact, Spanish Catholics built 12,000 churches in Mexico during that time!) This incredible heritage can be experienced in literally hundreds of cities, towns and villages throughout the country, and Oaxaca City, Guadalajara, Merida, and Morelia are certainly at the top of the list

Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) City has always been known as one of Mexico’s premier colonial gems. Framed by the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains 5,000 feet above sea level and 340 miles southeast of Mexico City, Oaxaca City is the perfect combination of modern day comforts and a 3,000-year old past. Though it is a city with more than a half million residents, it still has the cozy feel of a traditional village. The immaculate streets of downtown reflect the exquisite, baroque colonial architecture of the 16th century. An astonishing cathedral, perfectly preserved religious and municipal buildings, fine museums, and unique art galleries round out the city’s magic. The archeological ruins of Mitla and Monte Alban are not to be missed. Reflecting the Mixtec and Zapotec cultures, these ruins are an interesting change from the Maya remains of the Yucatan.

Guadalajara is another of Mexico’s overlooked treasures. It’s the country’s second largest city and is known as the “city of roses.” Extremely sophisticated and well preserved, Guadalajara is a wonderful mixture of parks, fountains, plazas, rustic churches and tree-lined boulevards. In addition to the museums, galleries and other cultural offerings, the shopping here is unsurpassed. The suburbs of Tlaquepaque and Tonala are world famous for native crafts, folk art and traditional fine arts of all kinds.

Rolling green hills, mountain lakes, pine trees and wildflowers hardly fit a description of Mexico. But that is exactly how to describe the immense natural beauty of the city of Morelia. Lush and gorgeous, this city defines 17th and 18th century Spanish architecture. The downtown area is home to masterfully restored buildings, most with soft pink-colored stone and delicate facades. The central square is graceful, refined and surrounded by museums and shopping. Morelia feels something like a storybook and the towns and villages on its outskirts are equally impressive.

Mérida is the capital of the state of Yucatan. European in design, yet undeniably Maya, you’ll find horse drawn carriages to carry visitors down tree-lined boulevards past an enchanting mixture of Spanish and French colonial architecture. Elaborate turn-of-the-century mansions still stand as a reminder of the wealth that began here in the 16th century. The main plaza is framed by huge laurel trees, fantastic colorful shops, and lies adjacent to a towering cathedral. Museums and markets bring the captivating Mayan culture to life and some of the world’s most important archeological sites are within a one hundred-mile radius of the city. This is the perfect gateway to delve into the mystery of Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and several other famous ruins.

Exploring the this magnificent heritage that lies within Mexico’s interior will forever change your perception of the beauty, grandeur and splendor that is at the colonial heart of Latin America. It will be well worth it to experience the real soul of Mexico through these remarkable cities and many others like them.

Canun’s Archaeological History

For most people, especially those on the west coast, Mexico is primarily a beach destination. They often think of fishing, beaches and golf, not history, culture and archeology. But life is very different on the other side of Mexico. Cancun is the premiere resort on the Yucatan Peninsula, and not only does it have all the pleasures and amenities of a Caribbean getaway, but an abundance of archeological relics as well.This perfect combination of centuries-old Mayan pyramids and sleek ultra-modern hotels makes Cancun an intriguing exploration. With over 1200 known sites scattered around Cancun and Merida, the Yucatan has more archeological sites than any other region in the Western Hemisphere. Many of these are world renowned and have been excavated and documented, but new sites are discovered nearly every year.

If don’t want to venture too far from the luxury of your hotel, but want to see some ruins, there are three small but interesting sites in Cancun’s resort zone. El Rey, the largest of the three, overlooks the lagoon near the Caesar Park Hotel; Pok-Ta-Pok is a small temple on Cancun’s golf course, and Yamil Lu’um is another small temple overlooking the Sheraton Hotel. These may pique your interest enough to look further and it is certainly worth your while to explore the biggest and the best -Chichén Itzá.

Chichén Itzá is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating sites in all of Mexico. About two hours by bus west of Cancun, this is one of masterpieces of the Mayan civilization. It is a combination of two cities: one under Mayan rule from the sixth to the tenth century; the other a Toltec-Mayan city that emerged around the year 1000 AD. Under the Toltec rule, the buildings were developed and the city came to life.

At the center of Chichén Itzá is the Castillo. This structure demonstrates a mixture of Toltec and Mayan influences and is known for its cosmological symbolism. As seen in many photographs, its four sides contain 365 steps (one for each day of the solar year), 52 panels (for each year in the Mayan century), and 18 terraces (for the eighteen months in the religious year). There is also an temple inside the Castillo which is accessible via a narrow stairway.

The Mayans at Chichén Itzá must have been intrigued by sports as well as the ancient ball court (framed by carvings) is the largest ever discovered. Also among the ruins is a sacred well, an observatory, the Temple of Warriors, and a nunnery along with numerous other structures. During the fall and spring equinoxes in March and September, the sun’s shadow forms an enormous serpent’s body across the giant staircase of the pyramid. It makes for an amazing sight.

Chichén Itzá is just the beginning, Coba and Tulum are also significant and an easy extension to your beach plans. There are literally hundreds of other sites, each unique, mysterious and steeped in ancient history. Cancun is a good starting point to begin a discovery of these tangible reminders of past civilizations.

Town and Country Tours offers direct, nonstop charters to Cancun. Ask your travel agent for details.

