December 24, 2010

Christmas in Mexico: Noche Buena

Christmas Eve is a huge celebration in Mexico. This is the night when the parties and feasts occur; and when the children can expect a few small gifts. At midnight, there is La Misa del Gallo (The Rooster's call), in the form of church-bells ringing. After Midnight Mass, the party goes on. After all, an old Spanish verse reads: 'Esta noche es Noche-Buena, Y no es noche de dormir' ('Tonight is the good night, and it is not meant for sleeping').

The Ani Family enjoy Noche Buena

The cast and crew of 'Starstruck: The Nationwide Invasion' enjoy their Noche Buena, on set, in 2007

Noche Buena, as you may have gathered, means 'Good Night'. This isn't to be confused with buenas noches, which is the general 'goodnight' that is said throughout the year at bedtime. Noche Buena is Christmas Eve. It marks the good/fantastic/wondrous night, when the Christ child was born into the world.

This is the evening when Mexican families, and their guests, gather en masse. Depending upon the family, the meal might be served before or after the Midnight Mass. There are bound to be some traditional dishes on the table, in particular, Pavo Trufado de Navidad (Christmas Turkey with Truffles). Some of the food and drinks on offer may be: tamales; atole; Bacalao a la Vizcaína (Salt Cod with Red Pepper Sauce); Revoltijo de Romeritos (Shrimps and Wild Greens in Mole Sauce); Macarrones Yucatecos (Baked Macaroni) and many others beside.

Alcohol and hot drinks are free-flowing for the adults. These are not only used to lubricate the celebrations, but also in the toasts. Brindis is the Mexican word for toasts. Naturally there are brindis to the Holy Family, in whose honor this celebration is being held. But there are plenty more brindis throughout the night, ranging from the poignant to the downright silly. Anything that a Mexican, half addled on tradition Ponche, can think of to toast will be toasted with gusto!

The staff of Radio Lí­der-Punto engage in bindis.

For the children, there will be Piñatas, but also small gifts. For many, in the Spanish speaking world, presents aren't exchanged on Christmas Day, as they are in some countries. That all tends to happen on January 6th, in an entirely different celebration. However, Christmas Eve is also good for a gift or two, if you're a child.

Mexican children will have encountered Santa Claus, but he's a recent import from America and Canada. Instead, they will have had half an eye on El Niño Dios (the Holy Child), who watches their conduct to see if they've been naughty or nice.

Also part of the festivities will be hand-held sparklers. Some families might go all out and have a firework display.

Everything stops when the church-bells ring. The entire party leaves the house and makes their way to the church. Church services are always well attended in Mexico, but the Midnight Mass, on Noche Buena, is unmissable. It will be standing room only, as the whole community gathers together to honor this special night.

Then it's back to various homes, so the joyous celebrations can continue into the early hours of Christmas Day. That day becomes the day of rest. Left-overs constitute the food, as everyone is still too full to move from the night before. This is the day to investigate some good old Mexican hangover cures.

On behalf of everyone at Endless Tours, may I wish you all a resounding Feliz Navidad!

December 23, 2010

Christmas in Mexico: More Festive Celebrations

Gritty the Snowman

There's no snow in Cancún, but there is white sand! Gritty the Snowman was the creation of the Howden family, during their Christmas in the Mexican resort.

Las Pastorelas

Mexican children participating in Las Pastorelas (Shepherds Plays). This tradition dates back to the coming of the Spanish to Mexico and it is still going strong today. Las Pastorelas are often improvised, ad hoc affairs, with players telling the stories in their own ways.

These plays tell a host of Biblical stories, from Adam and Eve, through to the more common Nativity tales. Most popular of all is La Pastorela (The Shepherd), which portrays the arrival of the Archangel Michael to a group of shepherds. The archangel tells the shepherds to go to Bethlehem to pay homage to the baby Christ. The shepherds' journey there is beset with problems, notably caused by the devils, Luzbel and Asmodeo. They do have assistance though, in the form of el Ermitaño (the Hermit), who shares his wisdom, as well as various angels.

This is a Mexican tradition which is also prevalent in the USA. More about that can be read here: Pastorelas and Pastores - las pastorelas, los pastores, autos sacramentales, El fin del mundo, Moros y Cristianos, Las Pastorelas.

Christmas Tree in Mexico City

Fireworks dazzle the skies, as the Christmas Tree is illuminated in the center of Mexico City. Just about every village, town and city in Mexico will be well decorated during the festive season. The most spectacular will be in the cities, where a huge budget is spent on creating extravagant illuminations along the streets and in the plazas.

Santa Claus in Guadalajara

Santa Claus stopping off, during his busy schedule, to meet with children (of all ages) in Guadalajara. Santa often makes a point of visiting shopping malls and hotel resorts too. Just because you're away from home, it doesn't mean that Santa can't find you.

That, of course, includes the Christmas party Mecca of Cancún. Here is Santa Claus and an elf turning up there on Christmas Day:

Santa and elf in Cancun

Parade in Oaxaca

These little angels were part of a Christmas parade, through the streets of Oaxaca. They are sitting on a float, waving to the crowds gathered to cheer them on. Note the poinsettia on the lap of one of the angels. Poinsettia is everywhere in Mexico, at this time of year, as are parades!

