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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)

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)

Bone-shaking roads and waterfalls

Las Cascadas Mágicas

Part 5 - Magical waterfalls

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It took 1 and a half hours of bone-shaking driving into the mountains to find the waterfalls but they were well worth the effort and damage to our bodies. It's not every day you get one of nature's spectacular spots all to yourself!

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We started off the day with a full-blown Mexican breakfast, knowing that there would be nowhere to eat along the way

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We soon found ourselves driving along a very dusty bumpy dirt road heading up to the mountains

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A small church we passed along the way

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This area was still very dry

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A typical house along the way

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Watched attentively by the locals - a dog and turkey!

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A small wayside stand by the road

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Driving deeper into the mountains.. here it was very green

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Crossing a stream

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Tree draped in lianas

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We finally arrive at the waterfalls. It took 1 hr 10 minutes to cover 30 kms of bone-shaking dirt mountainous road

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Beautiful lush rainforest all around

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The first waterfall we saw

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Th Bridal Veil waterfall

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Looked so refreshing

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Walking to the other waterfalls

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Green everywhere!

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Squeezing through the rock

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Huge tree trunks

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A waterfall all to ourselves!

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No captions needed for the following photos... this is paradise!

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Time to go back down... slow going, following the local "bus"

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A satellite dish in the middle of the forest!

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Breakfast on the beach at Santa Cruz - our last full day at the Bahias de Huatulco

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Delicious sincronizadas

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This can only be Mexico!

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Souvenirs in Crucecita

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Funny sign seen

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Fried ice-cream!!!!!

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Weaving looms where they make rugs and mats and fabrics

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Colour everywhere!

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Even the chairs!

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Mexican-style prawn cocktail - delicious!!

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Sunrise on our last day

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We ate breakfast on the empty beach at Playa de Chahue

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Huatulco Airport with its palm huts! The end of our holiday and back to Mexico City!

Posted by margaretm 06:11 Archived in Mexico Tagged waterfalls food beach mexico oaxaca Comments (0)

Fast food Mexican-style

Eating out

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A while ago, a Mexican friend of mine asked me a question which I thought was rather strange. "¿Cocinas en casa?" Do you cook at home?" Maybe she thought my husband was the chef in our house. "I mean, the food in Mexico is SO cheap and fresh and you can get it everywhere that it's hardly worth cooking yourself!. I rarely cook," was her reply. Ah, now I understood what she was getting at.

For those of us who come to Mexico from other parts of the globe, it's one of the first things we notice. Food, in every imaginable shape, colour, form, texture and content, impregnates street life with its characteristic fragrance and is literally as commonplace as the air particles you breathe here. It would be as impossible to dissociate food from Mexico's streets as it would be to bleach the colour out of its buildings and textiles or wrench religion from the heart of its people. Everywhere you go, at all times of the day, you will be confronted with one of the major aspects of Mexican life, their national hobby... eating out. Not in a restaurant, but on the streets.

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Fast food served on the street

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Dishing out quesadillas

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Roasting corn

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Night-time stall

Take where we live, for example. Street food wafts into our house, not as an aroma, but rather in the form of sounds. We hear the loud, metallic nasal sound of a Donald Duck voice blasting through a loudspeaker... "tamales oaxaqueños, ricos y calientitos"... as the man comes round the streets on his tricycle packed with energy-giving fare. Or the shrill whistle of a contraption, stoked with burning wood, which is pushed up and down the nearby hill. Back home in Europe it would be used for roasting chestnuts, but here it roasts corn-on-the-cob from which the grains are extracted and drenched with lime and chilli powder or chipotle-flavoured salsa. Walk just metres down from our house and you'll bump into a large bulky pick-up truck which is often parked inconveniently half over the narrow pavement, on a blind corner, opposite a parked car. In the back sits a man who looks like he's about to play a home-made drum kit. Large pots and pans gather around him, some steaming, and he dishes out things I've never seen in my life before. Amazingly, there is always a numerous little group of people standing around in the road and on the pavement, platicando or chatting away, totally oblivous to the fact that cars and buses are having difficulty in passing.

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Lady selling tamales

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Two women cook for workers from nearby offices

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Some people even barbecue in the streets

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Wheeling lots of fresh fruit around

Move on a little further down this street and you'll come across the lady who arrives most mornings in her small blue Hyundai Atos car before daybreak. As I walk my dog, I watch her open the hatchback, and start setting up her table and stool, heaving buckets of cool water and crates of Coke bottles to the pavement, and carefully arranging the snacks and sweets on her table. Then she sweeps the road all around her mobile "shop" and settles down to do some sewing or reading. In the cold weather, she sets up on the sunny side of the road. In the warm weather, on the shady side.

But that's not all. We have just reached the main road and as we turn the corner, right by the bus stop, is the next eatery. This one specialises in breakfast. I'm not sure when these people arrive as they are usually busy cooking, boiling or warming breakfast items on a stove which is roaring away when I arrive. They've put out a few upturned plastic buckets and stools for clients who sit or stand around with steaming cups of something (I have yet to determine the exact identity of the liquid), biting into tortas, tacos and tortillas while they wait for the bus. Several times, Ozzy our dog has rounded the corner and almost landed in the pot.

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Breakfast stop by the bus stop

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Outdoor cooking

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Father and daughter selling sincronizadas

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Food stalls in Coyoacán

Then if you turn right into Paseo de la Reforma, about 500 metres down the road, on the other side, you'll see a rather curious sight around midday. At the bottom of some shiny blue high-rise office buildings, parked half on the busy road and half on the pavement, obstructing the bus stop and the five lanes of fast-flowing traffic trying to condense into three, is often a battered old silver VW Beetle, with its bonnet up, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. Since I was usually busy trying to avoid being crushed by the solid tidal waves of vehicles engulfing me on either side, I found it difficult to see what everyone was so interested in. Until one day, I led the traffic for once and managed to sneak a peek. There was a lady energetically dishing out lunch from a series of cauldrons, squeezed tightly into the tiny space where other cars normally put their engine. No wonder there were so many suit-and-tied men around. They weren't chivalrously attempting to fix her engine at all!

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Quick business lunch in the street

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Small van specialising in esquites

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This man has even set up a fridge for cool drinks!

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Bright-coloured candyfloss being sold in Chapultepec

It doesn't matter where you go, you will come across Fast Food servers at every turn in Mexico. It may be the housewife in her bright apron and folding stool with a basket of churros by the road. Or the family who parks near some offices, unloads tables and plastic stools and a gas container from an old car boot. Within seconds, the fire is roaring, you can hear the chop-chopping of meat and vegetables being slaughtered, and the familiar smell of carnitas or tacos al pastor begins to saturate the air. In heavy congestion, where any possible vehicle movement has been strangled by road works or congealed traffic, an army of men, women, boys and girls march along between the cars offering gorditas de nata, pushing large plastic dustbins on wheels containing ice-cold water or Coca Cola or carry sticks hanging with fluorescent-coloured abañicos, Mexican snacks. Outside schools you can see people with push-along trolleys selling plastic cups of freshly cut-up mango along with a small plastic fork to make it more pleasurable for your fingers. A really healthy snack for a few pesos. I even remember wandering around the Alameda Park not too long ago and seeing some ladies pushing wheelbarrows full of jicaletas, sprinkled red with chilli powder, and other snacks. Now that's ingenious, I thought. Everywhere, Mexicans eat outside, on the street, in their car, in the park, at the corner, from the back of a truck or car, on the metro and in a million other creative places.

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Eating lunch in the street

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A typical outdoor eating place

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Man preparing tacos

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You can buy healthy snacks like fresh fruit

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Man with his wheelie bin making his way up between the lines of traffic

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Using a wheelbarrow to take his snacks and sweets around

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Two daughters helping their mum

Mexico's national hobby is alive and well and I can safely say that, barring a major catastrophy, you'll never starve in Mexico. In fact, just seeing and smelling all that Mexican-style fast food will give you your fill most days. And to answer my friend's question, "Yes, I do cook at home." I haven't seen them selling spaghetti bolognaise or Indian curry on the streets yet.

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A snack stand in Chapultepec park

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Sitting by the roadside selling fruit

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Man preparing tacos al pastor

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A nun selling home-made food outside a church

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Bringing lunch to you on the canals at Xochimilco

Posted by margaretm 12:40 Archived in Mexico Tagged food Comments (0)

Aztec ruins, an Augustinian monastery, and exhuberant nature

Malinalco, one of Mexico's 38 Pueblos Mágicos

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Aztec ruins at Malinalco

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The town is packed with colour

On the map, Malinalco looks as if it's just around the corner from Mexico City. Driving there is a different matter, though. On average, it will take you a good two hours to get to this small mountain town, depending on how many ancient wheezing vehicles you get stuck behind, how potholed the road is after the rains, whether any of the villages you go through are having a fiesta and other equally diverse reasons.

On leaving Mexico City, you first have to climb up over the mountains to about 3000 m (over 9000 ft) and then make your way along the small roads. The trip itself can be quite entertaining. You'll probably see sheep sharing football fields with players, wayside stalls selling bright green sausages, shrines along the way where someone went off the road or had an accident, people riding horses and donkeys, hundreds of stray dogs, a place selling frogs and lots of small disorganised villages with tangles of black spaghetti hanging over the roads which supposedly are electricity lines. Depending on the weather, you may even have to drive through thick cloud which whites out everything in front of you and on either side. But then suddenly, you look down on a beautiful lush green valley with strange lumpy mountains all around and you drive down into a different world.

