Tag Archives: Mexico

Las Caletas (Puerto Vallarta)

Accessible only by sea, Las Caletas is an enchanting cove one-catamaran-hour’s ride from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The fact that American film director John Huston had kept a private home here need not be its main claim to fame. Facing the crystal blue waters of Banderas Bay, its back is to the steep, jungle-clad Sierra Madre Mountains.

The beach is now owned and operated exclusively by a tour provider. In addition to bringing visitors daily to this semi-secluded haven, Vallarta Adventures stage the ‘Rhythms of the Night’ spectacle on a nightly-basis. After dining alongside the gently lapping waves, guests are guided down torch-lit trails past re-enactments of ancient rituals and customs to a natural amphitheatre under the stars. Deep in the shadowy jungle, enveloped by pulsating drums and flutes, a pyramid is the backdrop for a contemporary dance performance.

But during the day, that haunting atmosphere isn’t quite there. The nature reserve is strewn with eager tourists and jam-packed with water and land activities: snorkelling, kayaking, clay modelling, and paella cooking lessons. There are photographers in place ready to capture you in the thrills of every moment, for a price, of course.

Overall it’s a nice outing, albeit short, though when is a beach staycation ever long enough? The boat ride back along the coastline passes quickly, probably thanks to the open bar and theatrical skits. Nothing says fun like manly Mexican men in drag…

Nuevo Vallarta

North of bustling Puerto Vallarta is a pristine residential-resort development with lush tropical gardens lining winding waterways. Built up over the past 15 years, this modern adjunct called Nuevo Vallarta boasts the most important commercial area of the Riviera Nayarit, with high-end hotels and condos, terraced outdoor restaurants, sprawling pools, marinas, and rambling golf courses. A stroll through the landscaped grounds reveals a manmade paradise complete with canals, footbridges, flora and fauna, and if you’re lucky, a crocodile sighting. And even with all that, the construction continues.

Skeptics leery of the ‘gated community’ need not worry – beyond the luxuries and comforts of a resort, Nuevo Vallarta offers the proximity to the Old City and endless excursion possibilities. Mexico’s premier Vallarta Adventures – these guys are pros – facilitate all the expeditions one can muster: zip lining, jungle hikes, off-road drives, swimming with dolphins, colonial town visits, and dance performances that recreate the country’s mythological past. Super-organized, the region’s tourism and hospitality staff doesn’t miss a thing, especially not the opportunity to nudgingly remind its chiefly American and Canadian visitors: “We are working for you.”

While there are growing numbers of recreation options, some holiday-goers are perfectly content to lounge with a cocktail in hand at the hotel complex and immerse themselves in the tranquil, sanctuary-like atmosphere (if they can tune out the cacophony of pool and beachside activities).

A Puerto Vallarta Christmas

Mexico D.F.: A short write-up about a sweet stay

Over the centuries, thousands of devoted pilgrims have worshipped the Virgin in Villa de Guadalupe in December.  I made the trip too, except it was in April, and it was purely out of curiosity.  The moving carpets in la Nueva Basílica help expedite the faithful through this, the holiest Roman Catholic shrine in Latin America.  And although I, personally, cannot claim to have seen a vision of Nuestra Señora, I did experience a magical happening of my own:  the Basílica was a safe haven during a short-lived torrential downpour and a double rainbow greeted me upon exiting.

Although (somewhat) overshadowed by the previous week’s group photography workshop (see post), my stay in Mexico City was superb.

My generous newfound friends Gloria y Harumi invited me for a mariscos-filled lunch at the Mercado Coyoacán.  Tummies full, we wandered through la Plaza, once a trading Mecca sponsored by the church, ogling the goods of hundreds of merchants and artesanos who set up shop there on any given weekend.  While cruising for a parking spot along tranquil tree-lined streets of colonial homes, the ‘Blue House’ caught my eye.  A short time later, we found ourselves exploring the colourful grounds of this, the restored Frida Kahlo Museum, partaking in artwork of Kahlo, Diego Rivera and ancient Aztec, Maya and Olmec artists.

It’s almost as cheap to get a personal driver to take you 50km northeast to the Teotihuacán Archaeological Park than it is to take a tour bus.  Brilliantly, I opted for the former.  Although I offered to buy him a cold beer while he escaped the scorching sun in the idling car, my driver Arturo was adamant about coming with me up the climbs, insisting it was part of the deal. (!)  I couldn’t argue with that, but I drew the line at carrying my knapsack.  Dressed to the nines, he looked far too classy to be scaling the Pyramids of the Sun and of the Moon alongside me.  Lesson learned from Arturo:  it’s far easier to run up the myriad of steps of the ancient ruins than to trek at a slow pace.  No joke.

Back in the city, my driver/tour guide/friend also invited me to dinner – asador y vino argentino – at local restaurant Entre Baires and then for margaritas in the ritzy Polanco district. (I later learned that I tragically missed crossing paths there with Obama by a day!)  I savoured the horchata, relished the vast open spaces, and observed arrestingly Sharp Dressed Men (not a reference to ZZ Top).

Lastly, 4 words for you: Museo Nacional de Antropologia. In my humble opinion, it’s worth a trip to Mexico City for this reason alone. ‘Nuff said.

Semana Santa in Mexico

Now that winter is fast approaching, I find myself dreamily backtracking to a special trip I took earlier this year.  With eyes having scrolled over the ad/write-up and spotting these key words – Mexico, Semana Santa, photography workshop, group trip, one remaining spot – I decided in mere seconds to sign up.  Stars were in alignment for me.  Designed for intermediate/advanced levels, the photographic mission involved shooting the religious processionals and festivities of Easter Holy week in three very beautiful cities: Puebla, Taxco, and Queretaro.

Logistics were elaborately organized by our instructor, who was familiar with the sites.  Seeing as we’d be lugging around camera & digital equipment, the motto took on a ‘Pack less, not more’ motif.   A member of the group unfortunately opened a can of worms by mentioning she was cutting her stay short due to the supposed heightened risk factor of Mexico.  True, there had been an increase of crime there, especially in the US-Mexico border area, resorts and the state of Chiapas, although nowhere near the towns we planned to visit.  In any case, we would be taking precautions to avert pickpockets, credit card skimming and wandering alone, yet little did we know of the swine flu epidemic looming on the horizon…

I met my travel companions at the concrete benches outside the customs’ exit in the international arrival area of Mexico City airport’s Terminal 2.  It was not difficult to spot the group:  gringos with cameras.  After exchanging pleasantries, we piled into a private van and a designated driver took us two hours southeast to Puebla, a town with so many mansions, colonial streets and buildings, churches, and convents that it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  That evening, already warmed up to each other and one’s quirks, we enjoyed a welcome dinner at the restaurant where the movie ‘Frida’ was filmed.

We marvelled at the abundance of freshly squeezed juice and how cheap it and everything else was compared to the ‘same’ in the US.  A plate laden with fruit, granola/nuts, honey and yogurt became my staple breakfast for the week.  Our lovely hotel was authentic to the area and located close to the charming ‘zocalo’ (town square).  Over the next few days, we aimed for early morning shoots, and explored and photographed the artistic and historic districts, stopping to behold people young and old who were faithfully crafting intricate palm weavings for the processions.  We ventured to the nearby town of Cholula where several Palm Sunday events occur and visited the Great Pyramid which, frankly, looks like a huge hill crowned with a church but is in fact, believe it or not, larger in volume than those in Egypt.

After perusing the goods at Puebla’s Mercado de Artesanías, which Judith* proceeded to practically clean out (she was by far the biggest shopper of the group), we travelled on to Taxco, the legendary Silver City on the road from Mexico City to Acapulco.  Cha Ching! The mining town, renowned for its picturesque hillside colonial-era charm and silver shops, boasting of white Volkswagen bug taxis and remarkably expansive views, is totally transformed by this unique celebration (see pics).  During the days, we went into churches and surrounding neighbourhoods to observe preparations for the processions and photograph the people and the beautiful folk art-inspired Christ figures that were lovingly cleaned and hoisted onto floats to be used in the evening.  Each nightly processional was poignant:  winding through the people-lined cobblestoned streets, masked and barefooted women and men, often chained at the ankles, respectively carried candles and bore crosses or 100lb bundles of thorny branches on their shoulders and ropes to flagellate themselves.

* name has been changed (to protect identity & maintain dignity). 🙂

In general, we found the Mexican people to be friendly and welcoming, their openness and kindness radiating through us creatively.  Interactions with two particularly vivacious individuals in Taxco – a spirited, drunken man and his concerned older sister who lived down the street – led to fruitful shooting opportunities for my colleague and I.  Because we could communicate easily in Spanish, they felt at ease and, eager to share, invited us into their homes, as curious about us as we were about them.  It was surreal, this glimpse into their private lives, and the two of us hungrily shooting and muttering our great luck to ourselves.

Like with all good trips, a climactic incident occurred on the last night of our stay in Taxco.  I was unwinding with a colleague in the lively ‘zocalo’, when suddenly swarms of people mobilized quickly in all directions, many fleeing the scene, tears streaming down children’s faces.  We stood up immediately and pressed our backs up against the church gates behind us, not knowing what to do, where to go, or even what we needed to protect ourselves from:  earthquake?  shooting outbreak? bulls on the loose?  Ultimately, we made it back to our hotel that had been bolted shut by the management, terrified by intruders.  Only later did we learn that the commotion had started as a result of a cross striking an electrical wire thus setting off sparks.  The reason for the mad panic was that, a few weeks earlier, armed gunmen raided the same plaza, opening fire outside the Santa Prisca church, seizing someone and wounding three bystanders in the process, and the clash was still fresh in people’s minds.

In stark contrast to the tension of the previous night, we attended the colourful and hauntingly silent Good Friday march in Queretaro, the last stop of the trip.  Having now had two lifetimes worth of processions, cameras down, we splurged on a final dinner all together in the lively historic downtown.  We’d bonded, for sure, during this unique week but soon it was time to go our own way.  In the spirit of collegiality, throughout the workshop we’d shared techniques and tips and held valuable photo critiques, encouraging each other’s individual expression, and although we shot much of the same events, it was amazing to see how different people see different things.  It was one of those magical experiences in my life.  While the other students left to the airport to return to the US, I stayed on in Mexico City figuring ‘hey, I’m already here and there’s no way I’m going to miss visiting the capital!’