A Travellerspoint blog

"La Magia de la Navidad" in Mexico City

Christmas magic...

IMG_0396_T..thedral.jpg

+++

I can remember clearly when I heard the first Christmas carol this year. It was the day after Dia de Muertos and I was in the supermarket, prodding some avocados to see if they were ripe enough to take home for a salad. Suddenly, my ears pricked up. I could have sworn they were playing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" in the background. It was the first week in November and here I was in short sleeves. The last thing I had on my mind was Christmas and snow.

Sure enough, a few days later, I was back in the supermarket doing my weekly grocery shopping when I distinctly heard "Santa Claus is coming to town". Really? But we were still a month and a half away from Christmas Eve. Looking around though, I noticed that the pumpkins and scarecrows and candy skulls had disappeared, as if by magic, and there taking their place was a tall Christmas tree and a band of cute polar bears in woolly hats and scarves, clutching chocolates. Wow! That was a quick and early transformation.

And so the Christmas season has stealthily been creeping up all around us in DF for the last month and a half. For some time now, Rudolph's red nose has been making him a laughing stock among the other reindeer and the Little Drummer Boy has been busily drumming as if to announce an early start to the Yuletide season. Frosty the Snowman's friends too have invaded the city, despite the visible lack of any snow around. Campañas sobre campañas are ringing and los peces en el rio, fish in the river, are also in a Christmas mood (for those who understand Spanish carols). You see, my ears have become adept at tuning in to the canciones de Navidad all around me. But it isn't just Christmas carols in the air. Mexico City has been undergoing a not-so-subtle change. One look around and you can tell that Navidad has arrived. To tell the truth, I think it arrived over a month ago.

One of the first signs was the disappearance of the golden marigolds or cempasúchil flowers along Reforma. With their golden locks drooping, they were dug up and replaced by thousands of bright red Christmasy poinsettias, zigzagging their way down the centre of the road. "Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree, how lovely are your branches..." Christmas trees of every size, colour and decoration are now almost as commonplace as traffic lights in the streets. It was mid-November when one with enormous crinkly gold Ferrero Rocher spheres caught my eye outside the Auditorio Nacional. In the hot sunshine, I hoped they didn't have any real chocolate inside as otherwise there would soon be a sticky brown mess trickling down. The shopping centres are obviously competing to see whose tree is the biggest and most luxurious. On top of that, if you happen to find yourself in Antara Shopping Centre in Polanco, you may even be surprised by a snowfall. Artificial, of course. Every day for the last few weeks, in the evening, it feels like winter has arrived even though you took off any jumpers long ago, around midday. Perhaps it's not so far-fetched after all to be singing "Dashing through the snow...." here in Mexico City.

IMG_1194-1_-_Reforma.jpg
Poinsettias along Reforma

IMG_9130_-_Ferrero.jpg
Giant Ferrero Rocher chocolates

IMG_8345_-_Moliere.jpg
Huge illuminated Christmas tree in Polanco

IMG_0257_-_Antara.jpg
Christmas tree in Antara Shopping Centre

And talking about bigger and better, it's very traditional to set up a nacimiento or nativity scene in homes to remind the family of the story of Christ's birth. But you will also see large ones colonising house roofs and gardens and this year, the largest nacimiento in the world can be found down at the Azteca Stadium. It's a life-size Bethlehem-type village with 500 figures in 57 scenes created by the Colombian pesebrista, Gustavo Cano, which you can walk around to get the feel of what life what like and what happened that very first Christmas. I can hear the Spanish villancicos playing already...Vamos a Belen....

IMG_0143_-_Pesebre.jpg
Typical nativity scene

IMG_0665_-_Pesebre.jpg
A nativity scene in a shopping centre

IMG_0666_-_Pesebre_1.jpg
Traditional figures

IMG_0189_-_Camel.jpg
Camel and posters inviting us to go and visit the biggest nativity scene in the world

Last week I was in the Centro Histórico where I was surprised to see a group of rather merry polar bears, enjoying a joke on the green grass in the Alameda Park. Funny place to see polar bears, was my first thought. Then I saw they were setting up an entire winter wonderland in the park for kids. Apparently, Santa Claus will be putting in an appearance here before he gets busy delivering presents on December 24th, although I'm not sure how he's going to get into some of the houses since there is a distinct shortage of chimneys around here. Maybe he doesn't need to since, like Spain, it's traditional here in Mexico for the Three Kings, Los Reyes Magos, to bring gifts to the kids on January 6th. The Kings too will be taking up their temporary residence here until then. For the last 40 years, Santa and Los Reyes Magos have been stopping off in Mexico City where thousands of children have had their photos taken with them and handed over their letters telling them what they want for Christmas. I heard on the radio that this will probably be the last year for this tradition since they will be completely remodelling the Alameda next year.

