Not far from the bluebonnet fields of Muleshoe Bend lies a Texas state park called Longhorn Cavern. The entire purpose of this small park is for its cave tours. We drove right past this park a couple of years ago on the way to another state park, Inks Lake, which is only six miles down the road from Longhorn Cavern and is itself another great park to visit. It’s a beautiful drive through rolling hills with spring wildflowers and longhorn cattle in view.
Natives used this cave as a Comanche Indian Council room. An outlaw by the name of Sam Bass used it as a hideout. Just before the cave was purchased by the state in the mid-1930’s, it was used as a speakeasy nightclub complete with dance floor and a kitchen. Once the state purchased it, the cave was completely readied for tours by the CCC boys. This was prime CCC time. Our tour group gathered in this pavilion below, which they built solely for that purpose from local limestone. The craftsmanship is admirable.
From this building, it was a short walk over and down to the cave. I captured these views as we were going in.
Every cave I’ve visited is different from every other one. I like to see what new thing each cave is going to show me. For starters, I’ve never been in a cave that was totally developed by the CCC. They removed 2.5 tons of silt, debris and bat guano, and they built stairs and walkways. Their entire long days were spent working down underground with candlelight. For that, they were paid a dollar a day.
Longhorn was formed long ago by underground flowing rivers, which makes it unique. Most caves are formed by water sinking down through the earth. The flowing water sculpted beautiful works of rock art.
The CCC workers found this “dog” further back in the canyon and moved it up to where it could be seen better. They were working back in the day when it wasn’t common knowledge that caves should be left in their natural state. Mother Nature carved this sculpture out of magnesium-rich dolomite rock.
Because of flowing rather than dripping water, this cave is not resplendent with stalactites and stalagmites. It did fold some of them in with its sculpted rock art, though.
There is a colony of 80 to 100 tricolored bats here. Of course, they were snoozing away, so we were admonished not to disturb them and not to use flash on our cameras if we wanted to take a picture. Our daughter, Katie, was particularly good at spotting them.
The thing that made this cave a standout for me, though, was an area lined with calcite crystals. There were so many in one place in the cave that our tour could divide as we wished through two tunnels left or right, circle around back to the main tunnel, and go see the other side. They glittered in the dim light. Wow!
I learned a new word in the cave – “pareidolia”. It is the human ability to see shapes or pictures out of something random. For example, “cave bacon” is simply flowstone which looks very much like real bacon. Our guide showed us many formations that looked like something familiar and, for fun, urged us to find our own pereidolia. She showed us this face made from light and rock:
The tour was a full hour and a half and it was well worth the ticket price. Coming back up, my daughter and I stopped for a picture under the CCC’s beautiful stone archway:
Above ground, there are a few trails in this small day-use park, and the CCC built a tower here also. Climbing it gives a view of the Hill Country all around. But I can’t tell you more than that, because it was lunchtime. We were all hungry, so we skipped it.
The best stop here that we’ve found for lunch is in nearby Marble Falls, at Blue Bonnet Cafe. Cal and I had stopped here for their renowned pie once, and this time we discovered they do a great lunch too. It was a Saturday, and there was a line, but it moved quickly.
There was one more destination I wanted to see in the Hills area, and I will save that for my next and last posting of “West of Austin”.
Next time – we visit a past President of the United States
West of Austin–a bounty of beautiful hills, rivers, parks, historic towns, wineries, and destinations for a day or more. Instead of jamming everything together in my usual fashion, I decided to write a series of three shorter blogs about three destinations in this area. Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area will be the first.
We started to see them when we were in Corpus Christi. And then, driving into central Texas, they carpeted the roads and the fields. Beautiful swaths of color: blue, orange, pink, white. Sometimes just one color, sometimes two or more mixed in. Texas’s highways and byways in the spring are not to be missed. What am I talking about? The wildflowers, of course! If you have not been to Texas in late March or early April, it should really be on your calendar for next year. And now, I can tell you where the Shangri La of Texas wildflowers is: Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area.
Muleshoe Bend is an LCRA park, the same as South Shore Lake Bastrop where we had stayed earlier. LCRA stands for Lower Colorado River Authority, a non-profit public utility that provides water stewardship and electric energy. While at South Shore, I picked up a little magazine that listed all of the LCRA parks. Next to the write-up for Muleshoe Bend was a glossy picture of fields of bluebonnets. Wildflower heaven! This was to be our first weekday trip for our Austin stay; the flowers along the roadways seemed to be at their height of blooming and I did not want to miss them.
I didn’t know if the magazine had overhyped the flowers. Arriving in the park, we stopped to look at a map and found a trail to hike. While looking at the map, I noticed a small handmade sign close to the ground that said just: “Flowers”, with an arrow. We decided to follow that first. The road was dirt, dry and dusty. There were more signs so we kept going. And then, this:
The picture above was my first look, and it was only in one direction. There was more! Here I am, as happy as can be, in those beautiful bluebonnets:
All was quiet here, except for the seed pods on these bushes clacking in the wind:
We hiked, we took in the flowers and the views, listened to the wind and the pods and the birds, watched tiny butterflies flit about, and I took the time just to be still with the camera put away. A place like this is good for the soul.
The whole huge area is bounded on one side by the Colorado River. The river here was very low when we visited. There are a few houses on the bluff high above. It looked like the steps behind their houses were supposed to go down to boat docks in the river below, but the docks are sitting on weeds. It’s been a long time since the river has been at capacity. You can see one or two houses in the background of this photo:
The river is still there, although you can’t see it in the above picture. Here is a better view below. In light of all the beautiful flowers, I wasn’t focused on taking pictures of it.
We abandoned the trail we were going to hike. There is another, going through the flowers and around the hillside, that we ended up on while flower gazing. Or maybe it’s a park road, I don’t know.
There was an eye-catching area filled with white prickly poppies, too.
I thought that seeing the massive splendor of all of the flowers here was almost as good as visiting the monarch butterflies in their migrating place in Mexico this past early March. And that is saying a lot.
I wouldn’t come here on a Saturday or Sunday, though! I’m sure that on the weekend, with flowers in bloom, that this place is packed.
Sometimes one thing just leads to another. It all started with the Bullock Museum in Austin.
I’m the lucky recipient of occasional e-mails from Texas State Parks. One of those e-mails caught my attention: a curated collection of paintings of various Texas state parks was being held at the Bullock Museum in Austin. It was to celebrate the centennial of the Texas park system. Well, that sounded interesting. But the Bullock Museum is in downtown Austin, somewhere we don’t typically venture with our Ford F350 truck. The parking garage ceiling is too low for us to park in. I talked about it with our daughter Katie and she offered to take us.
At her suggestion, we started the day out at the Kerby Lane restaurant’s original downtown location for a delicious breakfast. Afterward, there was time before the Bullock opened to stroll along the new walkway to the state capitol building. It is lined with sculptures of animals indigenous to Texas, which is where I saw the armadillo that you see at the top.
