Catalan Christmas Tradition of the Caga Tio or Poop Log

Two Dozen Christmas Traditions Around the World

Wherein we learn that Christmas traditions around the world are not always what we think they are going to be…because people are not always the same everywhere. That’s why we travel. To learn the differences!

You probably take the Christmas traditions of your family and your country pretty much for granted. I know I always did… before I started to travel internationally. Once I spent my first Christmas away from home, I realized that the Santa Claus of the Coca-Cola ads, turkey and ham on the table, and stockings by the fireplace were neither the universal nor the only ways to celebrate the holiday around the world.

When I lived in London in 1970, I learned about Father Christmas, stirring the Christmas pudding and Boxing Day. In Amsterdam, I learned about Sinterklaas and Zwaarte Piet and giving gifts to children on December 5th. When I moved to Mexico, the importance of the posadas was a new lesson, and then I learned about Three Kings Day on January 6th. All these new and different Christmas traditions enriched my life.

The celebrations of the holiday are rich and varied, and Christmas traditions around the world run a very wide gamut of food, fun and the frankly odd. Traveling is one of the best ways to experience them. But you can read about them too. Here is a round two dozen you may not have heard about:

1 – A Spicy Drink with a Funny Name in Chile

Cola de Mono, or Monkey's Tail, a delicious drink that is a Christmas tradition in Chile

“Cola de Mono” or Monkey’s Tail, is a spicy coffee drink that’s a Christmas tradition in Chile. Photo by Gloria Apara Paillas.

The most traditional and very popular Christmas drink in Chile is a smooth and creamy concoction called Cola de Mono, or Monkey’s Tail, and not even the locals seem to know where it got its name. It is made with coffee, milk, sugar, spices and aguardiente. Egg yolks are sometimes added. You can buy it pre-made in supermarkets all over Chile at this time of year, just like you can buy eggnog in U.S. supermarkets, but it’s easy to make from scratch at home. Cola de Mono is often drunk with Pan de Pascua, a special holiday fruitcake. You can find a recipe to make your own Cola de Mono on my friend Gloria’s blog, The Nomadic Chica.

2 – Fried Chicken in Japan

Ever since the mid-’70s, fried chicken from KFC has been THE traditional Christmas Eve meal in Japan. The chain’s holiday “Kentucky for Christmas” TV commercials feature pop stars and smiling kids in Santa hats dancing with full boxes and buckets of the holiday treat. The company does so much business on this one day that company execs have to leave their desks to help keep the lines moving in the stores. Many people reserve their buckets of fried chicken months in advance to avoid the waits of up to two hours in line.

3 – A Christmas Tradition of Books and Respect for Reading in the Icy North

In Iceland, it’s a wonderful holiday tradition to give gifts of books on Christmas Eve. And then of course you want to get right into them, so you stay up all night reading them. Of all these Christmas traditions, this one might be my favorite!

4 – Girls’ Luck for the Year Ahead?

The Czech people have a tradition or superstition related to Christmas: A young unmarried women will throw a shoe over her shoulder on Christmas Day. If it lands with the toe pointing towards the door, she will soon be married. If not, she is destined to remain a spinster for another year…. which I don’t actually see as a piece of bad luck myself!

5 – What a Web They Weave

In the Ukraine, the most common decorations for the Christmas tree are spiders and spider webs. This comes from a folk tale about a family too poor to afford any decorations for their tree so they had to go to bed on Christmas Eve with its branches bare. The spiders living in the house felt so bad for them that they worked through the night spinning their webs around the tree. When the children awoke on Christmas morning, the tree was covered with filmy webs, which then turned to gold and silver, assuring the family’s fortunes forever more. These kinds of feel-good Christmas traditions show up all over the world.

A Ukrainian spiderweb Christmas tree decoration.

In Ukraine, it is a Christmas tradition to decorate the tree with spiders and spider webs.

6- Heather and Driftwood in the Arctic

And speaking of Christmas trees…. In Greenland, Christmas trees have become popular, just like in so much of the rest of the world, but every single one of them has to be imported. No trees will grow this far north! Instead of imported trees, many Greenlanders decorate a driftwood “tree” with heather.

7- Home of the US Trees

And still speaking of Christmas trees…. In the U.S., the largest number of Christmas trees are grown in the state of Oregon. Of those, some 80% come from the Willamette Valley, south of Portland… which is also where most of the state’s best wines come from!

Christmas traditions mean Christmas trees. Here is an Oregon Christmas tree farm in front of a snow-covered Mt. Hood

An Oregon Christmas tree farm in Clackamas County with Mt. Hood in the background.
Photo Courtesy of www.MtHoodTerritory.com

8- Keeping the Goblins Away

In Greece, one of the oldest Christmas traditions is to keep a fire burning in the house for the entire 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany (January 6th). This is meant to keep away the killantzaroi or bad spirits. These little bad guys creep in through the chimney, only at this time of year, to wreak such havoc as making the milk spoil and putting the fires out!

9 – Apples for Love

In Croatia, it is a very old tradition for young men to give beautifully decorated apples to their girlfriends on Christmas Day.

10 – Mass and Hockey

In Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas, called Ganna, on January 7th. The people dress all in white, usually in a traditional toga-like garment called a shamma. The people begin arriving early for the Ganna mass, which starts at 4:00 am and can go on for hours. After mass, the men play a hockey-like game, still in their long white shammas.

11 – Unique Transportation

In Caracas, Venezuela, the normally busy streets take on a unique look early on Christmas Day. They are closed off to traffic before 8 am so people can roller skate to early mass! Yep, people don roller blades to glide through the streets to church by the thousands.

12 – Pooping Presents!

Sometimes Christmas traditions are downright silly and even a bit gross. In Catalonia, in the northeastern part of Spain, there is an ancient and popular tradition called Caga Tió, which translates as the “Poop Log” (and yes, it means just what you think it does). It’s a log, traditionally hollowed out, with a happy face on one end and wearing a bright red Catalan hat. Beginning December 8th, the log is pampered by the children and draped with a blanket to keep it warm. On Christmas Eve, they hit it with a stick while singing a special song instructing it to “poop presents” for them. Then the blanket is removed to reveal presents (stealthily placed by mom and dad) of candy, tourrón nougat and small gifts.

Catalan Christmas Traditions include the Caga Tio or Poop Log

In the Catalan Christmas Tradition of the “Caga Tió” or Poop Log, the log is pampered by the children until Christmas Eve then beaten with sticks and ordered to “poop presents.” Photo by Slastic

13 – Burning the Dirt Devils

Guatemalans want their homes really clean for Christmas. They also want to be very sure the devil is not allowed inside. So one of their main Christmas traditions is to sweep the houses very clean just before Christmas, pile up all the dirt and dust and bring it to a communal pile in the neighborhood. Then they add an ugly devil’s head to the top of the pile and burn that sucker up. Ah, the neighborhood is not only clean but safe for another year!

14 – Christmas Specials in a Muslim Land

Indonesia is 80% Muslim, but there are still 20 million Christians in the country and the spirit of Christmas has taken hold throughout the land. Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas, is a holdover from the days when the country was a Dutch colony, and all the kids quite expect him to bring them presents on Christmas Day. Oddly, Christmas music is broadcast on most Indonesian TV stations, and the state-owned channel always shows a big Christmas celebration put on by the Indonesian Government.

15 – Fancy Bread in Hungary

The main Christmas meal in Hungary is eaten on Christmas Eve. It’s a hearty meal of fish and cabbage and also features a special Christmas poppy seed bread/cake called beigli. Another very traditional Hungarian Christmas treat is gingerbread, often wrapped in brightly colored paper and decorated with Christmas scenes and figures.

