“Great goodness, can I climb that high?” may be your first reaction when facing the main complex at Toniná. But you can. You’ve already reached this strangely alien Mayan complex. You’re more than the pampered tourist if you’re facing Toniná.
I fully grasped its height later, while examining a photograph taken one hundred yards from the complex. The picture failed to show over a dozen men working on the top edifice. Coming from the Yucatan or the Gulf coast of Mexico, take Highway 199. Definitely plan to stop at Palenque. The restaurants and hotels past the town are fine, but you won’t find four-star accommodations again until San Cristóbal de las Casas. You might spoil yourself with a better than average inn while in Palenque.
Leaving Palenque, Highway 199 is a narrow, curvy blacktop mimicking a raw river cutting through unbroken jungle. The road has few places to pull off, but there are several magical spots mixing water and tropical mountain rain forest that are must-sees. Cascadas Agua Azul and Misol-Ha’ are two sites of natural beauty that shouldn’t be overlooked. My last trip to Toniná was in November. I left Misol-Ha’ Waterfall in the late afternoon. I wanted to reach Ocosingo. I’d be driving after dark.
Heavy rains had drenched the area. Not twenty-five miles past Misol-Há, the road worsened. I encountered the first of a dozen major league washouts in the highway. With darkness closing over the hills travel became hazardous. I drove leaning forward to see better and my arm muscles tightened with constant tension. Worse, I missed the scenery. I felt relieved when I reached Ocosingo. The town had doubled in population since my last visit. I entered from an unfamiliar point where I couldn’t find my bearings. The change, however, turned positive. I passed through the familiar central area and hit a six block section wild with happy, gossiping people. They enjoyed the evening activities of sidewalk shopping and savoring drinks, ice cream or mango, melon, banana and other fruit treats I didn’t recognize.
I circled the blocks several times, stopping to enjoy a roasted ear of corn, sold by a sidewalk vendor, and soaked in the carnival-like atmosphere. By the time I reached the hotel at 9:30, the festivities were over. I was tempted to stay another day to capture the beehive activity on film.
I found the same hotel where I’d stayed years earlier. Surprisingly, I got the same tiny, Spartan room. The rates had jumped from six to twenty dollars, but the increase provided a black and white television. By the time I’d enjoyed a savory steak on the balcony and talked with four Danish women enjoying a bus trip through Mexico, the little central park had darkened and fallen silent.
A few vendors lined the street to sell to people returning from outlying clubs that rumbled with life until the late hours. I thought about visiting one or two cantinas, but wanted to get an early start to Toniná the next day. I also reflected on a near fight the last time I’d hit an Ocosingo club.
I hadn’t been involved in the argument but when it got heated it was obvious everyone, including women, in the bar would have thrown punches. The owner got the main combatants outside and apart. I thanked heaven knowing if a melee occurred the police would manage to capture the lone North American. Tucking myself in for the night, I was glad I recalled that old promise to myself to avoid Ocosingo’s taverns.
I slept later than intended, perhaps due to the tedious after-hours drive the day before or perhaps I just felt lazy. A fruit plate and scrambled egg breakfast, eaten in the company of the Danish women on the hotel’s balcony, made an ideal start to the morning before leaving for the ruins. The fifteen miles took forever on a poorly marked road.
A few smiling Mayan Indian girls and women attended two small tables selling trinkets and soft drinks at the entrance. Large shade trees sheltered them and created an inviting parking area. Only a car and truck indicated other tourists.
The entry fee was just over three dollars. There weren’t any signs, but I discovered two galleries inside the surprisingly excellent little museum complex. The displays were useful to gain some knowledge of Toniná’s history. The staff was helpful and obviously proud to be associated with the archeological zone.
The dates on Toniná are still being puzzled over. The complex could have been built as early as 350 A.D., but archeologists currently think most of the monuments and clusters of temple-pyramids date from the Maya Classic era, the sixth through ninth century A.D.