The Bullock Museum is the history museum for the state of Texas. The exhibit was on the top floor, so I was diverted by all the displays that we saw before we ever got up there. First up was a room of traditional handmade dresses from every state in Mexico. Cal gave it a quick walk-through, but I was fascinated. Look at the hand embroidery on this dress!
There were many other things that he found more interesting, such as the reconstructed hull of the French ship La Belle that went down in the late 1600’s and was found in the sands of Matagorda Bay in 1995. The ruins as they were found were in 600 pieces. Many artifacts are on display that had been on the ship, including things that new settlers might need for a new colony.
And here is this fiftieth anniversary model Ford F100, built in their Dallas plant in 1953:
We finally arrived at the “Art of Texas State Parks” exhibition. To celebrate the state park system’s 100th birthday, the parks and wildlife department commissioned thirty Texan artists to paint scenes from their parks. There is a lot of diversity in ecosystems as well as history in the parks, as we have found. The Texas state parks that we have been to are some of the best that we have seen anywhere. Some of the art was too contemporary for my taste, but I enjoyed seeing many others both from parks that we had been to, and ones we hadn’t. Some parks have been added to my “must see” list based on their picture. For example, this one:
It is of Caprock Canyons State Park up near the panhandle of Texas, south of Amarillo. The artwork is entitled “Caprock Morning Ritual” and the artist is Jeri Salter. There really is a herd of bison in the park.
In the museum is a statue of Sam Houston, one of the founders of the state of Texas. The sculptor was Elisabet Ney, who lived from 1833 to 1907. Being a rare female sculptor, she caught Katie’s attention. Katie discovered that her studio is an Austin museum and they were having an “Elisabet Ney Day” three weeks hence. She wanted to go, and I agreed, so we made a very fun girls’ day out of it.
Elisabet Ney was born in Germany and spent half of her career there. She sculpted German luminaries such as Jakob Grimm, the author of fairy tales, and politicians such as Otto von Bismarck. She was a feminist before her time and a very independent thinker. Despite her parents’ wishes she went to the Sculptor School in Berlin. Later she fell in love with Edmund Montgomery, a philosopher, and they married in secret. Eventually they immigrated and bought a plantation in Texas called Liendo. The quiet farm life was great for her husband’s work but when her monuments and busts of prominent politicians became popular she built a studio in Austin.
I didn’t know any of this when we came to the studio. When we drove up to it I thought it was all grown up in weeds!
It is a villa built after the style of castles in her beloved Germany, complete with tower. The “weeds” are actually beautiful wildflowers flourishing alongside little pathways through the property. The whole place is perfect for an artist who needs to create. You can just imagine what the residents of this brand-new fashionable Hyde park neighborhood thought about this at the time, though. Elizabet sometimes wore pants, wore her curly hair short, and had kept her maiden name, so I’m sure that added to the chatter.
Walking in, my jaw dropped. Here was a bust of someone I recognized immediately. What….? I turned around, and there was a full size statue of the man I recognized. I didn’t know about Elisabet’s German connection yet but I was about to find out from the docent that you can just barely see on the left of Ludwig.
This is none other than King Ludwig II of Bavaria, whom she sculpted in 1870. I’ve learned his story well during the times I have lived and traveled in Germany. Elisabet wrote a letter to him requesting to sculpt him, and he agreed. He put her up in a villa and had a hall set up as a studio for her. She is the only person he ever allowed to make a statue and bust of him. She got tired of the publicity and court gossip that ensued, though, and immigrated shortly thereafter.
Much of her work is displayed in the studio, including busts of important Texans in the day. And there is this:
Elisabet had sculpted the Greek Titan Prometheus while in Germany and had it shipped to her studio. The arm was damaged in transport. It was while she was repairing it here in the studio that she suffered a fatal heart attack and died at the age of 74.
We decided it would be fun to have a tower in one’s studio, or even having a studio to create in. Here’s a picture of Katie climbing the tower steps.
I could not find much about Elisabet Ney on the Internet. Her story is fascinating, and I decided that someone needs to do a historical fiction novel based on her life. It won’t be me, though!
And the “Elisabet Ney Day” that brought us here? It was an Earth Day celebration on the back portion of her property, with mostly activities for children under several picnic canopies.
Our next stop after the Ney museum was the Austin Creative Reuse Center, a non-profit shop that accepts donations of craft supplies for resale. Katie had taken me here several years ago. They shut down during Covid and now have reopened in a larger space. If you have any sort of craft hobby you could probably find items for your projects here at a very low cost. It is a place that is entertaining to poke around in.
A purplish unicorn greeted us when we walked in the door. There was a list of things that had gone into its creation which I can’t remember now, but I’m sure it included toilet paper and paper towel rolls, and Mardi Gras beads.
Also in the photo is a chair made from old tires. Some people are blessed with a creative talent that I don’t have.
You probably don’t come here with a list of things you want since you don’t know what you will find. I purchased four manila envelopes, a mini stapler, a thick wad of scrapbooking paper, some postcards, and a counted cross stitch pattern of a picture of bluebonnets, all for the paltry sum of $5.34.
It was while we were out that Katie mentioned that the “Greater Austin Clay Studio Tour” was happening the next day. We decided to do that, too. Fifteen pottery studios around Austin opened their doors for the weekend. Of course, we did not go to all of them, but Katie was driving all over town just for the few that we did visit.
Some studios were in people’s homes. Sarah German of Sarah German Ceramics had her garage open for sales and she was also demonstrating a technique to make the mugs that you see on this shelf. Other clay creators were here too, and I’m sure they found it interesting to see what their colleagues are doing. I really like her work but there is no place for anything like this in an RV.
Her studio is a separate little building in the back yard and it was open for visitors. It is a contemporary, airy studio perfect for creating. I may not work with clay, but I would love having a space like this.
How does this studio compare to Elizabet Ney’s? Well, both are for creating, but that’s where the similarities stop! This one is probably far better suited to today’s artist.
Many of the studios were in commercial buildings. They offer classes for amateurs like us, which might be fun another time when I’m in town.
I used to buy a lot of pottery – functional stuff for the kitchen, mostly. I had to get rid of a lot of it when we cleared out the house. I bought nothing on this day, but enjoyed looking at everything for sale and at the various studios.
Visiting all of these places got my creative juices flowing. But I don’t think I’ll be painting a picture, sculpting a bust, or throwing clay on a wheel anytime soon!
The state of Texas is dotted with plenty of small towns which were settled in the 1800’s and had their heyday in the early 1900’s. Many of the best are county seats with picturesque courthouse squares. Some fight the march of time and decay very well by keeping themselves updated with restaurants and stores, and their buildings occupied and up to code. They look very much like something plucked out of the Midwest. Three of these towns, located southeast of Austin, are Bastrop, LaGrange, and Burton.
Our RV was settled in just outside of Bastrop at South Shore Lake Bastrop in one of the most perfect sites we’ve ever had. We waited in vain for an armadillo to come waddling up the little trail in front of us. We’ve just discovered this little string of parks that are run by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA).
