Friday, November 29, 2013

Guanajuato, Mexico

Nestled high in a valley between the Sierra Mountain Mountains rests the lovely colonial city of Guanajuato, Mexico.  Allan and I visited for a few days after it had been recommended to us by friends, some of whom claimed it was better than San Miguel de Allende.  I must say we thoroughly enjoyed our stay.

Approaching Guanajuato for the first time is quite impressive especially if you drive through one of the many tunnels below the city.  The tunnels are a maze work of manmade wonder, and it's almost like driving through an aqueduct.  Guanajuato used to have a large river that ran through it, which flooded a great deal and consequently caused a lot of problems.  So the locals took the river and rerouted it underneath the city and the tunnels, making Guanajuato a city of several layers with the street traffic on one level, underground tunnels on another and the river below it all.  It's quite a site to see.

Street level the city if a wash of pastel colored colonial buildings, beautiful parks with palm trees and lots or ornate stonework.  It's a very young city with the University of Guanajuato bringing in a lot of young life to the otherwise quiet city. Ironically with such a young population, it's very quiet at night.  There are not many bars and at 11pm at night the streets seem almost like a ghost town.  To its benefit Guanajuato has almost no vice like you might find in other spots.

Unlike Playa Guanajuato is mostly filled with Mexicans (this is Mexico, after all!!).  It was strange having street vendors solicit the local crowd but avoid our table.  We think because they are not used to seeing gringos and are probably intimidated by the fact we speak English and they most likely do not.  We certainly enjoyed being in the real Mexico and appreciated getting away from vacation land for a few days.

One of the highlights of Guanajuato, at least for me, was the mummy exhibit.  About 150 years ago the local government started exhuming bodies of those who could not pay to keep their relatives interred. The remains appear to be from a Cholera outbreak in 1833 and only about 2% of the bodies exhumed were mummified.  The quality and variety of the mummies is so great they opened a museum which has gained worldwide fanfare.  There is everything from a mummified fetus, to a French doctor, to someone who was buried alive.  Many mummies still have hair on their heads and bodies!

Besides the museum we visited the Pípila, a monument on a hill over looking the whole city. To get to the museum you take the funicular up to the top for a breathtaking view of the gorgeous city.  You really get a nice overview of Guanajuato.  We grouped the museum together with a visit to the central market with its many booths and crowded isles.  You can buy anything from local produce and meats to corny souvenirs and some local handicrafts.  It's certainly worth a visit.

Other than the museum and monument we really didn't do much besides walk around and take in the beauty of the city.  We tried to visit the home of Diego Rivera, which has now been made into a museum but it's closed on Mondays.  For meals, we had a hard time finding good restaurants and found if we strayed from the Trip Advisor top 20 the food tended to be less than wonderful.

Overall we loved Guanajuato: there is a lot to do and the locals were very nice. It's a picturesque city with lovely architecture.  On the downside there is not a lot of night life and my allergies really acted up.  We enjoyed visiting but are looking forward to returning home to Playa del Carmen.

The balcony of our hotel room

Allan gets into the act with a local street entertainer

Me atop the Pípila

View from the Pípila

Allan at the Central Market

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Dolores de Hidalgo and La Gruta

The small town of Dolores de Hidalgo sits roughly an hour to the north of San Miguel de Allende. It's well known for it's lovely pottery and for it's role in Mexico's independence.  In 1810 Father Hidalgo uttered his famous cry for independence from Spain, which helped to propel Mexico's war of independence and landed the town forever in Mexico's history.  Of course Allan and I not being history buffs, we visited just for the great ceramics and for the hot springs which sit between San Miguel and Dolores de Hidalgo.

We hired a taxi out of San Miguel for a short, few hour round trip voyage north first to La Gruta and then to Dolores de Hidalgo.  La Gruta is a nice little retreat with several hot spring pools, a few "normal temperature" pools, a restaurant and some rooms for those who want to stay over night.  You can certainly spend the whole day here basking in the waters, going from hot to cold, and getting served in the water from waiters offering anything from food to your favorite adult beverages. I wouldn't say the report is up scale, but it is very nice and well worth the visit.  There are changing rooms and lockers onsite but you should bring your towel.