16 – A Cleanse to Prepare

In Estonia, Christmas Eve is the big event, and it begins with a trip to the sauna! It is important to both relax and cleanse oneself for the celebrations ahead. Whole families will often go together. This is one of the Christmas traditions around the world I think I could really get into. After the sauna, you’re ready for Christmas Eve mass… for which the children will usually receive new clothes and shoes.

A group indulges in the Christmas traditions of saunas before Christmas Eve Mass in Estonia.

In Estonia, it is a long-time Christmas tradition to go to the sauna for a cleanse before going
to Christmas Eve Mass. ©Jorge Royan via Wikimedia Commons

17 – Beach Party Holiday

In Australia, Christmas falls in early summer. The only chance for a “White Christmas” is on a white sand beach! And so on Christmas Day, many Sydneysiders do what they do so well… they head to Bondi Beach for the Sunburnt Christmas Festival. About 4000 party-goers will show up for a day of DJs and dancing, surfing, bikini contests and lunch from the barbie.

18 – The Rooster Mass

Most people in Brazil will go to a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve or Missa do Galo (Mass of the Rooster). It’s named for the bird because the rooster announces the coming of day and the mass doesn’t usually finish until 1.00 am. After the Rooster Mass, there are usually big fireworks displays in the larger towns and cities. Since it is summertime, and usually quite hot on Christmas Day, the best of all Christmas traditions often means a trip to the beach!

19 – Christmas Witches on Brooms

In Italy, the big day for presents is Epiphany (January 6th) and it’s a witch who brings them! La Befana, complete with hooked nose and long black shawl, rides around on a broom. On the eve of Epiphany, she slides down chimneys to leave candies and gifts in the stockings of good children and lumps of coal for the naughty ones. She will also often use her means of transportation to sweep the floor while she’s at it!

20 – Weird Radishes

In the city of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, December 23rd is known as the Night of the Radishes. For more than 100 years, the city has held this huge festival and competition, where artisans carve scenes and tableaux from giant radishes! The tradition started in 1897 as a way to attract customers to the city’s Christmas Market, held in the zócalo, the town’s main square. Now, the one-day event draws over 100 contestants and thousands of visitors every year and is one of the most popular Christmas traditions in Mexico.

Grand prize winner at Oaxaca's Night of the Radishes, one of the most popular Christmas traditions in Mexico

“Dulces Tradicionales Oaxaqueños” was the grand prize winner in the 2014 Christmas festival
Night of the Radishes in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia, CC license.

21 – Christmas Traditions for the Dead

Christmas Eve dinner in Portugal is the night to invite the whole family—including those who have passed on. Yes, inviting the ghosts of loved ones lost is a tradition there. Extra places are set at the table for these missing loved ones and some crumbs from dinner are also spread across the hearth to honor them.

22 – Eating Emperors???

A traditional part of the Christmas feast in South Africa is deep-fried caterpillars of the Emperor Moth. Since this is the season for harvesting the bug, which is preserved to eat throughout the winter, there is an abundant fresh supply at Christmas time. The caterpillars have three times as much protein, by weight, as beef! Munching on them is a beloved Christmas tradition. Well…to each his own, I guess.

23 – Lucky Santa

Although you may have grown up leaving milk and cookies out as a treat for Santa—and perhaps as a bribe so he will leave you lots of goodies, even if you’ve been naughty—in Ireland, the traditional Santa snack is mince pies and Guinness Ale. I’d say that was a pretty fine bribe!

Christmas traditions of mince pies to be left for Santa.

In Ireland, Christmas traditions include mince pies. They are left for Santa with a bottle of Guinness.
Photo by Christmas Stocking Images

24- Kissing Bough Christmas Traditions

The tradition of hanging mistletoe in the house figures in many Christmas traditions around the world. It also goes back many centuries, at least to the time of the Druids and the ancient Greeks. It has always been considered a sacred plant and was often believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. It has also been associated with fertility, since it remains green all year long. Kissing under the mistletoe may have come from the old Norse belief that it is a symbol of Peace and enemies can safely lay down their arms if they meet beneath it. Today, many countries maintain the custom of kissing beneath the mistletoe for luck and romance.

I hoped you’ve learned a couple of new things about Christmas Traditions Around the World. Have you got other Christmas traditions and stories to share? I’d love to hear them, especially things you’ve learned on your travels throughout the world. Leave them in the comments below and we can all learn more about how the world celebrates this magical holiday. The more we know about each other, the more we understand… and the more we are able to share, to care, to love. And then perhaps the world will know peace.

Merry Christmas!

Pedestrian walkway in the center of Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Strolling Avenida Amsterdam in Condesa, Mexico City

Let’s go for a walk. In La Condesa, the hip and trendy neighborhood in Mexico City, let’s take a slow afternoon stroll along a paved path beneath trees in full leaf, surrounded by beautiful architecture, chic cafes and unexpected corners. Let’s discover another side to this crowded, cacophonous, sometimes overwhelming megalopolis. Let’s wander along the green and leafy peacefulness of the oval called Avenida Amsterdam.

 

La Condesa—A Place to Breathe Peace in a Crowded City

If you’ve never been to Mexico City, one of the largest and most congested urban megalopolises in the world, you probably have an image of what to expect—smog, noise, crowds, crazy traffic, noise, street vendors on every corner, noise, food stalls, beggars—roiling untidy noisy life in all its messy humanness. And in much of this great city, that image would not be far off the mark. With an estimated 25 million people in the greater metropolitan area—no one really knows for sure—the cacophony and assault on the senses is undeniable.

But Mexico City is far more than just that. It is also a city of world-class museums, amazing churches and other historical monuments, great centers of music and art, universities, parks, architecture to turn your head, friendly people, stellar food. And many pockets of green and peace and simple urban joy.

Pedestrian walkway in the center of Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The pedestrian walkway, called a camellón, on the leafy green Avenida Amsterdam
in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.

One of my favorites of these peaceful, leafy spaces is in the heart of the chic, young artsy neighborhood of Condesa, sometimes called the SoHo of Mexico City. Let’s take a walk together and discover why I fell in love with Avenida Amsterdam on my recent trip to this not-to-be-missed city.

Colonia Hipódromo, the Original Heart of La Condesa

In the core of Barrio La Condesa in the very early 20th century, there used to be a popular horse racing track, called the Hipódromo. Its shape, the classic oval, still defines the area where horses once pounded the turf. When the racetrack moved out, green and people moved in. The center of the oval became the popular Parque Mexico, surrounded by Avenida Mexico. And around that, presumably where ladies in hats and men with cigars and fists full of pesos for betting used to sit and watch the racing thoroughbreds, runs Avenida Amsterdam.

It’s here we will travel today, at a much more leisurely pace than the horses did. We will stroll, stop for photos and gazing and breathing in the peace and perhaps a coffee or a chocolate treat. Since the street still runs in an oval, just as it did in its racetrack days, it’s pretty much impossible to get lost. So we can just start walking it anywhere and keep going. We’ll eventually end up back where we started.

Condesa has been a trendy part of the city since the early 20th century, when wealthy people began moving out of the Centro looking for more space and more green. Many of the buildings that line Avenida Amsterdam were built after the 1920s. The area is rich in Art Deco and Streamline Moderne style with some newer higher-rise apartment buildings. That makes it a great street for one of my favorite city activities—façade gazing.

House painted in black-and-white geometric pattern on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

This house with its geometric paint job really stands out.

A colorful house on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa-Mexico City

A more traditionally Mexican-looking home but with some early 20th-century influences visible.

