A Travellerspoint blog

Taxco, the "Silver Town" (2)

Mexican Colonial town

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The heart of Taxco is Plaza Borda. Here, the town socializes. You can visit the church, eat in its restaurants, buy baskets and silverware, cool down with an ice-cream, stay in the hotels, rest in the shade, listen to mariachi bands, go to the bank or just enjoy a bit of "people-watching". It's definitely a good place to spend some time, if not some money. I was torn between trying to keep up with our guide or taking photos of everything and everybody around me in the square. There was too much of interest outside to move into the church too quickly. I let her go ahead with the others and decided I would catch up on the explanations later on.

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Santa Prisca is Taxco's outstanding gem. Even the tall shady trees in the square can't hide the slender pink bell-towers, riotously ornate where they touch the sky, or the beautiful tiled dome. José de la Borda, deeply grateful to God for the prosperity of his silver mines, had this church built where his priest son would officiate mass. If this iglesia has a visible unity to it, that's because it was constructed in 7 short years, from top to bottom and inside out. So what you see is original, with nothing added on or re-done. I suppose a silver mining town like Taxco is bound to have a special work of art, given the wealth scraped out from the surrounding mountains. The interesting thing is that José de la Borda was a generous, humble man who was actually more interested in helping the community than accumulating wealth for himself. A rarity. A breath of fresh air.

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When I eventually stepped into Santa Prisca's cool darkish interior in search of my friend and the guide, I was overwhelmed. I realized that although I had been mesmerized by the outside, the interior was even more over-the-top, as Mexican Baroque churches usually are. To borrow someone's words, "The Mexican aesthetic is not classical and restrained but exuberant and colorful". Yes, "exuberant" is a nice way to put it. The stonework, like the exterior, was pretty pink. Surprisingly though, the town's silver has turned to shiny gold here. Its altarpieces are lavishly rich in saints and angels, as if all of heaven has gathered together in this small space. Now I'm not particularly inclined towards gold cherubs and saints and images of La Virgen Maria but I can imagine how, in the days long before books, televisions and computers were deeply rooted in society, churches like Santa Prisca probably weren't only temples of worship but also served to visually stimulate the mental activity and imagination of the population. Maybe it was a good place for mathematics too. I'm sure that more than one awe-struck kid would be trying to count how many cherubs there were on each altarpiece.

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Outside in the church patio, I left the angels and saints and all that gold behind me and was brought down-to-earth once again. I met a mother and her two small children selling chewing gum. 1 peso for 1 piece of gum. I bought a couple and talked to them, wondering if I would ever have been able to get my young kids to sit quietly in the shade for a morning selling candy without running off and getting bored. I doubt it. But I watched this family and they seemed content to sit around for a long time in the shade, earning a few pesos. Just behind them another personaje caught my eye. Well, two of them to be exact... a nun with her small chihuahua dog, Bobby. She very kindly let me take their photo. Bobby had just had his bowl of water, indispensable in this hot sunshine.

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Watching Bobby lap up his water made me begin to dream of a cool beer and some energizing food. Luckily for me, the guide read my mind and pointed out the place where we would be having a pit stop. After a cool bottle of Victoria, a few glasses of melon-flavoured water and a plateful of typical Mexican food, we felt revived and had some time to explore the town by ourselves.

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No matter where you go in this small town, there is always something to catch your attention, a small detail, an inviting shop or an interesting street scene. And somehow the towers of Santa Prisca magically appear wherever you go. It's almost impossible to get away from them. For a couple of hours, my friend and I strolled through the streets, nosed around the silverware shops, discovered small plazas with fountains or chatted to the street vendors who cheerfully offered us their wares. I could see it was going to be hard not to bring home a cargo of brightly-coloured baskets, hand-painted plates or silver items but in a commendable display of self-disciplined restraint, I managed to arrive back at the Turibus fairly light-weight without too much damage done to my purse. I took pictures instead.

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Perhaps the 3-hour bus journey back to Mexico City was necessary to a certain degree. It gave my feet time to stop throbbing and return to their normal size and also gave my mind time to digest all the details of our trip to Taxco, the sights we'd seen. This pueblo mágico had impressed me, more than I had expected. Before it got too dark, I even had time to snap a few more photos.

