La Nautica: Latin America’s Oldest Merchant Marine Academy

DSC_0319Edited2Mazatlán has been renowned since colonial times as one of Mexico’s premier maritime and shipbuilding centers. It is thus quite natural that we are blessed with the country’s oldest merchant marine academy—La Escuela Nautica Capitán de Altura Antonio Gómez Maqueo, or “La Nautica,” as it is affectionately known. The school also distinguishes Mazatlán as home of the oldest merchant marine academy in Latin America.

Visiting family and I were fortunate to get up close and personal with the highly disciplined young adults parading in their dress whites during the school’s recent 137th anniversary ceremony. Watching hundreds of young people march in crisply choreographed unison during the golden hour at sunset was truly a sight to behold! We were invited to the bugle, drum and flag-filled festivities by Captain Rodolfo Cinco Arenas, who has taught at the academy longer than anyone on the staff—since 1982. Though Captain Cinco was able to retire a few years ago, the school persuaded him to come back as a contract teacher because he is a leading expert on ship stability and GMDSS, the global maritime distress and safety system. Walking around campus with the Captain was so much fun, as all the gorgeous young cadets saluted us as we walked by.

The Nautica is a public school operated under the auspices of the Secretary of Communication and Transportation’s FIDENA (Fideicomiso de formación y capacitación para el personal de la marina mercante nacional). It currently educates 653 students from throughout Mexico and Latin America as officers and engineers for all types of commercial vessels: container ships, ferries, fishing vessels, freighters and tankers. Cadets are nearly evenly divided between deck (mates and captain) and engineering. The school opened to women in 1994 and currently includes more than 50 female cadets. Since its inception it has trained 2500 officers who are able to sail vessels from almost any country around the world, frequently including Algeria, Brazil, Dubai, and Venezuela, though Canadian and US American vessels limit officers to citizens from those respective nations. Tuition is $67,000 pesos/year and includes everything: housing, food, books, classes and simulators. The experience is of course highly subsidized by the federal government.

Despite presidential decrees founding a merchant marine academy in Mazatlán in 1857 (Ignacio Comonfort) and 1880 (Porfirio Diaz), fates dictated that the Nautica’s first classes weren’t held until December 1888, when the Chilean vessel Buque México arrived in Mazatlán from San Francisco. The ship served as home to the school’s first class of 15 students. In 1921 the Nautica moved to 43 Calle del Arsenal, which today is where Venustiano Carranza meets the malecón; a plaque indicates this fact. In September of 1939 classrooms, workshops, dormitories, sports fields, a cafeteria and a small dock were constructed at the school’s current site at 2111 Calzada Gabriel Leyva. During World War II the school was temporarily transferred to the navy (1941-58), and for a few years graduates could opt for a degree as either military or merchant marine officers.

The curved façade of the main building of the Nautica is reminiscent of the bridge of a ship. Classrooms and dormitories form a large central square, where the ceremony was held. Spiral staircases, stone columns, carved wood, antique tile floors, student-painted murals and lush palm trees make for an impressive campus. From 1982 to 2006 the academy had an educational ship named “Nauticas México;” cadets navigated the vessel throughout the Americas and Europe. It was the only merchant marine training vessel in Mexico, but has never been replaced, as the government has decided simulators are cheaper and better for educational purposes. The Nautica today has 45 professors, 25 classrooms, 12 simulators, beautiful lap and diving pools, and Mazatlán’s only planetarium (built in 1986), which sadly is not open to the public.

Nautica cadets are civilians, not military, though education is military style. They reside on campus six days a week, and have strict regulations regarding uniforms (dress whites and blues, international and khaki in short and long sleeves), hair length, lights out, language and behavior both at school and during time off. Privileges include Saturday nights and Sunday mornings off campus, and visits by family and friends on Thursday evenings. Those privileges are easily and frequently lost, however, as we well know from our son’s friends’ experiences.

