Spanish Study and Guided Travel in Mexico

spanish teacher in Yelapa and Sayulita, Mexico observes the culture

Wandering on the Road – August 2008 to Feb 2009

Owls – Danger Lurks in the Superstitions

I heard an owl late one night in August. I had wanted to identify that owl for two seasons from December to February. It would hoot for weeks, sporadically, and then go unheard for months.

In August, one night about midnight, I heard two owls calling back to each other , it seemed, right over my house. The fact that there were two doubled my chances. But to find an owl in the dark in the jungle takes some doing – there’s the hilly terrain and thorny vegetation, barbed wire at night, not to mention snakes and scorpions. My neighbor, Nicola, fell off her four foot stoop on the rocky ground cracking a rib on the same mission a couple of years ago. Nonetheless, I jumped out of the shower, slipped on a pareo or sarong, and into the humid jungle night I went. I grabbed the best tools I had quickly available – flip flops on my feet, a battered and heavily taped $3 flash light with half-charged batteries and my Nikon Travel Lite binoculars. The latter were now uni-oculars, one lens having slipped out of place, the first day of my Birding in Spanish class; I was defending the merits of basic binoculars against the Swarkoski $1500 model sported by one of them when it happened. The irony!

Somehow I managed my way through the vines on the semi-paths now created by my neighbors who had cleared their land. With the weak light beam and the one good eye I got a long look, if not a good look, at a mid-sized dark owl sitting in one tree. Its brown eyes were glaring red back at the light. Its round facial disks, the absence of “ears” and vertical streaking on the breast and belly were clear markers. After it got fed up with my light and flew a bit of a distance, I pursued the other, which seemed smaller, and was more clearly seen on a lower branch. After consultation with my books and the web, it best fit the description of a Mottled Owl, a woodland bird.

I mentioned the owl to my friends, José and April the next night. Jose, who is a native from Nayarít, the state to the north said, “I’m scared of owls. I don’t know why.” There’s a saying, if you see an owl, another Indian will die.  Well, it’s not a mystery to have such a myth and to grow up frightened of them. Twenty years ago I took an owl that had been injured to the veterinarina. I was told it was hurt because of this myth. It is a mystery there aren’t more owls hiding in the obscurity of the jungle darkness.

Leaks in ParadiseMy Palapa Roof

I’ve been ruminating for quite a while on the status of my palapa roof. It’s seven years old, full of must, termite runs, various shades of  mould and a section laden with leaves from the neigbouring tree which is in an accelerated stage of decomposition. And it leaks in the fiercest downpours at all parts but the central column, which was patched a couple of years ago.

A palapa is an open-air structure with dried palm leaves as a roof on wooden support posts. They are common in coastal areas around the world since palm is heat and wind resistant. Some claim palapa construction in Mexico followed a wave of Philipino immigrants in the 1700s, since the word palapa meaning pulpy leaf is from the Philipines. Others claim more ancient farm origins of the use of local materials. The thick palapa roof (mine is about 12 inches thick) results in a very noticeable cooling inside. They can even survive hurricanes or typhoon force winds in certain cases. In the October 2004 hurricane that hit this coastline, only one palapa roof in this village was lost, while a few other buildings including concrete ones, collapsed.

I took note of the summer architectural modifications to palapas this past rainy season. Many were draped in colored tarps – blue, silver, white. It did not attest to the weather worthiness of a palapa. Either they don’t make palapas like they used to, or they didn’t have tarps to cover the holes back then!

My palapa roof is now near the end of its life. The smell of mould was so bad during the mid-October hot, rainy season that I could not sleep in the upstairs topanco (loft). I removed everything organic and strippable – mosquito net (pabellón), palm leave mats (petate), cloth dust catchers, etc.  and waited a week or so while the rainy weather stopped and the dry season transformed it into a livable habitation.

