Street Art Tour in Concordia

Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers, Feliz Día del Amor y la Amistad. Thank you for being here. Thank you for being part of this community, for helping do good work here in Mazatlán, for enjoying the beauty and the people of our adopted city, for encouraging my photography and my writing.

Today I am joined in wishing you happiness by Chema—José Manuel Velarde Chávez, of Concordia; his wife Claudia Belén; and their son Angel Adán. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Chema is a graphic designer. By day he works in Mesillas on CAD programs on a computer, designing furniture and sizing parts so that the carpenters can do their magic. In the early mornings and evenings, however, Chema loves to draw and paint. He wakes up before dawn, turns on some music, and paints in his patio while the rest of the family slumbers.

A couple of years ago he decided he wanted to spruce up the street where he lives. His wife’s family owns most of the two block street, so he asked his in-laws for permission to paint murals on the alley walls.

The first mural he painted was on a door that no one uses anymore. He painted a charro or Mexican cowboy kissing a pretty lady in 2018. “Aw, you painted it for your wife,” I asked. Chuckling, he quickly caught on and said, “yes, yes, that’s right!”

In 2019 Chema added a catrina for Day of the Dead: she happily dances with the all-too-true caption, “In Mexico death is living culture.” This is a link to him painting the catrina.

After those two wall murals, Chema painted a window with some flower pots, then the wings that every town now seems to have to have for Instagram photo ops, his version of Frida (faceless, as he reminds me “her eyebrows are her distinctive trait”), and my personal favorite, a gorgeously colorful xolo or xoloitzcuintli dog, the intelligent, hairless pets of the Aztecs.

The family lives on the now very picturesque Callejón Nana Chon— Encarnación Valdéz Avenue, in this beautiful historic mining town called Concordia.

Chema tells me that he and Claudia have been pleasantly surprised at the response to his artwork, and the fact that it appears to be contagious. Residents of another nearby street have now painted and installed benches, and he’s thinking they are planning to paint murals as well. He hopes that the street art might provide another attraction for the busloads of tourists who visit here to tour the church and enjoy a raspado (shaved ice) in the plaza.

The couple and their family decorated the callejón or alleyway at Christmastime. Chema tells me that neighbors and townspeople came over to donate decorations they had to add to the display, so it became a real community effort. When we visited last week the alley was all decked out in Valentine’s finery. They even light it up at night for lovers to enjoy—evidently the callejón is known as lover’s lane! Soon they will be putting up superheroes in preparation for Día del Niño or Children’s Day.

The most challenging aspect of his voluntary beautification project? Finding the time to paint. He works 8-6 every day, till 1 on Saturdays. When he comes home he’s tired. In the winter the sun sets early, and he can’t paint in the dark. But he loves painting the murals in any spare time he can find, and Angel Adán loves watching him do it.

When we visited Chema had a Quetzalcoatl plumed serpent (which he’d drawn to resemble a dragon) ready to begin painting on Sunday. After that he hopes to paint a totem of the busts of three Aztec warriors: a jaguar, an eagle and a woman. I know I can’t wait to see either of these newest paintings! He is also planning a homage to Concordian musicians, including Greg’s favorite, Roberto Junior (“El Coco No”).

On Sundays Chema and his family open a “bazaar” or art market in the alleyway, where they sell handicrafts including painted roof tiles. He has painted since he was 15 years old; he loves it. As a young child he drew. He remembers his father loved to draw, and when he entered elementary school, his Dad bought him a set of colored pencils. It was his favorite gift ever.

I met Chema because my ahijado, Carlos, shared with me photos of Chema’s very colorful Mexican-themed street art, and I then got in touch with him in hopes of watching him paint. I invited Greg to join me for a ride to the mountains for the afternoon, and we found our spirits soaring from meeting a lovely young family so committed to spreading good cheer in Concordia and beyond. I trust you might join us in heading up to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Nana Chon
Who is the alley named after? Quite an incredible woman, actually. You can see a statue of her in front of the town hall on the plaza. Incarnación (“Chon” for short) Valdez was the town midwife, a strong, wise woman who singlehandedly stood up to the French army. You see, the French had their eyes on the gold that came out of the mines in Concordia and Copala. The men and older boys of both towns banded together in an effort to defeat French colonization of this area. The women and children remained in town, unprotected. When the French army arrived, they herded the local population into the homes along this street and threatened to harm the women and children unless they told the army where the men and boys were. Nana Chon stood up to them, encouraging everyone to remain silent. Her bravado gave them hope. Fortunately, I am told, the women and children were not killed or harmed, the location where the men lay in wait for the army was kept secret, and the Sinaloans were able to defeat the French.

Concordia is an excellent day trip from Mazatlán, just one hour southeast. The church and plaza are gorgeous, El Granero restaurant is delicious and was very careful about observing sanitary protocols during the pandemic, and you’ll enjoy walking around the quaint streets and visiting with the friendly residents. Chema paints portraits and would welcome work for hire; you can contact him through his Facebook page.

Easy Social Distanced Day Trip

During the day on New Year’s Eve I was going stir crazy, an all-too-frequent condition during this pandemic, sadly. Just after noon I asked Greg if we might go for a drive. We headed south towards Villa Unión, past the old textile mill to Walamo, winding around and eventually getting to Caimanero. Once we got there we had a picnic on the malecón, then turned around to head home as the sun was already beginning to set. Why did it take us so long, you might ask? We had originally set out for Agua Verde, a town we never reached.

Well, as you probably well know, yours truly loves her camera. First of all I had to take photos of all the cool vehicles and riders we saw along the road, from a couple of guys carrying a propane tank, to others with a big piñata for that night’s fiesta, to pickups and dump trucks and bicycles with migrant workers commuting home from the fields. Click any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

The landscape out that way is just magnificent. The ocean, of course, but the farm fields and palm plantations with the Sierras as a backdrop make for some incredible views. There are farm animals everywhere, particularly horses and cows, and I was fascinated with all the birds of prey we came across. There are huge, gorgeous haciendas and more humble homes, in addition to all that migrant labor housing. You’ll see fish and shrimp farms as well. It’s a great half- or full-day trip if, like me, you are needing a breath of fresh air and some safe social distancing. We didn’t get close to any other human all day. 

Most of the farm workers were being shuttled home by the time we got there—early quitting time on New Year’s Eve—but there were some people working in the fields. The most heartbreaking for me were the families out there with the children. I know very well that it’s best that migrant parents have their kids with them, as it’s dangerous leaving them alone in the absence of school or child care. But it wrenches my heart to see them working the fields, despite the huge smile on this little girl’s face (note the bag of produce she’s just picked on her back).

The other heartbreak for me was a pair of young men who were spraying in the fields while working barefoot! I am not sure if they were spraying fertilizer or pesticide, but I sure did wish they had eye gear, ventilator mask, long pants and footwear. Still a gringa at heart, after all these years.

I’ve saved my two favorite experiences of the day for last, of course. The first was my virginal visit to a pineapple farm! I grew up in the US Midwest, and am well familiar with the sweet, aphrodisiacal smell of a strawberry field. A pineapple field has much the same effect! The air was heavy with the honey-like smell of these delicious treasures. The fields were gorgeous, and I was amazed by the baskets that the workers put on their backs to harvest the pineapples. I can not imagine how heavy they are when filled! While the workers had already retired, a few full baskets remained in the fields, so heavy that I couldn’t even budge them.

My final delightful experience of the day was meeting two guys plowing a field—again barefoot—with horses. I was so happy to find them! Last spring when Danny and I visited Puebla state we met two young men doing this. The morning sun, however, backlit the guys and the photos did not show off their labor as I had hoped. This time I was lucky that the setting sun perfectly lit their hard work.

I know it’s a challenge during COVID-19 to socially distance, but a drive out into the country, and some walks around sparsely inhabited areas, can be a huge sanity infuser. Enjoy!

Awesome Opportunity for Nature Lovers!

Protecting Migratory Birds in Mazatlán: A Workshop for Birdwatchers is a new FREE OF CHARGE series of excursions for English-speaking residents of Mazatlán, designed to acquaint us with the incredible biodiversity of Monte Mojino and its upcoming designation as a National Protected Area, the largest by far in the state of Sinaloa at 200,000 hectares in area. It will increase Sinaloa’s protected nature areas by 300%!

Monte Mojino is located in the municipalities of Concordia and El Rosario and is home to an extraordinary range of flora and fauna, including 310 species of native and migratory birds—at least 79 of which are in danger of extinction. Many new species have actually been discovered in the area.

This project, conducted by Conselva, our local award-winning conservation agency, with help from the Packard Foundation and US Fish and Wildlife, will involve five sessions, every other week, January through April 2021:

  • Four excursions:
    • January 28th
    • February 11th
    • February 25th
    • March 11th
  • There will be a final, closing event in April which will include a photography exhibit, when participants will share with the community of Mazatlán what they have learned.

For the four excursions participants will carpool in their own vehicles into Monte Mojino, where they will be guided by local experts and residents of the areas we’ll visit. Sandra Guido, director of Conselva, assures me the trips will be safe. Conselva has worked with the local communities for over twelve years and know the area and its residents very well. 

The goal of all of this is to build awareness of and respect for the natural areas of Sinaloa, as well as enthusiasm for conservation and ecotourism. It sounds like a lot of fun to me and something I don’t want to miss! To register for this terrific free workshop, fill out this form. If you’d like more information please send an email to mazatlanmigratorybirds@conselva.org.

Conselva also has a volunteer opportunity for you:

They will also be conducting a series of birdwatching sessions for youth (15 and up years old). These will be held on Saturdays beginning January 16th. They are looking for people to help engage the kids and help them find birds and wildlife to watch—no need to be an expert birdwatcher. Ability to hike around natural areas within the city limits and ideally some basic Spanish will be helpful. Send an email to mazatlanmigratorybirds@conselva.org if you are willing to volunteer. If you know of young people who would be interested in this, please share with them this link: https://www.conselva.org/aves-2020

Nearly Secret Gem of an Overnight Trip

DSC_5157The December party season is exhausting. After the holiday, wouldn’t it feel wonderful to chill out for a couple of days in the middle of a spectacularly biodiverse rain forest, in a large, clean cabin with killer views, incredible stargazing, a full kitchen and all the modern amenities?

Every year tourists from over 25 countries are drawn to this very spot, home to a world-renowned breeding program for green macaws, aiming to rescue them from extinction. This gorgeous nature preserve has a semi-Olympic pool, tennis court, dozens of kilometers of hiking trails, waterfalls, petroglyphs, a museum, aviary and several climactic zones. You’ll witness breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, and amazing stargazing both with your naked eyes as well as through an astronomical observatory telescope.

How far do you have to travel to get to this magical place? Costa Rica? Malaysia? Chiapas? No, the Reserva Ecológica de Nuestra Señora Mundo Natural is right here in Sinaloa, just three hours by car or bus from Mazatlán—twelve kilometers east of Cosalá. It’s home to the most important macaw rescue program in northwestern Mexico, a two kilometer long zip line that is the second highest in the country (500 meters), and an astronomic observatory that partners with observatories in Russia, Chile and New Mexico to monitor near-Earth asteroids and space junk.

Not only is the nature preserve nearby, it’s affordable—because it’s part of our state university, UAS: Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa. A three-bedroom cabin (for eight people) with loads of natural light, air conditioning and a full kitchen costs 3000 pesos/night; they also have hotel and hostel rooms for 800 pesos/night. You’ll want to be sure and spend the night: the reserve closes to the public at 5 pm and opens at 10 am, so sunrise, sunset, moon and star gazing are not available to day visitors but only to those smart enough to spend some time here. The wild macaws are also best seen at dawn and dusk, yet another reason to spend the night here.

The 60,000 annual visitors to the reserve come for the incredible biodiversity of the area. You may also meet some of the domestic and international scholars conducting research here from Guadalajara, UNAM in Mexico City, Brazil, Chile, Spain and the UK. Fauna you’ll probably see include the green macaws that the area is famous for, plus white-tailed deer, coati, ocelots, lilac-crowned parrots, iguanas, gray hawks, owls, and a few things you may want to avoid: rattlesnakes and tarantulas. Flora-wise there are loads of braziles, amapas, mautos, moras, higueras, apomos, flor de Santiago, sabinos, rosarillas y papelillos and mangos. Should you wish to hold a workshop, large meeting or party here, there is even a conference center with closed circuit TV, a restaurant and space for up to 200 people!

During my visit there were several groups of students visiting from UAS. They conducted research in nature during the day and enjoyed pizza parties at the pool in the afternoon. There was a large family reunion, with family members coming from different states to meet up here, just outside Cosalá. Quite a few area businesses conduct employee-training programs here, and the reserve plays host to religious retreats, as well.

The General Manager of the reserve, José Alfredo Leal Orduño, was kind enough to spend a few hours touring me around the property and facilities. He spends the work week in Culiacán, but is at the reserve on the weekends. Leal told me that when UAS was founded in 1968, Governor Sánchez Celis gave the fully functioning reserve property—including hot water, electricity, a huge freezer and about 85 cabins—the equivalent of 260 hotel rooms—to the university as a source of income. It seems the property owner, a mining company, was delinquent on taxes; their loss was the university’s gain. The university, however, proceeded to nearly completely neglect the facility for the next forty years. By the time Leal took over, looting had destroyed 75 of the original cabins. What remained were the two haciendas on the property, which had been used by the mine superintendents, and the service buildings. The original structures were remodeled to become the cabins, hotel and hostel we see today. The rooms are a pleasant mixture of historic, rustic beauty on the outside and modern convenience and aesthetics on the inside.

DSC_4959

José Alfredo Leal Orduño, General Manager of the Reserva

All cabins have hot and cold running water, air conditioning, private bath, and a full kitchen with refrigerator/freezer, stove, microwave and coffee maker. While you have a kitchen and can cook when you wish, if you let staff know ahead of time they will arrange for a local woman to come in and cook meals for your party. There are large decks as well as lookouts and rest areas where you can read a book or watch the nature around you. The cabins are accessible by car, making this an enjoyable respite for the mobility impaired, and the reserve’s 18 employees stand ready to help.

If you are physically fit you can take an early morning hike with a biologist from the lower Habitas River Valley, with its mines, petroglyphs and waterfalls, all the way up to the top of the Sierras, through several climactic zones. The reserve is on the border between Sinaloa and the state of Durango.

When is the best time to visit? Leal says it’s winter, November to May, the dry season. Anytime between June and October is when the rain forest is in full regalia, the river is at its highest and the waterfalls their most powerful. He showed me videos of a thunderstorm taken from within a cabin and it was absolutely beautiful—the sound of fresh, wet summer air! Macaw courting season is in February and March, which should be quite the experience, though Semana Santa is always sold out months ahead of time.

60% of the reserve’s visitors are from Culiacán, with a very small percentage from Mazatlán. That is strange to me, since the two cities are equidistant from the nature preserve. What a loss that mazatlecos don’t take better advantage of this terrific public resource! I trust you’ll help me change that reality by visiting soon.

The Reserve is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm, though I urge you to spend the night. To make your reservations call (696) 9650306 between 9 am and 1 pm or 4 – 7 pm (English spoken).

Two Great New Restaurants in La Noria

Most of us love a quick trip to the mountains to breathe some fresh air, enjoy a change of scenery and partake of a different style of cooking. La Noria is so very close to Mazatlán (45 minute drive), and late last season I told you about one of the new restaurants thereLa Vaca Lupe.

Friends of friends own the place, so we’ve gone quite a few times. La Vaca Lupe is a typical campestre/rural-style restaurant, serving very good grilled meat, fresh cheese and salsas in a rustic, open-air environment. They do menudo on Sundays, and bake wonderful conchitas and other breads in a traditional wood-fired oven. Greg loves the meat, and I love the huge grounds of the property. The owners have put in trails so you can work off some of those calories post-meal. One of the trails goes up and around the hill and the views are really pretty. Vaca Lupe also has lots for kids to do: there’s a wonderful petting zoo, awesome rope swings, and bicycles. I recommend it. It’s on the left side of the highway as you go into La Noria, just past Los Osuna distillery.

 

The second place we just tried this weekend—La Martina Sabor con Historia. It has been open for three months and is a similar campestre/country-style restaurant. This one, however, is less rustic and more hacienda-style. You enter a nice covered courtyard with a fountain surrounded by tables. Beyond that is a beautiful high-ceilinged, well-decorated room, and, finally, another terrace that overlooks the valley. Up the hill they’ve built a small chapel, so it’s all quite scenic. I had one of the best salads I’ve ever had, seriously. Greg wasn’t as impressed with his stuffed steak, but he did enjoy it. Total for two people at lunch? 295 pesos! Entrance to the restaurant is via the Los Osuna distillery driveway, just keep to the left instead of going into the distillery on the right.

Both of these places are only open during daylight hours, around 9 to 5, and you have to bring your own beer or alcoholic drinks.

 

La Noria is a wonderful little town with quite a few traditional artisans—cheese, leather, machetes, wooden barrels, pottery. Los Osuna distillery is there as is Huana Coa zip line. These two restaurant options make it even more of a draw for a terrific day trip. There are also a couple of balnearios or swimming pools in the area, if you would like that. These are the basic, rural Mexican variety and a lot of fun. The restaurant that’s been on the road for a long time—La Abuela Tina—is still there. It’s just past the entrance gate to town on the left.