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Posted by margaretm 16:41 Archived in Mexico Tagged church colonial taxco pueblo_mágico Comments (0)

Taxco, the "Silver Town" (1)

Mexican Colonial town

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Last Easter I took a trip to Taxco (pronounced "Tasco") in Guerrero with a friend. This picturesque pueblo mágico is well worth the 3-hour bus trip from Mexico City, a ride which takes you into the dry, silver-mining mountains to the south east of the metropolis. We took the Turibus which leaves from outside the Auditorio Nacional, a sleek comfortable coach with an informative tourist guide, lunch, a bottle of water, a carton of juice and an energy bar thrown into the package.

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As we approached the town and drove around the last bend on the winding mountain road, there tumbling picturesquely down a steep mountainside were hundreds of small houses all dressed in uniform... whitewashed walls and chunky terracotta-tiled roofs. The effect was rather bewildering. For a second, I felt as if I'd got lost by mistake in Southern Spain or Tuscany in Italy. I couldn't pick out any typical Mexican lime greens, fuchsia pinks or electric blues on the walls and there was a certain air of harmony to the place. Of course, it's not surprising since Taxco is essentially a colonial town, more or less founded by the Spaniards... and has managed to keep its look intact over the years despite the mass of black spaghetti masquerading as electric wires overhead.

The Turibus coughed us out at the Posada La Misión, a fitting first stop with its distinctive colonial atmosphere, complete with an old stagecoach in the lobby. Every nook and cranny was filled with objects from that historical period, accompanied by the musty scent of history. Arches, tiles, forged iron items and heavy wooden furniture were combined with some Mexican touches. You could almost imagine a bunch of Conquistadores or Spanish nobles strolling in, and their horses clattering over the stony path outside.

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But that wasn't the only reason this particular posada was a good place to start. Our guide led us outside to the gardens and restaurant lower down which smugly boast one of the best views of the town. The Church of Santa Prisca stood out over the whitewashed houses, like a proud pink mother hen brooding over her little white chicks. High on the mountainside was the Cristo Monumental, a 5-metre high statue of Christ with outstretched arms. Behind us was a sparkling swimming pool, rather inviting in the heat, bordered by a historical mural created by Juan O'Gorman, dedicated to the last Aztec ruler, Cuauhtémoc. The mural is fascinating, made of locally found multi-colored stones. We had certainly begun with a lesson in history.

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To really savor this town, you need to walk around it even though the steep inclines might push your lungs out of your mouth as you gasp for breath, especially if you want to make it to the top. Alternatively you could squeeze yourself into the back seat of one of the scores of white VW Beetle Bugs (aka taxis) scampering up the narrow cobbled streets but you would miss a lot of details. Chances are your eyes would probably be tightly closed most of the time to avoid witnessing any close encounters on the way up. But to be honest, it's far more fun wandering around under your own steam, peering into the small shops on either side of the street, stopping to admire the views, and sneaking a peek into mysterious patios and gardens. Neither would you want to miss the kids with their cheeky smiles, the vendors selling baskets and other trinkets, the odd mariachi band, the balloon sellers, and a thousand more sights and smells to delight you on your way.

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Silver has been mined in Taxco since before the Conquest and although reserves have long been depleted, it is still responsible for the town's fame and provides its main livelihood. When the Spaniards heard about the silver, they rushed down here but their success was short-lived. Things calmed down until the 18th Century when French/Spanish miner José de la Borda (Joseph de Laborde in French) struck it rich when he discovered a vein of silver. It was this man who was responsible for building the Church of Santa Prisca and other mansions. Presumably the Café Borda is named after him. After another quiet period, the silversmith business saw a boom with the arrival of William Spratling (called Guillermo Spratling here). An American architect and writer, he set up a jewellery workshop, harnessing the skill of the locals and incorporating pre-Hispanic designs into his pieces. Taxco eventually became world famous for its silver artwork. As we wandered along the streets, we came across numerous platerías, shops selling silverware, but it didn't take me long to remember that I had some kind of allergy to this metal and so declined offers to buy anything.