I am trying to redesign my roof so that I can still keep the palapa, but have some sort of inner layer that will not deteriorate or be eaten by relentless termites (comejenes). These voracious consumers spit out the cellulose part of the roof in thousands of little round pellets (polilla or termite crap, for lack of a better term). Most residents use various sheets of fabric judiciously to keep the bits out of sensitive areas such as the kitchen. Had I kept the daily sweepings of this stuff for the last seven years it would amount to a pile the size of my house.  I should have saved it all, added glue and … had a new house! Except the comejenes would no doubt be back at it, eating it once again, synthetic binders and all!

Why keep a palapa? They are becoming uncommon as people turn to more resistent materials. While the materials, palm leaves and right species of wooden poles, are natural, they’re not easy to get, as they are increasingly distant from the villages, and increasingly costly. Furthermore, few people are trained to construct them. On the other hand, they are remarkably cool and insulative, and aesthetically they blend into the palm jungle landscape like no other material. Many architects have created beautiful unique variations on the typical dos aguas (inverted V) theme. There are conical, rectangular, pyramidal and odd shaped ones like Le Kliff restaurant in Boca de Tomatlan. It looks like the Flying Nun’s hat and somehow stays grounded, fully buffeted by the winds along the coastline.Given these considerations and the fact that the dry season is upon us, and sure to last for a few more months, I will ruminate more on my palapa roof.

Bridge No. 2

In 2006, the first bridge in Yelapa was erected over the Tuito River to enable the school children access to the new primary school. Its one meter vertical section of concrete was hit broadside by high river waters of the flash floods of the September cyclone season in 2007. Luis, of El Manguito restaurant next door, reported an incredible loud groaning as the bridge split in half, opened like a gate and then fell to both sides. Within 2 months they had another bridge up. However, it quaked as one walked across it. It didn’t seem a very permanent structure. A year later its sole central support column was washed out, again by the flash floods. By Christmas 2008, they’d again repaired this foundation. Maybe this time it will last, or maybe there isn’t a design that can withstand the Tuito River’s hydrological might. As a precaution against heavy loads they put in pedestrian-only railing to prevent ATVs and even horses from crossing.

Passion Fruit

During my first visit to Yelapa in 1989 I discovered passion fruit – yellow vesicles of exquisite taste, highly recommended as a nerve relaxant and a cure for insomnia, great in a margarita. They are everywhere in November; little yellow balls hanging from so many trees, collecting in piles along the public paths for all to enjoy. All one needs is the knife to cut one in half, and a fork or tooth pick to pull out the gelatinous deep yellow mass, full of seeds that look like frog’s eggs. Down the hatch and don’t chew the seeds.

As I began to spend more time in Mexico and less in Canada, I had time to do some landscaping. Passion fruit was among the first things planted in 2006. The vines were very slow growing at first; then bolted to the heavens draping over and connecting trees in a blanket of leaves. I waited and watched, but there was no fruit after two years of waiting. Early this summer I complained to April, owner and creator of Passion Fruit Gardens about my fruitless passionless existence. Then about mid July the first green fruit appeared. I got to taste a few ripe fruit from my own trees the last week of August.

I returned from Canada on October 13th to find these vines still producing fruit – I estimated over 50 glossy orbs, high in the neighboring trees. An added bonus was their most beautiful flowers.  I left for a week and assigned the task of cutting back the jungle growth to Pituch, who came recommended and assured me he knew the local plants worth protecting.  I tied little colored bows on the wild shrubs I wanted to stay. I cleared around the base of the passion fruit on my side of the barbed-wire fence. Upon my return, I felt my stomach knot when I realized that the two vines cut at about head height on the other side of this fence were my beloved passion fruit. I sadly watched the fruit dry up and die. Full payment for Pituch is contingent on an alternative supply of passion fruit from some source upriver, but I still await the first shipment.

The leaves are resurging from one root with frequent watering. The vine is now 12 inches. I impatiently wait the necessary two years for the next harvest.

