Altata: A Charming Weekend Trip

23004765_1891872064462693_1458402486241907964_oJust three hours north of Mazatlán is a quaint fishing village on a cove, protected by a peninsula that faces the sea. It has an older part of the town, and a newer, high-rent district with a marina and upscale condominiums. That place is called Altata, and it is just to the coast from Culiacán.

I recommend it as a nice weekend getaway. The seafood is delectable, the views are incredible, while there is only one hotel, it is new and nicely decorated, there are condos for rent, and it’s just a different vibe than Mazatlán. If you go, you can relax, take a boat ride, go sport fishing… just about anything you’d do here in Mazatlán, but on a smaller scale and minus the insane night life. Altata nightlife is more like party on the malecón or in a restaurant, at least from what I’ve seen.

Anyway, last October a group of photographers of which I’m a member, Grupo Sinaloa, was invited to spend a long and enjoyable day in Altata, to take photos and share some of them with the Department of Tourism there. We had an incredible time, eating three great meals, enjoying boat rides and bus tours, hiking and beach combing. We witnessed small planes buzz us on the beach, jet skis with parents and kids zoom by us, and dune buggies jump around incredibly scenic sand dunes. We enjoyed a marvelous sunset, a few drinks, and several bands serenading us on Altata’s malecón  before heading back to Culiacán about 9 pm. It was a beautiful day spent in wonderful company. Click any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Yesterday, Saturday May 5th, the exhibition from the day of photography opened on the malecón of Altata. It is entitled Altata: Para todos, para siempre, and was officially inaugurated by the Mayor, the state Secretary of Tourism, other political dignitaries and Grupo Sinaloa’s founders: Marcopolo Amarillas, Liduvina Vargas Romero and Juan Santana. Photos are displayed outdoors on the malecón of Altata and will be there through May 21st.

I am so glad we attended yesterday’s events. We hesitated, as we leave for our son’s college graduation in the morning, so traveling just before more traveling isn’t the smartest thing we’ve ever done. But to see the joy in the eyes of so many photographers who had their first-ever exhibition, the excitement of seeing their photos printed in large scale, having the locals tell them how much it means that people from outside Altata see the beauty in their local community and want to express it to the world… it was just a really terrific evening. We were once again treated like royalty, with a terrific dinner and open bar after the opening ceremony.

So, if you are looking for something to do this month that is a bit out of the norm, try a visit to Altata! The hotel is called Altata Bay, and you will find loads and loads of restaurants in the town along the lovely malecón. Nuevo Altata, with the marina and scenic lighthouse, is about a 15 minute drive north.

¡Viva México! ¡Viva Mazatlán!

The Grito de la Independencia—“shout of independence” or “cry of Dolores“—is a traditional Mexican affair that you owe it to yourself to participate in at least once while you live here. We’ve done it a few times both here and on the 200th anniversary in Guadalajara.

In Mazatlán it happens every 15th of September at 11:00 pm in the Plaza República. The Mayor comes out on the balcony of city hall to ring a bell, shout the official words, and lead the crowd in the national anthem. Most of the country shouts at midnight, but since we’re an hour earlier here on the coast, we do it to coincide with them. Before the mayor’s cry there is folkloric dancing, singing (this year was Heidi Herrera) and other performances, and there’s always a name act that plays after the grito. The first time we went, that act was Chuy Lizárraga, who due to sound malfunction sang right over the national anthem. Click on any photo below to enlarge or view a slideshow.

 

This time we read in the paper that the fireworks were going to be fantastic, put on by the same group that does Combate Naval‘s Carnaval fireworks— Lux Pirotecnia (Jorge Márquez) of Mexico City. That was more than reason enough for me to want to go! I love fireworks (5, 4, 3, 2, 1)!

Poor Greg was tired as he’d just driven us from Wisconsin to Mazatlán, plus he had a cold, but when two girlfriends cancelled out on me, he agreed to go despite my assurances that I could go it alone. I was excited to try out my new camera with a brighter lens!

As it’s new, I’m not that good with it yet, so I missed many of the photos I wanted, and I overexposed a few because we were so darned close to the action and you just can’t predict how bright a firework is going to be. Plus, the cathedral wasn’t really lit up, and I wanted it to appear in the shot without having to do a composite.

 

All in all, though, I’m happy. I did get a few good pics; hope you agree. Greg got a great one of the flag and the cathedral; congratulations, sweetheart! And the view we got of the grito itself (above) is sure a different one than the press photographers took.

 

If you’ve never done the Grito, or if it’s been a long while, be sure to do it next year. This year was much less crowded than usual, I guess because the main act wasn’t as popular as other acts we’ve had. There is also a major parade on 15th September every year, including military, police, fire and first responders, and school children. Many children dress up as heroes and heroines of the War of Independence, so attending the parade or visiting a school on the 15th can be very much fun.

Focus on Responsible Tourism

Three cruise lines, new air connections, 12,000 rooms in 180 hotels… We greet hundreds of thousands of national and international visitors each year in Mazatlán. Any chance I’ve gotten over the past eight years I’ve tried to encourage travelers to get beyond the stereotypical but wonderful beer and beaches to experience a bit of the “real Mexico,” be it a visit to a small town, witnessing the shrimp or mango harvest, or admiring the Mayo-Yoreme traditions.

Recently, however, I’ve been working with a colleague in Milan, Maura di Mauro, on a project, and she cautioned me about how the culture of Mursi villagers in Ethiopia was changing due to tourism. Thanks to an influx of camera-toting tourists willing to pay for photos, the villagers increasingly exaggerate their traditional practices and even falsely embellish them, to make them more attractive to visitors. Lord knows I’ve witnessed this sort of thing happening in and around Mazatlán. She also told me about Chinese tourists descending en masse on a small village in The Netherlands. Many of the Dutch residents welcome the added economic boost such international tourism provides, but they have also experienced downsides to such tourism and, again, changes to their culture. We in Mazatlán sure experience the ups and the downs of tourism, and know how important it is to our economy.

Maura said there were documentaries about both of these topics, made by the same Dutch cinematographer. She got me excited and I can not WAIT to view the two films!

The first documentary Maura told me about is called Framing the Other” by Ilja Kok and Willem Timmers  (25 min, English and Mursi with English subtitles).

The Mursi tribe lives in the basin of the Omo River in the south of the east African state of Ethiopia. The women are known for placing large plates in their lower lips and wearing enormous, richly decorated earrings. Every year hundreds of Western tourists come to see the unusually adorned natives; posing for camera-toting visitors has become the main source of income for the Mursi. To make more money, they embellish their “costumes” and finery in such a manner that less of their original authentic culture remains. The film contrasts the views of Mursi women and those of Dutch tourists preparing for a meeting. This humorous and at the same time chilling film shows the destructive impact tourism has on traditional communities. A preview is below:

 

The second film is called Ni Hao Holland: The Chinese are coming” by Willem Timmers (25 min, Mandarin and Dutch with English subtitles).

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It is a documentary about Chinese tourists and their quest for the authentic Dutch experience. Cherry, the main character, has long dreamt of swapping her home city Beijing for the Dutch village Giethoorn. She has heard and read a lot about this mythical place. The day arrives that she and her friend hop on the plane in search of adventure. In the meantime, entrepreneurs from Giethoorn work hard behind the scenes to cater to this “Holland experience.” They want to make the most of the fast-growing flow of Chinese tourists to their village. How is this authenticity created by some and experienced by others? A preview follows:

 

While I’ve yet to watch either of these movies, it sure sounds like there’s a lot to think about for tourism in Mazatlán and Sinaloa. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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!