As soon as we landed at the airport in Puerto Vallarta, we felt the wonderful heat of the country envelope us. The skies were clear and blue, and the smell of suntan lotion, margaritas, cold beer, spicy food, and salt water hit Junie and I as we crossed the hotel lobby. Mexico is such a perfect place for Canadians in general, and Vancouverites in particular, wanting to escape from the cold, rainy winter climate back home, with its Protestant work ethic, and let loose in a country that actually encourages people to have fun and relax.
Strapping on a weight belt, air tank & regulator, and pulling down a swim mask over my face, I duck walked across the boat deck in my fins and jumped in. The water was a little murky up top but once we descended to 60 feet or so it cleared up beautifully and I could start to appreciate all the colourful marine life around me. I had been snorkeling before in the Caribbean, where it was perhaps even more spectacular, but scuba diving took things to a new level and it was nice to not have to keep coming up for air whenever you went below the surface.
We kept returning to Vallarta over the next couple of years staying in different hotels and experimenting with the all-inclusive thing (for food that is, but not the drinks) heading into town each night to check out the local restaurants, nightclubs and bars. Thanks to an amazing bus system, a somewhat regulated (in terms of pricing) semi private arrangement with local owner/operators racing their colourful rigs (decorated with pictures of the Virgin Mary & Jesus) up and down the streets. For less than 30 cents you never had to wait more than 5 minutes for a bus.
The beaches were lovely, the hotel swimming pools truly amazing, and the friendliness of the people themselves was legendary. Putting up with intoxicated North Americans and making them feel special is an art form Mexico has truly mastered. When you combine this with perfect weather it's no wonder the hordes of tourists keep coming back.
One winter we decided to try the Caribbean side of the country and checked into a resort in the town of Playa del Carmen, an hour or so out of Cancun. Acres of lush, tropical vegetation, along with ponds and seemingly endless swimming pools, were woven in and around our hotel creating a jungle paradise. Strolling around the grounds were a multitude of peacocks, parrots, ostrich and guinea fowl, not to mention scores of pink flamingos. On this coast Mexico was really taking things up a notch.
The ocean here was the crystal clear blue water of the Caribbean and the first thing I wanted to do was go for a nice swim. Putting on my snorkeling gear and swimming out to a small reef near the hotel beach I could lose myself again in the comfort of warm ocean water and all its colourful life forms. I was even rewarded with some beautiful conch shells that weren't inhabited by any creatures.
The water here seemed to agree with Junie as well who was quite keen to go swimming as well when she wasn't sun tanning or catching up on her reading.
Another interesting aquatic feature were the the crystal clear limestone pools or cenotes and underground rivers scattered throughout the countryside that, in ancient times, had first attracted people to settle here. Open to those wanting a different type of swim, it was quite an experience climbing into these subterranean grottos for a cool dip.
This is the part of Mexico where Mayan civilization once flourished and the ruins of Chitchen Itza are the most famous evidence of this culture that mysteriously vanished. While the pyramids of Egypt were a testament to the timelessness of the soul, these pyramids made a different claim to the eternal. Here was the evidence of a people obsessed with recording the movements of stars and planets and understanding their relationship to time. The ancient Mayans knew that out of the seemingly hopeless chaos and random chance of the universe, paths crossed for a reason and, from this, were able to construct elaborate and very accurate celestial calendars.
Until now we had only thought of Mexico as a fun place to just enjoy the sun and do some heavy eating and drinking. Of course that wasn't going to change, but now we were starting to appreciate another side of this fascinating country. Listening to the guide as he explained the significance of the four-sided pyramid that was perfectly aligned with the cardinal points of the compass and each side representing a season and having exactly 91 steps, one for each day, with the top being the 365th day of the year, we were struck by the brilliant simplicity of it all.
But simple it wasn't as there were other features built into the design such as the shadows, resembling a serpent, their symbol of fertility, that appeared down the steps at the precise moments of the spring and autumn equinox. It brought home the realization that in our modern world we seem to have lost touch with seasons and their rhythm of planting, harvesting, life, death, and cycle of renewal. Fertility, with all its associated pleasure rites and phallic representation by the serpent, is of course completely at odds with the teachings of the Church and the fable it has created around Satan and the Garden of Eden.