Tourism A to Z

This article is from the July 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
Tourism A to Z
by Jane Onstott

A frequent contributor to the Mexico File, Jane is currently updating the fourth edition of The Insiders’ Guide to San Diego. She lives in San Diego County. A couple of middle-aged housewives resuscitate their rusty high-school Spanish in order to flirt with the cute young waiters bearing icy, handmade margaritas, which prove helpful in loosening the tongue. The waiters are delightfully chatty and attentive – just what the women need to remind themselves that soccer moms and dutiful wives are goddesses too.

Snowbirds and many older travelers have a different agenda. They want to move their home base to a warmer, or maybe just more exotic, place and set up housekeeping for several months or more. They commonly return to the same sites, seeking familiar restaurants, social clubs with Tuesday night bridge games, and friends who return year after year.

A stressed-out business exec dons well-worn tennies and comfortable jeans, jettisoning her $120 patent-leather mules for another sort of mule – well, a burro actually – one that will transport her to the bottom of Chihuahua’s Urique Canyon. She puts her trust in god, the guide, and the burro (not necessarily in that order) and enjoys the sheer thrill of the deep-drop, granite block scenery. At least all decision-making is out of her hands.

People travel for all sorts of different reasons – for adventure, to meet new people, to escape their jobs and to relieve the routine of daily existence. And whether you want to spelunk or just de-funk, there are more options than ever for a holiday in Mexico.

There are small escorted tours, booked ahead from your country of origin. These usually have an English-speaking tour guide and sometimes another person to coordinate travel and accommodation, and local guides are sometimes hired as well. Another option is buying day tours once you arrive at your destination. This gives more flexibility (unless it’s a small city with only one or two tour operators); try to get a recommendation from a fellow traveler or the state or municipal tourism office. Cruises offer an entirely different sort of vacation; and don’t forget the big-bus tours many of us associate with travel to Europe. (“If it’s Tuesday, this must be Tlaquepaque.”) Some families pile into their vans or SUVs and simply hit the road in “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” mode, but most people have limited time and specific goals.

Within the past decade, we’ve been given a whole new range of travel options. Ecotourism, adventure, cultural, and educational tourism, sustainable tourism, and rural tourism are the new buzzwords of the travel industry. By the time you’ve researched all the new options, you really are ready for a cold one by the pool.

Adventure tourism

The term is self-explanatory, and usually involves straying from the crowds and, often, challenging oneself physically. Rock climbing and rappelling, spelunking, cave and sink-hole diving, and mountain bike treks involve greater risk, burn more calories, and are geared for those who want to physically challenge themselves as well as commune with nature. Although by no means limited to the 20-something set, it’s geared to a youthful market and the guides and often the operators tend to be young aficionados of the sport in question.

Not surprisingly, some of Mexico’s premier nature-based excursions are to areas least visited on traditional vacations, including the mountains and gorges of the Sierra Madre Oriental, the lush river valleys of la Huasteca, and the tropical forests of northern Veracruz. Rafting enthusiasts and kayakers take advantage of warm waters and a growing number of adventure tour operators in Veracruz.

Other adventure tours, such as whale watching in Scammon’s Lagoon and Mag Bay, in Baja, offer gratifying encounters with some of nature’s most interesting creatures without much physical effort by the client. Both the more active and passive types of adventure tours may involve overnighting in one-, two- or three-star hotels, hostels, or campsites, although many begin or end in 4- or 5-star hotels in the destination/departure city.

What’s Out There?

Nearly six percent of Mexico’s national lands (30 million acres) enjoy various levels of protection as national parks, biosphere reserves, and other designations administered by federal or state government. National parks generally are most accessible and have the most infrastructure; biosphere reserves may be difficult to find and have limited or no services. Both reward the traveler with beautiful – or just plain strange – landscapes and the opportunity to visit tucked away hamlets little visited by outsiders.

Northern Mexico’s deserts can appear bleak and boring or fascinating and beguiling, depending on your tastes, the amount of water you’re carrying, and your tolerance for dirt and for heat – or in the winter, snappy cold nights and dawns.

Foreboding and far from civilization, El Parque Nacional del Gran Desierto del Pinacate is not the destination for the idly curious. Throughout the moonlike landscape of El Pinacate (named for a local dung beetle), in the great Sonoran Desert, is the largest collection of volcanic craters and cinder cones in the world.

Largest of the steep-sided holes in the ground, Cráter Elegante rises dramatically from the flat desert floor. Measuring about a mile from rim to rim, the chasms walls rise 165 feet in the air. This and the surrounding craters were most likely created when boiling hot magma encountered groundwater – forming explosions that blasted through the earth’s crust. Hundreds of smaller cinder cones and underground lava tubes can also be explored within the 1.8-million acre park. Four-wheel drive is helpful but not required; a high clearance vehicle is a must. Backcountry camping is allowed, and there are two basic campgrounds but no facilities. The best time to visit is spring, when the weather is mild and wildflowers may be in blossom. All visitors must register at the main entrance gate, 32 miles south of the Sonoyta border crossing (at Lukeville, AZ).