At first I was apprehensive about taking the plunge as I'm not a fan of public pools.  I guess I think they are not as hygienic.  However, once I put my foot into the 90+ F degree water I was hooked and jumped right in (as did Allan).  A tunnel connects one pool to an inclosed structure covered in stone, much like a large spa. This is where the hot water plummets into the pool from a pipe above.  Allan and I only stayed about 1/2 hour in the water - much longer and we would have been falling asleep from being too comfortable!!

From the hot springs, it was another short 1/2 hour ride into Dolores de Hidalgo.  We really just hit a few pottery shops and bought a few items at a fraction of the price they would be in Playa.  I did not bother to buy a whole ceramic dining set, which many do.  I guess I did not think I would need or use it. In retrospect I am wishing I did.

Other than the pottery shops which are more like small nondescript factories, we did not do anything else in Dolores de Hidalgo.  We did not visit the church or statue of Hidalgo. We were satisfied being superficial shoppers who were anxious to get back to San Miguel de Allende.  Door to door we were back in San Miguel in less than 3 hours, feeling quite tired from the very relaxing hot spring.

Allan at La Guta

Me in the tunnel between the pool and where the water pours in

Pottery shopping

Some of my acquisitions

Halloween 2013 in Playa del Carmen

For those of you who know our life down in Playa del Carmen, you are well aware of how much Halloween has been the most fun day of the year.  This year we organized a party at our place with roughly 30 guests all dressed in costume and served pizza and punch.  After about an hour of chit chat, photos and costume admiration, we strolled down 5th Avenue to show off and to give candy to the adorable dressed up kids.  Sometimes I wish Halloween was more than once a year and at other times I think it's best to stick my hangovers to only once year - the day after.

What really amazes me are the people who make their own costumes.  I bought my costume for $1 USD at a yard sale and then just added things here and there I bought on Amazon.  Allan's costume was made by one of the costume directors for Cirque du Soleil.  However, friends like Trudy, Phillp and Johanna, among others, actually sew and stitch and do really creative things.  For instance Johanna borrowed my Cleopatra headdress and then creatively sewed an incredible costume to go along with it that would rival anything in show business.

I've already got my costume for next year planned out - got it at the same yard sale, and am just going to add touches on Amazon.  You'll have to wait till next year to find out!!

Me as a bumble bee and another cutie dressed as the same

Our group before heading out

Trudy and Phillip who made their own costumes!!

Johanna as Cleopatra and me.  Johanna borrowed the head dress from me and then made the entire costume by hand.  Unbelievable. 

Lucien who made his own costume with Allan and me.  Lucien is the one who designed Allan's costume.

Vicki and Scot

Allan's makeup courtesy of Explayarte (

Allan and 2 Mexican devils on 5th Avenue

Me on the stripper pole earning my free shot of tequila

Downtown can be a crazy place on Halloween

Jim and Evangeline

Jim and Janet

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Patron Saint of Cowboys

Apparently even cowboys have their own patron saint and his name is San Martin Caballero.  Once a year on the days surrounding November 11th in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico the local cowboys, ranchers and their groupies unite in San Martin de Terreros to pay homage to the cowboy saint.  Although I have never participated in the festival, I have driven past it in bumper to bumper traffic on my way from San Miguel de Allende to Guanajuato.  And in my book that makes me as close to an expert as I care to be.

Our first taste of the festival began back in San Miguel when flocks of cowboys on horseback paraded around the square in the city center.  It was like they were celebrities.  Allan even posed with one for a photo opportunity.  Curious as to what was transpiring, Allan inquired and interpreted it to be that the cowboys were on a pilgrimage of sorts.  It wasn’t until later, when we were traveling from San Miguel to Guanajuato that we got the full story.

The drive from San Miguel to the state capitol Guanajuato is supposed to be a very scenic 1.5 hour drive through rolling hills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  We had hired a taxi and were expecting to sit back for a relaxing and quick trip.  Ironically the driver was commenting that the circuitous route on well paved roads might be surpassed in the future by the construction of a super highway between the 2 cities.   

To me it seemed strange that a state capital would not have a major highway to a popular city like San Miguel.  Apparently the highway project which is still in the works is being stalled by ranchers protesting that the highway would cut through what they consider to be preservation land.  At the time it seemed like an innocent comment, certainly not a harbinger to the terrible traffic we would encounter down the road.  Little did we expect that a major highway was a necessity especially on the days before and after November 11th when thousands flock to San Martin de Terreros to pay patronage to San Martin Caballero.

