Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Stop off in Tequisquiapan

The main square in Tequisquiapan

So this time we figured we would miss all the traffic in the DF by going through on a Sunday morning. Unfortunately, we somehow ended up on the wrong side of the perimeter highway and were forced to go through the middle of the city, past the cathedral, past the Zocalo, past the Presidential office and past what we thought were the beginnings of a big political or labor demonstration on the Zocalo, but which turned out to be a national Boy Scout jamboree.

The Zocalo in Mexico City with the cathedral which is located over the site of the main temples of Tenochtitlan

Our map was useless, and it was only my memories of the Conquista that got us back to the right side of town and on the highway to Querétaro. I recognized the name Tacuba (one of the cities on the old Lake Texcoco shore where Cortes headed on the night he tried to sneak out of Mexico City, la noche triste, but got caught on the causeway.) We just followed the signs from the Zocalo, which had been the center of the city of Tenochtitlan, to Tacuba. Sometimes knowing a little history pays off, not often, but sometimes.

Since our hotel reservations in Querétaro did not start until Monday, we decided to stay a night in Tequisquiapan, about an hour and a half north of the DF and half an hour from Querétaro, which had come highly recommended by Mexican friends in Atlanta and by people in Mexico. It is not in the guidebooks.

After a cobbled-stoned detour from hell, we finally arrived. By then I was prepared to hate the place, but how can you resist a beautiful, totally updated, and well-maintained and charming village that is doing everything possible to make visitors welcome.

Tequisquiapan typical street scene

It was originally built around thermal springs, but most of those are no longer in evidence, even though the hotels still call themselves spas. Everything is in easy walking distance, most of the center is blocked to traffic (of which there is very little anyway), the square is surrounded by restaurants and cafes, and there are at least two very nice handicraft markets with plenty of opportunities to buy the local basketry. Tequisquiapan is also a wine capital, mostly for export, and cheese. The idea being to buy your local wine and cheese and carry it home in a local basket. (No, we did not drink or eat any, nor buy a basket which are much more reasonable than Gulla or Cherokee baskets, next time.)

Outdoor crafts market

Tequisquiapan baskets

Monday morning we had breakfast on the square, a five minute walk from our hotel, and met Juan, our waiter. He knew a little English, but mostly we spoke Spanish, fractured though it may be. I have found that together, Christiane and I make up one adequate Spanish speaker.

Breakfast on the plaza

We talked about the town, the church, fiestas, etc., and during the conversation he said one very interesting thing. We were talking about how clean and well-maintained Tequisquiapan was compared to other places we had been, and wondered if it was because of good municipal government. That had never entered his mind apparently. He reckoned that it was because it only had Mexican tourists, mostly from the DF. He pointed out that San Miguel de Allende (the heartland for American expats about which many books have been written and about which the expats are very proud of the economic benefits they have brought to the locals) used to be nice too, but it has become dirty and run down because too many people who did not have a stake or attachment to it had moved in and were not taking care of it. Presumably the same could be said for Cuernavaca, Lake Chapala, Acapulco and Mazatlan, etc. You don’t learn stuff like that from speaking to tour guides in English. Learning a little of the local language not only makes life easier, but you sometimes get these little nuggets. We will be revisiting Juan and Tequisquiapan again as it is only a ½ hour from Querétaro and is very relaxing, plus we gotta check out the wine and cheese and maybe buy a basket.

On the way out of town we took the back way to Querétaro, and passed through some interesting towns and villages and got a good look at El Bernal, which looks like the mountain in Encounters of the Third Kind.

El Bernal

After we arrived, we started calling agents to visit houses, and thus met Jaime. He took us to a couple of places on Monday, and then on Tuesday, took us to two more. Most were not exactly what we were looking for, but he had a good handle on our price range, less than $6,000 Mex a month in the historic district. At the second house Tuesday, we noticed a vacant house nearby and asked the nextdoor neighbor what the story was. Norma and Christiane and Norma’s little grandson hit it off, and soon French music was playing and they were dancing.