Our daughter Katie and her boyfriend Larnell came down from Austin to see us one Saturday while we were here. Katie is both a kid at heart and also loves dinosaurs, so we went along with her suggestion to visit The Dinosaur Park near Bastrop. It’s definitely kid-oriented, but the dinosaurs on the woodsy nature trail are very interesting. There are plenty of them in a realistic setting among the trees. They are painted with different skin textures and color variations and the descriptions contained the most up-to-date information. I wasn’t ready to be impressed, but I was.
This is a Stegoceras, which lived right here in Texas and the Southwest. It was a 4 foot high, 8 foot long herbivore which lived during the late Cretaceous period – 70 million years ago.
Katie and Larnell obviously enjoyed their walk here although the day was hot. Having them around certainly makes for some different entertainment. There was a stop at Buc-ees, Texas’s mega convenience store. I can’t blame them for this stop, though. We hadn’t yet made our Texas Buc-ees stop, so there was shopping to do. Buc-ee himself was wandering around.
We headed from there to the Bastrop Beer Company in downtown Bastrop. Cal and I had a delicious “Outcast Blackberry” mead from Saint Michael’s Mead. We were not able to find it anywhere when we tried to purchase it later, though. We even went to one of their breweries in Hye, Texas with no luck.
Bastrop has an interesting history. Its namesake, Felipe Enrique Neri, Baron of Bastrop, was actually a Dutch commoner wanted for embezzlement in his native country. He assisted in obtaining land grants and served as Austin’s land commissioner. Thanks to his work, Stephen Austin located about 100 families here and Bastrop’s name has stood the test of time.
Cal and I walked the streets of Bastrop another day and found a fireplace made of books in the bookstore. I really hope that they don’t ever light that fireplace.
I window-shopped down the sides of the one main street. In case you’re interested, there are no antique stores in Bastrop. The woman in the history museum wasn’t sure why.
On another day, we headed for the town of La Grange. Nearby are the Kreisch Brewery and Monument Hill State Historic Sites, one a part of the other.
Monument Hill is both a burial place and a memorial to men who died in two events: the Dawson Massacre of 1842 and the Meir Expedition of the same year. These events were part of the Texas fight for independence from Mexico.
The site sits at the top of a bluff above the Colorado River. The view from here is beautiful.
A German immigrant named Heinrich Kreische settled on the land that the monument is on back in 1849. Being a stonemason, he decided to build a lovely home for his family.
My own heritage is German, so I was delighted to see a springerle cookie mold and “cookies” on the table in the kitchen.
The family smoke house still stands and the aroma in there was heavenly. The park rangers smoke meat about every two months in it. They have German heritage festivals here and everyone gets to sample the smoked sausages.
I guess a guy from Germany needs some decent beer. Being a stonemason, Kreische probably also needed a new project after the house was built. He utilized spring water on his property to build one of the first commercial breweries in Texas. People could come and have a pint, eat delicious food that the Kreische women served and look out over the countryside.
Sadly, today the brewery is but a ruin. Kreische had a work-related accident and died, and the brewery fell into disrepair.
There was an upper floor to the brewery that was made of wood which has not survived. I was very impressed with Heinrich’s stone craftsmanship. Check out the archway below!
We moved on to a quick lunch in LaGrange and then we separated for awhile. Visiting the Texas Quilt Museum certainly wasn’t on Cal’s agenda. I am not a quilter but I greatly admire the work of those who do.
Although this building is now a quilt museum, it was a furniture store in its day. Funeral caskets were sold on the top floor. The view below was from a postcard; I couldn’t get this excellent view any other way than purchasing one, since there was no entry to the upper level. The quilts in this view are different from the ones I actually saw.
The museum has changing exhibits and I was pleasantly surprised to see red work embroidered quilts on display. It was more interesting to me than the more commonly seen pieced quilts because I do embroidery work. I spent a great deal of time here just admiring them.
Red embroidery floss was the first commercially available colorfast dye color sold in the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. Embroidery purely in red waned after additional colors became available. Some of these quilts were antique and some were more recently made from antique patterns. I almost talked myself into purchasing some of these embroidery patterns on sale in their shop, but I really already have too many other projects in my stash.
LaGrange is one of those cute little courthouse towns and for the most part the stores lining the square were occupied. That is always good to see. They had a row of antique stores and I texted with Cal before losing myself in them; he was happily occupied checking out the old courthouse building. He enjoyed sitting in their little indoor courtyard. Prior to this he had purchased three varieties of cookies in the bakery across the street.
We visited Burton, Texas on our way back from visiting my brother in Dickinson. Burton was the tiniest town in this collection of towns. It was a small German farming community in its day. We stopped here to see the Texas Cotton Gin Museum, which has the oldest cotton gin in America still in operation. The gin here has stood since 1914. We trailed behind a high school group on their tour already underway.
A gin is simply a machine that separates cotton seeds from fibers. This gin has a 16-ton Bessemer Type IV diesel oil internal combustion engine (got all that?? ), fondly known as “Lady B”. It can still gin and bale cotton. Once a year they have a Cotton Gin Festival, and that is when they fire it up.
The engine powers the gin, which then separates the fiber from the seeds. This is shown below.
Cal is showing you the size of a bale of ginned cotton. One bale can produce 300 pairs of jeans, or 200 bed sheets. It weighs approximately 500 pounds.
This gin was the lifeblood of the community in its day, mostly the first half of the 1900’s. Eventually cotton was no longer profitable here, and the local farmers stopped growing it.
Between the gin and the museum building, they grow a little field of cotton. It was too soon for planting time. There was an interesting video to watch in the building, and a few artifacts to see. The folks at this place are proud of their gin and love visitors.
After seeing the gin, we stepped into one store since we’d heard they had lunch. It wasn’t much, so we didn’t stay. We were told that if it hadn’t been for the cotton gin, the town would have folded up and died. In my opinion, their other gem is an excellent Mexican restaurant just around and behind the gin. It is called Los Patrones. It seemed like maybe it had been rehabbed from an old garage, or maybe not. Both the food and the atmosphere were great.
Our next stop in our RV travels from South Shore Lake Bastrop was Austin. I’ve posted about Austin when we were there two years ago, but there are always new things to see and do. Like the last stay, we were there for the entire month of April and it is my favorite month to visit!
In my last post, I stated that I would be telling you about our travels as we’ve moved on. I’ve decided to write about our new ebikes instead. They are a lot of fun for us and I thought I would share.
My husband, Cal, and I have loved bike riding since we were each growing up. Bikes were part of our first purchases long ago as newlyweds. Our last few years in Missouri were spent riding the mostly flat Katy Trail, a rails-to-trails that stretches all the way across Missouri. We rode the entire 225 miles round trip but took years to do it, exploring local sights and bed-and-breakfasts along the trail. The Katy Trail is really the kind of trail we are used to now.
We hauled our bikes out to Rend Lake in Illinois after purchasing our RV. There was a bike trail there, but the (small) hills on the trail were more difficult than we thought they should be. I guess we’re not getting any younger! We don’t ride enough now to attain any level of fitness on them. We’ve had the bikes out for rides since then, depending where we are, but not really all that often. I can tell you, most trails in the Southwest are not like the Katy Trail. So, mostly our bikes have sat, bundled up, on the back of our RV.
