A Travellerspoint blog

Mexican oddities and gringo teeth

sunny 16 °C

If we had nothing else to do, it might have been fun to wait around and see how this car managed to squeeze out of this predicament.

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Parking in San Miguel, with its steep, narrow one-way streets punctuated by driveways and no-access areas, is at an absolute premium. Watching drivers parallel-park is legitimate entertainment, and leaving the car behind with no wiggle room does not appear to be a concern. Many cars bear the bumps, scrapes, dents and gouges (that we just got banged out of our car) with absolute insouciance. If we lived here, I would spend $500 on an old truck and be good to go.

Every walk we take is filled with oddities like this, and of course we spend much time wondering about them. (This is what happens when you are together 24/7, with no jobs to go to, and time to talk about trifling matters). We passed this building and a great debate ensued.

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This is a fancy little store, thoughtfully merchandised, and I thought the facade had been deliberately designed to look like the plaster had fallen away. Stephen believed the opposite - that the building was in that state of disrepair, and they chose not to change a thing. Now, as I look more closely at the picture, I have no idea. Feel free to weigh in.

This evil little Chucky is the "doorman" at the head shop that is just around the corner from us, and a couple of days ago, we noticed a sign had been attached - advertising for "a salesperson with a good appearance".

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Who are these wooden ladies, with arms sternly crossed? They stand guard from their second-floor windows, giving no clue as to who lives within. The ground-level door, with just a street number, appears to be a private home and not a gallery.

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Most Mexican towns and cities have some version of these hedges in their zocalos and centre squares and I've always wondered at the work involved in keeping them perfectly and geometrically pruned. Now we know - it's a three-man job - one on the ladder pruning, one on the ground sweeping up debris, and one supervising.

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We took a bus out on Tuesday to the weekly tianguis that is held on the outskirts of town. The SMA tianguis (open-air market) is a don't-miss event with everything for sale from tires to toothpaste. We were both interested in the experience; I was especially drawn to the idea that I could rummage through massive tables of used clothes, priced from 20-80 pesos. But first we had to get there, and the bus ride was an experience in itself. We were amused by this sign - Amor En Silencio - Love in Silence?

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We wondered what shenanigans the young-uns had gotten up to in the past that required such a rebuke. Young Mexican couples are notorious for their breathtakingly brazen public displays of affection, but they're not especially noisy.

The tianguis was spread out over several acres, with a staggering amount of stuff for sale - just staggering. Aside from some handmade furniture, there was very little in the way of authentic Mexican goods - the theme here seemed to be Chinese electronics, and shoes and clothes, with an emphasis on Ralph Lauren knock-offs and the ubiquitous Aeropostale hoodies beloved by Mexican youth.

Food shopping here was fantastic - piles of beautiful vegetables and fruit, stall after stall of freshly prepared juices, quesadillas and tamales - the locals walking out with bulging bags of food for far less money than they'd pay in town. Still - I'm trying to imagine the folks at Health and Safety in Canada (or the U.S.) walking through this market without cringing. No protective packaging. No sneeze-guards. And that's just the candy - the meat, chicken and fish counters are a whole other ball of wax.

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And then, the fun began. I've been a thrift shopper for decades, and tend to hit the consignment and thrift stores in any town we visit, but nothing prepared me for the tianguis tables in Mexico.

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Bales of clothing are shipped here from the U.S. and distributed throughout Mexico. A seasoned thrift shopper will know within a minute whether or not the table is worth stopping at, and you can't waste time - you're competing with gringos and locals alike for the best stuff . (Shirley, you would be right at home here!) It is also a wonder to see such visible proof of how much we produce and waste - in just this market there were at least 40 tables dedicated to used clothes. I passed by tables of pilly sweaters and dowdy skirts, and hit the motherlode with one specific table, where I found four items - a crisp white shirt, tan linen pants, a sleeveless top in a small paisley print and a patterned t-shirt that another gringo lady assured me was "perfect." Total cost - 240 pesos - less than $20CAN. I found a lot more, of course, but sadly, like the fish that are too small to eat, I had to throw back the size 6's. I could see the unopened bales under each table - every week would bring fresh treasures. If I lived here, I'd be on that bus every week - not an enthusiasm that Stephen shares in the least.

