Just for a moment, forget your image of Mexico. Close your eyes and imagine past the shimmering shores, the deep blue waters and white sand beaches. Look deeper. Start to envision culture and people, and soon you’ll discover a land of contrasts, a land of diversity.  Mexico has countless unique attractions and over the years I have experienced a good number of them,(though it would take many more years to experience them all!) The following are a sample some of my favorite one-of-a-kind cities, towns, attractions, natural wonders and celebrations.  

Mexico City

Dating back 3,000 years, the evolvement of Mexico City is one of the world’s crowning human achievements. Steeped in impressive history and layers upon layers of culture, Mexico City is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere. And, at 7,349 feet, it is also the highest city on the North American continent. Mexico City has been a flourishing cosmopolitan center for nine centuries since its founding as the ancient capital of the Aztec Empire. This city is brimming over with activities for the entire family.

The beautiful historic city center is made up of a 30-block area housing the Zócalo (the second largest Town Square in the world surpassed only by Red Square in Moscow). Its wondrous Metropolitan Cathedral took more than 250 years to complete and is the largest church in Latin America.

The Zócalo was once the location of the astonishing Aztec city of Tenochtitlán and the ruins of the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) still remain preserved here. The site captures the genesis of this ancient Aztec masterpiece and allows visitors to walk the remains of the main ceremonial pyramid. The historic grandeur of the archeology can be found in the Templo Mayor Museum where life-size warriors, dramatically displayed artifacts and large-scale city models bring the culture to life.

Once a hunting ground for the Aztecs, Chapultepec Park has been in existence for more than 500 years. Located in the middle of the city, its 2,100 green, wooded acres are filled with marble statues, playgrounds, and manmade lakes, jogging paths, botanical gardens, an amusement park, a zoo and the grand Chapultepec Castle. Mexico was briefly a monarchy and the castle, 200 feet above the park on a hill, was the former home of Emperor Maximillian who converted it into his palace. It now houses the National Museum of History.

Cholula

Located five miles west of Puebla, the town of Cholula is known as the “city of churches.” It has been a thriving religious center for two thousand years and is said to have 365 churches, one for every day of the year. Cholula is also home to the world’s largest pyramid. Built during the first 800 years A.D., it reaches 200 feet high and covers 46 acres. Atop this massive structure is the Santuario de los Remedios church built in 1666.

Taxco – Mexico’s Silver City

Vibrant colors, Old World style, ornate architecture, cobblestone streets and distinctly locked in time… this is the mystique of Taxco. An hour from Cuernavaca, this is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque towns in all of Mexico. In the early 1500’s, José de la Borda (a Frenchman living in Spain) heard of rich mineral deposits in the New World and rushed to Mexico to try his luck. He struck it rich in Taxco. Since then the city has been deemed the “Silver City” and is known worldwide for its pure silver jewelry and handicrafts. Borda developed the city and is credited for the construction of the city’s masterpiece – the Santa Prisca church. He imported artisans from France and Spain who created powerful and elaborate examples of 18th century baroque architecture. The interior is astounding with twelve intricately carved and gilded altars arranged according to size and religious content. It will rival most any cathedral in the world.

There are plenty of cozy eateries surrounding the town the square for a relaxing lunch. Not only will it be the best shopping day of your life (over 150 silver shops), but it will also leave you with a lasting sense of Mexican history and charm.

Tepoztlán and Tlayacapan – The Magic of Ancient Civilizations

A short 30 minutes from Cuernavaca is the mystical town of Tepoztlán. The legendary birthplace of Quetzalcóatl (“plumed serpent” of ancient Aztec and Toltec folklore), the area is considered a prominent “energy center.” It very well may be the Sedona of Mexico!  The towering vertical cliffs of Tepozteco Mountain frame this inviting Mexican village. Ruins from a 15th century temple can reached after a rather strenuous hike 3,000 feet to the top, but the breathtaking view is well worth the effort. Do some shopping in the marketplace and stop for lunch at Casa Piñón, the food is fantastic, the view wonderful and they usually have live jazz music in the afternoons. (Av. Revolución, No. 42. – your driver should know the way.)

Just up the road (maybe 25 more minutes), you’ll find the enchanting village of Tlayacapan. Lined with colorful shops and filled with local handicrafts, you can spend hours exploring and enjoying the kindness and warm smiles of the local people. In the 15th century, Tlayacapan was a passage way between the capital of the Aztec empire and southern Mexico. When the Spanish arrived, they built the San Juan Bautista convent that is still the pride of the community. Incredibly well preserved, with a majestic façade and amazing frescos on the walls, this may very well be one of the more intriguing convents in central Mexico. The marvelous chapel is still in use and the museum inside the convent is fascinating.  

The Cervantes Festival

For those who love the performing arts, a trip to the breathtakingly beautiful city of Guanajuato in the fall (October 3-21, 2012) is a must. The almost month-long International Cervantino Festival is named in honor of the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote. During this unusual cultural congregation the entire city becomes a stage and features opera singers, soloists, ensembles, strolling minstrels (estudiantinas), jazz musicians, modern and folk dance troupes, as well as traditional and experimental theater from around the world. (www.festivalcervantino.gob.mx)

Dia de Los Muertos

Also known as Day of the Dead or All Saints Day, Dia de los Muertos is one of Mexico’s truly captivating celebrations. Held November 1st and 2nd in cities throughout the country (with the some notable celebrations taking place in and around Oaxaca City and Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacán), this event is an Indian-Christian tribute to death. The holiday is to honor the memory of the dead by lighting candles in cemeteries, decorating altars and tombstones, and by offering candy (usually shaped in the form of skulls or skeleton) and elaborate food dishes to those who have passed on.

