The Atrocities of Mexican Cuisine

With this article I am probably going to gross everyone out and I will have to forget all the kisses and hugs that I used to get from people.

Many times, I’ve said that I will try everything once. This also pertains to food. Mexico, with its varied cuisine has really a lot to offer. There are still parts of the country, where nothing is wasted: skin, brains, organs… they eat it all with salsa and a great big smile on their faces… 🙂

I have eaten organ meats before, I am used to it… not a big deal. Livers, harts, lungs, kidneys, tongues were on my menu since I was a kid. I will not lie, if I say that I actually love it! Every time I go back to Poland, my main dish request to my mom is turkey heart goulash. What can I say, my mom is the best cook in the world and I am going to take her heart goulash over a 5 star restaurant meal any time. Delicious!!!

So here they are, the most unusuall foods that I have never eaten before I came here…to Mexico:

Chicharon

I love saying that word, It makes me smile every time. It simply is pigs skin fried to perfection, so that it becomes a very krisp chip. They eat it with salsa or guacamole and it is delicious. We had it the first week in Mexico, everyone loved it but when the kids found out what it was, they stoped eating it 🙂 Especially Nadia…

Medula Soup

One of the best things I ate in my entire life. This soup is a tradition in some parts of this country. Medula means bone marrow, so it simply is a bone marrow soup. They use the leg bones to make it because it has a lot of marrow. You can buy them at every butcher, add some veggies, tomatoes and simmer on a low flame. It is haven in your mouth.

Tacos de Sesos

Tacos de Sesos
Tacos de Sesos

That is not my favourite but I tried it only once so maybe it was just poory prepared. These tacos are filled with pigs brain and fried afterwards. None of my family mambers was brave enough to try…I wonder why? Anyway, I will have to give it another try.

Mole de Pollo

Mole in Mexico is like a burger in the USA, pizza in Italy and croissant in France. I can not even begin to tell you how great it tastes. There are so many types because the ingredients list is long, that it would probably take me a lifetime to try them all. It is a meticoulous mix of dried chili (poblanos, ancho, passija), spices (corriander, anise, sesame seeds, cinamon etc), dried fruits (raisins) and of course the queen Chocolate. The perfect combination. Then you put in shreded chicken and voila… Fiesta is ready!!! It is also very versatile, because you can eat it with tortillas, rice, potatoes or just by itself. 🙂

Tacos de Tripitas

This dish has taken us by a complete surprise. One sunny afternoon me and the kids went to a pool party where these delicious tacos were served. We ate everything with great appetite to later find out that the tacos were filled with tripe. I guess the guts of a pig, cow, sheep, or goats taste pretty good when fried and served with salsa. 🙂

Paletas de Frutas con Chile

Ice Cream with Chili Powder
Alex working on his ice cream with chili powder

Let me tell you that it was quite overwhelming at first to find out that the Mexicans eat everything with chili and lime juice… even deserts. Yes, and as crazy as it sounds, it tastes awesome! There are many palleterias around town, where you can buy frozen bars on a stick made entirely of pure fruit and natural juice sprinkled generously with chili. My favorite is mango and apples. It never even crossed my mind to spice up my fruit before but it is genius! Robert and Nadia are on the fence but me and Alex are sold. My son even asked me to buy him chili powder, so that he can put it on all his food. Now I am just waiting to see if he puts it on cakes too… 🙂 Our Mexican friends call his “Niño Mexicano con pelos blancos” (i.e. Mexican boy with blond hair).

The Mexican cuisine continues to surprise me every day. It is so rich and delicious, that I recently told someone curious, that I do not miss Polish food at all. It spoils me with its flavors, versatility, ingredients that are fresh and unusual. If you still did not get it reading between the lines, I am in love with Mexican cuisine!!! But the best thing above all is that in this country, the poor men’s diet still consists of fresh, unprocessed, hand made from scratch, traditional foods.

Buen provecho everyone, I hope I did not spoil your apetite!!!