On the other end of the economic scale, it is possible for gringos to buy regional cheese and imported goodies from the lovely Luna de Queso deli. As one of our acquaintances in SMA pointed out, a cheese purchase might require a bank loan, but it is no doubt a comfort to know that the temperature-controlled cheeses, as well as several varieties of cold-pressed virgin olive oil and Maldon sea salt available. We had a delicious (and very reasonable) lunch there.

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San Miguel is like that - there are limitless opportunities to spend as much or more as you might back home, but in those same high-end shops there are often affordable treasures to be found. We've been admiring copper sinks - they are installed in a number of the better bathrooms around town. I stopped by a store today that carried a huge supply of all things copper, and discovered to my delight that a sink I really like is just 1200 pesos - less than $100. On the other hand, I saw this magnificent necklace, designed by one of San Miguel's big name silversmiths, and it is one of the few things I've seen so far that I have really coveted. However - it is $500, and while it is worth that amount (jeweller-friends, I'm sure you'll agree), it will have to find another home. (more in another blog on the financial approach necessary to travel for months).

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We've mentioned many times the creative and artistic approach that Mexicans take with their homes and businesses. Not to be outdone, even the fumigator has put some thought into his presentation. I would hire this person, based on the sign alone.

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Now this is something quite foreign to me, but not apparently to a number of devout Catholics. While we were in Puebla, we saw baby dolls with a number of outfits for sale. They all signified something, (although not the Baby Jesus, to the best of my understanding) and they were being reverently and tenderly carried to church by men, women and children. We haven't seen those same dolls here, but we've seen a few stores that carry religious figures (the Pieta, life-size Jesus, and disciples, and glass cases with anatomically correct babies). I think a 6-foot cross of Jesus, bloodied and bowed, would be a frightening addition to the living room, and I have no idea where this little case would go. Please believe me, I am not being irreverent or disrespectful, I am really curious to know more.

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The library in San Miguel, as in Oaxaca, is an excellent meeting point for gringos, and this one is a treasure. It has a great cafe, an 80-seat theatre for movies and lectures, a book sale every Thursday, and a number of events and language classes. We've had coffee and sweets at this cafe a couple of times - there is always someone to strike up a conversation with.

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A few days ago, we met up with this gentleman, Morgan, who has his photos of bull-fighting on display. Morgan is originally from the U.S., but has lived in San Miguel for 35 years. He was heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway as a boy, and that interest in bull fighting led him to Tijuana as a young man, where he met up with bull breeders and matadors. He told us some wild stories about rides in big trucks with big men and steel cases full of American dollars. Bull? Who knows? That's the thing about Mexico - anything is possible.

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And finally - on to the subject of gringo teeth. Dental tourism has been a big thing in Mexico for years - procedures here cost one-quarter to one-half of what they do in Canada (no idea about the U.S.). Last year we had our teeth cleaned in Bucerias for $45, and the waiting room was filled with gringos working their way through implants, bridges, crowns and other dental work that has become cost-prohibitive back home. This year, we had our cleanings done in San Miguel for $60, compared to roughly $200 that we would pay in Canada. We did a bit of research once we got to San Miguel, and then headed over to this very inviting dental office, run by a mother-son dentist team, both of whom speak perfect English.

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The waiting room was immaculate, and offered magazines in both Spanish and English, as well as water and coffee, and curiously for a dental office, a bowl of candy! Both Stephen and I had appointments with the son, Javier, who had been to the U.S. on a tennis scholarship. There are not many hygienists in Mexico; the cleanings are usually done by dentists. Valeria, his assistant, was there to set up the tools and get us lodged in the chair. The wall was filled with diplomas and credentials, and the tools were all wrapped and had disposable parts, so that was reassuring.