Malinalco may be fairly close to Mexico City and Cuernavaca but it has a kind of remote, cut-off feel to it. It's a charming little town with its cobbled streets, colonial-style houses and hidden secrets tucked away among exhuberant vegetation. Colour is everywhere... thick blue skies and bubbly white clouds, succulent jungle all around, bougainvilla and other eye-catching flowers, multi-hued buildings, vivid market stalls.... a real photographer's paradise. For a small mountain town, it's also got more than its fair share of cultural sites, which include impressive Aztec ruins high up on the mountainside affording spectacular views over the valley below, a 16th Century monastery with unique frescos depicting cactus plants, trees and birds, totally in keeping with the surrounding natural environment, a museum, arty places and a string of interesting festivals. As we also discovered, it's a great place for trying out some delicious Mexican dishes.

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Looking up a cobbled street

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Fountain and shady trees in the main square

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Girl and donkey making their way up a cobbled street

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Bougainvillia and other colourful flowers

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El Convento del Divino Salvador

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Beautiful frescos in the cloisters

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Close-up of cactus fresco

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Decorated arches

We'll never forget the first time we went there. We had only been in Mexico for a few weeks when some friends of ours said they would take us to a picturesque little town for lunch, called Malinalco. "Where is this Malinalco?" I asked. "You have to go up to La Marquesa and then it's further out that way. We'll be leaving at about 1.30pm." Well, La Marquesa is about 20 minutes away so we guessed it would be maybe another 40 minutes or so after that. We assumed wrong. Following their car, we made slow progress and as the time ticked by, our stomachs began to protest noisily. Breakfast had been around our usual 8.30 time and we'd had nothing else to eat. By the time we reached Malinalco and parked, it was getting on for 4 pm. Now that's not an unusual time of day for Mexicans to eat lunch, especially at the weekend, but we were definitely not used to eating so late.

We forgave Malinalco for being so far away, though. Set in a beautiful, nature-blessed valley, off the main tourist trails, it really was worth a visit and we soon filled our ravenous stomachs up with all sorts of tasty Mexican dishes at a curious, colour-drenched restaurant in the main square. This was followed by a leisurely stroll around the markets to help the digestion process, and a peep inside the Convento del Divino Salvador which was built by the Augustinian monks and dates back to 1540. What was a huge monastery like this with its magnificient cloister and unusual frescos doing right out here in the sticks? I wondered. (On our subsequent visit, three weddings were underway in this enormous church.) That was as far as we got that first day since we then had to make our way back home to Mexico City. But it was a great appetizer.

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Inside the restaurant

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Paint-splattered floor

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Dish with chorizo and queso

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Market stall with fruit and vegetables in neatly stacked piles

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Bride on her way to her wedding at the church, passing through the market

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One of the many small churches in Malinalco

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Church tower with the mountains behind

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Horse riders

Since then, we make our annual pilgrimage to Malinalco and have discovered the impressive ruins high above the town. To reach them, you have to walk up 358 stone steps cut out into the mountainside which lurks somewhere beneath a thick cloak of moss, flowers and trees. Your lungs tend to protest more than your legs at this altitude but it's well worth the wheezing. This important Aztec site and ceremonial centre perched up on Cerro de los Idolos (Hill of Idols) towers 215 m (720 ft) above the town and was used as a centre for training and educating young recruits to the Imperial Aztec forces. If you're lucky, a guide will explain what the different structures were used for, and will point out the 13 steps, flanked by two headless jaguar statues, which lead up to the Templo de los Guerreros Águila y Tigre, with its thatched roof. This site is unusual in that it is one of the few places in the world that have temples carved into the mountain itself and is unique in America. Even if you aren't particularly interested in the history and archeology, the views are breathtaking and the exercise helps you work up an appetite. Looking down on Malinalco is like peering at a miniature town, complete with its daily noises wafting upwards.

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Handicraft stalls at the start of the climb up to the ruins

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Well-kept path and stone steps

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Thick vegetation and surrounding mountains

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Aztec ruins

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Guide explaining the history of the site to visitors

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View looking down over the valley

All around the town are a whole range of restaurants and eating places. This year we ate at Las Pilares, enjoying delicious chiles en nogada, a tasty dish often eaten over the Dia de Independencia festivities. Its green, white and red ingredients represent the colours of the Mexican flag: green chile poblano, stuffed with meat and fruit, covered in a creamy white walnut sauce, and decorated with red pomegranate seeds.

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Chiles en nogada

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People gathered in the centre for the Independence Day celebrations

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A small boy enjoying the festivities

Fruit and vegetable markets, handicraft stalls, stands dishing up Mexican delights, and a glimpse into the daily life of the people in this town also make Malinalco an interesting place to visit. Once a simple mountain pueblo, it started becoming the weekend residence for a certain sector of people in Mexico City and now it's beginning to attract an arty community. Yet it continues to be off the main tourist trail for foreigners. And maybe that's a good thing. Let's keep its a secret.

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Handicrafts

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Mural depicting the Independence fighters of Mexico

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Close-up of artistic panel around entrance to small church

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Another church in the mountains

Posted by margaretm 12:57 Archived in Mexico Tagged churches food ruins archaeology independence malinalco Comments (1)

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