San Miguel de Allende stinks

As my wife points out frequently, I’m not a very social person. A geek of sorts, who loves to tinker with software, but is just not talented enough to make a fortune. A  personification of the worst of both worlds – challenging personality and lack of abilities. With a bit of imagination, these may also be the best qualities of a perfect husband, who’s got a quiet, inexpensive hobby, spends much time with his family and doesn’t cause too much trouble. Well, at least most of the time…

Yesterday, despite my contention, I found myself dragged into a social meeting. Supposedly a party, but the lack of alcohol should have given me the clue, that something was off. Clumsily trying to mingle, I got into a discussion. As usual around here, stories of people being sucked in by the San Miguel de Allende magnet were exchanged and praise of the towns beauty and it’s rich cultural life was flowing. Being socially (and otherwise too) insensitive, I dared to say, that even though I found this town very interesting and for the most part pleasant to live in, I can’t imagine  myself and my Family spending the rest of our life here. The floodgates closed immediately. The consternation that followed was visible and audible. I had to offer an explication to end the minute of silence that followed my unfortunate assertion.

The views of San Miguel de Allende seem to be binary – people either love it, or hate it – without much room for other feelings in between those two extremes. In reality, there is much to love, but also much to dislike about the town. Maybe I’m just very cynical, but despite all it’s beauty and cultural appeal, San Miguel de Allende is also trash filled, dirty, smelly and noisy city. You may not notice that at first if you only stay in El Centro, but beyond the theme park, there is real life with all it’s eyesore ugliness – bare brick favellas, dog poo covered sidewalks, sewer filled river, etc… There are no fancy restaurants, no flavored lattes, no art galleries, not even these colorful beggars. On the other hand, there are no herds of blood thirsty bandits either, no drug cartels running meth labs and illegal casinos. Just regular folks, trying to make a living, like anyone else in the World. Some will find those neighborhoods inspiring, others won’t set foot anywhere close…

We live in one of them. We love the view from the rooftop, the fact that everything we need is so close by and we adore the guy who brings our cacahuates and garbanzos every evening. At the same time, we abominate the youngsters talking loud under our windows,  roof dogs barking, roosters crawing and cars honking all night long. But that’s all part of the same experience. The beauty comes with the monstrosity, the good with the bad, yin with the yang.

The discussion about Mexico in popular media is similarly polarized. Travel and real estate magazines want you to believe Mexico is the next best thing to paradise, sensation thirsty newspapers will only mention it in relation to another wave of war on drugs fueled violence. It’s true that most Mexican cities statistically speaking are safer than majority of US metropolises, and the probability of tourist beheading in either countries is equally remote. But at the same time, majority of travelers are more concerned with kidnappings, theft, police corruption and robbery, then accidentally loosing their head (in literal, not figurative sense). Unfortunately, these statistics are less easily available and often unreliable. Therefore, beyond a handful common sense travelers, there is very few factual relations from the country. Truth is, it’s not all rosy, but it’s also not as diabolic as they want you to believe. Statements like these may not be very popular, but I believe this is exactly what this country tourism industry needs – a bit of reality check. Intelligent people can draw their own conclusions when fed facts and not over colorized propaganda.

Coming back to the embarrassment I caused, without going much into details, I explained to my interlocutors, that even though some places seem real nice, spending a lifetime in just one of them doesn’t seem very attractive to us. At least not at this time of our life… That didn’t ease up the tension, but mercifully, someone said that the meeting will start in 15 minutes.

A meeting? I thought this was supposed to be a party? Suddenly I picked up on the lack of alcohol and all the alarms went up in my head.  Is it a fundraiser? Maybe a religious sect? Both? Turned out, it’s an organization promoting healthy diet and active lifestyle and the party was a founding meeting for a local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Obviously, my wonderful wife forgot to explain that to me beforehand. Or maybe she did it on purpose, knowing my aversion to any form of structured movements. Somehow, I also missed all the signs with the “party agenda” displayed all over the small house on the outskirts of El Centro.  The foundation provides nutritional education and encourage people to eat like their ancestors used to. Better yet, adopt a diet of the “primitive” (in a positive sense) cultures. I breathed a sigh of relief – it’s nothing new, pretty much compatible with our own system of values.