If mountain landscapes attract you more than deserts, Mexico has a cluster of climbable peaks southeast of Mexico City. Between the capital and Puebla, the shapely volcano Iztaccíhuatl (“White Woman”) lures many mountaineers to its 17,237-foot (5,254 m) peak. The summit climb is non-technical (which is not the same as “not difficult,” it just means that certain types of equipment are not required!). There are quite a few different routes to the top, and although the peak can be scaled year-round, September through the beginning of May are most recommended. Those who prefer their air laced with oxygen may prefer hiking or picnicking closer to the base of the legendary mountain.

Higher still, Pico de Orizaba (AKA Citlaltépetl, which is Nahuatl for “Star Mountain”) is a classic, cone-shaped snowy peak at 18,871 feet (5,750 m) above sea level. Hearty souls who make it to the top will, on a clear day, spy quite a few other peaks: Malinche, Cofre de Perote, Iztaccíhuatl, and her highly active neighbor, Popocatépetl, which is closed to climbers. Hikers can explore the pine forest trails around Citlaltépetl’s primitive base-camp shelter (accessible only by four-wheel drive). The best months to climb Pico de Orizaba are October through May.

The shifting dunes of glistening gypsum and pristine oases of Reserva de la Biósfera Cuatrocienegas require no strenuous effort to visit. In the little-visited northern state of Coahuila, hundreds of crystalline pools are formed from subterranean aquifers and mineral springs. The individual composition of the springs causes them to have different levels of clarity and color. Only a few pools, and a section of the spring-fed Mezquites River, are open for swimming, but it’s worthwhile to tour as much of the area as possible. The easiest way to visit is to bring your own vehicle and hire a guide in the town of Cuatrociénegas, about 51 miles from the city of Monclova. It’s a relatively short drive to Monclova from the Texas border at Piedras Negras or Nuevo Laredo.

Ecotourism

While the aim of adventure touring is plainly to challenge the body and engage the senses, the goals of “ecotourism” are more obscure, or at least defined with some difficulty. One of two central tenets is involving the community in the traveler’s experience in a meaningful and profitable way. Another is that it protects the environment. For example, a successful ecotourism project might provide a poor community an alternate source of income to environmentally harmful activities such as logging evergreen forests. Locals might guide visitors to caves or waterfalls, lead horseback riding or hiking outings, rent campsites or lodgings with simple eateries, and sell homemade jams, liqueurs, agricultural products, or crafts.

A subsite, so to speak, of ecotourism, rural tourism is the industry’s most recent buzzword. In Mazatlan, tourism officials promote tours to the sleepy town of El Quelite, where tourists visit a rooster breeding farm, a tortilla factory, and a bakery. They are sometimes treated to a pre-Hispanic ball game before sitting down to a typical lunch of grilled meat and made-that-moment tortillas in the home of the town’s doctor and leading citizen, Dr. Marcos Osuna.

More directly involving indigenous communities are a string of “Tourist Yu’u” lodgings in Oaxaca state. Comfortable cabins were built by the government in places like Benito Juárez, a village in a pine forest overlooking the Oaxaca Valley and Santa Ana del Valle, a traditional Zapotec rug-weaving town. Villagers must cooperatively maintain and manage the facilities. The community earns a modest profit and travelers get reasonably priced accommodations in interesting, out-of-the way areas where there are otherwise no lodgings.

Chiapas state has a similar program, with accommodations in places such as Frontera Corozal, where those traveling to the Maya ruins of Yaxchilan can spend the night at community-run Escudo Jaguar. The cabins have wide verandahs with hammocks. Inside there are ceiling fans, screened windows, and mosquito nets. Overlooking the river, the restaurant serves both snacks and full meals.

Many tour operators simply slap the word “ecotourism” on their brochures, with a vague reference to outdoor activities or encounters with locals performing traditional dances or selling crafts. Other operators and environmental groups are working slowly but doggedly to truly involve local communities, to encourage use of solar power, preserve precious water resources, and to educate local entrepreneurs and guides about the benefits genuine ecotourism offers.

Cultural and educational tours

It’s nice to learn something when you travel, and even when someone else does the research. A knowledgeable guide might explain why, for example, the ancient Maya mural at Cacaxtla retains its vivid red, yellow, blue, and black pigments while those at Bonampak, in Chiapas, have faded dramatically.

In Mexico, myth, magic, and superstition are a part of daily life, and this lore – no doubt a combination of fact and fantasy – finds its way into the banter of guides both worldly and humble. As long as you’re not using the info as exclusive research for your doctoral thesis, the tidbits of local lore can are often more entertaining than an excess of historical facts.

That said, I was conducting research last time I visited the ruins of Teotihuacán, north of Mexico City, and was seriously dismayed when my guide informed me that that great city had been razed by the Aztecs, when in reality the former predated the latter by more than 500 years. From that point on, all of the information he gave me was suspect. In any case his primary goal was to usher my Japanese tour-mates and me into a restaurant where he could cool his heels and no doubt receive a free meal. (We refused, insisting he take us to see the ruined apartments of Tepantitla: if we couldn’t learn anything, we might as well see as much as we could.)

Locals aren’t the only ones dispensing misinformation, however. On a recent trip to Cabo, my American horseback riding guide told us there is only one type of iguana, and several other dubious facts. Those who are sticklers for accuracy – delivered in perfect or near-perfect English – may prefer the high-end tours offered by National Geographic and The Smithsonian. These and other university-, museum-, or research-based tour operators are geared to well-heeled travelers willing to don sturdy walking shoes for a bit of indulged adventure. These clients want to see Mexico but particularly value getting accurate, detailed information about the places they visit, as well as comfortable accommodations.

