The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.
<Larry: For the hardcore sailors in the audience, there is almost nothing of sailing in this edition. Stand by for our next update.>
Puerto Vallarta is a patient and pleasurable place to “hang out”, except for the summer months, June through October. This period is also the hurricane season, so for those of us with insurance, sailing is effectively curtailed. <Larry: Insurance is difficult to get for yachts to move in this area during these months, and deductibles skyrocket.> Some sailors do venture out during this season, particularly in the Sea of Cortez, but most of them stay within a day or two of the purported “hurricane holes”: harbors that offer some degree of protection from hurricane winds and seas. <Larry: And many of those who are under way during this period have no insurance.> We told our insurance company that we planned to leave Moira for this season in Puerto Vallarta, which information the insurance company promptly placed in the policy as a restriction. So we made sure that Moira was back in Puerto Vallarta by June 1st.
However, we were not planning on staying in PV ourselves for the summer. The temperature is typically in the upper 90’s with 75 to 95% humidity. <Larry: I knew I was in trouble when I was sitting in the cabin at 7:30 one morning, with the sweat rolling off of me.> Usually there are thunderstorms (with lightning) in the evenings. <Larry: One boat a few hundred feet from us in the marina had her electronics destroyed by a lightning strike. Twice.> Our plan was to spend June, July and August in the States; September traveling in Mexico (it is not hot all over Mexico, just on the coast); and October working on the boat getting her ready to sail in November.
It is not wise to just walk away from a sailboat in the tropical areas of the world. Without some preparation, you might return to a forest of mold inside the boat. We got a small window-type air conditioner, which we wedged into a partially-opened hatch, to cool and dehumidify the interior. We removed all perishable food, except for spices and such which we put into the refrigerator. We hired a group in Puerto Vallarta called “Teapot Tony” to monitor and generally keep an eye on the boat. That included washing the boat, including under water, to keep tropical growth off the hull. They monitored the boat every day, checked inside once a week, ran the systems once a month, and generally mothered our home during the summer months. If a hurricane threatened a direct hit, they would try to move Moira to a more protected area of the marina (good luck).
Insurance companies want to reduce items on the boat that could be damaged or cause damage during a hurricane, so the insurance companies have their own rules. Insurance companies want all the sails and other canvas off the boat. We took our sails down and sent them to the sail repair shop for repair and storage. All the fabric attached to the dodger, the bimini, the cockpit weather panels, and all lines need to be removed and stored.
Larry had numerous boat projects, much of it needed maintenance. <Larry: It’s all about tradeoffs. One chooses the creature comforts one demands, and the maintenance they demand comes as part of the territory. When we’re in port, maintenance on Moira winds up being 20-30 hours a week.> Our plan was refined so that I traveled to New York to visit John, and Larry spent three weeks of June working on the boat and preparing her for our “boatsitters”.
While Larry worked on the boat in Puerto Vallarta, I flew to NYC to visit with John and offer assistance in finding and furnishing a new apartment, which together we were able to do with some dispatch. Within two weeks we had an apartment leased, and spent more time arranging deliveries of this and that for around July 11th , which was the occupancy date. While searching, John and I were staying in comfortable studio on the east side at 75th Street. Nice area of NYC, but it was almost as hot in NYC during June as it was in PV. I must admit that the humidity is not as bad in NYC, though some days were a close call. Not being a particular fan of NYC, I must admit to a certain smugness when I figured out how to get around on my own, able to recognize landmarks and feel comfortable in my little neighborhood of east 75th. This area went from about 60th Street to 89th Street. Of course this was only possible with the careful tutelage of John.
NYC was a tremendous and stressful contrast to the patient, polite, and laidback attitude of Mexico that we have seen to date. To put in a plug for NYC, the city, though hot, was relatively clean, particularly Central Park. The city no longer maintains the Park. Almost 15 years ago Central Park was put under the control of a conservancy trust which manages the park, from maintenance to management of events. The city pays the trust for this work, but getting the park out of the NYC bureaucracy has salvaged this marvelous resource, and the park is beautifully maintained. I remember the park from the early 1980’s when it was not well cared for.
John and I had a good time, seeing a show together, trying some restaurants, trying out recipes in the 75th Street studio, roaming Central Park and the shops around the neighborhood. It was pleasant to walk in Central Park every morning and then come back to the studio for a delicious bagel and hot tea. Our days progressed from there.
By the end of June, Larry arrived. He and I took off to Maine while John decided to stay in NYC to do the leg work that led to his accepting a computer sales job later in July.
