Spanish Study and Guided Travel in Mexico

spanish teacher in Yelapa and Sayulita, Mexico observes the culture

On the Road – October 2007

On the Road

For several years I’ve been watching my students “graduate” from weeks or months of Spanish and go on a trip  throughout Mexico. I’ve been much more sedentary maintaining the school program and moving between my home in Canada and Yelapa. This year I took the time to travel and to recharge myself with the thrills and experiences that only travel offers. As a result of my summer roaming, I developed my Spanish on the Road courses – classes and conversational coaching while travelling.These will be offered on occasional weekends in the Puerto Vallarta region, with a few one week trips planned. Please check out the details on the website and go to Courses.

Here are the exploits and diversions from my summer in Mexico!  I hope you enjoy.

Pizota – On the Grid

Yelapa used to have no electricity. December 2001 my house was connected, and little by little, the lights on the hillside lit up at night like fireflies. Well, we’ve all adjusted but when the electricity goes out as it can for an evening, there are the sighs from the villagers ah, como el Yelapa antigua ah, like the old Yelapa.  I live with candles for an evening, love the mood created, and vow I’ll revert to candles even when the electricity comes back on. That lasts about a day, before the convenience of good lighting and refrigeration sabotage my romantic desires.

Pizota is a little fishing village of 26 families just around the southern point of Yelapa, 10 minutes by boat. The workers were blazing through the jungle towards it with the posts in, when I decided to see the “old” Pizota one last time in May.  I met friends who had already kayaked there for breakfast. At the only store/ restaurant owned by Primitivo, we ate whole red snapper. Primitivo is excited by the new changes, and is in the midst of building a 2 story hotel – another first for Pizota. He brought out various hardcover books given to him with mysterious inscriptions – one purportedly signed by Walt Whitman himself, and another signed by John Huston.  We were excited until I realized that the great poet had died a century or so ago.
Primitivo recommended a tour to the giant tree. His 10 year old son and friend guided us to a certifiably huge higuera blanca or white fig tree, with roots branching from the lower limbs, extending it an additional 20 or 30 feet outward from the massive main trunk. The boys couldn’t date the tree but it doubtless was one their many ancestors would have played on as children too. I left hoping to hold the memory of the simplicity and innocence of that village to fortify me as changes sweep the rest of our “global” megalopolis.


Marine Day – June 1st

I’ve always missed Marine Day in Yelapa. Since it follows so closely on the heels of the Virgen de Guadalupe fiesta in Yelapa (May 4 – 12), I associated it with those dreaded cuetes or bottle rocket bombs that split the air with deafening explosion causing animals to flee into deep dark shelters, our aging hearts to skip a beat and fight or flight responses to activate. This year I attended Marine Day and not only was it devoid of bomb blasts, it was great fun.

One did have to avoid being “egged” in the simulated battles between rivaling pirate boats. A dozen or more boats were out in the harbour, someone racing on board with cardboard flats of 100 eggs each. They sped toward each other, eggs expertly tossed at their villainous opponents.  The egg wars extended onto the beach which was a short step away for a quick wash. Judging by the numbers of fully clad people hanging out in the ocean, there were many anointed in egg yolk that day! At beach side a whole canoe was filled with beer and ice, free for the taking.  Three or four tables of barbecued pig and fish were available to all. The pandemonium could be safely watched from higher perches above the feast where the elderly, the children and the wise, including myself, retreated.

After lots of consumption, the games began. There was a grudge race between the water taxis, Rayando del Sol or Shining Sun and The Beautiful Sea, won easily by the latter – an old military boat refitted as taxi.  And in my view offering a ride as comfortable as one would expect in the military!