Entry to the academy is extremely competitive, open to high school graduates and those who pass very challenging entrance exams. Even when accepted, quite a few cadets drop out prior to graduation due to the rigor of the curriculum and lifestyle. Cadets live and study on campus July through December and January to June, with one month break in the summer. Graduates must pass their classes and professional exams, be able to swim, and have English proficiency to complete the four-year program. Once they graduate, they still need to come up with $50k pesos to pay for their professional title (título), something common across most careers in Mexico. Graduating from it, however, pretty much guarantees a lucrative career.

Mazatlán vs. Cartagena


Cartagena de las Indias, Bolívar, Colombia


Mazatlán, Sinaloa, México

You know that Mazatlán bills itself as a “colonial city on the beach.” It was never a colonial city in the historical meaning of that term—major European settlement came with the gold rush in the 1800s—but it does have gorgeous architecture and an interesting history, so we’ll give Tourism some leeway.

The other major Latin American “colonial city on the beach” that I know of is Cartagena. I’ve long wondered how it compares to my beloved Mazatlán. A few years ago, when I first traveled to Bogotá for work, I’d hoped to make it to the Caribbean city. Well, it’s taken me till now, but Greg and I made it. So, here’s the down-low on the comparison.

There are so many similarities between these two cities it’s eerie. The people are warm and friendly. Hot water with a steady flow is very difficult to find. There is a malecón/oceanside promenade, lots of great seafood, fishing boats, strolling vendors of every sort, panzones/big bellies, beautiful women, litter, beautiful historic architecture and beaches in both places. Whether in the Pacific coast port or the Caribbean port, you’d better watch where you walk: sidewalks, when they exist, are broken, have sink holes, pot holes and uncovered man holes. Both cities have skyscrapers that house condominiums owned by wealthy foreigners who only live in them some weeks of the year. Both are open-air cities: restaurants, bars, cafes. Both have nearby islands, mangoes, pineapple, coconut.

Una palenquera, María, a fruit seller from Palenque, Colombia

Una palenquera, María, a fruit seller from Palenque, Colombia

What are the differences? Cartagena has a decidedly more European (narrow winding streets, the al fresco dining in the plazas, architecture) and Caribbean (Afro-Colombians, colorful dress, music, plantains) feel. The WIND that we’ve experienced here is absolutely unbelievable, and makes dining or drinking seaside an irritating endeavor, in our opinion. Supposedly the wind will stop once the rains come, but we’re told it’s been windy like this since January—that’s four months! Mazatlán has more beggars and vagrants in the tourist zone. Cartagena generally includes a 10% tip on all food and beverage served; by law, consumers can add or reduce on that base. The food is generally not spicy in Cartagena, and we didn’t find any hangouts that were primarily for foreigners; the city seems more integrated. In Cartagena we were told that “gringo” means any foreigner. Mazatlán is noisier, thanks to the pulmonías, ahorigas and wandering street musicians.

And, drum roll please… Mazatlán is overall cleaner than Cartagena! Hard to believe? We are so eager to educate Mazatlecos and visitors to our port about putting litter in its place, about getting people to use permanent water bottles rather than plastic, and to never again serve something on styrofoam. Our son spent five years of his life repeatedly cleaning out Estero del Infiernillo, getting so discouraged at how one week later the locals again had it filled with their garbage. But, honestly, Greg and I have seen more litter here in Cartagena in the past four days than I thought was humanly possible. Having said that, the walled city itself is cleaner and tidier than our Centro Histórico.

We’ve worked up a table to show you our ratings. Obviously this is completely subjective, and it’s not fair, either. We’ve lived in Mazatlán for eight years and have traveled there for 35; we’ve just spent four days in Cartagena. So, we welcome input from those more experienced with the Colombian city.


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Colombianos, you have a gorgeous city in Cartagena, it’s true. And, I urge you to come visit us in Mazatlán! I think you will be surprised! And, municipal governments of Mazatlán and Cartagena, I would urge you to initiate a special task force, so that you can learn from one another! Your situations are incredibly similar, and your strengths and weaknesses are complimentary—lots to learn from one another!