IMG_0240_-..r_bears.jpg
Polar bears in the park

IMG_0456_-..a_Claus.jpg
A few Santas can be seen around the city

IMG_0663_-..ia_tree.jpg
Santa on top of the building next to a Christmas tree made with poinsettia plants

Then as I made my way down towards the Zócalo, in the distance I spotted an enormous tree, a gigantic árbol de Navidad, whose angel was eyeing the tops of the old colonial buildings down in the large square. At least they've put the tree in the Zócalo this year and not near the Ángel de la Independencia in Paseo de la Reforma like our first Christmas here. It caused some of the biggest traffic jams imaginable, all for the purpose of getting into the Guiness Book of Records for the tallest Christmas tree. Not that this year's tree is much smaller. It towers over the nearby ice-rink which, in its turn, is also one of the largest in the world. Winter sports have come to Mexico City. As I watched the monitors skating, I wondered how on earth the ice didn't melt in the warm sun. Then the rink filled up with T-shirted novices, some of whom were having severe problems getting from one end to the other, but were obviously having tons of fun. Next we'll be seeing sleigh rides...

IMG_1317-1_-_Madero.jpg
Looking down towards the Christmas tree in the Zócalo

IMG_1332_-_Zocalo.jpg
Christmas has arrived in the Centre Histórico

IMG_1336_-.._Zocalo.jpg
Tinsel and illuminated decorations on the buildings surrounding the Zócalo

IMG_1346-1.._Zocalo.jpg
Feliz Navidad in lights, best appreciated at night

IMG_0358_-..k_above.jpg
Looking down on the ice rink

IMG_0339_-..thedral.jpg
Ice rink with the Cathedral in the background

IMG_0387_-_Skaters.jpg
Skaters enjoying some fun in the sunshine

And then there are all those makeshift stands set up along the road, selling Christmas trees, lights, reindeer, poinsettias and colourful adornos or decorations, often made of woven straw. The first year we were here, we couldn't resist purchasing a Rudolph, made ingeniously from twigs, since he looked so cute. He was accompanied by a few straw decorations. This year our tree and lights came from a stand which set up at the beginning of December.

IMG_0545_-..s_stall.jpg
Christmas stall selling trees and decorations

IMG_0660_-_Stall.jpg
Stars for sale

IMG_0662_-_Reindeer.jpg
Reindeer made of twigs

IMG_0121_-_Adornos.jpg
Stand with decorations

IMG_0269_-..rations.jpg
Mexican decorations made of straw

IMG_0127_-..rations.jpg
Colourful adornos

IMG_0482_-_Bus.jpg
The Nutcracker Suite

I have to admit that one of my favourite Mexican traditions also reminds me of a Christmas carol."Oh-oh, Star of Wonder, Star of Light... ". All around the city, you'll see thousands of star-shaped piñatas, ranging from tiny to massive. In bright, shimmering colours, with tassles at the ends of the points, they are everything a Mexican adorno should be - eye-catching, colourful, ubiquitous, and stunning. Representations of the Christmas star which led the Wise Men to Jesus. Some have nine points, others have seven or five. Traditionally they were constructed around a clay pot filled with fruit and sweets which broke when the children hit it with a stick. Nowadays they are more likely to be cardboard and paper, not so hard on the head when they burst open.

IMG_0539-1_-_Pi_atas.jpg
Star-shaped piñatas

IMG_0659_-..as_star.jpg
Bright colours

IMG_0271_-..ildings.jpg
Stars on a building façade

Although Navidad has been creeping into the city for much longer, the official start to the Christmas season was the 3rd December when the Mayor switched on the lights in the Zócalo, inaugurated the ice rink and triggered off the massive parade of Christmas floats which made their way around the city centre. Britney Spears did her bit too, with a free concert at the Monumento a la Revolución. And now that Christmas Day is just around the corner, less than one week away, it's time here in Mexico for the tradition of posadas when they enact the scene of José and Maria trudging around looking for some room at the inn (posada). "No room, only a manger of hay..." as the carol says. When they eventually find one, there is a big party with piñatas for the children.

pistahielo2011_25057.jpg
Inauguration of the ice-rink and Christmas lights in the Zócalo

Yesterday some of the newspapers "predicted" a historic snowfall in DF. Actually, they didn't so much consult the weather people as the Mayor's weekend programme. Despite a deep blue, cloudless sky, it snowed along the Eje Central during the Gran Desfile Navideño, a Christmasy parade, which was watched by crowds. Half a million people's "dream of a White Christmas" came true. From comments I saw posted, another half a million got caught in the traffic jams due to road closures. They would have done better on the Little Donkey.... Arre borrequito... (giddy-up, little donkey).

All this to say, in case you hadn't noticed, I love this time of year... the dark nights and twinkling lights, Christmas trees covered with adornos and creative nacimientos of all shapes and sizes, wondrous stars and piñatas, turkey and tamales, paz and goodwill, Christmas carols and villancicos, Father Christmas and Los Reyes Magos, regalos and sharing with friends and family, but also with those who have little or nothing. But especially, Christmas with Christ first, as in the word itself.