Spanish on the Road 2008 – Pátzcuaro – Night of the Dead – Coast to Mountain Tour October 28 – Nov 4, 2008

I’ve taken two groups in 2008 to study Spanish and see Mexico with me for a week. My first group was two women, Connie, a previous student two years ago and her best friend, Elaine. Our destination: Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Our mission: to explore the cultural treats available from the Purepecha culture – a race of people who were never conquered by the Aztecs and some might say have never acquiesced to the current Hispanic culture. We also bore witness to the nightlong vigil at the gravesite that is their celebration of the Night of the Dead on Nov 1st.

Pátzcuaro – Night of the Dead

If you’ve never experienced a Mexican Night of the Dead, the Lago de Pátzcuaro region is one of the special places where the traditions are still kept and the spirit of the spirits is still very much alive. My students, Connie and  Elaine were the perfect companions; they were keen to study and grew quickly in courage and confidence, inspired partly by their love of the culture and the other part, shopping.

We toured the ancient ruins near the east side of the Pátzcuaro Lake at Ihuatzio and nearby Tzintzuntzan with local anthropologist, Miguelangel Nuñez. He trained at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and has lived in the area for thirty years. His insights, information and stories were truly the type of material you can only pray for from a guide. I’m still processing what he revealed to us about the pagan views and lifestyle – a stark contrast to modern Christianity and Catholicism. Connie asked whether they had confession and absolution in the pagan beliefs. They didn’t need to confess. They didn’t sin. They just stayed positive. Imagine a life with no guilt. As a failed Catholic riddled with guilt, this was a huge step toward sanity and enjoyment in life.

We also spent an afternoon with Alicia, a native Purepecha from the village of Nocutzepo, and a short distance from Pátzcuaro. She’s unique in her village in that she works outside the home, and her husband shares in the care of the children. We visited the cemetery at the side of the church, visiting her dead relatives. There were literally generations above generations of them in the tiny plot of land.  The cemetery was presided over by her current ancient “abuelita” (little granny) of 94 years who sat at the entrance in the hot sun – possibly reflecting alone on her lost loved ones. We also visited Alicia’s family home and met mother, nieces, great nieces and finally father who returned from the woods where he collected pine to make carved figures of Los Viejitos (the little old men). These figures are made famous by the local dancers, usually young men mimicking the very old men, always white men with pink skin – mocking their shuffling walk and stooped posture.

After ordering a few of these carvings, we went to find Alicia’s husband at his work place. Fernando makes clay bricks. He leases land not far from the village, uses the local red clay underfoot, waters it, forms it in a mould, dries and fires it, all on a corner of the large property. He, his brother and cousin worked tirelessly at the backbreaking work, digging, carrying and stacking They seemed happy at their work. Both Alicia and he are building  a lovely house, brick by brick, probably their own, living the poco a poco (little by little) reality.

Tócuaro’s Mask Carvers

One afternoon we visited Tócuaro, the town of mask carvers. It was Elena’s desire to acquire something unique and affordable. We stopped in on Felipe Horta’s workshop (taller). Felipe was in the U.S. at an exposition of his work. His son, Fernando, showed us the collection. They design not only masks but also costumes for dances at various ceremonies. He exhibited a cape that was an eagle, complete with feathers sewn by his mother. Elena and her mask had almost picked each other but she hesitated, and we went on to another family of carvers.

Juan Horta Castillo died two years ago. He left five sons trained to follow him. He taught many carving workshops in the United States and had an international following who mourned his loss. The day we visited, four of them sat side by side carving their works. One of whom was flying out the next day for an exposition in Chicago and another was in the United States. These families are easy to find, and the villages small, so stop by for master carved masks at village prices..

November 1st Night of the Dead – The Night-long Vigil

Knowing the ferry and the Island of Janitzio would be crowded all night, where the traditional vigil has gained commercial notoriety, Connie, Elaine and I decided to tour all around the lake, a distance of about 70 kms. We planned to stop in at various cemeteries in a number of small villages, ripe for an adventure then a good meal somewhere nice.

