Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Time Has Passed

Just a month ago I took pictures of the lunar eclipse.  Last night I took of picture of the so-called "super-moon" from the window of my apartment.

I have been in Mexico since January 9th and in Mexico City since January 14th.  The time has come to return to Ohio.  Today I will get everything organized here at the apartment, pack the few things that I need to take home, and then take the Metrobus to Alejandro's house.  I will spend the night there, and early tomorrow morning he will take me to the airport.  

But don't go away... I have more to write about this trip.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Lunch in Coyoacán

The last several posts have been quite negative in tone, so let's have a less critical entry.

Today I went the picturesque Mexico City borough of Coyoacán.  After wandering around for a couple of hours I was ready for something to eat.  Facing the shady plaza of Santa Catarina is a little restaurant called Mesón Antiguo Santa Catarina (Old Santa Catarina Inn).

I was taken upstairs to a table on the terrace.  The décor is very colorful and traditional.

I started with an order of "sopecitos", little circles of corn dough piled with frijoles, tomatoes, chicken, shredded lettuce, cheese and cream.

I then had a "chile relleno", a poblano pepper stuffed with Manchego cheese, dipped in batter and fried, and covered with a mild tomato sauce.

The meal was not extraordinary, but it was tasty.  The service was excellent, and the terrace was delightful on a warm afternoon.  I actually enjoyed this meal more than my visit to the pretentious "Azul" last week.  And the bill was about one third of what I paid at "Azul".

All Glitz and no Substance

I enjoy good food, and I don't mind splurging from time to time at an expensive restaurant.  However, frequently the trendy places that the gourmet elite declare to be "oh-so-wonderful" have been big disappointments to me.  There are a couple high-end places in Mexico City that I read about frequently on Trip Advisor.  From the reviews you would think that they are the Holy Grail of dining... and they charge over $100 US per person, a price that only tourists and the wealthy Mexicans could afford.  I look at pictures of their dishes and see BIG plates with a little dollop of food in the center.  And I guess I am just not sophisticated enough to want to try things like grasshoppers or ant eggs.  No thank you!

One restaurant, however, that I did want to try is a place called "Azul".  People rave about its traditional Mexican cuisine featuring regional specialties from different parts of the country.  There are several locations including one in the Centro Histórico, so last week on one of my trips downtown I decided to give it a try.

The restaurant is beautiful, located in the courtyard of a colonial mansion.

I was seated near the ladies that make hand-made tortillas.

I was brought some tortillas... the top one imprinted on a griddle with a picture.

Then I tasted one.  I thought, "What the heck did they put in their dough?"  They barely tasted of corn.  I've had better tortillas cranked off the machine at the supermarket.

My order was fairly conservative... dishes that I have eaten before so that I could make a comparison.

I began with tortilla soup.

The soup was served in a beautiful bowl that had a cover shaped like a "Catrina".  The waiter pointed out that the soupspoon was gold-plated.  The soup was good, but exceptional only in price.  At 159 pesos (around $8) it was probably the most expensive soup that I have ordered in Mexico.  I guess they have to pay for those gold spoons somehow!

My main course was chicken breast in Oaxacan black mole.

It is garnished with a slice of plantain and squash blossoms.  I pushed the blossoms to the side since I have never particularly cared for them.

The menu said that the dish was prepared following strict Oaxacan traditions.  Well, I have had black mole in Oaxaca, and this pales in comparison.  It was bland and lacking in flavor.

Even though the restaurant was not making a good impression, I went ahead and ordered dessert... a foam of mamey (mamey is one of my favorite tropical fruits from Mexico).

The dessert was just like the restaurant... very pretty presentation, but all fluff with no flavor.  There was barely a hint of the taste of mamey.

My bill came to $34 US.  That may not seem like much, but for Mexico that is a rather expensive, especially considering that I did not order any alcoholic beverages.  So if fancy tableware and gold spoons are important to you, by all means dine at Azul.  Otherwise, there are many restaurants that serve much better Mexican cuisine! 

Monday, February 18, 2019

Losing the Magic

Our tour on Saturday did not end with the butterfly sanctuary.  From there we continued on to the nearby town of Valle de Bravo.

Alejandro and I took a day trip to Valle de Bravo about five years ago.  The town is situated on the shore of Lake Avándaro, a reservoir that was created with the construction of a series of dams between 1938 and 1947.  It has become a popular lakeside resort, and wealthy Mexico City and Toluca families have built weekend homes there.  On the hill above the reservoir the picturesque old town earned Valle de Bravo the designation of "Pueblo Mágico" (Magic Town) from the Secretariat of Tourism.  Alejandro and I found the place to be delightful... one of our favorite "Pueblos Mágicos"

This time, however, we found Valle de Bravo less than magical.  It was more like a nightmare.