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We still hadn't even arrived at the plaza principal, dominated by the Taxco's most outstanding landmark, the Church of Santa Prisca. That was still to come. The first church we came across was a rather a solid-looking former monastery, San Barnadino de Siena, whose claim to fame lies in the fact that it was the first Franciscan monastery and one of the oldest in America, dating back to 1592. After a fire, it was re-built in neo-classical style in 1804. Curiously, behind it are some rather sombre figures of penitentes, dark hooded figures dragging crosses and flagellating themselves. Apparently, the macabre Medieval practice of penitence was brought over to Mexico from Spain and it was quickly adopted here. Although in general this tradition has largely been suppressed in Mexico, it is still very much alive and well in Taxco. The processions of the black-hooded brotherhoods during Semana Santa or Holy Week continue to startle unsuspecting tourists.

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As we continued to walk towards the centre, every now and again, the cobbled streets surprised us with their designs in the shape of flowers or jaguars or Aztecs playing the game of pelota. In fact, it is thought that the name Taxco derives from the Nauhuatl word Tlachco meaning "a place for playing ball". I just hope no-one sent the ball flying down into the valley below. It would be a long way down to retrieve it. When we finally arrived at the small Plaza Borda, it took us all of three seconds to run for the cool shady benches and restore our hot souls. The short rest gave us the chance to marvel at the façade of the pink-hued iglesia said to be the most beautiful Baroque-style church in the whole of Mexico. And to catch our breath.

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...(continued in Part 2)

Posted by margaretm 18:30 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico colonial silver taxco Comments (0)

12 Typical Mexican jobs (Part 1)

People of Mexico

There are some pretty colorful professions here in this part of the world. It always makes me smile to see most of these personajes because I come from a country where you don't see these jobs. If you visit Mexico City or stay here for any length of time, you are sure to come across most of these people at some time or other. Here are a selection.

1. Mariachi

Perhaps one of the most well-known types of musicians in the world, mariachi bands can be found hanging around Plaza Garibaldi looking for work, in cantinas, at special events or even at a birthday party. We sometimes go to the Cantina Nº Uno where they serenade diners on Sundays from 4 pm onwards. Or look out for them at Villa Maria in Polanco. And don't expect to see them struggling to keep their enormous hats on as they crowd around tables. They leave them at home.

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2. Tortilla makers

Tortillas are one of the staple foods of Mexicans so you can see tortilla makers and fillers around the streets and in eating places. They use a special machine which prepares the dough, cuts out the rounds and then they are cooked on both sides.

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3. Shoe shiners

There are thousands of shoe-shiners around the city who make a living from polishing up dusty shoes. And if you happen to be the one getting your shoes spruced up, then it's the perfect moment to catch up on the latest news while flicking through the newspaper. When these professionals aren't shining shoes, they may even be watching TV...

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4. Mounted policemen

Before they renovated the Alameda Park, you could always see mounted policemen patrolling the park and giving information to tourists. They can sometimes be spotted riding through Chapultepec Park if you're lucky. The horses are specially trained and thankfully aren't spooked by noises, traffic or gunshots.

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4. Taxi drivers

Mexico City taxi drivers can be some of the most dangerous drivers on earth so you have been warned. Their mission seems to be to get you from A to B with as much adrenaline in the ride as possible, even if your priorities were to get to your destination in one piece and preferably on time. However, there are many normal ones who will give you a guided tour on the way or delight you with stories to keep you entertained. Safe taxis can be found at sitios, a kind of taxi rank. VW Beetle bugs are not the safest or the most comfortable taxis to hail down. Check out how many rosaries, saints or rabbit's feet they have hanging up in the front and you'll have a pretty good idea of how safe a driver he is. Obviously, the fewer the better. If you want to get around the centre of the City, you can use one of the pedal taxis... a new "green" method of transport.

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6. Street food vendors

Eating is one of Mexico's national hobbies and eating out in the street is definitely a national past-time. If you wander around the streets, you can see people eating at any time of day... and cheaply. So it stands to reason that there is an unbelievably high number of people whose job is to prepare food for the eaters. You can see all kinds of food stands around the city.

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7. Organ grinders

One of the very characteristic sounds of Mexico City are the haunting tunes churned out by organ grinders making their living in the streets. It is a Government-recognized profession and they all wear special uniforms. Some of the organs, first brought by German immigrants to Mexico City in the 1930s, are still in good condition but the majority have become so out-of-tune that the only grinding they do now is on your ears. In fact, you are more likely to tip them to stop playing!

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8. Charros (Mexican cowboys)

You might think that Mexico City wouldn't be the place to see charros, typical Mexican cowboys. But one of the biggest charrerías is along Constituyentes and you can sometimes see them cantering through the woods nearby. They also perform their typical shows during the year which are advertised in many places.

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9. Ice vendors

Because a lot of food and drinks are sold outside on the streets, ice is needed to keep them cold. In Mexico City, if you go out early in the morning, you will see men with tricycles delivering solid blocks of ice to the stalls or leaving them on street corners to be picked up by vendors. They use long metal tongs to drag them off the tricycle.

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10. Dog-walkers

For some reason, lots of people keep dogs in Mexico City but don't have time or don't like taking them for walks. No problem, There is a whole band of professionals who will come to your house, pick up your doggie and walk him down the street or in the park with anywhere between 7 and 17 more dogs. It's hilarious to see dogs of all shapes and sizes, in a huge pack together, squeezing along the pavements.

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11. Bodyguards/guards

I'm not sure if bodyguards are all to do with security or if they aren't a bit of status symbol too here. I'm not bothered by either. I would find them suffocating. Black or white Chargers with smoked windows annoyingly keep everyone at a distance from the car they're protecting. Flashing lights, bullying tactics, black-suited men with guns and arms outside the car looking as if they are about to jump out and shoot a round of bullets into anyone who gets in the way.... as you can imagine, I do not take photos of them. I wouldn't risk it. And many shops and businesses have armed guards standing at the door. It takes a while to get used to them all when you first come to live here.

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12. Aztec dancers and soul purifiers

This is Aztec land and especially in the centre you will find Aztec dancers, decked out in feathers and wearing rattling seed-pods around their ankles, doing sweat-inducing dances to wild drum beating. Some chaman-type Indians will perform ceremonies with smoky incense and sprigs of wilting plants around those wanting to purify their souls. I've seen long queues of people waiting to be purified so I'm not sure if that says something about life in this City.

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Posted by margaretm 13:24 Archived in Mexico Tagged people mexico typical professions Comments (2)

Local weavers making exquisite shawls

"Rebozos" from Tenancingo, Estado de México

Tenancingo in the nearby Estado de México is famous for its rebozos, typical Mexican shawls.. and rightly so. Tucked away in crowded back yards or semi-open terrazas on rooftops are an unlikely band of craftsmen clattering away at their looms, creating delicate shawls of great artistic quality.

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I had the opportunity to see some of these men and women at work and what truly stunned me were the magnificent works of art created in small, dusty hideaways. Here homemade wooden looms vied for space and attention with naked light bulbs and unruly wires, solemn religious artifacts, fading posters of Mexican boxers or cars, cardboard boxes overflowing in silence, barking dogs straining on chains, chirpy birds in cages and jungly plants. Throw in the odd kid's bike, some old wooden chairs, well-worn metal tools and views of the neighbors' multi-colored washing hanging upside down and you have an idea of the type of place I'm talking about. The unassuming locals, whether or not they were aware of it, were actually master craftsmen whose nimble fingers transform masses of fine colored threads into one of Mexican women's classic accessories... the rebozo. I would never have thought that such homely-looking contraptions and humble families working together would be responsible for such elegant artwork, expressed in exquisite patterns and intricate knotted fringes.

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First, a bit about the Mexican shawls. Imagine a cross somewhere between a shawl and a scarf and you have the rebozo, which is basically a long rectangular woven cloth, anywhere between 1.5 and 3 metres long, with a fringe on the ends. It can either be part of a woman's outfit, keeping her warm or covering her head, or adding an elegant touch. Or it can be used for carrying babies or other items, especially by indigenous women. That makes it a highly versatile item, one that most women in Mexico, regardless of their socio-economic class, are sure to own and are proud to wear. Frida Kahlo, Mexico's famous artist, wore them prominently and so does the President's wife on special occasions. With this in mind, it would seem that this town is assured of its collective trade for a long time.