Larry and I took several days by train to get to Portland, Maine. We were able to stop in Stonington, Connecticut, close to the seaport town of Mystic, which houses the fascinating preserved seaport of restored and rebuilt ships and support services originally required for the tall ships. The village has been in existence as a museum since the early 1930’s. The community at that time recognized the shipbuilding for wooden boats was disappearing from the American economy and they wanted not only to preserve the town’s economy but preserve the heritage of shipbuilding along the east coast. So, they established a trust that would run the seaport and retain the skills of the community by running the seaport as an historical community of shipbuilders. Very successful, and a fascinating place to visit.
We continued onto Boston by train. Boston seemed very livable and tame in comparison to NYC. I think Boston would rate high on my list if I decided to live on the east coast. The city looks good and the huge construction project, “the big Dig” (placing the major freeway through Boston underground and keeping the economy fairly healthy for two decades, particularly in construction) is just about done. See below for a comparison to Guanajuato, Mexico. Housing costs seem reasonable in comparison to NYC.
We reached Portland, where we rented a car and drove to my sister Martha’s cottage on Lake Arrowhead about two hours west of Portland. We spent two weeks there; Martha and Robert were there one of those weeks. We all feasted on delicious Maine lobster, blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. Beautiful weather, and the lake water was pleasantly warm, not like the ocean in this region of the world.
After the lake sojourn we were ready for the ocean. We had landed an apartment in Camden, Maine, overlooking the charming and picturesque working harbor. We arranged the rental entirely over the internet from Mexico. There was one rather large aspen tree between us and a really clear view of the harbor, but it provided some nice shade, so we resisted the urge to cut it down during some night escapade. For the next two weeks we roamed through Camden, up and down the coast of Maine, sat on our lovely big porch overlooking the Camden harbor, and enjoyed Maine. A particularly beautiful area close by is Deer Island, mostly occupied by Acacia National Park, much of which was assembled by the old “400” of NYC, like the Rockefellers. The island was dedicated to the National Park Service in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
I admit I just loved Camden. It is a small community with a strong sense of pride, three good bookstores, one of the most extraordinary libraries I have seen in an American community of that size, and many historical homes lovingly restored. I am sure we will be back for another stay.
From Maine, we went to Chicago (this time by plane… Larry was tired of Amtrak) to visit with Larry’s parents, and his brother and sister-in-law . Larry’s brother and his wife both live together in the City on South Clark street and we were invited to visit and stay with them. Not that we were lucky enough to see much of them: Kevin, Larry’s brother, works for IBM and he is constantly on the road, this time in Detroit, while Maureen manages medical associations, this one in Berkeley . We did see a lot of the City including the Art Museum and a concert on the new lawn of Pritzker Plaza, beautifully laced with Frank Gehry’s spectacular band shell. We were pleased to spend time with Larry’s parents in their home in Bensenville, one of the northwest suburbs of Chicago.
Toward mid month we had an important date in Great Falls, Virginia, about thirty minutes northwest of Washington DC. That occasion was my sister Martha’s surprise 60th birthday party, carefully planned by her husband and daughter for several months. To avoid giving away the surprise, I was not allowed in the State of Virginia for two weeks before the party, and our trip to Chicago also provided camouflage. It was well worth while to see her surprise and delight at the gathering of her friends and her two sisters, one of whom she had been assured in Maine was on her way to Chicago and then Los Angeles. It was even more fun to be able to tell her we were staying with her for a week or so after her birthday. Her husband is an accomplished house-husband who had changed the sheets on the guest bed.
After a good visit with Martha and Robert, we were on our way to LA. Over the Internet we had rented a small house in the East side of Long Beach. The experience opened our eyes to the rapid escalation in real estate values that has overtaken Southern California It was not that the rent was unreasonable, but that when we got there we realized that houses in this very middle-class neighborhood had escalated to over $600,000 in purchase price. I was amazed but pleased for Long Beach in general. It has helped the city get back into financial health. But I admit that all those interest-only loans look like a reason for this real estate to go back down.
<Larry: Susan spent several days taking sailing lessons, and reports that she profited mightily from them.>
I was able to see a number of friends both in the city and around the community. We had a gathering of Larry’s former IBM colleagues at our rental house. We saw our doctors in Long Beach and got a clean bill of health. We spent time and money in West Marine picking up spare parts for the boat and were too soon on our way to Puerto Vallarta via America West airways.
We were not quite sure what would happen at Mexican customs with all our spare boat parts when we reached Puerto Vallarta. We had all our receipts and were prepared to pay the 17% duty but we had copies of the regulations (in Spanish) for the importation of spare boat parts for yachts in transit with us. There is supposedly no import duty due on spare parts but we had heard all sorts of conflicting stories from other cruisers. So when we approached customs it was our plan to declare what we had and to suggest, by waving the regulations, that no duty was due. Well, in Mexico, at customs, everyone goes through the same path, whether declaring something or not. As you get to the gate at customs you push a button and if it is green you are free to go… if it turns red everything is searched. We went up the gate and approached a young lady in customs uniform to advise her of our spare parts. Larry did so in his best Spanish. Her response was “Have you pushed the button?” We said “No” and she said “Push it.” We did what the lady said, the light was green, and we scrammed through and took a taxi home to Moira. We decided the customs experience was not a useful precedent: we still do not know whether or not we can bring in spare parts free of duty. We do know however that the customs people do not want conversation at The Button.
<Larry: One of the things that seems to characterize Mexico, at least governmental Mexico, is that it is often more important to them to seem to act, than it is to act. An example from our visit to Mexico City: when we entered a certain government building, everyone had to pass through a metal detector, put metal objects on the table, etc.; once we got through the metal detector, we turned back and saw that it wasn’t even plugged in!>
We found the boat in good shape with only a small amount of mildew on one set of cushions in the cabin of the boat. Vinegar took it off and we were back in the boat that night. Several electronic doodads that had worked in June, no longer worked. We planned to stay only two nights before we were off again. September was to be our month of touring in Mexico. It was still very hot in Puerto Vallarta, 95 degrees F and 95% humidity, and we had not seen much of Mexico other than the Pacific coast.
We started on our trip with a bus ride to Guadalajara. As we have mentioned before, first class or deluxe buses are a very good way to travel. The buses are very comfortable, clean, and air conditioned, with a bathroom. They show a movie every two hours of travel (usually in English with Spanish subtitles). The cost was about $40 (dollars) for a 5 hour bus ride. <Larry: One continuing opportunity for confusion: Mexico uses the “$” symbol for prices in pesos, so one must sometimes ask which currency is meant.>
Guadalajara is a city of five million people spread out over a plain. It is the capital of Jalisco State and the second largest city in Mexico. It has a stately and rather lovely center with a nice mix of new buildings surrounded by colonial Spanish buildings dating back to the 1600’s. The focus of the downtown is the giant, twin-towered cathedral with four large plazas surrounding it and connecting it to the cultural center (opera house), the Instituto Cultural (which houses 53 murals painted by Jose Clemente Orozco, second in fame here only to Deigo Rivera), and the four block Central Mercado. <Larry: They are very proud of their cathedral, which like most of the old buildings in this area, is made of stone. Some time ago the bell towers collapsed, and it was determined that the signature yellow conical stone steeples on the tops of the towers were too heavy. The towers were rebuilt, and they used pumice stone, which is nearly weightless, for the steeples.>
The city has a Mediterranean climate with temperatures in the 80’s F, and moderate humidity. Guadalajara has a strong economy, principally in services, government, agriculture, and crafts. It has excellent convention facilities, hosting many national and international trade shows. The city is a business center for the central area of Mexico and is now linked to Mexico City with a superhighway which cuts driving time to four hours. A large university with two medical schools provides a large population of students.
By the way, public university is free for qualified students. There is a community service requirement as a pay back. For example, the professional schools require that the students spend up to a year in the more rural areas of the country providing services to the population. High schoolers must spent 40 hours each semester in community service. Many of the museums have patrolling guards that are of high school age.
We last visited Guadalajara in 1981, about four months before John was born. At that time we stayed in a lovely resort on the outside of the City in an area known as Chapala, now a major center for American and Canadian expats. At that time we purposely stayed at a protected and exclusive resort. We had contact with “real Mexico” but the resort could have been anywhere. We are now more adventurous. We wanted and looked for opportunities for contact. This time we stayed in Tlaquepaque, a suburb of Guadalajara, five miles from the center of the city, and perhaps the largest and most important arts and crafts center in Mexico. This area is well-known internationally for its ceramics, leather furniture, and blown glass. The center of Tlaquepaque is a mix of small shops, residences, schools, and craft workshops, clustered into old adobe buildings of one or two stories, some of which are restored and some not.
<Larry: We took one afternoon to observe a mariachi festival and competition in Guadalajara. There were several festival events running simultaneously at different venues, some free. We chose a free event being held in an indoor plaza at a shopping mall. I suppose mariachi music is an acquired taste, though fun in small doses.>
The exteriors of Mexican homes and shops (shops are often the front room of a home) seldom give any hint about the private spaces inside. Other than perhaps some brilliantly-hued paint, little time or effort or money is spent on the outside. There are no elaborate lawns, fancy gates, lighting or concern about “curb appeal.” It is just not in the consciousness. But inside the privacy of the gate or wall, the family or workshop can have an environment as elaborate as the wallet and taste allow. An elaborately restored adobe structure may be next to a workshop or residence that literally has dirt floors, with little clue outside regarding which is which. The usual middle class household opens up to a center courtyard or garden area, often with trees and water features. It is extraordinary to peek through the occasional open gate to see the lovely way some live here.
Our home for the week was a “bed and breakfast” called Casa de las Flores, located in the working class area of Tlaquepaque. Casa de las Flores was typical of the courtyard-centered architecture I just discussed. The outside was nondescript, though it was decorated with colorful tile. We rang the bell (the door is always locked) and were ushered into a beautifully restored adobe structure, which once had been a home and pottery workshop, typical of dwellings at the turn of the century. The front, streetside building of the B&B used to be the home and workshop, and now houses the kitchens, offices, and dwelling of our hosts. It opens onto a sunny central patio and a large flower-filled garden with a fountain. At the rear of the garden is another structure housing the guest rooms. What makes this B&B spectacular is the folk art that almost overwhelms the house and the visitor. The art, and the hosts, Stan and José, provide a very good introduction to the important ceramic folk art that exists here. Every kind of ceramic folk art that is in the area is in the B&B. It's magical to be able to look at and touch the art up close each day, particularly after the introductory “art appreciation” mini-course we got from Stan.
The first highlight of our stay was a tour of the homes and factories of the folk artists, conducted by a local guide. We visited ten artists who live and work in Tlaquepaque or the adjoining town of Tonalá, often considered the factory town for Tlaquepaque. Several of the artists are considered “master craftsmen” and are written up in books on the master ceramic artists of Mexico, which I had been able to review in the B&B. We were able to see the process of the ceramic art from design to implementation. Much of the art uses the technique of burnishing. After the ceramic piece is painted it is not fired but rubbed by hand with a bit of metal (burnished, or bruñido) until it has a soft, lovely gleam. Then it is fired. We were intrigued, and I bought eight different pieces, six of which I shipped to the states. To some extent it was an experiment on whether or not art could be packed well enough to ship successfully. Although packed and shipped by DHL, only half survived the trip to the US. Surprisingly, it arrived in the US the day after it was shipped, but took some time to be delivered in Virginia. A few small items, which I look at and smile, ended up on the boat.
The market tour, led by our host, Stan, was fascinating. We visited the large central market in Guadalajara, called the Libertad. It is reputedly the largest public market in the Western hemisphere. Built with a parking garage attached, the aisles of the market are ramped like a parking structure. The small shops are full of scrubbed and artistically arranged vegetables, fruits, fish, and meat. <Larry: …and toys, housewares, clothing, and cheap crafts.> There are many pieces of meat in the process of being cut up. It is not unusual to see an entire cow lying on the counter skinned but with head and hooves in place. Each stall generally specializes in one or two things. That makes shopping similar to my experiences in France. However, in France the shops were in separate buildings, not nicely lined up on ramps waiting for the hordes to go through. Stan learned to cook Mexican dishes like chiles rellenos and other dishes from watching the cooks in the markets. They cook on the spot and sell the food at the market either to be eaten there or taken home. I watched chiles rellenos being made and finally understood the rather intricate process well enough to try it.
We went to several small markets and street vendors to try their street food. It was just delicious. The results were scrumptious and appreciated by our stomachs. Stan’s recommendation to protect the stomach is not to eat at any stall or stand more than two hours after its opening time, and to make sure that the stall or stand has a source of fresh water. The idea here is that even in warm weather most foods will not spoil in two hours.
We had planned our September trip to see several colonial towns between Guadalajara and Mexico City, and we moved on by bus to Guanajuato.
“Colonial towns” refers to the cities built during the almost 400 years of rule by Spain. Mexico was invaded by the Spanish in the early 1500’s. They were not thrown out until the War of Independence in 1810. The indigenous Indian population was decimated by the Spanish occupation, mostly due to European diseases like measles, much like fate of the American Indians. We were told that 75% of the Indian population was killed by disease in the ten years after the arrival of Cortez.
Greed and religious conversion were the dominant motives of the Spanish colonization. In every town, Indians newly converted to Christianity were forced to construct churches, some of them built from the rubble of demolished pre-Hispanic temples, such as at Teotihuacan, near today’s Mexico City. The Spanish viceroys and their cohorts were awarded large parcels of land for their effort for the crown and thus began an era of large land holdings. Spanish speech, dress, and customs replaced those of the indigenous cultures in the cities, but with adaptations to the country and weather. Gold and silver lying beneath the ground in Taxco, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas attracted many Spaniards, who forced the Indians to mine the silver. Over the next three hundred years many magnificent buildings were constructed which are still in use today. Large scale urban renewal seems to have escaped Mexico. <Larry: Or, Mexico has escaped large scale urban renewal. Your call.>
Guanajuato is one the beautiful legacies of the Spanish rule and silver mining. This lovely colonial town is situated in narrow canyons between huge mountains and is singularly well-preserved. Thanks to the colonial rule it is full of magnificent homes, former haciendas.
There are innumerable churches that are decorated with elaborate silver and gold detail and furnishings. <Larry: In all of these colonial towns, there seem to be churches every couple of blocks in all directions.> The town hosts a large public university of 30,000 students, functioning continuously since its founding by the Jesuits in 1732. This has been a World Heritage Site since 1998, and is filled with lovely plazas, winding cobblestone streets, and a unique network of tunnels under the city.
Once upon a time, a river flowed through the town. After the river flooded the town once too often, the river was diverted, and Mexican ingenuity trenched the riverbed and now uses it for automobile traffic to and from the center of town. As a result, much of the traffic is underground, and the central plaza is free of cars and smog. The city can take a bow and the visitor can enjoy the charms of this lovely place, without the twenty years of disruption that Boston has undergone (with less rewarding results).
Guanajuato played an important role in the War of Independence. In 1810 it was attacked by Father Miguel Hidalgo, a rebel priest and a leader of the Mexican revolution, and his band of rebels—mostly farmers and miners. The wealthy mine owners took shelter in a large stone granary building, barricading themselves and their treasures behind its thick adobe walls. A brave rebel miner—El Pipila, immortalized himself by setting fire to the door which allowed the rebels in to kill their enemies and seize the city. A hilltop statue honoring El Pipila forms a vista point above the city, served by a funicular railcar that moves one from the hilltop to the center of the town. <Larry: The statue bears the inscription, “There are still more granaries that need burning.”>
<Larry: Under the heading of “We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto,” help-wanted ads posted in restaurants specify the age-range and gender of acceptable applicants.>
From the hilltop lookout, the main plaza of the town is clearly seen in the shape of a wedge. Shaded by ancient trees, it has a Victorian bandstand amidst lovely greenery and is surrounded by shops and restaurants. On one side of the plaza is the beautiful Teatro Juarez. From this plaza, students and townspeople dressed as medieval troubadours lead parades of residents and tourists past the plaza and up the hill past the cathedral. <Larry: Students who participate as costumed players receive credit against their civic service obligation, as described above.>
We stayed in Marfil, a tiny town just outside of Guanajuato, in a B&B called La Casa de Espiritus Alegres (“the house of happy spirits”). It was once the home (hacienda) of a wealthy family in the 1700’s, but abandoned in the 1800’s because of flood damage. Eventually it was revived and restored with adjacent structures around the old hacienda. Three or four of the structures became part of the B&B, several became private residences, and the former chapel of the hacienda is now used as a day-care center.
The buildings that became the B&B were sold to two California artists who loved Mexican folk art, particularly those pieces celebrating the Mexican “Day of the Dead” festival. While American culture seems to want to push death into the back room and not discuss it, Mexican culture celebrates death, discusses it, laughs about it and totally embraces it as a part of living. On the Day of the Dead, Mexicans feast and drink, and visit their departed loved ones at the cemetery. When they do so, they bring food and drink to the cemetery for their relatives (their relatives’ favorites, of course) and the cemeteries are gay, well-decorated places, though maintenance varies. The Day of the Dead has its origins in the pre-Hispanic peoples’ belief that the dead could return to their homes on one day each year to visit their loved ones. The underlying philosophy is that death does not represent the end of life but the continuation of the same life in a parallel world. The California couple eventually turned most of the home into a lovely B&B which contains an enormous collection of folk art.
One of the treasures of Marfil and Guanajuato is the ex-Hacienda de San Gabriel de la Barrera, the former hacienda of one Captain Barrera, a descendant of the first count of Valenciana. It gives a glimpse into the lifestyle of a wealthy Spanish landowner and silver mining baron. The hacienda was restored by a nonprofit trust and opened as a museum and conference center in 1979. It is set on expansive grounds with magnificent nationally-themed gardens (“Roman,” “English,” etc.) and beautiful old trees. Some of the gardens are set in the unroofed shells of former hacienda buildings. The mansion is furnished in colonial antiques and period European furniture and art. It has a private chapel featuring an ornate gilded altar. I noticed the absence of any heating devices…not even fireplaces. While the weather here is picture perfect, the morning were cool even in September. I questioned the guards, and was assured that no heating was necessary: the occupants wore “a lot of clothes.” The place was really lovely but I decided to pass on living there without fireplaces.
These are cities not to be missed, and not to be forgotten. They are lovely, charming, and colorful, and we will visit them again.
Another of the colonial cities of Guanajuato state is the lovely San Miguel de Allende. It is well-known for its expat community, which started in the 1940’s when artists, writers and other creative types came to the city to enjoy the beautiful clear light and the climate, and to study at the Institute Allende. The city and the Institute are named after Sr. Ignacio Allende, one of the leaders (along with Father Hidalgo) of the Mexican War for Independence. The Institute is one of Latin America’s largest and best known schools of fine arts for English-speaking students, and is also famous for its Spanish studies. The city today is home to thousands of American and Canadian expats, so English is frequently heard. <Larry: Gated communities with private golf courses are springing up all about the city.> The city is also home to many studios and galleries and very good restaurants. One restaurant we enjoyed, Nirvana, creates marvelous food fusing Asian and Mexican food stuffs. It was recommended to us by a young Colombian couple we met while staying at Casa de Espiritus Santos in Marfil. Unsurprisingly, their English was much better than our Spanish.
As a result of the tremendous silver money available for several hundreds of years to the Spanish occupiers, this city, like most colonial towns, has magnificent buildings, particularly churches. While the silver money is gone, the Mexican government helped to secure the buildings by declaring the city an historical monument. This does preserve the outside of the buildings and prevents their demolition. The churches in San Miguel are magnificent and their interiors are covered in silver and gold. I remembered the first time I saw the Spruce Goose. I stared and said “wow”. Well, seeing the churches in this city brought the same reaction. Of particular note is the central cathedral, La Parroquia, which was designed in imitation of a gothic Belgian cathedral. It was built using a lovely pink stone and resembles an elaborate pink wedding cake, with an unusual combination of gothic, Indian and Mexican styles. It is a symbol of the city and certainly sets this town apart from its neighbors.
While San Miguel is easy to visit, especially because of the American influence, we preferred Guanajuato for its authenticity.
Two days before Mexican Independence Day (much like the American 4th of July), we headed by bus for Mexico City or the Federal District. The State Department has a travel warning posted on its web site regarding Mexico City. This is because of the high crime rate, particularly kidnapping, in this huge metropolis of 23 million people. To cut to the chase, much crime revolves around the use of taxis in the city. There are three kinds of taxis. If you stay at a high end hotel (such as the Marquis Reforma, where we stayed) the hotel has a car service that is made available to the guests for a fee. We used that during the first few days. The second level of taxis are the regulated sitio taxis, which can be dispatched by calling the taxi company or picked up at the taxi’s designated taxi stand (“sitio”). These taxis are very safe and considerably cheaper than the hotel’s car service. <Larry: The check here is that the taxi dispatcher records your name, the taxi number, and your intended destination. If leaving a restaurant, your waiter will accompany you to the sitio and take down the same information. That way, if your corpse shows up in a gutter, they know whom to question.> The third type of taxi is the problem. These taxis roam the city, may or may not be regulated, and if used by foreigners, are often the source of crime. Once you hail such a taxi and get in, the driver may take you to a location other than your desired destination and, with the help of an accomplice, rob you or force you to withdraw money using your ATM card. To avoid this problem, only use the sitio cabs or the car service. Simple once you are aware of the risk. Mexico City is much like New York City. For the first few days in NYC I was nervous and felt uneasy, but after several days I was riding around on the subway and feeling a part of the city. Not so different with Mexico City. Had we stayed longer we would have begun riding the busses and the subway. I never felt threatened in the city but then we did not roam around by ourselves.
I was particularly interested in seeing Mexico City for three reasons: to visit the historic center of the city (especially during the Independence celebrations); to see the Anthropology Museum; and to see the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacan. With a good tour company we were able to enjoy all three. Each was fascinating, and not surprisingly they were related by the Aztec history of the nation.
Mexico City, at an elevation of 7,500 feet, sits atop the ruins of a city that the Aztecs had built in the center of a lake. Cortez demolished much of the Aztec city and recycled the structural and sculptural stone into buildings in the Spanish-era core of the city. Though he did not touch the pyramids at Teotihuacan, not far outside the city, other Spaniards tore down Aztec-era temples in that area and recycled the stone into Catholic churches. In modern times, when Spanish-era stone buildings in Mexico City have been damaged by earthquakes, significant Aztec art has been revealed and reclaimed from the rubble. When this happens, it is turned over to archaeologists, and forms much of the magnificent collection of Aztec art in the Anthropology museum. <Larry: Because Mexico City was built on a swamp, pre-20th century stone buildings lean at all sorts of angles. Perfectly vertical new wooden doorways are installed in old cockeyed stone walls. The effect is somewhat disorienting, like being in a carnival “fun house.”>
In the heart of Mexico City is the Plaza de la Constitucion, commonly known as the Zocalo. The Spanish word zocalo which means “plinth” or “base” was adopted in 1840’s when a tall monument to Independence was proposed for the plaza. The base was constructed but the monument was never built. Today, the Zocalo is the second largest plaza in the world, only outdone by Red Square. It is home to the confluence of the major power sources in Mexico: the National (presidential) palace is on one side (only offices… President Fox actually lives in a presidential palace located in the same park as the Anthropology Museum); the metropolitan cathedral is on the adjacent side; the third side is occupied by the offices of the Federal District, and the fourth side has military offices. The Zocalo today is the center of political activity, including demonstrations, strikes and celebrations. When we were there, preparations were underway for the Independence celebration, to include an 11pm speech by President Fox and then an all night party with singers, dancers and fire works. One million people were expected in the area that night. We chose not be a part of that crowd but it was exciting to see the preparations and reassuring to see the federal police presence. The electronic metal detector at the entrance to the zocalo was less reassuring: when Larry walked through the gate, his knife set the alarm off, but none of the federales seemed to mind.
The remains of an Aztec temple are at one corner of the square, facing the cathedral, and sufficiently excavated to clearly observe the quality and strength of the Aztec building style. The temple is thought to be on the exact spot where the Aztecs saw their symbolic eagle with a snake in its beak perching on a cactus—still the symbol of Mexico today. In Aztec belief this spot was literally the center of the universe. These remains are the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) the most important religious building for the Aztecs, completed in 1487. The temple was dedicated to the War god and the Rain god of the Aztecs. To honor the gods, several thousand victims were sacrificed at the dedication. Today only one level remains, since the Spanish under Cortez demolished the rest, using the stone to build the government palace. The remains are still substantial and more than sufficient to get a good look at the sophistication and grandeur of the culture.
The central district of Mexico City is mostly buildings of 6 to 8 stories, many lovely parks (poorly maintained except in the wealthier residential areas), with sculptures and monuments that usually sit in the center of a roundabout. There are high rise buildings scattered about, the most famous in the central area is the Torre Mayor: at 740 feet it is the tallest building in all of Latin America.
One evening we took a taxi to the far west of the city to eat at a Spanish tapas (appetizer) restaurant. To get there we took Reforma Avenue westward, the most famous street in the city, well landscaped, and the home to much public art, some of it quite extraordinary. As we went several miles outside of the core the street became residential, similar in quality to the best parts of Beverly Hills. Of course, every city has the top ten percent who will be very wealthy. On this street and the surrounding streets we had found where the very wealthy of the city lived. There was an interesting difference from Beverly Hills: the houses were uniformly surrounded by high walls, with the walls topped with barbed wire, and frequently with electrified fences. The gates were heavy and often manned with armed guards. It seemed that the residents here felt stressed and wary. It was understandable because we had seen the way the lower 10 percent lived on the way to the Pyramids. Outside the city about 8 to 10 miles are the slums of the city. Tucked on the slopes around the city and in some flatlands, the shacks go on for miles. Our tour guide showed us government-built replacement housing which was impressive but no way near the need. The guide said that replacement housing program would take 30 to 50 years to totally remove the slums. I was impressed that a plan was in progress but also understood the reason for the huge walls and barbed wire in the very wealthy areas of the city. Now, we were moving toward the western end of the City going to dinner….. About15 miles outside the center along Reforma the city becomes a sparkling, beautiful high-rise district with phenomenal architecture. The colors of the buildings are stunning, and examples of the best architecture are many and varied. Around this section of the city are industrial parks housing major Mexican and American firms. It is a stunning world to itself and reminded me of the more beautiful areas of Miami.
By the way, the tapas restaurant was marvelous. We were the only diners in the restaurant for most of the meal. Keep in mind that the main meal of the day here is comida, served between 2 and 4 pm, and many businesses close during this period. Siesta may be taken during this time. People go back to work after this meal and work until about 7pm. Then, after arriving home and relaxing, cena or the light evening meal is taken sometime between 9 and 11pm. We like to eat the big meal of the day about 7pm, and usually find ourselves the early arrivals at restaurants. The restaurants usually accommodate us because some other tourists like the same early schedule.
Mexico City is enormous: there are nine sections to the city. We saw parts of three sections that were middle class and above, usually the haunts of the tourists. We stayed just long enough to understand that weeks would be required to become familiar with the city and at ease. Two experiences stand out to me: We were able to attend the Ballet de Folklorico at the very beautiful Palacio de Bellas Artes. The building has been lovingly restored and is more stunning and beautiful than even Portland’s Opera House. The folklorico showed the dancing styles from throughout Mexico and was very enjoyable. Larry saw it 30 years ago in Chicago and said it was just the same today.