We started in Ihuatzio, meaning place of the coyotes, the town known for its ruins as the earliest centre for the Purepecha culture. We arrived at dusk as people were finishing the altars and offerings to their loved ones. It was mellow but the expectation was exciting. At the next stop of Tzintzuntzan, traffic moved very slowly just ½ km from the cemetery. It was a scene of very sizeable and expensive decorations at the gravesites; for example, the decorated bicycle and story of one man who enjoyed his life cycling. We met a couple in their late 40s who happily invited us to remember their mother who they brought back to Mexico after a very long stay in the United States, primarily to enjoy the health care benefits in Mexico. She died among her own. Her husband stayed, healthy and content to oversee the construction of this son’s future home. The scale of decoration would bring the world’s TV cameras if it didn’t bring back the dead!

Half hour later at 8 p.m. we battled against the flow out of the cemetery and crept slowly in the traffic, out of town, heading north. We kept vigilant for candles in cemeteries as we cruised through villages. I had been invited by a couple in the town of Oponguio, on the west side to attend their village cemetery. We arrived to find only a few youngsters enjoying the evening parking in a pickup. The graves were largely decorated in plastic flowers and wreaths. This was one of many towns where the Catholic traditions were likely followed in daylight. In most towns that night around the lake, the pagan rituals had subsided.

At last we arrived in the town plaza of Erongarícuaro, where there was no night vigil but there was food. They had an exhibit of decorated gravesites. The winning exhibit of the kindergarten class explained the symbology of items typical for the dead loved one’s return. A portrait (retrato) – placed on the grave to help the soul/spirit (ánima) obtain exit from purgatory, if that’s where it is. A glass of water – for the ánima to wet its dry lips for the long journey to the great beyond. Liquor, preferably tequila – to aid the ánima in remembering the great and agreeable events during its life so it would want to visit its living relatives. A cross of ashes – serves to allow the ánima upon arrival to expiate its remaining guilt. Smaller cross of ashes – to aid the ánima in leaving purgatory if it should find itself their and to aid its journey. Salt –  used as a purifier. Four church candles (cirios) in a cross – represents the four cardinal points to help the ánima orient itself to find the path to its house. The incense – copal – the smoke cleans the place of bad spirits so the anima can return to its house without any danger. Flowers (marigold or cempaxuchil)– serve to adorn and give agreeable aroma for the anima during its stay.

We continued to our next stop at Jarácuaro, a town known for its local musicians and dancers. Groups danced their version of La Danza de los Viejitos (dance of the old men), some with very old to very young dancers. One charming “old man” couldn’t have been much older than three, and was applauded the loudest as he did his best to keep up to dad.

Arocutín has a lovely village cemetery next to a very old temple or church, with walls fortified against age. The night time vigil here was poetic. Candles, marigolds, food left in baskets with embroidered coverings, family members seated adjacent, some were somber wrapped in shawls or rebosos, slumbering lightly, some festive, awaiting the arrival of their deceased loved ones, allowed for one night to come back. I had been here the year previous and still felt the same awe and excitement of being part of an age old tradition that the locals still venerated, that still had universal meaning.  We shared one families’s canelito – hot cinnamon punch. We roamed the grounds under a cool starlit night with the spirits. Back at the hotel by three a.m, Connie and Elaine’s altar to their loved ones on their dresser in their room was our last stop.

The Potters of Huáncito

On our way back to the coast, weighted down with many boxes of treasures bought in Pátzcuaro, I asked Elaine and Connie if they’d like to visit a potter in the town of Huáncito, east of Zamora. I had already passed by the sign for this village a number of times vowing that the next time I would visit Ilda, a potter whose art and prices I could not refuse since we first met in June 2007. Back then I bought a rose-coloured round vase intricately styled with jaguars, birds and leaves. I subsequently noticed her art in some of the best hotels in Pátzcuaro, among them El Mesón de San Antonio near the Basilica de la Salud where we stayed this year (

The ladies were as eager as I, and we braved bad roads and deviations until we found Ilda’s home. Daughters Guadalupe and Socorro brought boxes of pottery from their various homes and we happily dove in, trying to limit ourselves each to only one or what we thought we could carry out, and fit in a packed small car.

