Mexico's world-class Chapultepec Park

Here is some of what I saw people doing on a sunny weekend morning in the world-class Chapultepec Park in the middle of sprawling Mexico City: strolling, biking, jogging, practicing karate, noshing, running through a shrubbery maze, chasing squirrels, cooling down, getting sweaty, smooching, going to museums, visiting ancient Aztec baths, going to the zoo, meditating, doing yoga, and taking selfies in front of a fountain. Here are some snapshots I took on an hour-long stroll yesterday.





Changing money in Michoacan

A dollar is a dollar, right?

Not in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, a Pueblo Magico that I visited over the weekend in company of some relatives. My wife went into an exchange house so that my niece could change $20 to buy some souvenirs.

“No, ma’am, we don’t change anything but $50 and $100,” she was told.

The teller said that no exchange house in the city would exchange small sums of money, only big bills. My niece looked crestfallen and after further discussion, the teller agreed to change the small quantity.

As soon as my wife told me what happened, it clicked. Michoacan sees a massive quantity of profits from illicit narcotics. Actually transporting U.S. bills is a problem for crime gangs. What better way to minimize the problem than only to deal in $100 bills?

Patzcuaro, by the way, is delightful. I hadn’t been there in 30+ years and my memory was fuzzy. But we found a richer variety of handcrafts than most other places we’ve been. Perhaps not surprisingly, waiters spoke to us constantly in English. Michoacan is the home state to huge numbers of migrants to the U.S. In Chicago alone, there are 250,000 migrants from Michoacan. One man who spoke to us in English said he’d lived for 16 years in Burbank, California.

On another evening, we were with some prominent people from Michoacan, and the conversation naturally turned to security and the dominant crime group, the Knights Templar. Out came several stories the gist of which is that few people believe crime boss Nazario Moreno, known as “El Mas Loco,” was really killed as the government contended in a shootout with federal police in Apatzingan in late 2010. Several years ago, I wrote about Moreno as one of the most colorful of Mexico’s underworld figures.


The amazing 'birdmen of Mexico'

Anyone who visits Veracruz and environs at fiesta time is likely to see the age-old Dance of the Voladores, the ancient Mesoamerican acrobatic dance that brings awe to viewers. I was in Cuetzalan, on the border between Puebla and Veracruz states over the weekend. To my delight, be-costumed dancers arrived at the Zocalo on Sunday morning and began to climb the huge pole. It must have been over 100 feet in height. 

According to the history books, the ritual began many centuries ago as a supplication to the gods to end drought and return rain and fertility to the soil. As recently as a few decades ago, the dancers would still adorn their bodies with feathers to appear as birds to the gods. They'd apply feathers from eagles, owls, crows, parrots and the brightly colored quetzal bird.

Check out this January 1954 Popular Mechanics article titled "The Weird Birdmen of Mexico." The article notes that after the dancers climb to the top of the pole, they "drop off into space with blood-curdling shrieks and glide in widening circles until they hit the ground."

I didn't hear any shrieks. Rather, the whole ceremony was accompanied by lilting fife and drum music, and the pealing of church bells. The costumes include long pastel ribbons that flutter as the dancers descend to the ground.

In 2009, UNESCO chose the ritual ceremony of the 'voladores' as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, putting it up there with Mexico's Day of the Dead festivities.  

Clambering into Mexico's depths

One of the charms of Cuetzalan, which the Washington Post once called the “perfect mountain town,” is that it is in the mountains of Puebla atop a massive cave system.

Photo-2A lover of caves, I badgered my traveling companions along on a weekend trip to enter a cave with me named Los Corales, which turned into quite an adventure. We descended 700 meters into the cave, all of us wearing helmets with headlamps and led by a guide who said she’d been in Los Corales hundreds of times.

It was raining up above, and the family that manages the cave suggested we wear rented boots. We all said no. That was mistake No. 1. Once we got into the cave, we were engulfed by several inches of rushing water in several spots. In one area we had to descend (and later ascend) what felt like a small rushing waterfall.

That said, the cave was beautiful, the darkness deep inside profound, and the crystals and stalactites otherworldly. One of my companions, Swedish television journalist Bosse Lindwall, took the video that accompanies this post. You can hear the rushing water at times in the video.



Spot the UFOs over Popocatepetl

If you are able to, you have a sharper eye than I. Periodically, Mexico City residents claim to spot strange objects hovering over the volcano near the capital.

This video footage is from a camera set up by the Televisa network at the Altzomoni station on the flanks of Iztaccíhuatl, the other big volcano visible (on rare clear days) from Mexico City.

While the site carrying the video doesn’t offer many details, it says: “The video shows a light moving from the extreme left toward the center of the volcano.” 

Looks like a star to me. In any case, at the two minute mark a fly lands on the camera lens. That was about all the excitement I could handle.

Back in October, those prone to seeing UFOs reported seeing a luminous one a kilometer long plunge straight into the crater. Here’s the link. And another link



Getting a buzz off electric taxis

A handful of Nissan electric taxis are now cruising the streets of Mexico City. I haven't actually seen any yet but am eager to ride one once I do. This Al Jazeera report says the meter rate on the taxis begins at about the equivalent of $2 US, so they are equivalent to more expensive taxi stands rather than those that cruise the streets looking for passengers. In any case, if it helps the air quality in my book it is worth the money.

I've never ridden an all-electric vehicle, only a hybrid. I'll report back on the experience.


Off the beaten path in the region


We foreign correspondents have enviable jobs. We consort with princes and poker players, bankers and brewers. We poke our noses in all kinds of places.

It’s the end of the year nearly, so I can’t help but think of the fun places and interesting people I’ve been blessed to write about in 2012. Sure, there’s been plenty of serious things to report on. But then there’s been the fun things, those that are personably memorable.

Topping the list for me this year was a trip to Baja California to visit Scammon’s Lagoon where thousands of gray whales migrate each winter. I actually got paid to do this so I could write this story. That’s my video above.

Less than a month later, I visited a town in Veracruz state that created its own currency. I had never considered the ramifications of alternative currency till I did this story.

I’m still the butt of jokes in our house for something that happened after I was sent by editors to Costa Rica to write about “poker refugees” – American online poker players who moved abroad once several online poker sites became illegal. I expected to find frat boys swigging beer and playing online. To my surprise, I found brainy engineers, Russian literature experts, math whizzes and assorted other oddballs, all of whom I quite liked.

Then I made a mistake. I mentioned to our older daughter, who is very good at math, how much money these guys were making and, er, OK I confess: I suggested that she might want to look into online poker as a temporary career option.

I might as well have suggested a life of crime for all the guff I got about this later.

Still, it was a fun story. Almost as fun was this story about an artisanal chocolate maker in Nicaragua, and this one about a ghost town that has come back to life on the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I also enjoyed writing about the Kuna Indians in Panama, a surprising number of whom are albinos.

It’s been a great year. I head off tomorrow through the end of the year to Florida so no more blog postings till January. To all my readers, Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año Nuevo!


Party like it's the End of the World

Will you await the End of the World cuddled up to the stone Snake Deity at the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza (above)? Don’t bring anything except a bottle of water.

There are going to be some crowds this week. December 21 marks the end of a 5,128-year Mayan cycle, and foreign tourists are already flocking to Mayan sites.

The learned folks over at INAH – Mexico’s anthropology institute – are rolling their eyes at the fuss. They have pooh-poohed any talk that the end of the Mayan cycle means Apocalypse. But I guess they got word not to deter any mini tourism boom among New Age mystics and spiritual adventurers. So they sent out a notice this week to alert tourists of conditions.

If you plan to party like the end of the world is nigh, it’ll be tough.

Be forewarned -- you cannot take the following into Mayan sites: Food, alcohol, backpacks, large bags, coolers, child strollers, bicycles, skates, tripods, firearms, umbrellas or anything sharp.

So that leaves sun tan lotion and a bottle of water. Maybe a hat.

At least you can hydrate while we pass from what the Mayans called the 13th Bak'tun into the next era under the Mayan Long Count calendar.

Luxury hotels in Cancun have been advertising End of the World promotions, replete with oceanfront suites and champagne. But apparently in Guatemala, some hoteliers say projections that 150,000 to 200,000 tourists would flock to the area of the beautiful Tikal ruins in the Peten region were overblown (link in Spanish).

Plenty of famed Mayan sites are open to the public – like Chichen Itza and Uxmal en Yucatan state, Edzna in Campeche, Palenque, Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas, and Tulum in Quintana Roo – but one key site is closed. That site is El Tortuguero in Tabasco state. It is there where archaeologists discovered Monument 6 – whose inscriptions are the only known reference to the end of the current 13th Bak'tun era and the commencement of a new era.

If you want to get NASA’s outlook on Dec. 21, click here. Here’s a sum up:

“The world will not end in 2012. Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012.”
Britain’s The Guardian newspaper has amusing wall-to-wall coverage of End of the World fever. It notes here that dozens have been arrested in China in recent days for spreading doomsday fever. Russia also has some kooky goings on as citizens buy up emergency supplies.

The paper’s take: “So what is apocalypse fever, then? Just a few bulging pockets of apocalyptic stupidity.”


Yes, we have no bananas -- on board

I’m not an experienced fisherman but I just went fishing with some friends on protected Ascension Bay in the Yucatan. It felt like having a national park all to ourselves.

But here was the odd thing. Fishermen all over the world are a superstitious lot. And what came up on this trip was the following:

Don’t bring bananas on the boat. Bananas bring bad luck. They scare away the fish. You won’t catch anything.

I thought this a might curious, perhaps a Mexican superstition. But I see that it is far more widespread than that. This article says the belief is prevalent among crab fishermen in the U.S. as well, and may have roots dating back to the banana trade from Central America a century ago.

Banana boats moved to fast for fishermen to troll effectively. The boats were trying to get their perishables to market.

This LA Times article from 2001 quotes a sport fishing boat captain, Bouncer Smith, of South Florida, and the extensive efforts he goes through to rid anything redolent of bananas from his boat.

"Typically, when customers arrive in the morning, the first thing I do is interrogate them," Smith said. "First, I check for bananas, then I check for Banana Boat sunscreen products, then for Banana Republic shirts and blouses, then for Starburst strawberry-banana [candies] and, most important of all, for Fruit of the Loom labels."

Now back to Ascension Bay. This is an amazing place, part of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. Turquise waters. Extensive flats for bonefishing. It takes an hour and a half along a gravel road to get there from Tulum. But it feels further. I have not seen a night sky lit up with stars like that in years. Our first day out, we saw not a single other boat after traveling miles and miles on the bay. It was like going to Yellowstone and finding it deserted. When we weren't fishing, we were seeing countless roseate spoonbills and frigate birds. 


Mexico City's latest tourism campaign

This is a very well-done promotional video for tourism to Mexico City. Makes me appreciate even more living in this marvelous and varied city.

Item: I am hearing from some readers outside of Mexico that they can't get video I am posting. Please let me know if the problem continues.



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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