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries of Michoacán

Every year (November through March, with the best month being February) millions of black and orange monarch butterflies find their way to Mexico. The monarchs’ annual journey, encompassing more than 2,500 miles, takes the butterflies from Canada and the northeast United States to their winter home in Michoacán, where, in some areas, they can number four million per acre of land. With their four-inch wingspans, the monarchs cloak fir trunks and hang on boughs in clusters of tens of thousands. Up to 250 million monarchs winter in the region pulsating in the trees and creating one of nature’s brilliant displays. A Mexican legend says that the souls of the dead are reborn as monarch butterflies. Organized tours are available from the capital city of Morelia.

Cenotes – The Yucatán’s Underground Magic

Cenotes are difficult to explain, but amazing to see. A cenote (say-no-tay) is like a giant freshwater well and the Yucatán peninsula is covered with them.  The peninsula itself is actually a limestone shelf honeycombed with underground rivers, caverns, and sinkholes that create cenotes. Most hotels in the area can make arrangements to get you to these phenomenal natural wonders. To go into them and swim in their crystal clear mineral waters is one of Mexico’s memorable experiences.

Whales of the Baja

Each year, Mexico’s locals and vacationers alike anxiously await another one of nature’s magical occurrences:  the arrival of thousands of Pacific gray whales migrating from the Bering Sea to the Baja Peninsula.

During the winter, these ocean giants make their way southward to Baja California, where, just off the peninsula’s southern tip, one of the longest whale migrations known to man transforms the shoreline into a breathtaking whale-gazing stage, leaving even seasoned vacationers exhilarated.

The most common sites are three locations along the Pacific coast of Baja California: Bahia Magdalena, Scammon's Lagoon (Ojo de Liebre) and Laguna San Ignacio.  The peak time for whale watching in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is January through late March or early April. 

The gentle giants, which can grow up to 45 feet and weigh more than 30 tons, are known to swim up to the pangas (wooden dinghies) -- within touching distance -- for a friendly, once-in-a-lifetime encounter. Led by the pregnant females, the magnificent marine mammals travel an estimated 13,000 miles roundtrip from the cold waters of the Arctic seas to earth’s largest gray whale “delivery roomThe whales arrive in Baja’s protected warm lagoons and nutrient-rich waters to give birth and nurse their offspring. 

The Magnificent Sea of Cortez

The Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) is one of the world’s unique ocean environments, and is considered by some to be the most biologically rich body of water on earth. More than 850 species of marine life (including up to a third of the world’s cetacean species, i.e., whales, dolphin, porpoise) are found in these waters.  Colonies of sea lions, pods of Humpback, Blue, Sperm, Fin and seasonal migrating Gray whales are a very common sight. The Sea of Cortez has been called an upside-down rainforest because of its vast and varied profusion of life beneath the surface. There are nearly 100 untouched desert islands populating the crystal blue waters off the east coast of the Baja Peninsula, many of which are federally protected. In late December through early March, this is one of the premiere whale watching destinations in the world. Not to mention it’s the only home to the elusive and endangered blue-footed booby birds. (Cruise West offers great trips on the Sea of Cortez in the fall and winter.)

Riding the Rails – A Look at the Copper Canyon

The Mexicans joke that the Copper Canyon in the state of Chihuahua is what the Grand Canyon wants to be when it grows up. One of the country's many extraordinary natural wonders, this is actually a series of interconnecting canyons —some far deeper than its famous counterpart in Arizona. Mexico’s tallest waterfall (984 feet) can also be found here. It’s best to visit after the rainy season in late summer or early fall when the entire area is lush and green. (Trips can be chilly in winter.) A number of the canyons are only accessible by a train and this one is said to be one of the “world’s most scenic railroads.”  The luxury ride through 400 miles of breathtaking scenery is spectacular. 

Sea Turtles – Mexico’s Quiet Giants

Seven of the world’s eight sea turtle species nest on Mexican beaches and have for the last 150 million years. The best nesting beaches are found up and down the Pacific coast and Mexico has taken a tremendous stand to keep these giants from extinction. From June to December, tens of thousands sea turtles are born. Escobilla, a beach near Puerto Escondido on the Oaxacan coast (home to the La Escobilla Turtle Camp), receives as many as 20,000 female sea turtles in a single evening!  Most hotels in the nesting areas now offer “turtle programs” where the baby turtles are raised and released and travelers are educated about their plight.

Rafting the Rivers

The state of Veracruz has four main rafting rivers – Filo-Bobos, Antigua, Pescados and Actopan. Rivers are rated from class one to class six (depending on difficulty) and all categories can be found here. There are plenty of rapids for beginners and this is a sensational way to mix sightseeing with adventure. There are numerous ecotourism companies that specialize in kayaking and river rafting tours in Veracruz.

Whether its ecotourism, culture, nature or celebration, Mexico is indeed unique.

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19.432608
-99.133208
Mexico City
The magic of Valle de Bravo

It is no secret that I love visiting the small, traditional towns throughout Mexico and that I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to tell about it. When first starting my quest to visit all the Pueblos Magicos (Magic Towns) of Mexico, only 35 of them existed. Five years later, the program has exceeded to over 50! This month, the magazine México Desconocido, published their 54 Pueblos Magicos 2012 Edition – the bible that highlights the “magical” experiences these towns have to offer. With inspiration in my hand and only 11 marked off the list, my next venture became Valle de Bravo.

Located in the State of Mexico, Valle de Bravo is approximately 100 miles from Mexico City. Opting to forgo the scenic route, my travel companion and I paved through the highway tolls and made it to Valle de Bravo in just over an hour. As we arrived through the ‘Welcome’ arches, a full rainbow and peeking sun surprisingly greeted us soon after an abrupt rainfall. Feeling like we just entered a live fairy-tale, the ‘magic’ of this place was indeed present and slowly revealing.Valle de Bravo or simply “Valle” situates on a small plateau on the edge of Lake Avandaro. The lake, also known as Presa Valle de Bravo, is the man-made product of accidental flooding. Perfect for boating, kayaking, sailing, fishing, and all other water sports, the lake is what catapulted Valle to the tourist destination it is today. Touristic boat rides offer a view from every vantage point and are available from the main dock. Magnificent scenery of mountains and woodlands hug the shoreline in addition to the impressive mansions and country clubs that adorn the area (Valle also serves as a weekend getaway for Mexico City’s elite).