The games on land commenced. Many sack racers hopped to glory, downed a beer at the half way, and returned somehow without upchucking. Games and beer consumption continued hand in hand. The pinnacle of the games was the greased pole climb. The whole 6 meters (20 ft) of it was black with a thick slippery grease. Tied by a short rope to 2 crossed studs on top were the prizes – the most coveted of which were bottles of alcohol. The only rule – get to the top and bring the glories down. The first attempt was a teen daredevil, Francisco, who ascended one or two meters and was blackened for his efforts. After the sprightly first round of glory seekers removed a good part of the grease, the wiser crowd started to think collectively. People pyramids appeared, bracing each other and those climbing their backs onto their shoulders, three and even four layers high. The women’s team was undeterred and tenacious until they won their booty!  Spunky 11 year old Izela nabbed a bottle towering above her peers.

If the boat and egg wars, races and pole climb, and endless beer didn’t keep everyone animated the DJ had them dancing to caliente latino numbers spicy enough that it was unimportant who or what your partner was!

The day coincided with the president’s inauguration of a new port in Vallarta, and all boat traffic ceased. We were happily isolated from the lack of marine transport in our own bubble of good fun, food and friends. What a happy life those pirates led!!  I’ll not miss another.

Buying a Car

Although there are no roads in Yelapa, and I really don’t like being in a car for very long, I decided I needed a car for those few weeks and weekends of wandering I’d like to do. I began the search through the Mano a Mano Hand to Hand weekly advertising flyer and visited car lots.  Some cars had quemacocos “burn coconuts” literally translated. I thought it was a technical term for some type of carburetor or catalytic converter. It’s a sunroof. Burn your coco with sun!!

Cars are often brought in from the U.S. especially Toyotas and Hondas.  If they’re 10 years old, they can be sold. They buy them cheaply and sell them for twice the price. The first one I saw I wanted, but the mechanics were closed on a Saturday, and it had no plates, so I wouldn’t drive it. Well, in Mexico you don’t need plates on a car to drive it. In fact, we witnessed a woman park an SUV in a no-park zone in front of a restaurant on the highway, across from the Transit Police station on a Sunday. They came over immediately and took off the plates. I expected a tow truck to haul its prey and the woman to call a taxi home. Instead she got in the car and drove home in front of the police. It’s hardly an inconvenience at all. I wonder how many plates the police have in their collection waiting to be claimed?

I also visited car lots in Guadalajara. To my surprise one car salesman wanted $100 to let me take the car for a test drive. It wasn’t a deposit either. I indicated my astonishment and they expressed indignation that I didn’t accept or understand their system. Some system!

Insurance seems to be entirely optional as well, and no one I talked to had any. I would want a good policy for covering other uninsured motorists.  In the end, I left the car buying to another day, possibly another country!

Corpus – Pátzcuaro, Jarácuaro and Comachuén

I revisited Pátzcuaro, Michoacán (see last BLOG entry). I had worked there 25 years ago, and had just come back from a 2 week visit in May. I returned again for the month of June to study Spanish Literature and further explore this very rich cultural community.

In late March when I was last there, it had been dry, very dry and I met Cresencio and Magdaleno sitting at the edge of their field waiting for the rain to be able to sew (sembrar) their seeds. By June, there was some rain, sufficient to auger hope and the seeds went in. It’s the Purepechan native custom for the farmers to throw a big party “Corpus” – it’s called, where they give away what they produce. The thinking is that if they give away their abundance it will be returned with abundant rains and the harvest. Somewhat similar to the northwest coast native potlatch.

I witnessed the downtown squares or zocalos and streets in  Patzcuaro change overnight to patterned pathways made of died wood chips. But I missed the ritual of Corpus due to an appointment. Can you imagine giving away the product of your labour to a populaton of over 50,000? I thought I’d try again next year for the ceremony.

One Sunday I arrived in the midst of Corpus in Jarácuaro, unaware it was a feast day. It’s a town where they make palm sombreros – many styles and many thousands. There were live bands playing mariachi style music and other bands playing the beautiful ballads of the Purepechan culture. A couple thousand visitors flooded the main square with expectation. Food was sold and eaten – strawberries with whipped cream from Zamora, lots of fresh blue and other varieties of corn boiled, skewered and slathered in cream, cheese, lime and chili pepper, pink cakes and cotton candy, which I thought didn’t exist any more – no doubt linked to cancer and only sold now in 3rd World Countries. At the church entrance was an altar decorated with corn and wheat stooks.

