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Articles Blog

Filtering by Tag: Mexico

Topolobampo, Mexico

Karyn Planett

To-po-lo-bam-po. Sounds like a Richie Valens’ hit from 1958? Well, it’s not. Nor is it Rick Bayless’ famous Chicago eatery. It is, in fact, the small but lively Mexican port town tucked up into the convoluted shoreline of the state of Sinaloa lapped by the tepid waters of the Gulf of California. Her six thousand, give or take, inhabitants savor warm summer sun, fish fresh from the sea, and an easy lifestyle that drops their blood pressure several points.

So Why Are We Here?

Well, most everyone comes to Topolobampo to journey inland to Copper Canyon. In Spanish, it’s called, “Barranca del Cobre” and isn’t really just one canyon but a series of 20 carved by the powerful forces of time and six mighty rivers. Some travelers note the similarity to Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and they are right. But proud locals point out that the entire region measures seven times greater than that of the Grand Canyon, so it is whopping big. Even UNESCO identified it as one of their coveted World Heritage Sites, which brings us to the subject of “ChePe” -- not to be confused with that Hollywood personality who keeps wiggling, saying “Koochi Koochi.”

The Train That Could

“ChePe” is short for the “Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad.” It, however, is not short. It runs 400 miles from Chihuahua to Los Mochis smack through Copper Canyon. Even jaded travelers exclaim that this tops the list of America’s most spectacular railroad stretches as well as one of the world’s top ten in the same category.

The entire route traverses more than three-dozen bridges, some 86 tunnels, endless canyons and grab-the-camera-honey vistas. All this was the hair-brain idea of some curious folks from New Harmony, Indiana known as the Utopia Socialist Colony. Their leader Albert Kinsey Owen was bent, so to speak, on creating a utopian socialist community and convinced General Manuel Gonzales, Mexico’s President in 1880, that he needed the railroad to achieve this goal. Well, that all went by the wayside because the task was far too daunting. So, it was not until 1961 that the final stake was driven into the track signaling the train was now ready to leave the station.

The Tarahumara

If you know America’s indigenous peoples, then you’re well aware of the Tarahumara. Also called Raramuri (the two names are somewhat interchangeable), they’re found scattered about Mexico’s northern region. Long before the Spaniards arrived to search for gold and silver, the Tarahumara were widespread. As conditions worsened for them under Spanish rule in the 16th century, they took refuge in Copper Canyon for the rugged landscape offered them shelter. Even today, many still live in caves, beneath rock outcroppings on cliffs, or in modest yet more modern cabins.

These settlements were and are separated by inhospitable terrain. So, long before cell phones and texting, the only way villagers could communicate with the outside world was by messenger. These darn fast, healthy specimen could literally run for days and it was not uncommon for one such “foot runner” to cover as much as 435 miles in one go. That’s about 16.5 marathons AT ONCE !! Barefoot !! Before Gatorade !! Well, they did carbo-load with lots of corn beer and sometimes kick a ball along for enjoyment so it wasn’t all that bad. The scary part, however, was dodging Mexican wolves and cougars that prowled about in the dark even though Raramuri hunted their prey by chasing them till exhaustion.

Some experts believe the word “Raramuri” actually means “those who run fast.” Think Macy’s the day after Thanksgiving. Other experts explain these runners honed their skills not by clomping along in sneakers like us but rather by using something called a “toe strike” (not gout, silly) that’s easier on the muscles and joints and lets the runner keep on going long after we week-end jocks would be calling a taxi.

Even today many of the 60,000 Raramuri still practice traditional customs by donning colorful clothing, herding livestock from pasture to pasture, cooking familiar dishes like beans and corn, practicing their traditional animism religion mixed with Christianity, and speaking the Tarahumara dialect of their forefathers along with Spanish.

The Original Z

An option for those unable to travel the ChePe Railroad (we call the ChePe Choo Choo) is Zorro. Yes, remember “the mark of the Z”? Supposedly, that was the signature of Don Diego de la Vega reputed to be the true Zorro. A visit to his 1880s mansion Hotel Posado del Hidalgo in the town of El Fuente will fill in the blanks of this gentleman’s history. Learn the identity of the man behind the black mask and really tight pants who sought to right all wrongs, make women swoon, and slice away at gnarly villains. 

Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

Karyn Planett

Mi Café, Su Café

“In Seattle you haven't had enough coffee until you can thread a sewing machine while it's running.” --Jeff Bezos

For caffeine addicts, this port of call will amount to a pilgrimage. Of the world’s premier coffees, Mexican Arabica is considered among the elite beans. And you are now at its source. The state of Chiapas exists almost exclusively for the cultivation, harvesting and exporting of this glorious nectar of the Starbucks generation. Most of the modern history of Chiapas revolves around the politics of coffee. And, as with so many of the world’s most desirable commodities, that history is written with heroism and hard work, mayhem even murder. A handful have prospered while others have suffered, and only recently has the coffee wealth begun to bring a better life to the very people on whose backs the industry has been built.

“I believe humans get a lot done, not because we're smart, but because we have thumbs so we can make coffee.” –Flash Rosenberg

Chiapas is the most southern of the 31 states of Mexico. To the east is Guatemala, to the south the Pacific Ocean. The lowland areas have a climate supporting what used to be a massive rainforest, most of which has given way to agricultural development. In the uplands between parallel mountain ranges, temperate, foggy conditions have resulted in “cloud forests” like those of the protected El Triunfo Biosphere, and an ideal climate for the plantations that produce what are arguably Mexico’s finest coffee beans.

The history of this region is not unlike the rest of Mexico and Central America. There is evidence of civilization dating from 1400 BC with the city of Palenque being founded by the Mayans around 600 BC. The Spanish arrived in the early 16th century and Chiapas was actually administered as part of the Kingdom of Guatemala. When Mexico and Central America divided during the 19th century, the state of Chiapas was eventually annexed by Mexico.

“If it weren't for the coffee, I'd have no identifiable personality whatsoever.”--David Letterman

The gleaming new port of Chiapas, inaugurated in 2005 by former President Vincente Fox, belies the fact that much of the state is populated by hard working, rural farmers. About one quarter are of Mayan decent. In 1994, a political activist group known as the Zapatistas began setting up autonomous municipalities dedicated to the rights of these largely disenfranchised communities. A number of them now support agricultural cooperatives that allow small coffee growers to compete with the larger plantations, many of which are owned by the descendents of European families. Naturally, this movement has created some friction with the central government but remains dedicated to achieving its goals through political means.

“I bought a decaffeinated coffee table, you can’t even see the difference.” --Author Unknown

Tapachula is the municipality that encompasses the suburb of Puerto Chiapas. Because of the thriving coffee and banana trade, the city has the highest GDP per capita in Mexico, which puts it in sharp contrast to the rest of the state. During the coffee boom, a number of German families migrated to the area and assembled large plantations known as “fincas”. Hamburgo, Bremen and Germania are still in the hands of those dedicated, extended families.

Railroad construction brought Latin America’s first Asian immigrants to Tapachula so the Japanese and Chinese have left their mark on the architecture as well as the cuisine. Surprisingly, you may find it easier to get good miso soup or Kung Pao Chicken than a tasty burrito.

Modern migration has written a sadder tale as Tapachula is a point from which many undocumented people from Central America begin their long and dangerous trek north. A walk through Tapachula will feature the colonial-era Temple of San Agustin, the Archaeological Museum, the nearby pyramids of Izapa, and a number of German houses and haciendas.

“In America you can buy bucket-sized cups of coffee in any flavour you like other than coffee-flavour.” –Author Unknown

The kind people of Chiapas will make you feel very welcome. Their new port has provided them with a window to the outside world that had not previously existed. For the first time, tourism and tourists have easy access to their region of Mexico, which in many ways is the last to play a role in a modern economy beyond simply providing agricultural commodities. The influence of European families over the last century and a half has made for a population curious to learn more of a world from which they have been largely isolated. Doesn’t this sound like a stimulating topic to explore over a nice cup of coffee?