National Geographic ( www.nationalgeographic.com ) usually offers several cultural/educational trips to Mexico each year. This November there’s a photography workshop in the picturesque town of San Miguel de Allende, in Guanajuato state. A photographer with 20-something years shooting for National Geographic will school a small group in the fine art of capturing images on film. Participants pay $2,090 for the 8-day tour, supported by an NG photo editor, a tour leader, and local guides. This year’s Mexico trips through the Smithsonian ( www.smithsonianjourneys.org ) include one to the Copper Canyon and another to the Maya ruins of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. The 13-day Maya civilization trip costs just under $3000. Both NG and Smithsonian tours cover accommodations, most meals, tips, and local transportation, but not international airfare. The main selling point of these tours is the knowledge and experience of their trip leaders. Other cultural and educational tours are run by locals or expats who live and work in Mexico. In Oaxaca, potter Eric Mindling’s Manos de Oaxaca ( www.manos-de-oaxaca.com ) leads participants far off the tourist track. Most of his clients are potters and weavers looking to add traditional forms of artistic expression to their craft. In addition to studying traditional methods of dying, weaving, mask making, and pottery, they’ll experience life in the Mixe or Zapotec villages that they would otherwise have no opportunity to visit. A typical 9-day journey into the mountains, with market visits, weaving or pottery demonstrations, and side trips costs $1,380 (with 5-6 participants, a few hundred less per person with 7-9 pax). Expect rustic lodgings and basic but clean and healthful food while in the mountain hamlets. If it’s cooking that fires your cultural curiosity, study Mexican culinary arts with Susana Trilling, owner of Seasons of My Heart cooking school ( www.seasonsofmyheart.com ) outside Oaxaca, Oaxaca. Susana and her husband Eric own a small ranch in the rolling countryside near the village of San Lorenzo. You’ll scour bustling markets for locally grown ingredients and learn to prepare unusual regional dishes. Trilling now offers regional tours to areas such as Tehuantepec, where women literally run the marketplace (and just about everything else); men till the fields and can often be seen swaying in hammocks in the shade. This ancient culture is fascinating. The women – tall, plump, stately, and proud – drink plenty of beer and dance together on feast days and at parties in their elegant and arresting clothing. The Tehuantepec tour (12 days; $2,300) combines culinary classes with cultural immersion. I’ve mentioned here just a few examples of adventure, educational, and cultural tourism. Many other less-than-traditional tours and trips can be found speaking with other travelers, cruising the web, and in future editions of The Mexico File! Information on more traditional travel, such as cruises or air and hotel packages, is available from most any travel agent as well as on the web. Whether you choose to go alone or in pairs, in a car or on one of Mexico’s comfortable first or deluxe class buses, or on an arranged tour, you can bet that each trip will be an adventure, with surprises both pleasant and exasperating. Just sit back and let that burro lead the way.Things to See, Places to Go

Many of Mexico’s most cherished annual events are well-known and well-publicized: Veracruz’s Carnival, Oaxaca’s Guelaguetza and Radish Festival, Guanajuato’s Festival Cervantino, and many more. Listed below are a smattering of suggestions for destinations a bit off the main road: festivals, workshops, or year-round events that I’ve seen and admired or have been told are worthwhile.

Art and Art Festivals

Each year on the East Cape (best known for the windsurfing), north of La Paz on Baja’s Gulf of California, the Los Barriles Arts Festival (AKA East Cape Festival de Artes) is a wonderful event held the last Sunday in March (sometimes early April). Sponsors of the non-profit event keep entrance fees low and so lure scores of talented artists from all over Baja California Sur. Most are visual artists but over the years there have been crafters too, selling jewelry, pottery, and textiles. Everything must be made by hand by the vendor him- or herself: you’ll find nothing shipped over from Guadalajara. It’s held outdoors on the grounds of the Hotel Palmas de Cortez (tel. 624/141-0050). To really enjoy the festival, stay at least one night at the beachfront hotel, which has a pretty swimming pool and tennis courts. During the festival there are performances, several outdoor bars, plus food vendors.

Birds

In November of this year, the state government of Yucatan and environmental groups such as Pronatura will host the second annual Unite for Birds Festival, in Merida. It’s a week of workshops, social events, exhibits, and birding – more than 400 species can be spotted. Birds are identified in Spanish, Mayan, and English; most but not all of the workshops are conducted in Spanish. For information contact www.ecoyuc.com/toh.html . Charreadas are worthwhile events often overlooked by foreigners visiting Mexico. Almost always held Sundays at noon or in the early afternoon, the charreada is a demonstration of horsemanship inadequately translated as “Mexican rodeo.” Sure, men do amazing things with lassos both on and off their horses. Men compete both individually and in teams, while women’s teams, called escaramuzas compete in highly skilled but less demanding (and dangerous) events. The drama is intense and the beasts are beautiful, as are the riders in their stunning costumes. Most charreadas also feature regional dancing, food, and of course, mariachi music. The custom is deeply rooted in Guadalajara, but prevails throughout the north, central, and Pacific states.Festivals of Music and Performing Arts

Each May Morelia gears up for the annual International Festival of Organ Music. The series of concerts is one of the few times each year the lovely cathedral’s 4,600-pipe organ is used. The 6-day event draws musicians from Latin America, Europe, the United States, and of course, Mexico. Perhaps better known and more widely attended are San Miguel de Allende’s Festival Internacional de Jazz, held in late November, and Cancun’s Festival de Jazz, held for a week in late May. In Mazatlán, the entire month of November is dedicated to cultural events, many held at the renovated, 19th-century Teatro Angela Peralta in the heart of Old Mazatlán. May is the month to enjoy crafts, fine art, regional dancing, and other cultural events during Puerto Vallarta’s Fiestas de Mayo. Meridians in the sweltering state of Yucatán take advantage of the slightly cooler weather in late October and early November to hold their own ambitious cultural fair, Oto o Cultural.