Roll on Christmas!

IMG_1073_-_Daya_girls.jpg
Christmas party for the girls at Casa Daya and their children

IMG_0868_-_Ozzy.jpg
Ozzy in a Christmas mood!

Posted by margaretm 06:56 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

"La Magia de la Navidad" in Mexico City

Christmas magic...

IMG_0396_T..thedral.jpg

+++

I can remember clearly when I heard the first Christmas carol this year. It was the day after Dia de Muertos and I was in the supermarket, prodding some avocados to see if they were ripe enough to take home for a salad. Suddenly, my ears pricked up. I could have sworn they were playing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" in the background. It was the first week in November and here I was in short sleeves. The last thing I had on my mind was Christmas and snow.

Sure enough, a few days later, I was back in the supermarket doing my weekly grocery shopping when I distinctly heard "Santa Claus is coming to town". Really? But we were still a month and a half away from Christmas Eve. Looking around though, I noticed that the pumpkins and scarecrows and candy skulls had disappeared, as if by magic, and there taking their place was a tall Christmas tree and a band of cute polar bears in woolly hats and scarves, clutching chocolates. Wow! That was a quick and early transformation.

And so the Christmas season has stealthily been creeping up all around us in DF for the last month and a half. For some time now, Rudolph's red nose has been making him a laughing stock among the other reindeer and the Little Drummer Boy has been busily drumming as if to announce an early start to the Yuletide season. Frosty the Snowman's friends too have invaded the city, despite the visible lack of any snow around. Campañas sobre campañas are ringing and los peces en el rio, fish in the river, are also in a Christmas mood (for those who understand Spanish carols). You see, my ears have become adept at tuning in to the canciones de Navidad all around me. But it isn't just Christmas carols in the air. Mexico City has been undergoing a not-so-subtle change. One look around and you can tell that Navidad has arrived. To tell the truth, I think it arrived over a month ago.

One of the first signs was the disappearance of the golden marigolds or cempasúchil flowers along Reforma. With their golden locks drooping, they were dug up and replaced by thousands of bright red Christmasy poinsettias, zigzagging their way down the centre of the road. "Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree, how lovely are your branches..." Christmas trees of every size, colour and decoration are now almost as commonplace as traffic lights in the streets. It was mid-November when one with enormous crinkly gold Ferrero Rocher spheres caught my eye outside the Auditorio Nacional. In the hot sunshine, I hoped they didn't have any real chocolate inside as otherwise there would soon be a sticky brown mess trickling down. The shopping centres are obviously competing to see whose tree is the biggest and most luxurious. On top of that, if you happen to find yourself in Antara Shopping Centre in Polanco, you may even be surprised by a snowfall. Artificial, of course. Every day for the last few weeks, in the evening, it feels like winter has arrived even though you took off any jumpers long ago, around midday. Perhaps it's not so far-fetched after all to be singing "Dashing through the snow...." here in Mexico City.

IMG_1194-1_-_Reforma.jpg
Poinsettias along Reforma

IMG_9130_-_Ferrero.jpg
Giant Ferrero Rocher chocolates

IMG_8345_-_Moliere.jpg
Huge illuminated Christmas tree in Polanco

IMG_0257_-_Antara.jpg
Christmas tree in Antara Shopping Centre

And talking about bigger and better, it's very traditional to set up a nacimiento or nativity scene in homes to remind the family of the story of Christ's birth. But you will also see large ones colonising house roofs and gardens and this year, the largest nacimiento in the world can be found down at the Azteca Stadium. It's a life-size Bethlehem-type village with 500 figures in 57 scenes created by the Colombian pesebrista, Gustavo Cano, which you can walk around to get the feel of what life what like and what happened that very first Christmas. I can hear the Spanish villancicos playing already...Vamos a Belen....

IMG_0143_-_Pesebre.jpg
Typical nativity scene

IMG_0189_-_Camel.jpg
Camel and posters inviting us to go and visit the biggest nativity scene in the world

Last week I was in the Centro Histórico where I was surprised to see a group of rather merry polar bears, enjoying a joke on the green grass in the Alameda Park. Funny place to see polar bears, was my first thought. Then I saw they were setting up an entire winter wonderland in the park for kids. Apparently, Santa Claus will be putting in an appearance here before he gets busy delivering presents on December 24th, although I'm not sure how he's going to get into some of the houses since there is a distinct shortage of chimneys around here. Maybe he doesn't need to since, like Spain, it's traditional here in Mexico for the Three Kings, Los Reyes Magos, to bring gifts to the kids on January 6th. The Kings too will be taking up their temporary residence here until then. For the last 40 years, Santa and Los Reyes Magos have been stopping off in Mexico City where thousands of children have had their photos taken with them and handed over their letters telling them what they want for Christmas. I heard on the radio that this will probably be the last year for this tradition since they will be completely remodelling the Alameda next year.