As the crowds flooded the main square, the clouds moved low and thickened to dark grey. In anticipation of the threatening rain, I went to a small store and asked Salvador, the owner, for a hat. Despite initial reluctance, he sold me a beautiful one with lining for $3. I gave him $5. Apparently one cannot sell crafts on Corpus.

Back in the square, people stood in their summer wear, holding babies, elders seated on low curbs, rounds of wood, and a few benches. Men appeared on roofs of buildings, or roamed through the crowd, opening the plastic bags upon bags of hats and other gifts. The crowd surged and condensed. There was room enough for your body and a bit of shoulder room with one hand raised to catch whatever flew your way. Then the hats whizzed through the air, some like frisbees, some floating high and feathering downward. Many fought for the same hat, which somehow survived the mangling. I was glad I had bought mine since I wasn’t up to the fight.

And then the rains began. Phenomenal rain right on cue. Give away your bounty and the rains will come, nourishing your crops for your continuance.  No one ran. We laughed and the bands played on – circling the whole crowd. It was insanely glorious. I’ve never experienced anything like it. When the thousands of hats were newly owned, we had a chance to look around and assess our riches. My booty was the many pictures I took, through the rain drops and with that outstretched arm. Sadly, none of these is really in focus.

That same weekend my friend, Elías Rodriguez went to Ihuatzio for Corpus, about 15 kms away on the eastern side of the lake. A feast that started in the public square went inside to private house parties and extended over the next few days.

Well, now I was in the know and started checking the town’s Corpus schedule. My neighbour, Ivan, came from a little village in the mountains, called Comachuén. It wasn’t even to be found on any local maps I had. He described how they decorated the buey or oxen teams, with cornstalks and flowers in the yokes or yuntas and pulled them in a parade around town.

I imagined Comachuén to be pristine and quaint. Once armed with directions, I headed out by bus. I arrived an hour later in the afternoon of the Copa de Oro Torneo de Futbol or  Gold Cup Soccer Tournament. Mexico was playing United States for a chance at the championship. The bus driver had the radio on and Mexico was winning 1 – 0. I had to watch the game. The town was surprisingly large and especially busy today. I asked for a restaurant, thinking there would be a TV. None existed, claimed a lovely woman, who invited me into her house, assuming I was hungry. When I explained I had to see the soccer game, she set me in a seat in the kitchen where I could see their TV in the next room. It was the largest flat-screen TV I have ever seen. They had obviously received abundance over the years!

The family was hurrying around preparing and loading up their wares for the Corpus festival. The villagers make wooden furniture. This family made wooden serviette holders and other small gift items, as well. Their van was loaded, with more objects tied to the roof, ready to go.  They were just waiting for me to accept Mexico’s defeat 2 – 1 and to leave. They would accept no payment since it was the day to give, but I tucked away a donation for their girls.

I found a spot above street level just as the oxen were being led to the head of the parade. Soon I met the owners of one oxen pair, held by a yoke or yunta that appeared familiar with the dress and the process. They were waiting for the rest of the procession. The next float was an altar of gladiolas with inside a toy-sized ox team and ox-driver. They paraded to the front of the church where the altars were then set down. Women pinned small gifts – bags of grapes, peanuts, embroidered napkins and doilies, little doll-sized embroidered shirts and the very traditional multiply-pleated skirts. Each act of giving would reap abundance.

I made my way past the food stands to the central square. Oddly enough no one sold any corn! Corn sold on the coast has the quality of cow corn. It’s tough and not particularly tasty, definitely not sweet like northern corn. I’d hoped to re-experience the blue corn fed upon at Jarácuaro. For some reason, Comachuén celebrates a cornless Corpus.