The same Church, spearheaded by bloodthirsty, crazy for gold, conquistadors who destroyed all they could in Latin America as they ravaged their way through the civilizations of the Aztec and Inca. Fortunately, for the surviving examples of Mayan culture, these people had already peaked in their development and, for whatever unknown reason, had abandoned their cities which were consequently spared the typical approach to Spanish colonization since they remained hidden in the jungle until being recently discovered.
Mexico, however, must surely be one of the most accommodating nations on earth. After surviving the invasion and conquest of the Spanish for the past few hundred years, it now has to deal with an invasion of tourists from around the world. Embracing this modern invasion with all the qualities of a gracious host, determined at all costs to please his guests, the Mexican tourist industry has set new world standards for hospitality.
And what colours!! Whether it's the thirst quenching cocktails, the deliciously tasty food, or the costumes and finery of the pretty dance girls, everywhere you turn there are bright, vibrant colours. Not for this nation the boring beige of suburban North America. This is fiesta country with all the spicy red, green, yellow, not to mention cooling shades of blue, you can handle.
From the morning wake up call of the peacocks and huevos rancheros for breakfast, to a lazy day by the water drinking margaritas and beer, with a seafood feast for dinner followed by a sexy evening dance show after the sun goes down, every day in Mexico is perfect no matter what side of the country you are visiting.
Zihutanejo is first and foremost a fishing village and every evening we walked along the seawall into the town itself to enjoy a delicious dinner at one of the innumerable beach restaurants, and perhaps even catch a little jazz. The sun was bright and hot every day and I had to get up early to go for my swim if I wanted any coolness. Of course by then the fishermen had already brought in their catch and, with all the dorados literally jumping out of the ocean around me, it wasn't hard to see why they were so successful.
Best of all was the scuba diving. Fully certified and experienced now, having come a long way since my first dives in Puerto Vallarta, and with the water here so clear and filled with fascinating, colourful fishes, I was in heaven. On my first dive I was immediately greeted by a trio of eagle rays hovering in the surge of a rocky islet called Solitaire, along with a huge school of goatfish. Giant green moray eels curled around the rocks and coral while cornet fish and friendly puffer fish cruised around unconcerned about my presence. Barber and sergeant major fish seemed to follow everywhere and, if I looked closely in certain places, I could see tiny seahorses riding the watery plains. Curious hawk fish and guinea fowl fish would come to take a closer look while the poisonous stone fish did their best to stay camouflaged and hidden. The most interesting of all was perhaps the guitar fish, sometimes known as an angel shark, a cross between a ray and a shark with a series of gills and a shape that of course resembled a guitar.
If we did want to play tourist we could catch a boat ride over to Playa Las Gatas for lunch and a little snorkeling, or wander through town for some surprisingly hassle free shopping. Everything was perfect here and it was easy to see why it would become our go to place every winter.
On our next visit to Mexico we decided it was time to check out Mexico City, the country's capital and, with its more than 20 million inhabitants, the 2nd largest city in the world. The sheer size of the urban sprawl make the prospect of any exploration seem very daunting but, once you go underground to take advantage of the efficient metro system, it actually becomes quite easy to get around.
|Palace of Belle Arts|
Most of the principal attractions like the cathedrals and government buildings around the Plaza of Independence are built over the old temples and palaces that were razed by Cortes when in 1519 he invaded the Aztec capital, known then as Tenochtitlan, and they can all be found in the downtown core.
Though it was originally built on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco (according to legend this was the chosen site for the Aztecs to build their city because, as prophesized, that's where they found their god who had taken the form of an eagle and was perched on a cactus eating a snake) the lake, along with its elaborate system of canals and floating gardens, has long since been drained away to control the persistent flooding.
Connecting the National Palace with the Chapultepec Park is the Paseo de la Reforma, a beautiful wide avenue, modeled after the Champs-Elysees in Paris, that contains the striking Angel of Independence statue amongs other works of art. The Chapultepec gardens are themselves a wonder of life and activity, especially on a Sunday when everyone in the city seems to gravitate to its shady trees and lakes.
Mexico City also has the most museums of any city in the world and on Sundays admission is free to any national. The most famous, the Museum of Anthropology, which is considered the finest museum of archeology and anthropology in the Western hemisphere, houses a stunning collection of pre-Columbian Mexican art and culture that includes sculpture, painting, pottery and many other works.