Once we went through town, we settled in our hotel at Mision Refugio del Salto, which is slightly south of Valle in Avandaro. I chose this hotel specifically for its setting because it is built near El Molino waterfall, secluded and yet centrally near places of interest. While the hotel itself is beautiful, I noticed that it is also its own attraction. The pure natural surroundings and an assortment of superb spa treatments (including traditional temazcal ceremonies) provide a complete holistic experience.

It is in Avandaro where you can really enjoy contact with nature and unworldly environments. It promises scenes of great beauty on lovely horseback strolls through flower-scented forests,  up to the beautiful panoramic vistas at La Torre Monte Alto -- or through another course, to the breathtaking waterfall, Cascada Velo de Novia. Nearby are two Buddhist Stupas dedicated to world peace, and offer a tranquil space for anyone to meditate.

The next day we started our exploration around the waterfalls and had the grounds to ourselves to enjoy a picnic breakfast with nature’s best soundtrack playing in the background. As the fog lifted and the sun shined brightly, we then set out to discover the charms that make up the traditional town of Valle. The enchanting zocalo is the ideal place to begin a touristic route because it is within walking distance to all the sites of interests: museums, cultural centers, markets, the boardwalk along the lake, and El Pino, a 700 year old tree. As with most traditional towns in Mexico, the main square is always close to its main church, in this case, Parroquia San Francisco de Asís . However there is one other church nearby, Templo de Santa Maria Ahuacatlán, that definitely caught my attention. In this church, locals and pilgrims venerate a miraculous black Christ statue believed by many as the survivor of a fire, which transformed it into its dark color. Other common touristic activities include recreational sports such as paragliding, mountaineering, or hiking up to one of Valle’s many miradors.

This small town was an incredible blend of past and present. The locals, many of ethnic OtomI, Mazahua, and Mazatlinca descent, offer their handicrafts and regional cuisine mixed among Mexico’s privileged weekend visitors who visit the fine galleries and world-class restaurants. Valle de Bravo is one of the few popular Mexican towns that did not completely succumb to glamorous innovation and continues to preserve its heritage roots and originality.

Though Valle de Bravo marks as number 12 of my Magic Town list, I know it will warrant another visit very soon. Summers are meant for weekends at the shores, which is exactly what Valle provides, but my curiosity will entice me to return in the winter as well. With pleasant temperatures year round, it is home to migrating Monarch butterflies that make their way to Mexico from the US and Canada. Like me, the butterflies know this is the magical place to rest and return whenever time permits.

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Former NBA basketball star Shaquille O'Neal recently visited Monterrey, Mexico to attend a social project. Upon his arrival, he was warmly welcomed by a traditional Mexican mariachi band. On his Twitter account, he expressed his appreciation for Mexico by saying, “Thanks for the warm welcome muchas gracias, yo amo#Mexico…To all the people in Mexico muchas gracias I had a great time. Can't wait to come back.”

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-100.309201
Monterrey
Beyond Spring Break attractions of Mexico

So you’re a regular visitor to Mexico, and you’ve already been to most of the spots on the top of most tourists’ lists: Cancun, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico City, Mazatlán, etc.—the usual suspects. Now you’re looking for a Mexico venture that’s a little more creative… somewhere you’re not going to see on advertisements for Spring Break!  What should you consider for your off-the-beaten-path travels on your next Mexican vacation? Here are a few ideas to get you thinking outside of the all-inclusive-resort box…

1) Xilitla & Las Pozas, San Luis Potosi state:  if you’re looking for eccentric, nothing fits the bill like this surrealistic garden of concrete flowers & stairs leading to nowhere in the middle of the jungle seven hours northeast of Mexico City.  English poet Edward James fell in love with the flora here and made it his home, and after a freak snowfall killed all the orchids, he decided to rebuild them….out of concrete! What resulted is a fascinating wonderland built in the lush jungle hillside filled with columns, castles, airplanes that you can scramble up, down, and around. It’s hard to describe in words, but check out some more pictures here

 2) Tequisquiapan, Querétaro state: This tiny town has long been known to Mexico City residents for its spas, and therefore sees a fair amount of traffic from escaping DF-eños on the weekends. But during the week, you’re likely to have the town square all to yourself. “Tequis” is about two hours north of Mexico City in the heart of Querétaro’s blossoming wine and cheese country. If you have a car, you can take a leisurely driving tour of the nearby Finca Vai dairy and Freixenet vineyards. But if you’re public transit-bound, fear not—both spots have opened up outposts in Tequis.  You can sample a bottle of local bubbly for ~$200 pesos at the Freixenet Winebar, pop over for a hearty cheese platter at the Museo del Queso y del Vino, and then walk back to your hotel for a dip in the pool.

3) La Paz, Baja California Sur: While its southern neighbor, Los Cabos, gets all the glory, La Paz is content in its role as the laid-back city on the Sea of Cortez. There’s just a small touristy strip in town along the water, supplemented with some great restaurants scattered around but all within walking distance. Don’t be disappointed by the lackluster beachfront in the city—the most amazing beaches & clear blue water can be found just a few miles north of town. Balandra has a beautifully protected bay with completely still water and no development, and Tecolote has a couple restaurants and bars with water that’s only waist high for many yards out. Definitely worth visiting some of Mexico’s gorgeous beaches that still don’t have hotels anywhere in sight!

4) Tecali de Herrera, Puebla state: Mexico has many small towns that are known country-wide for the one unique product they create. For example, Santa Clara del Cobre is where you go for all your copper needs… San Martín Tilcajete for alebrijes (wood carvings of real or imaginary creatures)…and Tlalpujahua for millions of Christmas ornaments.  Tecali de Herrera is the center of all things onyx (along with a strong showing of marble), but also has a beautiful ex-convent to visit when you max out on shopping. Walking across grass under the soaring arches of the convent ruins is reminiscent of visiting an old church in Scotland. But here, you can supplement your historical visit with the purchase of a three-foot-high onyx lamp or onyx bathtub, or something a bit more portable like an onyx cheese plate shaped like a triangle of cheese. More details can be found here.