IMG_0240_-..r_bears.jpg
Polar bears in the park

IMG_0456_-..a_Claus.jpg
A few Santas can be seen around the city

IMG_0663_-..ia_tree.jpg
Santa on top of the building next to a Christmas tree made with poinsettia plants

Then as I made my way down towards the Zócalo, in the distance I spotted an enormous tree, a gigantic árbol de Navidad, whose angel was eyeing the tops of the old colonial buildings down in the large square. At least they've put the tree in the Zócalo this year and not near the Ángel de la Independencia in Paseo de la Reforma like our first Christmas here. It caused some of the biggest traffic jams imaginable, all for the purpose of getting into the Guiness Book of Records for the tallest Christmas tree. Not that this year's tree is much smaller. It towers over the nearby ice-rink which, in its turn, is also one of the largest in the world. Winter sports have come to Mexico City. As I watched the monitors skating, I wondered how on earth the ice didn't melt in the warm sun. Then the rink filled up with T-shirted novices, some of whom were having severe problems getting from one end to the other, but were obviously having tons of fun. Next we'll be seeing sleigh rides...

IMG_1317-1_-_Madero.jpg
Looking down towards the Christmas tree in the Zócalo

IMG_1332_-_Zocalo.jpg
Christmas has arrived in the Centre Histórico

IMG_1336_-.._Zocalo.jpg
Tinsel and illuminated decorations on the buildings surrounding the Zócalo

IMG_1346-1.._Zocalo.jpg
Feliz Navidad in lights, best appreciated at night

IMG_0358_-..k_above.jpg
Looking down on the ice rink

IMG_0339_-..thedral.jpg
Ice rink with the Cathedral in the background

IMG_0387_-_Skaters.jpg
Skaters enjoying some fun in the sunshine

And then there are all those makeshift stands set up along the road, selling Christmas trees, lights, reindeer, poinsettias and colourful adornos or decorations, often made of woven straw. The first year we were here, we couldn't resist purchasing a Rudolph, made ingeniously from twigs, since he looked so cute. He was accompanied by a few straw decorations. This year our tree and lights came from a stand which set up at the beginning of December.

IMG_0545_-..s_stall.jpg
Christmas stall selling trees and decorations

IMG_0660_-_Stall.jpg
Stars for sale

IMG_0662_-_Reindeer.jpg
Reindeer made of twigs

IMG_0269_-..rations.jpg
Mexican decorations made of straw

IMG_0127_-..rations.jpg
Colourful adornos

IMG_0482_-_Bus.jpg
The Nutcracker Suite

I have to admit that one of my favourite Mexican traditions also reminds me of a Christmas carol."Oh-oh, Star of Wonder, Star of Light... ". All around the city, you'll see thousands of star-shaped piñatas, ranging from tiny to massive. In bright, shimmering colours, with tassles at the ends of the points, they are everything a Mexican adorno should be - eye-catching, colourful, ubiquitous, and stunning. Representations of the Christmas star which led the Wise Men to Jesus. Some have nine points, others have seven or five. Traditionally they were constructed around a clay pot filled with fruit and sweets which broke when the children hit it with a stick. Nowadays they are more likely to be cardboard and paper, not so hard on the head when they burst open.

IMG_0539-1_-_Pi_atas.jpg
Star-shaped piñatas

IMG_0659_-..as_star.jpg
Bright colours

IMG_0271_-..ildings.jpg
Stars on a building façade

Although Navidad has been creeping into the city for much longer, the official start to the Christmas season was the 3rd December when the Mayor switched on the lights in the Zócalo, inaugurated the ice rink and triggered off the massive parade of Christmas floats which made their way around the city centre. Britney Spears did her bit too, with a free concert at the Monumento a la Revolución. And now that Christmas Day is just around the corner, less than one week away, it's time here in Mexico for the tradition of posadas when they enact the scene of José and Maria trudging around looking for some room at the inn (posada). "No room, only a manger of hay..." as the carol says. When they eventually find one, there is a big party with piñatas for the children.

pistahielo2011_25057.jpg
Inauguration of the ice-rink and Christmas lights in the Zócalo

Yesterday some of the newspapers "predicted" a historic snowfall in DF. Actually, they didn't so much consult the weather people as the Mayor's weekend programme. Despite a deep blue, cloudless sky, it snowed along the Eje Central during the Gran Desfile Navideño, a Christmasy parade, which was watched by crowds. Half a million people's "dream of a White Christmas" came true. From comments I saw posted, another half a million got caught in the traffic jams due to road closures. They would have done better on the Little Donkey.... Arre borrequito... (giddy-up, little donkey).

All this to say, in case you hadn't noticed, I love this time of year... the dark nights and twinkling lights, Christmas trees covered with adornos and creative nacimientos of all shapes and sizes, wondrous stars and piñatas, turkey and tamales, paz and goodwill, Christmas carols and villancicos, Father Christmas and Los Reyes Magos, regalos and sharing with friends and family, but also with those who have little or nothing. But especially, Christmas with Christ first, as in the word itself.