Ice Rink in Mexico City

Ice, in Mexico? Well, usually only in the drinks. At Christmas, there's also the Zócalo Ice Rink, which is the largest in the world. Based in the main plaza, at the heart of Mexico City's historic district, the ice rink is a stunning 300,000 square feet. And here you were, assuming that the world's biggest ice rink was probably in Lapland, or Antartica, or somewhere cold.

Stockings on palm trees

Meanwhile, the stockings are up and waiting for Santa Claus. This being Mexico, the nearest palm tree on a glorious beach provides the best place to hang them!

Feliz navidad! (Happy Christmas in Mexican)

December 22, 2010

Christmas in Mexico: Deck the Halls with Poinsettia

There is a legend told in Mexico about poinsettia. Two young children, Maria and Pablo, were walking into town. They had heavy hearts. In the center of town was a nativity scene, where everyone was going to leave gifts and tokens of their esteem for the Holy Family. Maria and Pablo had nothing. They were too poor. But they wanted to give something.


Then Pablo had an idea. All along the side of the road were weeds, ubiquitious to this part of Mexico. He picked an armful of them, explaining to Maria that, as long as their gift was given with love, it would be alright. It had to be alright. What else had they got?

So the children continued into town, to where the people were amassing around the nativity. As Pablo and Maria passed through them, eyes turned to what gift they had brought to honour the Christ child. Nudges and sniggers filled the space around them. The children had brought weeds. Weeds! Pablo straightened his shoulders, raised his chin high and refused to cry. He was doing what he could. That was all.

They reached the manger, wherein lay baby Jesus. Mary and Joseph smiled down kindly. The shepherds, wise men and angels watched them. The livestock crowded in. Here Pablo and Maria took their time arranging the weeds around the manger, hemmed in by the richer, better, prettier offerings of everyone else. Those people who tittered with derision, pointing to what the children thought was a worthy gift.

Once they had finished, Pablo whispered, "We give this with love." Then he took Maria's hand and turned with her to face the townspeople. Head held high against their jeers, they were in a perfect position to see the changing expressions on those staring back. Smirks gave way to dropping jaws and wide eyes. Giggles turned to gasps of awe and shock. The children turned slowly around, to see what was happening behind them.


The topmost leaves of the 'weeds' had transformed into beautiful, star-like flowers. All in vibrant red. The most wonderful flowers they had ever seen. The plant became known as Flor de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve flower) in Mexico. For some, it is called the Star of Bethlehem Flower. Most of the world knows it now as poinsettia.

At this time of year, many homes in Mexico are festooned with poinsettia. It is easy enough to find, as the plant is native to the country. We have vast fields and mountain-sides filled with them, as far as the eye can see. When they are in bloom, they are a breath-taking sight.

Poinsettia overlooking Baja California

It was vistas like this which so entranced an early American ambassador to Mexico. In 1829, Dr Joel Roberts Poinsett was touring Taxco del Alarcon (modern day Taxco, in Guerrero), when he spotted the flower. He fell in love with it. In fact, he started shipping cuttings of Flor de Noche Buena back to his mansion home, in Georgetown, South Carolina, USA. When he returned home, in 1831, he was amazed to discover that the whole town now had the flower blooming in their gardens. They were already calling it after him. The poinsettia is still the name used for the flower outside Mexico.

Poinsettia was already well known before the coming of Christianity. The Nahuatl called it Cuitlaxochitl (star flower). They prized it for its curative properties (great for heart problems) and the red dye that can be extracted from it. (It is an urban myth that poinsettia is toxic, as endless tests in American laboratories have proved.)

Today, it not only grows wild around Mexico, but is used in many Christmas tableaus and as decorations in homes and plazas. Anyone visiting Mexico, this time of year, is bound to spot it everywhere.

Poinsettia around a nativity scene in Mexico

Poinsettia as Christmas lights in Mexico City

December 21, 2010

Christmas in Mexico: Piñatas

Piñatas are popular at any time of the year. Whenever children are present at a celebration, you can bet that there will be piñatas. But Christmas time, in Mexico, is when they really come into their own. Christmas without a piñata? Unthinkable!


A piñata is a thin clay pot, covered in vibrant decoration. Paper mache is stuck to it, creating a host of wonderful designs in a blaze of color. Mexico markets will sell them in the shape of superheroes, flowers, animals, popular toys, celestial objects; you name it and there will probably be a piñata in that design. For Christmas, there are piñatas of reindeer, Santa Claus, stars, baubles and many other festive shapes. However, the original is that in the image above.

It was introduced into Mexico, as an Italian cultural item, by early Christian friars. The coming of the Spanish meant a lot of upheaval for native people. Wars saw the destruction of their homes and crops; while European diseases, like smallpox, had never been in the Americas before. The population here had no immunity and the resulting death-toll was even higher than in the fighting itself. This meant that a lot of people were starving.

Pope Sixtus V suggested that piñatas might lure these people into the missionaries and churches. The clay pot was filled with food, especially nuts and fruit, then hung beside the nativity scenes. The people were given sticks and the Catholic concept of sin was explained to them. The spikes of the original piñata represented the seven deadly sins. As they hit the piñatas, with their sticks, they were symbolically smashing those sins. This was done blindfolded, as a sign of faith. Their reward was the food, which cascaded down, once the clay pot inside was sufficiently broken.