A large two foot tall white vase sitting on a base with a domed lid had just won the grand prize in the Pátzcuaro Dia de Los Muertos juried show. It was painted mostly by Guadalupe, Ilda’s daughter.  Nothing we’d seen elsewhere in the village came close to their skill or resembled their style. The craft was taught by their father’s parents, the Famlia Espicio.

When Ilda returned from a visit to her mom in the next village, the first frenzy of buying had somewhat subsided. She showed us the kiln in the open air patio off the kitchen. Firing of the kiln was boosted to a higher degree by the use of 2 liter plastic coke bottles! Nothing is more abundant in Mexico.  Not recommended for the environment, nor for their health. It would be nice to somehow devise a gas-fired kiln in the future. We left with plans to come again with a bigger car next time. Elaine sat in the back barely visible for the boxes around and on her the rest of the journey. Happy and without a word of complaint!

Spanish on the Road – Mountain Tour – San Sebastian to Talpa – December 7 – 14th, 2008.

My second Spanish on the Road group this year came with me above Puerto Vallarta, to the mountain towns of San Sebastian, Mascota and Talpa, and into the higher mountain villages that still exist in a magical time separate from our own.

Two mothers, Sylvie and Debra, signed themselves, ages 45 and 54, and their five daughters, ages 7, 10, 17, 22, 24, up for a seven day intensive for the second week in December 2008. It was the Las Madres, Las Hijas y Tía Juanita Tour- The Mothers, Daughters and Aunt Jeannie Tour 2008. Throughout the trip our group members were excellent travelers, motivated students and great companions. Both mothers were teachers, both in language studies, so no small wonder their daughters were inspired and inspiring. I had some concerns about the age range. But after the two youngest livened up a game of Verb Charades the first night, they easily passed their initiation. In addition, these close family members had lots of love in abundance – key to our success.

The mountain communities are quite special and unique – San Sebastian is a mining town, once a wealthy local region for up to 30,000 people. Mascota’s wealth is really its agricultural valley, which still produces and keeps the area thriving. From here the steep road leads to villages 3,000 ft higher, isolated and distinct. Talpa is in a secular world of its own. It hosts the Virgin of Talpa – a pint-sized corn doll dressed in elaborate gold thread woven dresses, which/who has performed major miracles as attested to by many a visiting pilgrim.

San Sebastian del Oeste

San Sebastian is a cozy little valley town of 600 today tucked into the pine hills, overshadowed by a canine tooth of a peak named Bufa. “Bufar” means “to snort” and some say the peak is named for the sound of the winds passing through. We settled in for two days at the historic Hotel del Puente at prices unheard of outside of this sleepy village. We took a walking tour with Gabriel, the owner of the El Fortin restaurant that serves regional specialties and peculiarities, like huitlacochi or corn fungus soup. Gabriel has convinced the townsfolk that they have something special and they are now producing organic coffees, preserves, jams, eggnog flavored with almond, walnuts, vanilla (rompope) and dried fruit and candies for sale (tejocote, mango, guayaba), cloth dolls, and other regional treats.

Our tour included the organic coffee farm at the town entrance that produces shade grown coffee, for very reasonable prices. Aside from the historic church, and the many buildings from antiquity with original structures, it still has mines within a kilometer of its periphery to explore, which may be included in the next visit.

We planned a visit to higher altitudes early the next day. We boarded a Suburban wagon and bounced along a rough road with our local guide, Obed. Our objective was the summit of the massif of Bufa. With Obed’s skilful driving and a short, easy hike, our little group was happy to easily reach the peak and peer at the coastline clearly seen at least 50 km away.  We visited the nearby Real Alto, a little village of 49 people (one less than last December, may he/she rest in peace!) of Real Alto. It contains 12 students, one church dating back to the 1600s, an image of the Virgen del Rosario brought from Spain especially for this church, a raicilla and tequila still and a few hold outs able to subsist on selling dried, candied fruit.

