Spanish Study and Guided Travel in Mexico

spanish teacher in Yelapa and Sayulita, Mexico observes the culture

From Day of the Dead to Walking Virgins – Feb 2008

Feb 14th,  2008

As I publish this months after the events, I realize it’s too tempting to have adventures, far better than writing about them. Winter colds (yes, even here in the tropics) and blogger’s block have made it even more difficult to publish than normal. As a reward extra fotos. Belated but heartfelt New Years greetings to all! Check out the winter and summer program of my school, Yelapa Englsh Spanish Institute at http:www.talkadventures.com and note the exciting new Spanish on the Road program (first trip described below).

Día de Los Muertos

The Journey – I finally succeeded alter 22 years of trying to return for the Day of the Dead celebrations in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán where I worked in 1986.  My friends and former students, Jim and Jen, from Santa Cruz planned to meet me. I rented a car in Puerto Vallarta on October 30th and drove the route through the Sierra Madre mountains through San Sebastian and Mascota. Instead of heading to Guadalajara and the autopista (super highway), I veered east along the south shore of Lake Chapala. I drove about half of the trip in the dark, on a narrow, winding two-lane road. Dogs popped out of the tall grasses, scouting for road kill. The moon was rising dead ahead, guiding my mission. The trees arched overhead and I passed through their tunnel. People are warned not to drive after dark in Mexico, but I was seeing it as its best. I seemed to get a glimpse of their underworld. The spirits that dwell in the shadows in Mexico are very much “alive” and integral to their life as much as death.

Due to my late night arrival, I spent a shockingly cold night sleeping in the Renault Elf. The 2,200 m elevation required constant fiddling with my car heater. I awoke surrounded by crowds at seven a.m. There were trucks of flower vendors feeding flower stands that were sprouting up everywhere in the street. I couldn’t imagine that many flowers ever being used for one event. Mountains of marigolds were especially prominent.

The History  – The pre-Hispanic people’s conception of the universe was one of dualities, Life-Death, two aspects of the same reality. Where one went after death was not determined by how one lived, but by how one died. The lowest plane of their world was the underworld or kingdom of darkness and death. For the Purépechan natives of Michoacán, this underworld was the equivalent of heaven. It was considered a place of pleasure, although it was a place where darkness ruled. The name designating that place was “Pátzcuaro” meaning “door to the sky”, where the Gods ascended and descended.

Centuries ago the ninth month on the Aztec calendar was devoted to the celebration of the dead. They thought the cold winds from the north in this month carried the spirits. After the Spanish colonization, the Gods of Death were destroyed, but not the cult to the dead that both cultures shared. The Catholic Church commemorated November 1st as Dia de Todos los Santos (All Saint’s Day)  and Dia de Todas las Almas (Day of all Souls) on the 2nd of November, dedicated to the souls in purgatory.

The native belief is that in the Beyond the dead are given a license to visit their relatives who still live in the earthly world for these days. The Spanish custom was to adorn graves with flowers, leave food offerings including special “soul’s bread”. Bread, fritters and other foods were prepared and eaten upon conclusion of the celebration. In Mexico today, every village celebrates some form of this pagan-Christian celebration in a variety of ways. Each small village around the lake of Pátzcuaro has its own peculiar mix.

The Altar to the Dead – My hotel, San Miguel, had an altar, and even a decorated grave site, common to every home for the event. There are traditional ways to decorate an altar. First cover the mirrors. Put a glass of water for the thirsty visitor, preferably blue to represent the cold of the dead person. The more candles the better, especially votive candles; gas lamps are acceptable. A photograph should be placed next to a skull cake. Copal and other incense are placed to scare off bad spirits. A ceramic figure of a dog represents the pre-Hispanic animal xoloescuintles who were the only ones who knew the road to the other world and could guide the dead.  All of this should be profusely decorated with the petals of marigold flowers (cempoazxóchitl in Purépechan). The orange color signifies abundance of the harvest, and the sun’s rays which bring light to the souls in the world of the dead. Their scent is to orient the dead person. A little plate of favorite food and other favorite objects of the deceased must be placed at the altar so he can recall the pleasing moments and want to return.