Roll on Christmas!

IMG_1073_-_Daya_girls.jpg
Christmas party for the girls at Casa Daya and their children

IMG_0868_-_Ozzy.jpg
Ozzy in a Christmas mood!

Posted by margaretm 06:56 Archived in Mexico Comments (2)

Squeezing 7 million pilgrims into DF

Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe

basilica.jpg

Guadalupe_3.jpg

+++

Over the past few days, there has been a constant background noise of firecrackers.... crack...crack..crack...boom! As you make your way around the city, you are sure to come across men, women and children walking, cycling, riding in the backs of open trucks, singing, carrying images, or bending over with large framed pictures on their back. Lots are wearing T-shirts bearing the same design. So where are they going and why the pilgrimage?

Here in DF we are in the throes of Mexico City's largest Catholic festival, in honour of the Virgen de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), Mexico's patron saint, which takes place around the 12th December. This year, by the end of the several-days-long fiesta, seven million people will have made the pilgrimage to La Basílica de Guadalupe on the outskirts of the city where the original image of the Virgen de Guadalupe is kept, said to be "responsible for uniting pre-Hispanic Indian mysticism with Catholic beliefs". One or two have cycled up to 1200 km from other parts of Mexico, others crawl in on their knees, many come from the surrounding states. Roads are closed or blocked, police cars and police motorbikes escort caravans of people, and trucks decorated with tinsel and images accompany pelotons of by-now wobbly cyclists. Early Sunday morning, before 8 o'clock, as I cycled through the centre wrapped in my jumpers and gloves due to Cold Front Nº 19, I saw groups of families including young children marching their way down Paseo de la Reforma. Some pilgrims have been walking for 4 days. Someone once said that it is virtually impossible to understand Mexico and its culture without appreciating the Mexicans' devotion of La Virgen de Guadalupe. I can believe that.

Pilgrims.jpg
Pilgrims on their way to La Basílica

bicicletas.jpg
A group of cyclists follow their back-up van

When they arrive at La Basilica, reputedly visited by more people than St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City or the shrine at Lourdes, they will queue up to venerate the original image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, sing Las Mañanitas to her and attend a special mass. These days, unless it is your intention, it's better not to accidentally find yourself in that area since it has become the chaotic, colourful venue for teeming masses of weary travellers. Stalls selling sustenance for the body and soul abound. Scores of peregrinos lay sleeping on the ground in a state of combined physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion. Dancing, music, singing and lots of sharing goes on. Sometimes the unexpected happens. This year, a lady accompanied by her husband and three children was just minutes away from the Basilica when she went into labour and the baby was born there and then. The mother missed her chance of going inside since she and her new-born baby were taken to hospital.

Guadalupe_8.jpg
Devout follower carrying a framed picture on his back

Guadalupe.jpg
Masses of pelegrinos at La Basílica

guadalupe_9.jpg
Colourful indigenous dances

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Weary travellers

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Merchandise in neaby stalls

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Carrying images of Mary and other saints

La Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is built on Tepeyac Hill where the Aztec goddess Tonantzín, known as "Our Revered Mother", was worshipped in pre-Hispanic time. It also happened to be the very spot where according to tradition, on 9th December 1531, a poor Indian Juan Diego saw a vision of a lady dressed in a blue mantle who told him to build a church there. The local bishop wanted some proof that it was in fact the Virgin Mary so he asked the peasant to bring him some evidence. Juan Diego returned on 12th December and the Virgin Mary told him to gather up some flowers from the hill in his tilma or cloak and take them back to the Bishop. When he opened up his cloak, the flowers dropped out and the image of the Virgen was miraculously emblazoned on the fabric. The Bishop needed no further convincing and immediately ordered a church to be built on this spot. On completion, the image on the original cloth, framed in gold, was hung there. Since then, millions of devout followers make the pilgrimage to see this image which continues to baffle experts. To many, it sounds suspiciously like a rather cunning ploy on the part of the Spanish priests to get the Indians to convert from their Aztec beliefs to Catholicism. Whether or not the story or image is authentic, however, is not an issue for the masses of fieles whose faith in La Morenita is boundless and who come to thank or ask her for her favours and to make promises they may or may not keep. Since the old church was unable to handle such an enormous number of people, the New Basílica with its spectacular bold design was opened in 1987.

Old_Basilica.jpg
The Old Basilica

New_Basilica.jpg
The New Basilica next to the old church

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The original image hanging inside the New Basilica

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The original image on fabric on show in the Basílica

La Basílica de Guadalupe is, in fact, the most important Catholic shrine in the Americas and is visited by millions from all round the globe every year. These days especially, though, it has been attracting waves and waves of Mexican pilgrims who have engulfed the city not only to venerate La Virgen de Guadalupe on the 12th but also to celebrate on the 9th the feast day of Juan Diego, who was canonized by the Pope in 2002, invoking him as the "protector and advocate of the indigenous peoples". I'm sure many too will stop to do a bit of sightseeing in the Zócalo while they are here. Then they will be gathering up their mats, blankets, bags and backpacks, (and maybe even their pots and pans), and beginning the journey back home, which may take anything from several hours to several days.

