San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

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:

Clothes drying on the roof, the water tank, and a satellite dish

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.

Hats everywhere

I caught a glimpse of an artist at work with her partner “minding” the shop.

Brightly colored paintings ended the market

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.

The white building is San Miguel de Allende’s city hall

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!

Next time – back to our winter in Texas


The Monarch Butterflies of El Rosario, Mexico

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.

“When there is sun, the butterflies fly.”

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.

I caught the shadow of a flying butterfly over this mating pair.

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 to Remember in Mexico City

Jacaranda trees in bloom

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


Destination Mexico City

My husband, Cal, appeared in our RV with a brochure for a tour to Mexico that he had picked up on what he had thought was just a free coffee and donuts get-together. The tour was to visit Mexico City, the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary of El Rosario, and the town of San Miguel de Allende. All three are places I’ve always thought would be wonderful to visit but I never really had an idea how I would get there. It was like holding a dream in my hands. The whole itinerary for the week’s tour looked interesting. A quick consult with our finances, a couple of reassuring calls to the travel agency, and within a week the trip was booked. That definitely increased the cost of the donut!

“You’re gonna get shot!” “Oh my…please be careful!” were some of the comments I received when telling family of our plans.

I wouldn’t undertake a visit to Mexico without vetting the company and plans carefully. Viva Tours has been in business for 35 years, taking the snowbirds of the Rio Grande Valley down to Mexico on many different excursions. Our guide, Juan, has led this tour for 16 of those years. He is an archaeologist from southern Mexico who comes up on a reverse snowbird migration to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas every year for three months to be a tour guide for Viva and its owner, Tomas. Juan is experienced, knowledgeable, and personable and we felt that we were in excellent hands throughout the week-long trip.

We met Tomas and some of our fellow tourists at the eye-rubbing hour of 3:30 AM for a van ride to find Juan and the rest of the group in McAllen. There was a transfer to a bus, a quick stop at the border to put our luggage through Mexican security, and a drop-off at the Reynosa Airport. A two hour flight and then…we were in Mexico City.

Our stop that afternoon included one of the things I had come to see and a highlight of the trip for me. The ancient city of of Teotihuacan includes two pyramids: the Pyramid to the Sun and the Pyramid to the Moon. We saw the latter mostly off in the distance from our bus window. We visited the Pyramid of the Sun and its museum.

This pyramid is the third largest in the world. At the top is a huge pedestal where human sacrifices were made. It is located on a central road of Teotihuacan called “Avenue of the Dead” because it is believed to have been paved with tombs. In the museum I was able to get a clearer picture of the ancient city:

The Pyramid of the Sun is in the foreground. The buildings that you see were ceremonial and the people lived in the outlying areas.

The city predates the Aztecs. In its heyday, around year 1 to 500 CE, it was the largest city in the Americas and the sixth largest in the world. It had an estimated population of around 125,000. Teotihuacan was built to be a religious center but became a living city. The pyramid itself dates to around 250 BCE. When the Aztecs saw these ruins, they claimed ancestry with the residents and adopted it as their own.

Although the pyramid was originally thought to be dedicated to the Sun god, hence its name, current thinking is that the god actually worshipped in this pyramid was a water deity named Tlaloc. There was a ten foot moat around the pyramid, and child burials were found in the corners. These are characteristic of water god offerings.

A close up of the pyramid and its surrounding ruins revealed some of the construction techniques. At one time it was possible for visitors to climb it, but now that has been deemed too dangerous.

The museum had some interesting artifacts uncovered during archaeological digs, including many skeletons.

A couple of days later we visited the heart of Mexico City. Moving forward a few centuries, the Aztecs had a great temple here. It was their capital city, as Mexico City is now, and was called Tenochtitlan. They started construction in 1325, rebuilt it six times, and the Spaniards destroyed it in 1521. To add insult to injury, the Spaniards built Mexico City right on top of the rubble of Tenochtitlan. The ancient temple is now being excavated.

You may remember the conqueror of Mexico City from your history books – it was Hernan Cortes and the Aztec leader was Montezuma II. The Aztec’s city was built on an island in a lake, with a system of canals. Originally there were five lakes in Mexico City. Cortes drained all but one, to the present-day detriment of the city. Built on the old lake bed, it is sinking at a rate of about three feet per year.

After an extensive history lesson from Juan, and viewing the Aztec ruins, we took a short walk through the city that Cortes built. The President of Mexico currently lives in the Royal Palace.

Across from it sits the Metropolitan Cathedral, which one of the oldest and largest cathedrals in the Americas. Unfortunately here the sinking I mentioned earlier is happening unevenly, but efforts to keep the foundation level are ongoing.

The organ inside is impressive with its flyaway pipes. There is also a black crucifix here. Poison was put on Jesus’s feet and the whole crucifix turned black. You can find the complete story on Google if you are interested.

Plaza Mayor, where both the palace and the cathedral sit, is grand and impressive.

There is a pretty cactus garden to the side of the cathedral, along with old-style phone booths:

You could receive a cleansing on the street if you needed it. And then you could call someone from the phone booth and tell them how good it was.

A song from a mariachi band, anyone?

On our last morning in Mexico City before departing for other sites, we visited the Basilica of Santa Maria de Guadalupe. It is the second most visited basilica in the world after St. Peter’s Vatican, with twenty million visitors annually.

The image of the virgin Mary superimposed on Juan Diego’s robe, the person who witnessed her appearance in 1531

What I’ve covered here is just the tip of the iceberg for everything we saw and absorbed while in Mexico City. Some of the places we visited may not even make it into the blogs. I’m trying to condense it but I am finding that not to be an easy task! Hopefully I can at least give you a flavor for this great city and its environs.

Next time – a boat ride in Xochimilco and Sunday in the park in a Mexico City suburb. Still to come–butterflies, and San Miguel de Allende