Dia de los Angelitos – In Pátzcuaro and the surrounding villages, the morning of 1 of November is el Día de los Angelitos – the day devoted to communicating and remembering the deceased children. All the towns typically have a very early morning mass and a visit to the cemetery, but each has variations. The entire family decorates the altar, announced with firecrackers during the walk from the godparents’ house, while the procession sings and prays. They prepare traditional dishes such as pozole (corn and pork stew), tamales (corn meal cakes), hot chocolate and the sweet cornstarch drink called atole. They leave sugar candies in the form of angels, and other sweets and toys that their child loved.  In some towns this is done the evening of the 31st. On the island of Janitzio they celebrate in the church in the early morning attended only by the mothers and siblings. My friend, Francisco, told me about a village where only the women and children were allowed in the cemetery, the men watching from outside the walls of the cemetery.

My First Noche  de Los MuertosI had been warned about the hour long traffic jams heading to two of the favorite cemeteries of traditional celebration – Tzintzuntzan and the Island of Janítzio.  My friend, Jim and I headed in the other direction to Jarácuaro on the night of 1 of November. The town is known for its sombreros and for this occasion its dances, which are held in the town square. The famous dances of Los Viejitos (the Old Ones) – bent over, twisted,  but dancing up a storm.  The night was very cold, and probably dancing was the best way to keep warm!  We were dressed in layers of clothing and toques (knit hats) and patronized the vendors who kept boiling pots of hot cinnamon tea (una canelita) on the go. What impressed me most were the ancianas, the elder women, wrapped in shawls (rebosos) seated in front of candles and food offerings on the cold ground, not moving, keeping their vigil.  At 2 a.m. we thought it time to move on to see the less lively participants in the cemeteries.

With my friends, Raul, his daughter and others we crowded into 2 cars and headed to the small neighboring town of Arocutín.  It was a rare site where the cemetery was located at the entrance to the church, overlooking the valley. The long steep road up the hill was lit with torches and there was a big banner, “BIENVENIDOS” Welcome. There were no line-ups and plenty of free parking.

The cemetery grounds were lit by thousands of candles. A huge crucifix of Jesus was made entirely of marigolds, towering about 30 feet above, against the background of the white stone temple. Each tombstone was also decorated with mostly marigolds, and other flowers were placed in various cans and vases. Baskets of food were left at each site. People sat on blankets, huddled around small fires, spending one night with their loved dead ones. No one seemed to mind the flash of many cameras. In fact, the head of one large family, Esteban, offered us una canelita – hot cinnamon tea – and somehow produced enough cups for all. He shared his story of umpteen children, and innumerable grandchildren. Their night vigil was not somber, but surprisingly light. Others were quietly seated at gravesites. We enjoyed the night’s magic, and when we could fight sleep no more and were chilled to the bone, we crawled home through the traffic at four a.m.

Hallowe’en – A surprising twist to Dia de los Muertos is the superimposed newer Hallowe’en concept of Trick or Treat. When dark approached my first night there, the children flooded the town square carrying little plastic pumpkins. Un pesito para mi calabacita? A peso for my pumpkin. A few actually were in costumes and carried authentic pumpkins carved. I couldn’t keep enough pesos on me to fill the demand .As a child, I loved the dress up and the spooky mystery of Hallowe’en above all other feast days. It was truly magic and mayhem out there! So I was only too pleased to give them treats which I learned to keep on me at all times.  I wasn’t expecting Hallowe’en trick or treaters to to be omnipresent throughout my five days there. They never filled up – five days of endless ghouls is possibly more than one tourist can take.

Yelapa Skunks

I was misled by local nomenclature to think the striped little weasel-like animal, the size of a 5 week old kitten that I caught chewing on chicken bones on my counter was a hurón, or weasel. It was not. After one convincing spray in my office, when I tried to shoo it out, I knew it was a skunk. But it had to be a baby skunk; it was so small and cute!  After a little research, and many more photographs, I was able to match it up as a Pygmy Skunk, Spilogale pygmaea.