Guadalupe_7.jpg

Guadalupe_1.jpg

And as some would say, it may be that, after all these centuries, the Mexicans are in fact still worshiping their goddess, albeit under the guise of their unique synchretic brand of Catholicism.

Posted by margaretm 06:34 Archived in Mexico Tagged religion traditions mexico_city virgen_de_guyadalupe la_basilica Comments (0)

The earth quakes in Mexico City

IMG_1658_-_Sign_2.jpg
Sign seen in the streets telling people to prepare for earthquakes

+++

Last Saturday evening, just before 8 pm, the city shook as an earthquake, 6.5 on the Richter scale, struck. Apparently, it was one of the strongest earthquakes since the devastating one that hit Mexico City on 19th September 1985, killing thousands.

It was definitely the strongest one I have felt since living here in Mexico. Strong enough to send the lampshade swinging wildly. The French windows buckled, the floor shook and the table rattled and moved several inches from the wall. It lasted just over 40 seconds. Actually, I thought it was strong wind at first. Just a few minutes earlier, I had brought in two star-shaped piñatas from the back porch because they were blowing chaotically in the wind. Ozzy was disturbed by them and the hummingbirds weren't happy about coming to the nearby feeders because of the noise and movement. So my immediate thought was that I had left the French doors open slightly and that was why the light in front of them was swinging so much and the windows moving. Of course, that didn't explain why the table was rattling or that it had moved out from against the wall. But when I checked the French doors, I realised not only were they well shut, but they were locked. It couldn't have been the wind. My second thought was, "Wow! That must have been a huge truck going past to do that!" My third attempt at an explanation was that it had been an earth tremor. Josep has felt quite a few strong ones as his office is in a vulnerable area in the centre, but I had only experienced some small shudderings here. I quickly went into the front room where he was busy wrestling with the innards of a portable radiator, brandishing a screwdriver.

"What was THAT?!" I said. "What was what?" he asked, looking up for a moment. "Everthing was moving!" By then, I was almost certain it must have been an earthquake. Marc rang a few minutes later from a friend's house. "Did you feel the earthquake?" They had all rushed downstairs and out into the street. And then when we tried to contact Cristina, on her way to a Christmas supper, all the lines were down. She told us later that her friend's father had rang them while they were in the car. "Are you alright?" he asked worriedly. They were surprised by his tone. "Yes, why?" They hadn't felt anything. Her friend's flat, on the 16th floor, had done a good bit of swaying and things had fallen off the shelves. No wonder her Dad was concerned.

IMG_0498_-_Sign.jpg
In many places, there are instructions on how to act in the event of an earthquake alongside those for fires

IMG_0662_-_Pavement.jpg
Green circles on the pavement indicate assembly points in the event of an earthquake or fire

So that was it. I didn't feel scared. It happened too quickly to even register the fact that it was an earthquake until it was over. Just an uncomfortable touch of motion-sickness, believe it or not. We decided to go out for a pizza as planned. The waiters stood around the TV screens, solemly watching the news. It was a 6.5 earthquake with its epicentre in Guerrero, near Acapulco, and had been felt strongly in nine states, including Mexico City. It's hard for us to appreciate, but here in the city, there is a kind of collective fear of earthquakes ever since the devastating one that occured 26 years ago. Although the earth regularly trembles here, sending people into panic and spilling them out on the streets, this was a strong tremor which shook people up and transported them back to that tragedy. In fact, the experts have been predicting that it is very likely that another very strong terremoto will hit the city in the not-so-distant future so residents have that in the back of their mind.

We heard that three people died in the state of Guerrero as a result, but fortunately here in Mexico City, little damage was done. Electricity went off in 30 colonias, a few cracks appeared, there were some water pipes broken but no loss of life.

Nothing like that day 26 years ago when a 8.1-magnitude earthquake, lasting 2 minutes, followed by a second 7.3-magnitude one the following day, destroyed a large part of the city centre and buried thousands. The forces producing the earth movement caused buildings to move 15º from their vertical axis and some turned 20-25º in a SW direction. The government of that time imposed a news blackout, rejected international help at first and later put the official number of deaths at between 5,000 and 10,000. According to other institutions, it was more likely to have been 40,000. To this day, the exact number of deaths is still a mystery. Due to the government's slow response, it was the citizens themselves who dug people out with their own hands and took care of them. Some 30,000 buildings were totally destroyed, and 68,000 partially damaged. Very illustrative is the fact that, while old buildings like the Cathedral and National Palace suffered little damage, many new ones totally collapsed. Corruption was cited as the reason for poor materials and structures. Unfortunately, 13 of the city's hospitals were seriously damaged, causing much loss of life. Yet there were stories of hope. I read that three newborn babies, known as the Miracle Babies, were rescued 7 days after the earthquake. True milagros.

