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Mazamitla, in the mountains of Jalisco

The closest thing to a Mexican alpine village


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.


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.


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.


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.



The church is rather intriguing and certainly not the usual stone 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.



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.


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.


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.


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!"


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.


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!


Posted by margaretm 04:56 Archived in Mexico Tagged mountains mexico christmas outdoor mazamitla Comments (2)

Mexican Christmas decorations

Artistic and colorful

Mexico is a colorful place any time of year but round about Christmas time, the markets become even brighter and more colorful with a wide range of locally made Christmas decorations. Of course, the glittering star-shaped piñatas catch your eye immediately but so do the beautifully crafted decorations made of straw, wood, glass, ceramic and metal.

I saw these three Christmas trees covered in traditional Mexican decorations at the bottom of the hill leading up to the Castillo de Chapultepec in the park and couldn't resist taking some photos...


There's no end to the market stalls overflowing with color and artistic creativity. Here are a few more photos...


Before we leave Mexico, I'm definitely going to fill my suitcase with a few of these to take back home!

Posted by margaretm 03:36 Archived in Mexico Tagged christmas traditions color crafts mxico Comments (1)

Posadas and Pastorelas - Mexican traditions

Christmas in Mexico

One of the fun things about living in another country is learning about their traditions and seeing how they differ from yours. Christmas, celebrated in so many parts of the world, at different latitudes, under varying climates and cultures, can be full of surprises and substitute customs. For example, holly or mistletoe are not well known in this part of the world so have been replaced by something else a little more Mexican... the nochebuena or poinsettia, the plant responsible for turning the cities and towns red at this time of year.


Nor are Mexicans very familiar with the idea of the Twelve Days of Christmas, pipers piping, maids a-milking, or partridges in pear trees. They do, however, celebrate the nine days up to Christmas Eve, from 16th to 24th December with nine Posadas. Literally, una posada is an "inn" so essentially what they do is re-enact the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and their search for lodging.

This is how it works. Mexican families host a Posada in their house, inviting friends, family and neighbours to come along. The hosts act as the innkeepers and the guests are the pilgrims. When they arrive, lighted candles are held by both groups and they take turns singing verses of a rather lengthy song to each other through the gate or door. These are some of the words:

The pilgrims outside start by singing:

In the name of heaven
I ask you for shelter,
for my beloved wife
can go no farther.

The innkeepers reply:

This is not an inn
Get on with you,
I can not open the door,
you might be a rogue.

The pilgrims continue:

Do not be inhuman,
Show some charity,
God in heaven
will reward you.

To which the innkeepers sing:

You may go now
and don't bother us anymore
because if I get angry
I will beat you.

Then those outside say who they are in the following verses:

We are worn out
all the way from Nazareth,
I am a carpenter
named Joseph.

My wife is Mary.
she is the Queen of Heaven,
she will be mother
to the Divine Word.

To which the innkeepers sing:

Is that you Joseph?
Your wife is Mary?
Enter pilgrims
I didn't recognize you.

At this point, both those inside and outside sing some final lines and the hosts open the door and welcome the pilgrims inside their home. Then the party begins with food and drink, music and socializing and everyone has fun. A piñata filled with sweets and goodies is strung up and the children take turn to hit it, hoping to be the one to burst it open and send the candy tumbling down on the floor. As each child (or person) takes their turn hitting the piñata, the onlookers sing:

Dale. Dale, dale,
no pierdas el tino.
Porque si lo pierdes,
pierdes el camino,
Ya le diste una,
Ya le diste dos,
ya le diste tres,
y tu tiempo se acabo.

Which roughly translated into English is:

Hit it, hit it, hit it
Don't lose your aim
Because if you lose it
You will lose your way.
You've already hit it once
You've already hit it twice
You've already hit it three times
And now your turn is over.

Christmas wouldn't be complete without another tradition which is very popular in Mexico.... the Pastorela, a kind of nativity play which recreates the account of the shepherds going to see the Christ Child at Bethlehem. In a particular Mexican twist to the story, the shepherds have to confront the Devil who does everything possible to try to prevent them from their mission. The Archangel Michael appears to defend the shepherds and protect them on their journey.

The other day I had the opportunity to experience both of these traditions, when I was invited to the Posada at Casa Daya, a safe home for teenage girls and young mums and their children, where I do voluntary work. The combination of posada - pastorela turned out to be a great way to experience two of Mexico's best-loved traditions at the same time.

Innkeepers and pilgrims sing on either side of the gate.

Lighted candles are held as they sing

The girls acting in the "pastorela"

Shepherds and angels

Time for something to eat and drink

A small child hits the piñata with a stick

The piñata breaks and the sweets fall out

A scramble to get some of the goodies

So no holly, mistletoe or partridges in a pear tree but plenty of fun. And we all got miniature poinsettia plants or nochebuenas as a token of their appreciation.

