Spanish Study and Guided Travel in Mexico

spanish teacher in Yelapa and Sayulita, Mexico observes the culture

Spring and the Cycle of Life – May 2006


For those Canadians who won’t leave Canada because they love the seasons, I say “bah!”. There are NO seasons in Mexico???? Tell that to those who froze to death this winter. On a happier note, spring in Mexico has all the magic and hormonal jump-start that northerners feel and see. The hills here are a patchwork of colors. The dry season or ‘winter” here leaves the landscape mostly brown or greyish. Leaves drop from deciduous trees. Then, even without a drop of rain, the trees bloom – yellow primavera (first green) and pink amapas, bright orange tulipan, various unknown-to-me yellowish orange blossoming trees that attract the most bees I’ve ever seen – the “bee bush” for lack of a better name.

The soundscape is already congested with bird calls – many more come; some of them Canadian birds heading home, reminding me of my journey to come. Birds I never see frequently, such as the Citreoline trogon which likes to sit obscurely, almost demurely, in the low branches, are openly and quite publicly courting, cooing, bobbing. The female of this species actually presented the male with a downy feather in her bill (or am I just a romanticist?).

Kittens appear everywhere. We were bottle feeding 12 young kittens from 2-5 weeks of age one weekend. People were leaving little boxes of them in the front gate and even throwing them over the vet’s walls, for Gods sake!! Mapa Jeff was feeding and caring for 7 kittens of 3 different litters, and was last seen carrying cat kennels with two adoptees headed for New York. We’re facing a crises of feline proportions. We’re working on catching and neutering them but very tough when most are stray. Any donations for a proper animal trap or someone who can bring one would be very welcome. The vet has somehow “tamed” the explosion of dogs, but cats are a beast of another colour.

Jessica’s Quinciñiera

Every man’s heart skips a beat when a pretty young girl enters the room “She was just 17-een, you know what I mea- een, and the way she looked was way beyond compa-are.” In Mexico, every 15 year old has an opportunity for a “coming out” or coming-of-age party – a quinciñieras from quince (15). To most appearances it’s a “trial” wedding, as it were – without the groom. The “doncella” or maiden is presented to God at a religious ceremony, and to the community dressed as a princess at a dance and meal in her honor.

She is fabulously decked out in ornate dress and jewels and a crown. At the ball, there are various rituals enacted from indigenous and hispanic tradition. The mother changes the shoes of a maid for those of the heels of a woman. The first dance is a waltz with the father. Some exchange a doll carried for a bouquet of roses. The girl is escorted by a troupe of courtiers “ “ who take care of her and accompany her to the dance, usually quite junior to her. At the end of the evening, she opens some of the gifts bought and holds them up for all to see.

This last month in April, Yesica, the beautiful daughter of Felipe, the butcher and rodeo hand, and Cheli, the most popular ice cream vendor, had quite a party. She is a very rare beauty with almost Egyptian or nilotic fine features, long neck and svelte figure. Her entrance to the village was especially grand. She rode in on horseback in full length white gown, hair combed back. You couldn’t miss her; she was followed by a mariachi band, serenading along the way, headed for the church.

This “coming out” can be taken a bit too far since numerous girls are pregnant and a mother before they know what’s going on! The good news is they are not seemingly ostracized, and the community all pitches in to raise that baby. To the surprise of some non-Mexican mothers, your baby may be snatched out of your arms and carried around, played with by all, and its cheeks (“mejillas” or in Mexico “cachetes”) tweaked quite red, all the better if they tend to be plumpish. I remember Tracey‘s baby, Yasmin, who was a 6 month old blonde blue-eyed butterball who they couldn’t keep at their table during dinner hour. All Mexican babies are raised with such love, they grow up very well socialized, happy and with great self-esteem as a result of all this unthwarted love.


There’s a tree of some growing fame that we have here in Yelapa. It’s called capomo (Brosimum alicastrum ). By late winter/ early spring it produces a fruit that has a seed that’s a pure protein, that locals for unknown millenia have roasted and drunk. It was used by the Mayans! It’s a delicious hot drink, much like a coffee in flavor, but NO caffeine. Why drink it? It’s good for you and tastes good. It puts me RIGHT to sleep. I have one at Mimi’s Café on a Friday during the music nights, (sometimes after a couple margaritas, I confess) and I’m out with the lights.