Cal wanted to buy ebikes from the beginning of our RV venture. I’m not mechanically inclined and although I liked the idea, I was honestly a little afraid of riding one. I was also somewhat tired of spending bundles of money after the RV purchase, so I put him off a bit by telling him we needed to save for them. Meanwhile, he researched the future purchase and talked to people who had them in some of the parks we have been in. In January I could put it off no longer – we had plenty of money saved in the little fund that I had set aside for this purpose.
We were in agreement on the two reasons we wanted the bikes – to be able to tackle hills with ease, and to be able to go longer distances on our rides.
When the time came, he knew exactly what we needed. He ordered the bikes from Lectric and they came in two big boxes – not much assembly required! They are Lectric eBikes XP 3.0 and they fold in half. He purchased them with a package that included better headlights, seats, locks and bigger batteries. He also ordered mirrors from Amazon.
I was more than a little nervous getting on my bike for the first time. Cal was very patient with me and walked me through the use of the pedal assist, the gears and the throttle. There were some weird painted lines at the end of our street which seemed tailor made for an ebike rookie like me.
Soon we were riding around the RV park, and then out the gates on our first adventure. Just five minutes away was a Marine military academy. Everyone there must have been on a winter break because the streets were deserted. We found a huge empty parking lot where I could experiment with using the throttle, and tentatively took the bike up to 18 mph. Wheeee!
It was on the way back to our park from this ride that I realized that it was one of those windy Harlingen days. In our excitement over the bikes, we had not noticed. So it was that we found our third use for ebikes: riding in the wind. With our old bikes we would definitely been fighting the strong headwinds.
We rode the country roads around Harlingen:
and, later, around the naval air station in Corpus Christi.
Both places were perfect for learning how to ride. Contrary to what I used to think, I get as much of a workout as I want by adjusting the gears. There are seven, and I have my bike set usually at five or six. The pedal assist adjusts the speed, and it helps when I’m getting started or going up a hill. There are five levels, and level two or three is fine for riding. I’ve gotten it up to to four only once. That was for a granddaddy of a hill which I pedaled up with ease.
The throttle is what helps me zip across a busy street, or catch up to Cal when I’m lagging behind. On a straightaway, it is fun to just use the throttle, sit on the bike like I’m on a scooter, and take up the speed. But I don’t do that often. It is both exhilarating and a little scary. It uses up battery life faster, too.
Harlingen and Corpus Christi are on a coastal plain, so the roads around both places are flat as a pancake. When we traveled further on, to Central Texas and Austin, we were able to see what the bikes could do on hills. Bastrop State Park had some paved trails, and I could go up the hills with no problem. In the picture below, we had just come off a pretty good down hill where the bike had gone up to 21 miles per hour.
The bikes weigh 70 pounds including the battery. They are fairly heavy to schlep in and out of our truck but so far Cal says he doesn’t think it’s too bad. I’ve helped him and I think they’re heavy. We’ll see how it goes down the road.
We found a couple of great paved bike trails in Austin: the North and the South Walnut Creek Bike Trails. The paths were wide, paved, and woodsy. You wouldn’t know you were right in the middle of the city.
I was taking some scenic photos of the Texas bluebonnets, and Cal thought it would be cute to put his bike right in the middle of them:
Another day, we went into Austin for a trail that didn’t pan out. This was exactly the way I was feeling on that trail. Only in Austin!
We did circle back on that ride to get on the trail that lines the Colorado River downtown and crosses over with bike-dedicated bridges. Although it was busier, the trail was wide and very beautiful.
It would be great to have paved trails where we are RVing so that we can ride bikes out of the park. We did not have that luxury in the places in Texas where we stayed. This is where my fellow blogger and friend, Betty Chambers, comes in. She has written an ebook “RVing With Bikes”. It shares the locations of full hookup RV parks that have easy access to bike trails right out of the park. The book is small but Betty is adding new parks to it as she finds out about them. I see a lot of value in this book as time goes on. You can find it on Amazon for the paltry sum of $2.99.
I’m going to close for now, it’s time for a bike ride. See you on the trail!
To wrap up the winter of 2023, we moved “up north” 145 miles. This time we sat about as close as you can get to the water, on Corpus Christi Bay at an exclusive private club: the US Military. We were at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi for ten days, for our first stay with the navy.
It isn’t quite as fancy as it may sound. Hurricane Harvey did its work here back in 2017. The road to the family camp is riddled with potholes. A lot of “non-essential” (i.e., recreation) facilities such as the marina have been deemed too structurally unstable for repair but have yet to be torn down. We enjoyed watching all the bird life on the fishing pier, but supposedly it was off limits for this same reason. I say “supposedly” because we saw plenty of people walking or fishing from it now and again.
This naval base is very quiet. There are only 140 permanent Navy service people stationed here. It is a training ground for new navy pilots who pass through until they attain their wings. My own nephew, Mike, trained here and didn’t have much good to say about the place. I don’t think it would be particularly exciting for a young service person. There are only a couple of places to eat outside of the military dining facility, and the commissary and base exchange are small. The club, and other spots for socializing, are only open once or twice a week. The base is in need of sprucing up but there doesn’t seem to be the funds for that.
We’re in a different stage of life than my nephew, though, and found it to be perfect for us. We like off-the-wall, quiet places. I enjoyed many walks on the beach in front of our RV and on the long, wide concrete strip on the other side of the fishing pier. That strip stretched for over a mile and we surmised that it was the shipping dock back when ships stopped here. It was also great for bike riding. We rode bikes all over every corner of this small base. On a Saturday morning the empty streets transformed into great bike paths for us.
Many RVer’s don’t like NAS Corpus Christi because of the constant wind, but we were already used to that after our winter in Harlingen. When the wind was more intense, it would stir up the waves and they would crash against the sea wall. Other RV’ers told us they’d seen it kick up higher than this. I think I’m glad we weren’t here for that kind of weather!
The below RV is not ours. We were glad we did not have this front-row spot. The other drawback to being here is that the salt air is detrimental to RV’s and other equipment one may have. This RV was a little too close to the salty sea spray. As it was, Cal was hosing the RV down every three days or so.
There was a little cove across the road behind our park. I liked to walk there to see the roseate spoonbills that made the cove their home, and to see what other birds might be hanging out that day. I often saw sandhill cranes in the field behind us as well.
The base was built during World War II and I can imagine it was hopping during that era. Senior officer’s quarters were built fronting the dock and the water. Most are gone; Harvey finished off what was left in 2017. But, amazingly, a handful are still lived in.
There is nothing between this house and the bay except for a small field and the concrete strip.
I was surprised to learn that when these homes were built many officers still had servants. The servant’s quarters were to the side of the garage. I peeked into one that was standing empty. It is truly a remnant of a by-gone era. Not much later, the quarters were turned into a multitude of uses by the officers living in the house.
We were both outside a good portion of every day here and it was relaxing to just forget about the time. Many days we joined a group of friends who gather late afternoon most days for a beer or whatever was in their water bottles. We compared notes with them on other military family camps. Some of these folks fish or golf. We like to see what’s in the area, and they were a good resource for that.
