This article is from the February 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
Magic and Realism Collide in Colima

by Jane Onstott

A freelance writer, editor, and translator, Jane Onstott has written numerous articles for The Mexico File.

I drank the sweet coffee in just a few gulps, anxious for my psychic reading to begin. Across the table, a well-known Colima vidente then peered into my demitasse with an expert if not entirely enthusiastic air, swirling the coffee grounds into shapes and runes full of meaning only to her. I learned that 2 is my lucky number, and that I was about to embark on a short trip. My guardian angel complained that I don’t listen to nearly enough music. According to the shapes seen within the dregs of coffee, I suffer from extreme indifference. Four distinct “Vs” (for victory) seemed to hold out a ray of hope. It was indistinct, but she thought she saw a marriage knot.

La se ora began to call out the letters seen in my cup; I was to stop her when she said the first letter of the name of a person I wanted to know about, a person whose fate was strongly linked to mine. She pronounced “W” and looked at me expectantly; I looked blankly back. X. E. G. M. R. C. Z. (Whose name starts with Z?) J. L. M. D. S. (My sister’s name is Susan, but I couldn’t think of an important issue we needed to resolve. We talk every day; I invite myself to dinner at least once a week.) I felt bad just sitting there, but refused to pick a letter simply to stop the painful process.

Dressed in a comfortable-looking polyester pantsuit, the matronly psychic continued naming letters until, convinced of my obtuseness (and nearing the end of the alphabet), she spotted with obvious relief an “F” implying felicidad (happiness) in my near future and then a “P” which mysteriously stood for “éxito,” or success. Although disappointed that there was no evidence of a tall, dark, and handsome man straddling my path, I clung to those few shreds of good news.

I’m not one of those skeptics who try to sniff out and expose charlatans. I believe in everything from telepathy (among humans, and between people and animals) to traveling up and out of one’s body on a slender silver thread. I believe in witches (I know several good ones), signs and omens, patterns and fate, good luck and bad. Maybe the se ora was having an off day, or my vibe was terribly weak.

Like a transitory stream of sunlight on an otherwise cold, gray day, the psychic’s predictions of success and happiness were fleeting. My reading soon continued its initial downward spiral. La se ora found an unfortunate “fuga de dinero”: money was leaking steadily out of my life. Well, she’s gotten that right. I handed over 200 pesos for the consultation feeling quite the fool. To her credit, she did ask me if everything was to my liking, if I’d benefitted from the reading. Too polite or uptight to tell her otherwise, I accepted my “money leak” and assured her all was well.

Afterwards I sat in the car for hours waiting for my companion to emerge from the psychic’s den: a modern, two-story house near the outskirts of town. The clairvoyant and her second client obviously clicked. When Lawrence came out of the house several hours later, he and the woman exchanged powerful hugs. She shot my way a lopsided grin and a sad little shake of her head, as if to say, “Poor dear, I did what I could.”

Soon my old friend and I were sharing our stories over a meal at La Pasta, an excellent Italian restaurant in Colima’s Vistahermosa neighborhood. Rounded, rough walls screamed “The Flintstones,” as did the exposed, rough wood lintel above the main door. The seafood penne in cream sauce was delicious; the generous glass of red wine relaxed me after my disappointing psychic reading. Our corner booth, surrounded on either side with generous cascades of fake ivy, felt as safe and isolated as a womb.

Magical Gardens, Haunted Houses

Looking for a simple, peaceful existence, Lawrence moved several years ago from Oaxaca to Colima and later to Suchitlán, about 15 minutes outside the city. He chose the village for its tranquillity and for the small house he rents there, surrounded by a large garden so wonderful and mysterious it seems almost enchanted.

Not all of Colima is so peaceful. The city is said to be haunted by a great number of ghosts, some quite boisterous and even occasionally destructive. The specters inhabit new constructions as well as old. According to Lawrence, Colima has a haunted hospital, a café perpetually plagued by phantoms – even the red light district is haunted. The region is also known for its large number of witches, practitioners of both black magic and white. Hidden far from prying eyes is an inscribed stone where shamans are said to transform themselves into animals.

Some say Colima is located near a portal to other planes of existence. One thing is certain, it’s an area of intense volcanic and seismic activity. Looming over the landscape just north of the capital, Volcán de Colima (also known as Volcán de Fuego, or Volcano of Fire) is North America’s most active volcano.

Tremors and earthquakes are common, and many of the city’s last remaining adobes cracked or crumbled in the recent quake (see sidebar). Because of the constant shakeups, Colima has few colonial structures, despite being Mexico’s third oldest city – predated only by Veracruz and Mexico City. When a devastating earthquake in 1941 destroyed entire city blocks, several of these were turned into picturesque parks shaded by legions of tropical trees and bushes, showy flowers, and colorful, fast-growing vines. At a little over 1500 feet above sea level, Colima enjoys a wonderful climate where almost anything grows. According to local legend, fairies and trolls hang out in higuera trees, while the massive parrota, a type of ceiba, is thought to be imbued with magical qualities.

