Have You Ever Seen a Real Oasis?!

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Poza Azul, Cuatro Ciénegas

Do you drive to or from Mexico via Texas? If so, I hope you have or will soon stop at Cuatro Ciénegas—Four Marshes—located in the state of Coahuila between Monclova and Torreón. Here you’ll find, in the middle of the largest desert in North American, an intricately interconnected series of gorgeous rivers and over 400 springs, ponds and wetlands! These are located within fifteen minutes of pure white sand dunes, exotic rock formations, and salt flats, in a valley surrounded by breathtaking mountains. Nearby are also prehistoric cave paintings; a refreshingly cool, swimmable river; thermal springs; and a marble mine! Plus, you’ll see butterflies galore! How they love this valley!

The clear, fresh water has such gorgeous blue-green colors that you’d swear you were in the Caribbean! You’ll also see ponds that are amber and orange. Due to the fact that the underground river system is closed (no inlet or outlet), Cuatrociénegas Biosphere Reserve rivals the Galapagos in terms of unique plants (800 endemic species) and animals (60 unique species). It is a sister park to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, USA.

NASA has stated that Cuatro Ciénegas could have strong links to discovering life on Mars; they studied the gypsum dunes of Cuatro Ciénegas because they are similar to Gale Crater on Mars. The New York Times wrote a fascinating article about it. And it’s not just life on Mars that peeks scientists’ interest. This area is a unique treasure trove. According to Wikipedia:

Live stromatolites inhabit Cuatro Ciénegas’ pools. These are cyanobacteria colonies, extinct in most of the world, linked to the origin of an oxygen-rich atmosphere over three billion years ago.

The pools are an oligotrophic environment with little available phosphate, leading one local bacterial species, Bacillus coahuilensis, to acquire the genes necessary to partially replace its membrane phospholipids with sulfolipids through horizontal gene transfer.

The Information Center for the 53,000 square mile the private Poza Azul Reserve is about an hour west of Monclova, just off a paved highway through unbelievably gorgeous mountains. There is a small museum highlighting the geology, flora and fauna of the area. Directly outside is the Poza de la Tortuga, Turtle Pond, an emerald green spring-fed pool filled with fish. The water is so very clear that you feel you are looking into an aquarium, except this one has clouds and mountains reflected in its surface and box turtles swimming amidst the fish. Click on any photo to view it larger or see a slideshow.

Greg and I walked about a kilometer into the Reserve to reach the Poza Azul, or Blue Pond. Many others just drove in. This pond looks as if it has a turquoise eye with a sapphire pupil in the center of it. At its deepest the pond is five meters. It is surrounded by reeds, some beautiful flowers, and contains a few lily pads, as well as fish and turtles. Again, the water is crystal clear.

The ponds are roped off to protect the water, but this of course makes it difficult to get a good photo. There is fortunately a viewing platform rising about 10 feet above ground at Poza Azul, offering a view of the pond and the mountains beyond. At Poza de la Tortuga there is a dock you can walk out on to get a better view.

Beyond the Blue Pond is a marble mine, though we didn’t visit it. On our way back to the Information Center, we walked along a beautiful boardwalk that paralleled a gurgly stream—Sendero el Borbollón—in the middle of the desert!

As we left the Poza Azul area, we paid for a ticket to get us into the Dunas de Yeso, Gypsum Dunes or white sand dunes, which are an incredibly beautiful sight. According to the USA National Park Service:

Gypsum is a common mineral, but it is extremely rare in the form of sand dunes. The conditions must be in just the right order for gypsum sand to form. White Sands and Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna Cuatrociénegas are two of only a handful of places where this unusual sand can be found.

Since both gypsum and basins are so common all over the world, you might wonder why gypsum sand isn’t found in more places. The secret is something rarely found in deserts—water! Like the rest of the Chihuahuan Desert, White Sands and Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna Cuatrociénegas receive less than ten inches of rain per year, but because of their unusual geology, they are both very wet environments. Water helps keep the gypsum sand from blowing away.

The dunes are 12 kilometers down the road from Poza Azul, and you can drive all the way in to both places. No need to walk if you don’t want to, though of course you’ll want to walk around the ponds and the dunes, at least a bit. The sun-glinted white sands were mesmerizing, with their wind-whipped waves, and the natural sculptures were incredible.