A healthy walk, probably a quarter mile or more is required to reach the complex. I should’ve brought water, but didn’t realize the length of the path. Luckily it was November. At most other times of the year, I would’ve had to turn back for water before exploring.
At the end of the lane a steep set of stairs goes down and up crossing a shallow, vegetation-choked creek. Once I topped the stairs I enjoyed my first view, an ancient ball field. Two large circular stones, resembling ancient manhole covers, lay on the field of play. A local farmer sitting on a retaining wall stood. He wanted work as a guide and insisted the stone discs were used in the ballgames once played on that ancient turf. An archeologist might have shed some light on their use but his explanation exposed the fact he had little knowledge of their original purpose.
Stepping from the ball field, I enjoyed my first full view of the Gran Plaza and the 249-foot high pyramid complex. The conglomeration of stacked edifices provided a Disney-like ambiance. A dozen or more men, appearing ant-like, worked on the highest temple.
Toniná’s construction differs from nearby Mayan complexes. The builders employed small rocks, whereas larger stones were used in other sites. Toniná may translate to “House of Stones.” This translation makes sense after the first view. Many experts on Mayan architecture believe central Mexican civilizations had more influence on Toniná than is typical of most Mayan sites. The multifarious pyramid was built on a large hill and has several main terraces.
Throughout the complex maze-like rooms adorn various terraces. Some experts speculate they had to do with astrology. Others believe they were used to hold captives. Archeologists will eventually determine if the rooms match up with the heavens at night. My guess was the quarters served both purposes, as well as other uses our modern minds will never fathom. The construction known as the “Entrance to the Labyrinth of Passages,” even in the early afternoon light is far too dark to step into without a flashlight. It is on the first level.
Toniná is noted for being a distinct dynastic center and defeating Palenque in a war. Many of the rulers are known. The friezes relate some of the site’s history. Several scenes focused on prisoners captured in battle.
Above the replica on the stairs and to the right loomed a large flat sculpture titled “Frieze of the Dream Lords.” The wall-mural is covered by a tropical palm-thatched roof. A wire fence keeps viewers back several feet. At this level, finally, the men working at the top can be clearly discerned.
Most notable among the frieze sculptures were inverted heads staring outward. Some theories suggest the upside down heads represent decapitated prisoners. Another sculpture I found especially interesting was a skeletal figure. I spent half an hour studying the “Frieze of the Dream Lords,” and discussing aspects of it with a young German woman who’d joined me while climbing. Surprisingly, once home and zooming in on photographs, I saw more of the scene than I did in person. I wonder if the frieze overwhelmed me, preventing concentration on a single part.
Toniná’s elevation is 2,950 feet. There are times when clouds roll in and shroud the top of the site. I didn’t visit the complex at such a time. Toniná has 260 steps, which may relate to the complex Mayan calendar system. The higher elevation provided cooling breezes that make stopping to catch my breath and enjoy the panorama a real pleasure.
Halfway to the top stood a most intriguing structure called “The Tomb of the Earth Monster” by some, and “Temple of Agriculture” by others. It stands as a stone structure the size of a child’s play house. Within, sits a beach ball-size shaped stone. My first thought, guessing the orb must weigh 350 pounds, was, “I’d have hated to help carry the damn thing up here.”
The theory for “The Tomb of the Earth Monster,” is the sphere represents the earth being eaten by the monster. I’ve no idea as I couldn’t make much of the intricate design covering the tomb.
Finishing my exploration, I joined a German couple for a soft drink under an open tent at the entrance. I needed the refreshment and a bit of easy conversation. I’d been hydrating myself constantly while in Mexico. This was the sixth pyramid complex I’d explored on this trip. The exercise had built me up a bit. Had I not consumed extra water daily I don’t believe I’d have enjoyed the complex so much or seen nearly half of what I accomplished. If you have the opportunity to explore Toniná, make certain you’ve been taking daily walks for a while. It’s not the type of site one should tackle while out of shape. Additionally, I’ll carry water next time.