I’m not the only one confused. The scientific community until recently thought they were in the mustelid or weasel family, but molecular evidence shows they’re in their own family, Mephitidae.  This genus, Spilogale, is the most weasel-like of them all.

Supposedly uncommon, they have a limited range on the Pacific coast of Mexico. They’re definitely not rare here in Yelapa.  Everyone, it seems, has one under their stove, some even popping up into the oven from underneath. In my house, they’re most often seen checking out food on the kitchen floor or cruising along the walls looking for insects. They’re tiny; body length ranges from 11.5 – 34.5 cm (4.5 to 13 inches). They have a wispy tail tipped in white, and held upright, all 7 -12 cm (3 – 5.5 inches) of it. No two patterns are alike, but it has a black coat with characteristic white markings on its forehead and 2 to 6 white stripes over its back and sides.  They typically have young in the spring, and there can be 2 to 9 young in a litter. They’re weaned before 8 weeks, adult-sized by 15 weeks. So in spring these new young are dashing under doors looking for their next meal.

The other local species, the Western Hog-nosed Skunk (Conepatus mesoleucus) is much more obvious. It’s a bigger skunk and you can smell its overwhelming odor almost any night of the week. They have a very white back and tail and a naked snout. This makes digging into holes much easier in their quest for insects and crabs.  I have one tunneling under the bathroom and sharing its odours. Maybe it’s courting the septic tank!  This is a South American species which has extended its range north into the southern U.S., occurring from the coast to 10,000 ft.

Banana Flowers – Las Flores de Los Plátanos

On my arrival this October, I had a banana tree throw a flowering pod a few feet from my patio. The display of fruiting banana is quite unique. The maroon-coloured hand-sized flower shoots out through the centre of the plant, and then with gravity hangs upside down. The maroon pod sheds each petal as it curls up. Under each is a row of tubular white flowers in a row that attract hummingbirds and bees. Oddly these flowers do not produce fruit and are sterile. The bananas are higher up this central stalk, coming off alternate bracts on opposite sides. Fruit and hummingbirds, a double win from where I sit with my students watching from a few meters away.

A few weeks later I saw a second banana plant with its central maroon flower, and tiny bananas further up.This time I saw large flowers from the end of the banana. I had never seen these flowers before. I took photos and asked Irma and Angel, the owners of this land, if they had seen such a sight. Irma was as delighted and surprised as I was. Angel had seen these flowers, but he didn’t make it sound like it was a common occurrence. I showed my Canadian neighbour, Nicola, the photos of one of “nature’s miracles”. She was delighted and showed Gail, who has lived upriver surrounded by her own banana orchard by 25 years. Gail hadn’t seen it either. I guess you have to be looking at the right time to see it.  My review of the banana literature shows my bananas to blossom differently. It’s the small manzano or apple banana; possibly different flowering? Any banana horticulturists out there direct me to a web page, please!

Eva’s Bicycle

Eva and Pedro raised 2 daughters, one of whom lives with them, and her 3 children, Ronaldo 8, Susana or Chicha, 6 and Pedrito, 3. Eva and Pedro have raised them as their own. Homeless children in Mexico are rare.  They are cared for by their family, or the community.

Over the years I’ve watched Eva and Pedro, both in their late 60s, as the primary care givers to these toddlers and babies. It’s a difficult feat for young parents, tough for grandparents. It’s tougher for Eva who has chronic ulcers on her lower legs that never seem to heal. She has diabetes which is a very common disease in the native population here in Mexico. Despite her discomfort, she never seems to complain, and there’s always a stream of the other neighborhood kids playing and other adults stopping by to chat.  Eva jokes with everyone, in between serving the occasional shopper with items they sell from their store-front living -fishing line, rope, candies and chocolates, a few nails and screws. One day last summer she said, “Dr. Rafa recommends an exercise bicycle for me. He says it will help my sores to heal.”