An Art Deco style building in Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Art Deco Style runs rampant throughout Barrio La Condesa in Mexico City

A "streamline moderne" style building in La Condesa, Mexico City

“Streamline Moderne” is another style you see frequently in this part of La Condesa in Mexico City

To say the Avenida Amsterdam is quiet is perhaps an overstatement. Mexicans, at least in the city, don’t really do quiet. I sometimes think they are actually uncomfortable when things get a little too quiet. But by Mexican standards, it’s peaceful and inviting. It’s a broad two-way street with a wide central pedestrian meridian called a camellón. This paved path is lined with plant beds and trees, benches, the odd sculpture here and there. It’s popular with doe-eyed young couples, new mothers with strollers, dogs walking their owners. The benches attract sitters, people watchers, readers and cell phone gazers. Work-out stations invite fitness mavens to come under the trees. And there are always runners.

Two young mothers with baby strollers on the Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The “camellón” in the center of Avenida Amsterdam serves many purposes, including strolling with the baby.

Youn men working out on the Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The young man on the left had just run past me a moment before, then returned on his hands, with a friend spotting him from behind. The young man on the right was taking advantage of a convenient work-out station.

Even on a hot day, it’s cool and pleasant in the shade of the elms and alders, oaks, palms and rubber trees. And jacarandas. I was there in early autumn, but I must go back in spring when all those jacaranda trees will create purple clouds of blossoms drifting above the camellón. Yes, I must do that; I must see that.

Original concrete benches, street signs and lampposts from the 1920s

The original concrete street signs, benches and lampposts on Avenida Amsterdam in Mexico City’s La Condesa neighborhood date to the 1920s.

The neighborhood is mostly still residential, but we do pass several chic shops, small businesses like the tailor and the dry cleaner, the electrical repair shop and the flower stall. And the cafes, bars, and restaurants. Because Avenida Amsterdam—indeed, much of Condesa—is café society central. We definitely won’t go hungry or thirsty on the oval Avenida.

We might stop for a coffee at Milo’s, a chic, deco-style spot suggested by the host of my AirBnb home. A friend and I went there for a snack one afternoon and it was exactly what we needed, perfect in every way. We shared a plate of Vietnamese rolls and each had a glass of delicious white wine seated at one of the sidewalk tables.

Milo's restaurant/bar on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Milo’s is a chic cafe/bar on Avenida Amsterdam in Mexico City

Vietnamese Rolls at Milo's, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Delicious Vietnamese Rolls at Milo’s on Avenida Amsterdam

Let’s stroll along a bit more, looking at the odd and delightful combination of Mexican architecture, a smattering of overdone French-accented pseudo-Gothic, and a lot of Art Deco through ‘50s Moderne buildings with some fading-glory-Mexican thrown into the mix for seasoning. This façade gazing is both art and diversion on Avenida Amsterdam and, indeed, throughout La Condesa. With unexpected nooks and crannies, with surprises tucked into unlikely places and with the Mexican love of saturated color, you’ll want to have your camera along. For those of us old enough to remember the phrase, Avenida Amsterdam definitely present a whole bunch of “Kodak moments.”

Pair of doors in an archway, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Is it just me, or do these doors on Avenida Amsterdam look just a bit “hobbit-y”??

A colorful blue house, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Mexicans love highly saturated color… seen everywhere in La Condesa, Mexico City

Steel constructed building with geodesic dome on the roof, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

This one took me by surprise… a modern steel construction building with a geodesic dome on the roof!

Restaurant Matisse, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The Restaurant Matisse is a well-known gourmet experience on Avenida Amsterdam.

By now it’s quite likely we are hungry again! Good thing there are eateries of every type everywhere we look. With no previous research, and having had my fill of Mexican food, I’m voting for that Italian place I see on the corner of Michoacán and Amsterdam—Nonna Cucina Bar. Let’s take this nice outside table.

I’ve decided on the Pollo in Crosta di Limone, a smoked chicken breast with parsley sauce, topped with thinly sliced lemons and then grilled. It is served with a salad of spiral cut carrots, beets and zucchini with grilled peaches and is as pretty as it is tasty. It comes with a plate of lovely warm puffed-up pita bread and olive oil with balsamic for dipping.

While we are eating, an accordion player comes buy and stops to play a few songs before passing the hat among the customers. I don’t mind giving him a few pesos. I love living in a country that still has a robust job market for accordion players!

Polla in Crosta di Limone with salad at Nonna Cucina Bar, Avenida Amsterdam, Condesa, Mexico City

Pollo in Crosta di Limone with a salad of beets, carrots, zucchini and grilled peaches at Nonna Cucina Bar,
Avenida Amsterdam 240-1, La Condesa, Mexico City

Time to stroll some more and work off that meal. But soon we will want dessert. And the only possible place for that on Avenida Amsterdam, I am told, is Tout Chocolat at Amsterdam 154. It is chocolate heaven, I am told. Just go, I am told. Nothing else comes close, I am told. I always do as I am told… at least when it comes to chocolate.

So off we go to the pretty and classy shop on the corner owned by Luis Robledos Richards. He trained at the prestigious French Culinary Institute’s “Classic Pastry Arts” program and the Ecóle Lenotre in Paris, and then worked as head pastry chef at both Paris’ Le Cirque and the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. He’s been named one of the Top Ten Chocolatiers in North America and has won the World Chocolate Masters competition TWICE. Yeah, the guy has the creds. And now Mexico City gets the benefit. And so do we!

Tout Chocolat patisserie and chocolate shop, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Tout Chocolat, in La Condesa, where you can get some of the best and most innovative chocolate in Mexico City

Open the door. Close your eyes. Inhale. Ahhh… that smell. Pure chocolate decadence. What could be better? And remember, Mexico is where chocolate was first invented!

The beauty of the offerings is staggering and so are the choices. Chocolate bars, cakes, brownies. Truffles and hot chocolate and bonbons. Just a few of our flavor choices include: marshmallow or maracuya, spicy chia, white peach and apricot, hazelnut balls, lime caramel, mezcal truffles with sea salt (quite amazing and impossible to describe but YES!). Then there are pear chocolates, ginger chocolates, white chocolate, salted caramel chocolates…. Sorry, I am running out of room and drooling onto the keyboard here. But be sure I am buying some to take back with me!

Our stroll is nearly done as we return to the spot on the oval of Avenida Amsterdam where we began. The din of traffic notches back up a few decibels. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll explore more of this hip Condesa neighborhood. Or maybe pop over to Roma or Polanco. Or head into the Centro and check out the enormous central square called the Zócalo. Or marvel at the pre-Columbian treasures in the Anthropological Museum.

A flower stall on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Flowers to take back to a hotel room or an AirBnB temporary home.

Perhaps for now, we’ll just stop at that stand on the corner and pick up a bunch of bright flowers to take back to our room, a little something to bring a bit of the peace and color of Avenida Amsterdam with us. How nice to remember the pleasure of a slow stroll beneath the trees—the peace and the people, the food and the color, to take in this part of Mexico City that so many tourists never see.

And besides… chocolate!

 

Read the Blog Post on NomadWomen--Strolling La Condesa in Mexico City

Pin this image
to save this story
and to share it with others!


On my visit to Mexico City, I stayed in an accommodation I booked through AirBnB. Have you tried it yet? I love AirBnB and have used it in France, Spain, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Mexico and the US… so far! In expensive cities, like Amsterdam and Paris, I find I often save money over the cost of a hotel, and I love the convenience of having kitchen facilities. I even host guests in my own home in Mexico through AirBnB.

If you haven’t yet tried the service, consider signing up today. If you use this AirBnB link to register, you’ll get a $20 credit you can use towards your first booking. In some inexpensive locations, that’s like getting your first night free! And I will also get a credit towards my next booking, so I’ll be a happy Nomad Woman too! Don’t you love win-win?