According to Don Strachan, the American writer and marketing maven of Harbin Hotsprings and Yelapa, Yelapa is about the northern border of its range. He’s been nicknamed Don Capomo by the locals, for forming a cooperative and trying to sell it in the US for 3 years. To date his 50 50lb sacks are still sitting at the Tijuana border waiting to clear Customs. The Japanese apparently are looking to corner the market since not only can it be drunk, it can also be used as a flour, given to lactating cows to produce more milk, and used as a vegetable protein in meals. It tastes delicious as a chocolate substitute in cakes, as experienced at the Don’s birthday (“don” is a title reserved for respected elderly gentlemen and doña for women.)

Next time you’re in Yelapa, try some at Mimi’s Café Bazzar, the only place that serves it in town. Her mother-in-law is one of the local distributors. Our upriver home stay mother and friend, Hortencia, is quite the business women, as well. Casa Hortencia, used for her home stay and private rental, is surrounded by this elegant tall dark green evergreen tree, apparently the tallest tree in the Banderas Bay region. Every season, she collects, roasts, grinds and delivers usually several kilos to my school, to introduce students to it, and entice a sale. Many go home with this special, probably illegal, unique hot drink. Probably illegal because it tastes SO good. Add a pinch of cinnamon and a bit of cocoa and it’s extra fine….

Gorgonia’s Tienda

Gorgonia is 69 years old. She owns a little store that isn’t obvious. It’s hidden behind a wall of ever-blooming pointsettas (called nochebuena en español, which literally means good night, and refers to the night before Christmas) and a varied assortment of plants intermingled in the curtain of greenery and scents that one passes to enter “the window” – the window counter that is as far as you get to enter. An ancient balance scale with brass pans tips you off that you’re in a store, along with the hanging wares, one of everything. It’s a tiny store. But the word on the street is that if no store has it, go to Gorgonia’s. I’ve promised to paint a sign “La Tiendita de Gorgonia – Que Tiene Todo” – Gorgonia’s little store that has everything! I’ve put her through many tests with seemingly unbelievable requests. She pulls through for me, almost always. Or she’s just out. She sells baking powder (here called “Royal” – which is the brand I buy at home) and weighs out small amounts, using brass weights to calculate the price. And bakes fantastic nut cookies (gorditas de nuez).

Looking out over all this activity always has been her mother, Flavia, regally positioned at the door, in her chair. I never knew her name until she died, but I always greeted her. I was away for a week, and in that time, quite unexpectedly she had heart failure. It’s always a pity and a surprise when the silent and aged pillars fall. Like every grand old tree, we do sense their absence. The mood was dark at Gorgonia’s. The custom in the village to assist in the grieving process is for everyone to sit at the home of the deceased. Not for one night, but for nine nights. They recite the rosary, nine times over nine nights, called the “novenario”. It’s very consoling for the immediate family to have people sharing their grief. Meals are brought and the family is seldom alone.

I’ve witnessed other novenarios. One in recent years had a most unusual twist to it. On the first night, the villagers plugged up most of the main trail outside Polanco’s house, sitting in chairs they brought. Suddenly, at midnight, a big black bull came seemingly out of nowhere and charged right through the middle of the congregation. Then vanished passing through the village. There are no pastures in the village, or very near, and no one was herding any animals. Polanco wasn’t known to be very religious. The rumour spread quickly that this black bull was the devil himself. “Possibly Polanco returned from the dead as a black bull” some thought. I heard the rumour and asked my very solid rational friend Ramona, of Ramona’s Tacos and Videos, who had witnessed this event. She simply smiled and said – ¿Qué piensas? – “What do you think?”

