May 31, 2011

Mexico City Goes Gaga Over Last Monster Ball

The Monster Ball Tour was huge. 201 shows, spanning four continents, in eight legs, taking two years to complete. Yet all good things need to come to a close eventually; and the Monster Ball did so, this month, in two amazing performances in Mexico City.

Lady Gaga in Mexico City

This was Lady Gaga at her finest; with three full blown shows in Mexico, and several more side-events and promotions. Her main performances were at Estadio Tres de Marzo stadium, in Guadalajara, then two more at Foro Sol, in the capital city. All three shows were filled to bursting with highly appreciative crowds. (On her website, one girl tells of how she attended the concert without her father's permission. He hasn't spoken to her for a fortnight since, but she says that it was so worth it!)

There were some truly golden moments during the Mexican leg of the Monster Ball. Alejandro Fernández is one of Mexico's more versatile singing superstars. He has previously dueted with Beyoncé, Nelly Futado and a host of musical legends, like Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. He was name-checked in Guadalajara, before Lady Gaga sang her hit, Alejandro. It gave a whole new meaning to her stomping lyric:

"You know that I love you, boy
Hot like Mexico, rejoice!
At this point I've got to choose
Nothing to lose."

In Mexico City, Lady Gaga encouraged the audience to sing the traditional Mexican song, 'Cielito Lindo' to her. The performer sat on the stage, on a high stool, waving her hands, then applauding, as the 55,000 strong crowd serenaded her. This was on Cinco de Mayo, so it gave an extra layer of celebration to the festivities.

But, of course, the biggest news of the Mexican shows was the premier of 'Americano'. It's a song about gay rights, particularly the defeat of Proposition 8 in California, USA, which sought to ban same sex marriages. Yet the sound is Mexican. Lady Gaga wanted to tie the theme in with a statement about immigration laws in the USA. The couple in her Californian marriage are American and Mexican.

Her producer, Fernando Garibay, described Lady Gaga's direction on the song, "I remember her saying, 'Yes, I want mariachi, I want Latin percussions. I want to go big.' I'm so used to people in the industry saying, 'Latin: It's a little bit cheesy'; but she was like, 'F*** that! Let's go full Mexicano.' We started with me on guitar and her on piano, kind of wrote the lyric on the spot, and she sang it all the way through, and that's how the song was born."

The words are bilingual. Half are in American English and the other in Mexican Spanish. As she unveiled it, in Guadalajara, the crowd went insane. Loud cheers and applause met it and the stadium echoed to the sound afterwards. It was a triumph.

Monster Ball support stars, Semi Precious Weapons, released this footage a couple of days ago. It takes us backstage, at the biggest show on Earth, as it played out in Mexico City.

Lady Gaga and her support crew are welcome back in Mexico anyday!

May 30, 2011

Spotlight on a Tour: Pirate Assault!

Pirate Assault

There you are, enjoying a sunset out to sea, while all around you are people drinking from the open bar or dancing to live music. It is serene, it is beautiful, it's a raucous party.

Then the pirates attack.

Explosions light up the night sky. Random people are taken prisoner and it is up to their fellow passengers to secure their freedom. Fortunately, your MC will be on hand to help you devise a cunning plan. Dare you risk it?

Survivors will be taken to Isla Mujeres, that tropical island favoured by the pirates of old, for a delicious buffet meal at the Beach Club 'El Pescador'. Here the party continues on the sands. The return trip to Cancun is just as lively, with games, contests and a pirate show.

Pirate Assault

Pirate Assault

The cruise lasts for four hours, leaving from Playa Langosta Marina, in the Cancun Hotel Zone, km 6.5. It runs every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, at 7pm. For those in Riviera Maya or Playa del Carmen, then transport can be arranged from your hotel for an extra fee.

Ferry Check in: 6:00pm, Departs 6:30pm, Returns 11:00pm

Pirate Assault
Pirate Assault!
Enjoy an authentic pirate adventure on the Caribbean Sea.

May 27, 2011

Yucatán: Largest Ever Congregation of Whale Sharks

Take a boat off the Yucatán Peninsula this week and you will see the most astounding sight. The water is filled with the gentle giants of the sea, all meeting to feast on little tunny fish eggs. Whale sharks are there in their hundreds, with an estimated 420 of them forming the biggest aggregation. A second group are even further out to sea.

Aggregation of Whale Sharks

The Mexican Caribbean is home to the whale sharks, which can stray as far north as the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern coast of the USA. While sightings are rare up there, a glimpse of them off the Yucatán can be guaranteed, if you know where to look.

Yet their numbers this year have taken locals and scientists by surprise. Usually they are solitary creatures, meandering their way through the ocean alone or in schools no more numerous than a dozen. The hundreds in the Yucatán Afuera aggregation have brought researchers flocking to record this amazing event.

Flyovers have taken in the scale, with aerial footage and measurements; while scientists in boat are weaving amongst the whale sharks, collecting samples of food in nets.

Whale Shark

This is the world's largest fish, with adults reaching lengths of 40 feet (12 meters); yet they are utterly harmless to human beings. Their diet consists mainly of plankton, plants or very small fish. Though, as the recent feeding frenzy shows, mackerel eggs are apparently a favourite.