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The Torre Latino withstood the 1985 earthquake unlike many other buildings around it

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One of the collapsed buildings in Mexico City in 1985

Today, on the site where the Hotel Regis collapsed killing all its occupants, there is a monument in the Plaza de la Solidaridad in memory of those who died in the 1985 tragedy. I found it one day in the Alameda Park while cycling and discovered the story behind it. Today too, a new Alert System has been set up and all schools, like the one Cristina and Marc go to, have regular earthquake simulacros or drills. And of course, every 19th September, the whole of the city has a mega-simulacro de sismo, remembering that tragic day 26 years ago.

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A photo of the Hotel Regis before and after the 1985 earthquake

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Monument in the Plaza de la Solidaridad in memory of those who died in the 1985 earthquake

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The plaque at the moment

No wonder many people in DF panic and run out into the streets when they feel the earth move strongly underneath them. They lived through the 1985 terremoto and are the survivors of that day.

Posted by margaretm 08:19 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico city earthquakes Comments (0)

The long way down - an epic journey

Monarch butterflies

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Around this time last year, at the beginning of December, we drove out to the mountains in the state of Michoacán to see some special travellers. They had flown down from Canada and the United States, not on a plane, but amazingly using their tiny fragile wings. An incredible 4500 km which takes them about 2 months. This astounding long-distance journey by the Monarch butterfly (mariposa monarca) is one of nature's truly spectacular feats and defies the imagination. Every year, millions of these beautiful orange and black butterflies fly south down to Mexico, arriving in November, where they spend the winter and reproduce in the oyamel forests of Michoacán and Estado de México, before setting off back to the north in February.

The first time we saw these butterflies fluttering in the woods of Mexico was in February 2009. We had come over to Mexico City to find a place to live and get a general idea of life here. One day we hired a car and set off to Valle de Bravo and as we wound our way through the mountains, we suddenly came across a road sign with a speed limit of 15 kmph. We didn't know it back then but this was mariposa land, and the air was aflutter with delicate orangey smudges glinting where the sun's rays filtered through the thick woods. It was an amazing sight, but perhaps equally incredible was the fact that many of the cars and trucks which minutes earlier had raced past us down the road, recklesssly overtaking on blind corners, suddenly came to an almost complete standstill and crawled solemnly along these protected kilometers. I mean, they took this seriously.

Last year, we decided to go and see where the mariposas monarca spend the winter in their millions, turning trees a dull orange colour. El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary near Angangueo, about 100 km from Mexico City, looked within driving distance so off we set. As always in Mexico, distances which look so close on a map always turn out to be much further, and trips take much longer than planned because other vehicles on the road move much slower than anticipated and roads can be much more hole-pocked than imagined. Three hours? It seemed more like three days. Finally we arrived at Zitácuaro, and turned up into the mountains. Here the hills and valleys turned greener and more wooded, while the lower slopes had become fiery red with hundreds of thousands of poinsettia plants, known here as nochebuenas, ready to be taken to the cities for Christmas. It was beautiful country. Up we chugged until we almost reached Angangueo, and then followed the signs to El Rosario. This was one trip which seemed to go ON and ON and UP and UP. Passing small poor-looking, wooden houses topped with tin roofs, our car finally came to a halt in a large open space which served as a car park. We got out and stretched our cramped bodies. At last we'd arrived. Or so we thought. Taking to our legs, we climbed up the path squeezed between a long line of simple huts where the local people sold souvenirs and crafts to visitors like us. Since a few years ago when a ban on all logging and slash and burn activity was established, the butterflies are the main source of income for the nearby villages and tourists only visit during a few months. For this poor, quite remote area, it is a godsend to have visitors buy their handiwork.

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The Monarch butterfly is a symbol of the state of Michoacán

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On our way to Zitácuaro - the roads were excellent along the first part

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We drove through beautiful wooded countryside

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Small church on the mountainside near the Butterfly Sanctuary

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The paved path went between lots of small wooden huts

Just when we thought we should surely be seeing some butterflies, the Sanctuary itself appeared, a small area with an information centre, toilets, a ticket office, and hand-painted murals depicting the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. We were at about 3000m (10,000 ft). A local man was assigned to accompany us up the mountain and off we set. "How long will it take?" we asked. "Hay que caminar media hora o cuarenta minutos", he replied. A thirty or forty minute climb? So we still had a long way to go up. It turned out to be a steep climb straight up the mountainside which challenged our legs and left us gasping for breath. What we didn't know then was that the top of the mountain lies at an altitude of 3400m (11,000 ft). Thankfully, the trail was very well-kept and we had plenty of time to digest the interesting signs giving information about the butterflies. Nature had done its best for us too. We found ourselves immersed in a thick forest of pines and oyomel fir trees, tall and slender, soaring up above us. We couldn't even see their crowns. Light filtered through in patches. It seemed like we were the only ones here. No butterflies either. I was puzzled.