Mexican handicraft Otomi dolls for sale in a doorway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

POTW: Mexican Folk Art – Otomi Dolls

Mexican handicrafts come in all types and styles. In our Photo of the Week, Otomi dolls for sale in a doorway in San Miguel de Allende show the wonderful sense of color, the embroidery tradition and the hand-sewing skills of their Otomi Indian creators. This is Mexican folk art at its most authentic.

Mexican handicraft Otomi dolls for sale in a doorway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Handmade dolls stitched by the descendants of the ancient Otomi Indians for sale in Mexico.
The old-meets-new irony? This is the entrance to the courtyard of the local Starbucks.

Otomi women can regularly be seen selling these beautiful and creative handmade dolls, as well as other Mexican handicrafts, all over San Miguel, especially in the streets around the Jardín, or central plaza. These sales represent a significant addition to their families’ cash flow.

The Otomi Indians were here on the land where San Miguel now sits long before the Spanish came, saw and conquered. They are one of the oldest and largest indigenous groups in central Mexico and have inhabited the area for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The ancient Cañada de la Virgen pyramid and burial site near San Miguel was constructed by Otomis. This recently excavated archaeological treasure is the northernmost pre-Columbian site ever found. It dates from approximately 530 AD and was abandoned around 900 AD.

Many of the rancho villages around San Miguel in the central state of Guanajuato are populated by Otomi Indians. I have met many of them personally, much to my joy. My friend Doña Maria Tovar, who lives in the rancho village of Agustín González, just outside San Miguel, is a full-blooded Otomi. Her parents spoke only Otomi, so she learned the language as a child, along with Spanish. But when she married, her husband forbade her to speak Otomi at home. He wanted his children to speak only Spanish, like good Mexicans. So her adult children now do not speak the language of her birth. But here’s a nice irony: her grandchildren are now studying Otomi in school. The government is trying to insure that the country’s many indigenous languages don’t disappear. Many times I have heard Doña Maria’s young neighbor Stephanie sing the Mexican National Anthem in Otomi.

The Otomi Lifestyle – Ancient in Many Ways

The people on these ranchos are predominantly subsistence farmers, growing their crops using the ancient and highly sustainable milpa system. Three crops are planted in the same field: corn (maize), beans and squash. As the corn sprouts and begins to shoot up, it provides support for the beans to climb. As the beans and corn grow, their leaves provide shade for the young squash. Finally, as the squash grows full, its large leaves shade the soil to keep down the summer heat and hold in the moisture. Each of the three crops adds different nutrients to the soil, benefiting them all.

I have met many farmers who use this system successfully, assuming the weather cooperates. They are almost wholly dependent on a good summer rainy season, since they don’t irrigate their crops. The staple diet in these villages populated primarily by the descendants of the Otomi includes the corn, beans and squash from the field, rice, nopal cactus (with its beautiful tuna fruit in summer), homemade cheese (from both cow’s and goat’s milk), fruit (often from their own trees), eggs from their own chickens and vegetables from the garden. Meat is generally only eaten for holidays, parties and other special occasions. But then they will go all out and cook an entire pig all day long for delicious carnitas, besides roasting huge numbers of chickens to serve with mole.

Cash can be a rare commodity in these Otomi villages and is always needed to buy the things they can’t grow or make themselves. If you visit San Miguel de Allende, keep an eye out for the Otomi women selling this authentic Mexican folk art in the streets around the centro. These delightful stuffed fabric dolls make a wonderful and colorful souvenir. They’re lightweight, don’t take up much room in a suitcase, and will be a great reminder of your trip to Mexico. Plus you will have the joy of knowing your money has made a difference in the life of a true indigenous descendant of the ancient Otomi people of central Mexico.

For a closer look at life in the rancho village of Agustín González, whose people are mostly of Otomi stock (including a glimpse of my friend Doña Maria), check out this video of the Rancho Tour. Sixteen women in the village have also formed Las Rancheritas craft cooperative to sell their handmade hooked rugs.

Remembering Joy in San Miguel de Allende:
The Concheros Dancers

How the Concheros—the pre-Hispanic-style Dancers of Mexico–and all the movement, color, and joyous sounds they bring with them, rekindled remembered joy in a depressed heart.

When you live where every day is a holiday of some kind—an excuse for a fiesta always at hand—it’s easy to forget one. That day I had forgotten. But Mexico has a way of reminding us.

Conchero Dancers stomp, leap and spin their devotion in San Miguel de Allende

Conchero Dancers stomp, leap and spin their devotion in San Miguel de Allende

I’d had a bad night, full of dark images and lonely threats and deceptive might-have-beens. Still living the aftershocks of a destroyed 25-year marriage, financial worries, aging, and the accumulated weight of depression, I had no smiles left.

Walking blindly across the cobblestones, I trudged up one of the many hills that make up San Miguel de Allende, moving toward the Jardín, that central plaza that is the very heart of the town and functions as everyone’s public living room. My mind wandered too, dreading some errand to be run, some friend to be called, some smiles to be summoned up on demand from a well that seemed drained dry. Sore of feet and blue of spirits, all I really wanted to do was go back home and crawl into bed. But there was little food in the house, the library book was overdue, and finances urgently required a stop at the bank.

Lost in my thoughts, I saw but did not register the young woman dressed in the standard conchero costume of neon lamé and huge red and green feathers on her head as she passed me going down the hill in the sun.

The wooden sticks pound the hide skins of the concheros drums

The pounding of the concheros drumming vibrated up through my sandals.

The first thing to get past my funk was the vibrations. The thrumming rhythm of drums had penetrated the paving stones, crept down the hill and wriggled straight up through the soles of my sandals. Had I been paying more attention, I would have heard them before I felt them; their pounding was strong, deep, relentless. A reminder.

After years of living in San Miguel de Allende, I’d forgotten to check the calendar. It was the first Friday in March, one of my favorite feast days in a city that has more than its share and one of the best times to visit San Miguel de Allende. The day honors Our Lord of the Conquest and celebrates the arrival of Catholicism in Mexico. It is a day when many Mexicans honor the twin traditions of their indigenous roots and their deeply held faith in their Christ and their God.

Here in San Miguel, a magical colonial pueblo perched on the high plain of central Mexico, it is also called the day of the Concheros, dancers named for the “conchas”—shell-like seed pods—wrapped around their ankles to rattle as they dance, spin and stomp, jump and leap, mimicking the Aztec dancers of Mexico’s glorious past. A robust mix of pagan and Catholic, this show of their devotion is a highlight of the year. Every year on this day, they fill the Jardín with their fervor, color, movement. And sound. Lots of sound.

The conchero dancers of San Miguel de Allende are a blur of movement engulfed in color and sound.

The conchero dancers of San Miguel de Allende are a blur of movement engulfed in color and sound.

I emerged from the narrow street into the wide space in front of La Parroquia church. Its pink cantera stone spires glowed and shimmered in the spring sunshine, that elusive light that draws so many artists to San Miguel. A wave of sound—no, make that noise—almost knocked me over as the pounding of the concheros’ drums rolled over me. I felt assaulted by sound, color, movement. Settling onto a wrought-iron bench beneath the trimmed laurel trees, I let the exuberance take me.

The Concheros Engulf My Senses

The concheros’ flashy pseudo-Aztec costumes, heavy with Pre-Hispanic symbols, neon-colored lamé and fringe, and their two-meter long pheasant plume headdresses, undulated across the plaza, riding the wave of the drumming beat.

