Mezcaltitán: 3 Hours South of Mazatlán

island Aztlan

Mezcaltitán is a small manmade island town that is the ancestral home of the Mexican people. Archeological evidence shows it may be the legendary island of Aztlán, from where the Aztecs (the Mexica) departed in 1091 AD on their long journey to settle Tenochtitlán in the Valley of Mexico.

Called the “Mexican Venice,” Mezcaltitán did remind us of Italy. Perhaps more of Isola dei Pescatori on Lago Maggiore than of Venezia, but definitely worth the visit. It’s streets often flood in September; its houses, streets and electric transformers are built and located accordingly. The island is very pedestrian-friendly as there are no cars, only a very few four-wheelers. It is a gorgeous Pueblo Mágico: beautiful old homes and buildings, a charming church and plaza, an informative history museum, handicrafts, excellent seafood, friendly people, serene views and wildlife all around.

Below are some of the photos we took during our day on Mezcaltitán; click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

We very much enjoyed our visit and would highly encourage you to make the trip. You could wake up early in Mazatlán and make this a day trip, with a nice lunch and walk around Mezcaltitán. Or, you could spend the night and the following morning go out on a nearby birding adventure. Either way, very nice day trip or weekend getaway from our gorgeous home of Mazatlán.

Feast Days are June 28-29, Feasts of Saints Peter and Paul. While we were not there during the festival, I would love to attend. We’re told that it opens the shrimping season. There is a boat regatta with competing teams carrying statues of Saints Peter or Paul, and locals dress up in feathered headdresses and jaguar robes.

Directions from Mazatlán:
Drive 136 miles (219 km) south on Highway 15 toward Tepic. Exit four miles south of Chilapa at a signed turnoff for Mezcaltitán by a gas station. The road is initially paved but changes to gravel, finally arriving at embarcadero La Ticha after 28 miles (45 km).

Mexcaltitán is also accessible via a short boat ride from the dock in La Batanza, 25 miles (32 km) northwest of Santiago de Ixcuintla. Santiago Ixcuintla can be reached from Highway 15; exit at the Santiago Ixcuintla turnoff 38 miles (60 km) north of Tepic. About five miles (8 km) after the turnoff, you reach Santiago.Go through town on the main street, 20 de Noviembre, which runs by the central plaza and becomes the main westbound road out of town. Continue another five miles (8 km) to the signed Mexcaltitán turnoff, where you head right. About 15 miles (24 km) after the turnoff you reach the embarcadero for Mexcaltitán.

Expat Lifestyles in Mazatlán: Cathy and Bill

One of the cool things about foreigners who move to Mazatlán is the variety of lifestyles they can adopt here. While the vast majority are retirees, more and more we see families and working people relocating to Mazatlán.

At one end of the continuum we meet extranjeros who live very Mexican lives, adopting the culture, speaking the language and, perhaps, obtaining citizenship.

On the other hand we meet those who have little desire (or sometimes ability) to learn Spanish, who socialize primarily or exclusively with non-Mexicans, and who in many ways have replicated their lives from NOB (north of the border). People at both extremes seem to live happy and fulfilling lives here, which is great to see.

And, of course, there are lifestyles representing every combination in between these two extremes, including many who volunteer ceaselessly and selflessly and many who party and sunbathe daily, living the retirement life they always dreamed of. We have artists, lifelong students, those who start small businesses, and those who remodel and restore historic homes.

Amidst so much diversity, Cathy and Bill stand out. They don’t fit into the most common expat categories, and they are one of the most interesting couples I’ve met here. Both in their fifties, Bill has recently retired and Cathy is nearing retirement. They originate from the US east coast. A few years ago they vacationed in Mazatlán, fell in love, and bought a house on their very first trip here: on a whim, so to speak. The home they bought is in a typical, centrally located Mexican neighborhood. No modern marina area or Centro Histórico, areas in which many other expats live and where perhaps things might be easier for them. Ok, plenty of other foreigners live in neighborhoods with few foreigners. But, neither Cathy nor Bill spoke Spanish when they bought their home, though they are taking lessons and learning quickly. Talk about jumping into the pool rather than checking the temperature first with your toes!

They are not like some retirees who live in the typical neighborhoods because there they can live on social security and a small pension because life is cheaper. Nor do they live in a gated community with killer views. Cathy and Bill live in a nice home a block from the beach, in a mixed-use neighborhood of small homes and businesses.

What’s remarkable to me about Cathy and Bill is how completely open they are to the culture and the people here, despite their initial lack of language and experience with Mexico. To me as an interculturalist, getting to know them has been a breath of fresh air. We witness a lot of unfortunate cross-cultural misunderstanding and negative judgment in our daily lives here, and we ourselves are not immune to it as we create our community here. But Cathy and Bill are excellent role models of how to be open minded, and how to jump into a new community wholeheartedly.

They have befriended their neighbor, an air conditioner repair guy, who has “taken them under his wing,” so to speak. He has welcomed Cathy and Bill as a member of the family and local community. Thus, the couple is invited to the kids’ baseball games, school performances, and every extended family party and event. And Cathy and Bill go. They don’t let the lack of language or cultural understanding stop them; they see these as an opportunity to learn, to build friendships, and to build community. Their circle of friends here keeps growing exponentially, as they learn local slang, how to make ceviche, or how to rehab a car Mazatleco-style.

We first got to know them in the way we first connect with many of the foreigners we know here in town: online. Greg probably answered a few questions they had about living here. He happened to mention our plans to attend a Banda El Recodo concert with our neighbors. They asked us to buy tickets for them to attend as well. The first time we met them was when we delivered the tickets to their house.

We have not had the good fortune to get to know a lot of foreigners in town who attend bandaconcerts, though I know they exist. In fact, among the thousands of people attending that concert, I honestly believe we were about the only foreigners at the event. Cathy and Bill’s excitement about attending this concert paralleled our own. They didn’t stress, as so many new immigrants would, about the hours and hours we waited for the main event to commence. Concerns about safety or violence didn’t prevent their attendance, as it does so many others. They danced and hooted with everyone else, taking photos and videotaping with sheer delight. They ate and drank the local food, with no concern about getting sick. They looked around with us to try and figure out how people were getting chairs to sit on, and together we found the way and happily sat. Till the band came on, of course! It was really refreshing to witness in someone new to town; the differences seemed to energize them rather than intimidate them.

I can count on these two for a funny, self-deprecating story. They were recently invited to a “nephew’s” birthday party. Their friends explained and explained the location of the party to them. They drew them a map. The children attempted to explain in their best school kid English. But Cathy and Bill were still confused. But they’re committed. They drove around in circles, trying to find the location, until they finally found their friends waving at them: from Burger King! Yes, they hadn’t understood the Spanish pronunciation of those well-known words, but it didn’t hinder them from enjoying the party with their friends or from making the most of the story afterwards!

It so happens that in front of where Cathy and Bill live is a large empty lot. When they bought the house, they wondered about it: whether and when it would be developed, mostly. Little did they know that this lot becomes home to major city-wide events a few times a year. While the crowds, litter, noise till all hours of the morning, and dust might bother a lot of people, instead of complaining Cathy and Bill embrace the excitement. “What a great location we have the good fortune to live in,” they say!

Their open-mindedness and enthusiasm are supplemented with a real desire to thank those they feel have made their new home such a joy to them. Each fall for the past few years, when Cathy and Bill drive south to their winter home, they pack their vehicle to the brim with bicycles and sports equipment to give to local kids, and a few adults who are now able to get to work much more easily.

It’s people like Cathy and Bill who make me really proud to be an American. Thank you, friends.

Readers, I first wrote this post a year and a half ago. Somehow the file became corrupted, and this was never posted. Now that I’ve figured out how to “rescue” the file, I’d like to give you a short update.

Cathy and Bill drive down to Mazatlán every year. They spend their summers up in the US going to garage sales and second-hand stores, buying used baseball equipment, bicycles, baby swings — you name it, but things that people here might find useful and hard to find the extra money to purchase. They fill their truck and haul it all down here every fall. They spend the first month they are here finding good homes for all these items.Parties at their home have now become an annual tradition. The neighbors block traffic on the street, one neighbor cooks tacos, another provides the DJ service, Cathy and Bill provide the tables, chairs, paper ware and beer, and fun is had by all. Last time we went there had to be 150 people there; and the four of us the only foreigners! They have far more patience, perseverance, and tolerance for ambiguity than I could ever hope to have. They give so selflessly and so joyously, and their love is returned to them multiplied many times over.

They spend every weekend cheering on their local friends’ kids at the kids’ baseball games, and they’ve been invited to many, many homes and parties. Even though they are here part-time, their lives are so intertwined and important to their Mazatleco friends. It is really wonderful to see how loved they are. Just last night, their friends here hosted a surprise going-away party for these two. Over fifty people attended.

Way to go, Cathy and Bill! Thank you for helping keep Mazatlán the multicultural mix it has always been! And for helping make our world a better place. Enjoy your NOB summer! We will miss you!

Cultural Differences that my USA/Japanese Self has Experienced in Mazatlán

What are some of the major cultural differences I’ve experienced over the four years I’ve lived in Mazatlán? Surely, as an interculturalist, I should have some insight.

Too often, of course, our professions don’t serve us well in our personal lives; we don’t practice what we preach: the handyman’s home goes untended, the cobbler’s kids don’t have shoes. I trust that’s not blatantly true for me.
First, some qualifiers:

  • The below are gross generalizations. Everything is situational: for every truth the opposite is also true, in a different context or manner.
  • Observations often if not usually tell us more about the observer than about the observed. My perspective is as a USA-born person of a certain age, with a decade-plus of life experience in Japan. That is my bias or starting point.
  • I love differences, and the process of trying to figure out how to navigate new situations. Thus, my thoughts below are not intended to insult (every culture has different styles and habits, as does every person), but rather to explore and try to understand. I am still very much learning and would welcome your insights/teachings. Thanks.

No worries/I belong here: Come into a class or meeting late, even when it has two minutes remaining, and sit down, conveniently, in the end chair, expecting everyone who is already seated to shift their seats (rather than waiting for the class to finish and the next to begin). Push through, nearly pushing someone out of the way, even if the person pushing is a host or retail store employee and the person being pushed is a customer. It’s not rude or inconsiderate; it seems to be a mentality of “we all belong here.”

What’s really cool, in the situations described above, is that people also have a “live and let live” attitude, they lack the “get offended” gene: they move out of the way, they don’t mind a bit of a push; they expect it and allow that the other person has the right to do whatever s/he is doing. As with anything, there are limits….

Another example would be friends who invite themselves over to your house; they miss you. You prepare for their arrival, cooking up a storm, and then they never show. They don’t call, they don’t apologize. It’s the classic “plan ahead/control/honor obligations” mentality vs. a “be spontaneous/life happens” cultural divide, along with a “follow the rules/be polite” (wait to go until invited) vs. “relationship-first/take action” (I want to see her so let’s do it) gap. Plus the fact that my local friends here don’t expect me to fuss or “host” them the way I like to. Or maybe your friends do call, at the last minute, to explain they can’t come. Maybe you see them a few days later, and you ask them what happened. Huh? When? Oh, yeah; something came up. No offense is given, no offense is taken.

Even though in the situations above Mexicans may seem to lack consideration, in other contexts they absolutely demonstrate consideration: Many people remember amazing detail about your life, and the next time they see you they ask, if you had injured your knee even slightly, “How’s your knee?” Or they kindly remember that in passing you had mentioned your son was going camping, and they ask, “How was your son’s campout?” I know that I myself often forget such details. In this regard the communication style seems so considerate, so detail-specific, and reminds me of Japan. And there is definitely an expectation that I remember the same details: where they plan to go on Christmas break, who they will visit, etc. On that score I too often come up short.

Culture of caution: This is not a culture of trust, but rather, in gross generalization, distrust. People seem to expect you, as a buyer, to make sure the item is in good condition before receiving it, to make sure someone has done a good job if they are working for you. There seems to be little assumption of someone having done well. Even when it’s a very good friend who has done something for you, there is an expectation that you will inspect whatever it is and make sure it is done exactly to your liking. Sooo different from my Japanese-self mentality that this one has taken a whole lot of learning.

Negotiation/complaining: This was also a huge learning for me very early on in living here, because we were buying so many things (furniture, appliances, curtains) and contracting so many services (installs of ceiling fans, painting). I had to learn to voice concern or complaint, to negotiate price and timing. My US and Japanese styles absolutely did not work. I needed to be more assertive than I was used to, while also more social/convivial. There was a fine line: hold the negotiation and discussion of complaint tight, pointed, but with a big smile, a quick laugh, an obvious respect for the other person in wording. Much more firm, repetitive and persistent than I was used to. It felt rude to me, especially because I had heard Mexicans were indirect. This aspect of communication felt very direct, overly pushy, but with a nice veneer of a smile, polite language, and relationship-building phrases interspersed throughout. And lots of repetition and rewording.

Lack of thank yous: People in Asia or Europe often say the US is an “I love you” or “cheerleader” culture, with (often-empty) verbal professions of love, apology, thanks, encouragement. So I am obviously biased. But one of the surprises here for me was I’d give a gift, and the person would seem to like it, but would not express appreciation. Maybe admiration for the gift, or acknowledgement in some way. But I would be expecting thanks. The same for invitations to parties, paying for a meal, etc. The words “thank you” are not nearly so common here in my experience, and I wonder if they don’t add distance, a formality between people at the friend level? That sincere feelings don’t require a formulaic response. There is a similar lack of apologies here. Though that is one of my complaints in the USA as well. When a service person makes a mistake, or a vendor doesn’t meet a commitment, they so rarely take responsibility or apologize for the inconvenience. Again, probably my Japanese-influenced expectation. Whether in the US or in Mexico, my propensity to apologize tends to be seen as lacking in self esteem, when very often it is the exact opposite.

Bright side or enjoyment in the face of hardship: This is perhaps the characteristic that I most love and admire in my Mexican friends. They can be so graceful under pressure. We have friends whose house was built by someone they’ve known their whole lives, incorrectly. The roof leaks. The friend always, sort of, helps them fix it, but it’s never really fixed. They’ve now lived with a leaky house for four years. But they never yell, they never express the heightened emotion or frustration I would expect. When the roof starts leaking again they call the builder and start the process of fixing the leak, over and over again. The patience and tolerance is amazing.

This last fall we had horrible flooding in Mazatlán. Over 51 areas of town were inundated with dirty water, killing two children and destroying many homes and lots of furnishings. People worked all week to clean out the water, mud, and muck, and to dry their things. I saw tears, but I also saw lots of laughter. One family of friends, in the midst of their panic while the flood waters rushed into their home, ran out into the street, hugged one another and smiled for their daughter’s camera, yelling “Happy anniversary!” Definitely an admirable way to respond to something you have little control over. I want to learn more of this dignity and empowerment in the face of adversity!

One of the biggest challenges for me adjusting to life here has been that I CRAVE more cultural informants. I was spoiled: living in Japan for so many years, I was blessed with cultural informants and guides; Japanese loved to teach gaijin about Japanese culture. Even when I lived in Spain, I found loads of people who were more than happy to educate me on a daily basis. That has not at all been my experience here in Mexico. My local Mazatleco informants usually disagree with one another about the most simple things, and they are usually very reticent to “teach,” possibly because they just don’t “see,” that they have a culture, though they are very proud of it nonetheless. This place is not so self-reflexive as the one I spent so many years in in Asia. So, I have the “opportunity” to blunder through things and learn by doing a lot more. 🙂

I welcome your thoughts and insights! Enjoy the day!