Even though we have no intention of joining the foundation, I’m sure we will be remembered by the local San Miguel de Allende chapter members long after our departure. My wife for her expertise in indigenous foods (she brought in samples of “smalec”) and her inept husband for socially awkward behavior and inappropriate views of the sacred city of San Miguel de Allende.

Mexico for Dummies, The Missing Guide

Against your governments’ issued travel warnings, better judgment and your friends advice, you decided to visit Mexico. You ended up in a small, colonial town in central Mexico. Now what? What do you do? How do you proceed? After all, they don’t give you a guide at the entrance to this theme park. To fill the void, here’s one you can use in San Miguel de Allende. Or any other place in the World for that matter. It’s universally useless…

When abroad, don’t try to speak the language of the locals. They’ll laugh at you! Instead, speak English, but do it loudly and slowly, just like you would when talking to your Grandma, or a retarded person. Repeat every word several times. Use your hands often. Eventually they’ll get it! Roll your eyes and throw your hands in the air with a loud sigh if they don’t. Don’t forget, you’re doing them a big favor – how else would they ever be able to communicate?

When at a restaurant, make sure to complain about the food. If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it. Wipe the table with a disinfectant tissue and ask the people who serve you to wash their hands. Twice. Lecture them on the service you expect and leave just a minimal tip, you don’t want to spoil them.

When sight seeing, express loudly your disapproval. Compare everything to your home town and make sure the locals know, what’s wrong with their place. Obviously their funny, little town will never be as great as your neck of the woods, but at least they’ll understand what they need to improve. Sure, they have those old buildings and cathedrals, but they don’t even have a decent mall or a McDonalds for crying out loud!

Always offer your advice to those who are visibly in need. Lecture the beggars about the importance of having a regular job, or attending a school, so that they can lift their status and maybe, one day become a contributing member of society. Tell the store and restaurant owners how to run their business. Explain to the street vendors the importance of hygiene. Just for heavens sake, don’t buy anything!

Take a lot of pictures. After all you’re on a mission to document the poverty. Take close up shots of every beggar on the streets. Obviously, you don’t need to ask their permission. Make them pose showing their sad faces full of wrinkles. Even if you’re generous, never give them more then a few pesos, you don’t want to spoil them. If, on the other hand, you want to convince your friends and family at home that Mexico is great place to visit, shoot a lot of doors, cobblestone streets, colorful, adobe houses and windows with garlands of flowers. Frame or Photoshop the beggars out.

And the most important of all – never leave El Centro! The theme park is large, but it has it’s borders. Unless you’re extremely brave and adventurous, you should never enter the parts of town that haven’t been build for tourists. The locals living in the less picturesque parts of town all all believed to be zombies waiting for a lost tourist to be robbed, raped, killed or eaten for breakfast. Or so the legend says. So far, no one’s been brave enough to verify it. Those, who crossed the line, never came back. They turned… locals!

Never Travel to Mexico

If you feel the craving for an adventure, please do me and yourself a favor – do not go to Mexico! Seriously, please forget about that crazy idea. Find a more civilized place to spend your hard earned money. You wonder why I say so? Well, an old friend of mine recently helped me understand all the mistakes we’ve been committing along the way. Lessons learned, here’s a little roundup of reasons, not to travel to Mexico (in no particular order):

  • Mexico doesn’t have a decent culture, it’s just folklore

    The guides might try to sell you on the greatness of the ruins of some several thousands years old Indian civilizations, but in fact those are  just big piles of rock. Just like the supposedly old (500 years whoop-ti-do!) colonial towns with their narrow, cobblestone streets spotted with churches and other architectural “marvels”. The museums are full of shiny items stolen by rich guys from the poor ones, some of the most “famous” paintings look like comic book murals. The colonial towns resemble Disneyland for retirees, except they’re open 24/7, the staff doesn’t leave the set after dark and they speak with that funny accent.