Here is a good resource for researching different types of travel. Some define types of tourism, others have columns, book reviews, and chat groups/postings. Check them out at www.MexicoConnect.com .

Rain in Mexico

This article is from the October 2002 The Mexico File newsletter.

Mexico in the Rainy Season

story and photos by Jane Onstott

What would you think if the wedding invitation you received, printed in elegant calligraphy, said “Rain cancels”?

I recently went to an outdoor wedding reception held in the spacious back yard of a private home. Because my date had to work, we got there several hours after it started, and Jesús, who was starving, expected to find no food. But tray after covered tray contained everything needed for a delicious Mexican banquet. As Jesús chowed down happily, the bride revealed that nearly half the invited guests had been no-shows, scared away by the previous night’s marathon rainstorm.

Although the sky occasionally threatened during the afternoon reception, it was a bright and beautiful day. The garden venue appeared freshly washed and misted, the leaves gleamed, the lawn was well-watered but not wet. In the evening, we toasted the newlyweds in the hot tub under a sky full of stars, discussing how lucky it was that the rain hadn’t ruined the outdoor event. Dining tables ringed the pool of the large back yard; the dance floor was the partially covered patio, and the DJ and bartender both set up in the open air. Rain would have been a disaster, but who expects rain in Southern California in October? No one with an eye for statistics or a front lawn to water.

Your Mexico vacation might not be as important as your wedding day. But a vacation is an important, long-anticipated event that you want to enjoy and make the most of. Maybe that’s why people tend to opt for the predictably dry months – late November through the end of May, when planning trips into Mexico. Rain on your Puerto Vallarta parade? Unthinkable!

Or is it?

Just as rain rinsed the dust from trees and flowers before Liz and Craig’s wedding reception, an afternoon downpour washes a city clean. Even colonial gems like Oaxaca city and San Luis Potosí can experience unpleasant levels of pollution, and a summer shower makes their old historic centers seem positively youthful. Photographers who shudder when they view a flat, gray sky through the viewfinder love the dramatic clouds the rainy season often brings. The clouds and more subdued lighting make an outstanding backdrop for vacation photos.

If a rain shower is a boon in Oaxaca, it’s truly a blessing in smoggy Mexico City. My best trip to the Mexican capital was one August when it rained every afternoon. By about 3 p.m. the rain clouds would begin to bunch in an previously cloudless blue sky. (This was in the late 1980s, and the sky was still sometimes blue.) A slight wind would rise, and by the cocktail hour the heavens would open, dumping several inches of rain in as many hours. My two girlfriends and I would head for the nearest watering hole, shake the rain from our jackets, and duck inside.

Even as we debated packing in one more museum or cultural event before sunset, we remained sensibly glued to our bar stools. As the rain falling outside steamed up the windows, we’d spend a few lazy, unproductive hours chatting and playing dominoes or cards. We gleaned from the bartender and barflies bits of neighborhood trivia. By the time the rain began to let up, we were relaxed, refreshed and – armed with a half-dozen restaurant recommendations – ready to carry on!

Participant Sports Demand a Flexible Itinerary

Another perk of the rainy season are the green, green hills and exuberant vegetation. An emerald backdrop lifts the spirits, while dusty brown hills behind the blue bay of Acapulco and scraggly gray thorn forests outside Mazatlán just seem wrong. During the wet season, corn pushes up through fields of loamy earth, receiving the rain like a gift. Waterfalls and rivers are full and quick, and kayakers and rafters bounce along with bravado.

If your vacation revolves around sports like scuba diving or mountain biking, however, rainy weather can pose more of a challenge. On my recent trip to Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa I took an introductory scuba course. After lessons in the hotel pool about how to breathe underwater and react to various alarming scenarios, I was ready to try my limited skills in the Pacific. A tropical storm off the Colima coast made the ocean rough, however, and despite fair skies in Zihua, visibility was so poor that dive master Miguel insisted I take a rain check.

Missing out on that dive did disappoint me. Another excursion had to be canned because I planned it for the only day that dawned with rain. I wanted to bike to Parque Aztlán, an ecological reserve known for its variety of birds (and ferocious mosquitoes). After that I had plans to snorkel and hike on tiny Ixtapa island, just offshore, and then have lunch at one of a long string of seafood restaurants there. It rained hard all morning, so I could neither bike ride or visit the island. By one o’clock the sun was shining again, but I had appointments scheduled for the afternoon. The average vacationer, however, could have simply done that afternoon what he’d hoped to have done in the morning.

So a flexible attitude and a reasonably open itinerary are big pluses when traveling at this time of year (June through early November). Make the most of sunny days. If the weather is fine when you arrive, or raining lightly or just in the afternoons, don’t put off until later in the week diving, biking, mountain climbing, or an architectural walking tour of the city. On seriously rainy days you can shop, barhop, or visit museums.

