Friday, December 27, 2019

Mahahual, After the Party’s Over

Mahahual sunset. Tranquil. Beautiful. Escape from the pressures of daily life. Ha!

Mahahual is a tiny village on the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico. In looking for information on its population, I found a government site, undated but obviously old, that said it was 280, but the 2010 census put it at 920. I would guess it is higher now, but it’s only about a mile long with two streets and about three short cross-streets.

Mahahual, sitting on the coast away from everything else, was almost nothing until the government developed a nearby port for cruise ships to dock. That was a huge gift to this tiny village. Then, in 2007, Hurricane Dean pretty much leveled the town and the cruise ships quit coming. Within a few years, everything was rebuilt and the cruises were back.

That’s what keeps the town alive, but that’s also what ruins it.

When I arrived on Christmas day, there were two ships in the port. I was told that they each hold 3-4,000 people. Between 9 and 10am, all those people pile into taxis and head into town. By then, all the hotels and restaurants along the malecón have set up tables and chairs and lounge chairs under umbrellas or trees or some sort of shade, literally covering every bit of sand on the beach. Each has its own designated area called a “beach club”. Passers-by are “encouraged” to make themselves comfortable and are assured that they will be well cared for by their waiter. Juan or Pedro will be happy to keep them supplied with their favorite drinks and plenty of snacks and a delicious lunch. And, if that isn’t relaxing enough for them, Maria or Lupita is ready to give them a message with her table set up right there on the beach. Vendors are set up all along the malecón, selling all the standard cheap trinkets, at double the prices we see in other parts of Mexico. They all speak English - at least enough to do business. And everything is conveniently priced in dollars. Lots of dollars.

Peace returns to Mahahual around 4 or 5pm when everyone returns to the ships. But then everything quickly closes down again. All the tables and chairs and lounge chairs are stacked, all the mess of the day cleaned up, and all the workers go home. And there is nothing to do. By now the sun has set and a cool breeze has kicked up, so it’s time to head to one of the few restaurants still open for dinner before returning to my little hotel.

Today, there were three cruise ships. I can’t imagine what is must be like when there are four.

Since I wasn’t interested in hanging out in the middle of all the insanity, I found a quiet place way down at the end of the malecón where I could spread my parreo in the shade of some palm trees right next to the water and relax with my book for a couple of hours.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be on a bus to Tulum. I haven’t been there for over 40 years. I wonder how it has changed???

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Bacalar, Quintana Roo

I chose Bacalar as the first step of my next adventure, my escape from the cold of Chapala and into the glorious warmth of Caribbean beaches. Bacalar saw things a bit differently. The first few days were heavily overcast and barely got up to 80 degrees. I know some of you are rolling your eyes at my complaints, but, hey, it’s all relative. When I left Chapala, it was still getting up to something near 80 degrees outside in the afternoons, but the temp inside my house struggled to get up to 65. I understand that changed right after I left, and I’m sorry for you who are still there, but it just goes to show that I had the right idea. Anyway, after the first few days of clouds that looked very threatening, the sky finally dumped all that moisture on us one night and we woke to clear blue skies ever since.

Other than warmer weather, I don’t know what I expected of Bacalar, but this isn’t it. I mean the lagoon is beautiful. And it really is at least the seven different colors of blue that they advertise. But the color is just based on the depth of the water. The bottom is covered with white sand, so the shallower it is, the lighter the shade of turquoise. And a 90 meter deep cenote has water that is pretty close to black. This is just a small set of examples.

Pretty, right? But now what? I took the suggested boat tour and saw these and many more variations in water color. And now what am I supposed to do? What are all these other tourists doing?

As far as I can tell, all anyone does is lie out in the sun. But even that isn’t easy. The thing is, there is no beach in Bacalar. All the sand is in the water. Really. There is no beach! There are some parks along the shore with really nice lawns that allow families to access the lagoon and have a picnic, but the only way to enjoy the water is by walking out on these long wooden docks to palapa-covered areas with benches. I tried sitting out on one of those shady benches to read, but it just wasn’t like spreading a towel in the sand.

So, I guess you can tell that I’m not thrilled with Bacalar. I haven’t even mentioned the hotels packed side-by-side around the cenotes’ edges. How in the world did the government allow that???

Actually, once I’d seen the color of the water, the best part of Bacalar is the murals. I don’t know anything about them except that they are everywhere, and they are very good. They may be part of a annual event or competition because most of them say “Bakalarte” and a year. They are on houses, and  commercial buildings, and government buildings. I have enjoyed discovering new ones on my walks around town.