Copal incense smoke rises from a burner beside a conch shell and candle--symbols of the conchero dancers' devotion

Copal incense smoke rises from a burner beside a conch shell and candle–symbols of the conchero dancers’ devotion

From the center of their circle, the pungent bite of copal incense pricked my nose, wafting up from a pottery burner set beside a mandolin made from an armadillo shell, a conch shell, fragrant herbs and a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A low mournful note sounded as a senior conchero lifted the giant conch shell to his lips.

All around the Jardín, the celebration pulsed. Three separate groups of concheros twirled, jumped and lunged on the three sides of the square. No group danced or drummed in time with the others. The un-synched roar attacked from all sides.

Three photos of conchero dancers in full regalia in San Miguel de Allende

Conchero dancers in full regalia in San Miguel de Allende

The dancers and drummers were not alone in their push to summon the gods of music and joy. In the pretty kiosk centering the square, the town band played. A brassy Souza march rolled across the cobblestones, the notes slightly off-key but the oompah strong and enthusiastic. The tuba player looked to be at least 70 years old. The young drummer might have been his great-grandson.

In Mexico, no reason for a fiesta goes to waste, so preparations were being made to continue the concheros’ party well into the night, but to a different beat. In front of the church, a wooden stage waited for more festivities. A rock band sound-checked equipment to make sure it was sufficiently deafening. Then a guitarist launched into a ragged rehearsal, a weird counterpoint to the traditionally beloved oompah blaring a few meters away in the kiosk.

From the southwest, clouds of black, boat-tailed grackles rolled into the square to settle into the branches of the laurel trees where they roosted for the night. It always took them a while to settle in as they discussed their day, squabbling over favorite perches perhaps or crowing over fattest-worm bragging rights. Their raucous cawing rained down like sharp pebbles onto the paving stones.

A pair of conchero dancers feeling it in San Miguel de Allende

A pair of conchero dancers feeling it in San Miguel de Allende

I closed my eyes, feeling pleasantly assaulted by the noise surrounding me. It rolled up from all sides, like a big cushion determined to block out all thought, all pain, all sensation of anything but itself.

And then the bells began. The huge bronze bells of La Parroquia poured down their peals like waves from the high faux-Gothic spires. They were almost—but not quite—in sync with the throbbing drums, the concheros’ rattling seedpod anklets, the conch shell’s moan, the off-key Souza march, the wailing rock guitar and the grackles’ cackles.

The black mood that had engulfed me an hour earlier was fighting for dominance. And losing. The feeling of that heavy cloud of despair lifting from my shoulders was almost palpable, carried off on the enormous wave of sound and dissipated into the brilliant San Miguel light.

An image sprang to my mind, myself as a young girl with long red braids and freckles sitting in a Sunday School class, reciting and memorizing Bible verses. We were learning the opening of the 100th Psalm:

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

My eyes, my ears, my whole being swept around the square and took in the scene—the color, the movement, the vibrations… the SOUND.

A conchero girl danced herself into a trance of joy in San Miguel de Allende

A conchero girl danced herself into a trance of joy in San Miguel de Allende

And with a smile of pure joy, a heart light and clear, I thought… finally, I know what a joyful noise really sounds like.

It sounds like San Miguel de Allende on the first Friday in March.


If you go:

In San Miguel de Allende, the Conchero Dancers perform for Dia de La Conquista every year on the first Friday in March in the plaza in front of La Parroquia church. The dancing begins around mid-morning and continues throughout the day and often into the evening. Photographing the dancers is allowed.

San Miguel de Allende lies in the central highlands of Mexico. By car, it is nine hours south of Laredo, Texas, on highway 57. The nearest airport is Bajio International Airport (BJX) located in Silao, about an hour from San Miguel. International flights also fly into Mexico City, about 4 hours from San Miguel by bus or private shuttle.  For more information about visiting San Miguel de Allende, visit Experience San Miguel de Allende.

Pin it For Later or to Share with a Friend:

Dia de la Conquista-The Conchero Dancers in San Miguel de Allende: Remembering Joy - A woman Aztec dancer in a lavish pheasant feather headdress is blissed out from the day-long dancing. Pinnable image

Experience the joy of the pre-Hispanic-style conchero dancers of Mexico. Visit San Miguel de Allende for Dia de la Conquista.Experiencing joy. Why you should visit San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for Dia de la Conquista.

The Skinny Bridge--Magere Brug--in Amsterdam

POTW: Amsterdam’s Magere Brug, the Skinny Bridge

The most famous bridge in Amsterdam is lovely, but the “Skinny Bridge” is not really all that skinny anymore.

There’s a reason Amsterdam is called the “Venice of the North.” Riddled with canals and the Amstel River as it is, it has more bridges than any other city in the world… yes, far more than Venice. All this water criss-crossing the city wherever you look calls for hundreds—thousands—of bridges. Some accounts put the number as low as 1250, others at twice that. Apparently, Venice rings up a measly 400. Perhaps Venice should be called the “Amsterdam of the South.”

Arguably the most famous of those hundreds of Amsterdam bridges is the Magere Brug, which translates as the Skinny Bridge.

The Skinny Bridge--Magere Brug--in Amsterdam

The delicate drawbridge called the Skinny Bridge
is the most famous bridge in Amsterdam.

“Throughout the city there are as many canals and drawbridges as bracelets on a Gypsy’s bronzed arms.”
~Felix Marti-Ibanez, Spanish author


The pretty and delicate-looking white wood structure is a double-swipe “bascule” bridge, which means it uses a counterweight system to make opening and closing its two drawbridge “leaves” easy. That’s a good thing because it opens and closes a lot—on average every 20 minutes throughout the day. A common and perfectly legitimate excuse for being late for an appointment in Amsterdam is “The bridge was open!”

Those of us from the true Nomad Women generation might remember the bridge from the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. Ah, for the days of the only real James Bond—and we all know that was the one and only Sean Connery. Seldom mentioned in stories of the bridge is its unhappier memory. It was used as an accumulation point for Dutch Jews about to be shipped east during the Nazi occupation of World War II.

The Skinny Bridge’s first incarnation was built over the River Amstel in 1691. It was apparently so narrow two pedestrians could barely pass each other when crossing the span, creating its popular nickname. If you take one of the famous rondvaart canal boat tours—and you really should—the tour guide will likely tell you a charming but apocryphal story of its name. It goes something like this….

A Delightful Story

Once upon a time, there were two sisters whose family name was Mager. They loved each other very much and insisted on meeting each morning for that much beloved Dutch custom of koffie en koekjes. But getting to each other for this coffee-and-cookies tradition was difficult because they lived on opposite sides of the River Amstel. And so they built a bridge to connect with each other more easily… Poof! The Magere Brug came into being.

The truth is more prosaic, as it so often is. With commerce burgeoning during the 17th-century Golden Age, there was always a need for more means of getting around, running hither and yon, doing business, moving things, making money.

The Skinny Bridge has been rebuilt a few times over its life, first in 1871, when the decrepit little old thing was also widened to allow for more traffic. Fifty years later, the city tried to replace it with a steel and stone construction, but the outcry from the tradition-loving Dutch was loud and long. The new-fangled design was scrapped. The last reconstruction was in 1969, still keeping to the original design. Since 2003, the Skinny Bridge has been closed to all traffic except pedestrians and bicycles.

The bridge is high enough for the low-profile rondvaart boats to pass under it, and it’s pleasant to stand in the center of the span and watch them float past below, especially in the evening when both the bridge and the boats are illuminated.