I’ll revisit Toniná. The mysterious site is still in the early stages of being explored and properly studied. For those who enjoy Mayan history, the Mayan Calendar and the 2012 legends, Toniná is an extra special archeological zone. The latest date of the Maya Long Count discovered so far, 909 A.D., is at Toniná. The collapse of the Mayan civilizations begins in earnest after that date.
On September 24, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History hosted the world premiere event of SK Films’ “Flight of the Butterflies.” The 3D nature film was screened in the Johnson IMAX Theater. The movie premiere was attended by President Felipe Calderón and First Lady Margarita Zavala, as well as a… variety of Mexican and U.S. officials, including Mexican Secretary of Tourism Gloria Guevara, Mexican Ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhán, and U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Representatives from SK Films were also in attendance, including Executive Producer Jonathan Barker, Director Mike Slee, and Co-Executive Producer Wendy MacKeigan. The principal actor, Gordon Pinsent, was also there, as well as actor Shaun Benson and actress Patricia Phillips. Catalina Aguado, the only surviving member of the original monarch sanctuary discovery team, was a featured guest. Catalina was recognized and applauded for her journey that has dawned new discoveries in monarchs, and which led to decades of fascination with the migration.
A reception in the museum’s rotunda featured small plate Mexican cuisine and live mariachi music. Light projections of butterflies danced across the high ceilings while the attendees swayed to the traditional Mexican music. Cookies in the shape of monarchs topped off the delicious selection of Mexican dishes.
Perhaps the most exciting part of modern day travel is experiencing ancient cultures, especially in the case of the Maya. From history buffs and scholars, researchers and authors who thrive on historical facts and figures to travelers seeking new cultural encounters, experiencing the magic of the… sacred Maya culture is northing short of other-worldly.
The Maya culture has long been a mysterious and fascinating part of Mexico’s rich history. With the abundance of ancient cultural sites, original indigenous languages, arts and crafts, cuisine, native music, dance and timeless customs, the Maya culture still thrives today in Yucatán Peninsula and beyond.
Capturing the world’s attention as the end of an era approaches, (December 21, 2012 marks the end of the Maya Long Count, a 5,125-year cycle), and the beginning of a new one draws near, here are a few ways in which you can meet the Maya and learn about their sacred cultural traditions.
Maya Day of the Dead - Hanal Pixán
Dia de los Muertos – or Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico as an homage of life where families throughout Mexico take part in a religious ceremony, honoring those who have passed. Through customized altars built and covered with colorful decorations, photos of loved ones, candles, paper mache skeletons or calaveras, skull candies, special breads and food and drink, the concept of death is celebrated throughout Mexico from October 31 to November 2.
November 1st, a national holiday in many historically Catholic countries, is All Saints’ Day when the spirits of children are thought to return, while November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, honors the souls of adults and all of the faithfully departed.
This time of year in Mexico is a special time to show great respect through this deeply rooted tradition and tribute to all who have passed, from babies to the elderly.
The Maya Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixán, which translates to “feast of souls” in the Mayan language. It is celebrated similarly to Day of the Dead but with foods unique to the Maya area including mucbipollo (buried chicken), large chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an underground pit with gourds of tan-chucua, a thick corn drink flavored with crushed cacao beans, pepper and aniseed. This meal is eaten and enjoyed by the Maya along with balche, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and tree bark. The meal is enjoyed by both the spirits, who are thought to consume its essence, and by the participants.
It is said that during this time, the Maya abstain from certain tasks such as hunting and sewing so as not to injure one of the wandering souls.
In Yucatán, visit Mérida for special festivities in the streets and at the local cemeteries. Don’t miss the annual celebration of the “Festival of Life and Death” at Xcaret eco-park in Quintana Roo. During this festival, the park is filled with rhythmic drum beats, the scent of burning copal, faces painted like skeletons, and an abundance of orange and yellow marigolds. Special festivities include concerts, plays, dances, art exhibitions and a variety of children’s activities. Be sure to visit the park’s authentic Mexican Cemetery, built cone-shaped, with seven levels and 365 different tombs. With more than 40 different natural and cultural attractions here, you can enhance or expand your appreciation of the Maya and Mexican culture.