Huichol Healing

A friend, Anna, who lived in Yelapa for 5 years until recently, received a healing treatment from a Huichol shaman, Julio ….. Carillo. She testifies that he healed the sinus infection and she felt the results as early as mid-treatment. The infection has never recurred. I had had sinusitus for 5 months and was ready to try anything. Julio was available a few days before my departure from Yelapa in late April.

I went to Isabel’s of Casas de Isabel (lovely jungle cabins for rent), where he sat looking very shamanic in a hat hung with dangling beaded figures and a feather hanging from the crown. He confessed he came with a baseball cap, but Isabel said no one would believe he was a shaman dressed like that! He was very young, although already a grandfather, and very kind and gentle. It was very easy to like him.

I told him about my sinuses and mentioned my knee injury of 1.5 years ago – a hyperextension injury from the dangerous sport of baseball. He held his “muwieris”, an empowered wand from which hang eagle feathers, and intoned some incantation that ended in “…ana” at every other word. He held my joints. I felt a heat rise from his hands.

He used a potion of alcohol which had the healing powers of peyote which had soaked in it up until its use. This he rubbed into the knee joint, and I was to follow this up morning and night. The knee did feel strangely “light” – like a pressure had been removed. This sensation continued throughout the day.

After the session, my sinuses felt no different – I was disappointed, but he always advises a follow-up visit. The next day, the obvious facial swelling from the sinuses had decreased somewhat. After a 2nd treatment, with much the same procedure and a bit more money, I was told to use the peyote tincture until leaving the country, since it would be unlikely that I could take it home with me.

I do not believe what happened. The pain in that knee vanished. It was like it had been peeled away. The results were fairly immediate. I remarked throughout that day and the next, that there was little pain or none. I even walked up the 200 stairs to Casa Milagros twice in one day without hesitation. Recovery continued while I packed and hauled bags and parcels up and down hills, as I prepared to leave. The journey home was effortless and painless, and even pleasant due to exceptionally great neighbours on the plane. The immigration officials ignored my smuggled peyote tincture. I’d like to say I’m cured. I’m not. But I REALLY DID experience immediate and appreciable relief from the knee pain that lasted for several days. Believe it or not. I’d like to have a scientific explanation for that event! My sinuses as well feel MUCH better, however, a change to the dry climate of home, might account for that.

Isabel has collaborated with an anthropologist, Peter R. Collings and produced two books: The Huichol of Mexico and The Huichol of Mexico: The Shaman. Both are attractive black and white soft cover picture books with simple descriptions based on over 40 years of contact and work done by the authors.

Medical Class and Donations and Stretcher

The medical clinic in Yelapa operates on a shoestring from a limited supply of pharmaceuticals, with one paid doctor and another interning doctor fresh out of University of Guadalajara. No payment is received for services in-clinic. Visitors/ patients can make a donation for services or for charity. Supplies always run out, and the doctors have been doing a marvellous job without even some of the rudimentary tools – a laryngoscope, opthalmoscope, etc.

Since the first medical course offered by YESI in April of 2005, a subsequent 2 courses and 6 total students (Heather McDonald, Barbara Wyr, Mary Barquest, Chris Stabler, Cailin Doyle and Mary Ellen Biggerstaff), and other donors have raised $250 for the medical clinic. This went to the purchase of a stretcher or “backboard” (una camilla) with some left over. Patients like my friend, Jules, with a broken femur joint to the hip, have been strapped into lawn chairs, and various others have been harnessed to wacky wilderness ware to get them to the clinic or to Puerto Vallarta. We’re now looking to have one of the carpenters make a mini version of this one for children.

In addition, 3 glucometers, 2 AMBU (artificial respiration suport) and a huge duffel bag of bandages and dressings were delivered directly by students to the clinic (Muchísimas gracias to Laura O‘Connell, Bill Gorishek, and Carol Wood). The local community also responded recently to the need and we raised another $500 from a dinner. An oxgen tank and various other essentials were purchased. Donations are being accepted which the doctors hope to use to buy an electrocardiogram, a fetal heart monitor, the outstanding scopes as mentioned, and to manufacture the children’s stretcher.