La Sobada


Margarita is 78 years old. I don’t think she looks it…

“Comadre, you need a sobada.”

“What’s a sobada?”

I am, gratefully, a pretty healthy 55 year old. I’m overweight—I love good food and chocolate. I drink alcohol, I sit at the computer too much, working and reviewing photography. But I climb the lighthouse at least a couple of times a week, I’ve done yoga regularly since my late teens, I absolutely love zumba, dancing, walking, bike riding… I exercise and eat healthy.

Thus my dismay and frustration that, after injuring my right shoulder LAST JULY (while doing yoga), I still, nine months later, couldn’t lift my arm much past my shoulder, couldn’t put my hair up without pain, couldn’t even open my armpit enough to get a stick of deodorant in there. I should have been overjoyed that nothing was broken or torn, but somehow that fact just added to my dismay and impatience—why wouldn’t this injury heal? Why did I still need to ask Greg for help dressing and undressing myself every day? I most certainly did not like being physically handicapped or having chronic pain!

I’ve gone for regular massages since I injured myself. Portland, Chicago, Tokyo, Kyoto, DC, Las Vegas, Mazatlán, Dimas—everywhere I went, massage was a constant (thank you, Mary!). It helped with the discomfort, but it sure wasn’t curing anything. I worked with two different chiropractors—one horrible and one a savior (bless your artistry, Terry!). I went to my acupuncturist; she also helped. I participated in 2-1/2 months of three times/week physical therapy, with handsome and charming young men. But nothing alleviated the pain.

Despite treatments over the same number of months required to gestate a new human being, I still had extremely limited range of motion in my shoulder. Between the pain, the multiple therapist visits, the ice packs and the hot showers, I had very little ability or time to actually work. My injury had nearly taken over my life. I am blessed with the world’s most loving and caring husband, but even he was sick of my whining. And I had to get ready for a big work trip. Something had to be done!

What is a Sobada?
My comadre Silvia said I needed to get a sobada. A sobada? Never once in nine years living here, 37 years of travel to Mexico, and six summers in Mexico City as a child, do I recall hearing the word “sobada.” Then my comadre’s Mom told me the story of when she went to a sobadora (woman who performs sobadas) and how it had cured her. “She lives near my house. You should go.” I didn’t commit, but I was intrigued.

Throughout that next week I heard the word “sobada” about eight times, unsolicited. It was one of those coincidences, I felt, indicating that something was meant to be; one of those times when the universe sends me a loud message, so I’d better listen up.

But what in the heck was a sobada? I didn’t want to get myself into something I would regret. Not another bad chiropractor story. I couldn’t find a clear meaning of “sobada” in the dictionary. Searching the web, “sobada” is everything from a recipe for cooking tripe to prenatal and postpartum massage, supposedly dating back to the Mayans in Yucatán.

So I asked a few of my local girlfriends if they would please explain to me what a sobada is. One of them said, “it’s just that—a sobada.” Meaning, “it’s a kneading.” “So how is una sobada different from a massage?” Every single one of the girlfriends I asked, all seven of them, then referred me to their favorite massage therapist. None of them criticized sobadas, but they obviously didn’t want me going to a sobadora, either.

Matters were taken out of my decision volition when Silvia called to tell me she was picking me up at 5:30. She was going to take me for a sobada. I felt a mix of hope and dread. I certainly had no idea what I was getting myself into. But, if you know me, you also know I was open and curious. I theorized that a sobada was a unique Mexican-style massage, in the same way shiatsu is Japanese massage, and reflexology and tuina are native Chinese methods of massage. I was eager to learn about this new folk remedy of my adopted home. And, I was afraid; I didn’t want some inept folk remedy practitioner wreaking havoc on the little progress I’d made thus far.

Meeting La Sobadora
Silvia picked me up promptly. We drove to her mother’s house, and she hopped into the car as well. Then we drove another four blocks, and stopped in front of a house in Colonia Francisco Solís. I love the neighborhood; it’s very basic, but you always see people sitting outside, visiting with one another, kids playing in the street. It’s a friendly, family-oriented place.