Meanwhile, over in the second aggregration, in the Yucatán Cabo Catoche, it appears that shrimp and small crustaceans were there main draw on the menu.

Whale sharks swim with their mouths open wide. As water funnels through, they filter out the good stuff and keep it in their stomachs. The rest is channeled out through their gills.

Whale Shark

Despite their huge size, whale sharks are not aggressive. They have a reputation for being incredibly docile and moving extremely slowly through the ocean. They will generally ignore human beings, as we aren't food; though well-fed ones are more inclined to be playful. They will happily allow people to swim alongside them and will even give them a 'ride', towing them through the water.

They live up to 100-150 years. Each one has a unique pattern of spots on its back, acting like fingerprints to identify them.

Aggregation of Whale Sharks

Mike Maslanka, biologist at the USA's Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, explained the significance of this find. "With two significant whale shark aggregation areas and, at the very least, one active spawning ground for little tunny, the northeastern Yucatán marine region is a critical habitat that deserves more concerted conservation effort."

His colleague, Lee Weigt, head of the Laboratories of Analytical Biology, added, "Having DNA barcoding is an incredibly valuable resource for this research. It not only allowed us to know what exactly this huge aggregation of whale sharks were feeding on, not readily done from only physical observations of eggs, but it also revealed a previously unknown spawning ground for little tunny."

It is worth noting that whale sharks are considered 'vunerable' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This is due largely to over-fishing and trophy hunting. The greatest predator for whale sharks being, of course, humans.

May 26, 2011

La Quebrada: The Dare-devil Divers

The cliff is 35 meters (125 ft) high. Jagged fingers of rock poke out from the crashing tide. From the top, it seems a long and treacherous way down, yet the diver lights a torch and waits. There is one moment, one perfect moment. In a mixture of knowledge, skill and instinct, the diver sees and seizes the moment. He jumps. Crowds of watching tourists hold their collective breath, watching his fire flare fall and the pin-prick sense of his body with it. He is lost to the waves.

La Quebrada

Then he rises again, triumphant and swimming back to shore with a huge grin. The next one takes his turn. These are the La Quebrada Cliff Divers, one of Acapulco's most famous sights; and they really do know what they're doing.

Let us make something quite clear from the onset. This is not an activity that is encouraged for tourists. It is a spectacle, performed by those with training in the feat. Many divers come from a single, extended family, who have been doing this for generations. The rest are members of the La Quebrada Cliff Divers Club, which was formed in 1934, especially to ensure that the safety tips were passed on. No-one wants to see a vacationer crumpled at the bottom.

La Quebrada translates as 'gulch' or 'ravine'. It refers to the location itself, part of Acapulco's stunning, Pacific coastline. There is plenty of fishing to be had out there. When the divers are in downtime, then spectators can watch the pelicans soaring down to capture their food. It is believed that fishing is the genesis of the human cliff diving too. Nets snagged on sharp rocky outcrops had to be freed somehow.

La Quebrada

The ravine is overlooked by a cliff path, where the Hotel El Mirador has two platforms with first class views of the procedings. It is from this hotel that the sports footage, commonly broadcast throughout the Americas, is filmed. Patrons can pay US$3.50 (30 pesos) to stand on a broad balcony; or considerably more to dine in the La Perla restaurant, with its terraces above.

Superstars have launched from this cliff. The most famous of all was Raul García Bravo, who made over 37,000 dives. He was the star of several commercials, including Timex watches and Johnnie Walker whiskey, which aired throughout the USA and Mexico. During the 1970s, when ABC Wide World of Sports popularized the dives, in their extreme sports slots, it was García who caught the imagination of the public.

In 1963, Elvis Presley's film, 'Fun in Acapulco', featured many local cliff divers, including Raul García. García took his last dive in his mid-60s. He has now retired from the sport, handing over his crown to the younger generation.

La Quebrada is in the old part of Acapulco. Many people prefer to walk to the viewing areas, as it is a very scenic stroll. However, taxis are relatively cheap to reach the spot. The best spots to witness a dive are from the top of the cliff. Small VW-cabs wait at the bottom, especially to convey tourists up the slope. It costs roughy 20-30 pesos to hitch a ride up the steep bit. Arriving half an hour before the performance is advisable, in order to grab the greatest vantage points. (The most favored place is at the bottom of the steps, right at the front.)

The shows are daily, lasting around 25 minutes. The first at 1.30pm, then hourly from 7.30pm through to 10.30pm. It is only the latter where the divers carry torches, as visibility is still strong at the earlier slots. Afterwards, the divers will stand at the top of the stairs, holding a bucket in which to collect tips (10 pesos or a few US dollars is appropriate); otherwise the spectacle is free of charge (unless you're watching from Hotel El Mirador). They will also pose for photographs.

Souvenirs are able from the gift shop in the Hotel El Mirador, or from various shops in the area. Wandering vendors may also shout out their wares. These include food and drink booths.

May 25, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean - Blackbeard

Ian McShane as Blackbeard

At the very beginning of this blog, we recounted the swash-buckling, blood-thirsty true stories of the pirates of the Caribbean. Their names are so infamous and their deeds were so horrific, that they are still remembered now, in the places that they terrorized.