Traditional Maya Bee Honey Harvesting Ceremony in Xel-Há
Twice a year, a traditional Maya bee honey-harvest ceremony (Xunaan-Cab or Melipona) takes place at Xel-Há, a natural aquarium park located in Riviera Maya, Quintana Roo.
The purpose of the festival, which is presented during a full moon in June and December, is to clean or unclog the jobones, (hollow trunks that represent beehives) and to collect the honey. Extensively cultured by the Maya for honey and regarded as sacred, the unique Melipona (of the Meliponini tribe) are stingless bees and produce a very high nutritional and medicinal type of honey.
A beautiful ceremony is conducted by a Maya priest who leads a ritual through offerings of thankfulness to Maya deities for their blessings and for the bees’ fertility. Xel-Há promotes the rescue of this ancient tradition of the Yucatán Peninsula as the Melipona bee is considered endangered.
Other activities can include a visit to Chichen Itza (any day, year round). A visit to this spectacular archeological site and large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya civilization is a must but particularly during Spring and Autumn equinoxes, in the late afternoon when the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows on El Castillo to evoke the appearance of a serpent. Or experience Momentos Sagrados Mayas (Sacred Mayan Moments), a seasonal play and indigenous Maya festival with a cast of inhabitants from the east part of Yucatán is staged every Sunday from January to March in X’ocen near Valladolid and presented by the Laboratorio de Teatro Campesino e Indígena on an open-air stage.
As the Maya (and Mayan calendar) have captured the world’s attention, perhaps now, more than ever, participation in a cultural Maya experience is essential for any itinerary.
What do Argentine Tango, the Peking Opera and Mexican food have in common? They’ve all been given UNESCO status as Masterpieces of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. These lofty words are unlikely to come to mind while savoring the best food in Mexico. I prefer my sister Kathryn’s response after tasting her first tlacoyo:… “Don’t talk to me—I’m in Food Heaven!”
I’ve lived in Mexico for more than fifteen years and have been to Food Heaven numerous times. Sometimes it’s been at a friend’s house, or at one of the high-end Mexican restaurants that have sprung up around town. But most often it’s been at a simple market fonda or a humble street stall.
Some people react to the term ‘street food’ in Mexico with alarm. Fear of strange bacteria and ‘Montezuma’s revenge’ stops them from trying some of the country’s best cuisine. When I first came to Mexico I would stroll by a busy stall, take in the heady aromas, and walk on by. But the tacos al pastor at El Huequito (The Hole-in-the-Wall) finally won me over—there were dozens of people eating them, and everybody just looked too happy. Over the years I’ve developed my own rules for eating on the street that have served me well.
A crowded stall is always a good sign. Make sure the place looks clean—trust your judgment. Look at the food to see if it’s fresh and is being cooked to order. Be wary of foods that may have been sitting around, especially in hot weather. Since the swine flu scare a few years ago many stalls now have a bottle of hand sanitizer available. I always carry moist towelettes to use before I eat—remember that your own hands can often been the carrier of germs. Notice if the cook is also taking the money—a bad sign. Food blogger Lesley Téllez recommends the best time to enjoy street food is lunch hour, roughly 2 to 4 pm, when things are busiest and there’s fast turnover. Also good is 10:30 to 11 a.m. because people are having their "second breakfast", to tide them over until lunch. (Check out Lesley’s street food tours at http://www.eatmexico.com/).
The best street food is often found in and around markets and near busy metro stops. Most Mexico City neighborhoods have a tanguis, a street market held one day each week, where some of the freshest street food can be found. You’ll find a variety of stands offering everything from fresh fruit juices to savory tacos. Here’s a list of top street food spots around town.