A Change of Venue

Along with my best friend, Terry, I’d been traveling on the coast for a week before arriving in Colima. Lawrence scooped the two of us up at the bus station and took us immediately to one of his favorite weekend retreats: El Jacal de San Antonio. The carne asada may be tough, but one doesn’t come for the food. We got to the open-sided restaurant, built on a series of large platforms, late in the day, and were happy to find a table with a bird’s-eye view of Colima’s sultry volcano, which obliged us by belching plumes and rings of white and gray smoke.

Terry and I spent the first few nights in an adequate but unexciting hotel in town. On the third night, however, we were transported like lottery winners or instant heiresses to the most glamorous of all possible retreats: Mahakua Resort, at the old Hacienda de San Antonio. Located about 20 miles outside Colima city, this is a super high-end property managed by Hong Kong-based Aman Resorts ( The hacienda was built in the midst of the subtropical forest by German immigrant Arnold Vogel, in the 19th century. Initially the coffee plantation thrived, but when subsequent generations allowed the family’s fortune to wane, the property fell into disrepair. It was later restored as a fabulous private home; today it is a luxurious country inn.

After touring the hacienda’s original chapel, comfortable library, and gardens (modeled after those of the Alcázar, in Spain), my friend and I had a truly delicious late lunch by the pool. (Meals and drinks are of course included in the room rate: $900 a night.) Changing into our suits, we immediately dove into the enormous rectangular pool. As the sun set and the full moon rose, we floated on our backs, listening to birds call and stir in the surrounding trees.

Reluctantly Ter and I left the pool to arrive in time for cocktails in the sumptuous library. With wet hair and unremarkable outfits, we mingled like little lost bohemians among the other guests, all well coifed, impeccably dressed, and obviously wealthy. Despite our lack of sophistication, manager Henry Gray and the guests were pleasant, interested in our stories, and not the least bit snooty.

After night fell, Mr. Gray led Terry and me outside to witness an awesome display. Fiery sparks were shooting out the top of Volcán de Fuego, while molten lava flowed in slow motion down one side, glowing eerily red against the black night.

Terry and I skipped the formal dinner in lieu of hanging out on the rooftop terrace under a full-blown meteor shower. When the night turned chilly we raced back to our room, lighting a fire in the large stone fireplace. We lolled on the beautiful bed reading magazines, and took turns soaking in the enormous spa tub. Leaving open the French doors to our tiny, second-story balcony, we kept an eye on the volcano’s incandescent show of sparks and red-hot lava.

One of the most entertaining things to do while visiting Colima is to experience the zona mágica. About seven miles outside the city is a spot in the road that appears to defy Newton’s Law. I’ve driven over it in a cab and in a private car, each time with the same result. When the driver gets to the bottom of a significant dip in the road, he kills the engine or puts the car in neutral. The vehicle then proceeds at a brisk pace, and entirely on its own volition – uphill! Even if you don’t have a car, it’s worth taking a cab to experience the amazing phenomenon.

Lazy Days Down on the Beach

Before landing in magical Colima, Terry and I spent some time in Manzanillo and Barra de Navidad. Much less touristy than most of Mexico’s resorts, Manzanillo may be an acquired taste, like coffee and beer. The twin towns of Santiago and Manzanillo, each at one end of a bay of the same name, are regular Mexican towns, with no glamour or glitz. In Manzanillo Bay, huge tankers and container ships dock at the massive port, giving it a very industrial look. I shopped for souvenirs downtown; mostly there were T-shirts and shot glasses, objects made of shells, and other ticky-tack things. The government is trumpeting it’s downtown redevelopment project, but despite a gigantic new teal-colored sailfish statue, the nearly treeless main plaza feels sterile. It’s undoubtedly more lively at night, when families stroll around the perimeter licking ice cream cones and munching popcorn.

Many of Manzanillo’s admirers are Mexicans from the even warmer interior. Americans and Canadians who like this destination usually choose an all-inclusive resort and stay put, enjoying the beach and the fact that they can order nachos and frosty margaritas from lounge chairs by the pool. Karmina Palace and Hotel Sierra are two high-rise, all-inclusive hotels offering multiple restaurants and pools, beach access, and water toys. Both are found on the Santiago Peninsula, a spit of land that separates the twin bays, and the place where the prettiest hotels and rental condos are found.

We had a couple of good meals and nights out in Manzanillo. The friendly waiters at Limbo, near the entrance to the Santiago Peninsula and the Mantaraya golf course, served us tender steaks on the second-story balcony. The menu’s variety was impressive but not overwhelming; the portions were huge. Portions were also huge at El Bigotes, on the main drag, Blvd. Costero. Between four people, we ordered an appetizer, mixed seafood ceviche, that was so big I desperately wanted to cancel my entrée. The ambiance of the beachfront restaurant is decidedly simple; there’s really nothing to distract the eye except the waves crashing on the beach and the food on the table. After our meal, we returned down the block to Toscana, where we’d started the evening with a cocktail, to dance off our dinner on the outdoor patio restaurant. The electric trio there plays oldies after 8 pm nightly.