The Pirates of the CaribbeanGiovanni de Verrazano
Sir Francis DrakeSir Henry Morgan
Jean-David 'L'Olonnais' NauLaurens 'Laurencillo' de Graaf
Jean LaFitteFermin Mundaca

But there was one notable ommission there. Disney's 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' is in our theaters. As box offices around the world thrill to 'the pirate all pirates fear', then we should add a chapter to our terrible tales. It's time to visit Blackbeard! (And, yes, he was in Mexico too.)

Ask someone to impersonate a pirate and there is a definite accent that they adopt. "Ha-arr, me 'earties!" The cry goes out, "Thar be treasure thar! Arrrr!" Everyone is attempting to affect England's West Country tones. There is a reason for this. In 1680, Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard) was born in Bristol, which is in the heart of the said West Country. In short, they are trying to sound like Blackbeard. He is, after all, the pirate's pirate and the most notorious of all.

It has been speculated that Edward Teach was born into a wealthy, English family. He could read and write quite eloquently, which was highly unusual for any but the higher echelons of society. It's also probable that his surname wasn't even Teach. Many pirates took false names, in order to protect their family's reputation. His real name could have been Edward Drummond, though little supporting evidence has been found for that.

18th century Bristol
18th century Bristol

All that is known for certain is that young Edward boarded a ship in Bristol, bound for the Caribbean. Bristol was a huge port at the time, one of the centers of the British slave trade. Was he captured and pressed into slavery? Or did he take a job on a merchant ship? Nobody knows.

The history books only take up his tale, with any sense of surety, in 1716. It was then that Edward Teach appeared in New Providence, in the Bahamas, and joined the crew of English pirate, Captain Benjamin Hornigold. New Providence was a pirate safe harbour. The bay was too shallow to allow large navy ships to enter, so the smaller, faster privateers could dock without fear of arrest.

Even amongst this company, Hornigold was infamous. His 33 gun sloop, the Ranger, was the most heavily armed in the region and he could take any other vessel with ease. By 1717, Teach was his second-in-command and it was now that Hornigold awarded Teach his own ship. Blackbeard's career had really begun.


The two captains worked side by side, sailing in to capture merchant vessels, from Havana to Bermuda. But Hornigold refused to attack British ships. He considered himself a pirate, but one loyal to the crown of his homeland. His crew had no such scruples and the sight of unharmed merchant ships, flying the Union Jack, rankled them. There was mutiny and Hornigold retired with The Ranger, leaving Blackbeard in sole command. British ships were no longer off target.

Let us pause to get the measure of the pirate. He was a huge man. He stood 6ft 5" tall (1.96 meters) and had the girth to match. As the name suggests, he had a long, flowing beard, in which he apparently wove hemp fuses. These had been soaked in saltpetre and lime water. During fights, he would set fire to the fuses, giving the impression that his whole head was on fire. For onlookers, filled with Christian lore, it was as if they were faced with Satan Himself.


Then there was his personality. Modern analysts have studied the stories and speculated that he was clinically psychotic. Many pirates of the time would give quarter to the captain and crew of a merchant ship, as long as all of the cargo was simply handed over without a fight. Blackbeard was unpredictable.

He killed indiscrimately, simply to fuel his fearsome reputation. In one notable incident, he was alleged to have shot his First Mate dead, just to prove that he was mean. Another time, he chased down a ship, boarded it and took only the wine, before scuttling the vessel and marooning its crew. There was no reasoning with him.

The merchant captain dropped sails, then dropped anchor. He could not outrun the sloop and her eight guns. Pray they take what they want and move on, he told his crew. Give what they ask -- none of it is yours, none of it worth your life.

Behind the sloop, the merchant captain spied another approaching craft. She was big brute poking cannon from every snout. Twenty, no thirty, maybe more guns -- she was a killing machine!

The merchant captain raised his spyglass to her deck. There, he could see a monstrous figure, pointing across the water, pointing to the merchant ship, pointing to the merchant captain. "Dear God, spare our souls," the merchant captain said aloud. He had seen the devil. And the devil had seen him.
Tim Rickard, 'The Spanish Main'


For all of his notoriety, it must seem that Blackbeard operated for decades. It was actually less than two years that he prowled the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. During that time, the ships of no nationality were safe. (Make no mistake, many pirates acted unofficially (and sometimes officially) for various empire building governments. French pirates would attack Spanish and British ships; and vice versa. Part of the fear of Blackbeard was that he was on no-one's side.)

Blackbeard's flotilla grew. He is usually linked with La Concorde, a 'French ship of 32 Guns, a Briganteen of 10 guns and a Sloop of 12 guns', which he renamed the Queen Anne's Revenge. (It is this ship which is featured in 'The Pirates of the Caribbean' movies.) However, he owned many more than that. His prowess in overwhelming vessels was so great, that he commanded a whole fleet of pirate ships. Hence he seemed unstoppable.

Queen Anne's Revenge
Queen Anne's Revenge

As well as terrorizing the high seas, Blackbeard also held to ransom the town of Charleston, South Carolina, USA. In May, 1718, his fleet blockaded the harbour, refusing to allow supplies to enter the town. He also took hostages from a ship containing prominent Charleston citizens, who had been bound on a diplomatic trip to London. His demand was clear. He wanted medical supplies and certain medicines for his crew. If he didn't get them, then he would execute everyone present.