Not far to the east of Corpus Christi, the John F. Memorial Causeway bridge crosses the Laguna Madre to the barrier islands on the Gulf of Mexico. A left turn past the bridge leads north to Mustang Island State Park and then up to Port Aransas. The state park is small but I couldn’t miss exploring its beach.
There were many people fishing here on the two rock piers or on the beach. This woman was repeatedly plunging a white PVC pipe into the sand; what was she doing? We had to find out, so we asked and she was happy to tell us.
The device is called a shrimp gun or pump, and she was using it to catch ghost shrimp for fishing bait. They are a tasty treat for pompano and other fish.
In Port Aransas we visited a bird refuge. It was behind a sewage treatment plant – phew! – but there was a nice view of Laguna Madre to see the birds. We even found an alligator hanging out right underneath the viewing platform.
Over the JFK causeway, if you turn right, you end up at Padre Island National Seashore. This is a place that is near and dear to my heart, because it contains happy memories of weekend trips camping on the beach with my best friend years ago. I was happy to see it was still mostly the same unspoiled place it used to be.
Padre Island (not to be confused with South Padre Island to the south; they are not connected) is the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world. It’s possible to drive 65 miles down the beach, and we probably only drove less than half of it. It’s a relatively young island – about 4500 years old – in a constant state of change. It’s a fragile environment with its exposure to wind, hurricanes, and ocean currents.
When we first drove on to the beach, there was a line up of RV’s camping on the beach. Then, a smattering of tents, which were fewer and fewer as we went on. Finally, a deserted section: perfect!
Pods of pelicans glided silently by.
These birds on the beach are a little different than the sea gulls they were hanging out with. Their black hats and long tail feathers blew in the wind.
I took a wonderfully long walk down the beach, and saw more trash than I would have liked. I passed several lonely flip-flops without their mates when I came upon this. I wish I’d known this was here; I’d have added to the line!
When we were finished visiting the beach, we stopped at the national park museum on the way back. There’s an explanation for the trash: several currents flow in around the Gulf of Mexico. Those currents swirl around and collect debris from ships and fisherpeople, and all the islands and countries that touch its shores. The north and south currents converge and dump not only sand and shells but also trash right on to Shell Beach, further south than where we stopped driving. Several exhibits discussed the effect of this trash on marine life.
They do a big clean-up day at least once a year. There are trash bags outside of the museum so folks can do a pickup if they’d like, and we did see a gentleman walking the beach with one of the yellow bags. Note to self for another time: stop at the museum first. I had been in a hurry to get to the beach, of course.
I hadn’t been to an aquarium in many years, so we made a stop at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi. We watched a dolphin show and admired all the tanks of sharks, alligators, corals and fish from the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
There were moon jellies in the aquatic nursery:
and I enjoyed watching the flamingos in the jungle area. The one in front inspected us up and down. “Just what are you looking at?” it seemed to say.
This one just wanted to dance. They were fun to watch, or maybe I just enjoyed them because I can’t get this close to shore birds out in the wild.
Near the marina downtown, which is where the picture at the top was taken, was a statue of Selena Quintanilla-Perez, a young rising singer who was murdered at a young age in 1995. She was much loved in Texas and many people were here for a look or a picture in front of her memorial.
We were getting ready to say farewell to the Gulf region for now, but one last seafood dinner at Harrison’s landing was in order.
Where do our travels take us from here? That’s for the next post!
My never-ending quest for a warm winter is what led me to book a stay in Harlingen this past January and February. Harlingen is almost as south as you can go without bumping into Mexico.
The town is part of an area known as the Rio Grande Valley. The “valley”, or the RGV as it’s sometimes called, is bounded by South Padre Island on the east to Mission on the west. This whole area sits just north of the Mexican border. It’s not really a valley, but mostly part of a flat scrubby coastal plain.
The RGV is a popular place for “snow birds” from northern states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the whole area has a plethora of RV parks. The snow birds are welcome here; they have a huge positive effect on the local economy. I have posted about all of our trips down to the Gulf; what else is there to do?
Plenty, as we found out. I will try in this blog to give you a little flavor of what our life here was like.
Closest to us and just a short ride on our new e-bikes (more on that later) was a large Iwo Jima monument. I took a picture of Cal in front of it just to show how he was dwarfed by it.
The original statue is in Arlington Cemetery. The sculptor, Dr. Felix W. de Weldon, gifted this full-size model of his statue to the Marine Military Academy across the street. It is 32 feet high. It is made of molding plaster prior for casting in bronze; the constant temperature and humidity here were thought to be perfect for its preservation. All of the conflicts that our country has been in are etched around the base of the statue.
Still on our bikes, after seeing the memorial we also drove right past the Valley Airport doors. That’s how small it is! I flew out of this airport when I went to New Orleans. It only has seven gates.
Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum was also near our park. They had a quilt show in their exhibition area. The quilt show had a Shakespearean theme and this quilt was inspired by the bard himself.
Stepping outside the exhibit and entrance, we could see the 1904 home of Lon C. Hill, along with other historic buildings. According to the museum brochure, Lon was a “lawyer, store keeper, hotel owner, farmer, sugar mill owner, developer, builder, brick kiln owner, canal builder, Statesman, pioneer and visionary.” What a busy guy! His wife died when he built the home, leaving him with eight children.
One of the things we love about Texas is being able to grocery shop at HEB. To me, it is the best grocery store chain of anywhere we have been. How can you complain about a store with a tortilla bakery? But what does the abbreviation mean?
It is explained at the historical museum here. The H.E. Butt family donated the building housing the museum to the city back in 1967. Howard Edward Butt took over management of the family grocery store from his mother, Florence T. Butt, in 1919. She founded it and ran it for fourteen years, so why isn’t the store named for her? Well, that’s a mystery. Howard and his wife are in this somewhat grainy picture.
Shopping at our local HEB one evening, the grackles totally took over the parking lot. It was raining birds! We even saw the parking lot on the evening news the next night. It was the time of year when grackles come from where ever they are all day and congregate. I guess even grackles like to shop at HEB.
Speaking of birds, there are plenty of places to go see them in the valley. The area is part of the migration flyway for birds. We took a walk in Hugh Ramsey Nature Center in Harlingen and came upon a yellow-throated warbler that you can see in the branches below, keeping an eye on the two turtles below.
At the beginning of our Hugh Ramsey walk, we spotted a couple of javelinas in the underbrush. That was exciting, until at the end we found the whole herd!
I hoped to find more wildlife at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles from our park and a place we walked twice. A sign at the beginning of the park road was promising:
I would have loved to see an ocelot, but I knew it would be a stretch. Much later, we watched a nature show about the wildlife of Texas and were able to see what this cute little cat looks like. Laguna Atascosa is only one of two of their remaining habitats in Texas, and only 100 are known to exist in the entire United States. This wildlife refuge is trying hard to encourage their reproduction but they have a lot of predators; it’s not an easy task for an ocelot mother to raise a kitten to adulthood.