I stayed with Jaime and Norma’s son and talked real estate, manly stuff. After much searching and visiting other neighbors we obtained the owner’s phone number and are meeting at the house this evening. Rent is within our range, and the place has been vacant for 8 months, and it has a papaya tree in the patio, a real live papaya tree, three bedrooms, two baths, lots of light and off street parking within a block of a market, and just downhill from the Templo de la Cruz where the Franciscans organized and outfitted missions to Arizona and New Mexico, and where one of the main national fiestas with Indian groups from all over the republic dancing, etc. for a week at Easter and Holy Cross day in September. If it looks as good as we think, it will be just right for us, and we will have good neighbors to watch out for us. But we don’t want to get our hopes up too much, because the owner is “muy dificil” according to Jaime. We will need to talk around the issue and get to know each other before ever mentioning any business, and hopefully Norma will put in a good word. Vamos a ver. (Should I italicize Spanish words?)


The owner was indeed "muy dificil". She wanted a six month deposit in lieu of a Mexican co-signer, and the house showed that it had been unoccupied for a year. Nevertheless, we are trying to work something out. If we cannot come to agreement by noon tomorrow, I have told Jaime to set up an appointment to sign a contract with another apartment we saw after meeting La Dueña. It is nearly new, well laid-out, closer to the center; but it is not as sunny, has no Papaya tree or garden, and parking is around the corner. However, it is in a better neighborhood, has two bedrooms, two full baths, a "cocina integral", whatever that is, and a study.

This morning, Wed., we spent three hours at the Express Cafe near the hotel talking with Maria and Bob and their Canadian friend Carl about everything from insurance to furnishings to health care to . . . Our Dutch friends from the other night who were supposed to have left Querétaro yesterday, decided to stay an extra day, and they dropped by to fill us in on what they had found out about the city, including where the nearest Carrefour (French super-duper market) is and how great the saucisson is there. They are very impressed with the city and think it will only get better. This is based on extensive world travel (they travel 2 months a year). The European system does have its advantages.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Leaving Cuernavaca

We’re baack (in Querétaro).

I am writing this next to the pool of our hotel, which is in a garden. The hotel is inexpensive, has a single bare bulb on the wall, and no internet or telephones; but it does have TV, and it is in a garden! There is a religious festival at a nearby church and occasionally a cannon, or a super big cherry bomb-plus, goes off which can affect my typing. Happily, the explosions die down by 11:00 PM and don’t start before 8:30 AM. Having a Corona Extra at hand helps, as long as I am not taking a sip when the cannon goes off.

Since the hotel in Queretaro was full for the weekend, we decided to visit Cuernavaca. The trip should have taken 2 hours to the DF (Distrito Federal, Mexico City), a half hour to go around, and an hour to Cuernavaca for a total of 3.5 hours, but . . .

The countryside became greener south of Queretaro and the trees were more than stunted shrubs as had been the case since Oklahoma. We were entering mesoamerica. There were entire hillsides covered in trees as we neared the DF that we did not remember from 30 years ago. That may just be because we could not afford to travel much back then (falta de $$) or it could mean there has been an attempt to stop the denuding of the countryside. In any case, it was a welcome relief from the chichimeca desert area that stretches from around Querétaro to the Great Plains and points north and west.

The trip through the DF actually took 1.5 hours of stop and go traffic in the four lane periferico. This happens so often that in certain areas the street vendors set up shop between lanes of traffic, selling souvenirs and water to the traveling public.


The trip to Cuernavaca out of the Valley of Mexico and into Morelos made up for it though. Not only was the road in excellent condition (better than anything we saw from Illinois to the DF), but all the chilangos (DFers) were driving like hell to get out of the city so things really moved along (around 80 mph for them, 70 mph for me). The bougainvilla and jacaranda that lined the highway made it seem like a walk in an incredibly colorful garden. Then we hit Cuernavaca.

Plaza de Armas from the Palacio de Cortes

Cuernavaca (a corruption of the Nahuatl name of Cuauhnahuac which the conquistadors had trouble getting their tongues around) is not like we remembered it. When we visited in 1975 or 1976, it was a garden on a hillside. It was clean, springlike, with clear skies, and flowers, flowers, flowers. Now it has clearly seen better days. Pollution is as bad as the DF, and the gardens don’t seem to have the flowers they once had, but instead are made up of various tropical trees and shrubs and vines, but only in varying shades of green. This kind of reminded me of Atlanta when we first visited in 1975, before Atlantans found out there were more types of flowers than azaleas and dogwoods for two weeks in spring. And the hills seem steeper than they did when we were in our 30s.