Our last stop was the Hacienda de Jalisco, 1 km outside the village of San Sebastian. It has been owned by an American named Bud, recently deceased, for almost 50 years. He used it as a guest house and also allowed public tours in the latter years. It was once a private gold mine and processing company owned by Americans for 150 years or so until the turn of the last Century. There are many reminders of the intense work effort that went into building its own water driven electrical generator, including building a mountain for the water to fall down! Gold ore from the mines was shipped directly by underground shafts to the Hacienda. The company was one of the richest in the area; the ledgers of the day showed the many loans made to other mining interests and even local governments. The houses had been abandoned for a long time and with a great investment of time and money Bud repaired and reinstated them to the natural wood and wall coverings of old. Well worth the visit.

The American caretaker and guide, Joe, lives at the site. Not every guest will want to hear this story, but the most fascinating fact is that the place is haunted by ghosts. He claims the voices at night to those who can hear them, is sometimes overwhelmingly loud. He discovered his first ghost when his wife had spent 15 minutes talking to one in an upstairs bedroom, thinking it was Joe, who was in fact downstairs. Not all visitors are lucky enough to be visited by ghosts. I frankly prefer to hear the story from others.

Talpa de Allende – The Virgin of Talpa

Talpa hosts one of the images of the cherished ´Rosario of Talpa´, one of the virgins known as ´the three sisters´ of Jalisco. The story dates back to 1599.  A Spanish priest had an image of the Virgin Mary produced by Tarascan Indians living on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro. One day in 1644 when a priest in Talpa had decided that the rotten and unsightly original corn cob image was too badly damaged to be left in the public eye, he ordered it to be buried with other religious icons. The custodian, a young woman, went to bury the image, but to her surprise it rose up in the air, with a glowing aura. In place of the badly decayed corn cob doll, was a renewed doll in bright colors. The caretaker fainted. Her friends upon hearing her fall, turned to witness also the glowing restored image. This quickly became news in the village. The two wax candles that were lit that night stayed lit into the next day, unlikely for wax candles of that era.

When this Virgin was moved by the Bishop to Mascota where he presided over a larger population, the Virgin vanished overnight. She had returned to Talpa, with her dress soiled, leaving footprints in her wake. The bishop cried foul, especially since she did not have any feet. He brought her back to Mascota, hired a night watchman, who awoke to the sound of running, only to find the Virgin again on the lam. She remains in Talpa today.

Talpa has become a pilgrimage site for Christians; however, the same area was sacred for pagans worshipping an Earth Goddess named Cohuacoatl. Ana Rosa of Yelapa returned this February knowing she had had many cancellations and no shows in her four rental suites, and had many hospital bills to pay. No doubt she prayed. On the day of her return, she had many calls and bookings to fill the spaces vacated.  Many others’ prayers have been answered. The image of the Virgin has attained legendary status. There are numerous letters of testimony and small medals representing a limb or an organ that has been healed by her miracles found in the side halls of the church.

There’s even a museum dedicated to her. It exhibits all the various changes of gold-threaded outfits made specially for her and other religious memorabilia. She’s brought out on three special occasions yearly for a walk around town. The town’s population has been known to swell to an unbelievable million people. It seems every second building in town is a hotel, vouching for this number.

I phoned the Tourism office for advice on selecting a guide for an hour or two. They sent us Luis, a handsome trilingual young man. He was ours for the day, it appeared, and in the end at no cost, aside from the generous tip we bestowed on him, despite his refusals to accept it. Hard to imagine a tourist service for free!