However, some historians dispute the idea that it was Christian missionaries who brought the piñata to Mexico. They merely adapted a ceremony that already existed. Scholars point to the fact that the Aztec God of War, Huitzilopochtli, was honored with piñatas. The clay pots were filled with food and precious items. The outside of the pot was decorated with feathers and beads. Worshippers hit the pot with a stick to shatter it, thus allowing the God's bounty to fall at their feet. It was a reminder that fighting will gain rewards. After all, this was the God of War.

There is also some evidence that the Aztec God, honored in this way, was Tlaloc. As he was the Rain God, then the pots were filled with water. People took turns to smash it. The person ultimately drenched was the one upon whom Tlaloc had bestowed his blessing.

These days, piñatas are more likely to be filled with candy and small toys. Any child old enough to wield a stick may take their turn at whacking it. Eventually, the pot smashes and children scramble to pick up their treats. It's all great fun!


December 20, 2010

Christmas in Mexico: Los Posadas

During the run-up to Christmas, you won't be able to miss Las Posadas. In every village, town and city, in Mexico, these candle-lit processions will be moving through the streets, until the final event on Christmas Eve.

Las Posadas

Posada is Spanish for 'lodging' or 'accommodation'. What you will be witnessing here is the re-enactment of the Christian Nativity. Each house, in the neighbourhood, will schedule a night (between December 16th-24th) to be the posada. Those knocking on the door represent the Biblical Mary and Joseph, seeking somewhere to stay in Bethlehem.

88% of Mexicans are devout Catholics, hence the emphasis on religion at this time of year. Christmas itself is the conflation of the words, Christ Mass. This is celebrated as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ.

The Christian nativity story tells how a census was called in Syria and Judaea, in 6-7CE, which required all of the population to return to their place of birth to be counted. Joseph, a carpenter, had to travel from Galilee to his home city of Bethlehem. With him was his young wife, Mary, who was heavily pregnant. Once there, they discovered that fellow returning ex-pats had filled every hotel, inn, guesthouse and other lodgings for miles around.

No room at the inn

Eventually, Joseph begged an inn-keeper for mercy. He pointed to his exhausted wife, who must have been showing the early signs of labour by then. The inn-keeper took pity on the couple, but explained that he really did have no rooms left. He allowed them to rest in his stable instead, along with all of the livestock. The stables were also full, as those travelling to the inn had arrived on horses, donkeys, mules and any other creature that could have conveyed them there.

Joseph found a corner, which he stuffed full of straw, so that Mary could lie down. Shortly afterwards, she gave birth. The baby was Jesus Christ.

Birth of Christ
Digital art: Matthew Killian

There wasn't exactly a creche attached to the inn, particularly for people bedding down with the livestock. The legend tells how the newborn infant was placed in a manger, as the only available cot. He survived this humble birth to become the central figure of Christianity; the son of God in Catholicism.

It is this story that is the focus of Las Posadas. The community gathers to represent travellers looking for lodgings, at each of the houses in the neighbourhood. They move between them, carrying candles. Four teenagers, amongst the party, will be holding Los Peregrinos (The Travellers). These are large statuettes depicting Mary, on her donkey, and Joseph, leading the donkey. As they knock at each door, none will let them in. They will be told that there's no room inside. Until they reach the house scheduled to hold the event for that night.

As the group move, from house to house, they will be singing a traditional song, entitled 'Villancico Para Pedir Posada'.

The song's lyrics basically tell the story that they are acting out.

When the travellers are finally allowed into a home, they will congregate around the nativity scene prepared there. This is the ceremonial moment, when a figure of the baby Jesus is inserted into the hitherto empty manger. The company will then pray the Rosary before the scene.

Finally, the celebration party begins. This is a joyous occasion, with games for children and a traditional, alcoholic Ponche con Piquete (Punch with sting) for the adults.

When in Mexico this week, look out for Los Posadas. They will be everywhere and they are very beautiful to watch. They are even more wonderful to participate in!

December 18, 2010

Fashionable Canadians Come to Cancún

Until recently, Americans were the top nation taking their vacations in Mexico. Now so many Canadians have flocked to our beachside resorts, that they've ousted the USA. Moreover, they tend to stay longer and explore further than their neighbours.

Canadian and Mexican flags

Figures just released show a steady rise, throughout the decade, in Canadians heading into Mexico. These count those spending at least one night here:











The 2010 numbers aren't there, as we're still in it, but the estimates all point to another increase. It is projected that 1.5 million Canucks would have slept overnight, in Mexico, this year.

luxury apartment in Mexico

All of this is despite smear campaigns and sensational news headlines, telling Canadians that the country is very dangerous. Even travel agents have a policy of warning holidaymakers not to stray from the resorts and never, ever befriend the locals(?). It is a view that irritates Alberto Lozano, of the Mexican Embassy in Ottawa. He's pointed out that only 20 Canadians have died in Mexico, during the past four years. Alcohol was involved in the majority of deaths, including the seven who plunged from hotel balconies, while messing around up there. Most were accidental deaths and the rest were natural causes. None of them were killed in gangland violence, nor even saw it.

