A Day in Tepoztlán

Mt. Tepozteco overlooks the main street in Tepoztlán.

Mt. Tepozteco overlooks the main street in Tepoztlán.

The quaint town of Tepoztlán (place of abundant copper in the indigenous Nahuatl language) has grown rapidly to over 40,000 inhabitants in recent years.  Some of the growth can be attributed to the Pueblo Mágico (magical town) designation bestowed by the Mexican Secretariat of Tourism.  This award recognizes selected towns for their scenic beauty, cultural heritage, and/or their historical significance.

Bananas, mangos, strawberries, guayaba, they have it all.

Bananas, mangos, strawberries, guayaba, pineapple, melons, even Washington apples, they have it all.

Tepoztlán comes to life on Market Days, every Wednesday and Sunday. That is when food vendors, craft persons and local farmers set up awnings around the main square of town.  People come from Mexico City and surrounding towns to enjoy the live music, shop for fresh produce, dine, and perhaps seek out their favorite flavor of ice cream for which the town is famous.

Our first visit to Tepoztlán was on a Sunday.  We chose a nearby restaurant for lunch before purchasing several grocery bags filled with fresh fruits and vegetables including pineapple, strawberries, bananas, mangos, mandarin oranges, tomatoes and avocados, all for about $15.  We would have looked into the 16th century Dominican cathedral, The Parish of the Nativity, except that Sunday mass was just getting out, and the area in and around the cathedral was quite crowded.

The mosaic mural is coated with varnish so the birds won't eat the seeds.

The mosaic mural is coated with varnish so the birds won’t eat the seeds.

Our return visit to Tepoztlán on a Wednesday a few weeks later allowed us time to visit the cathedral.  Access to the cathedral grounds from the marketplace is through an arched gate.  The face of this portal is exquisitely decorated with a mosaic scene portraying in fine detail the agricultural imagery of the region.  The whole scene is portrayed solely with the use of seeds, beans, and organic materials.  Even though the image is preserved by a thick layer of varnish, we learned the entire mosaic is redesigned and redone from scratch every year.

The Dominican cathedral is even more dramatic inside.

The Dominican cathedral is even more dramatic inside.

The cathedral itself is a tribute to the ingenuity of the artisans of the 1500’s who carved the intricate stonework on the façade. The local history is also superbly displayed and described at the adjacent former convent, now a museum.  We were as impressed with the stunning architectural detail of the building as we were with the museum’s exhibits.

For the more adventurous visitor, an invigorating hike up the neighboring peak of Tepozteco offers spectacular vistas of the town, the surrounding hills and the distant central valley of Morelos.  To this day there are remains of an Aztec era temple high on the cliffs of Tepozteco, probably a site for priests of an earlier era. Whether you like to shop or if you simply prefer a beautiful drive in the country, Tepoztlán is worth a visit.

living in Mexico

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Xochicalco – Ancient City of Flowers

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent sits on the highest terrace at Xochicalco where sacred rituals were conducted.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent, featuring deeply cut relief carvings, sits on the highest terrace at Xochicalco where sacred rituals were conducted.

Xochicalco has plazas on different levels connected by ramps and stairs.

Xochicalco has plazas on different levels connected by ramps and stairs.

Xochicalco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site south of Cuernavaca, Mexico, had a relatively brief history from 650 AD – 900 AD. The Mayan civilization of that time was in decline experiencing strife and rebellion. Xochicalco was built as a walled, fortified city on the highest mountain overlooking the rich farmland of Mexico’s central valley, suggesting a need to defend itself against warring factions. Cisterns the size of modern swimming pools were built to gather and store rainwater since the city had no permanent water supply. Scholars estimate the population of the city at its peak may have reached 15,000 inhabitants.

This living area on the highest plaza is most likely where the priests lived.

This living area on the highest plaza is most likely where the priests lived.

Xochicalco grew rapidly as a cultural, commercial, and religious center. Although not a Mayan city, Xochicalco modeled itself on Mayan ideas of organization and construction. The city was terraced with plazas on different levels that were connected by a complex network of pathways and stairs. The uppermost level was the site of the temple where priests carried out the most important rituals of the day.

The indigenous Nahuatl word Xochicalco translated literally means “in the place of the home of flowers,” most likely a reference to the prolific blooming of wildflowers in November following the region’s rainy season. While research might reveal the actual name of the city as it was known at the time, I have not discovered it.

The largest of three game fields at Xochicalco had lots of space for spectators.

The largest of three game fields at Xochicalco had lots of space for large numbers of spectators overlooking the arena.

Games played on the stylized playfields of the day had some similarities to the modern-day games of soccer, basketball, and football. The fields were shaped like a capital letter “I” with carved stone ‘goals’ or hoops on each side. Spanish observers of the games described seven-man teams who wore protective padding on their heads, shoulders, torsos and legs. Players moved a solid ball weighing an estimated eight pounds and 8” in diameter made of vulcanized rubber.* Players were not permitted to use their hands or feet. While scorekeeping remains a mystery, one observer witnessed a player putting the ball through a hoop. He expected the crowd to jump up and cheer. In actuality, the spectators jumped up and ran away while being chased by players on the scoring team. It was later explained the scoring team was allowed to take the possessions of the spectators. Thus, the winners were trying to chase down the wealthiest spectators in an effort to claim their clothing and jewelry as a victory prize.

All carved figures depicting a sloped forehead are of Mayans. Shaping of the skulls of infants was a common Mayan practice.

All carved figures depicting a sloped forehead are of Mayans. Shaping of the skulls of infants was a common Mayan practice.

Almost all of the structures now visible at Xochicalco have been restored by modern archeologists prior to the 1990’s. The new school of archeological thought has become one of consolidation as opposed to restoration. That is, only enough work is performed at a site to preserve it as it was found, thus keeping everything ‘genuine.’ These academics refer to old school archeologists as ‘pyramidiots,’ a derogatory reference to rebuilding sites according to an academician’s ‘best guess’ as to what structures actually looked like. In defense of the old school, I will point out that the site at Xochicalco would appear today mostly as piles of rubble had there been no restoration projects. You will need to decide for yourself which approach is the most appropriate.

*Note – Ancient Mesoamericans learned to vulcanize rubber over 3,000 years before Charles Goodyear obtained the U.S. patent for the process in 1847.

See more of Xochicalco on this short video:

living in Mexico

Jalapeño Love – A Food Story

JALAPENOS

The Scoville Chart shows jalapeño peppers on the cooler end of the heat spectrum.

Jalapeño peppers are on the cooler end of the Scoville heat spectrum.

Some might say my craving for hot spicy food is indicative of a warped personality or a self-destructive tendency, including my wife. However, I do not eat things so damn hot that I must run to the fridge for a dousing of milk, yogurt or ice cream. (Note – water and beer just spread the heat. Dairy products help put out the fire.) I am not seeking a stomach bomb with 3 million Scoville units. No, I am talking about flavor. The special tang of hot salsa on a taco or burrito that makes every bite a burst of flavor. The sensual crunch of juicy jalapeño peppers on nachos that fills my mouth with flavor. Such is my love of jalapeño peppers.

My love of food is inescapably linked to my love of spice. For example, when I go to a Thai restaurant, I look for the dishes with the most little chilies next to the item. Then I ask the waiter if the heat ratings for these dishes are “Americanized.” Would four chilies on the menu be only three if we were in Thailand? I do not want wimpy hot food. Part of the joy of eating spicy food is sweat breaking out across the bridge of my nose.

Jalapeños are your friends!Jose Jalapeño on a Stick - Jeff Dunham Productions

Jalapeños are your friends!
Jose Jalapeño on a Stick – Jeff Dunham Productions

I am not alone in my quest for spicy heat. Many shops specialize in selling great varieties of hot sauces, some with adjectives like ‘kick-ass’ in the brand name. Also, most supermarkets now have a wide variety of spicy sauces. They are usually divided between the sauce aisle and the Hispanic foods aisle. These sauces are okay to quickly liven up a bowl of chicken noodle soup or a side of baked beans. However, they are quite boring compared to the textures and flavors of a good homemade salsa or stirring a couple tablespoons of diced jalapeños into a steaming bowl of chili.

Stop avoiding hot, spicy food like it is a bee ready to sting you. Try adding a tiny bit of jalapeño pepper on your next nacho chip. Your body builds a natural tolerance to capsaicin, the chemical in peppers that makes them hot. That is why some people, like me, can eat a jalapeño like a pickle and just smile while first-timers seem wimpy as they run to put the fire out. Remember, start slow with jalapeños, and perhaps one day you will also relish the crunchy texture and flavor of a jalapeño to spice up next Mexican-style meal.

The jalapeño bean dip was a hit with all the women at the party.

The jalapeño bean dip was a hit with all the women at the party.

We recently hosted a birthday/going-away party for our Canadian friends, and I served my jalapeño bean dip with my wife’s homemade totopos (tortilla chips). Even my wife, a self-admitted spice wimp, loves this dip, and it was a hit with everyone. Try this simple recipe. You may be surprised by how big a hit it will be at your next party. Who knows? You might love it yourself.

Jalapeño Bean Dip
Ingredients:
Refried beans – 16 oz. serves 4
Grated mild cheese, i.e. – cheddar, jack or a mixture. Approx. 1 cup, not packed
Chopped jalapeños – appox. ¼ cup from a jar or can. Add more to suit your taste.

Heat the refried beans in a sauce pan. Add a little water if they are dry. Gradually stir in the grated cheese until it is completely melted and blended in. Add chopped jalapeños. Simmer for a few minutes. Scoop into a bowl. Sprinkle grated cheese on top if desired and serve with tortilla chips.

Taxco, Mexico – City of Silver

Taxco is reminiscent of the hillside towns of Italy.

Taxco is reminiscent of the hillside towns of Italy.

Taxis whizzing through the streets are like a Disneyland ride.

Taxis whiz around like a Disneyland ride. Mosaics of white stone are inlaid in the cobblestone streets

As our bus approaches the town of Taxco on the winding mountain highway, I find the view reminiscent of the hillside towns of Italy. The most striking feature is that almost every structure is painted white. The obvious exception is the stunning Cathedral of Santa Prisca. Built over a 15 year period starting in 1758, the twin bell towers of the cathedral were the tallest structures in Mexico at the time. Silver baron, José de la Borda, nearly went bankrupt funding the elaborate Baroque-style construction of the church.

The main altar portrays the Immaculate Conception.

The main altar portrays the Immaculate Conception in exquisite detail.

The taxi ride from the bus station to the Museum of Viceregal Art is incredibly similar to a Disneyland ride as we whirl through a maze of steep inclines and turns between three-story buildings until we arrive at the museum. All the taxis are white VW Bugs with a seating capacity for two passengers only as all the front passenger seats have been removed.

We are told the taxi is free, which I wondered about. When I saw the museum proprietor give each driver several pesos, I realized why the ride was free. The “museum” made a nice profit on our free tour based on the three hundred pesos ($25) we spent on gifts made of silver. Admittedly, it is difficult to not purchase these beautifully crafted items. An elegant silver chain necklace cost under $10.

This shop modeled itself after the rich silver mines that made Taxco famous.

This shop modeled itself after the rich silver mines that made Taxco famous.

Since pre-Columbian times Taxco has been renowned for its silver mines. Even though the last silver mine in the area closed just a few years ago, Taxco remains a focal point for handcrafted silver goods and jewelry. Tourism is now the number one industry of Taxco, and the shopkeepers and street vendors are eager to please to the point of ushering people into their shops whenever possible. Hotels and restaurants also provide many options. We had lunch at a rooftop restaurant near the cathedral with a view of the whole town.

Taxco is a shopper’s paradise. The town is strategically located on the principal route from Mexico City to Acapulco. To those for whom shopping is a not a priority, Taxco is essentially a tourist trap. While there are many options for dining and sightseeing, a visit to the Cathedral of Santa Prisca is enough to make a stop in Taxco worth the effort.

living in Mexico

The Cathedral or Santa Prisca is worth stopping to see.

The Cathedral of Santa Prisca is worth stopping to see.

The Vacation That Changed My Life

Alaska
I had run my first marathon a couple of years before. However, I had not sustained that fitness level. My eating habits reflected the depression I was experiencing following the breakup of my thirty year marriage relationship, so I set out to get back in shape. After an intense three months of diet and exercise, I felt good about reaching my goals, and I decided to reward myself.

RC Radiance of the Sea in Glacier Bay

RC Radiance of the Sea in Glacier Bay

My first thought was to eat a big steak dinner, which I scaled down to a deluxe hamburger to stay within my food budget. I topped my food fantasies with the idea of gorging myself on a homemade banana cream pie. Of course, these gastronomic misadventures were what put me on the weight-loss path to begin with. When I asked myself what I really wanted, it hit me. There were two things I had never done and always wanted to do: 1) visit Alaska, and 2) take a cruise. I could accomplish both at one time! Since I was unattached, I researched singles cruises. As it happened a singles group had openings on a cruise that July which fit with my vacation schedule. Sharing a stateroom with another single was a great way to save money, so I booked it.

View of Juneau from Mt. Roberts

View of Juneau from Mt. Roberts

As people signed up, we introduced ourselves to one another via email. I learned quickly that more women cruise than men. Of the sixteen people in our group, thirteen were women. Although I did not mind the odds, I was a bit nervous thinking I was older than most members of the group. Just to make sure I was putting my best self forward, I bought some new dress clothes. I also had my hair styled including dying out the gray. I was ready.

The first evening on the cruise was a social mixer/cocktail hour. All but one person showed up at the appointed hour. I knew who was missing because we had all exchanged introductory emails. When she finally showed up I approached her and said, “Hi, my name is Mike. You must be Florence.” (Under duress I am now fast forwarding past all the mushy stuff.)

Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska

Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska

We decided to stay in touch after our cruise. Florence lived in Glendale, California. I was in Olympia, Washington. We maintained a long distance relationship for awhile, which was stressful. She took vacations in Washington with me (and filled my freezer with home-cooked meals). I visited her at her home in Las Vegas. I met lots of her Italian family at Thanksgiving. We decided then that we should be together, and by Christmas she and I had a home together in Olympia. The rest, as they say, is history.

All this occurred in 2005. Florence and I were married in 2007. I retired in 2011, and we have been traveling the world together ever since.

I had never before used “Hi, my name is Mike” as a pickup line. Since I am batting 1.000 with that line I do not use it anymore. Thus, my perfect record remains intact. 🙂

living in Mexico

Happy Birthday to Me – Mexican Style

tamuz
I turned sixty-three this February 22nd. At first it did not feel quite right because this is the first birthday in my life when it was not cold. I am not complaining. Since our power was out most of the day due to electrical maintenance, we sat out in our garden terrace and read books for most of the day. Not a bad way to spend a day. And it just got better!

Our neighbor Yvon, his daughter Natahlie, and granddaughter Regina.

Our neighbor Yvon, his daughter Natahlie, and granddaughter Regina, Florence and me

Once power was restored I was able to connect with family via Skype and with many friends via Facebook, all sending me birthday cheer. Then our new neighbors from Quebec, Madeleine and Yvon (pronounced Ivan), invited us up to their terrace to share a glass of wine and an enjoyable visit along with their daughter, Natahlie, and their granddaughter, Regina.

Our celebration dinner with our other neighbors, Jane and Jim, began with a cocktail and conversation on Jim’s scenic deck. The onset of twilight in Cuernavaca signaled our departure time for a dining experience at Tamuz a short drive away.

The Israeli owner/chef of Tamuz recreates an Israeli bistro setting.

The Israeli owner/chef of Tamuz recreates an Israeli bistro setting.

The open-air deck overlooks a lawn and illuminated water-feature wall. A duet performed live music that was soft and melodic. The young female vocalist’s lyrical voice swept over us like a whispering breeze, tangible but not visible. The atmosphere was, in all respects, classy.

Florence started with tortilla soup with a Mediterranean vegetarian dinner. Jane ordered an eggplant and cheese appetizer with roasted peppers and capers. It must have been good because she did not utter a word until there was nothing left on her plate. Jim and I both ordered the Caesar salad custom-made alongside our table. The three of us then enjoyed the entree coconut shrimp on a bed of rice with a spicy mango salsa.

The vegetarian plate included stuffed grape leaves, hummus and olives.

The vegetarian plate included stuffed grape leaves, hummus and olives.

When Jim informed our waiter that it was my birthday, he brought me a special birthday dessert with a single candle, and they played a birthday song over the sound system, which was also quite classy. I wished for what I always wish for – the health and safety of my loved ones.

Thanks to all who made this a special day.

A special dessert caps off a perfect birthday.

A special dessert caps off a perfect birthday.

living in Mexico

Expat Living – Financing the Dream

Aconcagua, highest point in the Western Hemisphere as seen from Libertadores Pass.

Aconcagua, highest point in the Western Hemisphere as seen from Libertadores Pass.

A previous post, Announcing the Six Monthers, describes our desire to move to a new location every six months. This lifestyle gives us time to acquaint ourselves with the local culture and discover places and things that are off the beaten path. This is how we did it.

The ancient city of Pompeii near Naples, Italy.

The ancient city of Pompeii near Naples, Italy.

First, we have no debt. All credit card balances are paid off every month. Next, we downsized. This was the most significant challenge, and sentimental value cannot be casually dismissed. Take the time to enjoy the things you have. Then ask yourself if you want to pack them with you. We made a rule. If we boxed up stuff and we did not reopen the box within a year, we did not need it. Whatever you do, do not purchase storage space because the cost of storage will soon be greater than the value of your stuff.

The view from our cabin at Selva Negra Eco-lodge in Nicaragua.

Selva Negra Eco-Lodge and coffee farm in Nicaragua.

We are not wealthy by any means. In fact, when we first decided to move outside the United States it was because we could not afford to live most places in the States on my retirement income. Florence will not be eligible to retire for another ten years, and she would have to work full-time for us to afford living in the States, especially given the cost of health care. That still leaves many countries where we can live comfortably on my $1,500/month Social Security check. Any country where rent and utilities cost under $800/month is within our means, including Mexico where we live now, and Florence works only if she so chooses.

Villefranche on the French Riviera near Monaco

Villefranche on the French Riviera near Monaco

The fun part is deciding where to live. As you consider your options, you should also plan how to adapt to your new lifestyle. Do you need to learn a new language? If so, it is not too soon to start studying. Is hot water a luxury or a necessity? We lived in Panama for $300/month with hot water only in the shower. We saved a lot of money, but it got old after awhile. The key is to live within your means and to adapt your lifestyle to your income.

This is not a vacation. This is the part of your life you will spend seeing the world, so pace yourself. Have fun making plans. Also, be flexible and change your plans should you discover better options along the way.

Mike and Florence at Laguna Gray, Torres del Paine NP, Chile

Mike and Florence at Laguna Gray, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile

Perhaps most important of all, be on excellent terms with your significant other. Traveling abroad is not couples therapy. If you think this goes without saying, let me ask this. When was the last time you and your significant other shared a confined space while it rained for several days in a row? Do you still make each other laugh?

If you would have told me two years ago I would be moving every six months, I would have laughed at the thought of it. I did not even have a passport two years ago! All I am saying is if I can do it so can you. Good luck and buen viaje!

living in Mexico