Arriving in the central square, I was amazed at the three professional stage assemblies with lighting and sound equipment to rival the best I’ve seen at any music festival at home. Somehow this sleepy “village” without a single restaurant was paying three bands to play – one a nationally famous recording band, and two others that played at international festivals. I puzzled over this for a while, then recalled that Mexico, and in particular, Michoacán is one of the states that receives great sums of money from “remittances” or earnings sent home from the U.S. Many Mexican expatriates pride themselves on throwing the biggest and best parties back home. Not much had changed in the 25 years since I’d worked in this region. They still didn’t have garbage collection, potable water or proper wastewater or septic treatment, but still prioritized fun!

Just as the band members were making an appearance, someone began firing off the cuetes , those rocket bombs from hell. They were numerous and low.  The results were surprising. The clouds that had hovered sparsely, moderately high above, now descended and in 15 minutes dumped their load. It was quite dramatic. NOW, I know why they love their cuetes – they “spark” the rain. And rain produces abundance. Somehow understanding this reason for them, made me go away with an acceptance, and a lesser resistance to them.

I left as the bands dueled for our attention with the thunder and rumble and ferocity of the rains. I didn’t wait to see how they would distribute the wooden chairs and tables and wooden knick knacks manufactured here. I was almost a little worried they might throw them to the crowds!

Mexico City and Teotihuacán

I lived briefly in Mexico City 25 years ago. Back then I worked for the Environment Ministry of government, and knew just how polluted the city was. Much of that problem was due to the 2.5 million cars that moved in and around this mountain valley daily. In spite of its congestion and contamination, I left marveling at the beauty of the city. I returned now to see the ancient ruins of Teotihuacán north of the city, to see the Frida Kahlo exposition of her paintings at the Museo de Bellas Artes, and to re-acquaint myself with the city since my last brief visit 14 years ago.

Teotihuacán is an hour north of Mexico City.  In Nahuatl, Teotihuacán means “birthplace of the Gods”. There is debate as to who built the ruins; once thought to be the pre-Aztec Toltecs, now it’s realized there were even earlier Olmec influences, believed to be the “mother” civilization of Mexico. Earliest buildings date from 200 B.C. and the largest Temple of the Sun was constructed around 100 B.C.  The culture collapsed around the 6th or 7th Century. Some believe this was due to invasion by the Toltecs, others note that only the noble’s buildings were sacked which might have been caused by internal uprising, others note there were extreme droughts due to climate changes.

The site today covers a massive area of 83 km2, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. It was populated at its zenith with an estimated 150,000 to a maximum 250,000 people. It had no military fortifications, although they conquered throughout Mesoamerica. It was a centre of industry, with jewelers, potters and other craftsmen.

I arrived late in the day after winding through the mountains for 8 hrs from Pátzcuaro, feeling sick and tired. As soon as my feet hit the ground, and I got past the multitude steet vendors, I was energized by the size and magnificence of the site. I sat back and assessed how different these people appeared from the nations of indigenous people I knew from elsewhere in Mexico.

At the entrance lay the steep almost 200 stairs up to the top of the Temple of the Sun.  It was not so steep that anyone who attempted it could not do it. Poco a poco – little by little –  the daily adage a Mexican lives by, and one I’ve adopted with great results! At the top, I had the inspiration to call Canada on my cell phone. I was hoping to excite friends with my words from this temple of the Gods. No one was home.

Down below I rambled through the buildings on the outer edge of the Avenue of the Dead, marveling at the intricate detail of construction and the artistry still remaining in colour, inlay of obsidian and statues. I left after many kilometers of walkings at closing time, knowing my return visit must be a full day.  Mexico was lobbying to make Chichen Itza in the Yucatán one of the Seven Wonders of the World in the Internet sponsored process; it has so many marvelous sites I’d have trouble making that choice.