Before we reached Valle de Bravo, our bus made a stop a Avándaro, a swanky development on the other side of the lake, to see Cascada Velo de Novia (Bridal Veil Falls).  We had forty minutes, which was just enough time to walk down to the falls, snap a photo at the crowded observation deck, and walk back to the bus.  The falls are pretty, but are no big deal.  We have more impressive waterfalls in Ohio.  But it seems to be a big tourist stop, and the parking lot was full of tour buses.

We then drove to Valle de Bravo.  What should have been a short drive of about four miles was a forty five minute journey.  Most of that time was spent in gridlock on the town's narrow streets which were clogged with insane weekend traffic.  I never thought I would see a place that made Mexico City's congestion look good.  After crawling through town at a snail's pace we were finally let off the bus near the lakefront at 5:00 P.M.  We were given an hour and a half to have dinner.  The tour operator suggested that we eat at one of the floating restaurants at the dock.  We, however, wanted to eat at the restaurant where we ate on our previous visit, a place called La Michoacana, only seven minutes away on foot, But that walk is all uphill.  We considered taking a taxi because of Alejandro's father, but that would have taken forever.   So we trudged up the hill.

The restaurant probably has the best view in town.  To one side are vistas of the lake below.

In the other direction is a view of the towers of the main church in the center of the colonial town.

The restaurant is still a beautiful place, but for some reason the service was dreadful this time, even though the place was not that crowded.  We waited over a half hour for our meals.  It was after 6:00, and we were supposed to return to our bus by 6:30.  We rushed through our meals, and made it to our meeting place at 6:40.

There was no need to have rushed.  Our meeting place was a plaza on the lakefront where all of the tour buses come to pick up their passengers.  There were hundreds of tourists, including our group, waiting there.  Crawling through the traffic, one tour bus after another pulled up.  We kept looking for our bus, and it did not arrive until 7:30.  

Look at all that traffic!  This is what is was like for the entire fifty minutes that we waited.
Not very magical, is it?

So what has happened to Valle de Bravo in the intervening five years since our last visit?  Our previous trip here was on a Saturday also.  The place was busy and there was traffic, but there was no insane gridlock.  I suspect that the culprit is the explosion of tourism to the nearby butterfly sanctuary.  Probably every tour group and even individuals traveling on their own by car head to Valle de Bravo for dinner after seeing the butterflies.  The result is chaos.  Perhaps after the butterflies head north, the town will return to a level of normalcy.  But if this is the new normal... if this is what Valle de Bravo is like every weekend... I will cross it off my list of magical places in Mexico and count it as another place destroyed by mass tourism.  

The Butterfly Tour - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

On Saturday I went with Alejandro's family on  a full day excursion to the Piedra Herrada Butterfly Sanctuary.  Each winter the monarch butterflies make their migration from Canada and the United States to the pine forests of central Mexico.  Most of the butterfly sanctuaries are in the state of Michoacán, but Piedra Herrada is in the State of Mexico, about seventy miles to the west of Mexico City.  It is the most accessible reserve from the capital... and therefore the most visited.

The tour was organized by a local agency, and I was the only "gringo" in the group.  Our tour bus left Mexico City around 7:30 A.M.  It was a comfortable bus, and I enjoyed the ride.  Since we had to leave the house early without having breakfast, Alejandro's sister Sandra had prepared "tortas" (Mexican sandwiches on thick, crusty rolls) the night before for us to eat on the bus.

The bus headed out of Mexico City, over the mountains and through Toluca, Mexico's fifth largest city.  From there we took a winding road climbing into more mountains.  The scenery was beautiful.  By about 10:30 we had reached Piedra Herrada.  Given the fact that there was not much traffic along the mountain road, I was shocked when we reached the reserve. The large open field at the entrance was a parking lot filled with tour buses, vans and automobiles.

A tiny fraction of the parking lot

I thought to myself, "This is worse than the hordes of tourists that descend upon the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá!"  We went through the ticket gate.  The entrance is 70 pesos and was included in our tour price.  The reserve is located on an "ejido"... rural land that is owned communally by the local inhabitants.  The admissions, the rental of horses, the food and handicraft stands, even the 5 peso fee to use the restrooms all benefit the villagers.  So they must have a very good, although seasonal, source of income.

I had been really concerned about whether or not Alejandro's father would be able to handle the hike up the mountain.  As it turned out, just the trek across the parking lot and through the ticket gate was all he could handle.  So we found him a comfortable place to sit in the shade, and he sent us on ahead.

The crowds of visitors wait at the trailhead to be allowed to continue.  The trail itself is a steady stream of people heading up the path. 

You can rent a horse to go up most of the way.  But those poor creatures looked exhausted and not very well cared for.  They were at least well fed judging by the amount of poop that they deposited along the trail.  The horses also raised up clouds of dust (dust that surely contained fecal matter).  Alejandro had a bandana with him which he frequently had around his face.  I held a wad of Kleenex up to my nose and mouth each time there was a cloud of dust.