Reduced visibility during the rainy season is a problem for divers and snorkelers; however, swimmers will love the warm water temps. On the surface, the ocean in both the Pacific and the Caribbean can reach the 80s in summer and fall, while dipping into the 60s during the coolest, driest months (January and February). High temps make swimming a pleasure, but iffy infrastructure in most coastal cities means that after a heavy rain, significant amounts of sewage finds its ways into the ocean just offshore. For that reason swimming, especially in a closed bay like Zihuatanejo or Acapulco, isn’t recommended then.

You’d think that rainy season and “off season” might be synonymous. But most school kids in Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have their vacations June through August, so that’s when many families travel. Rain or no rain, the coastal resorts are full of families escaping the oppressive humidity and heat of Mexico’s inland regions. Europeans typically travel in August, a big month for Mexico’s coastal resorts. Prices go down in September and October, which is hurricane season. And while the probability of getting hit with a hurricane isn’t that great, names like Pauline and Gilbert, and the havoc these storms have unleashed, tend to discourage vacations along the coast then. There are generally fewer, and less severe, hurricanes along the Pacific than the Caribbean.

Like most everything else, traveling in the rainy season has its pros and cons. There are biting bugs, and the discounts aren’t that deep, but crowds are much fewer and locals in resort towns come out of hiding and head for their favorite discos. Edzná and Mexico’s other archaeological sites look fabulous in the rain. Just pray that you’re not standing on the tallest pyramid when the lightning storm strikes.

Traveling in the rainy season can be wonderful, or it can be a pain. Here are a few tips to insure it’s not the latter.

Shoes. Bring an extra pair, and make sure your primary walking shoes can handle getting really wet. (One friend walked around Acapulco for five days with black feet, as the dye in her only good walking shoes ran.) Tevas and strappy natural leather sandals do well when wet, and dry quickly. You can use a blow dryer to speed up drying time.

Mosquitoes. They tend to come out right just as the rain begins. Bring mossie repellant, and use it liberally.

Worst case scenario. Imagine being stuck in your room or your favorite bar or restaurant for hours if it really really pours. Bring travel-size Scrabble, dice, playing cards, or extra books or magazines. (How about all those New Yorker magazines piled on your coffee table? When you’re done with each issue, pass it along to one of Mexico’s ubiquitous English students.)

Wet T-shirt contest. Remember that in coastal Mexico, rainy season is still the hottest season, so a lightweight, fast-drying wardrobe is recommended. Jeans take twice as long to dry as a pair of light cotton-blend trousers. At lower elevations, bring the lightest, most breathable raincoat you can find. Places at higher elevations, like San Cristóbal de las Casas, Pátzcuaro, and Mexico City do get chilly when it rains.

Umbrella. Most people find that a telescoping umbrella, which fits in a daypack or oversized purse, is less often left behind.

Travel writing doesn’t get much better than this. Morris, who teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College, has also written House Arrest, The Night Sky, and Angels and Aliens: A Journey West.

Los Curanderos

This article is from the February 1996 The Mexico File newsletter.

Los Curanderos : Alternative Health Care in Mexico

There is a widespread belief in Mexico that when a rich person is ill, it is time to go to a doctor. When the rich person is desperately ill, it is time to seek the help of a curandero (or healer). When the poor person is ill, the first alternative is to find a curandero. It is only when the poor person is desperately sick that it is time to go to a doctor.Curanderos, along with brujas (or witches) and espirtualistas (or spiritualists) probably outnumber licensed medical doctors in Mexico and serve as the back-bone of medical care for the average person of Mexico. Their medical lore is rooted in the traditional belief systems of the indigenous population, much as it is in virtually every other primitive” society on the planet. Prior to the advent of modem medicine in the first world, a rich and complex system of rules governing the relation of the person to natural or spiritual forces served to guide the prescription of remedies for health care. Many believe that modern medicine is the stepchild of a long tradition of medicine that derives its power from the curative force of the land and the relation of people to the spiritual world. Most Mexicans, especially those who live in the less developed areas, use herbal remedies and other folk treatments, such as healing massage, with as much confidence as a U.S. citizen might in taking an aspirin.

How does one go about finding a curandero? The best method is simply to ask, for they are everywhere. (Of course, you may arouse suspicion if you allude to searching for someone who practices black magic.. .50 it is helpful to indicate your problem and to ask where you might find “Una persona que same curar.”)

Regular storefront distributors specializing in herbal cures (botanicas), are found in the larger cities, and there is an abundance of sidewalk vendors, usually operating out of a larger store, who are more than willing to talk and to sell their wares. Almost every marketplace has at least one stall and the larger marketplaces will have many. Their herbs and plants are displayed, usually unlabeled, and sometimes they are kept under the counter. In the past it was possible to buy peyote from these stalls, but now that it is illegal, the vendors will usually claim that they don’t have it. Vendors are more than willing to sell their products if the ailment is minor, but because of strong beliefs in black magic many vendors may be leery of discussing their products with foreigners, especially when the stated ailment is of a more serious nature.

The remedies found within the botanicas are usually not described in medical journals, but the formulas have been passed down from generation to generation. Herbalists sometimes conduct examinations using the centuries-old method of iridology, the study of a person’s iris to ascertain certain physical maladies. Most often, all you need to do is to describe your ailment and, if it is simple, you will be given an herbal preparation, usually in the form of a tea.