I spent Saturday night downtown at a very conveniently located YWCA two blocks off the Paseo de la Reforma, which is the busiest downtown corridor. The next morning, it was quiet. Ever Sunday the 12 or so blocks from the Angel of Independence to Juarez is closed to traffic. There were police at all the intersections to control through traffic. It was, however, open to non-motorized traffic – bikes, roller blades, joggers with and without dogs running alongside. I was in tears at the changes. There was a lack of smog! The air was breathable – no tears, no sinus attacks. This was unimaginable 20 years ago, and probably is not the case any busy mid-week morning!

Along the route, on foot I enjoyed the grandeur of the statues and other monuments. The National Lottery building had white angel wings painted on the side “wings” of the building – extending 200 ft on both sides. The Angel of Independence has stairs one can scale from the inside to a viewing platform. I talked to one biker who never misses a Sunday, and he spoke of the bike trails on outskirts of town that are used by those commuting to factories.  The city and its people are transforming.

Viva la Vida! – Frida Kahlo

What drew me into the city was the 100 yr anniversary of the birth of Frida Kahlo – Mexico’s painter of international fame for the feelings she painted, mostly in portraits of herself – with thick eyebrows almost joined and a slight moustache on ever portrait. She claimed there was no subject she knew better. In her short 47 years, only 30 years as a painter, she was the first to convey her raw emotion and pain in the surrealistic images of her experiences.  Around her she painted a Mexico she loved. She had two accidents in her life, she claimed – one was a tramway collision with a building which caused a metal rod to skewer her spinal column and uterus, breaking her column and one leg in several places. The other was Diego Rivera, her husband, the famous muralist.

Several movies have been made about her life (Frida! by Roberto Rodriguez starring Salma Hayek 2004, Frida by Paul Leduc starring Ophelia Medina 1994, Frida by ___ a retrospective mostly of her art 1983). Books are numerous – the ones by Raquel Tibol, a Chilean/ Mexican art historian who lived with Frida in her later years, perhaps the best.

The Museo de Bellas Artes devoted two floors to her art, and another to photography of her. It was a Sunday morning crush to view the work, but worth it. Her skills had evolved in a spiritual dimension way ahead of her time. Her artistry promoted her as one of the world’s great by the likes of Pablo Picasso. Her personal charm was also notable, as were her many affairs with men and women. Despite her pain and struggles, she loved life.  My favorite work – The Love Embrace of the Universe, The Earth (Mexico), Me and Señor Xolotl (1949) shows her mothering Diego in her arms as she and her world are embraced by Mother Earth (see at

For those of you who have missed her exposition, the house she was born in and she and Diego lived in is a museum in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. This year a previously unknown hidden inner chamber or room was opened after a letter from Frida was opened on this anniversary. She was a true enigma and gains warranted reverence as her audience grows.

Summer in Yelapa

I love returning to the coast after time in that other-world of interior Mexico. There’s a different magic, an excitement or expectation, an anything – goes kind of attitude, an acceptance and tolerance of many different influences, an easy going culture. And there’s a casual beauty of the Pacific coast that’s so inviting. It’s home most of the year and a great “reception room” to the rest of Mexico for travelers. I look forward to receiving you there sometime!

Spanish on the Road


I’ve developed some programs to invite students to travel with me while on some of these adventures to see more of Mexico, a way that most tourists would not. I offer two hours of classes daily and conversational Spanish as we travel, and assistance and back-up when you’re conversing in the real world. This Spanish on the Road includes some weekend locations within a short drive of Puerto Vallarta, and some one-week tours that include Pátzcuaro (naturally), San Sebastian to Talpa in the near mountains and through Tepic to San Blas for a cultural tour visiting both indigenous museums and villages as well as natural jewels in the environment (the crystal lake of Santa Clara de Oro and the estuary and river jungle environment of San Blas, renown for its birding).

On the Road Gallery

Please check the Website to see the further details, or join us in our exciting regular program with activities after classes (see ). This year we’ll also offer overnight camping expeditions up the river to the waterfalls (




















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