Friday, December 28, 2012

Zacualpan Swimming Holes

About a month ago, while in the state of Colima, we ventured off the beaten track to the small town of Zacualpan.  We were hoping to ride our bikes in the mountainous area, while using the town as our base.  We drove into town, and as we normally do, found a parking place in the sun (for the solar panels) near the town plaza.  Pretty quickly, we noticed people staring a little harder than usual.  Even the kids were congregating around the truck in an uncomfortable way.  They didn't seem curious... just scared and confused.  We tried to ignore the stares and greeted everyone with friendly smiles and lots of "buenas tardes".

We rode our bikes around the area on miles of bumpy, brain-rattling cobblestone streets.  Our riding paid off when we discovered a fantastic, secluded camping spot at a nearby spring.  Many rocks had been hauled in to create pools.  Various structures, like picnic tables and a bridge, surrounded the pools.  Normally, a place like this would cost money, but somehow, the area has been secured as public land. For anyone looking, it's called the "Zacualpan Balneario".

We rode back to the truck and waved goodbye to the interesting vibe of Zacaulpan.  You can imagine our delight when we discovered that one of the impossibly crystal-clear pools had a large cement slide built into it.  Apart from discovering a rope swing (which we didn't), this was the best news EVER!  We spent 2 nights here (alone) as the camping and swimming were too excellent to pass up.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Paracho (Guitar Town, Mexico)

by Scott

Kid in a candy store. Me in Paracho. Pretty much the same thing. Paracho, in the state of Michoacan, is known as THE place to buy a guitar in Mexico. I've never seen anything like it. There'a a huge guitar on the road into town. In the central plaza, rather than a statue of the virgin or some revolutionary figure, they have a luthier working on a guitar. There is a guitar museum and dozens of guitar shops. The whole town revolves around guitars.

Our plan was to hit the guitar museum when it opened at 9am. After that, Heather was going to do her own thing while I toured the town. Unfortunately, the museum didn't open at 9am (or 10am or 11am). Fortunately, a passing luthier, who saw us looking confused, insisted that I follow him to his shop. This turned out to be the highlight of the day.

The Escobedo Hernandez family has been making guitars in Paracho for 3 generations. The 3 brothers gave me a tour of their bare-bones workshop and handed me guitar after guitar. Each one I played was excellent and surprisingly in tune considering the frigid morning (Paracho is at 7300 feet). I never asked how much, because I really wasn't in the market. I finally excused myself before I started feeling guilty about wasting their time. Plus, I was running out of material. It's a lot of pressure playing in front of an audience of luthiers, especially when you're playing their creations.

One of the Hernandez brothers at work
With the museum still closed, I walked the main drag. Every other store was a guitar shop, and those in between were guitar related. There was a shop that did nothing but make gig bags. Several stores sold nothing but guitar woods -- thin sheets of cedar, rosewood, ebony, maple, mahogany, palo escrito, cyprus, etc. Other shops sold nothing but hardware -- a huge variety of tuning pegs, pickguards, trim pieces etc.

A huge assortment of trim pieces and 22 different options for tuning pegs

Bubble wrap, nylon, and a sewing machine on the right produces finished gig bags on the left

I checked again, but the museum was still closed, so I walked the main drag on the opposite side of the plaza. It was more of the same. Quality did vary. I found that not all Paracho-made guitars are good, but the good ones are very good. Rodrigo Amezcua let me play a few of his guitars and I was impressed. He only completes about 50 guitars per year, and each of those takes about 6 years from start to finish. If I'm ever in the market for a nylon-string guitar, I will look to him or the Hernandez brothers. Coincidentally, both Rodrigo and the Hernandez brothers claim that their grandfather was the first luthier in Paracho. Who knows. I didn't question. It's a small town, maybe they're cousins. The answer is probably locked inside the museum.

Nice as art, but not as instruments. The wood can't sing with all that bling.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mazamitla and The Bull On Fire

Twilight and the Mazamitla church
The month of December in Mexico is dominated by a plethora of Catholic celebrations.  December 12th is the official day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron of Mexico, but the festivities start on December 1st, because...FIESTA!

The shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage destination in the world. According to Wikipedia, over the Friday and Saturday of December 11 to 12, 2009, a record number of 6.1 million pilgrims visited the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City to commemorate the anniversary of the apparition  (more here if you're interested).

The festivities begin each evening with a parade through town to the plaza. Everyone comes out for this, either to watch, or to tag along to pay their respects to the Virgin. Indigenous groups from the area walk, dance, and stomp in elaborate costumes. Babies dress like revolutionaries and grow mustaches and goatees. It's great.

Each night, free entertainment is provided on the stage in front of the Virgin.  Quality varies. We've seen really good mariachi bands and really bad dance routines. Last night, mini-skirted girls danced (poorly) to Kool & The Gang's "Celebration", Michael Jackson's "Beat It", and Fergie's "My Humps". We're not sure the Virgin would approve, but the guy lifting up her skirt might.

Over the past week, we've been serenaded by the sounds of exploding fireworks as early as 5am and as late as 12am.  We've been told this will continue throughout December.We also witnessed the common running of El Torito (the little bull) in the town of Mazamitla, Jalisco. We were enjoying the band, lively vibe, plentiful food, and occasional fireworks when people started running for their lives.  For a split second, the only gringos in town considered hitting the ground for cover.  No sooner had we followed the crowd to the edge of the plaza, than a young man carrying an exploding array of fireworks (in the shape of El Torito), came crashing through the crowd.  Sparks were flying and little girls screamed.  Mexicans sure now how to celebrate!  What goes better with a crowded plaza than sparks, fire, and flaming debris? We met a couple of guys from Guadalajara who were visiting for the night who spoke English.  When we asked about El Torito, there response was something like: "oh, yeah, it used to be a lot worse".

The bull, the bull, the bull is on fire!

Monday, December 3, 2012

People Watching and Eating In Tapalpa and Comala

We still haven't broken away from the cooler, higher ground of inland Mexico. After we spent a week in Tapalpa at 7000' elevation, we headed to Comala, another cobblestone town similar to Tapalpa, but not as good.  Comala is only at 2000', so the nights aren't as refreshingly cool.  We were hoping to hit the coast, but the temperatures and humidity are prohibitive, unless we can spend most of the hot hours surfing.  For the past 2 weeks, we've been on a wave-drought, and the forecast doesn't look good.  Sadly, the coastline we are considering skipping is reputed to be the most beautiful and sparsely populated in Mexico.

Saying goodbye to the Tapalpa town square

A beautiful house front near the town square in Tapalpa

Not a bad free camping/parking spot for the week.  A 5 minute walk to the center of town.

Cheese fondue with chorizo ($3) for dinner one night and tortas ahogadas ($2 "drowned" pork sammies) for lunch.  I tried to cool down the spicy sandwich with the cucumber salad, only to realize at the end of the meal that the little orange pieces are not carrots, but flaming hot habaneros!

Tejuino - not good!
Our typical routine in the small towns is to find a quiet/safe place to park for the night, and then head to the town square for people watching and food.  After Tapalpa, we are pretty picking about our food.  We're even getting pretty snobbish about tacos. When we arrived in Comala, it had been a long, hot day of driving.  There was a woman selling Tejuino at the town square.  I saw quite a few locals slurping up the cool, icey drink, and figured it was my turn to be brave and try something new.  We were both really thirsty.  Take a look at this drink (to the right).  What would you imagine it contains?  For me, I figured it was some sort of an iced tea or maybe even something a little chocolatey or coffee-ish.  Silly gringa.  I almost gagged on my first sip.  Tejuino is made from fermented corn, from the same corn dough used for tortillas and tamales. "The dough is mixed with water and brown sugar (piloncillo) and boiled. Then the liquid is allowed to ferment very slightly. The resulting drink is generally served cold, with lime juice, a pinch of salt and a scoop of shaved ice (or lemon sherbet)."

Comala town square with free internet and electric plug-ins for our computers

Just another Sunday evening in the town square of Comala

Pictures from November