San Sebastian del Oeste – Mountain Miracle

By late April as the coast heats up, I dream of the cool mountain air. I miss mountains. For a prairie girl, this is unusual, but true. Last summer I headed to the fabled San Sebastian del Oeste, 70 kms east of Puerto Vallarta in the high Sierra Madre mountain range. Fabled because of its once highly urban and decadent society that numbered 30,000 people, brought to this remote mountain area to mine silver. For years I’ve been trying to get there. In late July 2005 I rented a VW bug (un bocho, they call them) and with student Jennie, we headed for an adventure. It had rained and I heard there might be some slides. Well, we were intrepid. At least until the first derrumbe (slide). Although it wasn’t impassable, it was for a bocho. We fled back to the coast.

This late April I again rented a bocho with the same intent. The paved road was clear and the only frightening stretch was the steep descent to the valley floor and climb back up. The bridge to replace this stretch of daredevilry is soon to open. The stories of the OLD road are horrific. On some turns, the public bus would have to stop, back up, turn a bit more, etc and negotiate the corner in several stages. Since much of the worst part was one lane, if a bus and truck met, someone had to back up or down until they came to a passable stretch. I salute the pioneers and drivers of these mountains!

San Sebastian oozes history. It was settled as a silver mining town in 1608, with a peak size of 30,000 people. Now it has 600. There are huertos de frutales “orchards of fruit trees”, dripping with peaches, and almost more avocados than all of Mexico can eat. Well, maybe not. Locals don’t even use them, although I did see them making green mango candy squares. The orchards are remnants of the past regal estates that once were bordered by meter high cobble fences. The village square is surrounded by pillared outdoor verandahs around the central zocalo “village park”. Mount Bufa – named for the sound of the wind hitting the peak – lords above the town like a canine of a wily predator. The roads are all cobble. Even the poor quality sand and gravel highway is being cobbled to capture and maintain that historic feel, whereas all other roads are being paved.

One old man I watched was bent over in the hot mid day sun, with a pick in hand, digging out the old stones around misplaced or missing ones. I had time to kill and it appeared he must have too. He was removing and re-seating each one. Painstakingly. He seemed unnerved as the garbage truck lumbered close and the few cars in the square drove around him. He didn’t wear the identifying uniform of a civic worker, and seemed highly under-equipped and somewhat over-aged to be the best man for the job. However, “do what you do, do well” and with patience he restored those sections of the square that probably had long needed replacing. He had that look on his face, “I’m going to fix that road if it’s the last thing I do!” Fortunately, it wasn’t.

I lucked into an acquaintance from Yelapa who was venturing higher by 4 wheel drive, another 3000 ft to Real Alto “ royal high” or a real high! And it was. We visited the old chapel where an original oil painting of La Virgen del Rosario – the Virgin of the Rosary painted in 1794 is still hung. The original Virgin statue was brought from Spain. The story goes the mule carrying this precious cargo from Mexico City fell down a ravine. One version is – by divine intervention the mule was stopped by a tree before crashing to its death, the locals hauled it up and the Virgin was unscathed. The second version, the mule was lost in this deep ravine and no search party could find it. However, weeks later it made its own way to Real Alto, delivered its sacred load and died on the spot. Today exactly here, a HUGE white rose bush grows with thousands of flowers. There is never a time when there are NOT roses blooming on this bush to honour this deed. ¿ Un milagro? a miracle?

Perhaps due to the sacredness of Real Alto (population 55 people), the local “moonshine” or raicilla is as good or better than some of the best tequila I have ever sipped (different cactus used). That’s right, sipped, not shot back with disgust, to get that burning acrid taste out of your mouth. In Yelapa local raicilla smells like kerosene and tastes like smoke and cigarette ashes. There’s nothing to commend it except it is pure and will wire you like nothing else does. HERE’S a raicilla that will change my opinion forever. The incomparable local tequila was SO pure and delicious that it was already bought by an exclusive buyer before it came from the still. The locals here had great reason to look proud. It was a great day in Real Alto.