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Javier advised Stephen to get a bite guard, as he was grinding his teeth, so he was fitted for that and picked it up today - $100. I asked Javier what a crown would cost - 7000 pesos, or $600 CAN, which is at least half of what we would pay in Canada. The takeaway is this - if you need to have a lot of reconstructive dental work done, especially implants that will cost thousands and thousands of dollars, it might be worth it to investigate coming to Mexico.

We've been up to lots of interesting things - movies, art walks, and great restaurants - more on that in the next blog. As well, we have he said/she said perspectives on our trip so far that we'd like to share. See you soon!

Posted by millerburr 15:01 Archived in Mexico Comments (6)

Slouching towards spring in San Miguel

storm 15 °C

Not to complain for one minute about our blue skies and vivid colours, but until very recently, our travels though the mountains have kept us in daytime temperatures that have required a sweater and/or a coat. We both brought just one sweater and one jacket, just in case and we haven't taken them off for a month and a half. We are mightily tired of them. In fact, I am mightily tired of most of my clothes, and I am starting to feel like a Mexican widow in the midst of the splendidly jewelled, embroidered,and coiffed gringa ladies who set (pedicured) foot out each day in this about-to-burst-into-spring town. Time to throw off the black and grey, and get into the spirit of the season. Here is one last shot of me in those hated winter clothes, gazing out over the early spring scene at El Charco del Ingenio.

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El Charco is a botanical garden, a conservatory of natural plants, a ceremonial space, and a natural reserve with over 200 acres of walking trails, a canyon and several lookouts over the city. It is one of our favourite places in San Miguel. As we waited for the shuttle to take us up there, we chatted with a woman who was a former gallery owner from Terracotta, Ontario, who has lived in San Miguel for 20 years, and who goes up to El Charco every Saturday to walk and observe the seasonal changes. That was our plan - we wanted to see how much the landscape would change in the three weeks we'll be here. We'll visit again and take photos just before we leave San Miguel on March 24th.

Colours right now are limited to grey, green and yellow. Lots of shrubs and small trees are just starting to bud or flower.

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A 5'8" man reluctantly standing beside a much bigger cactus to show context.

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I wish I had copied the name of this intriguing plant, and I wish it would grow in our climate.

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These round cacti, known as biznaga, are endangered - one of the mandates of El Charco to help preserve species. The trestle in the background supports the pipe that used to carry water to the textile mill (no longer active, now houses art galleries and studios).

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The magnificent conservatory houses dozens of species of plants, including this crazy flowering tree (sorry, I don't have the name)

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The hardscaping of El Charco is at least as stunning as the plantings. Everything is so meticulously planned and implemented. We had the pleasure of chatting with another tourist - an American landscape architect who had worked as part of the team of Expo '67 in Montreal. He was as impressed with this garden as we were - the Mexican craftsmanship is evident here - look at the construction of the little bridge.

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We hiked out through the canyon to one of the lookouts. A beautiful view, but we're hoping before we leave that the city will be purple with the jacaranda trees in full bloom - they are just starting now.

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At the entrance to the garden, there is a memorial tree to the 43 student teachers who were murdered a year and a half ago. Each small colourful pot has a photo attached. They will never be forgotten - references and memorials and protests are still carried out in almost every city we have visited.

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One of the greatest pleasures of being in San Miguel is the walking. The streets twist, turn and beckon with their ever-changing views, and for every painterly sky or far-reaching landscape, there are millions of small details waiting to be discovered.

I could fill a blog with photos of doors, door knockers, door numbers, and other door adornments. This one has it all covered - right down to the old-fashioned lock on the door. Whether the doors are fancy or plain, they all carry the same sense of mystery - what lies beyond them? In many Mexican cities, the doors open right onto the street and give no clue of their interior. Is there a tiled staircase, a leafy interior courtyard, a marble floor, a small fountain? They have house and garden tours in San Miguel, but as you can imagine, they are grand and extravagant. I would dearly love to go on a tour of a regular neighbourhood. I peek in open doorways every chance I get, but I don't have the nerve to take photos.

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A cheerful, colourful and welcoming exterior, as befits an art gallery.

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I loved the monochromatic beauty of the stone and clay, set off by the spiky plantings.

