Monarchs will fly in the thousands through Texas this month

The monarchs are coming!

As the cold weather sweeps down from Canada in September, millions of monarch will take flight to escape it. In three pathways, monarch butterflies will flood from the United States into central Mexico. One group flies from the west through Arizona and New Mexico. Another migrates from central Canada, the Midwest and Great Plains through central Texas. The final cluster will travel along the Appalachian Mountains and Atlantic seaboard to follow the Texas coast to Mexico. 

When the autumn season brings shorter daylight and cooler temperatures, the monarchs read these as signs that they need to stop reproducing and head to their winter home in Mexico. 

The butterflies will reach Texas by late September, and the number will peak during October. The largest migration concentrations will cross into Mexico around Del Rio in the last half of October. By Thanksgiving, most will have settled into their reserves in the mountainous oyamel fir forests. 

There was a drought through the Midwest and parts of central Texas this year. This resulted in sparse wildflowers and few natural nectar sources, which is what the butterflies are dependent on. The southern rains in southeast Texas, however, have produced many nectar-rich flowers. This means the monarchs will – thankfully – have sufficient food to nourish them when they arrive. 

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A trail next to a Mexican beach

Like margaritas and Mariachis, Mexico and romance have always been eternally linked. I'm happy to tip my sombrero to Mexican beach resorts as I certainly find them all incredibly romantic. From the deep blue waters of the Pacific Coast to the soft white sand of the Caribbean, Mexico’s beach resorts possess their own special kind of magic. But there's more to romance than the perfect sunset. This is a land of remarkable contrasts filled with vibrant images, amazing diversity, unique experiences and unexpected possibilities. Quite simply…romance defines itself here, and it's not always about the beach.

Romance is a personal thing. What's romantic to you may not be to me, and vice versa. It doesn't have to be candlelight and roses; I think it's about sharing an extraordinary moment in an extraordinary place. Here are a few suggestions for some different kinds of romance in Mexico.

Head off the beaten path. It sounds cliché, but it's so true. You can hire a guide for some one-on-one touring and you'll learn so much more. If you're in the state of Yucatán, take a tour of the cenotes (say-no-tays). These astonishing fresh water wells are so special. Ask your guide to take you to a few that aren't on the tourist circuit. Bring your bathing suit and spirit of adventure. Dipping into the crystal clear pools is like swimming in a sea of Perrier water. Soak it in. Listen to the soft echoes, and then enjoy the silence as you float in this incredible underground world. Then ask your guide to take you to HIS favorite restaurant and really indulge yourself in the local culture.

Discover Palenque. I was always told that sunset is the "magic hour" because everything seems to look more beautiful just before the sun slips beneath the horizon. This may be most true at Mexico's archeological sites. Arrive a few hours before sunset, just as most people are heading for the tour bus. My husband and I did this at Palenque in Chiapas and it was one of the most memorable afternoons I have ever spent in Mexico. Everything seems to come to life as the crowds begin to leave. The energy shifts. You get a stronger sense of the ancients. The light bounces off the ruins in ways you'll never see in the hard light of midday. Palenque sits in the middle of the jungle so the monkeys and birds create quite a symphony. The Temple of Inscriptions is the largest Mesoamerican stepped pyramid, yet at that time of day, the entire site seems strangely intimate. Don't miss Palenque in the late afternoon... you'll never be the same.

Do the zócalo in Oaxaca. The word "zócalo" refers to the main plaza or square in the heart of the historic center. Since 1529, this has been a gathering place for families, musicians and any and everyone who wants to drink in the feel of the city. There is almost always music of some sort. A Peruvian band playing pan flutes set the tone during my last visit. Hang out at a sidewalk cafe. Watch the smiles, listen to the music, laugh with friends, and of course nosh on some Oaxacan specialties. Don't rush this one, just stroll and enjoy.

Catch a performance (any performance!) at the Angela Peralta Theater in Mazatlán. I've had the pleasure to see both an unforgettable opera performance as well as a mesmerizing rendition of Mozart’s “Requiem” at this completely charming (and romantic) theater which has been restored in recent years to its European-style grandeur. Originally named the Rubio Theater, the structure was built in the 1870’s. In 1883, the famous Mexican opera singer, Angela Peralta (known as the Nightingale of Mexico), arrived in the city for a performance. The people of Mazatlán were so enamored of this songbird that the name was changed in her honor. The colorful interior is perfectly resurrected and true to the architectural influences of the period. After the show, head to Pedro + Lola, a hip restaurant with live jazz that sits catty corner to the esteemed theater. It will be an evening you'll long remember.

Do anything in Guanajuato.  This might be one of the most romantic cities in all of Mexico. Guanajuato is purely Mexican. You won’t find many Americans here, but you’ll be glad you came. This town is so magical that it’s difficult to describe in words. It has mysticism and charm only rivaled by the small Italian villages in Tuscany or the Andalusian cities in southern Spain.  Founded in 1557 as a silver mining town, Guanajuato is built over a maze of unusual subterranean street systems. Once used as control channels for floodwaters, the roads twist and turn through stone arched tunnels that bring you to the surface in various locations throughout the city. Above ground, you’ll find one of the most picturesque and colorful displays of architecture anywhere in the world. Splashes of bright greens, blues and yellows give the perfectly preserved buildings a storybook quality. A labyrinth of tiny streets, alleyways and steep stairwells cover the hillsides. This feels much more like a medieval village than a colonial city.  If you’re into photography, you’ll be in heaven!

At the city center is the Jardin de Union. Cafes, shops, colonial buildings, and the Teatro Juarez encircle this pristine V-shaped plaza. (Constructed from 1873-1903, the Juarez Theater is a beautiful combination of Doric, French and Moorish architecture.) Also a very safe city, exploring on foot is the best way to appreciate the multitude of sites. First time visitors may want to hire a guide as some of Guanajuato’s treasures may be rather complicated to find within the city’s layout. From churches to fortresses and museums to national monuments, Guanajuato is a real gem.

Whether it’s all about romance, or just an added bonus of your trip, you can always surprise yourself with the wonder of Mexico. Sharing Mexico with the people you love may very well be the most romantic thing you can do.