Chichen Itza

For the Canuck vacationers, the biggest problem that they will encounter, in Mexico, is that they eventually have to leave again. Of course, some don't. The Canadian Expat Association in Cancún has 65 members. It's also a good job that Kelly ignored all of the dire warnings not to speak to locals. Otherwise she would never have met and married one, moved to Cancún and started a family. For the rest of us, that means that we would never have had the amazing 'A Canuck in Cancún' blog!

Incidentally, here is what she had to say about the 'danger' issue:

So, is Cancun safe for tourists? Yes. Crime happens here, sure, pick pockets, thefts from hotel rooms, etc, etc, but violent crime against tourists, no. The type of crime that happens here occurs in every city around the world, tourist attraction or not. Use your common sense and street smarts and you'll be fine. I would venture to say that Cancun is safer than most big cities around the world, I don't feel any different here than I did in Toronto or New York or Los Angeles. In fact, I probably feel safer.
'Tourists Safe in Cancun' by A Canuck in Cancun

But what does she know? She's only lived here for nearly 8 years.

Canuck in Cancun

Meanwhile, the cultural exchange isn't just one way. In Mexico, there are an increasing number of events, where Canadian food, film, music and other exports are introduced to locals and tourists alike. 'La Sombra del Sabino', held in Tepoztlán, is just one such example.

For many Canadian travellers, the taste of home isn't why they rush to Mexico. This is especially true in the winter months. After all, it's currently -5°C (22°F) in snowy Toronto. Meanwhile, on the beaches of Cancun, people are sipping their margaritas, applying sunscreen in temperatures of 29°C (84°F). It's hardly rocket science to work out why the Canuck tourists come.

December 16, 2010

Places of Worship in Cancún

The party goes on; but, just occasionally, people want a bit of actual spirituality, in amongst the divine surroundings. For those living and working in Cancún, Catholicism is the major religion. However, this is a tourist hotspot, where there are often as many religions as there are visitors to our city. Cancún can cater for them too.


Many of the services, in a variety of denominations, are offered in either Spanish or English. If you have a preference, then please do check with the venue for the correct times. Insofar as we can verify, the information is correct at the time of writing. If anyone wishes to add/amend their place of worship, just leave a comment and it will be updated.

Buddhist Places of Worship

Centro Budismo Camino del Diamante
(Diamond Way Buddhist Center)

Calle Iguana 389,
Col Montecarlo/SM 51,
Cancun Centro
Website: Budismocancun
Services: Mondays, 8.30pm - Open meditation; Wednesdays, 8.30pm - Introductory talk and open meditation; Fridays, 8.30pm - Meditation and food. Spanish primary language in all, but English is spoken.

Christian Places of Worship


Hyatt Regency Hotel
Blvd Kukulcán
Km 10.5
Tel: (998) 880-7093
Services: Sundays, 10am.

Primera Iglesia Bautista Fundamental de Cancun
(First Fundamental Baptist Church of Cancun)

Playa Hermosa 25
Super Manzana 29
Manzana 8
Services: Wednesdays, 7pm. Sundays, 11am and 6pm. All services are in Spanish.

Christian (non-denominational)

Cancun Fellowship Church
Cines VIP
Plaza Las Americas
Av. Tulum 260
Downtown Cancún
Website: Cancunfellowship
Tel: (998)882-1031
Services: Sundays, 8.45am (English language), 10.15am and 11.30am (both Spanish language).

Iglesia Vida de Cancún
Cancun Life Church

SM44, M6, L10, Local D.
Esq. Av. La Luna y C. Ocaso
Downtown Cancún
Website: Vidalifecancun
Tel: (998)880-8070
Services: Sundays, 11am. Spanish/English bilingual service.


St Michael's Episcopal Church
Marriott Casa Magna Hotel
Blvd. Kukulcán
Km 14.5
Tel: (998) 881-2000
Services: Sundays, 10am. Service is in English.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Salón del Reino de las Testigos de Jehová
(Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses)

Plaza Cancún 2000
Avenida Tulúm, 42
Crucero, Av. Tulum & López-Portillo
Downtown Cancún
Tel: (998) 843-2013
Services: Daily, 7.30pm. Sundays, 10am and noon. All services are in Spanish. However, English language congregations are held on Mondays, 7.30pm, and Sundays, 3pm.

Morman (Church of Jesus Christ and Later Day Saints)

Jesu Cris de los Santos de las Ultimos Dias
(Jesus Christ and Later Day Saints)
Calle 10 y Calle 6
SM 63
Downtown Cancún
Services: Sundays, 8am, 10am and noon. All services are in Spanish.


Puerta Del Cielo
15 Crisantemos Street
Downtown Cancún
Tel: (998) 884-2362.
Services: Sundays, 9.15am, 10.45am and 6.30pm. Sunday school, 9:15am.

Roman Catholic

Camino Real
Blvd. Kukulcán
Km 9
Tel: (998) 883-0100.
Services: Sunday Mass, 11.00am.