  • Fast food is hard to find

    I know you’ll find it hard to believe, but it is rather difficult to get a decent burger or a slice of pizza in this country.  Burger Kings, Subways, Pizza Huts and McDee’s are only in bigger cities or tourist areas, everywhere else is only this damn spicy, healthy, made from scratch Mexican food – guacamole, tacos, gordittas, tamales and other nutritious nonsense. Not much fat, nothing’s pre-processed and everything’s fresh. And you have to watch the people preparing your food right in front of you. Instead of being miserable working for a minimum wage and dragging their feet, they rush around smiling all the time! Obviously, they’re on drugs or are otherwise retarded…

  • You might get accidentally killed

    With the ongoing wars between the drug cartels, police, army, American IRS and God knows who else, you might end up being in the wrong time in the wrong place.  If you “accidentally” enter a crystal meth lab, or get possession of illegal substances, chances are you’ll “accidentally” get killed.

  • You might get accidentally inspired

    Unsupervised wandering in places of unspoiled natural beauty, coastal paradises or colonial marvels in small, sleepy towns of  central Mexico, may cause sudden desire to uncover ones artistic nature. We all know, without appropriate dose of alcohol, the effects can be dangerous.

  • Mexico is boring

    Not much going on here – festivals, concerts, parades only once a week or so. If you have enough kahunas to drive around Mexico, your only adventures will be on the roads, trying to navigate around potholes and avoiding closer encounters with the topes. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, you’ll definitely find a lot of it in any watering hole or strip club within 100 miles south of the US border. Or north, when I think about it! But then again, you may get killed, accidentally…

  • Beware, Mexico is full of Mexicans!

    Not only will they tidy up your room, up-keep your garden and clean the pool, they will also drive you around in a bus or a taxi, they’ll sell you stuff at the store, wait your table and prepare your food at the restaurant, even treat you at the hospital, should anything happen to you! Like in the US, they are everywhere, except…

  • They don’t speak any English in Mexico

    Even if you somehow get to grips with the idea of being surrounded by Mexicans all the time, you need to know that a great majority of them, doesn’t have the decency to speak any English! They expect you to learn Spanish! Can you believe that? They want you to speak foreign language when you’re abroad!?! As if travelling wasn’t frustrating enough!

  • Mexico is expensive

    The hype is that Mexico is so much cheaper than the civilized World. Well, it’s not. Unless, you’re looking for substandard products and services. You know, like hand made pottery, which is almost as expensive as the cheap junk from China, you buy at Walmart. Or a fine hotel room in one of Mexican vacation spots, which will cost you almost as much as a cheap motel room in a shady part of Chicago.

  • Mexico is smelly and dirty

    Oh yes, it is… Trash is flying high on the highways, those cobblestone streets are densely spotted with dog poo, sewage flows in the open, the street kitchen smells mix with the odors, giving it an unforgettably… Pittsburgh’ish experience.

  • Friends and Family will consider you nuts

    Since impression is reality, you’ll be obliged to get yourself a nutcracker. Or a saddle, if they consider you a mule… Those who love you most, won’t disguise their real worries and speak out loud calling you names and laughing in your face to discourage you from making the biggest mistake of your life. Be grateful!

I’m sure the list could be longer. For now, that’s how much we’ve established. If you know of any other reasons we should not travel to those “uncivilized” countries in general, and to Mexico in particular, please share. Just make sure it’s not experience based – those are heavily subjective, and therefore biased. Make sure the advice is based on popular opinions, urban legends or at the very least, superstitions. Popular media and social networking sites provide plenty of material!

Heroic Puebla de Zaragoza

After couple of days on the rather uninviting shores of Costa Esmeralda, we headed back to mainland. Going south west and once again crossing the Sierra Madre Oriental, we headed towards the Heroic Puebla of Zaragoza, better known as just the Puebla. It wasn’t raining any more, but the sun didn’t peek out from behind the think cover of clouds until we hit the highlands plateau. And then, all of a sudden, it was sunny. Just as if the valley was on a different planet…

Puebla isn’t much different from other colonial cities in Central Mexico. It’s definitely larger, but shares the same qualities that made us stay in San Miguel de Allende. The city is always sunny, always busy and vibrant, very “artsy” and multicultural – if it wasn’t for the distinct features of their inhabitants, one could easily mistaken it for Paris or Barcelona. There are fashion butiques all around Zocalo, the main square, with an adjacent cathedral (that took 300 years to build) and city hall, number of various museums all around downtown and modern facilities just outside. Thanks to it’s 5,000 buildings in a catalog of Baroque, Renaissance and Classic architecture, Puebla is considered to be a World Heritage Site. Impressed by that number, we thought it may take a while to properly explore the town. Fortunately we’ve found a reasonably priced hotel just a block away from Zocalo.