Back to Basics

More my style is laid back Barra de Navidad, a little more than an hour’s drive north of Manzanillo. The “stinky little sleeping village,” as one guide book author reportedly called it (as opposed to the “sleepy little fishing village” it had once been) may have been more pristine in previous years, but for a first-timer such as me, it looked downright charming. Little shops lined the two main streets, and there were nicer things to buy here than in either Colima or Manzanillo. No one was ever in a hurry. Service of course was slower than slow, but since we had nowhere particular to go, it hardly mattered. In my friend’s favorite bar, Piper Lover’s, the waiter moved tables and rounded up several sheepish-looking men for us when we wanted to dance, and when I wanted to play pool, that same waiter took me on while keeping one eye on his customers. (That must be why I beat him three games out of four.) An itinerant gringo in shorts and flip-flops played electric guitar, covering just about every songwriter from the 60s and 70s before subjecting us to a few of his own compositions.

There’s not much to do in Barra but wander from restaurant to bar to beach and back. Days slip by in a lazy march that’s barely perceptible. The sun is hot, the beer reasonably cold, the ocean warm. The long, brown beach is unremarkable except for its length. Except at high tide, you can walk it for miles, all the way to the neighboring town of San Patricio Melaque. Barra is actually a long sandbar about six blocks wide. On one side you have the open ocean, on the other a small inlet. Just inside a breakwater, the opulent Grand Bay Hotel perches on a tiny island like a tiara on a turtle’s back. Less than a mile offshore, it’s about a million miles away, in terms of luxury, from anything you see in Barra. While touring the property, Terry spotted her hero Brett Boone, of the Seattle Mariners, in his bathing trunks. Noting the security guards around the three-level pool, I had to physically restrain her from seeking the second baseman’s autograph or, worse yet, following him, fully clothed, down the twisting water slide.

Barra is the place to lose track of time for a week, eat fresh fish and french fries, drink beer and play pool. Out there in that incredible marble palace, Brett Boone undoubtedly had no idea what he was missing.

Within a month of my visit to Colima, the area suffered a devastating earthquake. See the following for details.

Colima’s Deadly Quake

As in a nightmare, buildings on both sides of the street shudder and sway before cracking in half or collapsing in piles. Roofs fall in and windows break while roaring, shrieking, and tearing sounds rend the air. Huge cracks appear in the street, cars crash into one another, utility poles sway and snap. And then the lights go out.

On the evening of January 22, 2003, a rolling, pitching earthquake left 25 people dead in the state of Colima. The 7.6-magnitude quake was centered just offshore, and this tiny state on the Pacific coast of Mexico suffered the most extensive damage. Hardest hit was the capital, about 300 miles west of Mexico City. Of the more than 300 people who received medical treatment, most were injured by collapsing walls and roofs of old adobe houses.

An old friend of mine, Lawrence tutors English conversation classes in Colima. “I was teaching a private student when about 8 in the evening, the table where we were sitting bounced into the air,” Lawrence told me. “I was able to make it to the front door of the house and was almost knocked to my knees by the combination of shaking and bouncing. Two seconds later, we were plunged into darkness. I groped my way out onto the street in the dark to my car, which I held onto keep from falling. After about 30 seconds of shaking and bouncing there was an indescribable sensation of falling. When we hit bottom the next thing I remember was the horrific sound of the houses falling over.”

Nearly 2,000 buildings in the state were totally destroyed, thousands more were seriously damaged. There were no reports of major damage to hotels in the state’s most touristic town, Manzanillo. Home to Las Hadas resort, Manzanillo is one of Mexico’s major ports as well as a winter home for Canadian and U.S. snowbirds.

In downtown Colima, however, entire city blocks overflowed with the debris of ruined houses. Within a few days, members of the Mexican military had begun cleanup efforts. While aftershocks of 3.9 to 5.8 magnitude continued to shake buildings and rattle nerves, professors from the University of Colima’s School of Architecture began assessing damage and advising occupants regarding the structural integrity of their homes.

Homeowners will eventually receive compensation based on both their economic situation and the extent of their loss. The equivalent of about $5,700,000 USD is available through state and federal disaster funds for the reconstruction of damaged structures. The Mexican government will handle both the cost and coordination of reconstructing historic monuments, including 14 churches.

According to an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, nearly half of an estimated 50,000 Colima natives working in the United States reside in Southern California. As soon as the news of the disaster reached them, the displaced Colimenses began accumulating donations for those in need. The states of Puebla, Hidalgo, Michoacán, Jalisco and Chihuahua have offered aid, while the United States Ambassador has pledged $50,000 USD. Individuals wanting to donate to disaster victims can do so by making direct deposits in Mexico through Banamex, or in the United States, through Citibank.

Banamex (Citibank)

Account #02030063018

Branch: San Fernando 203

In the name of: Gobierno del Estado de Colima (Colima State Government)

For deposits made outside Mexico, mention the following code: ABBA/B.N.MXMXMMMT1