La Paz, Mexico

Karyn Planett

Baja’s Hot Spot

“Good-bye -- if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican wall and shot to rags, please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar steps. To be a Gringo in Mexico – ah, that is euthanasia!”

So penned Ambrose Bierce in a letter dated October 1, 1913. Rather dramatic, this, but I suppose Mr. Bierce drove home his point especially the part about the cellar stairs. Never mind. It’s great to escape to this bit of Baja by the sea especially if you want to breathe in the clean, fresh air and feel absolutely alive. Comfortable temperatures, low humidity, and gentle breezes complete this south-of-the-border tableau. Note for the record that, along with the western shores of Chile and Africa, Baja boasts some of the world’s clearest skies. For that exact reason the national observatory was plunked down on this pencil-thin peninsula so stargazers can stare transfixed at the black, night sky.

Landscapes And Seascapes

Eons before there were dune buggies, micro-thongs or jet skis, the thousand-mile-long Baja Peninsula was nothing more than the western shores of mainland Mexico. Approximately 20 million years ago this narrow spit of land, twice the length of Florida, slowly inched its way across the Golfo de California, made possible by the seismic antics of the San Andreas Fault. Today, the Gulf of California is home to sport fish, gray whales, and pleasure crafts. In the beginning, it was not so wild and crazy.

There were some 40,000 indigenous people scraping out an existence when the Spaniards dropped anchor in 1535 and waded ashore led by Hernan Cortez. The first permanent settlement was not established in La Paz until 1811. Cortez’ countrymen set about developing the area while converting the indigenous people to Christianity. Ultimately, there were only 500 of the original inhabitants who survived. Though they died off in vast numbers, their 400 cave paintings, some dating back 1,000 years, thankfully survived.

City Of Peace. City Of Pearls.

La Paz does mean “peace” in Spanish. But, this seaside resort is more commonly called “the city of pearls.” With more than one-quarter of a million people, La Paz is Baja’s second largest city and capital of Baja California Sur (south). It’s found just a stone’s throw from the tropic of Cancer.

And though the waters off La Paz are some 10,000 feet deep, the shallow beds of oysters producing pearls put the city on the map and in the crosshairs of the Spanish. Cortes admired the black pearls he discovered here in the 16th century, naming one of the offshore islands “Isla de perlas.” Today it is called Espiritu Santo Island instead. Sadly, a disease wiped out the oyster population and the oyster death knell was heard far and wide.

Instead of oysters, today the limelight shines on the sea lions, hammerhead sharks, dolphins and tropical fish such as parrotfish and angelfish that delight snorkelers and scuba divers alike. The local colony of sea lions is Baja’s largest. In total, there are some 3,000 species of marine fauna lurking in the ice-blue seas. But the granddaddy of them all is the gray whale that migrates nearly 6,000 miles here from Alaska’s Bering Sea. Why? To breed and spawn in the tepid Baja shallows. Some 30 years ago, their breeding habitat was declared off limits to whalers who had hunted these 50-foot-long leviathans to near extinction, a practice set in place in the 1850s by Captain Charles M. Scammon from Maine. Today, they enjoy their time here from approximately December to May. These immense creatures then swim north again, as they have since time began, on the longest migration undertaken by any mammal on earth. The nearby whale sanctuary is known as Magdalena Bay.

Siesta Or Shopping? What to do.

Tough choice, this. You can while away the afternoon strolling along the Malecon waterfront in search of the perfect fried calamari and chilled cerveza. Or, you can make the 90-minute pilgrimage to Todos Santos to lounge about the hotel supposedly made famous by the Eagles in their hit song “Hotel California.” Hum as you go. Oh, and while you’re there discover why this enclave tucked into the Sierra de la Laguna hilltops is known as an artisan’s hideaway. Weavers produce wonders from hand-spun and hand-dyed wool, while potters create vases and tableware they then hand paint. Armed with enough souvenirs to satisfy everyone back home, you’ll soon see the sun set religiously into the background. A peaceful calm will be the legacy of your visit to La Paz. You’ll know what it’s like to be a Gringo in Mexico.

Ensenada, Mexico

Karyn Planett

Mexico Welcomes

Draped along Baja California’s warm Pacific shores, a mere sixty miles south of the U.S. border, is the bustling seaport of Ensenada. Long a favorite of vacationing Americans, they followed in the sandy footsteps of other discoverers and adventurers who traversed this 800-mile long peninsula that parts the waters of the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California.

All this began in 1535 when Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez first visited the Baja Peninsula, lured there by legends of beautiful women who lazed away their days fishing for pearls. What Cortez discovered instead was a barren landscape inhabited by primitive Indians such as the Cochimies, Guaycuras, Peridues, Paipai and Kumiai. Today's explorers, however, find everything in Baja from fast-paced cities teeming with travelers to remote outposts as desolate as the outback. And, yes, the beautiful women are really there, as promised, wearing pearls and Gucci and Prada and Polo.

Ensenada’s natural harbor was named San Mateo, after Saint Matthew, by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. But it was Sebastian Vizcaino, sailing under the Spanish flag, who renamed it Bahia de Todos Santos, a tribute to all saints. Ensenada served as a safe haven for early seagoing vessels including galleons heavily laden with the spoils of conquest. Whaling ships also anchored in the bay while en route to the Hawaiian Islands. Devout missionaries followed to cultivate crops and Christianity. Then gold was discovered in nearby Real de Castillo opening the floodgates to rancheros and miners, making Ensenada a fledgling pioneer settlement.

Today, local people welcome you to join in their stroll along the malecon boardwalk beside one of Mexico's prettiest bays that’s ringed by white-sand beaches. They’ll recommend a visit to the Riviera del Pacifico Cultural Center. It’s said that Al Capone’s money allegedly financed this venture that was managed by the famous boxer Jack Dempsey in the 1930s. It’s on Boulevard Costero and was frequented by a long list of luminaries during the heyday including, according to sources, Dolores del Rio, Myrna Loy, Lana Turner, Ali Khan and Johnny Weissmuller.

Spicy Seafood

Ensenada is famous for its seafood. Meandering down the sleepy streets, you can indulge in an earthen bowl of cebiche (seh-bee-chay)… raw fish that has been marinated in limejuice, tomatoes, chilies, and spices. Shrimps, scallops, octopus or crabmeat can be substituted for the traditional mackerel. Another local taste treat that tempts everyone is a "bean cone." It resembles an ice cream cone but is, instead, a crisp tortilla filled with a scoop of refried beans, shredded jack cheese, green and red salsas, then sprinkled with some freshly chopped coriander leaves. If it’s a proper fish dinner you want, remember the nearby waters are home to some of the most beautiful giant white sea bass, swordfish, albacore, and yellowtail. And don’t forget the famous fish taco!

Margaritas are a hometown favorite but there are also some famous local wineries producing wine from vines that have clung to the sunny slopes surrounding Ensenada for years. Casa Pedro Domecq Winery, one of the area’s most famous, offers a variety of prize-winning vintages. With a toast to this charming city, it's time to dig into some of that local cuisine.

Handcrafted Treasures

Whether you're a veteran shopper or one who souvenir hunts more casually, you'll be tempted by Ensenada's handicrafts. Items are still lovingly crafted and decorated by hand, many in small family-run workshops where the skill is passed from one generation to the next.

Local specialties include hand-painted pottery and ceramics by resident artists. Mexican silver is always a good buy and is usually quite lovely. Whether made into jewelry such as bracelets, earrings, and rings, or household items like candlesticks, vases, and bowls, the prices are often quite reasonable. Leather goods, including huarache sandals, are also a great buy though the quality can vary substantially. Embroidered cotton blouses are colorful souvenirs and typical of the region. Other bargains include coffee-flavored Kahlua, a Mexican liqueur. No matter what it is that catches your eye, you simply must have a memento from your time ashore in Baja California's port city of Ensenada.

Costa Maya, Mexico

Karyn Planett

What To Do? What To Do?

