Spanish Study and Guided Travel in Mexico

spanish teacher in Yelapa and Sayulita, Mexico observes the culture

Mid-summer’s Tropical Experience – Sept 2006


August 22, 2006

The summer of 2005 I played and worked in Yelapa for three weeks, when July was one of the coolest, friendliest on record. This summer, friends tell me it was the hottest in at least twenty five years. It started with no rain for over 8 months, and the humidity built up daily as the air and ocean heated up. There was no relief with the much-needed rains until late in July. I now know hot humid. But for all the challenges of the climate, it is quite exceptionally beautiful in the summer. Part 1 is the previous entry. Read on.. for Part 2 of my summer in Yelapa.

Las Lluvias Torrenciales (yoo-vias to-ren-sial-es) – The Torrential Rains

There is now lots of rain. The highest daily rainfall I recorded so far has been 60 mm (about 2.5 inches). The waterfalls in the village deserves now to be the major tourist destination that it is. They ride horses from the beach here daily. When I arrived on the 6th of July, the restaurant owners sent their well-practiced adult sons to climb up the rocks to the top of the approximately 50 ft falls, where they channeled more of the water from the upper pools to cause a temporary greater flow over the lip. The falls would otherwise have been somewhat of a disappointment. NOW there’s NO need for “padding” the falls. We’ve had classes here daily, and enjoyed the fresh cool water in the pool, and the very low-key non-commercialized restaurant at its edge.

Espiridion, or Piri, the gray-haired patriarch of the family who runs the restaurant, has not changed it much over the last 20 years, since I first came here. Most others would have made it a tourist trap, but to his credit he’s kept the restaurant operation small and very family-run. All the family stop in to eat. We practice Spanish with the family over the remains of their daily fish meal during – la comida – the big mid-day meal. Lunch at noon and supper at 6 pm don’t register as important eating occasions. They eat big mid-day and light, if anything later in the evening.

A large group of us rode and walked to – Las Cascadas -the upper waterfalls one hour up the Tuito River with Alejandro Diaz, our naturalist guide. There was more water than I’ve ever seen in the falls. It wasn’t possible to back into the falls and behind the curtain of water, as we’ve always been able to do. It was still lots of fun for all, especially the young kids, Leonora and Sam, who had lots of help swimming upstream.

One Gringo’s Rainhat

Not many tourists and very very few “resident” gringos live in Yelapa in the summer. Chris Moses, artist, loves the summers, contrary to some gringos who find life here hot and dull. He grew up in Los Angeles but lived until last summer’s hurricane in New Orleans, and now resides in Alabama. He misses the beaches of the west coast.

His hat tells a story of ingenuity in the tropical rains. He uses Cuban cigar labels, easily acquired here, and Pacifico beer labels, even more easily acquired, weaves them in the gaps in his straw hat, and lacquers the works. Is it art or eccentricity?

La Virgen de Abundancia

Although I had no students who wanted to study in the cool, tall, green mountains of the Sierra Madres at San Sebastian this summer, I did make the trip a few times myself. It’s a short 70 km from Vallarta. It has colonial architecture and is distinctly Mexican devoid of foreigners.

At the church, there was a mango tree full of pendulous lush mangos. To see them reminded me of my friend, Maria, who was told 20 years ago that she was a – mango madura – “ripe mango” by a Mexican admirer of all women. The mangos here in Yelapa are infected with some bug or fungus that make the mangos fall off before they’re ripe. I have a yard full of fallen guavas and mangos most of the year, not edible and full of insects. So to see this tree in San Sebastian begging to be eaten was too much of a temptation. But of course everything hung too high to be picked. I scavenged below it. No luck.

After a cruise around the main square, I came back to take a photo of a statue of the Virgen, with the mangos in the background. “La Virgen de Abunduncia” the Virgen of Abundance, I dubbed her. Just as I was about to leave, she threw a huge mango from the tree at my feet. Well, that’s my imagination, but the mango was real.