Being such a versatile accessory, there are an indefinite number of colors, designs, and fabrics. Basically rebozos are made of cotton, wool or silk and more recently of synthetic materials. Silk rebozos are the most expensive, and the finest ones can be distinguished by the fact that they can be passed through a wedding ring. I saw this with my own eyes. Incredible but true. Indigenous shawls may have traditional designs and colors, while single-coloured ones are known as chalines. Look out for them everywhere in Mexico, thrown over the shoulders, the head or bulging with a baby on someone's back. They are as ubiquitous as the Beetle Bug. And now I know how they are made and will never look at one again the same way as before.

At the first stop on our visit, we literally walked through the family home up to the terraza on the top floor. Emerging through the door, we immediately bumped into wooden frames, threads, shuttles and spinners... the whole works. This was indeed a family business, including the small dog who was determined not to let anyone near the looms at first. They showed us how the entire process works and then passed round a couple of examples of the finished product. It was an eye-opening start to say the least.

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Next we wandered down between some concrete houses into the back yard to meet Adolfo. He had been weaving for many years and was unmistakably a master of all the stages, including dyeing the thread using a traditional tie-and-dye process. The artist's streak in him had whetted his appetite for exploring new colors and combinations and creating innovative designs. On the wall were faded certificates proving his craftsmanship. He had won all sorts of prizes and awards for his creations and yet for all his achievements and high-level distinctions, he looked just like any other grandfather in the neighborhood. He may have had his certificates on one wall, but the opposite wall was covered in all kinds of religious items clearly showing a vibrant faith in the Divine Giver of his artistic talents. This artisan also had his heroes in the world of boxing. A large dusty poster of one of his idols had been framed and hung on one of the brick pillars near where he worked. Adolfo was an affable man, happy to answer questions although he seemed slightly bewildered as to why I should want to take photos of him.

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Almost next door were a couple more men who showed us how the weaving is done. They too worked under a simple roofed area behind their houses, in the back yard. The older man worked at an incredible speed, the shuttle flying from one side to the other as he moved the loom parts back and forward. Under a bare light bulb, his face was a picture of intense concentration. Maybe he was hoping to finish his quota of rebozos for that morning. The younger one seemed slightly bemused at all the attention he was getting. I don't expect he often gets a bunch of people coming into his back yard to watch him do his work.

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These homemade looms and the skilled weavers create the fabric but skillful fingers are needed to knot the fringes into elegant patterns. This time, we visited a workshop where three women were fringing and tying knots to produce the elegant patterns at the ends of the shawls. I can't understand how they do that intricate job for hours on end. I was seeing double and my eyes were unfocussing after a few minutes.

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These women were working in a workshop stuffed with old bandage-making machines ingeniously adapted to make long thin strips with the colors of the Mexican flag. These are popular items especially when celebrating Mexican Independence Day. In fact, I have some of these at home and will now appreciate them more having seen how they are made.

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So what do the finished rebozos look like? We went to a small store that sold a wide variety of the shawls made in Tenancingo. Their prices ranged from about MX$ 100 to MX$ 2000, depending on the quality. You may think it's rather expensive to fork out up to 100 euros on some shawls but I can assure you that having seen all the work that goes into making them, you may even be getting a bargain!

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Posted by margaretm 05:19 Archived in Mexico Tagged weaving mexico textiles professions tenancingo shawls Comments (2)

Fresh air, mountains and a lake

Valle de Bravo, Estado de México

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About an hour and a half's drive from Mexico City, on the new motorway that cuts out slow windy roads threading their way through the mountains, lies Valle de Bravo. This small town and its surrounding area is a popular place to escape from the big city, the traffic and the murky air which we are so used to. For a while you feel like you are far away in the mountains, inhaling fresh air and taking in deep breaths of scented pine forests and getting your eye's fill of wide horizons. We decided to head out there one day mid-week, when the chilangos (residents of Mexico City) weren't milling around.