It is no longer a haven from the hustle and bustle of the DF either. The Plaza de Armas, where we had repaired for lunch, was taken over by a rap concert so loud that you could not hear yourself think for a couple of blocks around it. The waiters in the sidewalk cafes were upset because of the noise and the dwindling clientel; the mariachis had to take refuge under a nearby bridge and looked a little bewildered, as if asking why anyone would prefer rap to real music; and one had to shout to be heard and even then the conversation was incomplete. This probably attracts a certain type of person, but the folks with money tend to go elsewhere.

Luckily we met Miguel at an adjoining table before the “music” started and were able to carry on a conversation during the breaks. He heard us speaking French and said something to Christiane in French. Because of the noise he moved to our table, and we carried on an interesting conversation for the next couple of hours in French, Spanish, and English, and if we had spoken them (which he did) German and Japanese. His adoptive parents were German and Japanese and he worked and studied in both countries, plus the US and France. He does not like Spain, BTW.

The conversation touched on politics in Mexico (the current liberalization from the old oligarchy is an illusion), racism (it is worse in Mexico than in Europe, hard to believe!), unemployment and underemployment (the waiters make $18 a week US and folks with a BA can’t find a job in their specialty), the level of higher education (training for a job versus education for an informed life), and the situation in Cuernavaca where Miguel was born, but only visits now from the DF where he lives and works (like most everyone else).

He said that middle class folks began moving out of Cuernavaca to places like Toluca, Morelia, Puebla and Queretaro when the kidnappings began and things have been going downhill ever since. Kidnappings!?!?!? Coupled with the fact there is no real industry here (Cuernavaca has been a vacation town since before the conquest, and housed Moctezuma, Cortes and Maximillian), Miguel does not see much of a future for Cuernavaca as things stand.

We had not heard of the kidnappings, but we had heard of the influx of narcotraficantes who are buying and building big gated mansions to protect themselves from the kidnappers and other narcotraficantes, presumably, while they enjoy the truly delightful climate of Cuernavaca.

Things are just not like we remembered them. There are still beautiful places, but you need a car to see most of them since they are outside the center of town. Queretaro, a world heritage site, is looking better and better all the time; plus it’s flat.

Palacio de Cortes

Part of Diego Rivera's Conquest of Cuernavaca in the Palacio de Cortes

What’s to see in Cuernavaca? This is where Cortes built his palace starting in 1526 (what was happening in Europe in 1526 only four years after the conquest and only 34 years after Columbus discovered America?). The palace was owned by the Cortes family for about 100 years and then had its ups and downs. It now houses a really nice museum that does not overload you with stuff but has information that I have not found elsewhere on the first year or two of the conquest. It also has one of Diego Rivera’s best murals, on the history of Cuernavaca from its conquest in 1520 or 21 to Zapata, one of my heroes, in the 1910s.

Barranca Amanalco looking up

One scene in the mural depicts the difficulty of the conquest of the city presented by the barrancas that protected the east and west sides of the city. Barrancas are nearly vertically sided ravines cut through the volcanic ash from the innumerable eruptions of nearby volcanoes like Popocatepetl (which is getting active again) and Ixtacihuatl, two volcanoes I used to see everyday in Cholula and which are known throughout Mexico. The barrancas around Cuernavaca are as deep as 45 meters (130 feet), and Cortes and his men, with the help of the Tlaxcaltecans, cut trees to fall across the ravines to act as bridges, but even so it was not an easy task. In Cortes’ relaciones to the King of Spain, he noted that there were two ways into Cuernavaca without crossing the barrancas, but at the time he did not know about them so they had a tough time of it and no horses.

16th Century Cathedral with skull and cross bones over the main entrance.

The cathedral was begun about the same time and looks more like a fortress, which it was, than a Franciscan monastery, which it also was. Murals dating to the 1620s (what was happening in New England in the1620s?) in the cathedral were found in the 1950s beneath layers of other frescoes and paint, and depict the death of the first Mexican saint, San Felipe in 1596. San Felipe was crucified by the Japanese along with several dozen other Franciscans who were trying to evangelize Japan. And to think that Miguel now speaks Japanese.

The quesadillas have arrived. Another Corona, por favor.

Jardin Bordas

After visiting the 18th century Bordas garden (really something to see and with a unique history) where Maximillian built his palace and dallied with the local Indian ladies prior to his arrest and execution, we had lunch in the imperial house. Later we took a siesta next to an artificial lake where Zapata and his men were photographed in 1910 or thereabouts, sombreros, rifles and all. Christiane probably remembers this visit more because of the art exhibit of Jose Juarez whose paintings reminded us both of her brother Daniel’s early work. Seems Jose studied in France too.