In addition to the history and religious aspects of Talpa, we visited some of the stands in the market across from the cathedral. There are endless rolls of candied fruit, mostly of guayaba (guava). These small storefront factories are abundant and open for viewing. My question how they keep the bees away from the fruit and sugar concoction was never really answered. Maybe another miracle? In addition there are many colorful bottles of tasty rum eggnog, flavored with pine nut, almonds, vanilla, pistachio, and coconut.


A town of 13,000 people, its broad valley is largely agriculture with lots of wild space, hence its Aztec name “mazocotlan” or “place of the deer and pines”. At 4,300 ft (1,300 m) the mild, subtropical climate attracts abundant wildlife, a sparse tourist clientele and promotes growth of oranges, lemons, avocados, apples, grapes and sugarcane.

In Mascota we started our orientation at Francisco Rodriguez’s museum of stone crafts, El Museo Pedregal (rocky terrain). Everything he owns and produces is made with stone and glue – truly. In addition, he has some great historic photos of the region and its many beauty queens.  There are pebbles covering his old TV, the old stand-up bass, the table top with a checker board with checkers apparently made just for our young girls. We bought picture frames, crosses, Hogar Dulce Hogar Home Sweet Home signs all creatively stoned.

“Pancho” then guided us to the ruins of the Temple of the Precious Blood, under construction and abandoned by the Catholic Church at the time of the War of the Cristeros in 1926. It was an impressive church-to-be but the dollars were fading in the empire and the government forces were whittling down the power of the church to a manageable size. There’s a chapel and seminary adjacent, where the seminarians look just like the kids on the street with ears wired to IPods.

Pancho waltzed us into historic courtyards in majestic homes, on the pretext of a social visit. One home, where they sold cookies which we gladly bought, had a huge stuffed cougar on the coffee table. We took pictures of us hugging, wrestling or otherwise offending a poor carcass of a beast that due to the poorest taxidermy I’ve ever seen, looked more like a weasel than a majestic cat family member.

At the Cathedral he showed us the entrances to the underground caves that kept the rich rich by hiding their wealth and saving their hides (unstuffed), when the revolutionaries marauded the town during the 1910-1920 Revolution and the government forces railed against The Church in the War of the Cristeros in 1926.

We also spent the 12th of December, which is the finale of the Guadalupe Day celebrations – the patron saint of Mexico, here in Mascota.  Parades of pilgrims to the Cathedral continued evening long. The odd thing hard to miss, were the youth dressed in black and evils masks, or dressed as women, who appeared as part protectors forcing back the watching crowd. In the Easter parades, in Huichol ceremonies they have the judios (the jews), dressed alike, who are protecting the parading crowds. A very odd convergence of ceremony. The locals had no idea what these men represented other than it was a tradition.

Above Mascota

We headed up into the highlands above Mascota with two very capable and friendly guides/taxi drivers. One was a teacher and since four of us in the group were also teachers, he was delighted to teach us all he knew about the area and its people and let us practice Spanish. We stopped at the small village, Yerbabuena, where Father Salcedo, the Mascota historian with three chronicles published, has two museums of art, history and clerical assorted oddities and memorabilia. He’s a man with an eye for novelty – he’s kept the several jeeps he’s used for his work, owns the portable stairs used for the first plane in the region, and hauled many religious icons and adornments into his back yard and the overflow to a second museum he’s created along the main road.

We climbed higher and higher. Navidad, a small town of now a few hundred, was aptly named as Hernan Cortes’ captain explored the site on Christmas Eve. We were greeted by young women who had just been hired by the village as guides, who were awaiting the tourist bus from Mascota for the 1st Annual Raicilla Festival. Luckily we came first. We met Sandra, our guide, and quickly helped her lose interest in the official version of facts and figures she carried on a sheet to tell us. We soon had her show us her godfather’s house where he sat shucking corn of five different colours, her godmother’s basket work of seven inch long pine needles sewn together (winumo).We also made a long stop at the bakery to meet the grandmother and owner, daughters and some of the grandkids. Of course we returned for the baked goods as they came out of the wood-fired oven. We took great pain to learn the difference between the cactuses and the spirits they produced, the agave which produces tequila, the lechugilla with broader serrated leaves which produces raicilla and the maguey which produces mescal. There’s a wonderfully restored flour mill and Sandra glowed in telling us its operation. I was more interested in the dark purple corn lying in the adjacent field.  We climbed fences and took some dried corn ears home, with permission.