A huge part of their mission is to provide habitat for wintering water birds, and other migratory birds. It is a bird watching destination for those who enjoy the hobby. We saw green jays at one of the feeding stations at Laguna Atascosa. I suppose if I wanted to be a serious bird watcher, I’d need to get to the refuge a little earlier in the day.
Most of this park is coastal wetlands. We did see egrets in the large lake here, and an alligator, but it was far in the distance.
On another day we headed down to Sabal Palms Preserve, which is the last remaining stand of the great sabal palms that used to cover the area. An interesting part of visiting this preserve, as we discovered, is that it is right on the border with Mexico. We drove right past the fence.
Passing through this fence was a little confusing but somehow we were still in the United States. Two members of the National Guard were sitting on the levee by their truck as we passed. Sabal Palms closes right at 5:00 and the gates are then securely locked. There is plenty of illegal border activity here, as we later found out.
Long ago, before land was cleared for farming and there was no international border, there were about 60,000 acres of Sabal Palm forest along the Rio Grand River. Now there is less than 100 acres.
In my working days, I was thrilled when I vacationed somewhere during a long winter where I was able to see palm trees. Now I’m happy to see palm trees all winter long. They and other trees lined the beautiful trails in this park.
Part of the draw for Sabal Palms is the Rabb Plantation House. It was once part of Rancho San Tomas, which covered 20,000 acres. The house served as the headquarters for the ranch and was an architectural shift from typical ranch homes of the early 1900’s era. We were able to look around the first floor inside.
On one of our first Saturdays in the area we drove all the way past McAllen to Mission, on the west side of the RGV, for the Citrus Festival and Parade. It was good small town fun.
The best thing about the Citrus Festival was that we were able to buy two large bags of fresh citrus – one orange, one grapefruit – for $5.00. What a steal!
Harlingen still has a fairly vibrant old downtown, which was another thing that scored points with me. There is a smattering of thrift shops, antique malls, and other specialty shops, plus some eating establishments. Once a month on a Saturday, the streets are blocked off for Market Days. Vendors under their canopies line the streets. There is music and plenty of good Mexican and other food to be had, too.
I guess if one drawback can be given about the area, it is the wind. We learned to gauge the weather by very windy, not too windy, and not windy at all. I got used to it because I discovered I didn’t mind the wind as long as it was warm – which it usually was, even in the evenings.
The sites next to us were empty most of the winter so we had a good back yard view. The park is bordered on three sides by farm land and it felt like being out in the country.
When we were at home in Tropic Winds, there were many things to do. I attended yoga and line dancing classes. Cal was outside a lot and chatted with all the neighbors around us. A fruit-and-vegetable truck showed up on Mondays. There were sometimes music concerts to listen to, and few special dinners. The spaghetti dinner put on by the woodworking group is a twice-annual event that everyone looks forward to. The spaghetti is delicious and prizes are handed out throughout the evening.
There are all kinds of ways to RV and we discovered last winter in Phoenix that settling down in a park like this for just a month or two during the winter gives us the community that we don’t have the rest of the year. The permanent park model and manufactured homes that lined the street across from our RV area made the place feel a little bit like the quintessential small town. As I walked the little streets I’d most always be greeted by everyone passing by, whether they were walking the dog or riding their bike or golf cart.
In the late afternoons, friends gather around RV sites, on front porches, or around someone’s golf cart when they are passing by.
Everyone decorates their little home in their own particular style.
Jackrabbits make their home here, too. These RV sites were empty most of the winter and I always looked forward to seeing how many were out playing or basking in the sun.
Anywhere and any way you call it, there’s no place like home.
Before I retired and Covid happened, I thought it might be nice to finish up our 9 month trip to Europe with a couple of months in San Miguel de Allende during the months of January and February. I’d heard that the climate is perfect, the cost of living cheap, the crime rate low, and lots of expats (people that live here who hold citizenship in other countries like the United States, Ireland, Germany and Israel) make this their home. Cal, in his usual style, was noncommittal, and definitely not sure about being in Mexico that long. Of course, as life goes, those plans didn’t happen exactly that way. When I saw that this tour included a stop here, then, it was the frosting on the cake.
We rode for hours and hours from the butterfly sanctuary of El Rosario. The Mexican countryside flew by out my window. There were farms and ranches, people riding horses or bicycles and people driving trucks or out in the middle of nowhere, walking. Then there were strawberry fields, miles and miles of them. Perhaps you’ve eaten strawberries that come from this area. Usually if there was one house, there were several nearby in a little compound. We saw some very nice homes. But homes like this one in the town near El Rosario were most typical:
We stopped only once at a convenience store for a rest and snacks. Our arrival in San Miguel de Allende was very late in the evening and the hotel looked good. It was, in fact, the best one of the whole trip. Omelets made to order greeted us the next morning, and then we were off on a city bus to see the sights of San Miguel de Allende.
There is a maze of many beautiful streets to get lost in.
Our guide Juan sat us down in a quiet church courtyard when we arrived off the bus to deliver an impressive history of the founding of the town, before Allende’s time. He used peso coins on the cobble stones to demonstrate to us where the cities of Mexico were located in the 1500’s and gave us a good sense of time and place. If he wasn’t an archaeologist, he would have made a great actor!
The town was founded by the Franciscan monk Juan de San Miguel in 1542, who with his dogs found a natural springs in the area. He was a great friend to the natives here, and the town became a market center and waystation for the Spaniards from Mexico City to the silver mines in the west. Tin is also mined here. The entire city became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.
Besides the beautiful colonial architecture, the town is home to no less than 16 Catholic churches. Juan explained that if there were something special to be grateful to God for, the Spaniards built a church. Sometimes one church is right next to another. The churches dot the town and are their spires are a pretty part of its skyline.
The most beautiful of them all, however, is the pink confection below. It is the magnificent Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, or simply the Parroquia. It was built in the late 17th century in colonial design. In the late 1800’s a local self-taught architect, who was inspired by pictures he’d seen of the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, decided it needed some sprucing up. He reworked the towers and the facade, and the result is now an icon of this town.
In colonial-era times, it was compulsory to attend mass four times a day. I don’t know how anyone got any work done. Old traditions die hard. Looking at the mass times during the week, there are still four daily opportunities to attend.
One of the heros of the fight for independence from Spain was Ignacio Allende, a Spaniard himself who grew to sympathize with the cause. A statue here honors him.
Ignacio Allende’s birthplace is in one of the main squares in the town, near the Parroquia:
As our group walked through town, we came upon a little fair by a local school of the things the children were learning. I’m sure we all embarrassed these two little boys with their display of body parts in English but I think they were excited too. There was a good discussion of the English and Spanish words for these terms. We drew the attention of the headmaster and their teacher, and it was a big moment for them.
Like I’d seen elsewhere, many of the churches had parks in front of them, big and small.
These women were headed to the Parroquia.
After a delicious multi-course lunch, Cal and I were on our own. We explored the artisan market and it went on for several blocks.
I caught a glimpse of an artist at work with her partner “minding” the shop.