Well, I was able to buy one in early November, from funds that student nurses here contributed. I’m always amazed at what taxi drivers will allow me to drag home! It was quite a fun evening when the bike was stationed in their living room. Everyone wanted to try it, of course. Eva started the next morning, a half hour cycle and then again in the evening. Pedro was also happy to work out, since it should help his diabetes too. Carlos, another grandson who is a bit large for his age, was actually the first one on it. I checked for a few days and they were still happy. One day she reported, in surprise but still smiling, “My vein burst and I lost two liters of blood! There was blood everywhere.”  I was alarmed and called the doctor, who suspected this was an exaggeration. She was fine and continues cycling, but now the bike is set on lower resistance and she does only 15 minutes a session.

She reports at publication that the sores are all healing rapidly and she says, “Estoy mejor” I’m better. I still see the walnut sized blisters on her legs and I correct her, “Estas mejorando” You’re improving. Now she’s taking tablets of Nopal cactus that also work to control insulin levels.

I’ve had lots of students, too numerous to mention who have contributed bags of medical supplies and numerous scopes, autoclaves, blood sugar monitors, etc.. Thanks to all, the doctor’s once long list of urgent needs has been reduced to a few items – the current one is an electrocardiograph. The Yelapa community contributed items for a flea market and raised several hundred dollars. YESI nursingstudents added a few hundred and matching contributions were made by a generous donor. It will take several thousand dollars for the machine, but we’re on our way.

La Posada – Joseph and Mary Search for an Inn

Well, just about any story told by a child is going to be better than that told by an adult. The Yelapa kindergarten kids a week before Christmas staged a live choral re-enactment of Mary and Joseph going door to door looking for a room. Joseph was Alejandro Lorenzo who was supposed to be leading the burro, with the beautiful child-bearing María atop it. He was desperately unhappy for most of their peregrinación or pilgrimage and finally broke down sobbing. Lucky mama was along! There were also some very adorable angels, shepherds and other travelers in their entourage. I was very surprised that anyone could possibly turn these guys away. Although I have to say they could still use some work on their singing!

Then they had a fundraiser dinner and magic show and fire dancer to raise funds for a kitchen to make breakfasts. No one debated the need for a kitchen, and all were too happy to have another celebration with the charming little ones.

Don Capomo’s Quest for Blood

Christmas eve I was called by my friend, Don Strachan, locally known as Bonger Don. (Named thus for the bonger massage balls he manufactures and sells). I had heard he was in California with a very seriously bleeding ulcer. He was now in Puerto Vallarta. The doctors at home misdiagnosed his condition. Instead he had a rare diverticulum of the intestine near the heart. The doctors were going to operate on December 26th.  One hitch – there was no blood in the blood bank. We finally figured out what blood he needed (Type O+ or O- blood). Well, I then spent the evening at the Christmas dance finding out who had O blood. Most gringos had no idea of their blood type, and were all drinking. All the Mexicans I met that night and the next day were drinking or drunk, even though all Yelapan natives are type O.

Some of those few gringos who did have O type and were not drinking, had trouble meeting the requirement to not be on any medications.  Late at night on he 25th, I thought only religious non-drinkers might be our last hope. The Jehovah´s witnesses were out since they didn’t agree with blood transfusions. The evangelical group, Los Hermanos, was also out since I didn’t know enough of them and it was just too late. I had a rented boat for those donors who were able to make it at 7:30 a.m. the next morning on the 26th. At the dock I met three seminarians who had come to worship and practice their sermon. I recruited them too. They wanted to go straight to the hospital afterwards to pray for him. A bonus, I thought.

Once there, our numbers were whittled down further by stricter requirements. A woman cannot donate blood one week before menses, during menses and a week after. That leaves about nine days when women are eligible! Apparently the problem is the hemoglobin count. Fortunately that morning there were about a dozen Mexicans ahead of us who were donating, and were likely the Type O blood Don needed.  Don was operated on that night and talking with me on the phone the next, and discharged the next day.