At 3 pm. we sat in the town square to share a feast. Soon the town history and tourism committee, including the priest of 26 years, came out with plates of food for us. They weren’t sure what to do with our largely vegetarian contingent. They tried hard with the raicilla to convince us to stay.

Then the last stop on our mountain scaling adventure by taxi was the Laguna de Juanacatlán at 2,130 m (7,000 ft). Although only 19 kms from Navidad, it’s a steep 2000 ft ascent that takes an hour by car. If the ascent hadn’t convinced me the driving was better left to the experienced, the even steeper single lane descent on the circle route back to Mascota definitely did.

We passed Juanacatlán, the origin town of the unique new hand-made broom I bought in San Sebastian, made of a roughly hewn four foot wooden stick, some wiry thin twigs as the sweeping end and wire bundling it all. The high pastures, corn crops, small meadows, woodlots and small ponds were picturesque and sharp contrast to the hot humid jungle and rich coastal marine environment of humpback whales and dolphins not far below. There was a turnoff somewhere for Laguna Juanacatlán Chico. I’ll be back for that story someday along with fly tackle for the trout and some camping.

The big Laguna de Juanacatlán really is beautiful. It’s clear, has ducks, a bit of marsh at one side, bike and hiking trails paved for a few kilometers around it, and its own church (built by the owner for his daughter’s wedding). All is built for the convenience of the all-inclusive guests of the Sierra Lago Resort ($350 d to $480 d/ day).Our taxi driver told us there is public camping, swimming and trail use. We enjoyed the walk along the lakeshore, delighted at the lack of restrictions.

Lessons Leaned – On the Road

What my companions remembered most about their tours – In Lago de Patzcuaro, Connie and Elena recalled the flowers everywhere – being sold in the streets at our doorway, in the cemeteries and all along the roadsides right back to the coast.

What the students remembered most about the trip to the mountain towns and landscape above Puerto Vallarta –  it appears the stuffed cougar was the hit of the week, and the sights seen on the morning’s jog.

Now when I die I wonder as I look back on my life, what will stand out as a prescient memory – it might be as significant as the taste of the best kiss, the smell of jasmine, the sound of the Irish lass singing Danny Boy, the sight of lavender skies lying over snow capped mountains. Or it might be that stuffed cougar!

I do know that right now these trips make me really appreciate the diversity of biological zones in this region and how very fortunate we are to be here where we have it all.

Future Spanish on the Road

Two further trips are planned every winter; another visit to the Lago de Pátzcuaro area in late February to study the arts, crafts and culture of the various villages around the lake, and then to witness the miracle of the millions of Monarch Butterflies hibernating in the mountains of eastern Michoacán. In late February they are emerging from their torpor as the heating rays of sun stimulate them. Before long they will have mated and be heading the long 5,000 km journey north to start new generations.

In late April, we’ll visit the city of Tepic and the Huichol community there, and tour the coastal town of San Blas with its mangrove jungle and fantastic birds and other animals. Two other stops, Mexcatitlán, the tiny island origin of the Aztec ancestors, and the beautiful crater lake Laguna Santa Maria del Oro will round off the week.

Should you be interested in these trips, or in studies at the Yelapa English Spanish Institute in Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico please check out the website www.talkadventures.comand hit Spanish on the Road.  For earlier blogs, hit Teacher’s Journal on the same page.

For an account and pictures of my reconnaissance trip to Pátzcuaro in 2008 please see my Blog, dated  Feb 2008 or write for details and photos.

For all those interested in studying or returning to study, I look forward to your emails. I also welcome your comments and your stories too. Write

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Wandering on the Road

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