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Sea Turtle Conservation in the Rivera Maya

We sit on the sand under a sky blanketed in stars, listening to the sound of crashing waves and the rhythmic “thump......thump.....thump....” in the dark. We can barely make out her shape and we know not to turn on a flashlight; it could send her turning back to the sea before she completes the yearly ritual. We are in Tulum, at the edge of the Sian Kaan biosphere, and we are witnessing a magical moment. A gigantic sea turtle has come to shore and is digging a nest to lay her eggs, her large flippers methodically “thumping” into the sand and sending it flying as the hole gets bigger and bigger. We sit in silence, barely daring to breathe. We see a red light approaching on the beach and two “turtle patrol” volunteers join us quietly to measure the turtle (she was over 1 meter long), check her health, tag her for research purposes and mark her nest. The volunteers slip away into the night to carry on their patrol, and we allow mama turtle to complete her task and watch as she slowly makes her way back to the sea. When we awake in the morning, we see she was not the only visitor that night: there are four more nests in one small stretch of beach, with the tell-tale trail of turtle tracks leading from and returning to the water.

Long before the luxurious resorts arose that attract millions of visitors each year, the Riviera Maya was home to the now endangered sea turtle.  Green turtles (Chelonia Mydas) and loggerhead turtles (Caretta Caretta) annually return to these shores to lay their eggs as they have for thousands of years. Travelers visiting the region between May and October may have the good fortune to witness a mother laying her eggs or even participating in a release of baby turtles once the nests have hatched. Unfortunately, as we have made room for humans to enjoy the beauty of the Riviera Maya, it has become harder for the turtles to claim their space. Bright lights of hotels will scare them off, while loud noises, dogs on the beach and human interference can influence the number of nests each year. As these turtles are endangered, it is of great importance to protect them and their environments to ensure the continuation of the species. Thus the need for organizations, both government and private working together, that protect, conserve and educate visitors about sea turtles and their preservation.

There are many such organizations in the Riviera Maya, working together in research programs, sustainability projects and educational outreach to protect the sea turtle. In the town of Akumal (“Akumal” means “place of the turtle” in the Maya language), the CEA or “Centro Ecologico de Akumal,” founded in 1993, works tirelessly on their mission “To create a model for sustainable tourism development in the Mexican Caribbean through research, education andoutreach.” They monitor all turtle activity on the bay and on the beach while working with hotels, condo organizations and tour companies to practice good environmental procedures and reach out to the community with educational programs in schools. Their labors are paying off; each year sees more and more cooperation from hotels and condos, and travelers are more aware of their impact on the nesting grounds and the wildlife. The 2012 season has proven to be exceptional, to the date of this writing. On Akumal beaches alone, 442 nests have been counted, beating the 2010 record of 406, with two months left in the season! This is magnificent news for the species, and this success is owed to the dedication of all organizations like CEA.

If you are visiting the region during nesting season, there are some strict rules you need to follow. No bright lights! This means no flashlights, no porch lights on condos or hotel villas and definitely no flashes on your cameras. If you must walk the beach at night, cover your flashlight to dull the shine, such as a red filter. Refrain from making loud noises, having beach parties or allowing dogs to run on the beach at night. Do NOT touch the animals, ever, in the water or on the beach. Turtles can become frightened, confused and disoriented and will turn back to the sea without laying their eggs. Never walk on or disturb a nest, and do not touch the eggs. If you see a mother laying eggs (or a nest with hatching babies), stay well back or better yet, seek out turtle patrol or security at your hotel and report what you have found. With the cooperation of everyone, you, me, the government and great organizations like CEA, it may one day be possible to remove the “endangered” label from these magnificent creatures. Long live the sea turtle in Mexico, viva!

For more information, please see the CEA website and consider making a donation or becoming a member. They rely on private funding and grants to continue on with their good work!

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21.137841
-86.891799
Riviera Maya
Convent turned into Religious Art Museum

Hidden behind a private home, a convent with a small community of nuns lived in hiding for nearly 70 years. The family who lived in the home fronting the convent knew of their existence; and surely the congregation of the adjoining Santa Monica church did as well, since the nuns continued to sing from the choir loft during mass from behind a panel which hid them from view, as they had before convents were outlawed in Mexico. Their existence remained a secret from the government until the 1930s when they were discovered and turned out of their convent, which was then converted into a museum of religious art.

The front of this building is unassuming, blending in with the other homes and businesses located on a bustling street in Puebla's historical center. The building dates to 1606, when it was originally used as a home for widows and abandoned women. In 1688 it was converted into a convent for nuns of the Augustinian Recollects order. The convent housed women of Spanish descent who gave up public life to live a cloistered existence within the convent. The Augustinian Recollects is one of the stricter religious orders. Besides the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, these nuns lived a very austere life, sleeping on narrow wooden cots and often subjecting themselves to corporal mortification.

Although the nuns lived an ascetic lifestyle, one aspect of their lives in which there was great experimentation was in the kitchen. Their kitchen served as a laboratory where new and different combinations of food were experimented with and original dishes were created. The devout sisters combined pre-Hispanic ingredients and techniques with ones imported from Europe to produce some of Puebla's most iconic dishes, such as Chiles en Nogada. A large semi-circular wood-fired stove decorated with Talavera tiles dominates the convent's kitchen. A collection of clay pots of varying shapes and sizes, and other cooking implements hang on the walls around the stove. The adjoining pantry offers a look at the variety of ingredients the nuns used.