But to get a real sense of the grandeur of these pre-Columbian times the best thing to do is take a tour to Teotihuacan and wander along the Avenue of the Dead that connects the stunning Pyramid of the Moon with the even more impressive Pyramid of the Sun, the two main temple buildings of the Teotihuacan complex.
After an exhausting climb to the top, where you then take a moment to absorb the incredible view, you then have to imagine what it must have been like to be some hapless slave or captive about to have their throat slit, or worse, while the crowd below was screaming for your blood. A precursor nation to the Aztecs, the Teotihuacans had already developed many of the principal gods of their religion, including the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, the style of temple building, as well as the ritual of human sacrifice where victims had their hearts violently torn from their bodies. The Aztecs adopted many of these same customs because, like any successful empire builder knows, it's very expedient to incorporate the beliefs and practices of conquered people into your existing government and religion if you want to make it easier for everyone to assimilate. The Catholic Church of course being the ultimate master of conquering and assimilating the Mexican people. A good example being Dia de Muertos or "Day of the Dead" originally a summer holiday celebrating and remembering family and friends that is now part of Halloween and All Saints Day all over Mexico.
It was hard to not keep taking pictures of the perfect setting with it's soft, sandy beach, funky hotels, and luxuriant vegetation all combining to create a tranquil and relaxing space.
Of course there was also the scuba diving and, over the years, I got to know the local crew quite well as they took me out to most, if not all, of the favorite spots.
Exploring the town itself we got to check out all sorts of restaurants for breakfast, lunch, and dinner picking of course our favourites for whatever it was we fancied.
And at the end of the day when the pelicans were finishing up their fishing for the day we would enjoy a "sundowner" at our favorite bar overlooking the bay.
But no matter how well you think you know a place there is always something new to discover as things are always changing and "Zihua" as the locals call it, was no exception. A different hotel with a new perspective offered a pleasant change and we quickly embraced things.
A fresh coat of paint on many of the buildings gave things a new look as well as a selection of new sculptures honoring women from around the country.
Somethings of course never change like the timelessness of the fishermen bringing in their daily catch.
Or the splendors of the local dive sites and sharing the experience with new diving acquaintances.
Or the colourful local marketplace with every manner of fruits & vegetables, meat & fish, mixed in with shoes and clothes.
As always it's hard to leave when everything is so perfect but, before the food and drinks become too much of a good thing, there's nothing wrong with realizing it's time to go home with a promise to return. Viva Mexico!!
COVID delayed our return to Zihuatanejo for a few years but, when we did get back to our home away from home hotel, everything was just as we left it. There were, however, some new public art pieces for the Day of the Dead celebration and some new, real life looking, statues along the Playa Principal to pose with.
There were some new restaurants to try that offered different ways of preparing classic dishes and there were old favourites to revisit that offered more traditional fare. And of course there was always the fabulous poolside service that makes life so easy.
The timelessness of the village itself, with its hard working traditional fishermen displaying the daily catch also demonstrated that nothing ever really changes.
The colourful markets, offering just about anything you could want to eat or wear, were also still busy with shoppers looking for a good price.
But there was something we had never done before that truly warmed our hearts and that was getting the opportunity to participate in a turtle release conservation project. Approximately 50 km up the road from where we were staying, on a deserted stretch of beach, was a turtle camp dedicated to helping the endangered Olive Ridley Turtle. Female sea turtles return to the beach, where they were hatched, to lay their eggs each year. Nesting occurs at night when the female comes on shore and laboriously digs out a 1.5 feet deep nest with her hind flippers and deposits approximately 100 eggs. To save the eggs from predators, Felix, a tireless volunteer who had made his home on this stretch of beach, patrols the beach and carefully collects the eggs and re-buries them in carefully marked nests that are fenced off and kept shaded and watered to maintain the optimum temperature.
The eggs typically hatch after 45 days and Felix directs us to one of the marked nests and shows us how to carefully dig out the baby turtles. Sure enough the squirming creatures are frantically trying to come out of the sand and we start collecting our 100 babies, each one a perfect miniature of a full grown adult, into a plastic bucket.
As sunset approached it was time to join up with the others for the big race to the ocean. This was the event we were all waiting for, or rather the turtles were, and we were there to cheer them on as they unerringly made their way to the water with their little legs going as fast as they could. It only took a few minutes and they were in the sea.