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Valle de Bravo itself is a typical colonial-style town squatting on the mountainside above the lake. Red tiled-roofs, cobbled streets, a central square with shady trees and a kiosko in the centre, and a large Catholic church are some of its main features. It's one of Mexico's 62 Pueblos Mágicos or Magical Towns, a special status given to towns which are outstanding in one way or another, either because of the surrounding area or because of the historical and cultural treasures they contain. Thank goodness they changed its name. It was originally known as San Francisco del Valle de Temascaltepec, a real mouthful for anyone to say.

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We literally whizzed down the motorway which now coughs you out almost into the town itself and arrived to find it totally empty of tourists. It wasn't dead though. The bustling local market was in full swing with some ladies in their local dress and stands piled high with vitamin-filled fruit and vegetables. It was fascinating to wander around watching vendors scraping the spines off the cactus to make them edible, locals buying their jitomates, jjicamas and mamey fruit and young mothers with their brood of kids hovering around them. One pick-up truck was almost invisible underneath a cargo of sweet-smelling pineapples. The streets, overlooked by wooden balconies, were chaotic with pedestrians and vehicles vying for right of way. It wasn't exactly quiet. But there was a rural feel to it which Mexico City lacks.

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The best views of the lake can be seen from La Peña, or The Cliff. We asked at the local tourist information booth how long it would take to walk there. "Diez minuntos...!" Just ten minutes! It sounded reasonable so we set off, sweltering in the intense sunshine. Ten minutes later we weren't even out of the town, let alone near La Peña which we could see still in the distance. When we finally made it to the bottom, we asked how long it would take to walk up to the top, "Veinte minutes, más o menos!" Another 20 minutes? "Pues, si quiren ir en taxi, son 10 minutes." Taxi? Well now, that sounded good. We took the taxi as far up as we could, a steep ride along a one-way trail. Then came the walk up. A lady was at the gate. How long will it take to climb to the top? She told us about 15 minutes and asked us to sign a book. "Just in case." In case of what, we wondered? Was it a dangerous walk? "Mmmm, un poquito... Just a little, there are no railings. It's best not to go with small kids or if you're drunk!", she cheerfully informed us.

The views were spectacular, especially on a day like we had chosen. But the walk is definitely for those who don't get dizzy spells when looking down, or whose imaginations don't tend to run amok like mine. I declined to go up the very last part, to the very top, up those rocks.. with no railings, no nothing.. My mind was already seriously producing films of us slipping accidentally and tumbling down the rocky crags, plunging into the green water below, never to be seen again. The road down was steep. We chose to walk down rather than take another of those taxis. You never know.

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By the time we got down to the bottom again, our tongues were stuck to the roofs of our mouths. It was time to find some refreshment which turned out to be no problem at all in the main square which was surrounded by eating places and restaurants. A cold Mexican beer, enchiladas suizas, quesadillas and a fresh salad did the job.

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Then it was off for a walk down by the lakeside. Lake Avandaro was empty today. There were no sailing boats out at the moment but the weekends are usually a popular time for enjoying boating, sailing and water-skiing. Actually, the water didn't look particularly inviting along the shore and we certainly weren't tempted to go for a dip. Maybe in the middle of the lake it's cleaner. One or two hang-gliders could be seen drifting above us. Valle de Bravo is the venue for the World Hang-glinding Championships.

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We returned to the car and chugged our way along the pine-clad mountainside, following the lakeside which appeared from time to time through the trees. Cycle tracks lined the road, as did luxurious mansions, holiday homes, and even a golf course. We were searching for the "Velo de Novia" waterfall. Eventually after asking directions, we came to a sign indicating that we were near. A 15-minute walk through tall pines and along the river took us to this beautiful natural area where the falls splash down high black volcanic rock cliffs. For those who like horse-riding, this is also an option here.

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Evening crept up on us before we knew it. The light was fading as we headed back for Mexico City but we felt we had re-charged our batteries even if we'd only spent one day in the outdoors. The smell of pine trees lingered in the car for some time. That's the effect Valle de Bravo has on you.

Posted by margaretm 15:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged lakes food markets nature mexico outdoor valle_de_bravo estado_de_méxico Comments (1)

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