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Cancun
The paths of monarch migration have been discovered by tagging

Monarch butterflies have a relatively short lifespan. Every winter, the monarchs travel from Canada to Mexico. When the weather warms up again, the butterflies in Mexico travel back north. The oldest butterflies live six to nine months, meaning they only make the return trip about halfway. 

Imagine a monarch that has traveled the 3,000 from Canada to Mexico, and then only makes it to Texas on the return journey. Say she lays an egg there, and that egg born in Texas births a monarch that flies to South Dakota and lays another egg. That monarch hatches, and manages to find her way to Mexico come autumn. How did the monarch travel to the exact same grove in Mexico that her elder monarchs did? 

Some animals that migrate learn from parents. Other creatures orient by stars or landmarks. How do monarchs know where to migrate south? Scientists are still trying to find out.

Dr. Orley R. Taylor, a scientist who runs the Monarch Watch project at the University of Kansas, has studied this mystery. He has tested their ability to reorient themselves. He transported monarchs from Kansas to Washington, D.C. to see if they could still successfully navigate after a relocation of more than 1000 miles. If the monarchs are released immediately after being relocated, they take off due south as they would have from their original location. However, if they are kept in mesh cages for a few days, they watch the sun rise and set, and reset their internal compasses. 

Dr. Taylor cites that monarchs are one of the only species that have the ability to orient themselves in latitude and longitude. When the sun drops to approximately 57 degrees above the southern horizon at their specific latitude, monarchs begin their migration.

Professor of neuroscience at Queens University of Canada Dr. Barrie Frost does not believe monarchs use the earth’s magnetic field or the sky’s polarized light. Rather, he thinks the sun reckoning leads the butterflies south, while mountain chains and the Gulf of Mexico funnel them towards southern Texas. Dr. Frost also believes that once in Mexico’s mountains, they are guided by the smell of last year’s corpses. 

Dr. Taylor disagrees, citing that butterflies do not have odiferous fatty acids that would last a year and lead a new migration herd. Citing work by butterfly biologist William H. Calvert, Dr. Taylor says most monarchs cross central Texas. Dr. Taylor’s tagging work has also shown that a monarch tagged near the Atlantic or the gulf is just one-tenth as likely to reach Mexico as one tagged in the Great Plains.

How do you tag a small, delicate monarch? Dr. Taylor will gently pinch the butterfly in one hand, and place a tiny adhesive tag on a specific cell. He is then able to track the butterfly for the entirety of its life, and uses these tags to follow the annual migration.

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olive ridley sea turtle hatchlings 200 million Mexico

Over the past six years, over 200 million olive ridley sea turtle hatchlings have been released on La Escobilla Beach. Located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, La Escobilla Beach has seen a significant increase in hatchlings over the past few decades.

The government program that has led to this increase has seen numbers rise from 200,000 hatchlings in 1973 to over 1.5 million in 2012, indicating that the species is making a strong recovery.

La Escobilla Beach is the sanctuary with the highest number of olive ridley hatchlings; 95% of all sea turtle species in Mexico nest there. Because of this, efforts to protect female turtles and nests are carried out under the National Sea Turtle Conservation Program.

The Mexican government has spent more than 143 million pesos ($11 million) to support projects that combat threats to sea turtles. The funding also covers operating costs of mobile camps, equipment, and worker salaries. Furthermore, turtle egg extraction was made illegal and has been that way since 1927. Also, a permanent ban on capture, extraction, and the sale of sea turtles and their products was implemented in 1990.

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San Agustinillo
Three Mexican Women through flowers in celebration

If you’ve traveled a lot, you probably have a funny story or two, like the time you intended to order a stuffed apple but got a pregnant porcupine. It makes for good storytelling when back home.

The same could happen in Mexico, of course, but keep in mind, Mexicans are generally a polite bunch. They’ll probably double check before bringing the porcupine. They understand you’re from somewhere else, and appreciate, even admire, that you are trying to learn a bit about their language and culture. Most all you meet will be tolerant when your accent lands on the wrong syl-LA-ble, or you commit shocking grammatical errors, or when you highlight your cultural idiosyncrasies.

What’s more, as you know, Mexicans have a special connection with the United States. Many have family who are US citizens, too, some have had families in places like California from even before it was part of the United States. So they know a bit about you and they like you.

Here are a few tips about Mexican customs I hope will help you feel even more confident and comfortable mingling with the locals on your next visit to Mexico. Keep in mind, these tips are mostly for travelers, rather than tourists, by which I mean folks who want to discover a little more about Mexico, as opposed to those who are visiting only for the nice weather but in every other way want it to be just like home (for more on the difference be sure to read this article by Mexico Today Ambassador Lisa Coleman). Mexico accepts both types.

Language and Communication

 If you have a tin ear for languages and think your limit is two phrases, then learn these two most powerful phrases in Spanish: “por favor” (please) and “gracias” (thank you). For reasons too deep to go into here, they are the oils that lubricate Mexican culture.

 One other thing you should be aware of, and will probably notice, when you are in a crowded space in Mexico, like a restaurant. Folks generally speak much more quietly than we are accustomed to in the United States. If at first you find this disconcerting, give it time, you will come to appreciate it I think.

Clothing

A brief word about attire. Of course in beach towns things are naturally a little more casual, but in the rest of Mexico, folks probably dress less casually while going about their daily business than we do in the United States. For example, errands to the store still call for shoes rather than chanclas (flip-flops). Also, sweatpants are generally too casual for almost everything, save for the gym or around the house.  And, while I get that pajamas are very comfortable, unlike sweatpants, they won’t do, even in the gym, so best not wear them in the street.

Eating and Food

Many foods thought of as typical Mexican dishes- tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and the like- are what Mexicans call antojitos. For most Mexicans these are not everyday dishes, but are usually associated with special celebrations. Of course, you probably know Mexicans celebrate a lot, so you are likely to see these foods when visiting, but a typical Mexican meal on a normal day, at least where I come from, is more likely to start with a brothy soup or a rice dish, followed by beans, cooked vegetables, and some meat or fish either in a sauce or grilled.  Guacamole, rather than a dip for chips, is also a common side dish next to the rice and beans. 