To get to the Protected Natural Area we drove through the outskirts of the small town of Cuatro Ciénegas, a Pueblo Mágico. We planned to head back there for a late lunch and to visit at least one of its two wineries. On our way back, however, we again passed the entrance to Balneario Rio Mezquites, which is an area with palapa huts, picnic tables, grills, lifeguard stands, changing rooms, and porta-potties, on the River Mezquites. This area was very tempting, as it’s obviously hot and arid in the desert, and you can’t swim in any of the protected waters. Even here in the river, however, the water was amazingly crystal clear, and despite the holiday (Independence Day) weekend, not very crowded. I hadn’t brought my swimsuit, but I jumped in and enjoyed a swim anyway! They say the snorkeling is great there, and soon they’ll have kayaks to rent.

The town of Cuatro Ciénegas de Carranza—Mexican President Venustiano Carranza was born here—is home to about 12,000 people. As you enter the town from Monclova you’ll see a huge, seven ton monument to Carranza up on the hill. The Pueblo Mágico has a shady plaza surrounded by restaurants and shops, a beautiful church (San José, 1825), a couple of museums, two wineries, and four or five hotels. It is surrounded by the mountain ranges of Sierra de San Marcos and Sierra la Fragua.

Cuatro Ciénegas is the site of quite a bit of cross-border collaboration, as mentioned above with the US National Parks Service, and also with Arizona State University. Read more about that here. The drive in and out is magnificent, as you’re in a valley surrounded by mountains, with a broad variety of desert vegetation.

How to Get There
From Saltillo take highway 57 to Monclova and then continue on highway 30 to Cuatro Cienegas. You can take a bus from Saltillo, Torreon or Monclova. Distance Chart: To Monclova 82 km; To Saltillo 273 km; To Torreon 222 km

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Greg had heard about this beautiful place, so I researched it on the Internet. While there were many pages that talked about the area, none of them contained the information needed for an enjoyable visit. So, I’m hoping this will help you:

  • The Reserve is open from 10am – 5pm each day, sadly making photography somewhat of a challenge (we like sunrises and sunsets, blue hours and golden hours…)
  • Entry to the Poza Azul area is 30 pesos, and to the Dunas de Yeso is another 30 pesos.
  • Most sites told us we needed a guide or we would get lost. Untrue! The sites are well marked and easy to get to. Of course, you can hire a guide for a reasonable price and benefit from all the information the guide will share, but you’d be hard-pressed to get lost without one.
  • Most sites told us we’d be doing a lot of walking and would need a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Again, untrue. You can drive to the ponds near the Information Center, and you can drive out to the white sand dunes as well. The road to the dunes is gravel and has potholes, but nothing worse than the road to Las Labradas.
  • Many sites told us you can swim in the ponds. UNTRUE! It is strictly prohibited from swimming in the protected waters. You can, however, swim in the Rio Mezquites, as I describe above.
  • If you want to go swimming in the river, take your suit and a towel, and bring food to barbecue. There are plenty of grills at the site.
  • I recommend you take plenty of water, wear sunscreen and a hat. You are in the desert, after all!
  • The Poza de la Becerra is mentioned by quite a few websites. It was very much closed during our trip. We could see that the area had been a swimming area—huts with tables, grills, bathrooms. Our guess is they are giving the area time to recuperate or recover from over-use, and then they will reopen it in a more protected and eco-friendly fashion.
  • The wineries in the town of Cuatro Ciénegas were highly touted on the websites I visited. They are just on the outskirts of town, on highway 20 heading towards Ocampo. The closest to town is called Bodegas Ferriño, and a few doors farther down is Vinos Vitali. The wines are mostly sweet and not to our liking, though it’s always fun to taste and to walk around a winery.?

If you visit, please let us hear about it! And send your pics!

Private Estate Bottling Tour in Tequila

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My favorite Reserva de la Familia’s collector box

 

My favorite tour in the quaint pueblo of Tequila, Jalisco, is of Herraduras. The hacienda is beautiful, and the people are very welcoming and down-to-earth. I’ve generally avoided Cuervo, because I see it as such a machine. We have friends who love it, however, and they recently took us with them on a private bottling tour there. I HIGHLY recommend it!

Firstly and most importantly, every person on the tour gets a bottle of La Reserva de la Familia. This is INCREDIBLY smooth and easy-drinking tequila, leaving no hangover, and comes in an annual collector’s box designed by the artist-winner of their annual contest. We paid LESS THAN THE PRICE BELOW for a six-hour day that included a tour of the fields, the hacienda and gardens, a tasting, snacks, and our private bottling!

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First let me show you what our day included, and then I’ll give you the scoop about what I learned about how to get the best deal.

We started by getting into a van to drive out to the fields. Below are some photos of the demonstration we had there, where Ismael, one of Cuervo’s long-time jimadores, demonstrated to us how they uproot and trim a blue agave. Most of the hacienda tours will include something like this.

