Spanish Study and Guided Travel in Mexico

spanish teacher in Yelapa and Sayulita, Mexico observes the culture

Interlude – Yelapa and Beyond – May 2007

Interlude – Yelapa and Beyond

Spring Review and Ruminations

The winter season has flown by, as does much of my time here in Mexico.

It was a wonderful season of very inspired and inspiring students. But it was time to come out of my absorption for teaching Spanish and for Yelapa. I realized how much I also want to travel to other parts of Mexico. This year I booked some weeks away. I went to San Sebastian, my nearest mountain retreat that is a 70 km drive way. Another few days were spent in “magical” Pátzcuaro in Michoacan., or, as they bill it, the alma or soul of Mexico. This was soon after followed by two weeks there again, and I’m now on the verge of spending a whole month there, for some further travels and adventures.

May’s gone, June’s here. It’s usually very hot and dry, with no breezes. This year it’s been marvelous, cool evenings and mornings and hot mid-day with breezes throughout.. I hear from my friends in Canada that they’re still waiting for enough consecutive warm days to be able to plant their gardens. As I watch a Hermit hummingbird with beautiful long white tail feeding on a hot pink hibiscus, I reflect on how much I’ll miss this tropical haven. It’s wonderful to see how everything has slowed down .Yelapa transforms from a little village busied by tourist demands to a Mexican pueblo resurfacing to its former leisurely pace, with time enough to watch life go by. That’s the pace I enjoy the most, time to sit and just talk about the passing of a burro, or remark on the growth of the newest baby.

Huichol Easter

I booked time to go to the Huichol (wee-chole) homeland for their Easter or Semana Santa celebrations. After years of getting to know Alejandro, the visiting Huichol artist, and buying his beaded carvings, jewelry and yarn art pictures, and learning some of the customs and various words in their language, virárika, I knew it was time to meet his people and explore their homelands of steep mountain canyons and flat tablelands or mesas. I was all the more thrilled to fly by small plane. We arrived at the ceremonial center of San Andres de Cohamiate, northwest of Guadalajara, at an altitutde of 6,200 ft in the Sierra Madre mountains. This story will be told in a later Blog, as it might have addendum at least if not a sequel soon.

· Note to Reader – the accent mark in Spanish, in Virárika and in Purépechan does not change the sound of the vowel it is on, but instead puts stress on that syllable (eg. vi- RA-ri-ka; poo-RE-pe-chan).

Magical Pátzcuaro (PATScooa-ro)


Twenty two years ago I lobbied hard to escape the pollution of Mexico City, where I had been working on environmental impact studies, funded by the Canadian government. I was given a chance to work five hours west of Mexico City on the inception of a program to restore quality of the environment in the watershed of Pátzcuaro Lake in the state of Michoacán (mechoacán is nahuatl spoken by the Aztecs for “place of fish or fishermen”). It was an ambitious program and still is.

The lake was the gathering place for the Purépechan natives, who at the time of Spanish conquest were fishers and farmers. They fought against invading barbarians, and against the Aztecs who fought to extend their kingdom, but were never conquered. The Purépechans were very refined in their social organization, some forms remaining today in religious celebrations, public services such as joint community building. Their knowledge of the environment included a soil classification system more advanced than that used today by international foundations. They used copper for work tools not common at their time. Their artisans were organized under chiefs, and even today each town specializes in a craft.

When Cortez arrived, the Purepechan king, Zuanga, denied the Aztecs the help requested to defeat the Spanish. When Zuanga realized his mistake, later accounts report he either drowned himself or died of smallpox. Shortly after the conquest, a Catholic priest named Vasco del Quiroga, became a greatly admired benefactor and guide for the natives who were previously abused and enslaved by the governing Spanish. He built hospitals and organized the already well-trained artisans by town to produce crafts and arts, that today are still produced.

Pátzcuaro Revisited

I arrived for two days in March and was happy to find the two matrons, Antonia y Marister, still running their Posada de Salud (Inn of Health). They are now nearing 80 years of age, still actively running the show and living up to the name for their hotel! Since I had never had the opportunity to explore the region when working there, I now jumped into taxis and plagued the drivers with questions and commands to discover some of the many towns, with their special craft or trade. I was exhilarated but exhausted when I left and knew I’d be back one day.

Well six weeks later I and the traveling cat, Miette, were refugees from the cohetes or cuetes (bottle rockets or firecrackers) of Yelapa’s celebation of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. We were headed to Guanajuato, to the north of Michoacan. Instead Patzcuaro drew me back as familiar territory, and was close to Guanajuato for a side trip.