During the voyage we first we started seeing a lot of cowboys on horseback and packs of men on bicycles.  Then we hit the car and bus traffic.  What was supposed to be a rather short voyage tripled into a 4+ hour adventure mostly in country with no cell phone service, hence no wireless signal (i.e. little to entertain ourselves).  There was certainly a lot of see – truck loads of dark skin colored Mexicans in rather worn looking clothing, many packed into the back of pick up trucks, drinking bottles of Coca Cola, and feeding the same to their babies.  And large buses packed with pilgrims.

As we approached San Martin de Terreros off to the right the hillside was covered in trucks.  We were amazed at the number of people who come here. The taxi driver was commenting he came as a child, but that the festival had gotten so big, and he did not expect there to be so much traffic.

Apparently the tens of thousands of pilgrims visit the church in San Martin de Terreros, and pray for miracles. They leave offerings, light candles, sing and dance.  Typically it’s a one day journey to the town, where they camp outside where there are no bathroom facilities and no food, and then return home the next day.

Legend says San Martin Caballero was an ordinary cowboy on horseback who cut his cape in half and now offers half to whomever prays to him.  Others say half the cape was given to God to cover himself.  He essentially is the Mexican version of Robin Hood, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, and now has been raised to the level of a saint, at least in the state of Guanajuato.

At present the only miracle I am praying for is to get out of this traffic before the sun goes down. We only have about a day and a half to see Guanajuato and that window of opportunity is getting shorter and shorter.  We have not moved in about ten minutes.  I will certainly chalk this up to a cultural experience. It was an interesting lesson in history and local legend, one that I would have preferred to read about in the comfort of my hotel room in Guanajuato.

Allan poses with Sugar, one of the horses in San Miguel

Eddie and his horse Sugar with Allan in San Miguel

The traffic near San Martin de Terreros. 

Pilgrims travel via horseback, car and bicycle

Packing the back of a truck seems the way to go.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

San Miguel de Allende

Allan and I have taken advantage of a 5 day respite to visit the picturesque town on San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico.  The break came about as we letted our Playa del Carmen condo to a friend in return for his offering his Wall Street flat to us in New York City last Spring.  Instead of staying with friends or perhaps renting something in Playa, we opted to visit San Miguel after hearing so many rave reviews.  After all in 2012 Conde Nast rated it the #1 destination in the world.

We purchased non-stop airline tickets on Volaris out of Cancun to Guanajuato for a bargain rate of less than $200 USD round trip per person.  The short 2.5 hour flight was thankfully uneventful and quite easy.  Upon arrival in Guanajuato, the geographical center of Mexico, we were struck by the landscape and climate.  We are about a mile above sea level in an arid dessert filled with cactus' and mountains.

San Miguel is about 1.5 hour drive from the Guanajuato airport on well paved, winding roads through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  In many spots I swear I was in Tuscany, as the landscape is similar.  San Miguel from a distance looks like someone took a white brush and painted the city on the side of a mountain.  It overlooks a manmade reservoir, which I'm told was formed by flooding an existing town, and when the water level drops you can see the top of the church in the now submerged city.

In some ways San Miguel looks like Merida with cobblestoned streets, busy side walks and traffic.  Unlike Merida, most of the buildings in San Miguel are painted in desert colors - oranges, reds and yellows.  The cathedral in the Jardin (park in the city center) reminds me of the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, Spain, by it's ornate design and beauty. By night the church glows and radiates beauty.

We are staying at a beautiful bed and breakfast called Casa Calderoni (, in the city center close to the Jardin. The B&B has a beautiful open air courtyard with plants, winding steps and refreshing air.  Our room has a very comfortable bed with plush pillows and down comforter.  The free breakfast includes an assortment of fruit, coffee, juice and your selection of freshly cooked eggs and meat.  Allan and I could not be more delighted with this wonderful B&B.  To make it even more special, owners Ben and Mary, are often around for breakfast to chat with guests and make them feel welcome.  I could not recommend their B&B enough.  At night I recommend visiting the roof deck to appreciate the spectacular view of the cities sparkling lights.

One of the features of our bedroom to which I am not accustomed to in Playa are space heaters.  The climate here is quite interesting. By day it starts in the 50's F and as the day progresses, the temperature rises to 70s F and higher.  Sitting in the sun I strip down, but then if I move to the shade I am cold even with a jacket.  Again I am reminded of what it's like in a semi-desert climate.  At night we absolutely freeze and put on the space heaters.  

We are also not used to the dry climate.  We are itching a lot, and having to use a lot of body cream, which in humid Playa is not necessary.  What I thought were mosquito bites are actually just dry skin.  It's not an issue, just something we've noticed in this more arid climate.  I am sure if we were here for any length of time we would just acclimate.  

One of the highlights of our trip was visiting the art galleries and stores in the Fabrica La Aurora (  We knew San Miguel was filled with art, but I didn't expect the scale, quality and diversity. The gallery has around 60 stores all in one location, which seems to wind around in a labyrinth.  From home decor to paintings to cafes, I would recommend spending a couple of hours walking around.  Even San Miguel itself is filled with art. It seems around every corner is another gallery, another art store with beautiful creations.  No wonder San Miguel is known as a haven for artists.

We have also had several great meals.  Bhaji, just off the Jardin, has some of the most delicious Indian food we've ever had.  The space is quite small, with roughly 8 tables, but the prices are low and location very convenient.  One evening we went to the rooftop bar, Luna, at the Rosewood Hotel.  The bar overlooks the whole city and at night provides a panoramic view of all the sparkling lights from the churches and buildings.  There are ample heaters and blankets to keep one warm in this open air establishment.  It is a must see.  And right around the corner is Calenda, a lovely restaurant with live jazz music.  The food is exquisite, international cuisine, and coupled with a visit to Luna, makes for an unforgettable evening.

In our short 3 days in San Miguel I am realizing how much we have not seen.  Last night at the Rosewood Hotel we discovered this whole new neighborhood with great shops and galleries, that we unfortunately won't have time to visit.  We are beginning to realize why San Miguel has become such a popular spot to live for expats; it's beautiful, with a great artistic culture. The food is very good, people friendly and it's much more like living in Mexico, compared with Playa del Carmen which is vacationland.

Allan in front of the church

Allan in our hotel room

Me at the Fabrica de Aurora

In the Calderoni B&B
Tree of Life, an example of the great art work in San Miguel

Friday, November 8, 2013

Celebrating my 36th Birthday in Playa

I know I've talked about many times the wonderful friends we have made in Playa del Carmen.  They are not just friends, they are more like family.  And there is no better group (besides my immediate family) to help celebrate my 36th birthday. 

Allan reserved a few lanes at the local bowling alley, Planet Bowl, for a group of about 20 expats from our close circle of friends.  We could have certainly invited more and easily had the group up to 40 people, but with big numbers it is much harder to organize and enjoy everyone's company.  We have been meaning to visit the bowling alley for about a year but have never gotten around to it - no one had in our group.  In fact when we first moved to Playa 5 years ago the alley was still under construction and did not open till 4 years later.  And the lanes were like you would find in the states - great condition, and really just a lot of fun.  

We bowled for a couple of hours.  As you would expect with a group ranging in age from 36 (me) and then the next youngest in her mid 50s and then up to mid 70s, some opted not to bowl due to aches and pains.  The rest, myself included, were quite rusty and posted scores that would be quite low for the general population of bowlers.  Granted I had the highest score on both rounds, but I am also about ½ the age of everyone in attendance. 

Really the bowling was about having fun. Though Allan and I had a friendly competition going - I wanted to beat him, and vice versa.  And with 2 knee replacements, Allan was beaten, but not by much!  I wonder how well i would fare around this group when I'm at retirement age?

To make the night even more special our good friend Scottie made a delicious white cake with strawberries and buttercream frosting.  It was so decadent and usually not on my diet, but it came by special request by me and I was not going to pass up a generous helping.  And of course the cake was one of the most delicious ever.  People joke that being invited to Scottie's home for dinner is like going to a gourmet restaurant - you are rarely disappointed with the food and the experience.

After bowling a smaller group of 7 of us capped the night off with a visit to a local Japanese restaurant.  I swear I never get tired of spending time with my friends.  When I don't see them for several days I start to miss them.  Allan and I have just been blessed with great families and great friends!

Jim, Allan, Jill, Marilou, Trudy, Phillip and I at the Japanese restaurant

Vicki and Scot

Jill, Missy, Gayle and Trudy

Dean, Jim, Scottie and Phillip

Marilou, Rick, Allan and I

Jim, Marge, Neil and Jan

Chris and Betsy