Metro Chilpancingo (Insurgentes and Baja California). This is my favorite spot in the city for great street food. On Calle Chilpancingo itself you’ll find some of the best flautas (literally ‘flutes’, elongated filled and deep fried tortillas served with salsa and cream) in all of Mexico, along with heart-warming caldo de pollo (chicken soup). I often have a quick lunch at El Tacetón (at the corner of Baja California and Tuxpan) which offers a variety of tacos de guisados (soft tortillas filled with a stew) including vegetarian options like tortitas de brocoli and coliflór; there’s a selection of colorful salsas to spike things up.
Eventually, I think it happens to everyone who has family in the snowy Midwest. You finally reach a holiday season where even though you love your family dearly, you just can’t bring yourself to head back for the sub-zero wind chill, ice-covered roads, and layer upon layer of puffy… winter coats… You tell yourself, “Just this once, we’re going to throw tradition out the window, and go somewhere warm and sunny for the holidays.” A Mexican beach sounded like just the ticket.
When my husband and I had this flash of brilliance the second week of December a couple years ago, we quickly realized that we were not the only ones who had thought of this ingenious plan! When we started our last-minute search for flights and lodging around Mexico, many of the best-known beaches were already booked up or charging a steep premium for the most popular week of the year (between Christmas & New Year’s). But then I came across the tiny village of Yelapa, located just south of Puerto Vallarta in Jalisco state on Mexico’s west coast.
Yelapa is a sleepy little car-free pueblo that is primarily accessible by boat and just got electricity in 2001, but has various claims to fame with past visits from Bob Dylan, Jack Nicholson, Liz Taylor, etc. While it’s a popular day trip from Puerto Vallarta, I think it’s better as a two or three night stay. There’s not a whole lot to do, but that’s why you’re there—push your boundaries and see if you can resist Yelapa’s recently-acquired internet access for your whole trip. J
We flew into Puerto Vallarta and spent one night there first to check out “the big city,” and then hopped on the Yelapa Water Taxi the next day (which leaves from the old Los Muertos Pier for $150 pesos one way). A few taxi tips that I observed—1) sit in the back of the boat to minimize jostling, 2) have your camera at the ready to capture the beautiful scenery + schools of tropical fish and whales, and 3) ideally wear shorts/sandals in case you get dropped off on the beach in Yelapa where no pier = wade through the water. (Drop-off location depends on where your lodging is.)
There’s an impressive number of lodging option for a village this size; you can see a fairly comprehensive list here. We opted for Casa Bahia Bonita, a bright orangey-yellow multi-level house built into the vegetation on the northeast side of the cove. It’s nothing overly fancy, but it was clean, it had great views from the terraces, and the rooms had small (albeit somewhat spartan) kitchenettes so we were able to whip up some breakfast on site. It offers nice privacy as it’s the last property on that side of the cove, but the flip side is that it’s a bit of a walk to get to restaurants in town. It’s good to try making that walk during the daytime to familiarize yourself with the route before walking it at night, and a flashlight comes in handy. If you’re staying on the beach side, you’ll have to cross the river to get into town. During low tide, it’s no problem to cross the mouth of the river at the beach, but during high tide, that crossing can be waist deep! However if you walk just a bit up the river, it’s much easier to cross & there’s usually a bridge. (Something I wish we had known as we were wading back from dinner one night with wet shorts!)
If your tastes tend more upmarket, there are a couple higher end resorts that are worth checking out—Casa Pericos and Verana. We found surprisingly good food at Yelapa’s restaurants as well. Café Bahia was a great spot for breakfast & lunch, and we had a lovely Christmas dinner at the Yacht Club. You can find a helpful restaurant list + map on the site yelapa.info. Do be aware that many spots are closed in the rainy season (roughly May to September), so your dining options may be a bit more limited. A final note on food—we’d read a lot about “the pie lady” who visits the beach selling her wares each day. When we finally caught up with her one afternoon and dug into two pieces of pie, they were amazing and totally worth the wait. If she’s still making the rounds when you visit, flag her down for a slice of banana cream.
Eating pie and taking artsy photos of Corona bottles next to your toes in the sand should fill most of your days in Yelapa…but if you need more entertainment, there are options! Folks like Yelapa Adventures are happy to take you fishing, snorkeling, whale watching, or horseback riding. You can also walk along the river to check out the waterfall, and reward yourself with a cold beer once you get there.