Click on any photo to enlarge it or to view a slideshow.

Next, we went back to the hacienda (not as old as Herradura, and we definitely felt it was more for show than to get work done in), and had a tour and explanation of the distilling process. In a group of about 30 people (it was a puente weekend), we saw the ovens, the tanks, the barrels. We sampled the leftover agave after it’s finished baking—it was good! Nice and sweet, sort of like sucking sugarcane. We also did a tasting of various tequilas out of the barrels. Again, most tours at most haciendas include something like this, and to me, Cuervo is not the prettiest hacienda.

From here we broke off from the group tour and went down into the cellar, where we would have a private tasting of Reserva de la Familia. Now we became about ten or twelve people. Again, it was a puente weekend; I believe that on a regular weekend we would have been fewer people.

The cellar was gorgeous—hard to take photos in, as it was so dark. We were allowed to drink pretty much all the Reserva de la Familia we could handle in the 30 or 40 minutes we were down there. Of course, we were already buzzed by the time we arrived in the cellar!

My favorite part was that we were instructed on how to use a copper ladle (benencia or ladrón) to dip into the barrel and fill a brandy glass. This part was a whole lot of fun, and unlike any other tour we’ve taken.

So, by now we’ve been “sampling” tequilas for about three hours, and this last cellar visit gave us the chance to sample the best of the best. Now we got to (try and stay vertical long enough to) climb up the stairs and go to a tasting. A TASTING? Seriously?! Oh my!

This took place in a gorgeous room all set up special. We were joined by a few additional people, so we were maybe four family groups in all. Our terrific guide for the day, Rosy, taught us a bit about how to smell and taste three different tequilas (the brandy snifter in the photo below is my leftover Reserva de la Familia from the cellar!), using a plate of tastes and smells (coffee beans, cinnamon, lime, etc.) to help us.

Next we thankfully got a bit of a break, and even some fresh air! We walked out through the gardens, after which we sat down to eat a few of the snacks that were included in our tour. Our break took place in a gorgeous little courtyard, and we had a beautifully sunny day. To my memory (which by now is quite fuzzy), they tasted great. We enjoyed chatting and laughing with the kids who came by selling fresh-made bread and rolls.

Finally we got to the BEST PART. We went back down into the cellar and got to bottle our very own private Reserva de la Familia bottles! We filled a clean bottle from the barrel. We corked it, wrapped it with tape so that it would be easy to open, then dipped the cork and tape into wax. You can tell by the photos below that my wax dipping didn’t come out as “clean” as it should have, but I sort of liked the artistic result.

Once the bottles were corked, we had to glue on the labels. Somehow our guide felt the need to straighten each of the labels I put on; can’t imagine why that would be. Our estate bottle numbers were officially registered into a log book, and we were able to hand-letter a personal message on each of our bottles. LOVED IT!

Finally, our bottles were wrapped in tissue paper and placed into the collector box, which is a different design every year.

Once our six-hour, wonderful day finished, we were able to walk around the hacienda further, have another round of something to eat, and shop in the gift shop. Since we had four identical boxes, plus a fifth matching box at home, I asked Rosy if she wouldn’t trade me out for a different box. I’d spotted a cool Japanese woodblock print-looking rabbit box earlier. Sure enough, Rosy did me that favor, and now we have two different kinds of collector’s boxes.

 

We stayed at a clean, bright hotel conveniently located right on the plaza, steps from the church, called El Jardín. You can see the affordable rates in the photo below. We were happy to spend the night in Tequila; we hadn’t done that on previous visits. As much tequila as we’d “tasted,” we were glad to have the hotel! The plaza at night was hopping, and we ended up with souvenir clay cups or jarras, which our bartender kindly filled with fresh fruit juice and tequila (because of course by then we were thirsty again).

The next morning we walked around a bit more, and enjoyed breakfast with Rosy, our guide from the previous day. As usual, I enjoyed people watching—kids playing music, men and dogs snoozing…

Okay, so here’s my advice if you want to do this tour. First, go online and get your Mundo Cuervo membership card. This gives you all sorts of different benefits. Next, “like” Cuervo’s Facebook page. There they share a bunch of special offers, contests and discounts. We were able to have our membership card upgraded to one of the top levels, which allowed the two of us to get our six-hour day including everything above for just 2900 pesos! Of course, we also had champion negotiator, our friend Paco, do the bargaining for us. Even at normal cost of 1600 pesos, however, the bottling on its own is a good deal, but the total price we paid blew me away for everything we did.

Tequila is a fun trip no matter what. Private bottlings require scheduling ahead of time, so if you want to do that, be sure to call ahead.