In the mid-1800s several laws were brought into effect which greatly diminished the power of the church, which had theretofore controlled much of the country's wealth. Before these measures were brought into effect, the church rivaled the government in power, being responsible not only for the spiritual life of the people but also education, caring for the sick and indigent, as well as registering marriages, births, and deaths. The Reform Laws were designed to separate church and state and severely reduce the church's power. Part of this reform was the nationalization of ecclesiastical property and the dissolution of monastic orders. Church property was seized by the state and the friars and nuns who had previously lived their lives in convents were turned out. The nuns of Santa Monica found a way around this, however. The front section of the convent was cleverly designed as a family home and the nuns continued to lead their quiet contemplative existence within the walls of the convent, hidden behind the facade of a private residence.

In 1934 an investigator by the name of Valente Quintana followed some clues that led to the discovery of the nuns of Santa Monica, and they were finally turned out of their convent at that time. The building was then converted into a museum of religious art, which it remains to this day. Art from other convents in Puebla was added to the collection here, making this one of the most important collections of religious art in Mexico. The museum underwent an extensive restoration project and re-opened in December 2011 in magnificent conditions.

On my visit to the religious art museum of the Ex Convent of Santa Monica I was lucky to arrive just as a tour was starting. Popular conception may hold that religious art is staid and rather boring, but with the guided tour the art we saw was put into the context of the period in which it was created, and we learned about life in the convent and the women who lived there. The guide pointed out interesting visual effects in some of the paintings on velvet by Rafael Morante, and taught us to recognize many of the symbols and conventions of religious art of the colonial period. Some of the artists whose work is displayed here include Antonio Espinoza, Juan Correa, Juan Villalobos, Miguel Jeronimo de Zendejas, and Pascual Perez.

The Museo de Arte Religioso del Ex-Convento de Santa Mónica is located in Puebla's historical center at 18 Poniente #103, between 5 de Mayo and 3 Norte streets. The museum opens Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 am to 5 pm. Guided tours in Spanish are offered; enquire at the front desk for times.

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19.041297
-98.206200
Puebla City
Ultra Martahon in Chihuahua's Tarahumara Country

A truly remarkable 100 kilometer "ultra-marathon" is held each year in Chihuahua's rugged Tarahumara country.

The small plane banked steeply for a second pass, morning sun briefly flashing through the cockpit as we leveled off, the view below impossibly green, then revealing black and granite throughgossamer cloud, as if we were the first to discover the twisting river and sheer cliffs far below. “See, it is as I told you,” exclaimed Ismael Torres, our Cessna pilot, “like God has taken a great axe and cleaved the Earth.”

Spread out before us as in an eagle’s eye were the legendary “Barrancas de Sinforosa,” a vast series of rugged canyons and ravines up to 6,000 ft. deep, whose slopes are clad in pine, live oak,cactus and sagebrush. These beautiful and sometimes forbidding environs, part of Chihuahua’s Copper Canyon area, are home to many of Mexico’s Raramuri people, known as Tarahumara, the “people with light feet.”

We have only 24 hours, and have come to the town of Guachochi to see one of the most remarkable races imaginable – a 100 km ultra-marathon. Driving straight out to the “mirador,” Sinforosa’smain lookout, our pickup truck bumps along a red-earth road past farm after farm, interspersed with stretches of fragrant pine hemmed in by stone walls, the air fresh and cool at over a mile high.

Withdrawing from the advance of the Spanish “conquistadores” to the mountains that now bear their name, the Tarahumara dispersed their communities but managed to preserve much of their ancient culture. They are mystics, healers, craftsmen, and expert farmers, blessed with legendary endurance, but it is hard-won, a survival skill developed and adapted over time. In these remote places, running between distant villages is an essential communication and transportation necessity. Many Tarahumara will join this marathon, and often win it.

An international group of competitors begin at 5:00 AM and will, for the next 8 to 10 straight hours, run the course: 11 kilometers from town to the edge of the canyon, descend 1800 meters along a rough trail, run along the river, ascend 1800 meters by the punishing “z” switchbacks, 11 kilometers into town again, then run back to the finish line at the lookout point. From this spectacular vantage point of the “mirador,” it takes the mind and eyes much longer than usual to make their essential calculations, to readjust, and coordinate perception - the ravines of Sinforosa are very deep indeed, and stretch in every direction as far as we can see.

Guachochi is not a big town, and there is a feeling everyone knows each other. Long, low houses of cinder block, a hard afternoon light through the scrub pines, people’s broad, smiling faces – these are reminiscent of other high-altitude communities one encounters, on a farm in Qinghai, or in an Alaskan village.

And here, on the one night we could enjoy Guachochi hospitality, there were fine steaks on the grill, a “quinceanera,” a wedding, and a graduation ceremony all at the same venue, Saturday night cruising up and down Main Street, and the odd knot of foreigners and Mexicans in shorts and day-glo sneakers, with their headlights and hydration gear not knowing what to do until morning.

A chill in the air, and an alarm that comes way too soon – by 4:45 AM, we’re ready. Credentials are checked, number placards signed for, pre-race photographs of excited friends flash by in the pitch-black. Only the Tarahumara are completely calm, in their distinctive red headbands and long, angular white shirts knotted with beautiful braided belts. This event’s “huaraches,” or tire-soled sandals, are the same as everyday footwear. There are many female competitors, who will run fully covered, in colorful print dresses. Within a few minutes, and not much fanfare, the pack is gone, raising a ghostly dust trail out of town, along a route that would not be light for some time.

At hour four of the race, we were aloft, our careful timing intended to balance light and shadow, and avoid the dangerous rising thermals that would buffet a small craft as the sun warmed the air. For a photographer in search of perspective for the big picture, and the detail that makes a written story, this was a precious piece of the puzzle, the sky clear as we skimmed the clouds by cliff's edge, an advancing fog both burning off and still throwing into relief the highest peaks.

We would see this early morning the hopefulness of the runner’s descent into these canyons, but by the time we made it down to a precipitous wire bridge to photograph along the trail, there was a different feel entirely - thirty or so grimly determined runners were already passing us on the way up, having climbed more than 4,000 ft. in an arduous combination of hiking and running.