Continental Plaza Hotel
Blvd. Kukulcán
Km 11.5
Tel: (998) 883-1022
Services: Sunday Mass, 12.00 (noon)

Cristo Resucitado (Resurrection of the Lord)
Blvd. Kukulcán
Km 3-4
(By Plaza Nautilus)
Tel: (998) 83-5035
Services: Daily Mass, 8pm. Sunday Mass, 10.30am, 12 noon, 6.30pm and 8pm. These services are all in Spanish. However, there is an English language mass every Sunday, 9am.

El Pueblito Hotel
Paseo Kukulkan
KM 17.5
77500 Cancún
Services: 12.00pm

Fiesta Americana Condesa
Kukulkan 16
Zona Hotelera
77500 Cancún
Tel: (998) 883-2900
Services: Sundays, 12.00 noon. Services in English and in Spanish.

Inglesia Cristo Rey (Christ the King Church)
15 Margaritas Street
Parque de las Palapas
Downtown Cancún
Tel: (998) 884-0513
Services: Daily Mass, 7am and 7pm. Sundays, 8am, 10:30am, 5pm, 6:30pm and 8pm. Services in Spanish.

Presidente Intercontinental Hotel
Blvd. Kukulcán
Km 7.5
Tel: (998) 882-0300
Services: Saturdays & Sundays Mass, 6.30pm. Services in English and in Spanish.

Sheraton Hotel
Blvd. Kukulcán
Km 12.5
Tel: (998) 883-1988
Services: Sunday Mass, 10.30am

Hindu Places of Worship

Swaminarayan Temple

More details will be added when I can find it!

Islamic Places of Worship

None known. This will be updated if we receive information about mosques in Cancún.

Jewish Places of Worship

A wide range of English language information can be found on Jewishcancun. This includes the location of kosher food in the city, as well as religious ceremonies.

Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center of Cancun (all Jewish denominations)
B2B Hotel and Plaza
Avenida Sayil SM-4c7
Cancun 77500
Website: Jewishcancun
Tel: (998) 219-5601
Services: Three times daily, but changeable times. Contact them for more details.

Neve Shalom (Conservative Ashkenaz)
Calle Liebre 8
Cancun, SM 20
Tel: (998) 892-0674
Website: Neveshalomcancun.
Services: Fridays, 8.30pm; Saturdays, 8.30am. Spanish is the primary language in both services.

Pagan Places of Worship

No circles or moots are registered in Cancún.

However, there is the Isla Mujeres Women's Retreat, which offers events. Isla Mujeres itself translates as 'the isle of women'. The whole island was once dedicated to the Mother Goddess Ix Chel.

Also, look out for trips to Maya, Aztec and other pre-conquest temples, though many of these are in ruins.

Sikh Places of Worship

None known. This will be updated if we receive information about gurdwaras in Cancún.

December 14, 2010

Our Lady of Guadalupe: Festivities

At the weekend, celebrations were held all over Mexico, in honour of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Here is a selection of the highlights from those events.

Pilgrim in Mexico City

The biggest gathering, by far, was in Mexico City. Six million Catholic pilgrims descended upon the city, which houses Her basicila. It is also here that the initial encounters with the Lady occurred, upon Tepeyac Hill. This was once on the outskirts of the city, but now is right in its historic heart. Pilgrims arrive annally at the spot, on December 12th, creating the largest Catholic event in the Americas.

View Larger Map

The procession and mass, in Mexico City, is so large that many arrive the night before. They camp out, in the vicinity of the basicila, in order to have a good view the next day.

Pilgrims in Mexico City

On December 12th, the number of Catholic pilgrims swells into the millions, as a parade is held through the city streets.

Pilgrims in Mexico City

The basicila itself has a capacity for 80,000 people to hear mass. It is usually full to bursting, but the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe requires many to wait patiently outside.

Pilgrims in Mexico City

Meanwhile, there was plenty more to be seen and experienced elsewhere:

Pilgrims in Puebla

Pilgrims carry the Lady's image on their truck, near to Puebla, Mexico.

Pilgrim in Connecticut

These pilgrims waited in the pouring rain, in Connecticut, USA, to receive a torch lit at the basicila, in Mexico City. The torch had been carefully carried back, across land, to light up the churchs in New Haven.

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe will be celebrated all week in Mexico.

December 13, 2010

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

It was December 9, 1531, when Juan Diego first saw Her. By December 12th, the last of Her appearances, even the Bishop was convinced. They were meetings that would change the spiritual face, not only of Mexico, but the whole of the Americas. Some might argue that it bolstered Catholicism itself, right in the midst of its darkest hour. Five centuries later, practically the entire of Mexico were out on the streets yesterday, celebrating the fact that it had happened at all.

Juan DiegoJuan Diego wasn't his birth name. That was Cuauhtlatoatzin. He had been born into the Nahua tribe, in a village just to the north of modern-day Mexico City, on the eve of a period of tumultuous change. He married, but doesn't appear to have been blessed with children. He farmed his own land and, as a sideline, wove mats. Then, in 1521, the Spanish arrived.

The couple witnessed the rampage of Hernán Cortés through their country. They survived the conquest and, moreover, were counted amongst the few that welcomed their conquistadors. In particular, the pair were convinced by the evangelism of the Franciscan monks, who travelled with Cortés. In 1524, they were baptized into the Catholic faith. They were in the minority then, as very few Mexicans were interested in following suit. Cuauhtlatoatzin was fifty years old. It was now that he became Juan Diego. His wife took the baptism name Maria Lucia.