I also had planned to do some studies of latinamerican literature and those troubling aspects of Spanish grammar that the books don’t ever explain, and each native speaker, when asked, has a different answer. Well, I didn’t ever go to Guanajuato. I stayed in Patzcuaro, happy with my studies and constantly stimulated with the town and the villages and their artisans around the lake. In two weeks I spoke English with one person. Quite a contrast from the language use on the coast.

A Village A Day

Each day I went somewhere. It took much of an evening to figure out which towns had what crafts and art forms, and much of a morning practicing how to say them – try Erongarícuaro or Cucuchucho or Ucazanáztacua (oo-ca-sa- nas-ta-kwa)!!!”.

Taxi drivers are inexpensive guides in Patzcuaro, and the first ride was to the famous copper crafts town of Santa Clara del Cobre only 24 kms away. Here their historic use of copper has been put to great economic gain. Everything almost can be made of copper. From a key chain, mirror frame, candle holder, huge bathtub, to roofs. You can even go to their workshops to view them in action.

One Monday I went only 10 kilometers to Tócuaro, the town of wood carvers. The town seemed very closed behind high gates and concrete barriers, with no evidence of life. I guess artists like their privacy. I called through one fenced yard and met Jaime and his daughter, Maricela, son-in-law, Freddy, and his wife – all of whom were carving figures of ducks from reeds stacked, bound and dried. Since I have a real bond with marshes and ducks as a former biologist who used to count them in duck surveys, of course, I bought one. I had plans to return with gift ducks for everyone.

I was then directed to another door, marked with a carved moon. Gustavo Orta lived here, Jaime’s brother. He’s a master carver, although it took 20 years away from his home town, and a dream of a tree on a mountain at home that wouldn’t leave him, to figure this out. He’s now well renowned for his masks featured in various magazines such as Mexico Desconocido (June 2005), with a history of expositions in the United States. He works with one piece of wood, often copalito, and can carve complex figures usually representing the devil, a popular theme in Purehepechan celebrations, the dark side with which to contrast the good, life and death. Gustavo likes to speak of the spiritual message and researches ancient traditions. It was clear he felt deeply what he does. It made it all the easier to connect with the artwork. My favorite mask was the devil, horned, with an owl representing protection and snakes surrounding the devil’s head. His prices are very reasonable considering his skills and probable collector’s price in the U.S.

I knocked on another door, just about any one of which would likely be a carver. This one yielded Felipe Horta. No relation to Gustavo. He was very voluble and had many works. Every new question resulted in another corner of the room being presented and new masks uncovered. He started with some older original versions, and the later more advanced work that seemed to show a drastic leap in the quality of work he created. He, like Gustavo, has sold in the United States and is no stranger to self-promotion.  He paints the masks with intricate detailing, like car art and tattoo design. His spiritual connection was not as apparent as with Gustavo, but his works were skilled, blended with modern tastes. I left both wondering how to carry any purchases home by bus.

Another village, Jarácuaro, 2 kilometers down the road from Tócuaro, used to be an island. Sadly, they petitioned for a causeway to be built to link them with the lakeshore. Someone did, and poorly. The road was built right on top of several of the main spring sources (manantiales) of water for the lake. The lake levels dropped drastically. The lake is now a marsh, but the plus is that it’s one of the best places to watch birds. I saw several “firsts” here, such as the glossy ibis – large, deep velvet maroon coloured heron family member and tons of water- walking jacanas – a brown and yellow “coot-like” bird that walks on very long-toed feet on the lily pads over the water

The government sold the newly created land to the farmers, possibly another plus. However, they have been allowed to unwisely hack back the reeds and have plowed right to the water’s edge. The lack of vegetation along the edge of the lake allows sediments eroded by water from throughout the upper levels to flow directly into the lake. The lake is filling with sediments and drying up. These sediments are full of toxins from farm chemical use (fertilizers, etc.) and other sources. The many fish that once thrived here have been drastically reduced in number.

Economically the village is doing well, since it’s served by local transit now every 10 min. bringing tourists and business It’s renown for making sombreros. I didn’t have to walk far to find the first home “factory”. A family business owned by Gloria, with a showroom of hundreds of hats in more styles than I could ever have imagined existed. There were the traditional cowboy hats of the western movies, the traditional Mexican cowboy hat. I found a new hat that all the Mexicans in Yelapa are coveting and people follow me in Puerto Vallarta just to ask where I bought my hat!!.

Gloria showed me how they braid thin strips of palm leave into very long braids. These are then sewn together in very narrow concentric circles or rings. The more circles, the higher cost of production and price. She even modeled a decadent summer fun hat for ladies that I can’t imagine many seriously using since its very wide brim hung down to one’s chest, unless pinned up. I of course left wondering how I could buy a car load and get them to Canada for sale. More curious was the fact that I hadn’t seen very many of these styles before on the coast, and resolved to help with their marketing if possible. Down the street I met María who made nothing but strips of palm used by the hat makers. The townsfolk were very friendly and there was lots of life in the streets.