The town was in uproar and panic. It seemed inevitable that, even if they gave him what he asked for, he would ransack the place. For several days, the whole horizon was filled with Blackbeard's ships. Each day the people held out, the ships came closer, until eventually they handed over the medicinal supplies. To everyone's shock, Blackbeard simply released his hostages and sailed away.

Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard

Blackbeard's end came on November 22nd, 1718, off the coast of Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, USA. A British navy ship, captained by Lieutenant Robert Maynard, spotted Blackbeard's fleet. Maynard ordered his own crew below decks and masqueraded as practically a ghost ship. Blackbeard saw it and laughed. The huge pirate then boarded with just a few of his men. Immediately the rest of the British crew burst from the cabins and used the element of surprise to separate Blackbeard from the rest of his men. In the squirmish, dozens were killed, though reports vary as to how many.

What isn't in doubt was that Blackbeard received a gaping neck injury from one of Maynard's men. Even then, he didn't topple, but ended up in hand to hand combat with Maynard, surrounded by the navy. It apparently took Blackbeard 40 minutes to die, fighting all the way, until he eventually collapsed from lack of blood. Maynard delivered the final, fatal blow with his sword. He reported that Blackbeard had been shot five times and suffered 20 sword wounds, before dying.

Maynard decapitated Blackbeard and displayed his head on the bowsprit of his own navy ship. Blackbeard's headless body was cast into the ocean. The rest of the pirates fled on their ships. Of those arrested after the fight, 16 were hanged in North Carolina.

Blackbeard's head

Places to Visit

* Mexican Carribean/Yucatan Straits: Blackbeard's ship cruised up and down this coastline during his hey-day. Anyone on the shores would have seen him at one time or another. Also look out for any unidentified lights out at sea. They are said to be the ghost fleet of Blackbeard, still roaming the area.

* Veracruz, Mexico: During the winter of 1717/18, it is believed that Blackbeard was harrying ships on the trade route in and out of Veracruz. Read more about it here.

For details of other pirate related attractions, please visit our main site or peruse the list below:

Captain HookCaptain Hook Lobster Cruise

* Campeche: Completely destroyed by pirates several times, so had its fort and cannons built to protect it. L'Olonnais was once left for dead on its beach.

* Chinchorro Reef, Riveria Maya: Pirates used lanterns to lure ships onto the treacherous reef. Captains would see the lights far inland, but they would believe that the lights were on the edge of cliffs. Thinking that they were safe, they would sail too close to the coastline and crash on the reef. The wreckers would then swarm over the wreckage and take off with the cargo.

* Punta Herrero, Sian Ka'an: Many night time sightings of a headless pirate. The ghost is described as a giant, colored man, who patrols from one end of the village to the other.

* Subacuatico-CEDAM Museum, Puerto Aventuras: CEDAM (Club de Exploraciones y Deportes Acuaticos de Mexico; The Museum of Mexico’s Explorations and Water Sports Club, Civil Association) is a museum based in Puerto Aventuras. The exhibits are mostly from shipwrecks, many of which were caused by pirates, recovered from the Caribbean Sea. There are a few exhibits from Xel-Ha Mayan Ruins too.

The museum was formed by divers who had been frogmen in the Second World War. In 1958, they set about exploring the wreck of El Mantanceros, a Spanish galleon, which had sunk off the coast of Akumal in 1741. CEDAM have recovered its cannons, anchor and many small items, such as glass beads, belt buckles, coins and gems. These diving archaeologists went on to explore many other wrecks, as well as cenotes, and returned with more artefacts. They will also place commemorative plaques in places where there was a notable nautical link, for example, there is one to Captain Jean LaFitte in Port Dzilam, where the pirate's grave was discovered.

The museum is open Monday through Saturday all year long from 9:00 to 13:00 hrs. (9 AM to 1 PM) and from 14:30 to 17:30 hrs. (2:30 PM to 5:30 PM)

May 24, 2011

More Celebrity Spotting in Mexico

So many international celebrities have made Mexico their vacation destination this month, that it was better to collect them all into one blog entry. The alternative was telling you about another one every day! Here is a round up for April and May so far.

Jay Cutler and Kristin Cavallari
Jay Cutler and Kristin Cavallari

Chicago Bears quarterback, Jay Cutler, did everything right in April. He first surprised actress girlfriend, Kristin Cavallari, with a trip to Cabo San Lucas. Once there, the 'Laguna Beach' and 'Hills' star was thrilled to find Jay going down on one knee. He popped the question and Kristin returned to Los Angeles with an engagement ring on her finger.

Kristin has been bouncing with excitement in interviews ever since. "I think we both knew from the moment we met that we wanted to marry each other. It's been a great situation."

Kristin Cavallari's engagement ring
Kristin Cavallari's 5.2 carat diamond engagement ring

When Kate Bosworth and her friends decided to take an all girl vacation, then where else could they go but Cancún? The 'Superman Returns' star was a common fixture on the beach, sending the world's press into a frenzy, when she went topless.

Kate Bosworth in Cancun

None of her friends were so brave, but Kate appeared happy, relaxed and healthy. It appears that her Mexican vacation was just the ticket for her hectic life. She has just finished filming 'Straw Dogs', which is due to hit the silver screen later this year.