The first night, we stayed around the main square, enjoying the nightlife atmosphere – mariachis playing at the Zocalo and around the restaurants, crowds of people wandering in all directions, shop windows luring with all kinds of beautiful items. The next morning, we took a very long walk to the planetarium and the museum of play and science, which were supposed to be the greatest attraction for kids. Unfortunately, we didn’t check the opening hours in advance and ended up flattening our noses on it’s locked glass doors. Needless to say, all (three) kids and Mommy were rather upset and for lack of better alternatives, resorted to exploring more traditional, several hundreds years old attractions.

03-Jan-2012 11:04, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
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Things I Hate About Mexico

You did not really think there were any, did you?!?!?!Yes, the time came to write about things that I am not too fond of. There really are not that many, but we all are aware that paradise does not exist. There always has to be a balance. Night and day, black and white, hot and cold, fire and water, yin and yang, good and bad…..you get the idea.

First thing that bothers me the most is that Mexicans do not put the trash in its place. Trash is everywhere, especially noticable in the mornings, on our way to school, before anyone had a chance to clean it up. Lack of garbage bins does not help, but still it is no excuse to drop it on the ground wherever. Waste management system works pretty strange here. The truck comes 3 times a week and rings the bell. This is a signal to take out your trash and bring it to the truck. Unfortunately, people who are on a tight schedule leave their trash bags unatended earlier in the morning, or even the night before, which then becomes a dining area to endless hordes of street dogs. Now, that makes me nervous! Just a little bit… enough to make my kids wash their hands a million times a day and make sure they religiously eat their probiotics.

Secondly, it is their impatience, hot blood or temperament. However you want to call it they just have a VERY hard time waiting their turn. It’s just like that term does not even exist in their vocabulary. You can see it mostly on the road. The Mexican way of driving is…..what can I say…..mad. The roads are not great, lots of cobblestones, potholes and topes, the speed bumps. They had to force them to slow down because they have very little regard for speed limits. Oh well, I will let Robert do the driving here:-)

Thirdly, it is the safety. Even though we have not had any problems, nor any of the people that we met were hurt, it is at the back of my mind on a daily basis. Especially arriving from a fairyland like Livonia, NY. It is and it will be in my mind because I am a parent. This will never change no matter where I go, especially in big cities and other crowded areas. I always pay attention to where my kids are and hold their hands on the streets when crowds are present.

This is it! The positives certainly outweigh negatives. I will continue to enjoy this beautiful country to the fullest. We have just came back from a tour around central Mexico, next Morelia and Ixtapa:-) I already can not wait!

Costa Esmeralda

After visiting Las Pozas, Sotanos de las Huahuas and El Tajin, we decided that we needed a break from all that jungle and mountains attractions of Sierra Madre Oriental. From Poza Rica, it’s an easy ride to Mexico’s Gulf Coast resorts area, known as Costa Esmeralda – a stretch of beaches between Veracruz and Rio Tecolutla. It was about time to find an inexpensive camping and repair our budget, severely impaired by unplanned nights in expensive hotels.

Federal Highway #180 connects Poza Rica with Veracruz and runs through Tecolutla and other villages of Costa Esmeralda parallel to the Gulf Coast shore. For about half an hour we drove up and down a 10 miles stretch between La Vigueta and Casitas, looking for a camping spot. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of Areas de Acampar, often called RV Parks (we haven’t seen a single RV there). As usual, it’s a good idea to shop around as the amenities and prices vary significantly from place to place.

We settled on a place called “Trailer Park Alicia” – a very decent and fairly priced place, right on the beach. Within minutes Nadia and Alex were in the pool, while Agnieszka proceeded to prepare delicious shrimp tacos with guacamole – yep, we’ve been fairly well “Mexicanized” already…

In the evening, armed with a bottle of red, we approached fellow campers and started a little beach party. Since it was the New Years Eve, we stayed up late that night – probably until 10.30 PM or so… At midnight, woken by the fireworks, we celebrated beginning of 2012 with a quick run to the bathroom.  Going back to sleep wasn’t difficult at all. The night was uneventful and we got to recharge our batteries. Little did we know, how much we would need it.