One day I spent visiting the ruins of the former cities of the Purehepechan empire – Ahuitzio (a-wee-tsee-o) and Tzintzuntzan (tseen-tsoon-tsan). The first ruler of the natives of this area established Pátzcuaro as the seat of the kingdom. He subdivided the rule to his nephews to three zones: Pátzcuaro (shortened from Zacapu Hamúcutin Pátzcuaro (where the stones are found at the entrance of paradise) , Ihuatzio (Place of Coyotes) and Tzintzuntzan (place of the hummingbirds). The rulers of the latter two shifted the ruling center to their towns and built temples.

Ihuatzio is on a flat plane with great views of the lake and surrounding hills. I went with Rogelio, a very personable and knowledgeable taxi driver. It was his favorite ruin site, since it was more expansive and less touristy. We were the only ones there, except for the admissions attendant. He worked out of a small cabin, which had a cedar shade tile roof. The first evidence of this type of roofing I’ve seen in Mexico. Coming from the cedar-infested wet west coast of Canada, I wondered if there was some equivalent wood here that was similarly resistant to bugs and waterproof like cedar. It is used in many wooden cabin in the region.

The site was first occupied by nahuatl-speaking indigenous peoples, then from 1200 to1522 occupied by the Purepechans. Only a small portion of the total 50 ha site has been unearthed, primarily the Plaza of Arms. Today it consists of two 50 ft monuments of rectangular shape. Like many other temple sites it was used to concentrate soldiers, as a meeting place for the tribes in grand assemblies, for games and ceremonies, and some suggest as an astronomical observatory.

Tzintzuntzan was the ruling site of the Purepechan empire at the time of conquest. It’s located only 17 km away from Patzcuaro along the lake, less than 10 kms from Ihuatzio. It is located on an steeply banked hill with views of most of the lakeshore. It is constructed with five circular mounds budded off a long rectangular structure, that stretches a few hundred meters in length. Today there’s a nice museum with information available. The several sources of information I checked vary their views on whether the royals inhabited, whether priests were buried, whether sacrifices were performed. More digging required to unearth the truth?

Both sites are impressive. Ihuatzio has a feel of being more of an outpost in a rugged wind-swept environment. Tzintzuntzan has a more cultured setting suggestive of easier living conditions in a more hospitable environment.

Outside Ihuatzio I stopped the taxi to take a picture of nopal cactuses in full bloom, although this was the driest of seasons. Nearby sat two men looking more like something the wind blew against the stone fences than campesinos (farmers) surveying their fields. They presented themselves with the most beautiful names from antiquity. Cresencio and Magdaleno. They were also very simply beautiful in their manner. Magdaleno tried out a word or two in several languages he had picked up from tourist contact. A little German, only a bit less French than I knew, some well pronounced English, and of course fluent Purepechan and easily understood Spanish. They sat waiting for the rain, to sew the seeds in the fields, and by the looks of them, for a good scrub in the tub. They were relics and the sense of where they came from, who they were, what they represented is etched deeply in my being. It was like I had visited 100 years past with the knowledge, priviledge and comfort of the present. We shared some sense of the collective spirit.

Another day I set out in the VW van public transport or “combis” for an afternoon to the same area to explore the village of Ihuatzio and get to the lakeshore. As the numbers of passengers dwindled, I explained my objective and the driver proposed for a little more money he would be my guide and take me further north along the lake to where one could get to the lakeshore. Most of it was privately owned and not accessible. José Alfredo Pablo Silvestre (“wild” the last name translates) came from Cucuchucho (koo-koo-choo-cho), the last public stop along the lake shore. The name came from cucucheo, the name for the rounded stones which are hollowed out and used to water the cows. On closer inspection, I believe these were the layers of usually igneous rocks that concentrate around some mineral or ore concentrate – like rings of an onion. They fall off.

We drove a bit further north to Ucazanaztacua (Oo- ka-sa- nas-ta-kwa), where a public path led steeply down the banks to the lake edge where cows were given access for drinking. It was not the wild marsh or lovely lake for dipping I had hoped for. The neighbour had chopped reeds to the edge to give his cows a few more feet of possibly edible swamp grass. José Alfredo spoke with great love for the lakeside life and history of his people. He showed me the gray water treatment plant built on a pilot basis in his town by government. One stage used marsh plants that filtered the polluted water and restored it to a higher quality. More of the region needs to be assisted to build such structures.