We also traveled 31 miles northeast of the city to see the pyramids of Teotihuacan. This area was the first true city of Mexico, at its peak extending several miles in each direction and home to 200,000 people. The region had a peak of influence in pre-Aztec times, 500 to 700 AD. Much of the ancient city was ruined by fire and later abandoned. No one knows why. It was rediscovered by the Aztecs who considered it “The place where gods are made.” The area was used by the Aztecs for priests, courts, and high ranking officials until the Spaniards came in 1532. The two main features of the city are the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon separated by a mile-long walkway called the Avenue of the Dead. The Pyramid of the Sun is the larger of the two, standing 210 feet high. We both climbed up, not only for the view, but also because our guide assured us that legend tells that those who climb to the top will live to be 99 years old. Seemed like a fair deal. <Larry: I think we mis-heard him. I believe he said that those who climb to the top will feel like they’re 99 years old.>. Craftsmen from different distant regions brought their specialties here. Obsidian was prevalent and local men still make beautiful figurines from this iridescent stone. (The obsidian mask I liked was $900 USD. I left it there.)
After Mexico City were ready for a rest, as we had been touring for almost three weeks. We went by bus to the city of Cuernavaca where many Mexicans enjoy weekend visits and holidays. Cuernavaca is linked to Mexico City by a 6 lane freeway, and the trip took only 95 minutes. It is high in the mountains at 5,700 feet and has no smog, beautiful clear light, and many lovely plazas, all with cobblestone streets. Cortez liked it so much that he built a large palace in the center of town to enjoy the lifestyle. The palace has been restored and now used as a museum for pre-Hispanic and Mexican history and culture. We stayed at Las Mañanitas hotel, which is not only reputed to be a lovely hacienda style hotel but also had a restaurant by the same name, supposedly the best restaurant in all of Mexico and Latin America. Well, I gave the restaurant a B+. It is not the best restaurant in Mexico, as we had better food in Nirvana in San Miguel, La Playa Rosa in Careyes, and Gaia in Cuernavaca. But the gardens of the hotel were truly lovely, as was the swimming pool. Peacocks wandered the lawn areas and huge trees graced the entire area. As we pulled up to the gate of the hotel we could see only the tall adobe wall that surrounded the property, again giving no hint to what was inside. Nothing remarkable at all. I felt disappointed. However, once inside, a different world existed: beautiful gardens, buildings, and lovely places to sit and to eat. So typical of Mexican homes and hotels. In fact the establishment was once the home of a very wealthy Mexican, and only later converted to a hotel.
After several days in Cuernavaca, we went on by bus to the state of Michoacan, known for the lovely city of Morelia, and famed as home to Monarch butterflies, at least from late November to early March. Morelia is a World Heritage Site and considered an historical treasure by the Mexican and local governments. The bus dropped us off at the central bus terminal which is on the outskirts of town. The taxi ride to our hotel, Virrey de Mendoza, was a disappointing introduction of the city. It was reminiscent of a downtrodden barrio of LA, with the added attraction of many dirt streets. All of a sudden things improved as the center of the city came into view. The city is considered the aristocrat of the colonial cities, characterized by polished stone streets and stately 2 to 3 storied buildings of local stone with architecture of Old Spain. It is lovely and surprising given the outskirts. I also consider it remarkable that the buildings have not only survived from the 1600’s but that the city fathers have seen to their expensive restoration and creative reuse.
Morelia is a lovely town on the same scale as Guanajuato. There are broad colonnades on all the buildings facing the large and lovely Plaza de los Martires. The building style and colonnades around the Plaza were prescribed by the king of Spain, who in the early 1600's directed the style and features which were supposed to direct town planning for the Spanish colonies. <Larry: Sort of an early building code.> The town is filled with gorgeous churches: one side of the Plaza is the pink stone cathedral with twin towers 200 feet high. The Colegio de San Nicolas, the second oldest educational institution in the Americas, is located on another side of the Plaza. Another prominent architectural feature in Morelia is its massive colonial aqueduct, built in 1790 to carry water into the city from nearby springs. It has more than 250 arches, some of them 30 feet high. It is no longer in operation, but functions as a geographic reference and historical landmark.
It is a very walkable town. We enjoyed visiting museums, viewing lovely old homes—many now used for offices—and generally absorbing the ambience of a very pleasant city. Morelia is a big university town. One evening we watched a parade of students complete with banners and loud slogans march down the main street. In front and in back of this collegiate parade were the local police, mostly assuring that cars did not get too close. There was a fireworks show one evening, as a celebration of the local hero of the town and the reason for its name: José Maria Moreles, a famous independence fighter.
We enjoyed Morelia very much but it was time to return to Moira and begin the next season of sailing. We took the bus in the morning to Mexico City, transferred by regulated taxi from the South bus station to the West bus station where we would catch the bus that would send us on our way through Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta. We arrived in Puerto Vallarta by early evening and were finally home.
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