Lago at Jardin de Bordas

Restaurant at Hacienda de Cortes

Later we went to Cortes’ hacienda on the edge of town and a couple of barrancas over. This was a sugar plantation on a scale unlike anything I have ever seen on St. Croix or Puerto Rico. Cortes tried to impress the local Indians to do the dirty work, but they refused, and instead he brought in African slaves from the islands. The details on how all this played out must be fascinating, and are something for future research.

Sugar warehouse at Hacienda de Cortes

Today the ruins are used for banquets and weddings, etc. This weekend Sara from New York (according to our taxi driver) is getting married. Out taxi driver did not have a clue who Sara was, but says that everyone in the vicinity now knows Sara. Not only did he drive her around when she was down looking for places to get married, but he escorted various family members to Xochicalco (an exceptionally important archaeological site) and elsewhere. Seems that Cuernavaca has been conquered yet again.

Hacienda de Cortes Ruins held together by roots.

Hacienda de Cortes Ruins

Tomorrow, on to Tequisquiapan for a night before returning to Queretaro. Tequisquiapan was recommended to Christiane by the owners of a couple of Mexican restaurants in Atlanta, one in Midtown and one in Decatur. The owners were parents of kids at the Atlanta International School (muy caro $$$$). Tequisquiapan is turning out to be the replacement of Cuernavaca for chilangos. During the week it is pretty calm, but on weekends the influx of folks from the DF causes traffic jams in the little village, and I suspect real estate prices are skyrocketing.

The beer has run out, and it’s time to go read the book we just bought at Sanborns. Sanborns? That’s another story.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

To Cuernavaca

We are heading for Cuernavaca until Monday and may be out of touch until then. We always talked about retiring there when we lived here before, and figure we need to give it a shot before we settle down in Queretaro. It was a retreat for Moctezuma and Cortes and Maximillian, but we understand it is becoming more like Mexico City with the crowds and crime. Too bad.

Caroline, e-mail your mother.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Young photographers at Plaza Guerrero, Querétaro

We got up, packed, had breakfast in the hotel and left SLP with few regrets. It has a large historic district, but was, on the whole, depressing. Maybe it was because it was Sunday evening, but I really did not take to it.

A couple of hours down the road we arrived at Querétaro. The intersections with the limited-access highway were confusing, and I am still not sure how they work; but suffice it to say we ended up in the wrong part of town and found our way to the center on surface streets with a map. After much driving around the center of town, we parked under the Plaza de la Constituyentes, and walked to the tourism office to find a cheap hotel. We ended up at the Señorial for significantly less than either Zacatecas or SLP. And we have a nicer room than SLP and in-room wireless broadband.

After walking back to get our car and deposit it and our stuff at the hotel, we bought a map of the “colonias” (neighborhoods) and a couple of newspapers to look for rentals. We then headed out to see a nearby colonia called Jacarandas (just because we liked the name and had fond memories of bougainvilla growing in jacarandas from 30 years ago). We also walked along the Rio Querétaro which runs along the north side of center of town.

Before our walk, we asked the hotel about renting apartments and houses. They indicated a little callejon nearby that had some places for rent. At the corner of this street we stopped to get some coffee and ask around. The owner of the café told us about a group of expats that occasionally meet there, and gave us a lady’s e-mail. We will meet her in a few minutes to get the expat view of Queretaro. Further down the street we found several places for rent, and took down numbers. This morning we called one, and will be meeting an agent later this afternoon to visit a couple of houses. You can probably see the shift in out attention from sightseeing to the nuts and bolts of moving and living in Mexico. Things are getting serious.

It was immediately apparent that Querétaro (still can’t pronounce it properly) was heads and tails above SLP, and even Zacatecas. It is lively, well taken care of, with a large historic district and parks everywhere. The streets closed to traffic often have steps, and the steps have ramps for bicycles and the handicapped, unusual in Mexico. The closed streets in SLP had armed police to make sure people did not try to drive in them, whereas in Querétaro curbs served this purpose. In Zacatecas the distances on the map seemed short when you actually walked from place to place, but here the distances seem much longer than they appear on the map since the city blocks follow the colonial grid system.