The next morning, we welcomed New Year on the beach. Taking a long stroll along the shore, we got a glimpse of Costa Esmeralda’s Resorts… What a disappointment!

Lets start with the sand. Unlike Yukatan and the Pacific, the Gulf Coast of Mexico is mainly the color of chocolate (or whatever else dark brown comes to your mind). I’m not sure what’s the reason for that, but it gives an impression of the beach being dirty. Well, maybe it’s not an impression after all. One can see oil rigs in the distance and find spills of black, thick substance on the sand. None of the US beaches in the North looked contaminated. Costa Esmeralda on the other hand looks just terrible!

Tons of trash only amplify that impression. Everywhere, there are empty beer cans, water bottles, nylon bags, plastic waste and other more or less identifiable man made objects. Apparently, there must be a significant shortage of garbage bins in the region. Or rather it’s a country wide problem, but that subject grants a whole new post altogether. For now, suffice it to say, that these weren’t our dream coastal holidays…

The second night a violent storm made a landfall nearby. We used our car to shield the tent from strong winds blowing from the Ocean, but we couldn’t protect it from the heavy rain. Needless to say, for some of us the night was almost sleepless. With amazement (and a bit of unhealthy thrill) I was looking at palm trees bending half way to the ground, expecting the coconuts to smash on our heads or the tent to blow away any second. Obviously, nothing like that happened, but the scenes were like watching some of the more catastrophic relations on CNN.

Since the local weather forecast for the next few days was hopeless, we decided to fold the wet tent and move on to our next destination. Just a few miles further, we were able to assess damage the storm brought to this poor region. Water flooded banana plantations, houses and the main road. Luckily (or a bit recklessly) we drove through a flood filled pond just minutes before the only road to Puebla got closed down.

01-Jan-2012 13:15, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
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Casa Azul

During our recent tour around central Mexico we visited the capital, Mexico City. The visit would not be complete without visiting museo Casa Azul, a house of the gratest female mexican painter Frida Kahlo. The walls of the house are painted blue, her favourite color that is why it is called Casa Azul, a Blue House. She grew up there with her 3 sisters and later lived with her husband, famous artist Diego Rivera.

What a vibrant personality she was! Starting with her image, hair styles, dresses and her unibrow.

Her life was far from perfect. She suffered polio as a child and later was nearly killed in an accident that shuttered her spine, ribs and pelvis.

She spend long weeks in a hospital, that is where she started to paint. She had to be on constant pain medications to exist. Due to this accident she could never become a mother, suffering miscarriages over and over. The story of her life touches me enormously, walking through her house with teary eyes I could not help thinking that this is the way it was meant to be. Her art would not be as meaningful or maybe there would be no art at all…?

Her paintings are her biografy, reflecting her experiences and suffering in life. Some say it is folk, some say it is surrealism, I say it is very candid and touching. She is the essence of Mexico.

Her house is filled with every day life objects, put in its place like she still lived there and just stepped out for a moment. I waited, but then everyone was ready to move on so I just whispered bye and cought the last glimpse of her on my way out.

06-Jan-2012 11:25, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 70.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 400
06-Jan-2012 11:25, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 70.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
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06-Jan-2012 12:00, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 200.0mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 800
06-Jan-2012 11:59, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.022 sec, ISO 400
06-Jan-2012 11:56, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 70.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 400
 

Place of Invisible Spirits

Nadia practicing Yoga in El Tajin

During our two day visit to Xilitla, we have visited Las Pozas and Sotano de las Huahuas. The later is a large cave in the middle of a jungle, where at dusk, we have witnessed several flocks of macaws and thousands of swallows dive deep into the dark abyss. A very unreal experience. Unfortunately, despite shooting almost 400 photos, I couldn’t capture the moment. Instead, here’s a short excerpt from a 2006 BBC movie called The Earth.