A Bonus Photo – The Skinny Bridge at Night

The Skinny Bridge in Amsterdam, lit up at night

Amsterdam’s Skinny Bridge is illuminated at night by some 1200 white lights.
Photo copyright Nico Aguilera. CC License


You can find the Magere Brug/Skinny Bridge between the Keizsersgracht and the Prinsengracht, where the Kerkstraat meets the river on the east side and connects it to the Nieuwe Kerkstraat on the west. Take trams 9 or 14 or metro line 54 to Waterlooplein, then walk toward the Amstel. If you need to ask directions, you’ll find that virtually everyone you meet in Amsterdam speaks English.

The Eiffel Tower seen in the distance, framed by an iconic Paris pillar.

Paris is Perfect… and Always Will Be

In the wake of the terrible events this week in Paris, I think this is the perfect time to write something about this beautiful city. Because I believe in solidarity in the face of tragedy and horror. Because #JeSuisCharlie.

Louvre Museum seen from inside the courtyard glass pyramid

The Louvre Museum, seen from inside the I.M. Pei-designed glass pyramid in the central courtyard.

My fear is that, faced with the reality of a terrible terrorist attack on Paris, on Parisians and on freedom of speech itself, some potential travelers to the wonderful “City of Light” will now decide to stay home. That happens so much whenever these terrorists act out their limited vision and hatred anywhere in the world. Logic gives way to irrational fear. People are made to feel vulnerable and they crawl into a shell to protect themselves.

I just want to say this…and to say it very loudly: When we give in to fear, the terrorists win! Fear is their weapon of choice. When they use that weapon against us and we become afraid, i.e. we accept the ammunition they hand us, they win. Our fear is their victory!

I refuse to be afraid of them.

OK, enough about these losers with minds full of nothing but hatred and violence. They will never win, because we won’t let them. So let’s talk about something much more pleasant. Let’s talk about Paris!

She is so beautiful, any time, any season, for any reason.

The Eiffel Tower seen in the distance, framed by an iconic Paris pillar.

The Eiffel Tower is visible from most of Paris and is beautiful from up close or far away.

Paris is always
a good idea.
~ Audrey Hepburn


I made my first visit to Paris when I was 25—a number of decades ago! I loved it then. I loved it on several subsequent visits. And I love it still.

I spent a solo week in Paris in September of last year. I wish it could have been a month. I walked, I looked, I talked to people (a struggle with my very limited French), I ate. I walked some more. I ate some more! And it was all fabulous.

This visit was quite different from that first trip as an eager and adventurous young woman. Back then, I ran from place to place, from museum to monument to not-to-be-missed site, my tattered copy of Europe on $5 a Day always at hand. I wanted see it all, do it all, taste it all.

Now, I am more inclined toward what has come to be called “slow travel.” Maybe it’s age. Or perhaps it’s greater wisdom. Whatever, I took Paris slow, savoring each day and each moment, relaxing into the city at my own pace.

Instead of choosing a hotel for this trip, I used AirBnB to book a tiny studio apartment for the week. It turned out to be cheaper than a hotel and much nicer than a hostel. I moved in, settled, slept till I woke, lingered over morning coffee in a local café, then set off to wander. I walked and walked and walked some more, barely getting the full value of the discounted one-week Metro pass I bought in advance of my trip.

The slower pace meant I saw both less and more of Paris. I saw fewer monuments and museums and more people, fewer works of art on walls and more natural works of art in gardens and parks. I never hurried; I strolled. I stopped and just looked and breathed, tasted and smelled. As it turned out, it was absolutely the best way for me not just to “see” Paris but to experience her.

A corner of the Palais Garnier roofline against a blue Paris sky.

A golden statue glows against a blue Parisian sky at one corner of the Palais Garnier, home to the Paris Opéra until 1989. The company now uses this building mainly for ballet performances.

My first day in Paris, I joined a volunteer from Paris Greeters for a free walking tour. They are offered in various parts of the city and always lead by volunteers who know the neighborhood well. My walking tour was in Montparnasse. My guide was Jean-Jacques, a retired teacher full of wisdom, humor and great stories. Often there are several people in the group, but this day I was the only one on his walk. We wandered at our own pace, stopped for coffee, stopped for photos, and simply had a lovely morning.

Montparnasse is a neighborhood I had never explored before and I learned so much. Jean-Jacques was full of stories about the artists and writers who called this quartier home in the late-19th and early-20th centuries—after Montmartre became too chic and expensive for them! I saw where Degas painted, where Hemingway drank, where Mondrian loved.

Entrance to artist's studio in a hidden courtyard in Montparnasse.

Entrance to an artist’s studio in a hidden courtyard in Montparnasse. I would never have known about it or found it without my Paris Greeters guide, Jean-Jacques. Degas had his studio in this very courtyard.

Me enjoying the sunshine at Cafe de la Rotonde

Enjoying sunshine and coffee at Cafe de la Rotonde in Montparnasse, a favorite hang-out of Picasso, Modigliani and Soutine, Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau, Hemingway, Henry Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Debussy and the ballet dancer Nijinsky, among others.

My main activity throughout my week in Paris was simply walking around this glorious city, often without much of a plan, seeing where my feet would take me. I spent a lot of time sitting in sidewalk cafés just watching the world go by. I wrote in my journal. I took pictures. I breathed in the special magic that is Paris.

The studio apartment I rented was right in the center of the Ile St. Louis. Can you say… LOCATION?? You can’t get any more central in Paris. I fell in love with my neighborhood. There are tiny shops and patisseries and cafés everywhere. The famous Berthillón ice cream store was just around the corner… very dangerous! By my second visit to a neighborhood café or mini-supermarket, I was considered a local.

Another thing that made the location so perfect was that no matter where I was headed, I passed Notre Dame on the way. I spent several hours wandering around the beautiful cathedral, inside and out, taking pictures and just feeling the ancient wonder of this glorious work of architecture and faith.

Notre Dame de Paris at the golden hour

The main facade of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris glows in the “golden hour” of late afternoon against a blue Paris sky.

dtatues of saints on the high buttresses of Notre Dame, Paris

Statues of saints line the roof and high buttresses of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.
Always remember to look up!


I spent much of one whole afternoon wandering from stall to stall of the book and print sellers along the banks of the Seine, mostly along the famous Rive Gauche, the Left Bank. And yes, my suitcase was noticeably heavier when I left than when I landed!

Open-air bookstall along the Left Bank in Paris

When strolling along the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) in Paris, don’t plan to hurry… ever. The open-air book stalls
will be calling your name… if you are like me.

My “slow travel” schedule meant I passed on several of the iconic Parisian must-sees on this trip. I spent very little time in the Louvre, put off by the crowds and my own already tired feet. I never made it to the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe. I did not get anywhere near the Eiffel Tower—although I did have some lovely views of it from all over the city. It is pretty hard to miss!

I did make it to the Cluny Medieval Museum, in the heart of the Quartier Latin on the Left Bank. It is one of my favorite spots in Paris, and I spent more than an hour just sitting peacefully with the gorgeous tapestries in the “Lady and the Unicorn” series. It is basically impossible to capture the vibrancy and life in these centuries-old weavings in a photo—at least for me—but here is a taste.

A detail of one of the series of medieval tapestries The Lady and the Unicorn.

A detail of one of the famous “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries from the middle ages.
In the Musée de Cluny, Museum of the Middle Ages, in Paris.

I was fortunate with the weather. Except for waiting out one short rain squall in a doorway crowded with a few other Parisians near the Opéra, the sun shone brilliantly, sparkling off the waters of the Seine and pulling my eye up to roof lines and chimney pots, sculptures and that ever-present view of the Eiffel Tower.

I wandered through the Jardin de Luxembourg and the Park behind Notre Dame, snapping photos of flowers and lovers. What better place than Paris to photograph lovers?

Parisian lovers

Paris is for lovers….

Parisian lovers kissing on a concrete wall.

… and you can see them everywhere.