Although the incline did not look that steep, the climb was very strenuous, especially at first.  The altitude here was probably at least 9000 feet above sea level... a couple thousand feet higher than Mexico City.  My heart was pounding, and I was huffing and puffing.  I thought, "This is worse than climbing the pyramids!"  After halting a couple times to catch my breath, the climb seemed to be easier.  I don't know if it was because the path leveled off a bit, or if I was simply acclimating to the altitude.  I had brought with me my hiking sticks.  I gave one of them to Alejandro's eight year old nephew Ezra.  I don't know if he really needed it, but I think he felt rather special having his own hiking stick.

We hiked about 45 minutes and entered the forests of "oyamel" pines where the monarchs congregate.  These trees provide the humid microclimate the butterflies need so that they do not dry out, and the trees are sturdy enough to support the tens of thousands that roost during the night and when it's cloudy.  The day we were there was sunny and warmer than average, so the butterflies were all in flight.

So, what was it like within the sanctuary?  There were monarchs fluttering all over; it was certainly beautiful.  However it did not live up to my expectations.  I expected to see orange clouds of butterflies everywhere.  It was not nearly as awesome as I what I have seen in documentaries.  Trying to take photos of the constantly moving butterflies was quite impossible, but the videos I took might give you some impression of the experience.  
Be sure to click on full screen to be able to see the videos better.

I did manage to get a photo of these two monarchs that were mating in the middle of the path.  We had to stop people from stepping on them.

I also saw these butterfly wings on a rock.  When birds eat the monarchs they spit out the wings because they are toxic.

The population of monarchs is in decline, and I wonder if that is why I found the number of butterflies somewhat disappointing.  I have also heard that the other reserves are better although less accessible.  

At one point a major concern was the destruction of the habitat through illegal logging.  Although that activity still persists, fortunately the Mexican government has brought it under control for the most part.  Currently the greatest danger facing the monarchs is in the U.S. and Canada where the use of herbicides by farmers is eradicating the milkweed which is the butterfly's source of nourishment in the north. 

The magical quality of the reserve is largely destroyed by the sheer number of tourists visiting the place.  It wasn't just the numbers but their behavior and disregard for rules that aggravated me.  You are supposed to maintain silence within the sanctuary, but as you heard in the videos, there was little silence.  The "gringos" were just as guilty as the Mexicans.  And I am sorry, but this is not the place for crying babies and toddlers or unruly youngsters.  I must say that I was very proud of Ezra's comportment, much better than many of the adults.  You are also supposed to stay on the path, but we saw groups wandering off into the forest.  We even saw one person who had brought his dog, another infraction of the rules.  At least there was not much litter along the trail.  I only saw one discarded pop bottle thrown by some ignorant pig.

I am still glad to have had the opportunity to visit the reserve.  However, if you are planning to come to Mexico to see the monarchs, I would suggest that you visit the reserve on a weekday when there are surely fewer visitors.  Or, if you are have the physical stamina, visit one of the more remote sanctuaries.

By the way, I mentioned that the weather was warmer than normal, even at that high elevation.  I have frequently written that Mexico City's climate is cooler than most northerners expect.  The last few days, however, Mexico City has been having a heat wave.  As I write this, the temperature is 86 degrees Fahrenheit.  Yesterday and today the city government issued a heat advisory.  For us back in Ohio, 86 degrees would be a nice summery day, but here the locals, unused to the heat, are broiling.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

We Survived the Butterflies

Just a quick post to let everyone know that we (Alejandro's family and I) survived the tour which we took yesterday to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary at Piedra Herrada, the most accessible of the butterfly reserves to Mexico City.  I had been concerned that Alejandro's father would not be able to make the hike up the mountain.  Indeed, just the walk from the parking lot to the entrance was enough for him.  He sat comfortably in the shade at the entrance while the rest of us made the trek.  (There were loads of people around, food and beverage stands and restrooms nearby... so it's not as if we had left him by himself in the middle of the wilderness.)  The rest of us... Alejandro, his sister, his eight year old nephew, and I... took the hike up into the sanctuary.  We were there for about three hours.  Although I am glad that I had the experience, I also felt guilty for being part of the mass tourism circus which I fear might eventually destroy the delicate ecology of this place.  I will write more about the pros and cons, and post pictures in my next blog entry.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Weekend Excursion

I actually wrote this blog entry yesterday so that I could post it quickly early this morning.
I spent Friday night at Alejandro's house because we are going to leave for a Saturday excursion to  the Monarch Butterfly Reserve.
Alejandro's sister, Sandra, signed all of us up for a tour that will depart at 7 A.M.  We will have to leave the house by at least 6:30.  I don't have many details about the excursion.  I have read that, depending upon which part of the reserve we visit, it can be a very strenuous trip which may involve climbing into the mountains on horseback or on foot.  I am rather concerned that it is going to be far too much for their father.  It might be too much for Sandra's eight year old son also.  Heck, I have to wonder if it will be too strenuous for me!
Well, it is something that I have long wanted to see, so I hope that all will go well.
Wish us luck, and stay tuned to find out how it went.