We have left the wild, but beautiful region of La Huasteca driving South-East towards Poza Rica. Even though it’s only a distance of 170 miles, it took us almost the whole days to get to El Tajin. What on a map looked like a decent highway, turned out too be a really bad maintained road dotted with small towns, countless speed bumps, crazy drivers and unmarked potholes able to hide a midsize sedan.

We were up for a large disappointment, when we finally made it to Poza Rica. This large city, unlike most towns we’ve seen in Mexico doesn’t have a picturesque Centro or narrow, cobblestone streets. In fact it looks like a modern, US city – busy and functional, but charmless.

Our first attempt at finding a shelter for the night failed miserably. Lured by the name and decent looking exteriors, we attempted to drop anchor at one of many local Auto Hotels.  Unfortunately, we were told that the rooms (and curtain covered garages) were only rented for up to… six hours. Hmm…

Haunted Mansion - plantation style hotel near El TajinHaunted Mansion - plantation style hotel near El Tajin
Haunted Mansion - plantation style hotel near El Tajin31-Dec-2011 09:20, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
 

Since we came there to see El Tajin and not to make local hotel moguls richer, we decided to leave town and look for accommodation near the archaeological site. That was another mistake. It was already dark and way too late to find a camping. Our only option was finding a room. Except, near El Tajin there is only one hotel – charming, but dated plantation style house. I have no doubt it used to be a really chic place – some two hundred years ago… Nowadays it’s missing almost everything you would expect from a hotel – there’s no internet, no towels and only sparsely some hot water. Even the owners left (or died) already, leaving a haunted mansion business in the very capable hands of their… handyman. What remained from the good old days were the prices, eagerly adjusted for two centuries of inflation.

We were tired and it seemed that we had no choice. After loosing a small fortune on a room lacking some of the basic amenities, we rolled out our sleeping bags and went to beds. I’m sure we would have gotten even more memorable souvenirs from the bargain if we decided to use the hotel linens.

Our luxurious hotel had a restaurant, a very nice looking indeed. Except, there was no one to operate the kitchen. Imagine our despair when we had to leave without even as much as a cup of coffee in the morning! Quite frankly though, the night was peaceful and quiet – no fire crackers and no drunken serenades at midnight – which helped us get over those minor annoyances quickly.

We have arrived at the entrance well before 9.00 AM. Unlike hotels, there is no shortage of food joints in El Tajin. I wouldn’t dare calling them restaurants – that would be a great exaggeration, but if you look beyond the bare ground floor and plastic seats, they do offer some decent, inexpensive breakfast options. Regrettably their coffee comes automatically sweetened… Oh well!

After getting past the crowds of vendors, we arrived at the entrance. A large, modern, concrete complex of building hosts a small museum, restaurant, restrooms and offices. The archaeological site is fairly large and we have spent the whole morning wandering aimlessly between smaller and larger pyramids.

A view from the living quarters towards the ball game and the Pyramid of the NichesA view from the living quarters towards the ball game and the Pyramid of the Niches
A view from the living quarters towards the ball game and the Pyramid of the Niches31-Dec-2011 12:10, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
 

Even though undoubtedly  interesting, I have to admit that our first encounter with the remains of the ancient civilization was rather disappointing. As usual, we came unprepared – without knowing what we’re looking at, all buildings looked like nothing more than a bunch of very old rocks. Only after doing some research, I found out that the site we visited, was in fact a capital city of the nation of Totonacs. The site’s prosperity falls between 600 and 1200 AD. An excerpt from Wikipedia article on the city:

Its significance is due to its size and unique forms of art and architecture.[10] The borders of the city’s residential areas have not yet been defined but is the entire site is estimated at 2,640 acres (10.7 km2).[13] To date, only about fifty percent of the city’s buildings has been excavated, revealing a series of plazas, palaces, and administrative buildings within a two-square-mile area.[5] Unlike the highly rigid grid patterns of ancient cities in the central highlands of Mexico, the builders of El Tajin designed and aligned buildings as individual units.[15]There are several architectural features here which are unique to the place or seen in only rarely in Mesoamerica. Adornment in the form of niches and stepped frets are omnipresent, decorating even utilitarian buttresses and platform walls. Stepped frets are seen in other parts of Mesoamerica but rarely to this extent. The use of niches is unique to El Tajin.[10]