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On one of our walks, we passed by a house that was nearing completion of its renovation. It was one of many on that block that were being completely re-done - the exterior had been preserved, and we're imagining the interior completely modernized.

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On that same road, these two gents were riding leisurely along, oblivious to the taxi behind them. They turned off onto a country road just beyond that leads up into the hills. It is not uncommon to see horses and burros right in the centre of town.

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This sad shell of concrete is all that remains of someone's dream of building a luxury resort, right on the edge of town. It is a massive L-shaped structure, with a couple of other buildings on the same beautiful piece of land. Even with the grass growing up, you can imagine what might have been. San Miguel is so intriguing that way - it appears on one hand to have pots of money to spend and plenty of people happy to indulge. On the other hand, there are abandoned projects like this, and magnificent old buildings that have become derelict, smack in the middle of a block of beautiful homes. There is much grousing about corruption and misappropriation of funds.

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Possibly some of the funds have been diverted to new housing complexes like this one. This is just the entrance
- the homes lie beyond.

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A few blocks away, we entered another neighbourhood of high gates and stately plantings. As soon as I peeked through the gate,
I thought, "car commercial."

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The first of a series of "sunset photos." This photo was taken from a rooftop restaurant where we enjoyed the view with a cold Victoria (our favourite Mexican beer) and a superb thin-crust pizza.

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A small plaza very close to us (Stephen is on the lower level, heading toward the bakery). The lavanderia is in this plaza as well. If I have already told you about the laundry services in Mexico, I'll repeat myself. The lavanderia is similar in all towns in Mexico - you bring in your soiled clothes - plop them in a basket on a scale, and you are handed a receipt with the amount (usually about $3-$4) and a return date and time (sometimes the same day, but often next-day service). You return and are handed your clean clothing - jeans and shorts neatly folded to create a base with shirts and t-shirts folded with sleeves in, and undies folded in threes. No hanging out in a sweaty laundromat, anxiously eyeing other machines while three people wait for the lone operating dryer - this service is a marvel to me.

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There are a number of markets in San Miguel - I'll get to them in another posting, but I couldn't resist this photo. We watched the little girl on her bike ride up to the two small children and try to make friends. The little girl on the left was a bit reticent, but before you knew it, they were playing together. Don't you love her little boots?

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We feel a bit like that ourselves - having a number of conversations at restaurants or on park benches - circling our potential new friends for a playdate. We have met some very interesting people; we discovered the joy of secondhand shopping at the Tuesday tianguis (used name-brand clothing that is brought in by the bale - pieces sell for 20-70 pesos) , and we have re-discovered the joy of watching movies (Mexican-style, with red wine and popcorn). Lots to tell you the next time.

Posted by millerburr 17:49 Archived in Mexico Comments (8)

Hello. It's me (us). In San Miguel de Allende with Adele.

sunny 22 °C

Well, now we're in San Miguel. Adele has been with us the entire time we've been in Mexico. She's everywhere. Markets. Cafes. The OXXO stores. Adele's inimitable voice and lyrics have followed us for the past two and a half months - our touchstone to home. How huge is a star when they are piped into a gas station in a mountain town in Mexico...and the attendant is humming along? Good thing we love her music.

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So...San Miguel. Last year we were in San Miguel for Semana Santa, and had such a great time - between the Easter festivities, the art galleries, walkable streets, lovely parks, the great food and the near-perfect climate, we decided we would come back and spend the following winter here. Here's part of the reason why:

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But, we started talking about all the places in Mexico we hadn't visited yet, (we will never get to them all), and changed our minds. We decided to drive down one more time, tour around the interior, and make San Miguel one of our longer stays - our holiday-within-a-holiday. By the time we arrived here three days ago, we were very ready to get out of our car and stay put for a while - we'll be here for 23 days. We've rented a spacious one-bedroom apartment with a terrace in a mainly-Mexican neighbourhood about 10 minutes from the central square. Our neighbourhood is pretty and amazingly quiet - with the exception of the barking dogs who all appear to have sundowners until about 9:00 pm, and then pass out for the night. We even have an on-premises parking spot for our car. This is a street close to us - quite typical of the twisty, narrow cobblestoned streets in SMA.