 Another thing about Bacalar that surprises me is the apparent lack of culture in such a culture-rich country. Beside the murals, I can see no sign of local artesanías, except the universal hippie braided bracelets and dream catchers. No local food traditions. Even the church is very sad, with few decorations and walls, both inside and out, covered with salitre and peeled-off paint. I just don’t understand it. 

Anyway, this is my last night in Bacalar. I’m off to Mahahual at noon tomorrow. It’s a tiny town on the coast about 100 kilometers east of here. I pretty much ignore all holidays any more, but I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas. And maybe after tomorrow, I’ll finally be able to get Jimmy Buffett’s “Christmas in the Caribbean” out of my head. It’s been in there ever since I got here.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

From Chiapas to Palenque and Villahermosa

The bus ride from the highlands of San Cristóbol to the lower elevation of Palenque could have been long and boring and, considering the winding mountain road, car sick-causing. Fortunately, it was well-planned,  and the many pilgrimages for the Virgin Of Guadalupe added lots of road-side interest.

The pilgrimages gave Jaime, our wonderful tour guide, plenty of opportunity to explain the story of the Virgin and her importance to the people of Mexico. The Virgin of Guadalupe is a manifestation of the Virgin Mary, but she is said to have presented herself here in Mexico with brown skin like the local indigenous people. There are many versions of her all over Mexico. The Virgin of Zapopan comes to visit and bless Lake Chapala every year. It is a different version of her, but she’s still Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is the most revered figure in all of Mexico, and December 12th is her day.

Our tour began on December 3, so for the entire trip we were surrounded by celebrations leading up to her day. There were multiple parades every day we were in San Cristóbol. But once we got out into the countryside and the mountain villages, it was as if the people felt that they needed to try harder to show their devotion to the Virgin. I would guess that we easily saw hundreds of pilgrimages consisting of a person, usually a teen or young man, carrying a torch and running or jogging along the side of the very narrow road while being followed by a truck decorated with images of the Virgin and flashing lights and loudspeakers and relief runners. Usually one person ran while the others rested in the back of the truck. Almost all of these pilgrimages were headed uphill. Was that to make their show of devotion more difficult and therefore stronger? I have no idea. I was always worried that they would be run down.

About half way between San Cristóbol and Palenque, we stopped for lunch at Cascadas Agua Azul. I have no idea where the water for these falls comes from, but they are just amazingly beautiful.

There is something about the water or the ground it travels over that makes the pools under the falls a wonderful turquoise color. Jaime told us that a few years back, there was an earthquake (the same one that messed up the churches in San Cristóbol area?) that caused the flow of water to be blocked and there was nothing coming over the falls. No waterfalls meant no visitors.

 The government decided to do studies to see how the situation could be fixed, and they came up with a plan that would cost millions of pesos and take a long time to implement. The people of the area had come to depend on visitors to the falls to eat at the restaurants and shop with the many vendors.

By the time the government actually got around to fixing the problem, they would have died of hunger. So the entire community went up-river with whatever tools they could get their hands on, and before the government officials could even decide how they would divide up the millions of pesos they could skim off the project, the locals had chopped and dug their way through the obstruction and had the water flowing again.

I don’t think anyone was anxious to get back on the bus, but we still had another couple of hours before we would arrive in Palenque. It wasn’t long before we finally got out of the mountains and into flatter jungle.

Our hotel was a resort near the Palenque Mayan ruins, but we would have to wait until the next morning to visit them. But by this time we had developed the happy habit of five o’clock wine and goodies time. We all rounded up the stashes we’d bought before we left the big city and headed for the seating area near the outdoor lobby. Before a single cork was popped, the guy at the desk was on the phone to management. Another guy came to tell us that they would require a corkage fee. We said okay, no problem, how much? He said $200 pesos per bottle. I (acting as translator for the group) pointed out that our wine averaged $100 pesos per bottle, but all I got was a sympathetic shrug.

So we picked up our bottles and goodies and headed back toward our rooms, which were in another building. Fortunately, we trouble-makers happened to all be in a one building of the many on the property. We all went into our rooms and hauled out our very heavy metal chairs and our water glasses and went on with our party, well within site of the front desk. We were ready to go into one of the rooms, if necessary, but the evening was too nice to go inside. In just a little while, Jaime came by to tell us that he had received a call from management and, although we would not be permitted to drink our own wine (without a ridiculous charge) in the common area, they would look the other way if we stayed by our rooms. A good time was had by all.