Posted by margaretm 05:25 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Wintry Christmas magic

Mexican-style winter


It's coming up to 6.30 pm and dusk has fallen on top of us like a soft blanket. The temperature has dropped several degrees and there's a persistent wind, waking up the huge flag from its usual limp slumber and throwing it into frenzied fits. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and then decide to wrap a thin scarf around my neck to protect me from the wind's clawing fingers. The man next to me is shivering in a T-shirt, wishing he'd anticipated the change of season in the last half hour. His small daughter is dressed from head to toes in pink, obviously her favourite color. At least she won't get lost. We're all waiting, and in the meantime, watching an army of ant-like figures frenetically skating in a vaguely anti-clockwise direction on the enormous ice-rink below. Skates, helmets and seal-shaped sleds to push kids on or hold onto with white knuckles are all a coordinated bright orange color.

I turn to the young couple on the other side of me. They are huddling up to one another, "A qué hora van a prender las luces?" I ask. I'm wondering what time they are going to switch the lights on. They're not sure. They thought it would be at 6 o'clock. Maybe at 6.30 pm. I'm hoping so.



It all seems a bit surreal. Here I am in the middle of Mexico City, in the massive central square, the Zócalo, feeling decidely chilly looking down on the largest ice-rink in Latin America. And waiting for them to switch on the Christmas lights. Looming opposite me is the huge shadowy bulk of the Cathedral, silent and melancholic, slowly sinking down into the soft ground, vigilando la plaza under its stern gaze. I wonder if it approves of this year's winter wonderland spread at its feet. Probably. It certainly makes a change from the panorama of the last few months. For weeks on end, thousands of teachers from Oaxaca and other states took the large square hostage and camped here in a chaotic mess to protest against the government's education reforms. It had begun to look like a stubbornly permanent refugee camp, complete with streets and restaurant tents. You needed a map and large doses of determination to attempt a crossing of the plaza. The discontented teachers were finally evicted in mid-September to make way for the patriotic Independence Day celebrations and for a short while, the Zócalo was released from the clutches of its secuestradores. I have no idea if a ransom was paid or not.

After the Dia de la Independencia came the political meetings in protest at the energy reform billl, followed by the International Book Fair, the Science and Technology event, the Day of the Dead ... and so on. Now the twin towers of the Catedral Metropolitana are smiling down on families enjoying the Christmas atmosphere and holidaymakers sporting orange skates trying to stay upright on the ice. Meanwhile, tourists in Turibuses are coughed up into the square and left to reconcile the coexistence of Aztec temples, colonial cathedrals and modern-day technology responsible for bringing the frozen Arctic to Mexican latitudes.



As we continue to wait, the ice-rink slowly empties and winds down for the day and night closes in on all sides. Then, all of a sudden, the enormous Christmas tree on the other side of the rink leaps into action. I'm impressed. It's exactly 6.30 pm. Where there was just a black outline seconds before, now the tree takes shape in the darkness with thousands of small twinkling lights coming to life. I can literally hear the plaza gasp. Two minutes later, the darkness is split by a burst of thousands more light bulbs illuminating the square. Cheers and waves of applause and murmurs of approval accompany the arrival of the Christmas lights. It was worth the chilly wait in the wind.


Sitting on the highest tier of the spectator seating, it feels like I can just stretch my hand out and touch the light bulbs behind me. For once, the Cathedral and the Palacio Nacional take a step back into the shadows and retreat into anonymity while the buildings on the other two sides of the square take on the leading role. They have waited all year, anxious to proclaim their Christmas greetings - Feliz Navidad and Próspero Año 2014 - to the inhabitants of Mexico City and visitors. Their vibrant colors and Christmas designs - poinsettias. candles, carol singers, stars and tree decorations - light up the city and set the mood for this season.


I wander around observing my fellow-visitors and then remember I'm supposed to pick Marc up from Polanco shortly. Time to move on. I join the slowly-flowing river of people as it makes its way down pedestrianised Madero Street. Earlier when I was heading in the opposite direction towards the Zócalo from the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the street was already brimming with shoppers and families. Inside the Casa de los Azulejos, a huge star-shaped piñata was strung up above the restaurant tables. I hoped it wouldn't accidentally drop into someone's quesadillas below. A bit further on, I stopped to listen to a band of troubadours, who looked like they had been transported in a time machine straight from Medieval Germany. Elsewhere, a group of young children dressed in red wooly jumpers were singing Los peces en el rio (the Fish in the River) under the banner of the Salvation Army.


Now, feeling just like fish swimming in the river, we are carried downstream towards the Torre Latino, expanding like a viscous mass of humanity to occupy all the available space between the buildings on either side. Suddenly, we're surprised by the sound of ringing bells and children's voices singing Christmas carols and are treated to the sight of an unexpected snowfall. All along the street, flurries of skinny white flakes start floating in the air, before being energetically whisked off by the wind, much to the delight of toddlers, youngsters and adults alike. As if in response to a previously-planned choreography, scores of iPhones and smartphones are whipped out of pockets to record the fleeting event and provide proof to non-believers. It doesn't matter that it's not the authentic frozen stuff. Mexicans in DF rarely have the chance to see real nieve so even a clear imposter of the white stuff is welcome. A small boy wearing a red cap claps his hands enthusiastically, trying to catch some flakes, balanced on his father's shoulders, who appears to be as ecstatic as his son is. Yes, it definitely feels like Christmas here in the Centro Histórico and I'm caught up in the festive mood too.


