Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mexico's Frankenmuth

If you have ever traveled in Michigan, you may be familiar with the town of Frankenmuth, the home of Bronner's Christmas Wonderland.  Bronner's promotes itself as the world's largest Christmas store.

In the state of Michoacán (not Michigan) in the town of Tlalpujahua, there is another store where Christmas lives all year long... "La Casa de Santa Claus" (the House of Santa Claus).

The store is owned by the Muñoz family, the same family that introduced the art of glass-blowing to the economically dying town of Tlalpujahua in the 1960s.  In 1965 Joaquín Muñoz established the factory “Adornos Navideños”, which produces hand painted, blown glass Christmas ornaments.  Today there are more than 150 workshops in the town, but “Adornos Navideños” remains the biggest and most important.  It is the largest Christmas ornament factory in Latin America, and among the five largest in the entire world.  The factory employs 500 workers. 

A two story Christmas tree stands within the entrance to the store.

There are other handicrafts for sale besides ornaments... some of them are not even related to Christmas.  However most of the store is filled with bin after bin of glass decorations.

"La Casa de Santa Claus" in Michoacán is small compared to Bronner's in Michigan, but this store in Tlalpujahua has one big advantage over Bronner's.  Nothing is "made in China"; everything is "hecho en México"!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Magical Tlalpujahua

I have written in earlier posts that the Mexican Secretariat of Tourism awards the designation of "Pueblo Mágico“ (Magic Town) to towns that are unique for their beauty, culture or historic importance.  I have visited a number of "Magic Towns", but the one that Alejandro and I visited this past weekend is one of my favorites.  We went to Tlalpujahua, a town of about 3700 people in the state of Michoacán.

It is about a three hour drive from Mexico City.  Most of the trip was along toll roads, but the last half hour we traveled along a winding two-lane road that took us into the mountains.

Tlalpujahua was founded in 1593 as a mining town.  By the late 19th century, its was the country's leading producer of gold.  That ended however in 1937 when a landslide buried one third of the town and put an end to mining operations.  The town languished, and the population declined to about 600 people. 

Then in the 1960s, a former resident of Tlalpujahua returned to his home town after a sojourn in the United States and started a company making blown-glass Christmas ornaments.  There are now two Christmas ornament factories and around 150 smaller workshops.  The industry accounts for around 70% of the economy.

The town's designation as a "Magic Town" has also brought tourism to Tlalpujahua, although most visitors are from Mexico.  I was the only "gringo" that I saw.

The town's hillside location means that wherever you go, you are going to climb or descend the cobblestone streets.  Good walking shoes are a must.

There are two plazas in the town.  One is a lovely spot with fountains and a bandstand.


The Church of San Francisco, which faces the plaza is quite pretty inside, and the cloister of the former Franciscan monastery is picturesque.

Uphill there is another plaza called the "Plaza Mayor" which is a paved area.  On this weekend is was the site of an open-air market selling ceramics and pottery.

From the "Plaza Mayor" a flight of steps leads to the town's most important church, the 18th century Sanctuary of Our Lady of Carmen.

The interior of the church is exceptionally beautiful.

There were images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary lined up all along the side walls of the church.  Alejandro thought that they were probably from other churches and villages, and that they had been brought here for Holy Week.

While we were there, a pair of images were taken from the church to be returned, we assume, to their home location.  The departure was celebrated with a band playing and firecrackers set off.

Moments later another image was removed from the church, and paraded through the town's streets.  Again it was marked with firecrackers and music.

This process apparently continued all weekend.  We would frequently hear the fireworks and music, and the next day we saw another statue carried through the streets.  These ceremonies made our visit to this fascinating town even more memorable.

Under the Weather

As mentioned in my previous post, Alejandro and I took a weekend excursion to Tlalpujahua.  I noticed on Saturday that I was coughing quite a bit.  Saturday night I had a slight fever.  I felt good enough the next morning to do some more wandering around the town, but that wore me out.  I slept most of the way as we drove back to Mexico City. 

When we got back to the apartment I still felt extremely tired, and Alejandro convinced me that I should see a doctor.  We went to a nearby pharmacy with a "consultario médico“.  The doctor took my temperature (I still had a low grade fever), listened to my lungs (they were clear) and looked at my throat.  She said that I had an infection, and made out a prescription for three drugs that I should take. 

The consultation with the doctor cost 50 pesos... less than $3 U.S. ... and it cost me around $25 U.S. to fill the prescriptions.

This morning I am feeling considerably better.  I will stay in the apartment except for a quick trip to the supermarket.  I'm going to make myself a pot of chicken soup. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Greetings from Tlalpujahua

Alejandro and I are taking a weekend excursion to Tlalpujahua, a beautiful town with a tongue-twisting name in the state of Michoacán.  It was designated a "Pueblo Mágico" (Magic Town), and it certainly deserves that designation.  I will write more about it in future posts, but for now here are few pictures of this truly magical place.

Back to Nature

On the south side of Mexico City there is an area known as "El Pedregal" (the stony ground).  It is a huge lava field which was created by repeated eruptions of the Xitle volcano between 5000 B.C. and A.D. 400.  The region was long considered useless until the 1940s when it was developed as a neighborhood of luxury homes.  A large portion of "El Pedregal" is occupied by the campus of the University of Mexico.   The University has set aside a sizeable parcel of this land as an ecological preserve.  At the northern edge of the preserve the biology department maintains a botanical garden.

That was my destination on Thursday.  I took the Metrobus far to the south to the "Ciudad Universitaria" stop.  From there, having previously consulted Google Maps, I found my way on foot to the Botanical Gardens.

First, let me get my one negative comment out of the way.  The greenhouse of tropical plants was quite sad.  Not only is the structure itself looking rather shabby, but the collection of plants within cannot begin to compare with what we have in the conservatories at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens. 

However, the outdoor displays of cacti, succulents and agaves, planted amid the rugged outcroppings of volcanic rock were quite spectacular.  As I wandered along the paths, the city of 20 million people seemed very remote.

There are a huge number of different varieties of cacti, and yuccas represented.

A barrel cactus

Some of the cacti were blooming.

The "nopal" or prickly pear is one the most common cactus in central Mexico.
The paddles of the prickly pear are a common vegetable in the Mexican diet. (The thorns are removed first, of course.)  "Nopales" are very high in fiber.

Some of the "nopales" were also in bloom.

The fruit of the prickly pear, which are called "tunas", are also eaten.

I recognize this tall, columnar cactus from traveling across the dry regions of Oaxaca.  Entire mountainsides there are covered with it.

The gardens are interspersed with ponds and water channels cut out from the volcanic rock.

There is even a small waterfall.

Many of the more than 200 species of agave are native to Mexico.  The agave is not a cactus, and it is not related to the aloe which has similar leaves.

The agave americana ia known in Mexico as the "maguey".  The plant was extremely useful to the natives of pre-Hispanic Mexico.  They used the leaves as thatch for their huts, the fiber of its leaves was used to make string, and the thorns were used as needles.  The root can be roasted as food.  The juice of the plant was used to make a mildly alcoholic beverage called "pulque" which is still drunk today.

The "maguey" is also sometimes called a century plant because it takes a very long time for it to bloom.  When it is about to bloom, the plant shoots up a very tall spike, as you can see in the picture below.

These stalks were blossoming.

After blooming, the maguey plant dies.

There are a wide variety of agaves in the garden.

This is one of several types of agave which is used to make the distilled liquor mezcal.

One type of agave which I was unable to find in the garden was the blue agave or agave tequilana.  Yes, that is the plant from which tequila is made.

A visit to the botanical gardens is definitely worth the effort, and it is a wonderful respite from the congestion of the city. 

On this trip or a future trip, I may do some hiking along the trails which traverse the ecological reserve beyond the botanical gardens.