I truly would have loved to have given this town more of my time but we were done in after a schedule-packed week. We had been given three options for getting back to the hotel: cab, bus, or walking the two miles. The distance was not a big deal to us so we walked, enjoying more of the scenic streets and the beautiful day. In the historic center there are no stoplights, parking meters, or fast food restaurants. There are plenty of restaurants and small shops. The cobblestone streets are narrow.
Fun fact: there are about two thousand doors with about two thousand courtyards of various sizes in this town. A detour into one little courtyard revealed this painting, titled “The Washerwomen”.
And then, there was this startling doorknob:
After a week of Mexican food and not being real hungry for dinner, we set out for an evening pizza just down the street from our hotel. The manager of the small restaurant, in a fedora, was probably an expat himself. He asked us how long we were staying in San Miguel de Allende, and was incredulous that it was only one day: “What!! That is not enough to see the whole city!” he exclaimed. Come to think of it, so am I incredulous!
This was the day! The one I’d been excitedly waiting for since I first heard about the trip to Mexico. It was time to visit the monarch butterflies at their winter home near Ocampo, Mexico, in the state of Michoacán. We had ridden for several hours from Mexico City the afternoon before, and arrived at the Villa Monarca Hotel in Zitacuaro. A simple dinner was waiting for us, beginning with lentil soup. It was late and the soup was hot, delicious, and only the first course in this meal.
The red drink that I have in this picture is made by steeping hibiscus flowers, very refreshing.
Alert readers might know that the state of Michoacán is on the US State Department watch list. Our hotel was in a resort compound (which sounds fancier than it was) which was bricked all the way around. The entrance was gated, and we were locked in safe and sound for the night.
It was another hour-long ride to this place, close to the Butterfly Sanctuary. I didn’t realize at the time that this would later be our lunch stop. Here, we got a view of the valley below and the surrounding countryside. Like the light showers that sometimes come before a heavy rain, we started seeing the butterflies in the air. This was a little rest stop and also a loading place for half of our group to get an express ride in a small van to the sanctuary. These were the folks who felt like they needed a bit of a head start for the steep hike up the mountainside.
The van was waiting for the rest of us at the parking lot to save us the half mile hike up to the sanctuary. Butterflies in flight were in heavier numbers now. We came to the entrance:
A beautiful mural on a little building greeted us.
And then, up, up, up. There were so many stairs. Butterflies were dancing everywhere. Any orange spot that you may see in this picture is not a falling leaf, but a butterfly!
We were very lucky to be here for this year of migration. The monarchs are a littler farther down in elevation, not as far from the entrance, and there are more of them. Wonderful for the butterflies, and wonderful for us! We were lucky on this day, too, because this mountain is also often heavily clouded and rainy. Despite the elevation of about 10,000 feet, we experienced warm sunshine.
I had never even pondered what monarchs did during the winter until I saw an IMax movie at the Science Center in St. Louis about them several years ago. Our guide, Juan, told us much of the same story after breakfast that morning. By the 1930’s, scientists had figured out that monarchs migrate. Fred Urquhart, a Toronto entomologist, and his wife Nora began tagging the wings of the monarchs when they arrived in Canada during late summer. After much trial and error, they developed tags that would stay on the butterflies, and enlisted a network of 3,000 enthusiasts across the United States to let him know where they found them. Fred traced them all the way down to the Hill Country of Texas and the trail stopped cold.
This is where Kenneth Brugger, an American businessman, comes into the picture. Very interested in the migration, he and his Mexican wife searched for two years and finally found them in Mexico on January 2, 1975. Happily, Fred and Nora were able to visit the very next year.
Once we were finally finished with the steps, there was more trail, always going up. We passed some members of our tour who had been in the first van.
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is now a World Heritage Site, established to protect the monarchs’ habitat. UNESCO calls it “a superlative natural phenomenon”. The space set aside is approximately 216 miles large and the butterflies occupy only a tiny portion of it. El Rosario is but one colony of several, but it is the best set up for visitors. Of course, no one knows exactly in what spot they will want to set up colonies for the winter, so it’s all available for them.
Signs admonished everyone to be silent. When we finally arrived at the butterflies’ home, it was a sight that defies all description. Breathtaking is one word that comes to mind. Blessed is another, to be here on this day to be witnessing these tiny creatures going about their important lives. It’s like visiting a cathedral of nature.
The oyamel fir trees are loaded with butterflies. All of the clumps that you see in these trees, and any speck of orange, are butterflies.
I’m pretty sure that Juan told us that 225 monarchs make up a pound of weight. I looked it up, and I got varying numbers. You wouldn’t think so, but the butterflies are very heavy on the trees, but the trees are still able to support them. The limbs bend with their weight.
Here in Mexico, the butterflies are very busy. They arrive in late October to early November. The males mate as much as they can. On our hike, butterflies were mating everywhere – even on the steps when we were climbing them.
When the females are able to get some private time, they are busy eating. They are using their stored fat from the milkweed they consumed on the trip to Mexico. They add to that with the nectar they drink from flowers here in Mexico.
We were here on the very last day of February. By the end of March, the butterflies are gone. The males die off. The females head for the Hill Country of Texas, lay their eggs, and they will die too. It is the next generation that begins to make the journey north to Canada for the summer. But they won’t make it either; there will be another generation, or two, that arrives in Canada. They lay eggs, die, and a new “Super Generation” is born. This generation of monarchs have thicker and stronger wings and are well equipped for the journey all the way back to Mexico.
The butterflies clump together in the fir trees to conserve energy when it is cold. When a sunbeam hits them, off they fly in a beautiful cascade.
We stood for the longest time gazing in awe, taking in the beautiful sight. The admonition to be silent was taken seriously by everyone there, adding to the feeling of being in a holy space.
In the years following my viewing of the IMax movie, I read two books that further piqued my interest. Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver, is excellent fiction. The other book, by Sara Dykman, is Bicycling with Butterflies. Sara tells the non-fiction story of her 10,201-mile bicycle journey following the butterfly migration for one season in 2017. She started here, at El Rosario, and followed the trail of the butterflies all the way up to Canada. She camped in hidden spots along the way (yes, including in Mexico) or visited friends or family. It was the raw aloneness of her journey, her strong desire for the butterflies to succeed, and her almost militant wish that the ecosystem along their journey would be a safer place that struck me. She not only went to Canada but returned to Mexico to complete the full cycle of migration.
The trail north is fraught with danger for the butterflies. Pesticide use and mowing of the green spaces along the highways are but two of the hazards. I find it amazing that the females make it to Texas, let alone their children and grandchildren making it to Canada.
On the trail down, my mind purely on butterflies, I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that had butterflies riding bicycles on it. Her face was slightly familiar. Could it be….? I asked her if she was Sara Dykman, and yes, it was she!
She is very friendly and we chatted for a short while. She had ridden her motorcycle down this year and not her bicycle. She was part of a group of women who had been counting butterflies, and as a consequence of staring up at the sky for hours, her lips were burned, she said. They counted 400 per minute which was a banner year for the monarchs. Meeting her was a huge bonus in an already magnificent day.
