A Travellerspoint blog

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)

Color, music and dancing

At the Basilica in Mexico City

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Whenever I cycle up to the Basilica early on Sunday morning, I wonder what surprise awaits me today. Being Mexico's most important Catholic shrine, the Basílica de la Virgen de Guadalupe draws Mexicans from all over the country who journey here to fulfill promises, to pray and make petitions, and to attend mass. Devotion to the Virgen de Guadalupe is an unmistakeable thread woven into the very fabric of Mexican culture. A whole community may arrive together in trucks, buses or cars. They often come wearing their traditional dress to honor the Virgen with a specific dance, or music. So when I arrive here on my bicycle, I often find the plaza a colorful study in anthropology. Sometimes on specific dates, it is full of hundreds of cyclists who have made their pilgrimage on two wheels or, in the case of last Sunday, lots of music bands who had arrived with their musical instruments.

Last Sunday was a truly colorful, musical day to visit the Basilica... I'll let my photos speak for themselves.

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The complex comprises of the Old Basilica with the red and yellow domes which was begun in 1695. However, over the centuries, because Mexico City is built on a former lake bed, the church began to sink and become dangerous so a new bigger basilica was built next to it and the old one was closed in 1976. The New Basilica is a stunning green circular building designed by Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez. It has no pillars inside, providing a spacious area for the crowds of pilgrims who come to venerate the image of the Virgen. After carrying out restoration work on the Old Basilica, it was re-opened in 2000 but still continues to lean visibly. In this part of the complex you can also see the Bell Tower which shows the different ways people measure time... clock, sundial, Aztec calendar, astronomical calendar etc.

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The distinct red and yellow domes of the Old Basilica

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A close-up of the yellow domes

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Reflection of both basilicas in the glass windows of the plaza

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A band setting up their drums right outside the new Basilica

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A group of cyclists arrive

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People from all walks of life come here.... seen in the wide variety of footwear!

I have often seen the Aztec Indian dancers doing their syncretic dances in honor of the Virgen, or maybe to the goddess Tonantzin, who was worshipped at this very same site before the Spaniards arrived, bringing their Catholic faith to Mexico.

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A group of dancers on the upper part of the plaza

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They typically wear feather headdresses, and seed pods around their ankles which shake as they move

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This time they were playing mandolin-type instruments

In contrast to them were the bands playing popular songs, some of them making enough noise to waken the whole city. They were moved from their very close position to the main temple where mass was being held and sent to the other end of the plaza.

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A small boy is fascinated by the musicians

On the other side of the plaza was a group from Hidalgo, dressed in mariachi hats and sequined capes, along with their band. One of the ladies informed me that they had come to fulfill a promise made to the Virgen. They had arrived that morning, would do their dance and attend mass and then return home about 200 kms away.

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Band members and mariachis

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Nine-year old Miguel in his costume

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His cape was decorated with thousands of sequins

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Design on the cape

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The group getting ready

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Getting in order

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Young girl

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Last minute shuffling around

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Off toward the New Basilica

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Making lots of noise

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Crowds near the New Basilica

There was so much to see and hear, with many more bands and dancers, thatI didn't even move from the plaza. But time had run out for me so I jumped on my bike again and cycled back down to the centre. That's the advantage of getting up early on Sunday morning. You see things that you wouldn't even imagine in your dreams if you stayed in bed.

Posted by margaretm 16:26 Archived in Mexico Tagged basilica music dancing traditions mexico_city Comments (0)

Driving through Michoacán

Mexico, through the car window

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Michoacán isn't the safest state in Mexico to travel around which is a pity because it has so many interesting places to visit. Natural phenomena like the amazing migration of the Monarch butterflies which flock to its high-altitude forests in the winter, lakes full of migrating birds, colonial cities such as Morelia, the culture of the purépecha people, the fishermen of Lake Patzcúaro with their butterfly-nets, beautiful beaches along the Pacific coast, a church buried in lava at Paricutín whose belltowers protrude from the black rock... these are just some of its many interesting cultural and and natural sites.