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Speaking of our car - we took it to a local bodyshop, and after they examined the car's accident damage on the rear left wheel and bumper, and took note of the many other scrapes and dents we've accumulated over the years, they gave us a quote of 6000 pesos - at 12 pesos to the dollar, we will have all our body work done for $500 - in Canada it would have been at least double, if not triple that cost. We had $500 U.S. deductible on our Mexican insurance policy, so this will be a cash transaction - making all parties happy!

Other housekeeping notes - we've discovered a dental clinic close by - we will both have our teeth cleaned ( about $50 each), and I am on the hunt for a hairdresser. Stephen is scoping out nearby gyms. I've dragged out my Spanish notebooks to work on again. I even cut back dead foliage on the plants on our terrace - my fingers are itching for some real gardening. The gardens here are luscious - either full-blown courtyard gardens, or more commonly, colourful pots lined along the edges of rooftops.

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So, with a few nesting details out of the way, we're ready to enjoy San Miguel to the fullest. San Miguel has a large and very active gringo population that has had a profound effect on the development of the city. Not for nothing has it been christened "Gringolandia." While the Mexicans out-number the ex-pats 10 to 1, the central core caters largely to the gringo population and the tourists. We've spoken to a large number of gringos, and almost all of them live here full-time, or for several months a year. Many own homes, and there are no end of luxury shops to provide the essentials. This store, which I mistook for a gallery, carries a sparse, but tasteful selection of objets - a swath of silk drapery fabric, a designer chair, some small bowls.

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We popped by the Europa liquor store - a well-stocked and democratic shop that carries wines from $5 to $500. One entire wall was stacked three cases deep and probably 25 cases long, with alcohol for a wedding this weekend. Apparently a number of chilangos (Mexico City residents) choose San Miguel or Oaxaca for their special events.

It's easy to see why. San Miguel is a wealthy town, but in a discreet, best-families kind of way. The streets are filled with well-toned older gringos - a parade of nice shoes, linen pants, good watches, oversized jewellery and real Panama hats streams by on the cobblestoned streets. The cathedrals and churches are stunning. The city's setting is dramatic, with endless photo opportunities. The architecture is delightful - and all the colours match. Simple restaurant and hotel lobbies look like movie sets.

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We have spent a fair bit of time in the cities of Oaxaca and San Miguel, and we have tried to understand what the key differences are between them. They both have substantial gringo populations, accessible, walkable and beautiful centre cores, fantastic food scenes, and rich artistic and cultural backgrounds.

With our limited time in both cities, (three visits over a five-year period), our impressions are thus:

Oaxaca feels more Mexican, and having a bit of Spanish is both helpful and even necessary. The gringos appear to be more involved in wanting to learn Spanish, in giving back, and integrating into the Mexican culture. At the same time, the ex-pat life is well-defined and well-connected - you see many of the same faces at the English-language events.

San Miguel has been accused of being a Disneyland - a sanitized version of Mexico, filled with the amenities and niceties that can buffer a grittier Mexican experience. Is that true, or even fair? We don't think so. San Miguel is a hugely appealing place to visit and/or escape winter. There are interesting things going on every minute of every day. You can take workshops in dozens of creative endeavours, attend plays, concerts, movies and lectures. There is yoga, Pilates, zumba, golf, tennis, riding, swimming, hiking and soaking in hot springs.But, the essence of Mexico remains.

If you don't feel like doing any of that, you can just head for the zocalo, where there is bound to be free entertainment. We had no end of fun watching this young man balance this tiny young woman on his hand.

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We had front row seats to admire the evening view of the Parroquia - the pink frosted confection that lends to the Disney image.

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As we were wandering the streets today, we came upon this salon, offering "fish" pedicures. Had I been so inclined, I might have sprung up onto one of the seats and submerged my feet in a tank of tiny fish, who would then nibble the unsightly dead skin off my heels.