My phone begins buzzing in my pocket. Message from Marc: "Mum, pls meet me at Antara half an hour." Well, that will need to be a flexible Mexican 30 minutes if I'm going to get there in time. At the bottom of the Torre Latino, a tidal wave of pedestrians is heaped up, waiting for the green light to cross the main road. As the cars screech to a halt and a small traffic policeman in his fluorescent vest starts his symphony of whistle-blowing and hand-waving, the wave surges forward and rushes across, breaking on the shore at the other side. I extricate myself from it and hurry down into the bowels of the car park under Bellas Artes. Quick, I must get to Polanco.


I spend 11 minutes just trying to get out of the car park. This is the other side of Christmas in Mexico City. The traffic is worse than usual. My phone buzzes again. "Mum, traffic terrible. Will walk to school. Meet me there." Phew! That will probably cut off an extra 45 minutes trapped in a solidified line of cars. I settle down to another long wait and pick up my camera to look through my photos. They will keep me in the Christmas spirit for a bit longer as the neighbouring vehicles slowly wrap themselves around me in a python's strangle. Happy Christmas!


Posted by margaretm 07:58 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico christmas mexico_city Comments (0)

Letter to The Three Kings, Father Christmas, Santa...

My Christmas List 2013


TO: Your Majesties the Three Kings, Father Christmas, Santa, Papa Noël and anyone else who makes wishes come true

Greetings! I know you are all very busy at this time of year and I also know that I've left it very late to write this letter to you. But as you are all full of goodwill, I'm sure you'll find something on my Christmas List that you can maybe help with. First of all, thank you for what you did to make some of my wishes come true the last time I wrote. A lot of the holes in the road WERE filled... they have just re-appeared after the rainy season again. Maybe they could be filled up again? And I read somewhere that the lakes in Chapultepec Park ARE going to be cleaned... now we have to wait and see how long that will take. And finally, YES, the authorities have announced that there will be a COMPULSORY DRIVING TEST for everyone in DF starting in 2014. How on earth did you pull that one off?! I am truly thankful to you all.

Now here's my list this year. First of all, I have included a few things which Mexico City needs desperately and then a few personal ones:


Please could you:

1. Bring to an end to all the protest marches and blockages which are making life very difficult and terribly frustrating here in the city.
2. Send all the teachers from Oaxaca, Guerrero and Veracruz who are currently camping out around the Monumento a la Revolución back to their communities so they can do what they are paid to do.
3. Remove all corrupt politicians, policemen, judges, businessmen, union leaders, tow-truck drivers and others from their positions and replace them with honest people.
4. Cream off a bit of the nata (layer of pollution which hangs over our city most days) and deliver some fresh air.
5. Give someone the idea of planning an efficient suspended monorail system to transport the millions of people who need moving around the city each day.
6. Make sure all the man-holes in the middle of the roads are covered.
7. Get rid of the huge one-way system around Section 2 of Chapultepec Park and allow us to park free-of-charge there.
8. Lengthen autumn and shorten winter here in the city.
9. Soften the hearts of all the arrogantly wealthy people so they can spread a bit of goodwill and help the less fortunate.
10. Donate musical instruments to children and youngsters in crime-ridden neighborhoods so they have a chance to escape a life of drugs and delinquency.
11. Make it compulsory for all drivers, regardless of how long they have been so-called driving, to take a series of free driving lessons so they know what to do at roundabouts and how to change lanes without putting everyone's life in danger.
12. Remove all the sugar in soft drinks to reduce the alarming levels of diabetes in the city.
13. Increase the number of sports classes a week in schools from one to four so children can lead healthier lives. (You may have to arrange for the delivery of fresh air first before they do more outdoor activities!)
14. Ban all earthquakes over 4.5 on the Richter scale and stop the volcano Popocatepetl from smoking.
15. Align Mexican time with the rest of the world so that when they say, "See you in one hour", it means 60 minutes and not 125 minutes.


Please could you:

1. Get someone to invent tele-transportation so that Cristina can pop over for weekends from Barcelona.
2. Find a top-notch basketball team for Marc here in the city within 20 minutes's drive of his school.
3. Give Josep a magic wand for use at work.
4. Bring me a new camera. I wore my last one out.
5. Reduce Ozzy's energy and anxiety levels. Maybe he needs some tranquilizing tablets.

Thank you so much for helping out with my list and I'm sorry it's so long and has arrived a bit late.

Happy Christmas to you all!

Yours very sincerely


Posted by margaretm 05:44 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico christmas Comments (0)

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