Around the 70 km. mark, the bridge was built to safely cross what would be a substantial waterfall in the wet season. Support teams here checked runner’s numbers, gave out fruit and energy bars, and attended with some seriousness to an injured participant, for his own safety ruling him out of further competition with an eight-stitch head wound.

What is most remarkable about this race is not just that people finish it, but that they do so as a matter of course. Vicente Gonzales has a patrician’s grace, a red scarf wrapped vertically around his white hair Indonesia-style. At the bridge, he checked in with a smile, had a sip or two of a traditional barley drink, then without further word, disappeared up the 4 x 4 road behind us. He is eighty years old.

On the trail further down, a faraway flash of color quickly materializes. Maria Isidora Rodriguez, a stoic expression on her face, is fully wrappped in a bright yellow Tarahumara dress, and quicklymaking her way through the boulders that frame the path. She has company, a man and two young boys in baseball caps and jeans. They do not have race numbers. In less than a minute, Ms. Rodriguez and her supportive family are out of sight again, bounding for all the world like deer through the foliage.

For a beautiful fifty-image slideshow that accompanies this essay, go to  http://bit.ly/LAPefZ

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Guachochi
Moreilia en Boca known for Gastronomy and Wine Festival

In only two short years Morelia en Boca has become one of Mexico’s premier culinary and wine festivals.  The second annual Morelia en Boca, el Festival Internacional de Gastronomía y Vino de México, was held in the capital of the state of Michoacán, May 25 – 27, 2012.  The weekend fete featured participation by nationally and internationally renowned chefs as well as regional cooks, Spanish and Mexican wineries and acclaimed Morelia restaurants.  Also included were workshops, panel discussions and demonstrations, as well as cheese, wine, beer and mezcal tastings.

Recipe for a Successful Gastronomic Event in Mexico

Michoacán is not noted for its gastronomic greatness within the broader context of Mexican cuisine.  So how did Morelia en Boca pull off a three-day extravaganza of excellence?

To begin with, aside from the prix fixe cenas held in restaurants throughout the city, the entire festival unfolded in a single venue in the heart of downtown Morelia, the Centro Cultural Clavijero.  The spacious historic building reputed to have the most photographed open courtyard in the city, housed each and every daytime event:  tastings including pairings with local foodstuffs such as Michoacán’s famed queso cotija; upwards of 50 food and drink booths contained in a gourmet village; and round table discussions and recipe demos akin to mini cooking classes.

Morelia en Boca was conceived to be financially accessible to almost all foodies and aficionados of alcoholic beverages, and designed to provide a broad diversity of experiences and opportunities to discover new palate sensations.  The event is based on a flat fee philosophy.  This year’s daily entry passes for Friday and Saturday, the two fullest days, cost 382.5 pesos (under $30 USD) – to sample and to participate in formal tastings (promotional Morelia en Boca wine glasses were distributed to each attendee); to learn from culinary experts through attending forums; and to buy.

Organization is a key ingredient to any successful event of this magnitude, gastronomic or otherwise.  Aside from the odd short, somewhat anticipated delay, the weekend went off without a hitch.   The smoothness of operations was in large part as a result of the crackerjack cooperation between government and corporate sponsors and their respective memberships (i.e. Chef Joaquín Bonilla, Corporate Director of the Colegio Culinario de Morelia).  While the event website, the press (i.e. food and wine journalist Rubén Hernández) and social media networks (Facebook in particular) were invaluable, distribution of a detailed print catalogue of events, each with a specified date and time, location and description, further assured that attending Morelia en Boca would be as easy as could be divined.

Some Key Participants at Morelia en Boca:  Chefs, Wineries, Restaurants & More

Traditional cooks from the furthest reaches of Michoacán prepared regional dishes.  They came from towns and villages including Santa Fe de la Laguna, Zacán, Angahuán and San Lorenzo, courting the appetites of the urbanites.  They wooed not only Mexican nationals and tourists from abroad, but also chefs; both those who have borrowed from repertoires of generationally developed recipes, as well as visiting culinary dignitaries highly respected on the international stage.  Morelia en Boca was a class example of the melding of tradition with modern trends in culinary seduction.

More than 20 chefs with impeccable credentials came to cook, from Spain (i.e. Oriol Castro), England (i.e. Anthony Demetre), the United States (i.e. Dominique Crenn, winner of Iron Chef America), and to no surprise from different parts of Mexico (i.e. Alejandro Ruiz from Oaxaca; Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, Pedro Abascal, Paulina Abascal, Enrique Farjeat and Jair Téllez from Mexico City; Christian Bravo from Yucatán, Guillermo Barreto and Benito Molina from Baja California and Marta Zepeda from Chiapas). 

They participated in round table discussions and workshops, and bestowed their culinary prowess upon those attending the evening dinner / wine pairing galas (i.e. chefs Pedro Abascal and Edgar Nuñez at restaurant San Miguelito, chefs Ruiz and Lucero Soto at Lu, Chef Crenn at Casa Grande, chefs Bravo, Téllez, Nuñez, Jonatán Lómez Luna, Diego Hernández, Joan Bagur and Maritere Ramírez Degollado at Hotel Juaninos, chefs Zepeda and Rubi Silvia at Los Mirasoles, and chefs Lula Martín del Campo and Jorge Vallego at Casa San Diego).

Tastings were bountiful, diverse and delicious, wines ranging from domestic (i.e. Casa Madero, L.A. Cetto and Monte Xanic), Spanish (i.e. Rioja) and Australian (i.e. Penfolds), to Mexican beer, to mezcal produced near San Miguel del Monte, nestled in the pine and oak forests high above Morelia.  Thematic topics included “same grape, different regions,” the unusual “pairing mezcal with cotija,” and the predictable “wines and cheeses.”Organizers of the catas seemed intent upon enticing the broadest array of individuals by ensuring that pricing of alcoholic products presented by chefs and sommeliers was appealing to all.  For example there were tastings of three varieties of Bohemia beer (partakers were provided with a full bottle of each along with perfectly paired canapés; presenters included Chef Zahie Téllez), young wines in the 70 peso range, and priced at 630 pesos an exquisite Villa Montefiori Nerone with tones of dark fruit, violet, vanilla, black pepper and red cherry, with hints of mint and eucalyptus.

While the ten cooking demonstrations were by all counts both enjoyable and informative, two in particular stood out.  Chef Castro, who has worked with Chef Ferran Adriá at famed Spanish restaurant elBulli, explained current trends and techniques in the handcrafted creation of sweets (dubbed “Las técnicas de elBulli”).  Chef Muñoz Zurita and well-known regional cook Benedicta Alejo combined skill sets in a workshop entitled “Tamales, Corundas y Uchepos” to illustrate how haute cuisine and traditional cooking can coalesce within the context of crafting tamales and their Michoacán counterparts.

Lessons Learned in Michoacán:  The Future of Morelia en Boca & Other Mexican Culinary Events

Organizers of similar events throughout Mexico have much to learn from Morelia en Boca.  Its success was, and for years to come will continue to be based upon its flawless institution of a well - planned format, accessibility to all, and broad consumer appeal. But Morelia itself provides an alluring setting for staging a culinary event aimed at attracting visitors from throughout Mexico as well as tourists from abroad; anyone interested in food and drink.  Its proximity to both the nation’s capital, as well as pre-Hispanic ruins, craft villages, nature preserves and even beach resorts such as Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, no doubt will continue to be at least a part of Morelia’s recipe for success. The recent inscription of Mexican cuisine on UNESCO’s representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity provides a further stimulus for considering Morelia en Boca in 2013, and beyond.

Alvin Starkman has written over 250 articles about life and cultural traditions in Mexico, with an emphasis on food and drink.  He is a paid contributing writer for Mexico Today, a program for Marca País – Imagen de México.  With his wife Arlene he operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com) and with Chef Pilar Cabera Arroyo Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).

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Morelia
The Art of Cooking a delicious mole

I love mole. I think it’s heavenly. In fact my plan was to use the title, “Holy Mole,” for this story, but Chef Rick Bayless, the renown American chef of Mexican cuisine, beat me to it. I suspect he feels the same way I do about mole. It’s an appropriate title for a number of reasons, but before I get into that I should probably start with first things first.

One of the great mysteries of the world is why a dish so common and beloved in Mexico should be so little known in the United States.  By any measurement Mexican food is a smashing success in the U.S. Ask any American about tacos, enchiladas, tostadas and he can tell you about them.  But mole’s fate up to now has been less certain.

What is Mole? (Moe Lay)

Part of the reason mole hasn’t made the same impact in the US as other Mexican foods is it’s a little hard to define, although you certainly know it when you see it.  It always includes chiles. Most folks, though not all, agree it’s a sauce. I’ve never been served a bowl of mole by itself, it always enhances something. Many exotic locales in Mexico claim its origin and mole can be vastly different, especially from region to region. In fact mole isn’t just one thing, there are many moles.

The most famous moles come from Puebla and Oaxaca.  In Puebla, mole poblano, as it is known, is a rich, dark, spicy, sweet, sour, nutty, and savory sauce that can be made from upwards of 30 ingredients like onions, tomatoes, and chiles, but also raisins, almonds, fennel seeds, tortillas, and chocolate to name a few.  Traditionally it is served with turkey, but commonly it’s served over chicken or even vegetables.  Certain mole types are served with fish.  In Oaxaca, at least six distinct types of mole are identified mostly by their colors-such as colorado or red and verde or green-which reflect differences in ingredients.

Another likely reason moles are rarer in the US is they are difficult to make and even more to perfect.  Just the number of ingredients makes mole a labor of love. But in addition, getting the ingredients right isn’t enough, the proper roasting, frying, straining, simmering, and cooking of the ingredients is critical to a successful mole, so just adding them all to the pot won’t work.

I suspect another reason moles have been slow to spread in the States is it may have been difficult, until very recently, to simply find each and every ingredient folks needed to make mole the way their mamas did back home.

So Why Holy Mole?

Well, first it’s just so divinely yummy, and the best moles give the same type of pleasure the complexity of well-aged wines do!  Then there’s the legend.  Growing up in Mexico, popular legend had it that the poor nuns at the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla prayed for help in providing a meal to the visiting archbishop. After praying about it they basically threw everything at the problem, save for the kitchen sink-spices, fruit, nuts, chiles, vegetables, chocolate- and it was a hit.

Lastly, and more to the point, the best moles, with their complexity, depth, richness, and exotic, roasted flavors are just heavenly, which means searching far and wide throughout Mexico for my favorite is like the quest for the Holy Grail. It’s all about the delicious journey. 

¡Buen Provecho!

If you would like to see or even test your culinary chops on a yummy, traditional mole recipe from Puebla, here’s a link to a post by one of my Mexico Today colleagues, Brad Johnson, who shares his favourite mole recipe from a restaurant in Puebla.

And here are a few leads in your quest for Mole, both in the US and Mexico:

In Puebla, The International Mole Festival is aimed at foodies, tourists, cooking professionals, and students from the more than 20 culinary schools in Puebla. English and Spanish simultaneous translation will be available. Look for it near May 5th each year.

In San Pedro Atocpan, the National Mole Festival (Feria Nacional del Mole) in October, from the community where reportedly 60% of the mole consumed in Mexico is now made.

In Los Angeles, CA, La Feria de los Moles (The Festival of Moles) takes place on Olvera Street and continues growing each year.  This year is the 5th annual event and takes place on October 7th, 2012.  Check out www.feriadelosmoles.com for more details.

In Querétaro, the Feria del Mole y Tortilla (The Mole and Tortilla Festival) occurs in July.

In Coatepec de Morelos, Zitácuaro, Michoacán, Feria de Mole (Mole Festival) in April.

In Chicago, the 4th annual mole cook-off and street festival entitled Mole de Mayo took place on May 26th-27th and takes place in May each year.