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While we are on the topic of water, we also saw this extraordinary sight. This tiny park was across the street from the Sierra Nevada Hotel (whose standard rooms go for $500 US). A trough of water and stone washboards was provided for residents to wash their clothes and a number of women had their clothes sorted and ready to be scrubbed. I loved the fact that the two worlds were not separated from one another, but the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty was striking.

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Further on up the hill we came upon this tree filled with egrets. Not much to say about them except they were a fairly unusual sight for us - I'm sure the Mexicans who walked by us wondered what all our excitement was about.

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We've been to a number of great restaurants so far - usually characterized by the decor, the food, the company, or all three. As we waited for our table, we had a grand chat with three spirited older ladies from the U.S. who live in mortal fear of Trump being their next president. They had voted the day before, so the subject was fresh in their minds. Interestingly, they all knew about our new PM! They promised to move to Gabriola if the dice don't roll properly in November.

Our corner table, patiently waiting for our 4-course lunch.

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A sign on our table that I personally appreciate very much. We've seen these signs before in restaurants in Mexico (not that they are particularly heeded - addiction to cellphones seems to be universal)

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A small world story - we popped into a "mercado" today for lunch - a bratwurst and homemade sauerkraut made by an Italian from New Orleans who moved to San Miguel years ago. (Delicious). We started up a conversation with the folks next to us - Torontonians who spend 3 months a year here. They have a friend on Gabriola - Sheila Malcolmson!

Talking - it doesn't matter the language - it is the glue that binds us. Two women deep in conversation (gossiping?)

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See you in a few days with more stories.

Posted by millerburr 18:13 Archived in Mexico Comments (9)

What millions of Monarch butterflies look like...

...140 million, more or less

sunny 24 °C

I wish I could show you, but there's just no way to capture on film our real-life experience of being surrounded by millions of butterflies. The good news is the Monarch butterflies are rebounding, after a number of years of decline. Illegal logging in Mexico was destroying habitat, and pesticide use in Canada and the U.S. was destroying milkweed (upon which the butterflies feed), so serious combined efforts in all three countries appears to be paying off. This year, the butterflies have spread over 10 hectares, leading experts to believe their numbers are at about 140 million. Here is what a typical tree branch looks like:

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Seeing the Monarch butterflies in their Mexican sanctuary has been a dream for years, and as natural wonders go, this was without a doubt a highlight. We drove three and a half hours from Queretero (where we're currently staying), arriving around 10:30, just as the day was warming up. If the day is overcast or too cold, the butterflies will simply cling to the trees for warmth. Yesterday was bright, sunny and about 20 degrees - perfect.

Getting to the El Rosario sanctuary is no small feat - after navigating through several small towns, you must drive up a hill for about 20 minutes, pay for parking, then drive for another 20 minutes up an ancient road that is a combination of paving stones and rock. We were waved in to one of two huge parking lots, and a gentleman madly waving a red rag instructed us where to park (a common sight in Mexico - can usually be interpreted to mean a tip is expected). We were early, so we were forming the second line of cars, and a tiny warning bell went off in my head about our ease in getting out (more on that later). As with every other tourist attraction, we knew we would run the gauntlet of souvenirs, cold drinks, food, maps, brochures, and offers to guide. A young boy appeared, offering to "watch" our car. Another young girl appeared to offer her services as a "guide." We told the boy we would pay later, but nothing we said to the girl would shake her. She followed us all the way up to the entrance. (another 20 minute walk past food vendors and souvenir stalls).

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When we finally got to the entrance gate, we gave her a few pesos - a small price for the entertainment value of these little extortionists.

Then...the real climb began. The Monarch sanctuary is about a 2 km. climb, from the entrance gate - a steady, uphill climb that is easy enough because of the steps, but challenging because of the altitude. We kept a slow, steady pace,
and then...our very first butterfly appeared.

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Another several minutes of walking, with the numbers of butterflies steadily increasing, we reached a flat meadow and
saw our first big concentration. They were in the air, on the bushes and on the ground - impressive, but not in the millions, as we had been promised.

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Just past the meadow, the path continued, and so we trudged, for another rocky and root-strewn 10 minutes uphill -
and discovered why this sanctuary is such a draw. Monarch butterflies - everywhere - packed onto branches, filling the sky, flying in swarms and landing on a number of lucky visitors - including me!

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The sanctuary is filled with guardians, who keep a careful eye on the butterflies to protect them from their visitors. This gentleman never stopped picking up butterflies from the ground and putting them beyond the ropes, to prevent them from being stepped on.

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Signs like this one were posted everywhere at the top - asking visitors to maintain silence while observing the butterflies. Mexicans are the least rules-based people I've ever met, but they all respected the signs and spoke in very soft whispers, or not at all - a collective religious experience.

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We sat and watched them for a half hour or so, then began our descent. At the base of the path, there were seedlings for sale - a regrowth and replanting scheme is in place to help replace some of the trees that were illegally logged.

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Then...back in the parking lot - now filled to the brim with cars parked in these crazy, uneven rows with little or no room to back out. Luckily for us, we have a small car, and there was one empty space behind us. With a great deal of manoeuvering, Steve managed to squeeze out of there - a bigger car would have been stuck.

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And back to Queretero we drove, to our lovely hotel Quinta Lucca, right in the historic district. There are four things we hope to find with our hotels - comfortable bed, showers with both hot water and good pressure, decent wifi, and parking. This one had all that, plus breakfast included - served in this pretty courtyard. Our room is on the second floor, in the corner, behind the potted plants.

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Queretero was not originally on our list - it is just an hour from San Miguel de Allende, (where we head tomorrow), and we had no interest in visiting any more churches, museums, monuments or squares. But... we needed some city comfort and good food, and decided to make this our base for a few days. We're so happy we did - the compact historical centre is beautiful and full of life, and our time here has been a tonic.

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We began with a double-decker bus tour - not that informative, but it gave us an overview and a chance to make faces at this little boy,
who couldn't take his eyes off Stephen the whole time.

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We spent a fair bit of time in the many squares and pedestrian-only streets, watching life unfold. There is never a dull moment in any Mexican zocalo, and Queretero has several.

Many Mexican towns and cities have "el danzon", where couples dance to a big orchestra. We watched couples like this in Oaxaca, and again here. The couples were mostly older, dressed up and obviously very much enjoying themselves.

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Another convincing argument for having a strong core.

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We were having lunch, and suddenly a pretty couple and their "people" arrived just a few tables down. It became obvious that a shoot of some kind was going on, so we gawked shamelessly. Sure enough, it was a commercial for a watch, shot beside an older gent who was quite indifferent to the whole thing.

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Stephen, who as you all know, can't help himself.

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We watched this young woman being gently pushed by her friend...and then, away she went. Around and around the square, as pleased as punch. Proving to us and herself that it is never too late to try anything.

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The restaurant scene in Queretero is great - we've eaten very well since we've been here, and been entertained at the same time.

A unique merchandising effort to attract diners.

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We had quite a delicious lunch here, and while we are probably not the target market of this bohemian cafe, we had to admire his je ne sais quoi approach to service.

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Okay - this is a really long blog, even for me. I'll leave you with a few street images of Queretero. We're in San Miguel for three weeks - just relaxing and living like locals. This should cut down on the length of the blogs - but you know there'll be stories.

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Posted by millerburr 16:07 Archived in Mexico Comments (9)

Driving the scenic 120 through the Sierra Gordas

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Actually, "scenic" does not begin to describe the road to Jalpan and through the Sierra Gordas to the city of Queretero. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful, with a very real danger that you could drive right off the road admiring the views.

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If I could offer one piece of advice to the road engineers of Mexico, I would ask that they provide numerous lookouts, more guardrails, and the odd bit of signage to assure drivers that they have not driven over hairpin roads for 45 minutes in vain. (this was our quandary today on the way to Queretaro - we just kept fingers crossed we had chosen the right turn-off - but let's back-up two days to our drive to Jalpan).