Summer Classes at San Sebastian

I had a dual purpose in visiting San Sebastian – enjoyment of the mountains and this lovely quaint traditional village, and a reconnaissance for a cool mountain location in the hot summers for my Spanish school. So my mission WAS successful. I have established a summer language “camp”. The manager at the Posada del Sol on the main square, Jesus or Chui (choo-ee), is our “agent” in town and very pleased to help and facilitate the program. It will be run in August and possibly longer based on demand, on the same proven Monday to Friday class schedule as in Yelapa. (Classes meanwhile will continue in Yelapa under the capable hands of Mimi and other assistants.)

The “home stay” program will be modified for this first summer. Students will stay in the Posada, one student per room with private bath, and staff of the Posada will prepare meals, and spend time talking with students during the meals and during free time. Chui is not only hospitable, but a very gregarious tour guide and has legions of legends to share. Chica (a name which means young woman) keeps the place looking fabulous and has time to “platicar – to chat” between tasks especially while embroidering – the Mexican equivalent to meditation. I’m sure the students will appreciate this very distinct mountain community and enjoy exploring its many cobble paths, making new friends, and speaking a new language as much as I will.

Please check out the details on the Course Page and tell a friend, or better yet, come join us for a week or two. Due to late notice, we’ll take applications right until the last week in July! Returning students get 20% off at this location.

Reflections on Another Year

Well another school year is over for the winter. It’s always surprising to me how quickly students CAN learn to speak. I was a unversity student with lots of words and grammar rules, but no real language skills before I began working in Mexico, 20 years ago. I almost fainted the first time a room of people turned to me with a question.

I applaud ALL of you who are brave enough to reduce your world of communication to the 3 year old level, and motivated enough to come to a tropical paradise and be able to sit in a chair for 3 hours daily. AND ask for homework. AND even do it! Most in a few weeks can engage in an appropriate exchange with the locals AND even translate for toursts (as Marie and Lane excitedly announced on day #9 after doggedly working early mornings, with afternoons drinking piña coladas on the beach). The joyous thing about Yelapa is that you CAN work when it’s possible, find anyone to practice with, and then spend vacation time hiking, swimming, chatting, drinking.

I’m also always surprised at how much more I learn, every year. What’s “proper” and what’s said – at least in Mexico. As Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas) said in the movie of the same name “We don’t speak Spanish here, we speak Mexicano!!” And that was in 1910 or so. Imagine its evolution since.

New words appear out of nowhere – the Mexican equivalents (official and slang) for some of the many Spanish words I’ve already learned but elsewhere. New translations of local traditions. Rosita has been an invaluable aid and friend, with ever a saying from the mountains – hay un dicho – “there’s a saying” she starts, followed by a wise adage. The birthday song “Las Mañanitas” “the little mornings” that I try to teach most students so they can sing at parties, has several versions, she says. One that is sung in the mornings, one in the afternoons, and one in the night “la anochecita”. The last one is very romantic – si el sereno de la esquina, me quisiera hacer favor, de apagar su linternita, mientras que pasa mi amor – “if the nightwatchman on the corner, would like to do me a favor, of putting out his lantern, while my love passes by” and –Qué bonita mañanita como que quiere llover, así estaba la mañana, cuando te empecé a querer – “How pretty the morning as if it wants to rain, as it was on the morning, when I began to love you.” Now THAT’s some birthday song!! What a pity that in Yelapa it’s becoming more common place to sing the English birthday song – Feliz cumpleaños a ti, Feliz cumpleaños a ti, etc. “Happy Birthday to you, etc.” – The sentiment is lovely, but the song almost a durge of 3 notes and only 5 words.

I’m back in Canada now. It’s a huge shock, at first. It’s amazing that too soon we forget the reality of “cold”. I’m one to complain about it in Mexico. Imagine that! The coldest night we had in the last 6 months in Mexico, was many degrees warmer than the warmest day in Canada those first weeks in May! Then as I stare out my office at the white peaked mountains and the thick barked Douglas fir trees in my forest, I realize that I am quickly slipping back into this reality. Mexico becomes a vague dream after 2 weeks. I forget how much I want to be back there. July summer classes can’t come too soon! Hasta pronto!!

check out the school and adventures in Yelapa at

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