It was a Saturday, when Juan Diego set off on his usual weekend walk around Tepeyac Hill to the church. He was nearly 60 now and widowed. The air may have seem mild to the younger, more spritely villagers, but it poked coldly at his bones. He had a tilmàtli (a short cape, woven from cactus fibre) draped around his shoulders.

The hill itself had a Pagan past. It had been dedicated, by his own people, to the Goddess Tonantzin; She, who guided those in war or childbirth, and whose name meant 'seven flowers' after the crops that She oversaw. Perhaps Diego remembered those stories; maybe he didn't. But when the young girl called to him from its slopes, he knew immediately that She wasn't human. He was looking at someone divine. She was only about fourteen years old, but she called him 'my little son'.

Juan Diego trekked up the hill towards Her. He recalled the singing of birds and saw the light around her.Lady of Guadalupe, with Juan Diego She was dressed as an Atzec princess, with skin as dark as his own. She spoke to him in his native Nahuatl, but She called him Juan Diego.

She was no Pagan goddess. He knew that in the very soul of him; it was confirmed when Her message was for the Franciscan Bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga. She was the Mother of God Herself.

Juan Diego found the strength in his bones, the air in his lungs and the speed in his legs. He hurtled down the hill feeling like a young man, intent on seeking out the Bishop. He located him in the church, where the message was gushed out. The Virgin Mary was on Tepeyac Hill. She wanted a shrine there, built in Her honor. She had a promise in return and this had been memorized, word for word.

"I will demonstrate, I will exhibit, I will give all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people. I am your merciful mother, the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind, of all those who love me, of those who cry to me, of those who seek me, of those who have confidence in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow and will remedy and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities and misfortunes."

Fray Juan de ZumárragaZumárraga obviously thought that he had a madman on his hands. Well, you would, wouldn't you? Someone rushing in, telling you that they've seen the Mother of All, and that She wanted something building for Her. Especially when the Lady in question sounded very much like the Aztec Mother Goddess, for whom the hill was dedicated. It all sounded like a bit of a ruse.

But Diego was one of the Bishop's few converts. He couldn't just kick him out without some humouring words. Zumárraga told Diego to go back and get a sign that this was true.

Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac Hill and found the Lady still there. He explained that the Bishop needed a sign. She smiled back at him, still in Her aspect as a teenage girl. She told him to request again, of the Bishop, that Her shrine be built. Diego didn't feel worthy. He begged Her to send someone else. She was adamant that Diego conveyed her message.

The next day, Sunday 10th December, Diego tried again. The Bishop repeated his comment that he needed a sign, to prove that She was who She said She was. Diego set off to the hill. She was waiting for him. This time, She promised that there would be a sign. It would be something to convince even the most sceptical heart and it would begin the following day.

The next day, Juan Diego waited anxiously, but the news which came wasn't glorious at all. His uncle, Juan Diego Bernardino, lay suddenly ill and dying. He was very close to the old man. When Diego had been orphaned, as a child, Bernardino had taken him in and raised him as his own. Diego rushed to his uncle's side, but the prognosis looked bad. Diego tended to him all through the night.

By the early hours of the 12th, it was obvious that it wasn't healers, but a priest that was needed now. Someone had to come and administer the last rites. Diego volunteered to fetch Bishop Zumárraga. But halfway around the hill, in the murky light of 4am, Diego heard the Lady calling his name. Perhaps there was hope. She answered directly to a higher power. He raced to speak with Her.

Lady of Guadalupe, with Juan Diego

With her opening words, She assured him that his uncle would survive his fever. Then She asked Diego to gather up flowers growing on the hill. This was December, there were no flowers up there. Diego frowned, then looked around. There were flowers. There were hundreds of them. He hurried to pick an armful of them to present to Her. The Lady just smiled reassuringly and bade him remove his tilmàtli. As he draped the cloak over his arms, She arranged seven of the finest blooms inside it.

Diego took them to Bishop Zumárraga. He was no doubt roused from his bed to receive them, but the Lady had ordered that no-one but the Bishop himself was to open the folded tilmàtli. The Bishop stood before Diego, but didn't appear moved to take the package. Diego opened it for him, releasing a corner, so that the flowers cascaded to the floor of the church. Inside, in a perfect representation imprinted into the fabric, was an image of the Lady Herself.

Bishop Zumárraga fell to his knees.

On the other side of the hill, in a deathbed room, Bernardino was also on his knees. He had felt the mortal illness lift from him. His veins cooling from the fever. He had found a Lady, resplendent in light, standing in his room. "Tell them," She said, "I am the Ever Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe." Then She was gone.

Lady of Guadalupe, with Juan Diego

News of the incident spread like wildfire through the native peoples of Mexico. Within the next handful of years, 8 million of them had converted to the Spanish religion, Catholicism. This was at a time when, in Europe, many were defecting to Protestantism. The influx of new adherrents to the old faith is credited, by some, with saving it.

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated throughout Mexico and the Americas, on December 12th, each year.