To get to Jalisco, however, we had to drive across the state of Michoacán or take a much longer way around via Queretaro and Guanajuato, adding lots of time and kilometres to our journey. We decided that the motorway would probably be safe. It is also a well-maintained route and frequent military patrols can be seen. For those who think that outside of the big cities, all of Mexico travels on donkeys or horses or old battered cars on bumpy roads, they need to see the motorways. Some of them are excellent.

We left Mexico City early in the morning with a beautiful sunrise turning all the clouds pink at their base and climbed out of the Valle de México on the Mexico-Toluca motorway. This road snakes over the pine-clad mountains up to a height of about 3000 m (10,000 ft) and then drops down into the Toluca Valley. Temperatures were freezing and thick fog hung stubbornly over certain parts of the road. Mexico's fourth highest mountain, the volcano Nevado de Toluca (4680m/15,354 ft), looked down on us from a distance, standing out in the clear morning air. The roads were empty and the weather was crisp as we drove through the Estado de México and then into Michoacán.

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The volcano Nevado de Toluca

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Low-lying mist in the Toluca Valley

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Thick fog

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Frosty fields

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Heading in the direction of Morelia and Guadalajara

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A factory along the way

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Clear blue skies and mountains

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A bank of fog along the motorway

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Beautiful mountains

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Crossing from the Estado de México into Michoacán

For once, we were glad to have a few cars as company... it's always best not to be completely unaccompanied along this stretch. At one point, we met a rather long convoy of military vehicles patrolling the motorway... on the other side. Then we spent a few hours driving, through areas of pine forests, open landscapes and shallow lakes. With my camera on its fast-shutter setting, I was able to freeze some of the scenes flashing past us.

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Passing one of the few trucks along the way

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The well-maintained road was very empty

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Small house along the side of the motorway

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Part of the military convoy

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Passing Lake Cuitzeo, a large lake about 20 kms long

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Fisherman in his boat out on the lake

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Many migrating birds stop over at this lake. We saw egrets, herons and pelicans as we passed by

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A farmer walking in his field

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Rounded hills in the background

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A line of cattle grazing on a thin strip of land jutting into a lake

We left the motorway at Zamora, and proceeded to make our way to Mazamitla. This area is called Tierra Calliente, the Hot Country, nothing to do with the temperatures but because it is well-known for its violent clashes between rival drug cartels in Michoacán and Jalisco. We hoped we wouldn't have any nasty surprises as we drove along the smaller roads passing through the towns and countryside. Stopping for a sandwich along a lonely stretch of the road, we decided to remain inside the car... just in case. You never know.

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Pointed church spires at a small town near Zamora

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This is strawberry country!

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Wayside stall selling fruit and vegetables

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Horse waiting by the side of the road

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We passed lots of cemeteries and wayside shrines where people had obviously had accidents... way too many!

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The church domes at Jiquilpan

Not long after, as we moved off again, we came round a corner and drove straight into a military roadblock. We had no warning, couldn't turn around and go back or anything. Obviously, that was the point of putting it there. My first thought was, "Oh no! I hope they really are the military and not just pretending to be."

A sour-faced soldier, with a weapon that looked liked it had seen service in Afghanistan, told us curtly to get out the car. He started searching everywhere, under the seats and car mats, fingering the trim all around the windows and checking behind the mirrors. Then he motioned to me to open our bags in the back. After rummaging around in one of them, his X-ray eyes obviously indicated to him that there was nothing of interest in any of the other bags. "Where are you going?" We told him we were on our way to Mazamitla. "Why?" To visit friends and spend Christmas there. We showed him our hotel reservation. He didn't look too convinced. Shame his X-ray eyes couldn't see right inside us and judge our intentions. He would have known immediately that we were telling the truth.

By this time, his supervisor had arrived, a much more amicable person. He began to inform Josep why they were searching us. "Have you been stopped by anyone? ¿Alguien ha intentado extorsionarles? Extorsion?" No, thankfully. He warned us not to travel in this area after 7 pm. "We don't have enough units to patrol and keep this region safe!" Oh well, at least he seemed to be on our side... Together they decided we were harmless and and that we didn't have any ulterior motives and let us go. We were definitely relieved to leave Tierra Caliente and arrive in the cool green mountains of Mazamitla.

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Cool green landscape

That was the only unpleasant incident we suffered but when our friend urged us not to go back that way, we took her up on her suggestion. We returned to Mexico City via Guadalajara, joining the same motorway we had come along a few days earlier and crossed Michoacán safely. We didn't want to meet up with the military or the drug cartels or the self-defense groups so rife in that area.

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Driving from Mazamitla to Lake Chapala

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Lake Chapala is enormous, some 80 kms long and 18kms wide...we couldn't see the other side

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Town along the lakeside

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A local man along the road

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Jalisco is famous for its horse-riding tradition

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Coming into Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city

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Horses and pelicans near a lake

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Man selling locally-grown strawberries along the motorway

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Back in Estado de México

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Selling woolly jumpers along the side of the road

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We hit a heavy rainstorm

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Places to eat along the motorway in La Marquesa

What we got instead was a journey through the four seasons, all in one day.

Posted by margaretm 04:28 Archived in Mexico Tagged lakes mexico driving jalisco michoacán Comments (0)

Hiking and other activities in the Sierra del Tigre

The great outdoors - Jalisco, Mexico

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Outdoor activities feel good in Mazamitla, good for body, mind and soul. The clean fresh air, the beautiful landscapes, the smell of the pine trees and log fires, the cool mild climate... they all heighten the senses, stretch the muscles and clear the mind, especially for those of us who live in one of the biggest cities of the world most of the year.

I knew I was out in the countryside again when I heard the cock crowing at the crack of dawn in the house next to us. I snuggled up warmly, almost smothered by the sheer weight of the extra duvet on top of me plus the other two blankets, and took in deep gulps of cold air, fragranced with the smokey hints of last night's fire. A while later, after a full Mexican breakfast (rivalling a full English breakfast), consisting of chilaquiles rojos and scrambled eggs with bacon bits, accompanied by frijoles and orange juice and delicious hot chocolate, we were ready for some action.

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Mazamitla has a wide range of outdoor activities on offer... tourist leaflets proclaimed them wherever we looked. On our first morning in Mazamitla we decided to do the 2 km walk to El Salto, a waterfall in the nearby mountains. It was hard on the feet because the trail had been covered in stones. But we realized that this is an absolute necessity for any vehicles to get up and down in the wet weather when the red earth turns into a slippery sticky mud slide.

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It was a beautiful day and as we walked, we passed many cabañas and chalet-type houses among the trees. We all picked the one we would like to live in to enjoy the peace and quiet around here. Mine looked like a wooden Swiss chalet but with banana trees in the garden, giving it the necessary exotic touch. It's obvious why the people of Guadalajara flock here in the summer to cool down. If it were nearer to Mexico City, we too would be regular visitors, no doubt about that.

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Soon we joined the stream which would plunge down over a rock cliff, forming El Salto, the waterfall we were in going in search of. It wasn't a huge waterfall by any means but was certainly the pride and joy of the people of Mazamitla and they had made it easy for us to get there and appreciate it. Except for a young couple who appeared a little after us, we had it to ourselves.

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We climbed back up again and on our way back to Mazamitla, passed small cabañas selling refreshments and souvenirs. Patient horses were lined up waiting to take riders through the woods. Others were already fully laden and off on an adventure somewhere.

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The following day, after a heavy rainstorm in the morning and when the weather had cleared up, we ventured out in our blue tank up into the Sierra del Tigre. It didn't take us long to realize that this vehicle, not a 4x4, was like a massive blue whale slithering around on a red beach. We had to stop to clean some of the tons of mud that had lodged around the wheels like an unwanted stowaway. The views were beautiful over the valley and the smell of the pine trees made us long to light another log fire when we got back to our hotel. At that moment, the silence was ripped apart when three quads passed us, swinging round the corners, like nimble crabs negotiating a rocky shoreline. They were definitely better suited for these trails than our car.