 Which brings me to another important point. This main meal, as I have described it, usually happens between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.  Some Mexicans return to work afterwards and work into the early evening as I often did. A typical meal schedule in Mexico might look like this:

Desayuno-Breakfast 7 am 

Almuerzo-Lunch 11-12 noon

Comida-Dinner -3 pm-The Main Meal

Then, usually, either:

Merienda-Light Snack 8-10 pm- Something light, like a sweet bread pastry (pan dulce) with hot chocolate.

or

Cena-8-10 pm Something light like but more substantial like a taco or quesadilla

But sometimes both! 

Restaurants

Chips and salsa do not adorn the center of every table in Mexico. (I’d never seen it until I went to a Mexican restaurant in the United States.) If they are there, it may be simply to make you feel more at ease. If you would like water, you need to ask for it and it will usually come without ice.

A funny thing can happen in different cultures: In one, a behavior may seem rude, while in another, it is considered polite.  It’s all about intent and cultural values. The restaurant server’s behavior is a perfect example. I want you to know you are not being ignored if your server doesn’t rush in each time you put your fork down, nor has he forgotten you if he fails to deliver your check within two minutes of your last bite. In fact, to do either would be considered rude. In Mexico, hospitality requires that you not be rushed out with your last gulp. So when you would like the bill, simply ask for it. Just remember to say, “la cuenta, por favor.”

Just think how civilized it will be to sit and chat in an outdoor cafe for as long as you would like... in a plaza ...in a beautiful pueblo...in Mexico.

Bienvenidos!

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Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Mexico

There was a time when Tulum was little more than an archeological site, with a handful of humble lodgings and local eateries in the vicinity for the occasional visitor to munch a codzito or papadzul before catching the second-class bus on the highway to somewhere else.  And this time was not so long ago, as even we can recall clambering up the stone steps of El Castillo and exploring the Mayan paintings inside the chamber at the structure’s summit overlooking the Caribbean Sea, accompanied only by a local teen offering to tell us tales of the Mayas for two bits.  No roped off areas, no throngs greased in sunblock, no digital media.  Today, the Mayan archeological site remains fascinating, the beaches gorgeous and the breeze in the palms as enchanting as ever.  But Tulum now is more likely to conjure images of upscale spas, international chefs and fashion designers barking into their iPhones in Italian.  So when the madcap mix of yoga on the beach, honey-clay facials and house music hits a fever pitch, where can a regular Joe go to dial it back a bit?

Actually, just a couple kilometers down the road from Tulum, where a simple stone arch signals the entrance to the magnificently beautiful – and peaceful – Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.  Considering the boom in popularity of Tulum in recent years, it is remarkable that the nearby reserve has maintained its Lost Continent atmosphere.  This may be due in part to the molar-jarring unpaved road through the reserve, but it most likely a result of the joint efforts of government, NGOs and conservationists to recover and preserve this unique ecosystem.

Sian Ka’an, or “Where the sky is born” in the area’s native Maya language, covers 1.3 million acres along the Caribbean coast of the state of Quintana Roo, in the southeastern corner of Mexico.  The reserve, approximately 75 miles long and 20 miles across at its widest point, was established as a protected area in 1986 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.  A significant portion of the area is covered by wetlands such as mangrove swamps, savannas and lagoons, which share the reserve with miles of white sand beaches, tropical forests, dunes and 68 miles of the world’s second largest barrier reef.  The area is also home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and crustaceans and over 1,000 species of flora, as well as 23 known Mayan archeological sites, some of which have yielded artifacts dating back 2,300 years.  Descendants of the ancient Mayas still live within the confines of the park.

As an early adopter of the now popular “eco-tourism” concept, a prime objective of the Sian Ka’an project has been to incorporate human activity into the area to provide employment for the indigenous communities in a way that is sustainable and in harmony with the natural environment.  This effort has resulted in two particularly noteworthy projects: CESiaK and Community Tours.  The Centro Ecológico Sian Ka’an (CESiaK) operates a restaurant and provides tourism services such as beach bungalows, boat and kayak tours and fishing.  The proceeds from the tourism operations are used to finance a wide range of pro-environmental activities including biological research, education, community outreach, dune restoration, native plant nurseries and revegetation of disturbed lands, among others.  At the CESiaK Visitors Center, located approximately four miles from the entrance to the reserve at the south end of Tulum, visitors can arrange tours, rent rustic bungalows on the beach, lounge under beachfront palapas and swim in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, followed by a delicious Yucatecan style lunch or dinner at the center’s restaurant.  The crowning jewel of the center, however, has to be the multi-level terrace atop the building, which in addition to a full bar boasts the singular attraction of offering sweeping views of both the Caribbean Sea to the east and the shimmering lagoon to the west.  It’s no wonder that guests at the center congregate for cocktails on the terrace in late afternoon to enjoy one of the world’s most spectacular sunset experiences.

Alternatively to CESiaK, visitors to the area can arrange activities with another locally-run enterprise, Community Tours Sian Ka’an.  Organized in 1988 as a means for incorporating members of the local Maya community into the conservation and education efforts in the reserve, Community Tours offers guided tours of the area’s archeological sites as well as activities such as bird watching, sport fishing, kayaking, hiking and snorkeling.  On a recent visit to Sian Ka’an with Community Tours, guide Manuel Galindo mesmerized us with intriguing detail about the endless varieties of trees, flowers and insects all around us as we threaded our way through the forest before coming upon the thousand year old temple of Chunyaxché.  But the moment of sublime relaxation was yet to come: floating weightlessly along the cool, clear waters of an ancient Mayan trading canal through the dense mangrove wetlands alongside the Muyil lagoon.  Almost enough to make you want to stay and skip the lunch of Yucatecan tamales, salbutes and empanadas that followed.  Almost.

Aaaahhh…that lunch…  Anyway.  So if you’re searching for inner peace on a budget and the $200 moon papaya therapy up the road in Tulum isn’t getting the job done, try sipping a margarita at sunset on the terrace at CESiaK.  Now that’s enlightenment.

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Tulum
Man sitting on a park bench, reading a paper, in front of billboard

Mexican photographer Ulises Castellanos recently presented a selection of his work in London. “Mexico City: Invisible City” was the name of his latest portfolio of photos featuring images of modern Mexico. Through the lens of Castellanos, includes the city’s most iconic buildings such as the Torres Arcos Bosques in Santa Fe, the Angel of Independence, Mexico City’s World Trade Center, as well as images of Mexican people, young and adult. Watch a video here for images on his latest work.