December 10, 2010

El Triunfo: Cloud Forests, Coffee and Conservation

El Triunfo

Fog curls endlessly through the evergreen forest. The air is damp and humid. Out there, unseen, is the hauntingly beautiful call of the Azure-rumped Tanager - a bird so rare that less than 10,000 of them exist in the world. This is the last refuge for dozens of species on the brink of extinction.

Human voices rise up from the edges; in the Spanish tongue, mostly, though there are the occasional exchanges in Mayan. These are in dialects of the Tzotzil, Tzeltal and Mam people. Their villages are dotted throughout these mountains; but, for the majority, their work is in the plantations. This is coffee country, where economy and ecology collide for supremacy. Yet they may just have found a compromise.

El Triunfo

This is the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, in the Sierra Madre Mountains, Chiapas. It is in the southern tip of Mexico (any further south and you would be in Guatemala) and it is the wettest region in the country. 10% of the rainfall, in the whole of Mexico, falls on this one small area.

Several rivers have their headwells on its soaring slopes; including the mighty Rio Grijalva. On its snaking 480km (298 mile) north-east journey, to empty into the Gulf of Mexico, this river becomes temporarily diverted by the Malpaso Dam. 40% of Mexico's electricity comes from the hydro-electrical plant tapping into this majestic source.

El Triunfo

Back in El Triunfo, the water means life itself. It irrigates the lush vegetation that covers the chain of deep valleys and corresponding pinacles, reaching up to 2,000 meters (6,562ft) above sea level. This is the last remaining wilderness home of nearly 200 endangered species, including the resplendent quetzal, tapir, puma, spider monkey and horned guan. But it was shrinking fast. Only 25,000 hectares (61,750 acres) of it remain.

The culprit, as is so often the case, is human industry. In the 19th century, the Mexican government realised that the climate here was perfect for growing coffee beans. Large tracts of forest were cleared for the coffee plantations. Export profit boomed. International coffee companies vied for the opportunity to buy land, clear more forests and to create ever-expanding plantations.

Plantations attracted a workforce, who chopped down yet more vegetation, in order to construct their towns and villages. Increased prosperity in the area brought cattle ranchers, who also needed large, clear areas, in order to graze their livestock. The cloud forest shrank more and more each year.

El Triunfo ranch

The alarm bells were first sounded in the 1940s, when Prof Miguel Alvarez del Toro conducted a series of research studies in the area. His work provided evidence that El Triunfo needed protection; and his personal friendship with several politicians ensured that they listened to him. It became a protected zone, both federally and within the MAB-UNESCO Programme for Biosphere Reserves.

But little was able to be done about the damage already wrought there, especially since the plantations remained so lucrative. The USA alone imports an estimated 207,900lbs. of coffee from El Triunfo each year. The Mexican government were reluctant to risk such a market. Conservation work tended to fall into the hands of local communities, who could see the dangers. It was the population there who, ultimately, saved what remained of the cloud forests, until a proper policy could be formed.

El Triunfo

It wasn't until 1991 that a workable compromise, between coffee profit and conservation, was formed. El Triunfo is now surrounded by a 90,000-hectare (222,300-acres) buffer zone, within which there are strict rules about how the land may be worked.

One of the most significant changes was how coffee was grown there. Conventional growing switched to more environmentally friendly methods. This is where Starbuck's 'Organic Shade Grown Mexican Coffee' comes from. It also forms part of the Starbuck's Shared Planet and Social Responsibility pogram. Many of the plantation farmers there have switched entirely to Fair Trade initiatives, such as that discussed in this Equal Exchange blog and on the CESMACH site. Conservation International performs yearly inspections of the plantations, ensuring that farmers are not taking short-cuts with regulations.

El Triunfo man

Nurseries have been set up, within the buffer zone, to nuture indigenious plants and trees, such as palm and cycad. An awareness campaign has travelled deep into the towns and villages on the reserve. It is believed that 70% of its residents now not only know about the conservation pressures, but are also actively supporting them.

There is now a conservation program, funded and co-ordinated by Fondo de Conservación El Triunfo AC (El Triunfo Conservation Fund). The future looks very bright indeed.

December 9, 2010

An Eco-Hotel in the Heart of Cancún

For many, a vacation in Cancún points immediately to the huge, all-inclusive, luxury hotels by the beach. There are plenty of alternatives to suit many pockets, needs and ideologies. During this week of climate change talks, in Cancún, it seems apt to highlight an eco-hotel.

El Rey del Caribe

El Rey del Caribe is situated in downtown Cancún. It was built and is maintained with sustainability in mind. This is tourist accommodation for those who view their vacation as no excuse to leave ecological concerns behind. It is where many of the activists, attending the UN Climate Change Conference, are currently staying.

The hotel looks pretty. Its interior encircles a large central courtyard, where residents lounge beside the pool, in hammocks or on sunbeds; or meander along the tree-shaded walkways, enjoying the impressive floral gardens; or relax in a jacuzzi. Each of its 31 guest-rooms opens onto this vast courtyard. There is no stinting on luxury within. The rooms all have two large beds and all of the ammenities, including air-conditioning throughout. The hotel has its own health spa and dining room.

The location isn't bad either. The large mercados are just a leisurely amble away, while a plethora of restaurants and attractions are in the surrounding streets. Cancún's famous tropical beaches are an easy 20 minute stroll away (2km or just over a mile).