The sobadora’s home is one of those open to the street: the kitchen, dining and living room open to a wall of windows facing the car port, with an iron gate on the street. When I arrived,  workers were doing construction across the way. There was no bell, and no door to knock on, so my comadre’s mother called out, “Margarita! I’ve brought the señora!”

Once in the door I saw a basic cement home, sparsely furnished. A special needs girl—a granddaughter, fidgeted in her wheelchair at a dining table. A woman—Margarita’s daughter, also sat at the table. There were photos of family throughout the room, a statue of the Virgin (the healing virgin, I was told) at a small altar, a photo of the Pope, a rosary, some other religious icons, and Jesus was etched into the glass of the entryway. Margarita was obviously one holy, and very Catholic, woman.

Margarita's Virgin of Healing

Margarita’s Virgin of Healing

She began telling stories as soon as we entered her home, and her mouth never stopped moving during the hour or so we spent with her. Margarita is 78, short, broad, bright-eyed, vivacious, and dressed in colorful polyester. She’s matter-of-fact, and speaks in our local dialect. I learned she has ten children remaining of 14 she birthed, and lost track of how many grandkids and great-grandkids she told me she has. She was kidnapped and raped at 13, and she and that man went on to have all those children. When he died, she remarried, at 35, to a wonderful man willing to take on 14 kids. I only understood about 40% of what she was saying, as she was speaking to the six of us in the room at a million kilometers a minute.

She pulled over a high-backed chair with a straight back, the beautiful carved kind from Concordia. She instructed me to sit on it. “Take off your blouse,” she instructed. Really? In front of all those construction workers and all five of you, all of whom are staring at me, I thought to myself. Reading my unexpressed thought, she kindly walked over and closed the door. Fortunately, much of the glass facing the street was covered with newsprint, to filter out prying eyes. Now I only had five women staring at me.

Getting off my blouse is not an easy feat given my disability, but I did it. I sat back down. Then she unbuckled my bra. Ok, I can handle nudity. But I could sense my comadre’s discomfort with it. When Margarita asked me to tie my hair back, I was in a bit of a predicament. One, the range of motion in my arm doesn’t permit me to get my hair up into a ponytail. Two, to even try, I needed to drop the unhooked bra that I was holding in front of my chest. I did my best, while Silvia nervously let me know, “Comadre, your bra fell.”

I sat back down on the chair, again holding my bra over my chest in some silly sign of demureness. Margarita left the room, and came back with a bottle and a jar. She instructed me to sit sideways on the chair, and lathered me with a eucalyptus or menthol oil. As she oiled me, Margarita performed the sign of the cross on my body several times, and implored God and the Virgin to guide her hands and make me healthy. Then, she commenced to massage my throat, neck, shoulders, arms and back.

Unlike the chiropractor, she didn’t seem to adjust bones. Unlike the orthopedic, she didn’t ask for x-rays or MRIs, or even any physical history. Heck, she didn’t even ask how I’d injured myself. Unlike the massage therapist, she didn’t work my muscles or try to break up my scarred fascia. She stroked my throat and neck first, finding a gnarl of what she called “nerves” on the right side of my neck. I am surprised that none of the massage therapists had found it. It was painful, but she didn’t push too hard; she pressed in long strokes over my neck and throat, smoothing the knot. It jumped around and would not be soothed, but her stroking it was comforting and loving. Unlike the chiro and the massage therapists, Margarita didn’t complain about how tight I am; she did say that my injury wouldn’t resolve itself today; it would take three visits.

I interrupted one of Margarita’s stories to ask her how she came to be a sobadora. Is this something you study to do? She told me, “No, I don’t read or write. I have the don (the gift).” She told me she learned she had the don / the gift of sobar (to knead) when she was nine. A boy in her neighborhood fell into a well, and she cured him. The neighbor asked her mother where she learned to do that, and when her mother replied that she’d never been taught, she just did it naturally, they all decided it was a gift from God. Nowadays, she has learned to read—she had a Bible open on her dining room table.