Cakes – Tortas or Pasteles

I had bought a recipe book of cakes or pasteles, that I thought might give Rosita, the town cake baker, some new ideas. She baked a small “test” cake one night. It was flavourful, but dry – definitely not her usual magic. We met again at Rosita’s for another celebration. It was the end of the week, and the first Friday of their new satellite dish – any excuse for a cake. I recalled a low-fat low-sugar pineapple yogurt upside down cake Rosita made last summer. – Dicho y hecho – (dee-cho ee ay-cho) Said and done. She redeemed herself as I knew she would when left to her own instincts. We ate many, many large pieces.

I ordered a “Tres Leches Cake” from Jaime at Pollo Bollo. It’s a rich treat, often served at weddings. Tres leches means “three milks”. It’s a 5-egg white cake which is, after baking and cooling, soaked in 3 cups of 3 different milks (whole milk or evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and cream). Then topped with another cup of whipped cream. Add a bit of rum for fun!

The origin is uncertain, the end result divine! Although it’s very popular in Nicaragua, where some believe it originated, the recipe might have come from a label of evaporated milk. Or was it a local tradition usurped and made popular by good old Carnation? An easy recipe found at:

The group around the cake grew at every house I visited. We all had at least 2 pieces, I quit counting at three. It was a nice send off to one family study group – the Holmgren parents, Patti and Jorge, hijos “sons and daughters”, Travis and Terra, and friends, Nan and Ina, from Seattle, and Merrianne from Montreal. We sang lots of songs, ate lots of great food, even studied some Spanish and I waved them off loaded down with calories for the boat voyage out with “buen viaje” (boo-en vee-ah-hay) – have a good trip.

Now in Spanish a cake is “una torta” except in Mexico. Here a torta is a sandwich made with a “bolillo” or bread roll. In Mexico, a cake is “un pastel”, which elsewhere is a pie. Here pie is “pay”. We’re witnesses and culprits to the Spanglish that evolves here.


One of my students, Ina, arrived with a spider phobia. She was ready to check out first day. But she was working to overcome this fear. Her partner wore a huge spider t-shirt. I thought it best NOT to show her the spider in my kitchen cabinet with a body that measure 3 inches long, with a leg span of 12 inches!! I’ve been told recently that this “scorpion spider” which kills scorpions, in not truly a spider at all, but a relative of the crab. I’ve never heard word of them biting humans.

I have no phobias but I freaked upon seeing a very wooly, thick large spider on my bathroom floor. I instantly killed it with a broom. I thought it was a Tarantula. Wrong – they have smooth bodies. Mine had enough “fur” on its big body to make a Canadian trap-happy. I left it out to identify later, but the fire ants got to it first. I had my chance again Friday night as I prepared supper. As I stepped toward the radio an even larger one blocked my path. The 2nd spider fatality of the week. This one I stretched out and photographed. It was unbelievably big, the length of a Bic lighter. I could see how one might develop a phobia.

Knitting in Mexico

They can embroider and crochet up a mean doily or a border on a tortilla cover cloth, and even an enticing see-through bikini. But when Christina arrived with a simple knit pattern for a scarf and worked some simple stitches with her needles, they were totally perplexed. It would be an interesting project for any of my future students to bring some yarn and needles to teach them to make some winter sweaters for kids, which really ARE needed here for the chilly December nights.

The Mother of all Storms- maybe – August 15, 2006

A really big storm moved through last night after 3 days without any rain. I got up to the raucous sound of explosions and a light show that would easily put any man-made pyrotechnic event to shame. I draped plastic over my new door to the balcony, and put a wash basin where the one known leak was from this balcony to my downstairs desk. I surveyed the downstairs and placed a few more pots. Miette, the cat, was very wide-eyed and edgey, so I held her through the loudest thunder. I convinced her that the safest place in a thunderstorm was a dry bed, and without fuss we headed under the dry cotton sheets.

I turned off the lights, lay my head down, and “SPLAT” big rain drops smacked me hard on the forehead. The palapa roof could not handle the volume of water of this storm. A meter of the crown above the bed was dripping steadily, and solid thick drops fell, splashed on the bed, on the bed supports above, slid down the electric wiring, and dripped horrifyingly from the bare light bulb. So much for my shelter from the storm. I raced for more tubs and plastic sheets to drape over the bed.

When I stemmed the tide, I joined the cat for a comforting snack – in my case a taco from Ramona’s movie “theater” – a double car-port sized concrete bunker where locals can view two movies a night. In my minimal night wear for this heat, I was soon a target for the tiniest no-see-ums or “gegenes” (hay-hay-nes). In the column of light below the bulb (not still dripping water, gracias a Dios), there were hundreds of these microscopic vampires hovering above the table. Draping a pareo (pa-ray-o) or shawl, around my shoulders, pulling up my knees into my shroud, I sat and read Joseph Conrad’s the Heart of Darkness. I could see how someone could be driven to madness in the depths of the jungle. There’s one summer insect, a cicada perhaps, that cheeeeeerps SO loudly, that the eardrum buzzes. It hurts. Can you imagine thousands of them at once?

Palapa Insulation

I finally broke through the roof of my house. Really, it was the side of the upstairs topanco or loft. The palm leave roof is very thick, so it’s a great insulator and resistent for many years of tropical rains (except for the crown, see above). Each rib of each compound palm leave is split,and then each rib is stacked tight against each other. The leaves of one row go right, the leaves of the next row go left, etc. So that there’s great breathability, and yet immense resistance and insulation. It took an hour to saw through with a hacksaw – not easily destroyed.

From my new door, I have a little patio on the bathroom roof, with stars to count when I can’t sleep, whales and birds to watch during the day. The raccoons haven’t yet discovered the new playground. Miette, the cat, is still surprised to have a new door, since for years she’s been jumping up on the “window” and walking on a narrow rib ledge to jump down onto it.

Gato Amarillo (Yellow Cat) or “Extra”

I’ve had a cat living on my patio for over four years. She arrived when I first opened the school on the hill. Maulliando (mow-yan-do)– or mewing mucho (a lot!). I had many cats in Canada and didn’t want another. I tried placing her to many new homes, but she always made her way back. I reluctantly named her, not wanting to form an attachment. Extra. She has sat in on every class and should be the best trained Spanish student. She certainly has the best attendance record. When I go away for a few months at a time, she suffers terribly. No one else will chop up pork chops, or feed her tuna, or homemade eggs and brown rice and she doesn’t like dry cat food. This spring she refused the fresh fish and chicken Irma and Angel fed her! She was a skeleton when I returned.

Enter the hero – the new travelling vet, Roberto Alvarado, comes almost daily from Vallarta. He has been filling the gap left by Pamela, who is working in Vallarta for the summer. I told him my starving summer cat dilemna and he graciously adopted her. He named her Ripley, after a horror movie about aliens. Those of you who know Extra might wonder about the comparison. She’s charming, playful and very suitable for adoption. She’s always had some skin or other condition to make it tough to export her. So Extra fans will be happy to hear she’s getting top of the line Science Diet food and the best of care. She even lives with a puppy who she has trained to stay in line.

Hiking Adventures – A LONG Short-Cut to Las Juntas y Los Veranos

I’ve been visiting some of the local communities nearby these last few weeks. One is Las Juntas y Los Veranos. Las Juntas are the union of two rivers. Los Veranos are the alluvial plains along a river. The word actually means summer. It doesn’t exist as a geographical term in any dictionary. It’s another traditional word that Rosita and other locals who grew up in these mountains seem to know. And coincidentally lots of local Mexicans spend much of their summers cooling off in the river here. I approached Ramon, my friend and YESI guide, about a hiking trip from Yelapa. He claimed it would take about 4 hours. I added another hour at least to his estimate to be safe.

Ramon and I and Beverly headed out early. She’s another intrepid Canadian who has lived in the wilderness of northern Canada (I don’t mean 1 hour north of Whistler, either!) with boat-in access only, eating moose meat as a staple. The trip to Las Juntas is incredibly beautiful and not difficult since it’s mostly gently rolling river banks and only one stretch of uphill. There are endless crossings of wonderfully cool rivers to soak in. We saw chicle trees, the tree which produces the sap used to make rubber, and saw evidence of past tapping or “milking” of the tree. No surprise where “chiclet” comes from. All went well, very well, even the one uphill climb to the height of land between here and there. But the hours wore on. After we broke down a few times and lay in various pools and snacked on all combined food energy treats, we finally made it to Las Juntas and Los Veranos – 7.5 hours later. Not a casual hike.

Bev, who I credit as having the only pair of truly happy feet I’ve ever seen, walked the whole way without shoes. Ramon and I put shoes on for the long stretches of upland. But these were very few and far between. I have not been toughening up my feet. At day’s end, my feet were very sensitive, mostly at the tips of the toes and the heel,where my feet and shoes collided against each other. I might go totally descalzo “shoeless” the next time. I soaked my feet in hot water, poured the rest over me and massaged arnica cream into my knees. I happily survived with great memories. Ramon chose an hour massage from Bev over cash as payment for his guiding services.

The Orcones River in Las Juntas offers several great swimming holes, jungle surrounding, the town has a few nice restaurants, and two canopy tours or “zip” lines. For those of you not familiar, these are cables hung from platforms suspended from the trees, fairly high up. They were developed to do tree canopy research by biologists in Costa Rica. The recreational use was quickly marketed and there are now several in Vallarta. “Canopy Tours de Los Veranos” has one cable that’s 1/4 mile (about 400 m) and at least 30 m above the river bottom. Muy emocionante. Very exciting. The designer who laid out the course was an extreme skiier and it’s built with thrills.

I’m not a thrill seeker. The course was fun and exciting, and handled with such expertise and precise timing by the professional guides that we were finished before I had any time for doubts. Christina and I enjoyed the experience, including the handsome guides, and followed it with play time with the numerous monkeys in their “petting” zoo at the restaurant afterwards. The river is super swimming and basking in the sun. A great place to spend the day.

Yes, we have Frogs and Crabs

I had one student arrive during a power failure. She switched accommodation thinking to go for the “luxury” at the Hotel Lagunita. She booked out of Yelapa on the first boat the next morning, with a brief explanatory note; “There are frog and crabs in Yelapa”. Yes, there are frogs. The toads are on the road. They aren’t a disincentive to most people. I arrived home the other night to have something hop onto a garbage bag on the floor. I pulled the bag, something hopped on me. I jumped and threw the garbage bag. The cat raced for the exit. The greenest bug-eyed frog flew onto my bright blue wooden chair and hung there for most of the night, mistaken in his concepts of camouflage.

The Crab Migration

The onset of the fierce summer rains bring on the crab migration to the sea. The many thousands that annually head downhill didn’t appear this year; some say because of the long dry spell. To hear the story told by some summer visitors, the crabs cover everything – the roads, the walls of your house, and drop off of buildings. Apparently it’s a Hitchcock movie to be made.

This year it didn’t happen, but there are certainly still crabs everywhere. Daily I chase at least one from the sink with my soup spoon. One morning I went to grab a hair clip from inside the mosquito net where I line them up nightly – a red, blue and a brown one. I realized too late the brown one was a crab, waving its angry tentacles at me. I knocked it off its grasp of the net, and it fell on the sleeping cat, Miette, who raced out of the safe shelter looking back at her – poca loca – “little bit crazy” human companion.

Fireworks and Thunder

For years I’ve run from loud noise. Yelapa’s perfect – no cars, and other than roosters, barking dogs and mules and loud Mexican music occasionally, all of which is balanced with the masking noise of surf, insect and bird calls. EXCEPT for the “cuetes” (coo-ay-tes) or firecrackers. Actually, they’re rocket bombs that violently explode. They’re meant to be alarming. The Priest is the culprit. Five years ago I first heard the announcement for morning mass and thought we were in the middle of a war zone. One cuete, after another. The priest was relentless. At Christmas and New Years, we were treated to a half dozen or more.

Everyone’s cats and dogs vanished into the hills. It’s common to see – Recompensa – or Reward signs posted for lost “gringo” animals. This could be a fund-raising technique if the priest wanted to get more church building money. Scare the dogs, find the dogs, collect reward money.

In 2001 the priest and I conflicted on “this charming Mexican tradition”. My cat, Miette, fled to the hills and didn’t come back for 5 days and nights. I went out searching day and night, until I found her – very weak and sick with a respiratory infection that was fortunately cured. I subsequently went to the priest and told him – no es un acto de Dios, es un acto de terrorismo! – It’s not an Act of God, it’s an act of Terrorism. He was surprisingly unsurprised by my announcement. – Tienes que respetar las tradiciones de México– You have to respect the traditions of Mexico, he said. The battle went on for the season. If people didn’t respond to the two rounds of about 300 peals of the church bells, I didn’t think they really wanted to be in church. But he insisted the rockets were needed to wake up those accustomed to the bells. I promised I’d buy an alarm clock for everyone in the village. I was desperate. Some villagers actually said they were not bothered by the noise, a few admitted they liked it.

My objections were even discussed at a Friday evening mass. The priest’s intentions were good obviously – he wanted people in the church, especially the young teenagers and young adults. Drugs were becoming a problem and he wanted them to rally around the church. He even brought a live religious rock bank and had them play one weekend in the church – full volume. At least he didn’t use the rockets that weekend!

My situation was discussed by the dear old ladies in town. Eva at the little “hardware odds and ends” next door to the church would greet me with – Juanita, va a estar cuetes hoy– “Jeannie, there’s going to be rocket bombs today,” she’d taunt me and laugh. And I’d go ballistic. All the ladies downtown then knew how to goad me. I learned to laugh about begrudgingly.

Now other to town have begun to react. There’s a 10 day Virgen of Guadalupe fiesta here in May that is non-stop morning cuetes from 4:30 a.m. on and at various times throughout the day. By all accounts it’s not a restful period. Tourists stay away in droves.

This summer I was witness to some wonderfully amazing electrical storms. The thunder was so loud, my cat of course wanted to run. But it came from everywhere at once. There was no clear direction for an escape. I’ve come to believe that perhaps the Mexican love of loud noise (this extends to much more than cuetes) comes from their indigenous roots and their close ties to nature. The amazing thundering noises of the storms, imitated by the thundering noises of the drums, imitated by the thundering noise of the cuetes.

So, today I read in the Puerto Vallarta Tribune – “Mexico Wins International Fireworks Festival in Vancouver, Canada”. My home town hosts a competition of pyrotechnic wizards “The Celebration of Light” . This year it was Italy, China, the Czec Republic and Mexico. One evening per week for 30 minutes, a country lights up the skies, and sets the show to music. It’s phenomenal. Some might wonder how China, the inventor of dynamite might possibly lose to Mexico. I personally am not surprised at a Mexican victory – all the priests were probably behind it!

Election Results

New developments daily on the Mexican election results. The votes from over half of the election polling stations are being recounted. Many of them are in Mexico City, which has about a third of the population of the nation. Lopez Obrador and his Partido Revolucionario Democratico is staging a one day manifestacion (ma-nee-fes-ta-tion) or protest demonstration for the 16th of September – Mexican Independence Day. Many Mexicans are digusted with electoral fraud, many don’t want any trouble. Some locals I have consulted want Felipe Calderon under PAN to rule, as was decreed after the initial count, simply to allow the country to move forward. My friend, Piri, who runs the Cascadas Restaurant in town, says that Mexicans have grown used to democracy under 6 years of PAN leadership and now will not accept fraud. It’s a growing nation of people and I look forward to see how they resolve the split situation. What’s very interesting is that they are NOT accepting a stolen election.

A lesson learned.

Hope to see you for the next winter season beginning November. Mimi’s teaching classes for YESI school until then. I’m headed back to Canada to lie in the first snowfield in the alpine I find.

Please review the Photos on the Photo Album and check out the Spanish School Courses and Activities at:

Photo Album Mid-summer’s Tropical Experience




















































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