On my last day in Paris, she gave me a special gift… a perfectly Parisian sunset that set the Seine aglow, an apt image to remember her by.

 Parisian sunset

What could be more beautiful than Paris at sunset…?

This was not my last visit to Paris, of that I was determined. In fact, I have already booked my return ticket, this time for the spring. Paris in April! What could be more perfect?

What should I make it a point not to miss on my next trip to this golden, gorgeous, light-filled city? Tell me in the comments below.

The portales in the main plaza of San Miguel lit up at night.

POTW: The Portales in San Miguel de Allende at Night

Once again, for the Photo of the Week I’ve chosen the picture that is #1 on my Instagram account, a night shot of the portales in San Miguel de Allende, where I live. These arched and covered sidewalks run alongside the Jardín Principál, the main central plaza in San Miguel.

I was not prepared for this shot since I had no tripod with me. I was walking home one evening after a dinner with friends when I saw the lights all glowing on the old cantera stone arches and knew I had to take this. I backed up to the wall of a building on San Francisco, braced the camera flat against the wall, held my breath to minimize camera shake and clicked the shutter. It was a pretty long exposure and I had no idea if it was going to come out sharp or shaky, but I was pleased with the resulting shot.

When I first came here in 1989, the portales in San Miguel and the Parroquia were not lit up at night. Nor were the streets surrounding the Jardín closed off to traffic. Both these changes have added so much to the aura of the centro.

The portales in the main plaza of San Miguel lit up at night.

The portales in San Miguel de Allende glow beautifully in the lighting the city has installed, highlighting the details on the 18th century cantera stone buildings.

The portales in San Miguel are in a very traditional style you see all over Mexico, a remnant of Spanish colonial style. They serve many purposes besides looking elegant and inviting. These graceful covered passageways shade you from the hot sun or protect you from the monsoon downpours in the summer rainy season. In San Miguel, it’s not unusual to see a crowd huddled just under the edge on a rainy afternoon, peering out at the torrents running down the streets—which turn into real rivers, like “kayak-needed” rivers—waiting for the storm to pass. Fortunately, the downpours seldom last long. Then the sun comes out, the water runs off quickly, and the streets dry up. San Miguel is its usual sunny and beautiful self once more.

The portales in San Miguel are also covered mini shopping arcades. The mix has certainly changed since my first visit 25 years ago. Then, the buildings housed a small supermarket, an art supply and book store, a used furniture store, a juice stand. Even a hardware store. The east portales also had an artisans market with stalls selling jewelry, weavings, baskets and decorated tinware. These were moved to the Mercado de Artesania in the ‘90s. The only more-or-less permanent street vendors left are the flower ladies. Today they seem to sell primarily dried flowers and the currently wildy fashionable flower crowns with ribbons. And in the evening, bands of mariachi players in their silver braid-and-button finery, are usually seen leaning against the buildings, waiting for someone to request yet another replay of “Cielito Lindo.”

Nowadays, the spaces have gone upscale and touristy. Those small, practical mom-and-pop stores can no longer afford the rents that being here command. The portales in San Miguel now harbor mostly sidewalk cafes and boutiques. The Café del Portal, on the south corner with a superb view of the Parroquia, is a nice spot for a coffee and dessert. You can get a great Parroquia photo by using the arch of a portal as a frame.

On the opposite side of the Jardin, Rincón Don Tomás is a popular spot with locals to meet for coffee or lunch, catching up and people watching. Just a few doors up, visit El Bazar del Angel, a boutique owned by local writer and radio personality Yolanda Lacarieri. She has a well-chosen collection of jewelry, beautiful scarves and rebozos, San Miguel shoes, hats and San Miguel gifts, including the whimsical hand-painted tin nichos with funny calaca tableaux inside by Estudio Cielito Lindo.

The building at the northwest corner of the Jardín, in the very front of the photo, was once the town home of the Counts of Canal, one of the most important families in San Miguel in the 17th and 18th centuries. They also, of course, had a country home, a huge hacienda with thick walls of gray stone. Now I don’t know about you, but I usually think of a “country home” as being, well, in the country. I suppose at one time it was, but the beautiful and graceful building, with its elegant central patio, interior arcades and a small family chapel, now houses the Instituto Allende art and language school. And it is a 15-minute walk from the Jardín and the family’s “town” house under the portales in San Miguel. It probably took less than 10 minutes on a horse all those years ago, even without much of a road.

When you visit San Miguel de Allende, make sure to take time to wander up and down the portales in San Miguel and feel like you are back in colonial times, with all the elegance that entailed.


I am loving posting photos on Instagram every day, and I think the process has really sharpened my eye as a photographer. Have a look at my Instagram feed and let me know what you think in the comments below.

NomadWomen’s Instagram Gallery

View of Las Barrancas del Cobre, the Copper Canyon of Mexico

Company at the Copper Canyon

Finding Unexpected Friends on the Edge in Mexico

 

As I learned at the Copper Canyon of Mexico, not all the best travel experiences involve breath-taking adventures, cultural lessons and deep understanding. Sometimes the best ones are small, intimate, and almost silent. Sometimes they don’t involve people at all… but you can have a party just the same.

 
I flopped onto the bed and kicked off my shoes. It was quiet here, blessedly quiet. No sound but the breeze whispering through pine needles, then scurrying down into the depths of the great canyon below. Las Barrancas del Cobre, Mexico’s fabled Copper Canyon—it plunged below me in more shades of green and gray and rust and yellow than I had words in Spanish. The sun was low, tinting the shadows in the hollows the deep coppery bronze that gives this giant snaking hole in the ground its name.

View of Copper Canyon from Hotel Mirador

View of Urique Canyon, part of Las Barrancas del Cobre, Mexico’s Copper Canyon, in the state of Chihuahua.
Photo copyright Ted McGrath
(CC license)

But I was tired after a long day—though hopefully my passengers were not. As a professional Tour Director, my job was to make their days effortless, exciting, relaxing, adventurous, full of new sights and sounds and information but not over-full, not overwhelming. Name your vacational dream; my job was to provide it. And I was good at it.

But creating all that effortless-looking magic could sometimes be a slog. As a Tour Director you are Social Director, Logistics Manager, Entertainer, Teacher, Emergency Tech, Problem-Solver and Explainer-in-Chief. Also hand-holder and sometime baby-sitter. At the end of the day, your passengers head off to enjoy the bar and the mariachi music and watch the hummingbirds lured by the red-siren sparkle of the feeders hanging on the balcony over the canyon’s edge.

And all you want to do is leave them to it. Hide in your hotel room. Have a hot shower. Read a book. Enjoy the silence. Be alone. Or at least that’s what I thought I wanted that night. I really did.

The Hotel Mirador Posada Barrancas is perched directly on the edge of the massive hole that is the Copper Canyon. You can step onto the balcony of your room and look down on the birds flying below. This night it was chock full. I had a good-sized group on my tour and we were not the only bus-load in the hotel. The dramatic beauty of the Copper Canyon and its iconic train ride made for a popular tour, and every room in the main building was full.

The owners, the Balderrama hotel chain, were building a new wing, way at the top of the property. They called it El Nido del Aguila, the Eagle’s Nest. To get to it, you took a long stone path and stairs that snaked through madron trees, sotol cactus and the long-needled Arizona pines the Tarahumara people use to make their lovely baskets.

Hotel Mirador Posada Barrancas\ on the edge of the Copper Canyon.

Hotel Mirador Posada Barrancas perches right on the cliff edge of the Copper Canyon in Mexico. The “Eagle’s Nest” eyrie at the top was just being built at the time of our story. I was in the first room on the right, likely the first guest in it.
Photo copyright: Bad Alley
(CC license)

 

I finally reached my lovely, quiet, blessedly isolated room. There was no phone. No TV. No radio, no cell signal, no internet connection. The light smell of fresh paint jousted with the sharp tang of the pines edging the balcony beyond a pair of sliding glass doors. There were no other guests in the new, partially built eyrie. I could taste the aloneness and it was delicious on my tongue.

The main building may have been full to the brim with merry-making and margarita-slugging tourists, but up here it was completely and utterly quiet, or at least quiet of human sounds. The best kind of quiet when you spend your day shepherding a few dozen people from point A to Point B, smiling all the while.

It wasn’t really cold enough for a fire, but I was pining for the scent and the crackle and yellow flames to stare into mindlessly. An armload of pine logs and splinters for kindling from outside my door soon had the carved stone chimenea singing its fiery song. I slid open the balcony doors to let in the soft evening air. A long hot shower, a silent sit before the leaping flames restored my soul. I lay on the new bed, listening to the crackle of the fire and the overlaying silence. I ate a cracker, enjoying the bite of salt on my tongue. I reveled in the mundanity of it all. Such rare peace, to be savored in the mouth, mind and muscles.

The First Member of the Party Arrives

I grabbed the book I seldom had the peace to read. After maybe a half hour with it, something made me glance right, at the lamp on the bedside table. That’s when I discovered I was not actually alone. There on the lampshade was a pale brown praying mantis, poised in perfect elegance, head up and face turned toward me. The creature was at least three inches long (about 7.5 cm). His big, calabata-olive eyes were perhaps two feet away, yet he paid me no attention at all. He seemed neither impressed nor bothered by my presence and proximity. He just perched there preening, cleaning his long feelers exactly as if he were a cat.

Praying mantis

A Praying Mantis – “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”
Photo copyright Stavros Markopoulos
(CC license)

One long beige leg came up, the end hooked itself around a feeler and pulled it down in an arc. Then beginning at the head end and moving methodically toward the outer tip, he passed it slowly through his mouth, cleaning each tiny section as it went. That done, he picked up the other delicate front leg, reached up for the other feeler and repeated the process. Then back to the first.

My book lay forgotten as I sat fascinated by the mantis’ performance. I forgot the scent and beauty and depth of the Copper Canyon just outside the sliding doors. I moved as close as I thought I could. He never flinched. I edged a little closer. Any closer and I would not have been able to focus. He was less than a foot beyond my nose.

“Hello beautiful,” I said. He cleaned a feeler. “You are doing a wonderfully thorough job.” He cleaned the other feeler. At one point, he stopped and looked at me for a long moment, then slowly dipped his head as if saying “Yeah, I guess you’re okay. You can stay.”

It might have been ten minutes I watched him, or maybe thirty. I was lost to time, absorbed by the elegance of his movements and the perfection of every part of him. But finally, I did roll away and refocus on my book, leaving the mantis to his prayers and ablutions.

Guest Number Two?

Another chapter read and I glanced back to the lampshade to check on my guest. He was not there. I panicked for a moment, though I don’t know why. He was better suited to this place than I was. But I was worried, so I knelt on the mattress and peered over the headboard and down along and behind the nightstand looking for my pretty new friend.

He was nowhere to be seen. But… there on the floor, just sticking out from under the nightstand, was a minuscule pink nose. It twitched. Then it froze. I moved a fraction and it disappeared. But I had seen enough to recognize a tiny gray mouse.

A small mouse in a corner

A tiny wee mouse came out to say a timid hello. I fed him cracker crumbs.
Photo copyright Sean Dreilinger
(CC license)

On a whim and a hope, I broke off a piece of cracker, crumbled it and dropped it on the floor where the nose peek had been. Then I lay down, hanging crosswise off the edge of the bed, and waited. It took a few minutes. But I think the little guy was hungry. Pretty soon, the nose appeared again, all quivering pink and twitching whiskers. The little lad then darted out from safety, all one-inch-plus of him, grabbed the cracker pieces and darted back to safety again.

“Would you like some more?” I asked politely. “I have plenty.” I crumbled another cracker, dropped it in place and waited. Out he popped, grabbed, scurried back.

We continued the game awhile. I wondered what he was doing with all the crumbs, which must be piling up faster than he could eat them. Perhaps he was a she with a nest of babies clamoring for cracker feedings. I was afraid if I got down to look I would scare her off, and I was enjoying the company.

Praying mantis in silhouette

The praying mantis perched on the headboard behind me, like he was tying to read over my shoulder.
Photo copyright Ken Slade
(CC license)

Eventually I unfolded myself and turned back to my book… only to discover the preacher was back. Praying earnestly just above me, or perhaps studying my book, was the mantis, his delicate body perfectly arched atop the headboard behind me. I wished my book was a field guide to the trees and wildflowers of the Copper Canyon so he could enjoy reading over my shoulder. It was most likely a trashy historical romance novel, but he didn’t seem to mind.

I settled down to read, enjoying the feeling of having companions around me.

…and One More to Come

As the evening wore on and the air got chillier, my feet grew cold. I got up to retrieve some socks from my suitcase, lying on the terra cotta floor. There I startled guest number three to the party in room 101. As I reached into the bag, a wee frog, greeny-brown and no bigger than a gumdrop, hopped out and across the room, stopping only when leap met wall.

“Hoppy” seemed less inclined to be friends than my prayerful insect companion or even Ms. Mouse. He trembled a bit, cornered as he was. I retreated a safe distance to give him a little confidence and watched him. I had no froggy equivalent of crackers to offer and lull him from his fright.

Full night had fallen. The fire had burned down to embers. The subtle sounds of the Copper Canyon had quietened to almost nothing. And tomorrow morning, my passengers would expect me to be “on” and ready—to answer every question, solve every crisis and make sure they got what they had paid for. It was time for everyone to sleep.

I reluctantly turned off the light, tucked my sock-clad feet under me and snuggled down into my brand-new mattress.

I’d left the drapes open to the wide swath of canyon. The sun awakened me with a wink, then a laser, first peeping then pouring over the edge of the canyon’s horizon and straight into my room. I felt more refreshed than I ever feel on tour mornings. Stretching, I looked around the room. There were no visible remains of the party we had held the night before, no bottles or empty cups, no party hats or stretched out streamers. And no guests.

I looked all around. The mantis was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he had a lady friend further down the slopes of the mighty Copper Canyon. Perhaps he had been preening the night before just for her, wanting to impress. The frog in the corner had used the cover of darkness to hop off to safety. And Ms. Mouse was who knows where?

The mini-menagerie had all gone home, wherever home was, and I was alone again.

But there was evidence if you looked hard enough. There was proof of our revels. On hands and knees, forehead to the floor, I peered under the night stand, wondering if Ms. Mouse was still there. No mouse and no babies either. But there, in at least a dozen neat little mounds, like miniature haystacks, were heaps of cracker crumbs, precisely spaced, awaiting her return.

I checked my suitcase once more for stray amphibians then closed it and set it outside the door for pick-up. I headed back down the long stone path and stairway, lured by the faint smell of coffee wisping up from the hotel dining room. It was time to show my passengers more of the wonders and glory of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, four times bigger than the Grand Canyon, to introduce them to some of the Tarahumara Indians who lived there, tell them the names of the plants and the trees and the rocks.

But I decided I would not tell them about the party I’d held in my room the night before. I didn’t want to make them feel left out.

View of the Copper Canyon of Mexico

Late afternoon at the beautiful Copper Canyon of Mexico.
Photo copyright Adam Singer
(CC license)


 


Get more information about the Hotel Mirador Posada Barrancas at the Copper Canyon in Mexico.