That’s a tough one. Your options on this glorious day are to: (1) channel Indiana Jones as you clamber about ancient Mayan ruins; (2) discover this planned destination with its full complement of activities and distractions to fill your time ashore; or (3) do absolutely “nothing” the entire afternoon at the ship’s pool as a smiling steward serves up frothy something-or-other’s. What to do? Oh, what to do?

Let’s Discover The Basics

Costa Maya is found in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo (QR to those in the know), one of the nation’s 32 states. The area’s unique name is derived from Andrés Quintana Roo, one of the Mexican Republic’s celebrated patriots who played a critical role in the War of Independence from Spain in 1810. It’s Mexico’s only state flanking the Caribbean and sits astride one of the Yucatan Peninsula’s once practically-deserted stretches. As part of the “Maya Coast”, development since approximately 1955, it has been undertaken under the watchful eye of the Mexican government. They were intent on protecting the ecology as well as the archaeology.

So, now, you’re here. Others will be, as well, because Costa Maya claims to be the very first Caribbean port developed with only cruise ship passengers in mind. Period. That’s the claim. And the Mexican government has allocated significant resources for the infrastructure of this vibrant tourism destination with all the luscious offerings .. beaches, boutiques, folklorico shows, cantinas, mariachis, margaritas and the promise of adventures beyond.

With vine-draped Mayan ruins, important archaeological sites, and the world’s second largest coral reef system nearby, what’s not to like? The underwaterworld is quite content here. In fact, some 500 different fish species and approximately 60 varieties of coral call the Meso-American reef home.

These clear waters and calm seas offered earlier people a simpler but very good life as fishermen. Though those days are a fading memory, you can still get a hint of their lifestyle in the village of Mahahual, no longer the simple sleepy little village it once was but now a destination ready to welcome visitors.

Carved In Stone and Stucco

The Mayan people still exist here and are eager to introduce you to their traditional ways, their cuisine including buried earth-cooked chicken, and their music with emphasis on flutes, whistles, rattles, and drums. They’ll also boast about their ancestors who carved vibrant cities from the steaming jungles, cities that flourished for centuries.

Dzinbanche is one such city, an imposing remnant from the past. This ancient Mayan community, whose name translates to “writing on wood”, is worthy of a visit for it’s believed it was once the capital of the Kan (“Snake”) Dynasty. You were wrong if you guessed Dzinbanche is the newest, hottest designer coming out of all Asia. You were right if you guessed it was the Kan capital in the 5th and 6th centuries. Designed in the “Peten” architectural style, it features something called the Temple of the Captives and the Temple of the Owl. Among its many important structures is the most powerful pyramid of all, the Cormoranes Pyramid. Experts believe this was Sky Witness’s funerary pyramid. He was one of the Kan Dynasty’s kings.  

Kohunlich is another important archaeological site, lined with 40-foot-tall cohune palm trees for which it was named. These majestic palms provided ample shade from the burning sun for residents and travelers alike. The former resided here from 200 BC until 600 AD. The latter were those who passed through on the well-worn trade route. Mayans traded their fabrics, jade and obsidian objects, salt and shells. All the while everyone was under the watchful eye of Kinich Ahau, the sun god, whose 10-foot-tall mask is one of the most important artifacts among so many. Important, too, is the Ball Court home to the Mesoamerican ballgame that dates back centuries. A brutal sport, this, it resembled a gladiator version of racquetball, played against long stone walls, occasionally with some sort of human sacrifice as part of the half-time entertainment. Today’s gentler version, more like volleyball, is called ulama and is played even by children.

Back At The Beach

The biggest game here is bargaining. English is spoken everywhere though some visitors are surprised to discover the local people still speak the Mayan language. Perhaps you’ll find a colorful poolside cover-up or some hand-tooled cowboy boots. The local people are masters at their crafts, be it silver jewelry or hand-thrown pottery including the Mayan whistles already mentioned. There are jade carvings, hand-woven huipils (those beautifully-embroidered white blouses), and thatch handbags.

As the sun arcs slowly overhead and you grow weary from the day’s running about, sink low into a colorful string hammock swinging between two shady trees and enjoy a time-honored tradition, the afternoon siesta. Now that is the right answer to the question, what to do, what to do?