 

 

On Keeping Traditions Traditional

 

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Photo of Omar Castro around taken 1992 in Mochicahui, Sinaloa, Mexico

¡Feliz Día del Niño! Happy Children’s Day! April 30, 2014, Children’s Day here in Mexico.

The photo above is of a new friend of ours whom I greatly admire, Omar Castro. In this photo he looks to be about five years old. It was one of the first times he danced with his father in El KONTI, and the photo is taken in the central plaza of Mochicahui, in front of the church.

If you follow this blog, you know we had the pleasure of fulfilling my dream and attending KONTI this year. A week or so after that, I spent some time with a nationally renowned photographer and a well-known international journalist. As Greg and I were talking to them about our recent trip to Mochicahui for these Yoreme Mayo festivities, they were both bemoaning that EL KONTI had become too modernized, too watered down. They lamented the misfortune that some Fariseos now wear masks representing Disney characters, or metal leggings rather than traditional leggings made of  dried cocoons. They advocated that ceremonial leaders should be stricter: insist that participants only wear traditional dress, and that they follow the Catholic-native rituals more closely.

Normally, I would strongly agree with this point of view. I am an interculturalist; I am strongly in favor of preserving cultural traditions. So, my initial response to these two gentlemen was to explain that Omar and other Yoreme leaders are  doing their very best to educate their communities about these centuries-old traditions—explaining many of the points that are in my KONTI blog post. I so admire Omar and the other community leaders for their efforts to preserve the traditions.

But, I was torn. I also reminded my two meal-mates that the real tradition of KONTI is, of course, pre-Hispanic—and thus, pre-Catholicism. If we were to preserve traditions without change, there would surely be no crucifixes, no stations of the cross, no Spanish language prayers, no churches, and no Bible references in the celebration of KONTI. I explained to my esteemed colleagues that while I strongly feel traditions need to be preserved, that they belong to the people. To thrive as vital components of society, traditions need to be living, dynamic customs—and that perhaps requires change and “modernization.”

I believe Omar and other leaders of the Yoreme traditions see this. They teach community members the old ways, through their example, their coaching, and via the school system. They have a young artist from Europe living in the pueblos right now, contributing drawings to a book they are writing on the Yoreme traditions. They value tradition so much that they also permit the use of non-traditional masks or leggings. I believe this is because they know that the people need to make the traditions their own. The tradition needs to speak to individual members, to resonate with them, to have meaning and purpose for them.

I met several young men in Mochicahui who would not have been able to dance in KONTI if not for their tenabaris made by hand out of recycled tin cans, because the butterfly cocoons were far too expensive for them to afford, or they didn’t have access to the cocoons they needed. Thus, keeping the traditional open to some modernity and flexibility enables more people to get involved, to learn the tradition, to breathe continued life into it. I am confident that those young men will save their money or make a trade so that they have traditional tenabaris next year or the following; it’s a process.

Same with the Disney-esque masks. Personally, I loved them. To me it was proof that people want to participate in KONTI, that they find joy in the communal aspects of the worship and desire to join in. Again, I know community leaders prefer them to wear traditional, hand-carved wooden masks (almost every Disney-esque mask I saw was hand-carved from wood, by the way). I know leaders teach that, and promote that. But I also salute community leaders for the fact that they do no prohibit non-traditional masks. To me, it keeps the tradition vital.

It’s a delicate balance, preserving tradition and maintaining its vital place in community. It’s a process, with a tension between change and status quo. It requires us to remember a tradition’s purpose, what is at its core. The photo up top is of Omar as a child. He and his wife are now expecting their first child. The tradition continues. And adapts.

My admiration goes out to the Yoreme Mayo leaders who so well demonstrate that. I learned so much from them on that one day I spent in Mochicahui!

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Historic photo of the church in Mochicahui.
Today the building on the left is in ruins; the chapel at far right stands proudly.


 

Our first trip on the Durango Mazatlán Highway and the Baluarte Bridge

About one week ago, we were fortunate to drive to Durango and back on the new Durango-Mazatlán toll road. Why were we lucky? Well, first of all the road is brand new with the key part (a.k.a. the middle) only being open for less than 10 days. Second, the road contains 63 bridges and 115 tunnels – very cool. Third, the road includes the Baluarte Bridge, the highest cable-stayed bridge in the world and the longest in North America. Fourth, two days after we returned, Tropical Storm Sonia hit hard in that area of Mexico, closing the road for 36 hours and doing damage to this beautiful new highway that will be apparent for years to come (watch video in this story to see for yourself). You can read all the facts and figures here and below is a video we recorded through the sunroof.