Spanish on the Road

San Sebastian

December 1st I launched a new course of travel and study of Spanish. The first trip was made into the mountains nearby Puerto Vallarta – from San Sebastian to Talpa. Return students Dan and Martha, retired professional musicians from Vancouver, Dalia from the Georgian Bay area north of Toronto, living at a boat-in/ski-in only cabin, winter and summer, and a new YESI student, Patricia, a retired school teacher and biographer, from Denver.

Leaving the hot, humid Vallarta climate and arriving 70 kms later in the cool, clean air of San Sebastian mid-afternoon was a welcome relief. We had time to feast at the new Arrayan restaurant before our town tour with 16 year old Juan, the museum attendant.  Shortly, our heads were full of figures; the first gold mine opened in 1609 and the last one closed in 1921. At its zenith from 20,000 to 30,000 people lived in the town and 3,000 ft further up at Real Alto, where the first mine was opened. Today they make tequila and raicilla, both hard liquor made from different types of agave cactus, and rompope, rum based egg-nog, dried fruits and jellies. They now do a small trade in tourism, but it appears most wait for their remittance checks from relatives working in the United States.

Saturday morning on our walk along the cobbled streets, I saw my first Green Jay.We met vendors who had stacks of dried sugared guayaba in large pound squares and watched two men making adobe bricks. The men were were using the fine clay soil and mixing it with water and hay on a half-acre field. It was a slow way to build a house. Hours past and only 20 bricks of about 8” x 10” x  4” had been formed. I asked what they needed to build a house. About 2,000 was their estimate. It’s shocking to see that much work done to prepare something we’d so quickly buy – how out of touch we’ve become!

The next day we went up to Real Alto, the first mine site and town, another 3000 feet above, and Bufa the highest peak at 8,400 ft towering above San Sebastian. Our history guide Juan had told us that sailors used to mark their bearings using this peak from the coast somewhere near Walmart in Puerto Vallarta.

We hired a young man in his mid-twenties named Obed Dueña, who was thankfully beefy enough to maneuver his three-ton four-wheel drive up a steep, deeply incised road with many amazingly tight turns. Dan, Martha and Dalia hung on in the back bench seats, enjoying the views, but looking green as that morning’s jay by the end of it.  We walked an easy 10 min from the parking area at the TelCel tower to the top of Bufa peak.  We checked for the coastline of Vallarta. Sure enough there in the distance, were the towers of the Hotel Zone. The pirates had chosen wisely. Bufa was a distinctive and easy sight from the coast on a clear day.

Next we crawled up the tricky road to Real Alto. A church dates way back with an original 8 ft x 6 ft oil painting from 1792. The Virgin of Rosario was the sweet white waif adorning the backdrop of the main altar. She’s an adventurer, so the story goes. After a trip from Spain, she was carried by mule from Mexico City. But along the route, the mule and virgin fell down into a canyon. A search proved futile. Well, darned if that mule didn’t show up at the steps of the church many hundreds of kilometers later to deliver the virgin, then die on the spot. On that very spot, a huge white rose bush covering perhaps an 8 x 10 ft area grows and blooms hundreds of blossoms all year long – a miracle especially in the winter and at that altitude.

There we met a whole family related to Obed, ruled over by the grand dame, Herlinda Dueña, 84 years old. There are only 50 people living there, only 12 students in the school. They were selling their dried and sweetened fruit – cajeta de tejocote. Herlinda proudly showed us the small shiny yellow fruit, the size of a raspberry that tasted oddly like apple. She beamed her still beautiful smile at us and charmed me into buying a kilo or so of the cajeta, and then a jelly or jalea of guayaba (guava) too. It was a fair exchange for photos and stories.  In the bargain we also bought some high country raicilla or agave moonshine. I savored the flavor, then felt my lips go numb from what they claim is 140 proof alcohol.