It's over to the west coast of Mexico again for the next on our list. Those wishing to indulge in a bit of 'Keeping Up with the Kardashians' should have been in Punta de Mita, just north of Puerto Vallarta. The entire family were there, celebrating Kourtney's 32nd birthday. Quite notably there was NBA basketball champion, Kris Humphries, with his whole attention upon Kim.

Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries

The Kardashians were in their beach house for six days, joined by members of the family who aren't usually spotted in their socialite reality TV show. Kourtney's party was held on the beach itself, with many passers by joining in the festivities. But the press only have eyes for Kim and Kris. In the days after returning to New York, they have been spotted looking at engagement rings.

Back up to Los Cabos and it was another girlie getaway weekend for a couple of the stars of 'High School Musical'. Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale swopped LA for some Mexican sun and surf during the May Day break.

Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale

While there, the friends met up with another American actress, Shelley Buckner. All three spent their days in an exclusive resort, lounging on the beach and soaking up the sun. With their evenings spent exploring the bars and clubs of Cabo San Lucas.

Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale and Shelley Buckner

Then it was back to the grind, as they all had filming projects to return to.

Also in Los Cabos this month were another trio of American actresses. Jaime King and Nicole Ritchie were there to help Jessica Alba celebrate her birthday. It was a belated event, as Jessica had been ill on the actual day. That was all rectified with a beautiful beach party in Cabo San Lucas.

Jessica Alba's birthday in Mexico

Jessica, who announced her second pregnancy in February, appeared utterly relaxed with her bikini and her bump. She had two year old daughter, Honor, with her and the gang all played regularly on the beach or around the pool.

Jessica Alba's birthday in Mexico

Had they stayed another week, they could well have encountered yet another celebrity couple in Cabo San Lucas. Newly-weds, LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian, are honeymooning at the Esperanza Resort. Her Tweets have been filled with excitement about it all.

Beautiful night on the beach!!!! How is everyone?!
LeAnn Rimes, 23rd May 2011

What a gorgeous morning! It's a great day to be alive!!!
LeAnn Rimes, 24th May 2011

LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian in Mexico

The couple have been spotted all over town, including the beach, the resort and the Pink Kitty Club. They appear to be very, very much in love.

No news yet on whether they have bumped into the other celebrity couple in town right now. New England Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady, and his Victoria's Secret supermodel wife, Gisele Bundchen, are also currently in Cabo San Lucas.

Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen in Mexico

The couple have been having fun on the beach and around the pool, with Tom particularly rocking their giant waterslide.

Fans of 'Real Housewives of Orange County' might be interested to know that Tamra Barney was also in Cabo San Lucas recently. She visited with boyfriend, Eddie Judge, last weekend, staying at the Casa Dorada Resort.

Tamra Barney and Eddie Judge in Mexico

It appears that things got ranchy in the bar, with Eddie preparing and licking her body, to the cheers of onlookers (visit to see that video).

That's the end of our round up for April and May (so far), but Cabo San Lucas is the current celebrity spotting hotspot, with an option on Cancún.

May 23, 2011

Cancun's Illegal Chimpanzees: Coco and Bryan

Coco in Cancun

It is an attraction that Mexican authorities and campaigners would rather not exist at all. Yet tourists, often unaware of the private cruelties and illegal trading, flock to pay their dollars for a souvenir. This is the exploitation of wild, sometimes endangered animals, as props for beach photographers. Cancun and Playa del Carmen have been hotspots for this lucrative business, but awareness and arrests are stamping out the practise.

José Adolfo Caram had long been the target of activists. He was a common sight in the heat of Cancun, parading his 21 year old female chimpanzee, Coco. Tourists awwwed and giggled over her exploits. She could smoke a cigarette or drink a beer. For $10, she would pose for a photograph. For $20, she would be staged in risque positions, like cupping the breast of a woman for the camera.

It was all viewed as very innocent by those onlooking. It was all a bit of fun. It was cute. When asked, Caram explained that he had rescued her from a laboratory, paying extra, as Coco was a prime candidate for experiments. She was his life. All of his money went on her care. He loved her like a daughter. Friends and family would flock to defend him, when anyone expressed any doubts. They all repeated the party line. Coco loved doing this. It was all she knew. Everything was alright.

But the truth was far murkier. By Mexican law, Caram had to be caught in the act of animal cruelty, before the police could intervene. He was very adept at rushing away, when the patrols came into view. Then, last September, he was spotted close to Barceló Hotel, on Boulevard Kukulkan km 4, in Cancun, with a line of tourists awaiting their photograph. The police swooped in.

Caram was not able to produce a single document as evidence of his legal procurement of Coco. An examination of the chimpanzee showed that her teeth had been removed. Caram was immediately arrested and faces up to nine years in prison, along with a hefty fine. Coco has been confiscated, along with the van that he used to transport her.

It is feared that Coco has been a victim of the illegal trafficking in chimpanzees. Native to Africa, hunters will shoot dead the mother and any other adult chimp that gets in their way. Four or five adults may die, simply to be able to pluck the baby from where it's clinging to its mother's corpse. The infants will then face arduous journeys, often across the world, in small boxes. Many do not survive.

Baby chimp rescued
Baby chimp rescued from traffickers.

Those which do face a life of beatings and sedatives, in order to keep them calm before the tourists. Some are forced into human clothes, in which they over-heat; or into boots and shoes, which may deform their growing feet. They are estranged from their own kind and forced into unnatural acts, like walking on two feet. They are worked for long hours and encouraged to imbibe anything that the tourists offer, including harmful food, cigarettes and alcohol. At puberty, many chimpanzees become too strong and aggressive to handle, so they are killed.

PROFEPA, the Federal Attorney's Office of Environmental Protection, is currently investigating precisely how much of this common scenario has applied to Coco. In the meantime, she is being housed in a local zoo.


Last year, we told you the story of another chimpanzee, which had also been owned by Caram. (Xcaret - The Secret Sanctuary.) Three year old Bryan was in a terrible state. His baby teeth had been smashed out with a blunt instrument. This had been so brutal that shards of them were deeply embedded into the infant's gums. But it did prevent him from ever biting a tourist. After his rescue, Bryan lived safely at Xcaret EcoPark, before being flown to more suitable premises, at Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre, in Great Britain.

It is always nice to know how these stories pan out, so we contacted Monkey World's Animal Manager, Jeremy Keeling, to ask on the progress of Bryan. "Bryan's doing great now. He's a lovely, little lad. He still has his moments, sitting in the back of the room rocking, but overall he's doing great."

Sally and Bryan
May 2011: Bryan (right) enjoying a quiet moment in the sun with foster mum, Sally (left).

Sally and Bryan

Sally and Bryan

Bryan has a home for life at Monkey World. At eight years old, he is being looked after by chimpanzee foster mum, Sally, and a team of human care staff. His adult teeth have all grown, fine and strong. He enjoys playing with foster auntie, Lulu, and the other rescued infants, Ash and Rodders.

Eventually it is possible that Bryan will be introduced to one of the three larger chimpanzee troops. But this is all future speculation. For now, Bryan is happily settled in Sally's group and there are no imminent plans to move him.

Meanwhile, Mexico takes seriously its signature on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), which includes the protection of chimpanzees. Hesiquio Benítez, the director of International Relations for the National Biodiversity Commission (CONABIO), explained that wildlife trafficking has been a growing concern for some time. He said, "There is considerable illegal transport of wildlife, and according to some estimates, the amount of money involved in the activity may approach that of arms trafficking."

CONABIO and PROFEPA have joined forces, with advice from national and international specialists on each species, to come up with the National Strategy for Combating Illegal Wildlife Trafficking. This has come into force over the past six months and the seizure of Coco was just part of that.

Hesiquio Benítez
Hesiquio Benítez of CONABIO

Mexico, along with Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala and the Philippines, formed a delegation, last month, which took such issues to the United Nations. In April, 2011, a Resolution was passed at the 20th Session of the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, which was held in Vienna.

The Resolution renders it a legal requirement, under international law, for individual governments to work together in combating wildlife trafficking. It also calls for those governments with lax national laws to substantially tighten them up. The hope is that, with UN backing and the raising of awareness, then the cruelties and brutality of this issue will soon be a thing of the past.

May 20, 2011

Pancho Villa: Wild Roses, Tender Roses

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa was angry. Pancho Villa was really angry. He had the governor of the state of Chihuahua, but he should be President of Mexico. He knew it. The people knew it. He suspected that even the President of the USA knew it; but the Americans had not only sided with Carranza, but had also sabotaged his own cause. As far as Villa was concerned, his former allies, the USA, were now his enemies.

But he could also use them. The USA had already invaded Veracruz. If Villa could spark more hostilities from their Northern neighbour, then even the war-weary Mexicans might rise up again en masse. With Carranza out, then Villa would have to take the country. He would have the popular vote.

Pancho Villa
Villa's troops amass in Agua Prieta.

There were a few skirmishes, notably up in Agua Prieta, Sonora, right on the border with Arizona, on 1 November 1915. Though the Americans were not openly lured into combat, they did provide much of the equipment used to repel Villa's men, including searchlights powered with American electricity.

Then, three months later, a train carrying American employees of the Mexican mining company ASARCO was attacked near Santa Isabel, in Chihuahua. Villa admitted to ordering the attack, but he denied giving the command to kill the seventeen dead Americans. But worse was to come; and when it came, Villa did not deny a thing. He had invaded the USA.

Pancho Villa

On March 9th, 1916, Villa took 500 men on a raid into New Mexico, USA. The town of Columbus had a garrison of American cavalry attached to it and it was this which was targeted by Villa. In the early hours of the morning, the Villistas burst into the area, in a two-pronged attack on both town and garrison. Fierce fighting raged through the streets, with the Mexicans yelling, "¡Viva Villa!". It left the Americans in no doubt whatsoever as to who had arrived.

There are many twists and versions of this horrific event. Many chroniclers hailed it a defeat for Villa, as the Mexican dead far outstripped the American. But Columbus was practically razed to the ground and Villa escaped back into Mexico with the majority of his men. His objective had been to provoke the USA into invading Mexico and that was successful.