The next morning was spent at the Palenque Mayan ruins. Apparently, these ruins were originally set in the middle of a bustling city with many, many buildings and lots of people. Now, Palenque ruins are in a beautiful park with lots of huge shade trees and gravel paths through manicured lawns. I can’t remember ever seeing a more beautiful ruins setting.
The most interesting building was one that is still undergoing restoration, mostly because we could wander all around it.

We had a local guide who was very knowledgeable about the ruins to explain it all to us - at least as much as has been figured out. There is lots of info online, so I’m not even going to try to explain it all.

We had planned to visit the Palenque museum but found out that it was closed on Mondays, so Jaime made a slight change in our schedule so that we could make a quick stop the next morning before we left the area.

Our final stop was in Villahermosa, which must have been a beautiful village at some point in it’s history but is now a big, bustling oil town. West of Villahermosa and into the state of Veracruz is the location of the ceremonial centers of the Olmecs,  considered the “mother” civilization of Mexico. I was hoping we would go to the original La Venta, an important ceremonial center that I’ve never visited before, but we were told that it is now the center of an oil field, so we would visit the La Venta that is now a park in Villahermosa.

Although not much is known about the Olmec people, they are famous for the giant stone heads that have been found all around the area. The geography of the area proves that the stone from which these heads are carved had to be somehow transported quite a long distance. But as these people had not discovered the wheel, no one knows how they did it.

The park had many interesting smaller stone carvings, but I kept waiting to see the giant heads. I have seen quite a few in the state of Veracruz, and I was looking  forward to seeing more here. I was disappointed to learn that they only had two. Scientists expect to uncover many more as they continued to explore in the area of the original La Venta ceremonial center.

Really, the highlight of the park was to discover that the jungle between the walkways was full of coati mundi. I spotted the first one, and then the park guide showed us how he could make them come running by making plastic crackle like a potato chip bag. They seemed to be quite tame.

Unfortunately, their coloring gives them excellent camouflage in the jungle, so it doesn’t show up very well in my photos. They look like a cross between a opossum and a raccoon but with a long ringed tail that they hold straight up in the air.

We had one final night in a nice hotel in an uninspiring area before our very early flight back to Guadalajara in the morning. As always, the vacation was great but it was nice to return home, at least for a few days. The day after tomorrow, I will again be at the Guadalajara airport, setting out on another adventure. See you then!

Monday, December 16, 2019

Selling a House, Mexican Style, the Next Step

First, I’ll get the house stuff out of the way. I spent the last two weeks worried that the buyer would back out, and then she came to see me yesterday to talk about depositing a million pesos in my account. Okay! That was done today, so I guess there’s not much chance she’ll back out. The closing has been moved to the last day in February, but she hopes it will be sooner.

Next, my condo. My landlord has gone to Mexico City for Christmas with his family while the crew continues the work on the condo. They will send photos soon. I decided to go ahead with my trip to the Yucatán peninsula, and we came up with a February 1st move-in date.

My next step is to try to arrange hotels and a flight, which I’ll do as soon as I finish this. I’m hoping for this Friday. I’ll take you all along with a post for each town I visit. I’m not really planning too much because I want to be able to stay in a place or move on depending on how much I like it there. I will start at Bacalar, just north of the Belize border and then head north from there.

I plan to return to Chapala about January 20, pack up the rest of my stuff (it will fit in my car) and drive to Barra de Navidad so I can pay the property tax and water bill down there. After spending a few days with Terry, I will drive to Puerto Vallarta while he returns to Chapala and then to Florida. Of course, all of this is subject to change if the Barra house, which has been on the market since June, sells.

Now for the fun part - my trip to Chiapas. We flew from Guadalajara to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, on December 3. There we met some friends from Cozumel and boarded the bus to San Cristóbol de las Casas.

I need to admit two things right up front here: I pretty much froze the entire time we were there and there just isn’t enough oxygen at that elevation from my asthmatic lungs. Honestly, if I hadn’t been on a tour, I would have headed for lower ground by the second day. But I was on a tour so that was not an option. I decided to just do the best I could.

The tone for the trip was set that first night when two couples of our group settled in with wine and goodies. They invited us to join them but we didn’t want to stretch their wine too thin. The next night, however, many of us showed up with lots more wine and goodies to share. Those evenings together became a habit and may have been the highlight of the entire nine day tour.

Because we were in the days leading up to the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12, we saw many, many parades and pilgrimages dedicated to her.

My roommate, Judy, and I wandered downtown and found a wonderful Thai restaurant where we got great veggie bowls, plus wine, of course. I got colder with the dark so we headed back to our hotel room. At least the shower was warm!

Breakfast was included, so it became another great social time for the group. Then we took a tram tour around San Cris and ended up at the Santo Domingo museum and the craft market that surrounds it. The museum had some very interesting ancient weaving, and I got to photograph these lovely ladies in their traditional clothing who were there for a textile conference.

Unfortunately, the main cathedral was damaged in a 2017 earthquake and they haven’t gotten around to repairing it yet.

The next day we went to Sumidero Canyon. The canyon is near Tuxtla Gutiérrez, at a much lower elevation, so it was quite a bit warmer (and it has plenty of oxygen!) The boat ride through the canyon was beautiful, but I really wish I could see it in the rainy season when the plants are greener and all the waterfalls have falling water. We did see four crocodiles and lots of different birds.

The next day was one of my favorites - a visit to San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. This trip took us above 8,000 feet, so the breathing was tough for me, but it was worth it. San Juan Chamula is a rather peculiar town. The town is a very close (and closed) community and has some very strict traditions. Everyone who lives there must follow the rules or they will be expelled. The guide said there are no outsiders permitted to live there, even if they marry into a local family. (However, I read a book a few years ago written by a woman who had married into an important family there and was eventually kind of tolerated.) The highlight was the church, which is not quite Catholic. Apparently, a priest visits occasionally to baptize babies, but the Catholic Church does not recognize the people as Catholics. I don’t think they consider themselves Catholic, either.

The town is in a valley surrounded by mountains that the people consider sacred. They see the church as a mountain, also. The doorway represents a cave leading into the interior of the mountain. The interior of the church feels very much like a cave. It is rather dark except for thousands of candles and long beams of light that come in from windows high on the walls. The light shines through smoke from the copal incense, creating a kind of mystical atmosphere. There are no pews. The people kneel on a carpet of pine needles, and there are shamans wearing clothing of sheep’s wool. Visitors are tolerated because of the money they bring to town. They must pay an entrance fee to get in and cameras are strictly prohibited, but I think you can google the church and find some photos online.

Then we went to the nearby town of Zinacantan, where we visited a weavers’ co-op. Much of what they had for sale is mass-produced and even available in Chapala, but I found a runner that had been woven on a back strap loom with very intricate patterns. It was almost my only purchase of the trip.

Our final day in the San Cris area featured a trip to Amatenango to see the workshop of a famous potter who often brings her work to the Maestros del Arte feria here in Chapala. After our bus driver performed the amazing feat of actually driving the bus over a tiny bridge and right up to the workshop door, apparently something never done before, we were treated to a demonstration of how she does her beautiful work.

This is where I made my second and final purchase - a clay cup with an intricate design painted on a band around it. I will use it to hold some drawing pens.

This is getting long and with so many photos, I’m afraid you might have problems downloading it, so I will stop now and continue the trip tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Selling a house, Mexican style, Part 3

Subtitle: The best-laid plans of mice and men...

Here we are, two weeks from the scheduled closing, and I got a call from the buyer yesterday afternoon. It seems that the buyer of the property that they are selling in Guanajuato has not yet come up with the money for their closing, so, of course, that means that my buyers also can’t come up with the total for our closing. My first reaction is panic, but no one is backing out of anything. It is just going to take a bit longer. The notario will draw up a contract to extend the deal until February and we will use the appointment scheduled for the closing to sign the extension. All will be well.

So now I have to figure out what I’m going to do in the meantime. When I thought I would be homeless two weeks from now, I planned to take a long, slow trip around the Yucatán peninsula until I could rent an apartment in Puerto Vallarta after the snowbirds leave in April. Then I found my condo, but it looked like it wouldn’t be ready for a few months, so I could still take my trip. But my landlord has been hustling to get it done. He’ll be in Mexico City for Christmas but plans to leave the keys with my friend so I can get into my new home right away, even if it’s not yet totally furnished. And now I have no reason to leave on the 16th.

So I’m sitting here trying to figure out what my options are.

Should I go on down to Puerto Vallarta anyway? Should I take my previously-planned trip to Yucatán until the condo is completely done? Shall I just stay in Chapala until February? Are there other options that I haven’t even seen yet?

I’ll let you know as soon as I figure it out myself.

But first, I’m leaving in less than an hour for a long-ago scheduled trip to Chiapas. Im determined to enjoy myself.