We were door to door in three hours. By that I mean from our door on the malecón to the door of our hotel in the historic district of Durango in three hours. This includes stopping to pay tolls and one gas station stop. I did not include stopping to take pictures of the Baluarte Bridge which you can look through by clicking on any of the photos below.

The road provides an alternative to the free road, known as El Espinazo del Diablo, or the Devil’s backbone. This road took from five to eight hours for the same journey and includes countless switchbacks and hairpin turns and numerous encounters with busses, trucks, cows, burros and bicycles all on a two lane road with little or no shoulder. It was frequently closed due to accidents and mud slides and was a nightmare when the clouds were thick enough to reduce visibility to near zero. The new road is two lane most of the way, but has ample shoulders for passing or for emergencies and is about as straight as a mountainous road can get.

The tunnels range from short and sweet to awesome. Some have natural daylight “windows” while other rely on electric lights. Only four or five were long enough to lose the satellite connection to our NAV system. The longest is called El Sinaloense and is 2.8 Km long and has such cool lighting it feels like you are passing through or participating in a video game. Here is a video:

According to my passengers, the views were incredible. Passing over the bridges provides an incredible vista and the rock formations around the tunnels are truly awesome. There are no real services on the road yet, but you can see where they are being built. They should be available soon.

I highly recommend this road. It is much safer and efficient. The tolls round trip will be about 1,000 pesos which is not chump change. You will save a lot of gas compared to the old road and arrive sooner. I understand that the high price of the tolls is an issue and the governor of Sinaloa is “looking into it.” Texas is now a one day’s daylight drive thanks to this road – well, at least in summer.

***One important note about safety. The bridge is a huge attraction and many people want to stop and take pictures. Unfortunately, the topography of the land did not allow for a viewing area. So, what people are doing, us included, is simply stopping in the right lane and walking around (the bridge does have four lanes). This is perhaps a little foolish with cars coming out of a tunnel at you going well over 60 miles per hour. But, this is the system, at least for now. Word on the street is that the cruise ships are planning excursions to “see the amazing new bridge.” I can’t wait to see dozens of tourist vans taking up the right lane while tourists pose for pictures. Drive carefully everyone.

Día de los Muertos en Durango

You may recall that last month we went to Durango, prior to the road opening. This weekend we had to go again. Thank GOODNESS the road was open! The Baluarte Bridge is incredible, and the entire drive is unbelievably gorgeous and easy (three hours door to door). Greg will write more about that in a separate post.

We were heartbroken to miss the callejoneada for Day of the Dead here in Mazatlán, but we thought we’d share with you a glimpse of what Día de los Muertos looks like elsewhere. In Durango the cemeteries were full of people, of course—flowers, cleaning, bands, praying and partying. The city also hosted a hot air balloon festival. In the main plaza, in front of the cathedral, there was a large “Day of the Dead” display set up. It contained a dozen or more life-sized papier maché katrinas and other scenes, plus a few stages for performances.

Durango was completely different this time, primarily because last time we were there it was the height of their major annual cultural festival. Streets, plazas and restaurants were much less crowded this time around. Below are some photos we took this trip—a favorite new restaurant, some street scenes, and the plaza display. Click any photo to enlarge or view a slide show.

On Friday night Greg and I wandered back down to the plaza while Danny studied for his test, and there was a children’s folkloric dance group performing. What was out of the ordinary about this one was that the kids all dressed up as calacas—skeletons—and in glow-in-the-dark costumes. The stage was lit with black lights, so it was a pretty cool effect. We enjoyed it a lot.

Just prior to the performance, the little kids had fun posing for my camera. During the performance, shots were of course very challenging, as it was very dark and the kids were constantly moving. They danced to some songs you’d expect—Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” for example—and they also took us on a tour around México.

I put together a short (three minute) video of the performance. I trust you’ll enjoy watching it. The kids had soooo much fun in their costumes. They knew they looked great.

On the pedestrian street to the left of the cathedral, just down from Hostal de las Monjas and across the street from our favorite little cenaduría, El Parcero Tacos Bar, is a large funeral home, Funerales Hernández. They had an altar to Jenni Rivera that was larger and more superb than ANY I have EVER laid my eyes on. They called it a “Monumental Altar de Muertos.” It contained dozens of life-sized katrinas, ceramic and sugar skulls, antique and artesenal chachkes, Jenni Rivera music playing (not too loud), a mini disco ball for effect, and gorgeous paper work. Just take a look:

On our way back to the hotel, we walked by the old Palacio Municipal. It was all decorated for Day of the Dead, too. Those photos are below.