We found Yelapa to be a great, laid-back place to escape to and avoid the Midwestern winter, especially when combined with a few days in Puerto Vallarta on the front or back end. Keep it in mind when you’re ready for a break from the usual holiday routine, and perhaps you’ll create a new tradition—out with turkey and dressing; in with fish tacos!
The global economy hasn’t found much traction in 2012. Europe’s debt crisis remains unresolved. China’s rapid economic rise is plateauing, and, depending on who you ask, it may even be petering out. US growth is expected to be a middling two percent this year. Yet Mexico is growing… at a much faster pace than it has over the past decade.
Currently, much of that growth owes to robust exports. Car and car parts are being sent to the United States at record levels, the aeronautics sector is burgeoning, oil prices are relatively high, and Latin America is a fast growing market for Mexican goods.
As I argued in the lead up to Mexico’s presidential election in June, the economy could easily sustain 5 percent growth in the years ahead. President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto is eyeing 6 percent growth over the medium term. A clutch of reforms would need to be enacted for this to occur, especially privatization of the state-run oil company, Pemex, but there are already inklings in this direction.
Eyeing these trends, economists at Nomura Securities, a banking conglomerate, have created a stir by predicting that Mexico could surpass Brazil as Latin America’s largest economy as soon as 2022. While that’s certainly possible, a more realistic scenario would involve Mexico growing at the upper end of the growth range the IMF has set for it—4.75 percent—while Brazil might grow at the lower end of its IMF growth range—2.75 percent. In this case, Mexico’s economy would eclipse Brazil’s in 2028 or 2029.
By focusing on exports though, an emerging driver of the Mexican economy is being overlooked—the country’s swelling middle class. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development deems half of Mexico’s population of 110 million to be middle class. Roughly 65 percent of Mexicans identify themselves as middle class, according to a poll conducted earlier this year. In 2010, the income of the average Mexican was almost $14,000.
In several ways, Mexico’s middle class bucks the global trend, which may help to explain why forecasters routinely overlook it as a source of economic growth. Rich countries are undergoing a “shrinking middle,” with unionized labor losing ground to nonunionized competitors, and with tight credit standards hampering small businesses and homeowners from getting the loans they need to expand operations or refinance their mortgages.
Much remains unknown about Mexico’s middle class, as it emerged just over the past 15 or so years. For instance, a recent research note by McKinsey, a consultancy, suggests that when times are tough Mexico’s middle class adapts simply by buying less, not by foregoing quality labels for cheaper ones, in stark contrast to America’s middle class. At the same time, Mexicans rely less on credit than their middle-class brethren in Brazil, but they save less of their incomes than do the Chinese.
While defining Mexico’s middle class may be more difficult than in a country like the United States, Shannon O’Neil at the Council on Foreign Relations has laid out what seems like a fair metric. Middle class Mexicans possess the “six C’s”: casa propia (one’s own house), car, cell phone, computer, cable TV, and trips to the cinema.
Perhaps the particular demands of the middle class will become clearer over the coming months, with the advent of a new TV program premised on entrepreneurs pitching ideas to potential investors. Based on the popular BBC reality show “Dragon’s Den,” the pilot for “Arena Titans” is scheduled for production in Guadalajara in September.
Of course, things aren’t all rosy. Headwinds in the global economy are affecting Mexican consumers just like those anywhere else. But two signs in particular point to the resilience of Mexico’s middle class. Reuters recently reported that Mexico’s industrial output rose 1.3 percent from May to June, the largest such increase in nine months. Burrowing into the numbers unearths some interesting trends. Mining output ticked sideways, while activity in the utilities sector actually went down; these two sectors are becoming less prominent features of the Mexican economy. Construction activity, by contrast, provided the pep, which Reuters attributed to “solid domestic demand.” Second, retail sales in June were up 5.6 percent over the previous twelve months, including an uptick of 1.8 percent in the previous month alone. Given these signs, it’s no surprise that consumer confidence in Mexico is at its highest point since 2008.