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Queretero is a tiny, perfect state - safe, clean, pretty capital city, quirky small towns, rich in agriculture, Franciscan missions, the extraordinary Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve with endless outdoor opportunities, and much appreciated from our perspective - roads in decent repair, largely populated by courteous drivers. Which brings us back to driving the 120. Hwy. 120 is the only road that cuts through the Sierra Gorda mountains, connecting all the small towns and larger centres. Therefore, you may find yourself stuck for miles behind a convoy of gravel trucks, a flatbed hauling a tractor, or a large truck. We trailed this fellow for a while, but for most of our drive, we had the road to ourselves.

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We chose Jalpan as a base to visit the Sierra Gordas, and to learn a little more about the mission churches that were founded in the area. Jalpan is described as being "tropical and humid", and by the time we arrived, the temperature had climbed to 36 degrees. We stayed in one of the chain of Mision hotels (there are also hotels in California) - largely because it offered a pool. As we checked in, we were offered a glass of aqua fresca - an extremely refreshing slightly sweetened cucumber drink. It's funny the things that stick with you. I was so frazzled and sweaty by the sudden heat, and that simple glass of juice is something I appreciated so much and will remember.

Our hotel and courtyard

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Jalpan is compact and attractive, built on hills, with a large plaza and of course, the Mission church. The five missions that were established in the area in the 1750s by Franciscan monks have been inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The facade has tremendous detail in the carvings, while the interior does not stand out in comparison to many of the churches and cathedrals we've seen.

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This was something we have not seen in any other churches in Mexico. Beside the candles, there were a few large bulletin boards, filled with photos, small toys, pieces of clothing, hair ribbons. There was no-one to ask about the significance of this - if the belongings and photos belonged to people who were sick or deceased. I'm so curious, but my Spanish is not adequate enough to find out without offending or confusing someone. If any of you know anything about this custom, please tell me.

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The Sierra Gorda Reserve was established in 1997, and is described as "the green jewel" of central Mexico. It is the most ecosystem- diverse protected area in the country, and groups in the area have developed a number of tours to some of the more remote areas. If we had been more organized, we could have booked a hike to caves where swifts, and/or macaws live, and at dawn and dusk can be seen flying out by the hundreds. There are a large number of other sights one can visit without a guide, and so we headed out to the Cascada El Chuveje - a 150-ft. waterfall. After leaving the highway and bumping down a rough road for a few kilometres, we arrived at this little homestead.

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A woman came out to direct us to a parking area. She was extremely friendly and helpful, and had a few cold drinks for sale. A little further up the road, we were stopped by another woman to pay our admission fee, and Steve snapped a photo of this pig that stepped up to the fountain for a drink.

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As we were driving into the waterfall area, we noticed this cow by the side of the road. Two hours later, it had moseyed up the road to home. We wondered how these families survived in this extremely remote area. Obviously, they have their meat, milk, eggs, and vegetables, and possibly a small income from collecting money for the park.

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As if all this animal activity was not diverting enough, our path to the waterfall was accompanied by ear-splitting music that seemed to come out of the hills and follow us, in a most disturbing Deliverance kind of way, for the first 15 minutes or so.

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We turned a corner, and it stopped, and we found ourselves in an enchanted forest. Beautiful, quiet , a "dappled glade" if I may use that cliche. We walked along a creek, past a number of pools that appeared to have been encircled in concrete.

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Finally, we reached the waterfall, and sat for several minutes enjoying the view. We watched the water for a pattern, much like we watch waves breaking on shore to see if we can predict a sudden change in volume or force. We wondered about the signs warning us against trying to swim in the "very dangerous water - muy frio (very cold). Muy frio indeed - this water shoots straight out of the mountain streams - it is icy.

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We keep forgetting that Mexico has four seasons as well - and being in the mountains is a good reminder of that. We have been in many places where the days are spring-like and the evenings are quite chilly. Many trees and shrubs have a spring-like appearance as well - these are two examples:

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We could have stayed in this stunning part of Mexico for much longer, but we had booked a couple of days in Queretero (the city). We drove today on another scenic stretch of Hwy. 120, (we made the right turn after all), arrived in Queretaro, and just got back from exploring the city a bit.

See you again in a few days.

Posted by millerburr 19:20 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

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