View Larger Map

So far this is just sounding like tourist spiel for a random Mexican hotel, with nothing at all to do with ecology and environmental matters at all. But what sets El Rey del Caribe apart is how it does all of this. Let's pick out just a few examples of its eco-technology.

* All of the guest-rooms have hot and cold running water in their bathroom. What isn't immediately obvious is that the hot water is channelled through roof-top, solar-heated tanks. During the day, the sun shines down upon it. Solar panels soak up this energy, then convert it into heating for the water-tanks.

* All of the guest-rooms are cleaned daily, with freshly laundered towels and bed-linen. However, another trip to the roof would reveal a solar dryer. This is an enclosed, ventilated area, with a glass ceiling. The sun's rays descend upon it and the specially designed enclosure works to remove all humidity. The laundry is dried far more quickly than it would using the industrial driers of other hotels.

El Rey del Caribe's garden

Incidentally, the water dirtied, in cleaning these in the first place, isn't just drained away, into the city's water system, but used to irrigate the hotel's gardens. This has the dual purpose of reducing energy needed to dispose of it; while negating the need to demand water to maintain those amazing gardens.

* All of the guest-rooms contain trash bins. That is 'bins', plural. Each has three, so that guests (or the maid, if the guests have been too lazy to do it) can separate their rubbish for recycling. Organic matter goes into one; plastics into another; general trash into the third. It's all clearly marked. Staff then take these away for processing. The organic matter goes into the compost help, hidden away, for use in the lush hotel gardens. The plastics are delivered to the local recycling collection points.

* All of the guest-rooms have toilet facilities in their bathrooms. However, some of these are composting toilets. They look and behave, outwardly, like any other toilets. Behind the scenes, the waste falls into a special filtering tank, rather than the city's sewage works. It is then processed naturally into compost. This not only reduces water usage, but helps to add nutrients to the soil.

* The pool is cleaned regularly. The water from it isn't just drained away, into the city's water system, but used in the ordinary flushing toilets. For those guests without composting toilets, then the water used to flush away your waste is the same as that which you swam in yesterday.

El Rey del Caribe's pool

* Much of the water used in the hotel comes from a rainwater tank, which was then filtered and cleaned it for human use. Pretty much like all water really, but far more locally processed.

Those are just some of the ways in which El Rey del Caribe lessens its environment footprint, while also providing a world-class service for its guests.

For more information about the hotel and its eco-policies, please visit their web-site.

December 8, 2010

'The Silent Evolution': Life-saving Art

In the waters between Cancún and Isla Mujeres, there is a remarkable sight. 400 life-sized statues of real people gaze up from the seabed. Their presense forms an artificial coral reef, which will help preserve the marine eco-system. Two days ago, it was also the setting for a campaign to save human beings.

The Silent Evolution

When we last highlighted the work of Jason de Caires Taylor, 'The Silent Evolution' was merely concept art. This hauntingly beautiful seabed scene is now a reality. Just two weeks ago, it was installed in the Manchones Reef, in the National Marine Park of Cancún, Isla Mujeres and Pinta Nisuc. Snorkellers, scuba divers and glass-boated boats have already been flocking to the site. At a depth of between 4-7 meters (13-23ft), it is easily viewed through the pristine waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Each one of the 400 life-sized sculptures represent a real person walking around in the world above. They range from an 85 year old nun to a three year old boy named Santiago. On his website, the artist paid tribute to 'all the models who patiently stood in their underwear covered in vaseline and plaster for over an hour, thus requiring trust and bravery'.

As with all of Jason de Caires Taylor's underwater sculptures, 'The Silent Evolution' has an important job to do. Erosion and bleaching of the world's coral reefs mean that much of the plants and creatures that rely on on them are now endangered. These statues have been especially created to act as substitute reefs. While blandly white at the moment, they will literally evolve into a vibrant and ever-changing display of color.

The installation has already attracted bright, tropical fish into its sheltering nooks. Within just a few weeks, the coral plantlife will start growing across its surfaces. The artist views the creation and placing of the statues as merely the beginning, 'the second phase is dependant on nature’s artists of the sea, to nurture, evolve and apply the patina of life.' Once the coral life has really taken hold, then each new visit to the site will reveal whole new wonders. This is living, breathing, thriving art.

The Silent Evolution and Greenpeace

'The Silent Evolution' hit doubly hit the headlines this week. As the final pieces were being lowered into place, delegates from the UN Climate Change Conference were gathering in nearby Cancún. Activists from Greenpeace, TckTckTck and wanted to get their message heard by them. The slogan was stark, 'Real people can't live underwater'. It was to press home the threat posed by rising sea levels. In a world of glaciers melting under rising temperatures, those living in low lying coastal areas, across the world, are in danger of losing their homes and livelihoods.

The protesters donned ordinary, every-day clothing, in order to free dive down to the statues. They had to hold their breath for up to a minute, so that their photographs and video footage could be taken. The human-like sculptures were created to live underwater. Human beings are not.

All of this was done with Jason de Caires Taylor's permission. In fact, he was there. Who better than the artist to take the photographs? :D

The Silent Evolution and Greenpeace

For more images, check out the slideshow here.
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