Haunted Mansion - plantation style hotel near El Tajin
Haunted Mansion - plantation style hotel near El Tajin31-Dec-2011 09:20, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 09:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 09:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 108.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 800
 
31-Dec-2011 09:52, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 135.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 800
31-Dec-2011 10:38, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 55.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 10:43, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
 
31-Dec-2011 10:49, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 55.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 10:54, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 85.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 10:53, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
 
31-Dec-2011 10:59, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 11:11, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 11:14, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
 
31-Dec-2011 11:25, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 11:33, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 70.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 11:34, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 400
 
31-Dec-2011 11:43, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 12:14, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 70.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
31-Dec-2011 12:11, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
 

Las Pozas

After a long drive on a winding roads through Sierra Madre Oriental, at the end of December, we arrived in Xilitla. It’s a little town in the picturesque La Huasteca region of Mexico. Rather unremarkable, and similar to all other little towns we’ve been driving through, with one exception though. This little pueblito hides a few secrets… One of them is known as Las Pozas, a garden in a jungle, just outside of town, full of surrealist concrete sculptures and buildings with no apparent purpose. The garden sits on over 80 acres of waterfalls and natural pools. Here’s an excerpt from a Wikipedia article about Edward James, English aristocrat and eccentric artist, who created this jungle retreat:

Las Pozas is near the village of Xilitla, San Luis Potosí, a seven-hour drive north of Mexico City. In the early 1940s, James went to Los Angeles, and then decided that he “wanted a Garden of Eden set up . . . and I saw that Mexico was far more romantic” and had “far more room than there is in crowded Southern California” [9]. In Hollywood in 1941, his lifetime friend and cousin, Magic Realist painter Bridget Bate Tichenor, encouraged him to search for a surreal location in Mexico to express his diverse esoteric interests.[10] In Cuernavaca, he hired Plutarco Gastelum as a guide. They discovered Xilitla in November 1945.[8] Eventually Plutarco married a local woman and had four children. James was “Uncle Edward”, to the children called James,and frequently stayed with them in a house Plutarco had built, a mock-Gothic cement castle, now a hotel – La Posada El Castillo.[11]

Between 1949 and 1984, James built scores of surreal concrete structures with names like the House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six, the House with a Roof like a Whale, and the Staircase to Heaven.[11] There were also plantings and beds full of tropical plants, including orchids – there were, apparently, 29,000 at Las Pozas at one time [12]– and a variety of small casas (homes), niches, and pens that held exotic birds and wild animals from the world over — James owned many exotic animals and once took his pet boa constrictors to the Hotel Francis in Mexico City.[11].

Massive sculptures up to four stories tall punctuate the site. The many trails throughout the garden site are composed of steps, ramps, bridges and narrow, winding walkways that traverse the valley walls.[13] Construction of Las Pozas cost more than $5 million. To pay for it, James sold his collection of Surrealist art at auction.[11]

In the summer of 2007, the Fundación Pedro y Elena Hernández, the company Cemex, and the government of San Luis Potosí paid about $2.2 million for Las Pozas and created Fondo Xilitla, a foundation that will oversee the preservation and restoration of the site.[8]

We walked from the hotel, through the town of Xilitla, down to the gardens. The weather was gorgeous, the views worth every shot. We enjoyed a whole morning and a good part of the afternoon in the park.

29-Dec-2011 11:17, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 11:31, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 400
29-Dec-2011 11:53, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 400
 
29-Dec-2011 11:28, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 11:37, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:02, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 400
 
29-Dec-2011 12:03, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:06, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:09, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 400
 
29-Dec-2011 12:11, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:15, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.0, 28.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:15, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
 
29-Dec-2011 12:26, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 45.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:22, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
 
29-Dec-2011 12:19, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 28.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:19, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
29-Dec-2011 12:27, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 5.6, 28.0mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 400
 

I found this documentary about Las Pozas, done by BBC in their series Around the World in 80 Gardens, with Monty Don: