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!

HoliFest Mazatlán!!!!

©24.DSC_0227Bollywood movies, YouTube videos and Facebook photos have taught most of us about Holi, the Hindu holiday welcoming spring, the “festival of colors.” The vibrantly colored Gulal powders are said to signify the triumph of good over evil. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Thanks to Karina Barcena and a core crew of helpers, Mazatlán has been blessed these last two years to have its own HoliFest. This year we had a group of people join us from Durango, and it included an Indian national who studied yoga with Iyengar himself.

Taking place yesterday on the grounds of the Convention Center, the HoliFest Mazatlán event was attended by 2000 people, according to the organizers. Participants represented a huge diversity of folk: babes in arms through to grandparents, groups of friends and entire families. It ROCKED! The event included a guided meditation, a yoga class, demonstration, live Indian-style music with Inda and Yani of Kirtan, live reggae, and lots of dancing. And, by the way, it also included just a few colors!

I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Be SURE to attend this event next year, planned for April 2017!

 

 

Most Important Archeological Site in Northwestern Mexico: Chametla

©40.DSC_0263It always amazes me how we can have hugely rich archeological history very close by that goes unsung and unvalued, while we all dream about seeing the more famous sites. You know what they say about prophets in their own land, and I guess that’s true about places as well; we don’t value those nearby.

I’ve told you before that archeological evidence indicates that Mexcaltitán, just three hours south of Mazatlán, was probably the original Tenochtitlán—that Mezcaltitán was the legendary Aztlán, where the Aztecs (Mexica) lived before they moved to the Valley of Mexico. It’s so very close, our own gorgeous little Venice, yet we hardly hear about it.

I’ve also heard many people say that here in Sinaloa historically there were no native peoples; that we don’t have indigenous crafts or artwork because this area was only populated after the discovery of minerals in the mountains and the influx of Europeans. Hogwash! I’ve written before about the Mayo-Yoremes in the northern part of our state. Down here in the south, Totorames lived on the coast. They spread over quite a wide territory, as most of southern Sinaloa was connected by estuary; using a canoe they could easily get from one place to another. The Totorames often fought with the cannibalistic Acaxes and Xiximes who lived up in the Sierra Madres.

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Joaquin Hernández

This week I learned from our friend, Joaquin Hernández, that Chametla—just 90 minutes from Mazatlán in the municipio of El Rosario—is the most important archeological site in all of northwestern Mexico! In Chametla are at least two pyramids built in pre-Hispanic times by the Totorames. Both were sacred sites, with platforms on top for sacrifices. Hernán Cortés himself visited Chametla, in 1535, before traveling over to La Paz; there are written documents and paintings that record this fact. Legend has it that he sat in the Cueva del Diablo looking out over the entire valley.

Near Chametla were 22 pre-Hispanic towns. What attracted so many Totorames to Chametla? The area is home to seven hills, which contain many caves. The Rio Baluarte runs through it; it’s very close to the Pacific Ocean; it’s fertile land; there’s jungle as well; and it’s right in the middle of the wonderful estuary system where historically mangroves and shrimp have thrived. In ancient times, there were three regions in southern Sinaloa: Sinaloa, Culiacán, and Chametla. Chametla comprised the territory from Escuinapa in the south to Piaxtla in the north. Only later was Mazatlán founded (on the present site of Villa Unión).

So, where are these pyramids? The first is the setting of the church in Chametla, at the foot of Cerro de San Pedro. I took some photos, but the pyramid is much easier to see live and in person. The church is built at the top, on the platform of the pyramid, while the lower part of the pyramid goes way beyond the church and down the hill. You can see that it’s man-made.

In 1935, when they were renovating the church, they found a secret passageway behind the altar that led to an underground cave. There they found “pagan” icons and relics, so the church quickly sealed it all back up. There was a second entrance to the cave just outside the church, at the entrance to where the original church was located. That cave entrance is now covered with a huge boulder. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Cool, huh? Not as visually stunning as a Chichen-Itza, by any means, as this pyramid has been built on and tweaked over and over throughout the millennia; it’s located right in the center of town. But, you can most definitely see its vestiges. The conquista of course was not just about conquering territory or even people; the conquistadores wanted to conquer the entire culture. So many churches are built on sacred sites of the indigenous peoples, as in Chametla.

And where is the second pyramid? It’s a 400-meter pyramid on which the local cemetery is built, also clearly visible. Local people say that when graves are dug, they almost always dig up pottery and other relics from the Totorame. The best specimens of these can be found in the small museum that is right next door to the church.

 

If you go to Chametla, I’d urge you to hike the 365 steps up El Cerro de la Cueva del Diablo. At the top is a man-made cave, obviously another sacred site, with a view of the entire river valley, estuary, ocean… The view is spectacular. It is in the cave that you’ll see an indentation that looks like two butt cheeks, and legend says that’s where Cortés sat. While he wasn’t in Chametla long enough to carve a seat, he may have enjoyed the gorgeous view, with the opening of the cave mirroring the curve of the hill it faces. On many of the hills in the area you’ll find platforms, indicating they were sacred sites; Loma de Ramírez has a 100 meter x 100 meter platform. The area is splendid for hiking, with a diversity of flora and fauna as well as elevation and lots of water.

Joaquin is quite the historian. He has spent much time researching, talking to locals, hiking around; traveling with him and his daughter was a joy. One final tidbit he told us? One of the seven hills in Chametla is called Cerro de las Cabras. However, no one has ever heard of there being goats on that hill. Joaquin found an old, old manuscript that referred to a hill in Chametla as Tetas de Cabras, or “Goat Tits.” His guess is that the vulgar-sounding part of the name was dropped or lost, so that only the goat part remains in modern times.

Joaquin speaks excellent English, as he lived and studied in San Francisco for several years. He frequently conducts presentations in both Spanish and English, so be sure to catch one if you are interested in history, literature… any of the many themes that spark the curiosity of this Renaissance man.

We happened to visit Chametla during the festival Chameitlán, celebrating 485 years since the founding of the town. I captured a photo of the cake and a few of the kids breaking the piñata. That’s Hernán Cortés on the piñata, the children told me—not at all like I pictured him to look!

After Mass, the cake and the piñata, there was a parade through town. We didn’t stay for it, but the young men in the Nautica band played, and the kids seemed to dress up as Indians. I also include a few other photos of the town.

If you enjoy hiking, history, archeology, kayaking, or if you’d just like to visit a small town and the estuary where the shrimpers still cast their atarrayas or hand nets, Chametla is a beautiful place to visit!

Ballenas Jorobadas: Whale Watching in Mazatlán

©2.DSC_0552-EditDo you know that only two types of whales sing? Lucky for us, the humpbacks that frequent the waters of Mazatlán are most definitely singers! The males are the ones that sing, and they do it to attract a mate. They invent new sounds in order to get noticed, and then, just like humans, other whales then copy their innovations.

Our family goes whale watching at least once each year (lots more info and pics in my posts from 2015, the trip with thousands of manta rays, swimming with dolphins in 2013, and a trip back in 2009 in which the whales approached nearly close enough to touch, and engaged in a lot of slapping and wrestling). We go out with Onca Expeditions, and they have a cute little gizmo (amplifier) they stick into the water to allow all of us on the boat to hear the whales’ singing. It’s awesome!

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Not only do the humpbacks sing, they also love to do acrobatics. Often you will see them curling up out of the water and then diving down, tail raised into the air. When they’re competing for mates you can watch them slapping each other around. The humpbacks will breach, often with their full body in the air above the water, in an attempt to impress a female. Once couples pair off, the acrobatics tend to die down as well; lovers in love are more gentle than that. Often times mothers arrive here with their calves, which is gorgeous to watch. Click on any photo to enlarge it or to view a slideshow.

Whale watching season here is during the winter, and it is one of the activities I most highly recommend for you to do here in Mazatlán. Onca’s guides are marine biologists who are actively engaged in researching the cetaceans that frequent our waters. According to Jesús, who took us out this time, Onca has catalogued 420 whales since Oscar Guzón started his research in our waters, but they’ve only gotten through 2010 data. Jesús told me he believes they have photos and data on 1100 unique tails!

While I’ve been told humpbacks live to be about 50 years old, Jesús said they can live to be 80 or 100. He told me the age of a whale is determined via DNA testing and sometimes via photo ID. They’ve also found whales with bone harpoons stuck in them—sort of reminiscent of Moby Dick, don’t you think?

The official viewing distance for whale watching is 16 meters; no boat in our waters should approach closer than that, although if the whales approach your boat, lucky for you. I was told the humpbacks swim about 10 knots per hour, and the babies drink eight liters of milk per day.

Do not miss your chance to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat! We do it every year, and never tire of the experience.

 

Las Labradas on New Years

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Happy New Year! May the Year of the Monkey bring you much joy, playfulness, flexibility, creativity and community!

We all know and love Las Labradas, the gorgeous National Cultural Heritage site with its incredible oceanside petroglyphs that is located just north of Mazatlán in Chicayota. What better, more beautiful and sacred place, to bring in the new year? So we headed there today after lunch.

The petroglyphs include crosses, foxes, spirals, cats, pelicans, and people—faces, figures, arms, hands, the hunters, the swimmer. Last time we visited the new museum was operational. This time we were happy to see that signs have been installed along the path, pointing to key petroglyphs, and there is a small brochure with a map, which really helps. In addition to the magic of the petroglyphs, the site is absolutely gorgeous, as well. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Most of the petroglyphs are from 750 to 1250 CE, but some could be as old as 3000 BCE. We very much enjoyed the ride and the hike, and our New Year’s toast with Danny and his roommate. It is so very wonderful to have our boy home with us for winter break!

Danny brought me some camera filters for Christmas, including a neutral density filter. It allows me to take long exposures without letting in too much light. In the photos below, you can see several shots taken at normal quick exposure, followed by the same shot taken with the ND filter and the lens open for a couple of seconds (of course using a tripod). Note that the ocean waves start to look soft, smooth, and misty. It’s a whole different look, and both ways of course have their advantages.

Driving up to Las Labradas, there was a HUGE snake in the middle of the road. He had to be about five feet long and about 6-8 inches around. Scary! A few pics of him are below, taken before he slithered away into the brush.  Anybody know what he is? Is he dangerous? I wanted to get close enough to get a good pic of his eye, but caution prevailed.

I also have to share a few of the pelicans playing in the pre-sunset color, and the two kids on a motorcycle on the beach. On the way out, I couldn’t resist getting a few final photos of a regal rooster. Does he look proud or what?

Happy New Year, everyone! I trust the year will bring blessings and, most of all, peace.