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Just 15 kms from Mazamitla is the Valle de Juarez on the banks of a lake and so we decided to go and explore the area. Driving through the town, it was obvious that the residents here had at some time sneaked across the border to the US, saved up some money and come back to build a place for their families. A big sign over the road read, "Bienvenido Paisano". Paisano means a person from the same place and refers to those Mexican compatriots who live on American soil but return at Christmas to visit their families. When we arrived at the lake, there were a couple fishing and a few small boats moored up at one point but no-one else was to be seen. Maybe they were preparing for their Christmas celebrations back in the town. We ambled down the Malecón or promenade with its unusual blue paving stones and were greeted by a gang of ducks, the only ones enjoying the water today.

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Time had run out for us but there are many more places to visit and outdoor activities in t. Even when it was raining and not entirely suitable to wandering around outside, we kept busy with some hilarious games of billiards at the hotel. They also had a tennis court but our game was aborted when the ball decided to take up permanent residence in the school grounds next door. I went to inform the girl in reception of our misfortune and to see if we could go and retrieve it. "I'm afraid it's school holidays so we have no way of getting the ball until the next school term." So could we use another ball then? "Sorry, we only had one ball!" Oh dear. "Well, can we play billiards again, please?"

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Posted by margaretm 07:14 Archived in Mexico Tagged hiking mexico waterfall outdoors jalisco mazamitla Comments (0)

Mazamitla, in the mountains of Jalisco

The closest thing to a Mexican alpine village

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Tucked away somewhere in the pine-clad mountains in the Mexican state of Jalisco, a 2-hour drive from Guadalajara and not too far from Lake Chapala, is the pueblo mágico called Mazamitla. It's probably the closest thing Mexico has to an alpine village... I say "alpine" and not "Swiss" because it lacks the squeaky-clean, orderly Swissness. In other words, it still has its Mexican feel to it. But with its stone streets and houses with red-tiled roofs and wooden balconies, many lined with geraniums in pots, it has a real mountain town feel to it. Its altitude (2200 m - 7200 ft) and cool climate help reinforce that sensation.

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We first stumbled across Mazamitla three years ago when we went to pay a visit on Christmas Eve to some friends who had moved there more than a decade earlier. This year we decided to repeat the experience, attracted by the thought of escaping from the concrete and traffic of the big city and spending Christmas among the pine trees, warmed by a real log fire. Due to the prolonged rainy season this year, the whole area was even greener than usual. Three years ago, it was quite a different story. Driving to the town from Zamora, we looked expectantly for the sight of what we had read was Mexico's little Switzerland. "Switerland? This looks more like Africa!", Cristina commented. And it did look rather yellow and dry. That is until we were almost in sight of Mazamitla. Then the Sierra del Tigre, the local mountains, appeared clad in pine trees and wooden cabañas or log cabins began to peep out from the greenery. This year, we were not disappointed and spent a relaxing 3 days there.

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As this was our second visit and we were staying in the same hotel, we breezed up to what I think is the town's only traffic light and patiently waited for our turn for the green light. After our daily battles to get anywhere in Mexico City without spending half the day at red lights and stuck in traffic, this was a willing wait. We were in no hurry, we were on holiday. A few pick-ups ambled down the street, and an old man of 103 and a long white beard crossed the street at a pace that was consistent with his age. The fresh air and outdoor life must stretch the life expectancy here. We remembered the way to avoid the "busy" town centre and took a small stone-clad road which led up the mountainside.... we fondly call it the Periférico in honour of DF's congested ring road. We met two other cars and a man and his donkey.

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After settling into the rustic hotel and re-acquainting ourselves with the view from the balcony, we sauntered down the hilly street straight into the central square of Mazamitla. Lined by small two-storey buildings with red and white walls, chunky roof tiles and wooden balconies, it seemed sleepy enough even though there was a wedding event going on at the church. A shiny red pick-up with a wedding bouquet on the front waited to take the newly-wed couple off. At least 70% of the vehicles here seem to be either ancient or massive pick-ups so I suppose it was a natural choice. When it rained the following day and turned the nearby mountain tracks into sticky red trails, we understood why these vehicles were so necessary. But today was clear and sunny and surprisingly warm. Our thick jumpers were relegated to our waists.

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The Hotel Huerta Real in Mazamitla

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The church is rather intriguing and certainly not the usual colonial-style building we have become accustomed to in Mexico. Freshly painted white with red trim, it conjures up vague images of a Chinese pagoda which seems to have mistakenly turned up in a Mexican dream. The bells rang and the bridal party emerged, one or two of the ladies tottering on heels that were totally out-of-keeping with this hilly town.