Mascota

We crossed a 6,200 ft pass and descended into a very broad plain of the Mascota River valley. Its native Teco (progenitors of the Aztecs) name, Amaxacotlán Mazacotla, means “Place of the Deer and Snakes”. Although the area was first explored for gold in 1525 by Cortes’s Captain Cortés de San Buenaventura, the real wealth of the valley is agricultural. At 1268 m (4,300 ft) it has a mild subtropical climate and abundant moisture for lemons, avocado, apples, grapes, oranges, sugarcane and ubiquitous corn.

On the way in we noticed a field with hundreds of little wooden A-frame “houses” that I assumed sheltered little plants. I stopped the car and looked carefully. These were no plants – they were roosters, gallos tethered by one leg and reared for fighting. The guard was walking toward the car with a very angry looking dog. I got back in the car quickly and put my foot to the floor. I’ve tried since, slowing down the car, still trying for that great photo. That watchman is very sensitive about any evidence of what might well be an illegal activity. To fight roosters isn’t legal, but raising roosters?  Check out the photo of Yelapa’s Luciano, and his rooster carrying cage. Not yet an available item at Walmart!

We took a town tour with Mascota’s historian, Francisco Rodriguez Peña, who had just written the history of Mascota. He didn’t just know the facts; he knew every house, who owned it and what was inside. We stopped at a few private houses; no appointments made, and saw grinding stones from old corn mills, old wooden arados or plows and yuntas or yokes for oxen, and muskets from the revolution.

The town’s pride is the Temple of the Precious Blood of Christ, ruins of a cathedral that was being built over 30 years, but never finished, at the turn of the 19th Century, when the Catholic Church was at the height of its powers. It was abandoned after La Guerra De Los Cristeros (supporters of Christ) in the late 1920s – the war between the Church and the State – Government and the church fighting head to head. Government and the godless people won. It’s an inspiring structure although it remains only arches and half built walls, tucked adjacent to the seminary and its small chapel. It felt like a power spot. Could it have been a religious site of the indigenous Tecos?

The modern cathedral, built in the early 1900s, was next on the tour. Outside is a statue of a saint, the town martyr, José María Roble, who was hung during the War of the Cristeros. Francisco was quick to point out that this was a priest from a very wealthy family. Not only did he protect the church, but he protected the rights of the wealthy. While he was canonized and his statues are found in every town church in the region, outside the cathedral is a single tile inscribed with another martyr for the cause. Although this priest zealously fought for the church, he was poor and only earned that single tile.

The cathedral tour held no surprises, but one. From a large square flagstone in the church, there were tunnels connecting it to other buildings. Today it connects to the pharmacy and the municipal headquarters. Through these, the rich escaped from robbers, probably a common occurrence during the revolution and land uprisings.

We left Francisco with hearty handshakes and kisses. He would not take a centavo for his tour, not even a propina or tip. We visited his museum, Museo el Pedregal (rocky ground), which doubles as his home, the next day. He has decorated it with pebbles, mostly flat river rock. Really, everything is covered in stone. His bed, the walls, the stereo and TV, the glasses at the bar, the frame of many valuable historic photos, pots for plants, etc. It’s really worth a visit to get a sense of its uniqueness and his tenaciousness and charm.

The pre-history of Mascota is recorded in a well presented museum, Centro Cultural Mascota.Museo Arqueológico. It’s a well displayed collection of the digs since 1967 by Dr. Joseph Mountjoy, supported through the National Geographic Society. There was an article written in the April, 2007 edition.  He recorded the petroglyphs in the area, from 3 locations, 2 which are within 4 km of Mascota.  He also unearthed artifacts dated back to 1,000 B.C.  Jade and ceramics found here originated in Guatemala and the Andean area of Ecuador and Peru, close to the coast, a trade link not previously known.

Passing by on our town tour was the Mascota milkman with metal cream cans on the back of his ATV. Yelapa’s milk man rides his horse and carries milk in a large plastic container, from which he dispenses milk brought fresh from the cow a few kms upriver.