On March 14, 1916, the Mexican Expedition, or Pancho Villa Expedition, began, with American troops entering Mexico. Their sole objective was to find, capture and/or kill Pancho Villa. 4,800 ground troops took up the hunt, with military Curtiss "Jenny" airplanes providing aerial surveillance. But the countryside closed around Villa and the people hid him. For nearly a year, the American military searched before admitting defeat. On February 7, 1917, they finally withdrew empty-handed.

Pancho Villa
Contemporary cartoon depicting the Mexican Expedition

In the meantime, Villa had twice entered the US state of Texas and his raids had seen American dead.

Moreover, Carranza had not been happy about the American military wandering Mexico without his invitation. There were several battles between the Mexican Federal Army and the Americans. Diplomatic relations soured between Presidents Carranza and Wilson.

This reached a head, when one of Villa's officers sneaked a letter over the border, informing the Americans that Carranza was working with the German Empire. America had just been drawn into World War One, with Mexico nominally neutral. Villa's intelligence report stated that the Germans were going to use Mexico to attack the USA, thus keeping them from arming the Allied forces over in Europe.

The news was taken very seriously and, on August 27, 1918, violence erupted in the border split-town of Nogales. Half of this lies in Arizona, USA, and the other half in Sonara, Mexico. It was here that American troops met Mexican Federal troops, in the Battle of Ambos Nogales. By evening, Carranza's men surrendered and the fighting was over. The USA had won, but the humiliation was on both sides.

Nogales, showing the Mexican-American border through its center

Pancho Villa remained at large for the rest of his life. Despite substantion rewards offered by the American government and private individuals, he was never betrayed by the people of Mexico. There are unsubstantiated reports that he was also able to travel at will through some areas of the USA, especially California.

Nevertheless, his reputation was in tatters over the border. The 'Robin Hood' moniker was squashed under a wealth of new stories circulated about him. He was a mass rapist, who killed any woman who would not submit to him; he was nothing but a low-life leader of a criminal gang, akin to a Mafia Don; he was a murderer and a thief, with no value for human life; he had 26 wives and a score of illegimate children; he conspired with the Germans; he had no morals at all.

The American public turned against him, especially in the northern states, where he had never been personally known. Yet, even today, in the places where these attrocities were alleged to have taken place, Villa's name is uttered with respect. He appears, through the memories of the Mexican poor, as much a folk hero now, as he did then. Time has not tarnished the image and, as Hollywood prepares for another film about his, it has restored some of the gloss.

Pancho Villa Wanted

Carranza had never regained his lost credibility and so hadn't stood for re-election. However, the President had gone out of his way to try and discredit General Obregón, another popular revolutionary choice. Carranza's efforts including stripping Obregón of his rank and military honors, which only served to enhance the revolutionary's popularity.

Another uprising appeared imminient, but it ended quickly with a single battle between the forces of Obregón and Carranza. The President stepped down and fled towards Veracruz. He never made it, but was assassinated, in Puebla, by another revolutionary, Rodolfo Herrero. Obregón was elected and that signalled the end of the Mexican Revolution.

Obregón's cabinet
Obregón and his government

It was around this time that Pancho Villa announced his intention to retire from revolutionary life. There was no love lost between him and Obregón (the two had fought each other in battle a few times), but the signs were bright that Obregón was the president that Mexico needed.

There were a series of reforms passed which sought to finally realise some of the demands of the Revolution. He was even standing firm against the USA, over demands from their northern neighbour that article 27 of the Mexican Constitution; though other concessions were unpopular amongst his people, even while they salved US relations.

Villa knew that he couldn't become President of Mexico now. It would be like painting a giant bull's eye on his back, as that was a very public office for someone with such a bounty on his head. Instead, he disbanded his army, but for a small personal bodyguard, and withdrew with Sra. María Luz Corral de Villa and their children to a hacienda in Chihuahua. It had been awarded to him, as part of a peace agreement with the Mexican government, following the assassination of Carranza.

Pancho and Maria
Pancho Villa and his wife, Maria Luz Corral de Villa

On July 20, 1923, Pancho Villa drove to the local bank, with just two bodyguards, to take out the wages for his hacienda staff. His car was ambushed and Villa died instantly, peppered with bullets, along with one of his men. It has never conclusively proved who killed him.

Places to Visit

* There is a statue of Pancho Villa, on horseback, in the city of Chihuahua.

* Cerro de la Bufa, Zacatecas. There is an aerial tramway to the memorial and museum dedicated to Pancho Villa here. A telescope can be used to survey the actual, arduous terrain that Villa needed to traverse in order to take the silver town.

* The Historical Museum of the Mexican Revolution, in Chihuahua, has many artefacts belonging to Pancho Villa, including the bullet-ridden car, in which he was killed, and his death mask.

* Villa's grave is in Parral Cemetery, Hidalgo del Parral, in Chihuahua. However, his remains were removed from and buried under the Monumento a la Revolución (Monument of the Revolution), in Mexico City. He shares a mausoleum with other figures from this historical time, including Madero and Carranza.

* A Hollywood film, entitled 'Wild Roses, Tender Roses', is due to begin filming next year. It will tell the story of Pancho Villa.

May 19, 2011

Pancho Villa: The Second Mexican Revolution

Pancho VillaIt seemed that Pancho Villa could do no wrong. On both sides of the Mexican-American border, he was proclaimed a hero.