Following the inauguration of Castellanos’ photo exposition in London, the Mexican Embassy in London organized a party of “El Grito” the following day at Camden Centre in celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day. Watch a collection of photos from both events here.

The event helped to show the UK public a sample of Mexican documentary photography through the work of Castellanos, and show how Mexico is a modern city with a unique cultural story.

Castellanos studied photography at House of Images (1983) and in the Active School of Photography in Mexico (1986), and the Journalists Training Centre (CFPJ) in Paris, France (1992). Castellanos formerly taught as a visiting professor of photojournalism at the Maison du Mexique the Paris International Academic City. Some of his most important exhibitions in recent years are: "Mexico City, Construction Space" presented in 2004 at the Photo Gallery 798 in Beijing, China; "Scars" which was presented in Paris in 2005 at the Renoir Gallery He Latine; "Tibet" presented at the Alliance Francaise in 2006; and "Beijing Forbidden City" presented at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in the same year.

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London
Collection of photographs and film make up the new monarch exhibit

The Embassy of Mexico in Canada has partnered with the Canadian Air and Space Museum in Ottawa to present the exhibition “On the Trail of the Monarch Butterfly.” The display portrays the 72-day journey of Francisco Gutiérrez, a Mexican filmmaker and pilot. 

The beauty of the monarch butterfly migration attracted the attention of Francisco long ago. Francisco grew up in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, which plays the winter home to these delicate creatures. He spent countless hours of his childhood staring at the forest trees laced with butterflies. Sometimes, he says, there would be so many butterflies on a single tree that a branch would actually break. 

During the summer of 2005, Francisco decided to follow the monarchs’ 3,000 mile journey from Montreal, Canada to the state of Michoacán. Traveling in an ultra-light aircraft painted to look identical to the wings of a giant monarch, Francisco aimed to portray the migration from the butterfly’s point of view. Through unique photographs and film, he is able to recreate his unique journey to help share his love and appreciation for the monarchs.  

This breathtaking exhibit will be featured in the museum from July to October. It is open to the public daily from 9:30 to 4:00. 

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Image of the country of Mexico passing India on a graph

Mexico rose five places to 53rd place in the 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report published by the World Economic Forum. Mexico rose from 58th place in 2011-2012 to 53rd place today. Mexico passed India in economic competiveness, as India fell 3 spots from 56th place in 2011-2012 to 59th place in 2012-2013.

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Mexico City
Prevention against logging helps save the monarch sanctuaries

As the monarch butterflies begin their annual migration to Mexico, the government of Mexico is taking steps to protect the environment of the nesting grounds of the monarch. Recent government announcements declared that efforts aimed at eliminating illegal logging have been quite successful. For the first time since the forests west of Mexico City were labeled a nature reserve in 2000, logging has not be found in measurable amounts. 

Many obstacles lie between the origin and destination locations for the monarch butterflies’ migration. There are plenty of predators. The cold weather is sweeping in. Food supplies are spread apart. The distance is up to 3,000 miles. But what hurts the monarchs the most is damage to their environment. Illegal logging, specifically, has caused unparalleled damage to their hibernating grounds in Mexico.

At the peak of logging in 2005, it ruined upwards of 1,140 acres annually in the reserve. It was considered the reserve’s largest threat. In the early- to mid-2000s, armed police began patrolling reserves for logging operations, and donor groups started local nurseries to help grow for hopeful reforestation. The improved governmental stand against logging helped cut down the deforestation, however individual tree removal remains practically undetectable. During the past couple years, the thinning of forests is still noticeable, and will continue unless year-round monitoring and guarding is enforced. 

Additional reserve harm is coming from climate change. Droughts cause the trees stress, and make them vulnerable to bark beetles. Heavy rain and windstorms can create mudslides. Mistletoe strangles trees. These conditions wipe out acres of forest that the butterflies need for shelter. 

The number of monarchs wintering in Mexico dropped 28 percent this year. Some experts attribute the loss to drought in the northern parts of the Americas, where monarchs spend their summers. But it is clear that measures still need to be taken to ensure ample migration space in Mexico.

Migration is a trait inherited by monarchs. A monarch’s lifespan is so short, that no butterfly lives to make the round-trip. These delicate creatures need their winter refuge in Mexico, where millions of the species cluster so densely on tree boughs that researchers count them in acres rather than individually. The number of trees lost annually to logging has decreased, but must continue to decrease to help the monarchs. Officials and locals in Mexico are continuing to work to protect the forests, and the orange and black butterflies that call them home. 

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A line of boats on the shore of a Mexican river.

One of the most important archaeological sites in the state of Chiapas, Yaxchilán is an ancient Mayan city set deep in the Lacandon Jungle and only accessible by lancha, or motorboat. Yaxchilán is situated on the banks of the Río Usumacinta (Usumacinta River), which serves as the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The Lacandon Jungle is home to diverse plant and animal life, and the natural setting welcoming you to this region of Chiapas is spectacular; crocodiles sun themselves on the river bank, colorful birds sing from the tree tops, tree frogs buzz in the background, butterflies flutter overhead and howler monkeys swing noisily through the jungle canopy over ruins of pyramids and temples.

Yaxchilán, meaning “green stones” in Mayan, is best-known for its impressive monolithic limestone steles, carved stone lintels, alters, mural painting, ornamental stucco facades and roof combs. The large central area of the archaeological site is made up of three main building complexes – the Great Plaza, Grand Acropolis and Small Acropolis – and contains more than 120 structures. Yaxchilán was once the most powerful ancient city in the Usumacinta Province, yielding influence over much of the region, including Bonampak. Yaxchilán was settled prior to AD 250, peaked in power and influence between AD 681 and 800, and was abandoned shortly thereafter.

Today, Yaxchilán is a favorite destination among visitors to Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas and a popular stop along La Ruta Maya, the tourist route that connects important Mayan archaeological sites in southern Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula and parts of Central America.

Part of the adventure of visiting Yaxchilán is getting there; after a rough overland journey, you’ll arrive at Frontera Corozal, the border town that serves as the jumping off point for visits to the ruins at Yaxchilán. In Frontera Corozal, you’ll find long, narrow and colorfully-painted flat-bottom boats waiting to shuttle passengers the remaining 13 miles (22 km) along the river to the archaeological site.