Navidad

We were keen to see the higher mountain villages. We drove up a cobblestone road that climbed steeply 3000 ft  over 20 km, the pastoral landscape, glazed with sunbeams glancing off the voluminous clouds. The tiny town of Navidad was aptly adorned by Pointsettias. The Spanish explorers sent by Cortés arrived on Christmas Eve, hence the name.

The buildings were in great repair, as if newly built.  Every roof tile was on, and the buildings were freshly painted. It was oddly quiet with almost no one in town. We stopped to talk to three men, two under 40years of age, and one who purported to be 78 but looked 60 at max – Senor Ponce de Leon, with clear blue eyes. Like the town he was beautifully preserved. He claimed there were others of 100 or more years.  I had heard tales of the French settling here, but the elderly man claimed only the Spanish established the mines that started the village. We asked for a place to buy some snacks. Well, they said, we have to track down a few people who can come and open their stores. It was about 1 p.m. The town only had 200 people. It wasn’t often open all day, since there was no one to buy much.

Where did everyone go? Well, like most Mexican small towns there wasn’t much work, and mining towns everywhere offer little else. Many had moved to the United States. Once in his youth, there were 1800 people, claimed Sr. Ponce de Leon. I asked why people didn’t grow food. There wasn’t enough land. But he beamed a smile when he retold of the annual month long festival celebrating San Joaquin and Santa Ana, the parents of the Virgin Mary. Émigrés returned and the town swelled to 1000s of people. No one would sell their land or even rent since everyone wanted their homes for themselves and visitors for this homecoming. As I explored the streets, I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was touring a museum – the perfect “specimen” mountain town; all houses tended and in order, fat cows, friendly horses, dogs and cats – all watching us with a trusting demeanor. I couldn’t shake off the feeling I’d been in Shangrala for the afternoon.

Talpa

Talpa’s claim to fame is a sighting of the Virgin Mary; however, she was a native one, like Guadalupe. The details of the sighting, who and what was said or done, are hard to find. The details of her personal history as a saint are impressive. The Bishop back in the 1600s brought her doll-sized likeness back to Mascota. But she wouldn’t stay. She was found back in Talpa, with footprints tracing her return. The bishop found this odd, since she didn’t even have feet, and retrieved her and hired a guard. He awoke to the sound of her footsteps rushing back to Talpa. Now she’s known as the Walking Virgin.

We arrived in the peaceful village of 7,000 and headed straight for the church. The Virgin is a small little ceramic doll about one foot tall, kept in a case, flanked by Joseph and Mary and a pair of angels. Below her is a horizontal crescent moon, a relict of past pagan worship. Although unimpressive in size, she is known to perform miracles.

The town is visited by hordes of Mexican tourists at certain peak periods, but still enjoys small town quaintness. There are numerous hotels, several for every block in the small downtown. We stayed on the hill near the Loma Cristo Rey, the hill of Christ the King, a town park of sorts with great panoramic views, and residence of the current clergy. Our digs were at Casa Grande just below, the best eating place in town, and far above the hourly tolling of the church bells.

The first afternoon around dusk, I heard a constant pounding, throbbing repetitive piping and drumming. I headed up behind the hotel and saw the most adorable troupe of mostly young girls, and a few boys, at a dance practice, preparing for a big religious parade on the upcoming Sunday. It was charming as the sunset touched each innocent face.

Talpa has a lovely river walkway which joins to the public park at one end, and a bridge. Here Dan, Marta, Patricia and I spent most of a morning identifying and watching numerous bird species feeding in the riparian edge. It’s a relaxing town and easy to get caught up in the miracle Virgin of Talpa as happens to so many. One friend from Vallarta goes every once in a while and claims he’s totally rejuvenated, and there’s nowhere else that does it the same. Talpa offers an interesting environment for many other diversions as well.

Photo Gallery:

From Day of the Dead to Walking Virgins

To search for the Spanish program in Yelapa, or for other locations such as San Sebastian near Puerto Vallarta, or Pátzcuaro near Morelia, or for the options of weekend or week-long Spanish on the Road courses, please check out www.talkadventures.com

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