As its middle class grows, a new era of economic development is taking shape in Mexico.
The city of Oaxaca is bustling, colorful and festive. But one of its great charms is that it has many quiet spaces where you can retreat from the hub-bub and find yourself surrounded by tranquility and beauty, manifested in art, architecture, nature, or the local people. One such tranquil spot is… the Ethnobotanical Garden, located right in the heart of Oaxaca's historical center.
The Ethnobotanical Garden is part of the Santo Domingo Cultural Center which also includes the Oaxacan Museum of Cultures, the Francisco Burgoa ancient books library, and the Nestor Sanchez periodicals library. The garden is located behind the church and former convent, and unfortunately, many visitors miss it.
Mexico is among the most biologically rich countries in the world; it is considered to be "megadiverse" because of the great number of species of plants and animals that inhabit its territory. Of all of Mexico's 31 states, Oaxaca is the one with the most biodiversity. This is no doubt because of its varied terrain, with over 500 km of coastline, as well as mountain ranges of up to 3500 meters above sea level. This also accounts for Oaxaca's great ethnic diversity: no less than 16 ethnic groups live in Oaxaca, and have since ancient times.
The garden is a microcosm of Oaxaca's rich biodiversity. Its goal is to preserve Oaxaca's endemic flora, and to allow visitors to appreciate the state's botanical diversity, as well as to gain understanding about human interaction with plants throughout history. This is the first modern, public botanical garden in the state, and the emphasis on the natural history of the local plants and their cultural importance makes this a fascinating visit even if you're not interested in botany.
The area that today serves as the garden covers about 2 hectares and was part of the property of Santo Domingo convent, which functioned from 1608 until the 1860s. When the Reform Laws were brought into effect in the 1860s, religious orders in Mexico were dissolved, and the government nationalized all church property. The entire Santo Domingo complex, including the church, convent and surrounding property then served as a military base for many years. In 1898 the church was returned to the Dominicans, but the military did not completely evacuate the premises until 1994.
After the military departure, the former convent underwent an extensive restoration project which finished in 1998, when the Santo Domingo Cultural Center was inaugurated, but the work on the garden was just beginning. The first plants were put in during the summer of 1998, and the garden opened to the public in 1999. The plants come from all around Oaxaca state. There are over one thousand species of plants in the collection, but this is just a fraction of the wide variety of plants that can be found in Oaxaca. It is a relatively new garden; but several large and old plants have been successfully transplanted here, including an impressive Biznaga cactus which is several centuries old.
The garden is divided into several different zones. There's one section for food plants, where you can see corn along with its ancestor teosinte, as well as squash, beans and chiles and other less well-known plants that are used in Oaxacan cuisine. You'll learn about the domestication of plants, which began in Mesoamerica around 10,000 years ago; the evidence for this was found not far away, in the cave of Guila Naquitz, which is included within the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla. There is a zone which shows plants that were in use in very ancient times, a humid tropical forest zone, a pine and oak forest zone, and a dry zone.
A water catchment system collects rain water from the roof of the former convent, which is channeled to an underground cistern with a capacity of over one million litres. The collected water is used to irrigate the humid zones of the garden. Since Oaxaca has issues with water supply, this ensures that the garden is not dependent on outside sources of water.
The Ethnobotanical Garden is a lovely and serene green space, within the bustling Oaxaca city center. A visit here is both enjoyable and enlightening.
If you go:
The Ethnobotanical Garden may only be visited as part of a guided tour. Tours are offered in English on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11 am; in French on Tuesdays at 5 pm; and daily in Spanish at 10 am, 12 noon AND 5 pm, except Sundays. Arrive ten minutes in advance to purchase your tickets. The entrance is on the corner of Reforma and ConstituciÛn streets.
Consult the website for details: http://www.jardinoaxaca.org.mx/
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cena-8-10 pm Something light like but more substantial like a taco or quesadilla
But sometimes both!
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.
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.
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.
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.