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It doesn't take long before you notice lots of references to venado (deer) and arrows. The name Mazamitla in the Náhuatl language can mean any of a number of variations on the same theme: "the place where deer-hunting arrows are made". I'm sure that in earlier times, the surrounding forests were teeming with deer just waiting to be hunted. And wood... lots of it. It is obviously one of the main raw materials here... wooden balconies, wooden furniture, wooden souvenirs, wooden cabañas, wooden doors.... I was surprised to see that the benches in the main square were made of iron.

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Perhaps the busiest place in this town was the small indoor market area a couple of streets away from the central plaza. Apart from that, small shops had their tiny interiors crammed full of just about everything, including the locally-made sweets such as cajeta de nuez, a kind of caramel with nuts in it and rompope, a sweet eggnog-like liquor which must do wonders in this cool climate. No-one was frantically buzzing around doing late shopping for Christmas presents. In fact, I was beginning to wonder whether Christmas had come and gone in this town, or if they only celebrated Los Reyes on the 6th of January. Except for a couple of piñatas, a few strings of lights and one or two paper lanterns, you wouldn't have guessed it was the 21st of December.

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Early the next morning though, when I slipped into town before everyone else was up, I was relieved to find that the plaza was being hosed down by a group of four people, outnumbered by the pigeons by 200:1, while a familiar sound was being piped into the crisp morning air. It was the Spanish Christmas carol, Los Peces en el Rio. "Aha", I thought to myself, "they've remembered it's Christmas after all!" My hasty conclusion came to an abrupt end when the next song began. It was "Fame" ("I'm gonna live forever, I'm gonna learn how to fly.."). Actually, the local Moustache Contest seemed to have made a greater dent in the calendar than Navidad. I think I saw who won the competition but didn't want to ask him if I could take his photo. The notoriety might have disturbed his peaceful existence. But when he wasn't looking, I snapped a shot from behind... his moustache was still more than visible from this angle.

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That first evening, we set off for the restaurant La Troje, its walls literally covered in photographs and posters, in search of some real food after a meagre sandwich for lunch on our journey here. When we arrived, it was just closing. "So early?" we chorused. We were directed across the road to the pizza place, a small rustic cabaña. It was cold and dark outside but as we opened the door, we were greeted by wooden walls, simple wooden tables and chairs on a gravel floor and a brick oven from where the smell of freshly-baked pizzas wafted. It all looked warm and inviting. No luxuries here but pure mountain refuge style. Our stomachs asked for home-made burgers and salad and baked potatoes and even a small pizza. The owner of the restaurant, a Belgian man, was a survivor. He had started off selling clothes but when times were hard, changed to selling crêpes out of a trailer. At our comments about the delicious pizza, he replied, "Well, I'd never made a pizza before but one day I thought, hey, I'm going to start making pizzas too!"

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The Christmas feeling arrived in Mazamitla on Christmas Eve, after a very heavy early morning rainstorm. The outdoor market began to set up in the centre and large tents of plastic sheet were pulled over the stands. As we made our way among the stalls, mingling with a growing number of locals who had appeared from somewhere, I knew what presents the people of Mazamitla would be getting. For the children, there were colourful plastic balls and toys, for the adults woolly jumpers and hats. And maybe a few bottles of rompope. Yes, now Christmas really had come.

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I hadn't imagined a wet Christmas Eve but fortunately the weather cleared up by the afternoon and when we set off in search of our friends' restaurant, lost among pine trees, we found a roaring fire and an international group around the table. Several courses later, with one of the little dogs clearly delighting in the warmest place in the house right in front of the chimney, we were ready to make our way back to the hotel, light our own fire and hang Marc's stocking up by the chimney. Who knows? Father Christmas must surely be able to find this place... he would feel at home here in this Alpine village!

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Restaurante Gigi's near Mazamitla: http://mazamitlapueblomagico.gob.mx/detalleAnunciante/ver/82

Posted by margaretm 04:56 Archived in Mexico Tagged mountains mexico christmas outdoor mazamitla Comments (0)

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