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Entrance to El Rosario

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Hand-painted mural of the life cycle of the butterfly

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A well-kept trail took us up the mountainside

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Oyamel firs soaring upwards

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One of the first butterflies we saw

Then suddenly I saw a bright orange flash above me. Sure enough it was a monarch butterfly. So we WERE on course, after all. I was beginning to think we'd come too early, that the butterflies hadn't arrived yet. As we emerged into a sunny clearing on the shoulder of the mountain, the sky was aflutter with these beautiful mariposas. The warmth of the sun had woken them up. About 100 metres below us were a group of people who had just got off some horses. They'd paid for four legs to get them up the steep hill, not a bad idea for those who are not acclimatised to the high altitude. Our guide motioned for us to follow him. "Up again?" Yes, another 10 minutes. We plunged into the forests again and this was when we saw what it was all about. Here at the very top of the mountain was the Mexican destination for millions of monarch butterflies. They were resting on bushes and tree branches, congregating around little trickles of water, fluttering their wings where the sun reached down through the trees. And just where another group of people were whispering excitedly, we could see whole tree trunks and branches looking more like gigantic orangey plumeros or feather dusters as masses of butterflies clung to them. You couldn't even see the leaves and the branches were bending down with the weight. No-one was allowed to go near them and visitors had to keep silent so as not to disturb them. I gasped for breath, but wasn't sure whether it was the effect of the steep climb, the high altitude or because I was overwhelmed by so much natural beauty. Maybe it was a combination of all three. It was definitely one of those magical moments.

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Out in the sunshine

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A Monarch butterfly warming up in the sunshine

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A bush full of monarcas

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Many people ride up on horses instead of walking - easier on the lungs and legs!

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Masses of butterflies congregated near some water

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Jostling for a good position near the water!

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One of the trees laden with butterflies at the top of the mountain

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Not orange flowers, butterflies!

I found myself trying to imagine those small frail creatures, winging their way down from Canada, against the wind, through storms, dodging predators. Fluttering unseen over vast expanses of wilderness, or cultivated fields, through woods. Maybe they passed over the Grand Canyon, or the Rocky Mountains. What a feat! I had read that the average lifespan of Monarch butterflies was about 4 weeks but that the generation which is born at the end of August, also known as the "Methusela Generation", survive for almost 8 months, long enough for them to fly south to Mexico and escape the harsh northern winters. 4500 kms later, they arrive in the oyamel forests where we were standing right then, where their great-great-great grandparents migrated a year earlier. Scientists are still trying to understand how they can find their way down to the same forests, several generations apart. It was all mind-boggling.

I stood in the silence, impressed by the respect shown to these tiny creatures. Keeping quiet, preserving their habitat, driving slowly in areas where the butterflies were flying through. There is a traditional belief in Michoacán that these are the souls of people who have died, coming back home. I tried to imagine what it was like for people living here hundreds of years ago, without all the knowledge we have nowadays and more or less confined to their small villages and mountain valleys, to see millions of these butterflies arriving here every year in the autumn and fluttering off in February. No wonder they gave them a mystical meaning. Yet, even knowing what we do now, that they fly over 4500 kms from Canada and the USA, using a special sophisticated navigation system to help direct them to these forests in Mexico which is transmitted genetically from generation to generation, leaves us equally in awe.

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The air was aflutter with the butterflies

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Side view of the Monarch butterfly

It was time to go back down. We skipped down the steep hillside and stopped to buy a few craft items from the women at the bottom. Two young boys ran after us as we looked for our car, singing a couple of songs. They too were trying to earn a few pesos for their families.

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Time to go back down

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Two butterflies seen on the way down

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Simple wooden huts, with plenty of ventilation!

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Even the toilets had butterfly motifs on them!

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A few souvenir stalls

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Mugs to remind you of your visit

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Looking back up at the top of the mountain where we had been

We arrived back in Mexico City, tired, but glad we went. The long hours on the road, the never-ending climbing up, the gasping of our lungs.. it had all been worth it. Definitely a sight not to miss. In fact, this natural phenomenon is so spectacular and important that in 2008 UNESCO declared the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Central Mexico a World Heritage Site and helps protect the overwintering site of these tiny travellers.

Cristina hadn't come with us since she was staying overnight with a friend and we tried to tell her what she missed. It was lost on her since she views butterflies in the same category as wasps and spiders, and shuddered at the thought of being so close to millions of insects. Still, for most people it is a visit to make at least once in their lifetime, if the opportunity arises. You won't be disappointed.

Posted by margaretm 04:56 Archived in Mexico Tagged mountains nature trips butterflies michoacán Comments (0)

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