After a scenic forty-minute boat ride along the Usumacinta, you’ll arrive at a staircase that leads up over the river bank to the site entrance. From here, you can follow the main path to El Laberinto, an impressive two-story structure located on the northwest end of the Great Plaza. A path leading off to the right takes you to the Small Acropolis, a group of ruins on a small hilltop. Many of the important structures at Yaxchilán can be found in the Great Plaza. A staircase off to the right of the plaza leads up to the best-preserved structure at the site, a temple that houses a statue of one of the city’s ancient rulers. Further up the hill is a clearing that houses several more structures and offers excellent views across the river to neighboring Guatemala.

The jungle ruins at Yaxchilán can be easily explored on foot, though it does require a bit of climbing to reach all of the structures. Most of the signs at the site have information in English; however, hiring a local guide is a great way to get a better understanding of the history and significance of the site.

Because of its remote jungle setting in Mexico’s southern border region, Yaxchilán receives fewer visitors than many of the other well-known archaeological sites in Mexico. When I last visited in 2010, Yaxchilán had yet to be developed into a major tourist destination, and unlike many of the Yucatan Peninsula sites, there was no on-site café or gift shop, no souvenir vendors and best of all, no crowds. Instead, visiting the site was an experience that felt very real and authentic.

If You Go: Yaxchilán is best visited on day tours from Palenque and San Cristóbal de las Casas. Day tours depart early in the morning and typically don’t return until late in the evening. Public transportation in the area is unreliable at best, and visiting the archaeological site independently is challenging and can end up taking several days. Travelers to the region can also visit local Lacandon Maya villages and take part in several interesting local ecotourism projects that are currently in development.

Day tours to Yaxchilán also include a visit to the jungle ruins at Bonampak. The name Bonampak means “painted walls” in Yucatec Maya and the archaeological site is best-known for its monolithic limestone steles and the colorful murals that are found inside the Templo de las Pinturas.

Visitors to Mexico City can also explore a bit of Yaxchilán: many of the carved stone lintels that the site is famous for are on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

For more information visit: www.inah.gob.mx/paseos/palenque/ and www.visitmexico.com/en-us/yaxchilan-archeaological-site-in-chiapas-mexico

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The Sunsetting on Mexico Skyline

I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I... I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

            Robert Frost from The Road Not Taken

Robert Frost was speaking metaphorically, of course, about life's choices that propel us all toward that inevitable last step off our own private piers. He speaks of making unpopular decisions, less traveled by the masses. It often requires taking a risk, and you know what they say about those hellbent risk-takers. You may at times feel vulnerable and a little lonely, and you occasionally feel that you have made a horrible decision. But in the end there is an enormous glow of satisfaction, because you have explored that "road...less traveled by", and it did make "all the difference."

We make the same choices when deciding our next travel sojourns. Will it be Mexico? France? Walla Walla? Do I fly, drive or take the train? How long do I have? Can I afford this?

Let’s make it Mexico. Will I go to the five-star "umbrella-drink" hotel in Cancun, or how about that white-water river trip down the Antigua in Veracruz? Or how about Guanajuato, the colonial town first settled nearly 500 years ago with the cobblestone streets and mummy museum? Chetumal? San Blas? Morelia? Boxers or briefs? Hey, there are too many dang forks in this road...I'll just stay home!

But you know that you have to go...somewhere. For me, and many others, it's usually Mexico that wins the eight-headed coin flip. Some people may have heard about an alluring town, researching how to get there and they pack one bag, grab the debit card and are on their way. Who needs to know anything about the destination? Discovery is the real goal of travel, right? The traveler experiences many surprises this way (you eat grasshoppers?) and it makes for a fascinating, formative trip - if you are that kind of person. Many times you will unwittingly find out the person you really are. Travel can do that. Mexico can do that.

For others, it's best to prepare for a trip to Mexico with extensive research. These folks can accept a few inevitable bumps on the journey, but all in all, they prefer a definite game plan. Hotels and flights are booked online - tours to the ruins one day, a bay cruise the next. Meals are planned by consulting TripAdvisor.com reviews (who are these people you trust to tell you where to eat?), and every day is pre-arranged. This approach is often required if time is a factor. You don't have enough days for many errors or misdirection (Oh, you meant THAT San Carlos). If you have work for a living in a job that gives you a week or two vacations every year, this is probably your category, and is a fine way to travel.

Either way, your life is forever enriched by the adventure. I have met many people over the years in my Mexico travels that possess an independent spirit, leading them away from the tourist-oriented towns...and their numbers are rapidly growing. You find them driving the back roads or taking a bus, staying overnight in small town pensiones, experiencing the true essence of Mexico. These are my people, but that’s just me.

And there are the younger travelers. If I recall correctly, the cranial wiring isn't quite complete at this stage of life, producing a sublimely happy travel-warrior. There are absolutely no problemas that can't be solved, usually with the assistance of a beer and tequila in the nearest cantina. Many become lifelong Mexicophiles, as their view of the world, and their place in it, is forever changed.

After several years of declining visitors, Mexico has turned the corner as tourism numbers continue to rise. There were several reasons for the downturn – fear of the cartels – a worldwide recession – a press/media exaggerating unfound dangers. But people, especially travelers, are pretty smart and savvy. They began to understand that 99% of the country is as safe as ever, and the Mexico Tourism Board people have done an outstanding job of promoting their country to a worldwide audience.

Hopefully, at some point, on one of your Mexico journeys, you will be lucky enough to find that very special place...that place where, for some unknown reason, you feel an unexplained affinity. It becomes your place. And you know that if you could, if things were different, well, you would live there. But until that day arrives, you can visit and know you have found a second home.  It makes it easier to go back to your life and your work, because your special place will be there the next time you need it, if even in your dreams.

James Taylor sang a song called Mexico that describes the feeling dead on.

Oh, Mexico It sounds so simple I just got to go The sun's so hot I forgot to go home Guess I'll have to go now

Oh, Mexico It sounds so sweet with the sun sinking low Moon's so bright like to light up the night Make everything all right

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19.432608
-99.133208
Mexico City
Technology Facilities in Mexico

Tijuana Innovadora is a 10 day event that aims to celebrate the best that Tijuana has to offer in a creative way.  Started in 2010 by a binational group of citizens, the Tijuana Innovadora event has grown to become a civic movement, where participants and speakers can freely discuss innovative approaches to improve the quality of life in the Tijuana-San Diego region.   Thousands of volunteers from Tijuana, San Diego, and neighboring Baja California towns make the event possible by donating their time and resources.  Participants in the event are able to attend panels and workshops, watch keynote speakers, and see an Iron Chef style culinary throw down by the finest chefs from the city.  Performances by local musical and theater groups as well as movie screenings will give the event goers a taste of the cultural side of Tijuana. 

In the past, the event has attracted distinguished speakers such as ex-Vice President of the United States Al Gore, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Carlos Slim, media personality Larry King, and Biz Stone, founder of Twitter.   This year’s event is sure to be an even bigger success with speakers like Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, Bruno Ferrari, Mexican Economic Secretary, Chris Andersen of Wired, Emilio Azcárraga of Televisa, Ada Yonath, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, and Blake MyCoskie, founder of Toms Shoes.

The event will host speakers from around the world, who are considered to be innovators in their fields.  Tijuana Innovadora is divided into three main categories: creativity, industrial, and humanities.  Attendees will also be able to walk through the pavilions, where they will be able to see interactive exhibits from Tijuana’s aerospace, medical, technology and automotive sectors.  The Cultural Center of Tijuana, locally known as “CECUT”, will be the venue for this year’s event, which is expected to draw over 700,000 people from all over the region. 

In addition to organizing the Tijuana Innovadora event, the movement has also spawned 5 different sub committees focusing on the following areas:  Volunteers to Leaders, Digital City, Green Tijuana, Binational, Youth and Innovation. 

In the Volunteers to Leaders program, students from the region are involved in an 18 month program which aims to encourage efficiency and have a multiplying effect when it comes to producing tomorrow’s leaders.  Students in the program are able to participate in lectures, company visits and other workshops. 

Green Tijuana focuses on Tijuana’s commitment to build a more sustainable environment through actions, not just words.  In 2010, Mexico’s National Water Commission donated a plot of land which was turned into a water park.  The purpose of the water park was twofold: to provide a space for family fun while teaching citizens about the importance of conserving water. 

The goal of the Digital City committee is to promote innovation in the area of information technology and attract international investment.  According to Tijuana Innovadora, “Tijuana is the only city in México with fiber optic border connectivity with access to information networks that interconnects all major regions of the world.”

The aim of the Binational committee is to dispel the myths about Tijuana and encourage business and community leaders from both sides of the border to work together to promote investment.  Many people are unaware that the Tijuana border crossing is the busiest in the world, and the amount of trade that takes place daily between the US and Mexico is a staggering $1 Billion USD. 

The Youth and Innovation committee awards young residents of Baja California, aged 16-24, whose purpose is to “transform and modernize” Mexico.  Winners of the award receive a financial incentive, as well as a number of connections with influential leaders and international institutions. 

The Tijuana Innovadora schedule:

Opening ceremonies - October 11th

Creativity – October 12-14

The event kicks off with the creativity phase, highlighting Tijuana’s Youth cinematography, medical excellence, strategic design, and the culinary arts.  Many people aren’t aware that one of the world’s most famous salads, the Caesar, was said to be have invented in Tijuana in 1924.

Industrial – October 15-17

It’s no secret that Tijuana has long been known for its factories which make everything from circuit boards to pacemakers.  Tijuana is home to a number of foreign companies like Sanyo, Samsung, etc.  Tijuana is the largest manufacturer of Televisions in the world, earning it the nickname “TV-Juana”. 

Humanities – October 18-20

The Humanities category will cover entrepreneurship and leaders, humanism, economy, digital city, as well as philanthropy and Nobel Laureates. 

Closing ceremonies – October 21st

The economic ties between San Diego and Tijuana have always been important, but the Tijuana Innovadora event hopes to strengthen those ties by showing the region’s best companies 

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32.533489
-117.018204
Tijuana
Three Mexican women make Oaxacan Drink

Tejate, the pre-Hispanic corn and cacao based drink, is likely the only complex food recipe in all Mexico still enjoyed today in Oaxaca just as it was thousands of years ago. When visiting a Oaxacan marketplace and enjoying a jícara (gourd; in this case half gourd) of tejate, you’re likely treating yourself to the same carefully crafted beverage, made with virtually the same ingredients and preparation methods as was the case 4,000 years ago.  

For those who have never tried or recognized tejate in the markets, it’s the foamy beige drink  (appearing somewhat like spent shaving water) ladled out of oversized green glazed clay tubs, worked and served exclusively by women standing behind a table or stand or small.

Oaxaca of course is the south central Mexico UNESCO World Heritage Site noted for its colonial architecture; Dominican churches; museum and galleries; diverse indigenous cultures; and nearby ecotourism preserves, craft villages, mezcal production, as well as Zapotec and Mixtec ruins. And its gastronomic greatness is arguably unrivalled in the country.

Despite being a tourist mecca, rarely do visitors to Oaxaca, or for that matter residents, have the opportunity to witness how tejate is made, from start to finish.  And yet while other similar drinks do exist, tejate is a uniquely Oaxacan beverage deserving of widespread acclaim given both its unique and agreeable taste, and its history.  Before taking you to the homestead of a family of indigenous women who make tejate, let’s briefly review some of the evidence in support of the drink’s past, and distinct qualities.

Tejate’s pre-Hispanic Origins Supported by a Preponderance of Evidence

All of the key ingredients in tejate are native to Mexico, and in fact to the state of Oaxaca except for one, cacao from the state of Chiapas (some cacao is now imported from Tabasco). This fact immediately distinguishes the drink from other noteworthy prepared Oaxacan foods, such as some of its moles.  Many mole ingredients were first brought to Mexico by the Spanish. Thus we cannot trace, for example, the highly complex mole negro with its 30 – 35 ingredients, to pre-Hispanic times. By contrast, tejate today is likely the exact same beverage which was ceremoniously  drank by the Aztecs in the 1400s, and for thousands of years  before them by the Zapotecs who were, and continue to be the predominate ethnic group in the central valleys of Oaxaca and further beyond.

The tools of the trade and means of production employed in 2012 AD are on balance the same as those used in 1012 BC; rock, fire and clay. Admittedly not all of the metates used today are the large smooth river rock grinding stones utilized generations ago, and commercial manufacture of tejate often includes taking some of the ingredients to a local molino for milling.  But witnessing the labor intensive transformation of raw material into tejate conjures clear images of ancestral production.

The Spanish arrived in Oaxaca in 1521.  Their first contact was with the Aztecs.  Early European writings based on interaction with the indigenous group document the use of corn and cacao and some of the other ingredients used today, as well as the process of making the drink frothy.  They also confirm that the drink was reserved for the upper classes, likely royalty.  We also know that the Aztecs traded jícaras, a traditional drinking receptacle, and cacao.

But that only takes us as far back as the most recent pre-Hispanic era.  Other evidence confirms that up to 4,000 years ago there were trade routes between Oaxaca and the coastal regions further south, such as Chiapas, where cacao has grown since time immemorial.

Physical evidence includes residue found in clay pots dating up to 2,500 years ago and containing a compound found only in cacao, suggesting that cacao was then being cooked by Zapotec residents of Oaxaca. 

Perhaps the most compelling evidence is contained on a vase dating to about 1,300 years ago and decorated with painted imagery.  On the “Princeton Vase” one encounters what the experts presume is a prepared cacao based beverage being poured from high into a vessel below, the aeration creating the foam. The dress and composure of the individuals depicted suggest the drink was ceremoniously imbibed by royalty.   [1]

Today, the same process plays out, but by native village vendors, far from royalty, yet highly respected for their culinary craft by those in the know.

Gloria Cruz Begins Preparing Tejate Early Sunday Morning in San Marcos Tlapazola, Tlacolula

Gloria Cruz holds a jicára high above her head, deliberately allowing its liquid to fall, but in a controlled fashion back into the giant green glazed ceramic tub from which it was taken.  She continuously repeats the process, each time attentively checking the progress of the froth as it builds with each subsequent pour.

It’s 10 a.m., Sunday morning at the Tlacolula market.  Gloria has just finished setting up her stand and unpacking several kilos of beige masa which she has brought from her family compound in nearby San Marcos Tlapazola.  San Marcos is a traditional Zapotec village with about 2,500 residents, known mainly for not tejate, but rather its handcrafted red clay pottery.

Mixing water into the masa, then ceremoniously creating the frothy topping, is the final step in preparing tejate for sale to passersby – residents of Oaxaca and nearby towns and villages who have come to Tlacolula to shop, other market vendors, and the odd tourist who is familiar with the beverage’s nutritional properties, richness and nutty (almost mocha-chino) flavor.

Gloria awoke at 3 a.m. as she does most Sundays to begin making her day’s quantity of masa to turn into tejate.  When she has time for some pre-preparation the night before, she sleeps in until 4. 

Gloria had purchased all the ingredients she would need, in the same market the week before; except for corn usually on hand from her own harvest.  Aside from occasionally buying maize, she purchases  red cacao (already fermented and toasted), seeds of the mamey fruit, lime mineral, pecans or peanuts (depending on the season) and Quararibea funebris (the flower of an aromatic bush, often referred to as funeral tree flowers, or rosita de cacao though not related to cacao).  Ash from cooking tortillas or baking pottery is always available. 

Gloria places ¼ kg of rositas, 6 mamey seeds and ¼ kg of cacao on a comal.  She roasts these ingredients on top of a flame, using dried agave leaves as fuel.  She does the same with 1/8th kg of raw peanuts.  The toasted peanuts and the first mixture (pixle) are kept separate, each in its own clay bowl.

Using a clay colander, Gloria then washes 4 kg of raw corn kernels, making sure to pick out any small stones.  She puts spring water into a large clay cauldron sitting on top of the flame, rejuvenating it with the addition of more dried agave leaves. She adds a small amount of powdered lime. She then strains 3 kg of ash, places it in the pot, then adds the corn.  More agave leaves added to the flame helps to bring back the boil.  Regular stirring prevents sticking. 

By now Gloria’s sister-in-law María has awoken.  From this point onward she will help will the further preparation of the masa, and with breakfast.

At about 5 a.m. it’s time for hot chocolate and sweet rolls, while the corn continues to cook.  After about 40 minutes the flame has died out.  The boiled corn is once again strained, this time to cool it and to remove excess ash. Gloria’s recipe calls for only a little sweetness, which ash provides. The two women clean every pot and utensil immediately after use. 

It’s still dark out.  María and Gloria walk seven blocks to the mill, over a muddy potholed road, corn and pixle in hand.  After knocking on the door of the molino then waiting a few minutes, a woman appears, welcomes them in, and turns on the light.  She washes down the machinery, then weighs their two containers.  She then mills the pixle into a masa, María and Gloria assisting with each step.  The smell of cacao fills the molino, then the maple-y aroma of the rosita overtakes all, that same scent one occasionally encounters when driving along secondary highways and dirt roads in rural Oaxaca.   Next the corn.  The miller knows exactly how much water to add to the corn as it goes through the apparatus in order to provide the white masa with optimum consistency.

It’s 5:50 a.m., and the walk back to the homestead is no different than it was arriving; it’s still dark.  But by now one hears the sounds of roosters.

The masa blanca must cool before further processing.  María alternates between preparing breakfast and polishing a clay figure to ready for the brick kiln. Gloria pours mezcal.  It’s still cold out, and the masa is not yet ready for mixing on the metate with the rest of the ingredients.  Mezcal warms, but more importantly is customary, at least in this household.

Gloria gingerly pours water over four metates, then thoroughly scrubs each. The water is then used to irrigate nearby saplings and plants. She then grinds the peanuts, setting this third mixture aside. A little corn is ground and mixed in with it, just to ensure all the peanut has been removed. Nothing is wasted.  The pixle masa is ground, this time on the metate; and then once again a bit of corn is used to ensure all the pixle has been recovered.

Everything has its order; tradition which has been repeated for generations.  Before the age of the electric molino, the metate was used exclusively.  Even today, smaller batches for household consumption of tejate are ground entirely on the metate.

Gloria and María both work at thoroughly blending the corn masa with the pixle and peanut mixtures.  It takes 1 ½ hours.  The metates are again scoured. But this excess water has nutrients from the corn and other ingredients.  It’s saved in pails and fed to the donkey and chickens.