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Puebla
Pueblas Magicos: the desert town of Cuatro Cinegas

The colonial town of Cuatro Ciénegas, a recent addition to Mexico’s Magical Towns, is located in the Northern Mexican state of Coahuila and sits next to a unique environmental landscape, known by biologists as “a showplace for biodiversity.” Early settlers named the town Cuatro Ciénegas, meaning “four marshes,” for its natural springs, which create an extensive area of wetlands located in the middle of the Mexican desert. 

The small desert town sits quietly by Coahuila’s beautiful oasis. The narrow streets are lined with traditional Mexican buildings. The dust and sand from the desert settle in the street. A visitor walking around the town may not even realize the unique nature of the town’s location. Many wonder why such a remarkable town has only so recently been recognized as one of Mexico’s Magical Towns. 

This unique environmental landscape is highly protected by the Mexican government. The combination of geothermal pools, marshes, ponds and rivers, varying greatly in terms of temperature and water chemistry, create an environment home to the greatest number of endemic species in North America, and many of the plants and animals found in Cuatro Ciénegas are listed as threatened or endangered. The water found in the wetlands is high in dissolved solids protecting the area from industrialization and agricultural development. The lack of development has allowed for many unique species to habituate in the desert area. 

The Pueblos Magicos program identifies towns that reflect “the culture of Mexico” through attributes like architecture, traditions, customs, music, gastronomy, festivities and handcrafts. There are currently 52 destinations throughout Mexico that have earned the Pueblos Magicos classification. 

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Cuatro Cinegas
Pueblos Magicos: Taxco, the Jewel of Guerrero

Taxco is an old world city build on the side of a mountain with narrow, winding streets that, from a distance, look more like a dysfunctional spider web than an actual city grid. As you walk through its maze of cobblestone streets, in between white building with Spanish-style, red-tile roofs it would be easy to believe that you have been magically transported to a mountainside town in Spain or Italy. 

To first time visitors, it might come as a surprise that that this small colonial city is actually Mexico’s silver capital. But even in pre-Hispanic times, the area was well known as a source for precious stones used for decorative and ritual purposes. 

Taxco is also famous for its silversmiths, a fact that becomes evident as you encounter jewelry store after jewelry store selling locally handcrafted silver rings, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, pendants, and any manner or decorative ornaments. These stores become more and more common the closer you get to the main plaza. Tourists from near and far come to Taxco in search of good deals on quality silver jewelry and unique handmade jewelry.   

Conquistador Hernán Cortés founded the city in 1529 to support mining haciendas like Hacienda El Chorillo and Hacienda San Juan Bautista that were also established by Cortés or his soldiers. 

In the mid 18th century, Don José de la Borda, an entrepreneur who made his fortune through silver mines, financed the building of the Parish of Santa Prisca and San Sebastian. The church is a beautiful example of Mexican baroque architecture that features a pink stone façade, two ornate towers, and a cupola covered in colorful tiles. Due to the area’s rugged terrain and lack of flat land, the church is narrower than most. Fortunately, the narrow construct did not limit the interior’s décor, which features elaborate floor-to-ceiling altarpieces covered in gold leaf. 

A short drive from Taxco you can also find the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa National Park, a 2,700-acre forest that contains one of the largest cave systems in the world.  The park offers two-hour tours through the caverns that allow visitors to admire stalagmite and stalactite formations as well as Olmec and Chontal remains. 

The Pueblos Magicos program identifies towns that reflect “the culture of Mexico” through attributes like architecture, traditions, customs, music, gastronomy, festivities and handcrafts. There are currently 52 destinations throughout Mexico that have earned the Pueblos Magicos classification.  

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Taxco

With a smashing 2-1 win over Brazil, Mexico has wrapped up the London 2012 Summer Olympics in style.  Mexico’s medal haul was their best tally in 40 years – since they hosted the 1968 games in Mexico City.  In today’s MexicoToday Insider Olympics special, we have a recap of Mexico’s historic defeat of Brazil and the ensuing jubilation.  We also have a recap of Mexico’s other medal-winning performance this weekend, María Espinoza’s taekwondo bronze.  All of Team Mexico’s athletes have performed admirably, and the whole country is beaming with pride over this summer’s Olympic performance!

Mexican Soccer Team Wins Olympic Gold

Congratulations to the Mexican men's soccer team for their 2-1 Olympic victory over Brazil on Saturday! With this win, Mexico celebrates its first Olympic gold medal in men's soccer. 

"Mexico will be celebrating on the streets," coach Luis Fernando Tena said. "It is a great honor for a coach to see his players singing the national anthem with gold medals around their necks. It's a very important moment for Mexican football. It's a great moment for us."

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The Mexico Pavilion of Expo Yeosu in South Korea has been honored with a Bronze Award for Creative Display. Expo Yeosu Korea 2012 hosted pavilions designed by 104 countries from all over the world during its 93-day run from May 12 to August 12, 2012. Mexico’s presence at Expo Yeosu was especially noteworthy, as 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Mexico and South Korea.

The theme of the Mexico Pavilion was the pre-Columbian history of Mexico, with special focus on the 2012 Mundo Maya campaign. The concept of this space showed Mexico through its biodiversity, for instance, the oceans seen through Mayan eyes. The Mayan culture was represented in the entire pavilion. The entrance to the Pavilion’s main theater is a tunnel displaying several Mayan icons. The tunnel is intended to re-create the experience of entering a sacred pyramid. 

Click here for a gallery of images from the Mexico Pavilion at Expo Yeosu.

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Olympic Reporter talks about Mexican Soccer team popularity

In today’s MexicoToday Insider Olympics Special, we see a preview of tomorrow’s gold medal football match between Mexico and Brazil! El Tri is in the hunt for their first ever Olympic gold in football, and across London, Mexico fans are fired up. We’ve also got a wrap up of Mexico’s recent successes in taekwondo and diving and a preview of Mexico’s great medal chances this weekend in taekwondo, diving and racewalking.