Margarita finds another knot of nerves in my wrist, and a third in my hand. She also finds some between my shoulder blades. When she rubs them it hurts, but not too bad; no Lamaze breathing is needed, like it often is with the chiropractor. She basically runs her hands over what I guess are ligaments in my body, finding spots of concentrated energy, lumps, bumps, knots, and pain. Then, she smooths them, with the camphor oil or whatever it is. It smells like the Chinese stuff I use—the green oil. Margarita tells me to notice that she rubs up from the elbow to the shoulder, and down from the elbow to the wrist. This is key in healing my body, she tells me. She also advises me to move my hands each morning and massage them a bit. I am not to take a bath or get my hands wet for the rest of the day after the sobada. Hmm…

During my treatment, Margarita tells the stories of other people she has healed, always with sobada, and also with herbs, teas, and poultices. I learn that wrapping a swollen ankle in newspaper will reduce the swelling. She shares several recipes for healing potions and teas. She is obviously very well versed in folk medicine. She finishes rather abruptly, and tells me to get dressed. I’m covered with oil. I don’t want to put my blouse back on. But what choice do I have? Hopefully hot water will remove the oil from it later, and I’ll definitely bring a towel to my second session!

Margarita wants to finish my treatment with a communal prayer to the Virgin. But Silvia says we don’t have time. She has to take our compadre, her husband, to the dentist. It’s her day of helping others get healthy. I thank her, her Mom, and Margarita, and arrange to get my second sobada. Silvia asks how much we owe, and I pay Margarita 100 pesos.

I found a video on YouTube about a Mexican sobador:

Here’s another one, in English, of a sobador in Perú:

Folk Medicine and Sobadas
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), traditional or folk medicine is defined as “the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.” To me, it is a worldwide treasure, and I am confident that folk medicine contains much wisdom and many answers to issues facing our world today.

As an interculturalist, I know that Native American healing traditions date back at least 12,000 and perhaps as many as 40,000 years ago, and that healing energy is believed to come from a spiritual source. Most practitioners are identified as children and considered natural healers, though many are also actively trained or educated by an elder.

Greg and I enjoyed three days with a traditional curandero or healer/holy man in the Peruvian Amazon on our honeymoon. Similar to many of you, no doubt, I love temazcales, or Mexican sweat lodges. I’ve used ayurvedic medicine, received Thai watpo, and I’m curious about Australian Aboriginal ngangkari massage. Just this week a girlfriend of mine who teaches at Columbia University joked with me that we owe it to the world to conduct an international experiential study of healing waters and massage treatments. So, I most definitely was observant as Margarita worked on me.

I came home happy last night. Pain-free. I’ve awoken this morning two hours before my alarm is set to ring. Pain-free. My range of motion isn’t great, but it’s a bit improved. Most importantly? It’s pain-free. Oh, I mentioned that. 😉 I pray it lasts! I have a chiropractic appointment this morning. And, before I go to the ballet tonight, I have my second sobada scheduled. I have a month of work travel coming up, and I need to be able to do it. Last summer, three months of work travel are what caused this nonsense in the first place.

Wish me luck! I do pray that Margarita’s sacred healing hands will work their miracles with my injury and restore my health!


Reenactments of the Crucifixion On Good Friday


Photo from Fernando Barraza

Religious tourism is such a powerful way to experience a culture, its history, people, and places. We’ve so enjoyed traveling throughout Mexico, including Oaxaca, Barrancas del Cobre, ZacatecasGuanajuato, and Michoacán to participate in sacred events. Easter is the holiest of holidays in the Roman Catholic calendar, and Mazatlán and its nearby small towns do a lot to commemorate Easter.

Celebrations normally begin on Holy Thursday (March 24, 2016) with foot washing in the evening, and continue on Good Friday (March 25, 2016) with a reenacting of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Here in Mazatlán most parishes participate in these events; just contact your local parish to confirm time and place.

One of the biggest reenactments here in town has traditionally been PAJUMA (Pascua Juveníl de Mazatlán), a three-day diocesan event that takes place in the baseball stadium. On Good Friday the kids reenact the crucifixion of Christ in the stadium and then, still fully costumed, process silently from the stadium at about 5:00 pm, to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception downtown, passing by the Aquarium, along the malecón, the Fisherman’s Monument, and the pangas in Playa Norte. The procession then turns left and goes down through Plaza Zaragoza to the cathedral. There are not many places in the world you can see a Way of the Cross enacted along the oceanfront! I’ve called them and messaged them, but am unable to confirm if it will be the same schedule this year.

Since Mazatlán’s beaches get so very crowded, and the traffic doesn’t permit us to get around easily, Semana Santa is also a wonderful time to get out of town. This year, we’ll be spending Holy Week up around Los Mochis, to celebrate with the friends we made during the Konti celebrations a couple of years ago. But you do not have to go far to participate in some really incredible religious tourism celebrations. Why not spend a few days, and really get to know one of our region’s small towns and their traditions?

Reenactments of the crucifixion traditionally start at 11:00 am and continue until Jesus’ death, liturgically at 3:52 pm. Crucifixions (they don’t actually nail anyone here, just hang them up with ropes, which is still a difficult feat for those crucified) are held in:

  • Chametla (Rosario; 100 km from MZT)
  • Malpica (Concordia; 38 km from MZT)
  • Matatán (Rosario; 82 km from MZT)
  • San Ignacio (111 km from MZT)
  • Teacapán (Escuinapa; 130 km from MZT)

San Ignacio also conducts a Procession of Silence on Friday night at 7:00 pm. Cosála has one, too. I highly recommend that you avoid driving in the mountains at night; better to spend the night.

Of particular interest to me this year will be the reenactment in Chametla, as my friend who is a favorite teacher to so many, Fernando Barraza, is directing the event. It is also the opposite direction from some of the troubles that have sadly been happening again lately in the mountains.

The celebration in Chametla this year is entitled “Calvario.” The play will involve over 60 actors who will walk over two kilometers, beginning on the main street, just down from the cathedral in front of the tostada stand called “Mangazo” or “El Chombi.” From there the procession will wind though town—it takes a different route each year—ending with the crucifixion this year on the hill in front of the cemetery.

If you go, I urge you to spend the night there or in nearby Pueblo Mágico, El Rosario. There is terrific hiking around the area, and lots to see; make a nice weekend of it.

Happy Easter!

A Chance to Visit a Mazatlán Organic Farm

v1Just over four years ago, we had the opportunity to go to the community of Guillermo Prieto on the outskirts of San Ignacio and visit the totally organic and innovative farm of Sacramento, one of the regular vendors at Mazatlán’s Organic Market (or MOM for short).

Now, you all have a chance to do the same thing, coming up on Sunday, March 13. This event is coordinated by Verónica Rico, one of the founders and motivating forces behind MOM. At 8:30 a.m., guests will be taken by bus from Plaza Zaragoza to Guillermo Prieto, where you will be shown up close and personal how Sacramento and her team work, teach, learn and live. Highlights include: the water collection system, creation of compost, worms, and the gardens where they grow their beautiful produce.

Later, you will enjoy lunch / brunch in the fields with organic produce, prepared by Sacramento and her team. The cost is only 380 pesos, including the transportation, tour and lunch. You should be back in Mazatlán around 3:00 p.m. or so. This is a great way to understand the origin of organic produce in a small local farm and the people who grow them!

Here is a link to our tour in 2012. I can only imagine how much they have grown since then. Here are a few shots from a similar tour in 2013:

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You can write to Verónica Rico at or give her a call at 6691-48-4010 for any questions. Verónica speaks English fluently. Tickets will be available at the Organic Market in the Plazuela Zaragoza this coming Saturday from 8:00 to noon.

This is an opportunity that does not come along very often and we encourage you to go if you are able.

More information and updates are available on the MOM Facebook page.