The botanical tradition is very real and is rooted in a long folkloric history. Modern medicine uses many of the old cures. For example, epazote (or worm-seed) is a powerful cure and preventative agent for intestinal parasites. Toloache (often called locoweed in the United States) contains scopolamine, a common ingredient of sleeping pills. Birth control pills are derived from the hormone progesterone, which is found in the Mexican plant, caheza de negro.

There are powerful arguments for saving both rainforests and the oral traditions of primitive cultures.

One may or may not choose to be skeptical of many of the wares touted by the herbalists and curanderos. Dead hummingbirds, for example, are sold as love amulets. And sand dollars and deer antlers are supposed to bring good luck.

Many plants, however, do have recognized value in addressing physical ailments, especially among those who subscribe to alternative health approaches. For exterior wounds or sore muscles, one may use arnica (or mountain tobacco). For kidney maladies try cola caballo (or horsetail). Raiz de valeriano (valerian root) is commonly used for headaches, anxiety and for sleep. For arthritis, boils and the common cold, many of the herbalists may sell you gobernadora (or creosote bush).

Botanicas today fall under government control. Herbalists are prohibited by law from performing physical examinations and from selling any herbs which have been declared illegal, such as marijuana or peyote. Mexican law calls for botanicas to have health permits and to have licensed chemists examine herbal mixtures to verify that the ingredients are listed accurately on packages. Although many will claim that these herbs can do no harm to the body since they are natural and grown from the land, use this bit of advice with great caution. These herbal remedies are indeed very powerful in some cases. Just look at the Chinese herb, ma huang, which has amphetamine-like qualities, for evidence). But it is the power of these concoctions which can lead to health. R.S.

The Rules of Bullfighting

This article is from the November 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.

The Bullfight, What You Will See
by David Simmonds

At each event, called a corrida, six bulls are fought by three matadors. Each matador fights two bulls for approximately twenty minutes. The most experienced matador will fight the third and the last bull and the least experienced will fight the first and fourth bull.The matador will have the help of five assistants, usually three banderilleros and two picadores. The assistants are usually not dressed as colorfully as the matador. The spectacle starts with a trumpet blast which commences the paseo, or march, of the bullfighters. The second blast precedes the entrance of the bull.

The first person to approach the bull is the chief assistant, who will test the bull’s mood, speed, power and agility. The matador is watching carefully to see how the bull reacts.

The third trumpet signals the arrival of the picadores, on horseback, who carry long pikes with a steel tip which is prevented from penetrating the bull more than four inches by a metal guard. The purpose of this is to weaken the massive tossing muscle between the shoulder blades of the bull. The bull is reduced to carrying his head low at this point.

The crowd determines whether the bull is brave or a coward by the bull’s reaction to the pike. The brave bull will disregard the pain and charge even harder, while the cowardly bull is reluctant to charge again and is roundly booed by the crowd.

The bullring president determines how many picks the bull will receive, usually two or three. The picks are separated by periods of the bull’s being lured away by the banderilleros.

After the fourth trumpet the banderillos will try to place their banderillas in the bull’s withers (the ridge between the bull’s shoulder blades). This will further weaken the bull so that the matador can work more closely with the bull. Up to four pairs of the banderillas (wooden sticks decorated with colored paper) will be placed in the bull.

The fifth trumpet commences the faena, where the matador makes a series of passes with the muleta, a piece of thick red cloth draped over a short stick. First the matador removes his black winged hat and dedicates the death of the bull to the bullring president or to the crowd. The muleta can be held in either the left hand or draped over the espada, the killing sword, which is always held in the right hand. The pass is called the natural in which the muleta is first held in front of the matador to site the bull and is then swung across and away from the matador’s body, taking the bull with it. The matador will continue to perform a number of different passes varying in skill and showmanship until he has complete control over the charging bull.

The next step is to kill the bull. Standing some ten feet from the bull, the matador keeps the bull fixated on the muleta held low in his left hand and aims the espada between the shoulder blades. If the sword goes all the way in, the bull will drop immediately to his knees, dying. If the bull fails to die the matador may take the descabello, a sword with a short cross piece at the end, and stab it into the bull’s neck severing the spinal cord. The bullfight has come to an end.

The president now awards trophies to the matador, depending on his bravery and skill.

The trophy may be one or two ears, the tail and the hoof. The crowd will wave white handkerchiefs to encourage the president to award the trophies, continuing after the award in an attempt to get the matador to throw his trophies into the crowd. The crowd returns the honor by throwing flowers into the ring.

History of Bullfighting

This article is from the November 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.

Spanish Fiesta Brava, A History of Bullfighting

by Mario Carrión

Mario Carrión is a Spanish bullfighter who was born in Sevilla, Spain, in 1934. He provides here a history of the “sport” and his own unique perspective as a bullfighter himself.