There are streets and squares loaded with nifty little restaurants and outdoor cafes, some with live music. We had a great little meal in one while watching people walk by and listening to a guy singing and playing a keyboard. On the TV inside the restaurant was the University of Georgia woman’s gymnastics team (recognized the coach) beating some other teams. All in all, a welcoming and homey feel.

We had a good chat with Maria and her husband Bob. She invited us to their colonial house that they fixed up a couple of years ago. It has two bedrooms, 2 baths, a study, living, dining and kitchen and a central patio. It is really nice and has all the authentic touches that only a Mexican architect who loves old houses could come up with, and they have done a nice job of furnishing it. They bought it for $50,000 US and paid another $50,000 to redo the floors, plumbing, put in doorways, etc. plus buy furnishings. For about $100,000 they now have a 1,600 square foot home that is a five minute walk from museums, shops, parks, etc. Not bad.

Later we visited a couple of houses for rent with an agent. One had some real character, but was a little pricey. The other was a typical house in our price range and in a nice neighborhood, but about a 20 minute walk from downtown. It was nothing special so we will keep looking. We will have to leave the hotel on Thursday so we will take a look at houses in Cuernavaca the rest of the week.

Tonight we will walk across town to a French restaurant where there is a string quartet from the state philharmonic playing to meet with Maria, Bob and some of their friends. M and B are pretty liberal. She was an assistant attorney general for West Virginia. What a breath of fresh air. Queretaro may be one of Mexico’s best kept secrets, and I hope they keep it that way. Didn’t take many pictures since have been in Querétaro.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Zacatecas to San Luis Potosi

Spent yesterday morning (Feb 11) trying to get the blog to publish photos where I wanted them, and messing with other internet stuff. Since it had been a week since we had done a laundry, Christiane took the opportunity to take our laundry to a lavanderia. It cost $14 (pesos use the same symbol we use for dollars) per kilo. Today in San Luis, the hotel charges $15 for a shirt. She also got her hair done and found out all the gossip in the neighborhood.

Imagine working here with a candle, no air pumps and a rudimenary pick and basket.

Around 11AM, we walked to the El Eden silver mine, about a 10-15 minute walk from our hotel. It was the first silver mine in Zacatecas (1586 although silver had been found there and the town really got its permanent start in 1546. The entrance is at Level 4 in a little tram that you cannot sit up in for the first few hundred meters. The next two hours were on foot. There are three levels above and three levels below, but tourism is restricted to Level 4, and in 1975 or 1976, all the floors were leveled with concrete, stairs and bridges were built, shops for minerals and souvenirs were put in and the place was wired. Despite the modern touches it was an very interesting and educational experience. I had always heard that the Indian slaves who were forced to work there died in great numbers from accidents and the poor working conditions. Seeing the enormity of what they accomplished and imagining how they climbed up and down the excavated veins of silver which extended in some cases several hundred meters nearly straight down and sometimes only a few centimeters wide (the excavations had to be wider than the veins in those areas) on flimsy ladders, carrying baskets of ore and using primitive digging devices and light sources, made us really appreciate what their lives must have been like. The photos show what appear to be large caves that are connected by tunnels. But all of these “caves” were excavated by hand into the solid rock.

This was all solid rock until the 1500s, not a cave

At the end we took an elevator to the surface and walked back to the center of town near the cathedral.

After lunch, a long nap, a church visit or two, and dinner, we headed off to La Tambora which we had missed the night before. The square where they were supposed to be was occupied by a group of clowns who noticed us in the crowd (being a head taller than most anyone else and with white hair and a beard, I kind of stood out.) It was the first time I had been called a “guero” (“blondie”) in 25 plus years, and the first time we had been called “viejos” (“oldies”). We continued on past the cathedral and La Tambora was just getting started.

After a few minutes of music, a large bass drum, a snare drum, two clarinets, a trombone, and a couple of trumpets, we headed off through the historic district following a burro followed by the band and us. We were the only gringos, and it turned out that most of the crowd were tourists from other cities in Mexico with only a few Zacatecanos.

The Burro

The Band

Por todo mal, Mezcal. Por todo bien tambien!

Climbing a callejon to the square in front of Santo Domingo church, we noticed that some of the people were carrying little cups hanging from ribbons around their necks, and that another guy was passing out a clear liquid in little doses from a little cantine. I assumed they were part of a tour group. At the next square, the band stopped to play and people danced. A little girl dressed up in a white dress and white fur coat and her parents in black suits were part of this group with little cups. We never did figure out why she was dressed, not her birthday, not a first communion. No sabemos nada.

A boy of around 12 had a camera and informed us it did not have any batteries, but he was taking pictures, anyway. I thought he was asking for money for batteries, but no, he was just chatting with the gringos as any polite little boy should do (assuming the gringos speak Spanish, of course). His only word of English was “thank you”. I took his picture with Christiane, and he was fascinated with the digital image, and he insisted on “taking” a picture of the digital picture with his camera that did not work. Later, I saw him having girls take his and his sister’s picture with his camera and saw him taking pictures of the band who actually posed for him. Great gimmick to meet the girls and get to know people. He would carefully roll the film after every shot, and I don’t think these folks knew his camera was missing batteries.

At that first stop at Santo Domingo, a guy came up and gave us little cups too, and indicated that the burro was loaded down with mezcal. I figured he had bought the cups for us and accepted them, asking how much the tequila cost and thinking that this must be a trick to get tourists to shell out the pesos. But I was wrong, it turns out the cups and the mescal are free, provided by the local tourism board. This was movable cocktail party complete with music! From that point on people would offer me a drink to our mutual health (free of course, but the sentiment was real). There was a kid in a coat and tie helping pass out the mescal. He and the guy with the burro must have passed out 3-4 gallons by the time we left, and I wondered about the kids in the US who have to have someone else sell liquor at check out. This kid did not touch a drop as far as I could tell.

We ended up meeting a whole bunch of tailors from Puebla who were in Zacatecas for a conference, and we danced along with them (yep, C and I actually danced, and not just once). The national president of the tailors this year is from Puebla and owns Hermanos Solis not far from the Zocalo (main square) there. Puebla is where Christiane used to teach at the university, and where I worked for the German foundation in archaeology. It was like a reunion, remembering places and things we had in common.

Finally, I took my last “copa” to fortify against the chilly night air, we said goodbye to the folks from Puebla and headed back to the hotel. What a great night.

Yet another Cathedral

The next morning,this morning, we packed up, paid up and headed for San Luis Potosi, a couple of hours down the road. We had always heard that SLP was a big industrial town (500,000+), and never had much desire to visit, but we were surprised to find that it has a very large historic district, the center of which is blocked off for pedestrians on Sunday afternoon. There seem to be fewer hotels in the historic center than in Zacatecas. Apparently, it has fewer tourists than Zacatecas even though it has a lot more to see. Maybe they could use a Tambora.

We plan to drop by the mariachi square for dinner and music later. (This was a big disappointment as it was so cold no one was around and unlike Garibalid in Mexico City, there were no restaurants around the square so we settled for enchiladas at a little cafe with recorded music. Ahhh, La Paloma.)

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Zacatecas 2

This should have been posted on Feb 10, but the Blogger servers have been acting up again. And the wysiwyg editor isn't exactly wysiwyg, and it is a little cumbersome to place photos correctly. Please excuse.

I looked over what I have written so far and realized that my posts are pretty long. I try to keep them short and to the point, but in the process I have to leave out so many things. I will add some links to the Kodak site so those of you who would rather just look at pictures can just skip to them.

Last night we went to the only French restaurant in Zacatecas. The owner was a young guy who had come to Guanajuato a few years ago to visit his sister who was studying Spanish. He met a Mexican girl and got married, and has had the restaurant for the last couple of years. The head of the Alliance Francaise and he are the only French folks in town. He makes a pretty good fondue and crepes. His sister ended up marrying a Mexican too. He says it’s something in the air.

We had a good conversation with a businessman from Leon at dinner. Things got around to politics at one point. It turns out that ½ the population of Zacatecas lives in the U.S. from a total population of 1.5 million. The impact of these immigrants, probably illegal mostly, is vast in Zacatecas. Nearly every family has someone in the U.S. A few years ago the governor of the state got together with these folks and the immigrants contributed $1 million, the state government another million, and local businesses another million. The money was used for infrastructure projects, and because the immigrants knew how government can actually work for them, from their experience in the U.S., they made sure the money did not just disappear into some politician’s pockets. Pretty cool.

Meanwhile the front pages of the papers were full of Tancredo’s statements about being at war with Mexico over the border, the vigilantes along the border who want to shoot first and ask questions later, and Bush’s waffling on the immigrant issue. Makes one proud to be a gringo.

After dinner we went to the nearby La Goitia square near the market and were entertained by the state brass band. The son of the conductor played the triangle in his little red coat, and generally entertained the crowd.
La Goitia Square and the Zacatecas State Band

Today, Feb 10, we visited some museums. The mask museum was very interesting and had over 5,000 masks. The range and level of creativity was incredible. Unfortunately, there was little information on where they came from and when, and only general indications on what they were used for. Most were used in various religious festivals, particularly the Moors vs the Christians and the Easter passion plays. Their collection of prehispanic ceramics was one of the best I have seen for Tzintzuntzan and Chupicuaro; and were obviously from burials with no provenience, meaning they were from robbed burials. Too bad.

Two of the "Three Kings"?

A Were-jaguar and a Jaguar

Assorted Devils

Assorted Christians.

African-American masks mean different things depending on where they are made and used. In Veracruz on the coast they represent the ravages of slavery. In Oaxaca they are comic relief and have no reference to slavery.

Before lunch we happened on a high school band competition in the Plaza de Armas next to the cathedral. They had a flag escort contest, mostly with the girls, and a bugle and drum corps contest, mostly the guys. We just sat on the steps watching with the parents and other bystanders, moaning when they made a mistake and cheering when they did a good job. In the background, workmen continued to carry in sacks of concrete to the office building next door.

Band Competition next door to the Cathedral

Flag Escort Team

Tonight we are going to La Tambora, a uniquely Zacatecas tradition of a band with a big drum that plays music on Friday and Saturday nights. They sometimes walk through the streets, cheered on by people following them and from the balconies of houses along the way. Don’t know what will happen tonight. (Missed the Tambora, must only be Saturdays this time of year. Will try again tonight.)

Thursday, February 09, 2006


We arrived in Zacatecas on Feb 8 (Wed.). On our way out of Laredo that morning I asked around for the Paisano stickers and found that they have tightened up on that program, and you have to pick them up from Mexican immigration rather than 7-11s and such on the American side of the border. So we skipped that.

Cathedral in Zacatecas

The guide books had said that getting car papers would take 2 hours, so we were pleased that it only took a half hour. It is very well organized, one window for the FMT (tourist visa), another to pay for the visa, another to copy the necessary papers for the car (cost of about 25 cents), and another to turn the papers over to the car guy and get our sticker. And unlike the rest of Mexico they take American Express. The guide books and a lot of the chatter on the web said to make copies ahead of time to save time and money; but paying a few cents to get the correct copies in the format the car guy needed really saved more time and aggravation. The only problem was when they asked for the car title, which we had left in Atlanta. I gave them the registration instead, and that was really what they meant anyway. We went across at Bridge 2, not the main bridge over the Rio Grande on the interstate. This was the same bridge we used when we used to make border runs in the old days, and is the one used mostly by Mexican citizens. We were the only gringos, and the lines were non-existent. Don’t know how long it would have taken if we had taken the main bridge as recommended by the guidebooks.

So we were on our way.

About 15 kms down the road we got stopped by customs. The guy asked what we had brought with us (he could see that the back seat was filled up, of course), and from nowhere my Spanish came out that we had only brought what we needed for 6 months living in Mexico. That seemed to be the right answer, and when I pushed the button and it came up green they did not check us.

Another 15 kms down the road the federal drug police in their black uniforms stopped us, but I guess we did not fit the profile of drug runners, and they flagged us through.

The toll road to Monterrey was excellent after the first few kms, and after an hour and a half, we bypassed Monterrey and continued on to Saltillo where we stopped for lunch. They have a very nice cathedral and square, but not much else. We had our first gorditas (tortillas opened like pita bread and stuffed with typical Mexican fillings) and continued on to Zacatecas. Unfortunately, the toll road ended in Saltillo, so it was two lanes and lots of trucks for the next 4+ hours arriving in Zacatecas around 5:30 PM. Only came close to getting killed once, and it was my fault.

Zacatecas is a beautiful little city of about 300,000 that is very similar to Guanajuato.

Alameda park.

Like Guanajuato, it is a silver mining town in a narrow valley in a desert environment with all the colorful buildings concentrated along the bottom of the valley. But it is a lot easier to get around by car than Guanajuato. Even so, we found a hotel (Finca del Minero) with a parking garage, left our car there, and have walked ever since.