Years later, chroniclers and reporters would travel through Chihuahua, Durango and Sonara, collecting stories of orphans delivered to safety and given treats; of the robbed having their possessions returned; of widows and the elderly given money and care; of wrongs righted and justice served.

In the USA, Hollywood moguls jostled for the rights to tell the story of Pancho Villa. From Washington to California, there were people singing his praises. Viewed as a modern-day Robin Hood, Villa could get a free meal anywhere. This was before we even got to revolution.

For Villa, the rise of Huerta to the presidency was a personal matter. Not only had the man once framed Villa for horse theft and almost had him shot, but he had undone the meagre gains of the Mexican Revolution. Huerta's policies were more than a return to those of Díaz. It was a full on dictatorship, forged in blood and heavy-handed responses to any who criticized him.

Moreover, Huerta arrested and executed Abraham González. This academic had been the brains behind the proposed reforms of the Revolution. He had written a far-reaching Constitution, which would have helped the Mexican poor out of poverty. He had advised Madero and recruited Villa to the cause. Now he was dead. Much later, Villa was to hunt down González's remains and give him a proper funeral. Villa probably would have rode out anyway, but the murder of González sealed the deal.

Villa crossed into El Paso, Texas, in the USA, to make his plans. He was well respected there. He funded his army on beef and cattle sold to the Texans, who willingly paid in arms or money. As Villa's prestige grew, and Huerta's correspondingly fell, Villa even started producing his own currency, which was readily accepted in Texas. His coinage was good and stable. He also had a contract with a studio in Hollywood. They would film his revolution and he would receive 50% of the door profits to fund it.

Pancho Villa currency

By the time Villa crossed back into Ciudad Juárez, the call had gone out. This Division of the North had never officially disbanded after the first Revolution and it quickly reassembled. Villa was in touch with other discontented leaders, such as Venustiano Carranza, and he was well stocked with American fire-arms. It didn't take long for practically the entire north of Mexico to fall under rebel control, with Pancho Villa's name attached to many of the major battles. (His military prowess and genius at battle strategies was impressive enough for the American army to start studying them; then using them in training exercises amongst their own personnel.)

Huerta hadn't quite been the puppet president that the USA had anticipated. In fact, he had acted with downright hostility towards American businesses in Mexico. The Americans were concerned enough to station navy ships in the Gulf of Mexico. The situation was to reach its zenith in the Tampico Affair.


Tampico, in Tamaulipas, was the site of a large American oil refinery. As Villa and Carranza closed upon it, President Woodrow Wilson sent messages to Huerta to ask what he was going to do about it. Meanwhile, US navy ships rushed into the area to evacuate their civilians from the town. Federal Mexican troops, controlled ultimately by Huerta, raised their guns on an American ship, the USS Dolphin. There was no-one amongst them who spoke both Spanish and English, on either side, thus the Americans on board were arrested and taken into custody.

They were eventually released, but not without bad feeling on each side. Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo, of the US navy, demanded a written apology of Huerta and the placement of the Stars and Stripes to fly over Tampico. Huerta didn't respond, though the governor of Tampico did write the apology. All requests for the American flag to stand on Mexico soil were refused. President Woodrow Wilson ordered an invasion and American forces took Veracruz.

US in Veracruz

All the time, Villa and Carranza waited, not advancing, though it was obvious that they could have done. They were piling on the pressure in full knowledge of how the Americans would react. It forced Huerta to fight on too many fronts, without the backing of either his own people or their powerful northern neighbours. The people, en masse, were supporting Villa. It was his charisma and integrity which brought them from their fields; his strategy and generalship which won the battles; and the sheer presense of the man that foresaw a better future for Mexico. On 15 July 1914, Huerta bowed to the inevitable and fled the country.

It felt, at the time, that Villa was poised to become Mexico's next president. Wherever he went, the people would rush from their homes to cheer him. "¡Viva Villa! ¡Viva Villa! ¡Viva Villa!"

US in Veracruz

But there had already been some puzzling maneuvering along the chain of command. On the eve of Huerta's flight, Carranza had asked Villa to take his troops to attack Saltillo, a town which was still loyal to the president. Villa did so with his usual flair, winning the territory outright. In the meantime, Carranza had entered Mexico City in triumph.

Villa was outraged and immediately diverted his forces onto Zacatecas, the source of much of Mexico's silver wealth. It was a daring target, with easily defensible terrain to cross, but Villa did it. Carranza might have secured the capital city, but Villa had Mexico's economy.

It once again felt cut and dried. Villa would become president and he would ensure that all of the revolution's reforms would be applied. But there was one more sting in the tale. President Woodrow Wilson gave the order that the USA was siding with Carranza. The wily revolutionary politician had already done a deal with Standard Oil, the largest US oil company represented in Mexico. He would protect their interests first.

President Carranza (bearded with a stick) and his government

Villa continued to hold Zacatecas, but he ordered a half of his northern army to attack Carranza. They should have won. Villa's strategies were there and they had the strength and experience. But they were also fighting with ammunition, which had just arrived from Texas. The bullets were duds. 14,000 of Villa's men died on the field and the US president used that as justification for the fact that Carranza was the stronger candidate. From now on, no American arms would be supplied to Villa and no more financing was to come from north of the border.

Pancho Villa felt betrayed. He declared war upon the USA.
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