While the women were grinding on the metates, Mariá’s daughter Lucina had awoken, dressed, showered and gone into the kitchen to finish making breakfast.  It’s 7:40 a.m., time to sit down to a fuller meal than earlier in the morning;  sopa de guias, tortillas and salsa, all prepared fresh along with coffee, and another ritual mezcal. 

The now beige masa must be tested before leaving for the market to ensure sufficient cacao has been used to guarantee a healthy froth, the sign of a successful tejate.  Gloria mixes up a sample;   a subtle smile of satisfaction emerges.

Gloria, María and Lucina walk along that same muddy road, now in the light of day, and await the arrival of a colectivo to take them to the Tlacolula market with their masa.  They also have clay decorative figures and utilitarian vessels they’ve made throughout the week, to offer for sale.

The women arrive at the market at 9:30 a.m.  They walk to their designated section of street, greet their fellow vendors from San Marcos Tlapazola and other nearby villages, and then walk to an indoor storage area. They carry back their tables, bottles of purified water, green glazed clay mixing vessels, tarpaulins, unsold red clay pottery from last Sunday, and everything else they need to begin preparing for sale.    

By 10 a.m. Gloria and Lucina have erected the tarps. Lucina and María are now arranging their pottery while Gloria attends to the finishing touches of preparing her tejate.  While neither Zapotec royalty nor an Aztec queen, Gloria, smartly clad in her own colorful hand-embroidered traditional San Marcos Tlapazola garb, ceremoniously pours the liquid, arm stretched out and raised above her head, just as her ancestors did. 

Gloria’s customers, mainly regular clients, begin to arrive just as the froth in the large green glazed clay pot takes on its tell-tale sign of readiness.  She begins to serve her tejate, its consistency, flavor and overall appearance just as it was thousands of years ago.  After all, the tools, their use and the ingredients have remained the same over millennia, long before the word Oaxaca had ever been spoken.

Alvin Starkman and his wife Arlene operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com).  Alvin has written over 270 articles about life and cultural traditions in and around Oaxaca.  Alvin frequently takes visitors to Oaxaca to experience many of the non-traditional the sights in the central valleys, including into rural marketplaces to sample pulque, mezcal, and of course tejate. Alvin is a paid contributing writer for Mexico Today, a program for Marca País – Imagen de México.

[1] Part of the foregoing is a summary of the compilation of evidence contained in Tejate:  Theobroma Cacao and T. Bicolor in a Traditional Beverage from Oaxaca, Mexico, by Daniela Soleri and David A. Cleveland.

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17.083333
-96.750000
Hammock Swinging on a Mexican Beach

Our room was named "Maracuyá". Each of the guestrooms at Casa Las Tortugas hotel bore the name of a tropical fruit instead of traditional numbers. Beds with charming mosquito nets, island artwork on the walls, and a peek into a bathroom with talavera tiles greeted us as my husband and I first stepped through the door. When we opened the door to our garden view balcony and lied down in our traditional Yucatan hammock, I knew we had made it to paradise.

Getting to the island of Holbox was easy. Many of the local hotels offer their own transportation from Cancun while some visitors make the journey via rental car. Jorge and I opted to take the bus from downtown Cancun, which took us three hours through small villages and beautiful jungle scenery to the town of Chiquilá on the northern coast of the state of Quintana Roo. With ferries leaving Chiquilá every hour during the day, we were quickly off the bus, on board the boat and making our way to Holbox island. A golf cart taxi drove us across the small island to our hotel, and by noon we had already settled in and unpacked our swimsuits.

Our first order of business? Lunch! A quick stroll around the small, friendly town of Holbox led us to a beachfront restaurant and bar where we stuffed our faces with coconut fish and tacos while looking out over an amazing view of the quiet beach and turquoise ocean. With our bellies full and our hearts happy, Jorge and I returned to Casa Las Tortugas hotel for an afternoon at their beach club. Loungers, palapas and bean bag chairs covered the beach, but we made ourselves comfortable in bright yellow hammocks set under the shade of several palm trees. Hours passed as we napped, ordered drinks and occasionally ventured into the cool waters. Some local island kids were playing nearby, running fully clothed in and out of the water in an improvised game of tag.

Around 7 pm, travelers from all over the world began to show up all along the beach to see the island's famed sunset. Couples were sitting in the sand snapping photos while families walked out to the end of the docks to get the best view. Half an hour went by as we viewed the bright orange sun go down over the ocean horizon.

Once dinnertime rolled around, I had firmly decided that I wanted to try Holbox’s famous lobster pizza. Jorge was more interested in a laid-back bar vibe. We went back into town and explored the sandy streets before deciding on a casual but busy restaurant at the back of the main square. The lobster pizza did not disappoint, and we stayed at the restaurant talking for quite awhile before returning to Casa Las Tortugas for some chocolate dessert at their beachfront restaurant, Mandarina. To pass the time after our evening out, we headed up to our Maracuyá room and once again settled into our cozy balcony hammock. I listened to the ocean breeze flow through the palm trees and felt immense peace as we talked about returning to the island for a longer vacation.

 Always up for a party, Jorge suggested we walk down the beach to Cariocas, a tiny bar on the sand with swing-seats and any drink you could want. Soon a group of boisterous European tourists sidled up to the bar while a few locals arrived and made themselves comfortable in a few chairs just by the bar. The night went by in a blur of laughter and dancing at that little bar on the beach, and I didn't even know what time it was when we stumbled back to our room and gave in to sleep under the mosquito net.

I woke up starving and changed into my favorite coral-colored swimsuit cover-up before we went downstairs to breakfast at the hotel's restaurant. We feasted on homemade jams and huevos rancheros, the perfect way to start our second day on Holbox island.

Our golf cart cab was scheduled to pick us up at noon to catch the ferry and the last scheduled bus back to Cancun, so Jorge and I spent the remainder of our morning cooling off in the pool and seeking out our favorite beach club hammocks for ultimate relaxation once again. Before our trip, I had been worried that just 24 hours in Holbox wouldn't satisfy my travel cravings. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that one night was just enough to immerse myself in true rest and peace of mind to return home calm and serene.

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21.158964
-86.845937
Cancun