Baroque facade of the cathedral

We strolled around town last night. The cathedral is in an incredible baroque style, the late 19th century theaters and markets, etc. are all built of rose colored stone that responded well to the setting sun. We had dinner in a little hole in the wall that turned out to contain a patio, a bar on one side, and a restaurant on another that was warm and snug in the chilly night air.

El Pueblito Restaurant

The hotel was about the same price as a run-down Ramada Inn we stayed at in Oklahoma City, but it is very well maintained, well appointed room, with a patio, nice restaurant, wireless internet in the lobby, and right in the middle of things. The bath room is tiled to the nth degree, and the plumbing works, contrary to my experience with many historic hotels in the US.

This morning we took the teleferico from our side of the valley to highest hill around, called La Bufa, which Pancho Villa took in 1914, thus commanding the city which quickly surrendered. It did not hurt that he had 19,500 men and 3-4 times as much artillery as the federales who had about 9,000 men.

The cathedral with La Bufa in the background

The museum at the top was about the 1914 revolution, and used newspaper articles to tell the story. This was only partially successful since the newspapers of the times often admitted they did not know what was going on, and there was as much double dealing among the rebels as there was with the federales, and it was not always clear on which side a particular newspaper was. And of course the U.S. was playing both sides against the middle. Needless to say, it was very hard to figure out what happened, and I did not volunteer that Pop had fought Pancho Villa when he and Unc were down in Texas before WWI. In fact, I tried to keep a low profile, as the ticket taker looked like Pancho Villa!

A view from La Bufa towards the city

We walked down the hill to town, which was very steep and much like coming down a pyramid in the old days, lots and lots of stone steps. Amazing how old you feel when your legs turn to rubber doing something you used to take for granted. I wonder if I will ever be able to climb the Pyramid of the Sun, much less places like Uxmal with no hand holds.

After lunch we took a siesta, and I sat down to write this up.

But there are some safety issues

BTW, Nick, we did not know what day we would be leaving Atlanta until late Friday morning. The last two weeks were more than hectic, and a couple of nights before we left, we found that Kyra could not take Mignon, which means I had to find someone from scratch; and then the morning we were to leave I got up and looked for the passports that I had set aside in an envelope in my backpack. I could only find Christiane’s! Panic! We went through everything in the apartment, everything in the car, everything we had moved to the basement twice or three times, and still no passport. We then went through the garbage, still nothing. The more I thought about it the more I realized the passport had to be in the backpack, and just could not be in any of the other places we had spent 2 hours looking. I went back to the envelope and went through each folder, and not just the passport folder. Low and behold, it had slipped into the folder on Christiane’s social security information. Much chastened we jumped in the car and headed off to see Jack. The only ones we remembered to call were Mamita and Social Security who, even today, have not told us what the hang up is.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Getting out of Atlanta

We had hoped to leave Atlanta on Jan 21, just after Christiane got back from visiting her family in France. We were not ready to close on the sale of my share of New South Associates (which took place on Jan 30), so we decided to use the time to find a real estate management company to help up us rent out our apartments.

On Monday Jan 23, we hired one and decided at the same time to move out of our 2 bdrm apartment upstairs in the main house and into our 1 bdrm apartment above the garage before we left for Mexico. We had originally planned to put off moving apartments until May when we got back from exploring Mexico. We spent the next two weeks packing up, cleaning up, and painting the apartment to get it ready for renting and moving into the smaller apartment. The day after we finished, we packed up the car with 3 months of stuff for Mexico and left Atlanta. Whew!

We first headed to Springfield, IL, to visit my brother Jack. His house is in better shape than it has been in 100 years. After the fire last year, they had to redo the plumbing and the wiring. All the bathrooms are new, the kitchen is new, everything in the house had been painted, and all the curtains and trim, etc. were new and looked great, and they were working on finishing up the back porch/deck when we arrived. We got to Springfield on Friday, Feb 3, and visited the new Lincoln museum which is worth the visit if you ever get to the St. Louis area. On Sunday, Jack and Judy had a Super Bowl party at Jack's store with half a dozen big screen and projector TVs. Too bad he does not have some computer games.

We left Springfield this morning (Feb 6), and reached Oklahoma City tonight. Hope to make Laredo tomorrow, where I will look for some Paisano stickers for the car to help us with the policia. The story is that the Mexican government is trying to attract Mexican citizens to come back and spend their U.S. money, and the Paisano stickers are meant to keep the policia from hassling them before they can spend their dollars. Every little bit helps.