He spoke of other development problems – the recent invasion of foreigners and nationals who have bought up areas of the lakeshore and built mansions. This was not the “magic” of Pátzcuaro that people came looking for. His town had solved this problem. No one was allowed to sell to an outsider. One man needed money desperately and did. The buyer was ex-militia from Mexico. He brought in machines. The people stopped him from progressing any further. He was given his money back, and the precedent was reversed. The villagers want to maintain the village lands for their families in the form that they collectively choose. I truly hope they can keep this form of socially conscious land planning alive and keep the low-life politicians from selling quality of life in exchange for higher economic value.

Volcán de Paricutín – There’s a Volcano in the Cornfield

I read a children’s story about a farmer in a little village in Mexico, who complained that nothing ever changed. One day while plowing the field with an arado or plow and ox, the plow got stuck in a hole, and then sunk into it as the hole grew, with smoke billowing out. A volcano was growing. This story turns out to be true. The man was Dionisio Pulido and the village was San Salvador Paricutín, about 70 km northwest of Pátzcuaro. I visited the nearest village of Angahuan. As I stepped off the bus, a small wiry old man with a chewed up hat and a dirty white bandage wrapped diagonally over his head covering his left eye, asked me if I needed some horses. He was a guide. I asked if he remembered the volcano. Luck was with me. He was 13 then, and remembered all the details like it was yesterday. Francisco Lazaro Ramirez is now 76 years old. Aside from the knock on the head and an injured eye from a roof caving in on him, he had the vigor of a man many decades younger. I opted to walk to the edge of the lava flow with him. I’m a quick walker, but I was scurrying to keep up.

The smoke from the volcano began at 3 p.m. on February 20, 1943. By 9 p.m. fire was shooting upward and the lava began to flow. Both the village of Paricutín (pop. 40) and the larger San Juan Parangarícutiro (pop. 2000) had to evacuate. By 1952 the lava field had covered 20 sq km. Amazing that there was not a single death.

The lava flow to the north stopped just after it buried the cathedral in San Juan. We covered the distance there in a half hour. It was an eerie spectacle. The church date of 1618 remains visible, and one tower complete with bell, and there’s still access to the altar. Many left offerings and flowers here. The volcano itself is visible in the distance, at least a two hour walk away. There’s a new San Juan (San Juan Nuevo) now located to the south, or due west of Uruapan.

We walked back to town, him still striding along, me still scurrying but fatigued. We watched the village women, all in full long skirts, rebosos (shawls) over their heads, with several kids in tow, headed to the church, all carrying flowers. In the month of May, they pay homage to Guadalupe, the patron saint, with daily flower offerings. There are cabins for rent at the edge of town en route to the volcano where mosaic tile murals depict the Virgen Mary wearing the same local reboso (shawl) as the local women.

We parted just in time for me to catch the last bus. I paid him well for his generous time and history, and left him my new hat. I hope when you get there, he’ll still be there to greet you. The chance is very good. He told me of an aunt who reached 136 years, and another in the family attained 145 years. Sounds like a place where legends are made!

This was a glimpse of a region rich in history and a very unique culture, even for Mexico, full of uniqueness. I am headed there for the month of June to continue to study, explore, meet new people and to write a book. The weather on the coast is truly marvelous, with breezes to cool the days, which are normally very hot this time of year. I hate to leave, but am drawn on by all those things in life I want to do. I’m extending again my return ticket to Canada for another month or so.

In this blog, I’d also like to introduce two features that I hope to run continually – Artist at Work and Yelapa’s Elders.

Artist at Work

Deimoz Rojas Nuñez is 40 years old, born in Santiago, Chile and a resident of Mexico for 32 years, mostly D.F. (day – e- fay for District Federal), and six years here. He was trained in private schools and in art colleges in Mexico City. As a sculptor, he has works spread throughout Yelapa’s gardens and terraces. He has a rare talent to make found objects like rusted machine parts into innovative art. In recent years, he’s turned to painting, with wonderful results. He’s had shows in Taos, New Mexico and Yelapa. Marketing is no artist’s strength. He has a pile of highly original and expressive paintings under his table in Yelapa waiting to be bought and an agent in Taos with a supply. Contact Deimoz for a showing when you’re here or in the U.S., Taos, New Mexico. He’s using his creativity now as a teacher with YESI spanish program and having fun with his students.

Yelapa’s Elders

Primitivo García – under revision

Summer Program -Yelapa English Spanish Institute (YESI)

Should any of you be interested in studying in Pátzcuaro, I will be teaching this summer in June and also in August. Courses are also offered in Yelapa throughout this period, with Deimoz and others assisting. We’re also offering San Sebastian in the mountains east of Vallarta as a summer location.

Please view the website for details – and note under Courses – Summer Program. Courses are offered year round in Yelapa. Please consult by email or follow the signs from the red brick house on stilts above the village..


Photos Interlude – Yelapa Beyond

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