A Brief History of Bullfighting

During the eight centuries of the Spanish War of the Reconquest (711-1492 A.D.), the knights, Moors and Christians, weary of killing one another, would occasionally allow themselves a respite; but in order to avoid boredom, and also to release their pugnacious instincts, they would compete in hunting wild-life existing in the Iberian lands. Deer and other equally docile animals were easy prey, and while a cornered bear or boar would occasionally put up a fight, it was never a challenge for such valiant knights. However, the scenario changed every time they faced the Iberian bull. This beautiful and awe-inspiring beast, with its unique noble bravery would, when provoked, rather die fighting than flee — in essence, transforming the hunt into an avid exchange in which the bravest warriors could bring to light their courage. Perhaps a nobleman with an entrepreneurial spirit thought about capturing several of these horned beasts, taking them to the village, and recreating the thrill of the hunt so that the knights could demonstrate their skill and win the admiration of their subjects. Thus, in a remote corner of Medieval Spain, the beginning of what today is the national Spanish spectacle of bullfighting was created. The first historic bullfight, corrida, took place in Vera, Logro o, in 1133, in honor of the coronation of King Alfonso VIII. From that point on, history is full of instances in which kings organized corridas to commemorate important events and to entertain their guests. After the Spanish War of the Reconquest, the celebration of corridas expanded throughout Spain and became the outlet where the noblemen demonstrated the zeal that allowed them to defeat the Moors. Even the Emperor Charles I in Valladolid in 1527, and later King Philip IV took part in the lancing of bulls in the bullfighting arenas, (such as the Plaza Mayor in Madrid), plazas de toros.During the reign of King Philip II, Pope Pius V, appalled at the unconscionable carnage of the bullfights, forbade the practice of the corridas. The people, however, ignored the papal decree and continued to relish the fiesta brava, forcing Pope Gregory VIII to recant the decree, following the advice of the writer and mystic Fray Luis de León, who said “the bullfights are in the blood of the Spanish people, and they cannot be stopped without facing grave consequences.” With the arrival of the French Bourbon dynasty in Spain, the nobility gave up the thrill of the arena for the pleasures of the royal court. As a result, bullfighting was left to the plebeians who in turn enthusiastically took up its practice, and took it to heart as a symbol of something genuinely Spanish.

Bullfighting was transformed and democratized. The squire, on foot, became the master of the arena, today’s matador, and the knight, on horseback, the picador of the present time, undertook the secondary role of helping to show the prowess of the squire who was once his servant. The people, aware of the changing social hierarchy rendered an act of symbolic social justice by allowing Francisco Romero, a man of humble origins, to become the first professional bullfighter of historical significance in 1726. The people transformed Romero from a simple man into a legend whose skills are still praised in popular songs today. In Cossio’s five volume encyclopedia, Los Toros, the most complete history of bullfighting, we find many notable characters who followed in Romero’s footsteps; among them were Rafael Molina, Belmonte and Manolete, three outstanding matadors, who elevated the toreo to great heights. Each introduced changes that converted what once was a primitive and cruel encounter, the Medieval hunt, into the skillful art form which is practiced today in the bullfighting arenas of Spain, France, Portugal, and in the Latin American republics of Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.

Is Bullfighting a Sport?

Let’s look at the nature of this cultural expression so innately Spanish. What is bullfighting? Is it barbarism, a sport rooted in the hunt, or an artistic expression similar to the dance? There have been many different opinions, often colored by the cultural background of the person expressing his or her thoughts. However, most Spanish people agree that it should not be considered a sport. Indeed, the translation of the Spanish term torear into the English word bullfighting, shows the prejudicial view of this event in the Anglo world. A person would have to be insane to fight a 1,200 pound beast. The objective of the bullfight is, in fact, the opposite: to avoid a brutal confrontation by using the human attributes of intelligence, grace, and elegance. In a sport, the important thing is to win; the sport fan is satisfied with the accumulation of points, hits, and records. In bullfighting, there is no scorekeeping. Satisfaction is implicit in the expected triumph of human cunning over brute force; a bullfight fan screams olé not because the matador has won, but because of the manner, the form, the grace, the wit, the dexterity of the torero performing a veronica, a natural, or any other pass with the capote or muleta, as the piece of cloth that he holds in his hand is called. The trophies awarded to the bullfighter are often nothing more than the people’s momentary show of emotion; it is not unusual for a matador who may have only performed one artful move in the entire event to be the true winner of the day. For just as in painting, singing, or dancing, the quality that made that move special cannot be quantified or described. The appreciation of its worth is intuitive.

Nevertheless, based on my reading on the subject, my practical experience as a matador, and my intuition, I define bullfighting as a type of dramatic ballet dance with death. As he would in dancing, the bullfighter must control his movements — maintaining the rhythm, not of music, but of danger. On stage, a faux-pas means an interruption of artistic flow. In the bullfighting arena, a mistake could mean the death of the star of this drama.

Between the bullfighter and the bull there should always be a relationship based on distance. This plastic art form is based on the fact that the matador’s dexterity makes him the creator and master of this relationship, instead of allowing the bull a chance to take command. In theory, this artistic event is simple — the difficulty lies in carrying out the task. The bull, by his very nature, attacks everything that moves. The man, unrelenting, standing tall, exhibiting elegance and poise, should move the cape in such a way that the bull will pursue it without ever catching it, and at the same time, in order to enhance the feeling of danger, he should direct the trajectory of the attacking animal as close to his body as he dares. Not so close, however, that in order to avoid being injured or killed, he should have to briskly step aside, because by doing so he will disturb the fluidity of the movement. Referring to this skill, a Spanish critic of this art form once said: “Anyone can bullfight if he knows the technique, anyone who has courage; the difficulty lies in being able to bullfight like Belmonte or Manolete as if the bulls were made of glass and one were afraid to break them.”