All too soon, it was time to say goodbye to the butterflies. It was almost strange and sad to walk down through the little village–
and back to the bus (no van lift on the way back), and see them thinning out. Like Sarah, I would have loved to have followed them, but I don’t think I’d make more than a few miles on the journey!
Next time – the last Mexico post – San Miguel de Allende
A Sunday in Mexico City! What shall we do? How about a boat ride? Lunch in the park? Maybe a show with traditional dancers and mariachi bands? Oh well, let’s do it all!
First stop: Xochimilco, known as the floating gardens of Mexico. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When Cortes drained the lakes of Mexico City, he left one standing. This lake contains a large water transport system of canals that were built by the Aztecs. We had just arrived when there was a treat in store for us: a performance of the “Voladores de Papantla”, the famous flying men of Papantla. Our guide, Juan, comes from the same area in Mexico and his enthusiasm for the performance spilled over.
This is an ancient dance which is still practiced in Papantla area today. It is a tradition thought to have originated with a plea to the gods to end drought. The voladores in their home would be using a tree that had been totally cleared of branches. Here, it is a pole. First they dance around the tree (pole), one man playing a flute with a little drum attached to it.
They shimmy up the pole and spend quite a bit of time spinning in a tiny platform at the top, arranging their ropes. Then – down they come, going around as they go! The flute player never stops playing!
It was time for our boat ride on the canal. There are so many boats, each one brightly painted and slightly different from the others.
What a beautiful day for a little cruise.
For the most part, our ride was not as tranquil as this picture would make it seem. There was a lot happening! Vendors are ubiquitous in Mexico, and here they are in boats to sell their wares.
This vendor is selling corn on the cob. It seems to be a favorite treat because I saw them sold in many places in Mexico. I suppose they are sprinkled with chile powder, as everything else seems to be. There are also vendors selling other snacks plus drinks and trinkets. These vendors show how all the boats are transported down the canals: with a man in the front with a pole, Venetian gondolier-style.
But the absolute best is the floating mariachi bands. This band pulled up beside us, and we all decided to chip in for a little entertainment. Floating down the canal with mariachi music makes for a perfect ride. From the back of the boat in the bright sunshine, I didn’t get a great picture, but here it is.
Aside from all of that, there was much to look at on the shore as we went by. There are many greenhouses here with beautiful flowers.
Shops, homes, and beautiful old trees and other vegetation line the banks. The water is clear, and there are about 115 miles of canals winding all around.
Juan told us that on a typical Sunday, families in Mexico eat breakfast together. There may be a soccer game that one of their kids are playing in. Then there may be an outing with extended family, including grandparents, which could include a gathering of family at someone’s home or dinner at a restaurant. In between, they attend Mass. It used to be said that just about all of Mexico was of the Catholic faith. Of course, that is changing now, but it is still a very strong thread in the fabric of life for the Mexican people. There are some Masses on Saturday, but on Sunday there is one every hour. It’s forty-five minutes long, and then worshippers need to vamoose for the next one.
With all that in mind, we had arrived at Xochimilco early and had a fairly quiet and pleasant boat ride. It was getting very busy when we left, though. There are about 2,500 boats in total that could be used on the busiest of days. I don’t know how they would all fit in the canals!
The day was moving on as we arrived in the suburb of Coyoacán, and by now everyone was out to enjoy this beautiful day. Masses were in full swing at the cathedral. Parroquia San Juan Bautista, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, is one of the oldest churches in Mexico City, completed in 1552. As in Mexico City, it is built on the rubble of an Aztec building. The lighter colored building on the right is the convent. We walked through the arches and came to a beautiful inner courtyard with an orange tree.
I have been to a handful of small towns in Mexico and Guatemala, and they all have the same layout: the main cathedral fronts a very nice public park. The park is a gathering place for the town at all times, but especially on Sunday. This is certainly true for the park in Coyoacán. We had our time here to ourselves, and headed straight to one of the restaurants lining the park for a late lunch.
I had lamb chops and Cal had steak. It was one of our best meals of the trip.
The people on the bench to the right of this picture were interesting because, confirming what Juan had told us, they were an intergenerational group. We saw this throughout our visit here. Every time the bench emptied, it refilled again with another little family, usually enjoying their ice cream. After the blanket vendor that you see near them got off the phone, he realized I was looking at him and thought I was interested in his blankets. He kept opening them for me to see but he was wasting his effort; I had already bought one from another vendor!
Like its church, the suburb of Coyoacán has colonial architecture and quaint cobbled streets. It was once the home of Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, and Diego Rivera. There wasn’t time to do much beyond explore the park area for us, but there a lot going on to see.
The name of the town, Coyoacán, is derived from the native Nahuatl word for “place of coyotes”. Coyotes once roamed through the forests and lakes here in those days. The beautiful fountain in the park pays homage to this name.
Near the fountain, a woman was dressed as a statue from Roman times for pictures and a few coins. She looked remarkably like one of my nieces so of course I took her photo.
There were so many people everywhere, but it did not have the feel of being overcrowded. Good luck finding a place to sit, though.
For two years while Mexico City was being built, Coyoacán was the first capital of New Spain. There were haciendas and forests between it and what is now the downtown area. Of course now the forests have been replaced by city streets. This building is named the Palace of Cortes, but it is actually the Coyoacán municipal building, constructed two hundred years after Cortes lived here.
Not far from the municipal building and the cathedral, native groups were having a large all-day “gathering”. One group would finish and another would take its place. Juan stressed to us that this is not put on for the tourists but, rather, it is connection to their roots. I’m not sure if their being bumped right against the cathedral walls, and holding the gathering on a Sunday, was intentional or not. After the Masses finished for the day, we walked into the cathedral and could hear the booming of the drums quite clearly.
There was a large, covered 2-story artisan market just across the street from the park.
One more treat was in store for us on this day. We barely had an hour back at the hotel before we had to leave again for the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, held in the beautiful Palace of Arts.
This dance ensemble has been in existence for about sixty years, highlighting the traditional music and dance of different regions throughout Mexico. There were a couple of numbers that reflected their indigenous roots as well. Sometimes there were only two people on stage and sometimes as many as thirty. There was plenty of mariachi with different instruments, swishing of beautiful skirts, hats thrown up in the air, and foot stomping. It was an enjoyable and memorable evening.
Mexico City had the feel of any number of European cities that we had been to. Of course, it has its own history, architecture, and culture. On the weekend nights the area around our hotel was a hotspot for restaurants, bars, and just being out. One of the main streets was totally blocked to traffic, making way for cyclists and pedestrians. That is the way to enjoy a beautiful evening!
The Angel of Independence, the monument to Mexican independence from Spain, looks like this by day:
At night, it is lit, and here you can see the former traffic lanes open for pedestrian traffic. The mood is very celebratory, since it’s the weekend. We felt comfortable moving with the crowd as we looked for an ATM and a restaurant for dinner.
Our few days in Mexico City were a kaleidoscope of sights and experiences. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back, but of course there is so much to do and see that I could have a full list for another visit.
Next time – Butterflies at the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary