Why the Electricity Goes Out in Mexico, Frequently and Forcefully

This is the electrical pole immediately out my apartment window. I heard the commotion and looked out.

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On one hand, I simply can’t believe that someone is adding another cable to this — how could this crewman possibly think this is safe? On the other, this is the sort of thing I’ve come to expect in Mexico — no official oversight, let’s just slap it up there as quickly as possible, no one could possibly notice yet another cable on this, right?

Of course, in my own way, I have contributed to this problem. When we first moved here, I got yelled at (OK more like a shrill, stern tone) from a downstairs neighbor who was pissed about our cable installation. Apparently the Cablevision guy had made no effort to tuck the cables to the right (as seen in lower right-hand side of photo) and decided to string the cable up directly in front of her apartment. Through the help of my Spanish tutor, I had to ask Cablevision to come back and pay 400 pesos to have to them re-install the cable lines “correctly” (whatever that is, looking at the above photos, I have no idea).

I don’t know what company is doing this today — their truck is brilliantly unmarked — but I can’t wait for them to get to the last electrical pole on this street, the one that is made of concrete, splitting down the middle, and about to fall over. Two weeks ago there was a loud explosion from that pole, and the power was out for 5 hours. What today will bring, I have no idea.

Way Off the Beaten Path: The Coast of Michoacan, Mexico

House rental in Caleta de Campos, Michoacan

House rental in Caleta de Campos, Michoacan

After our trip to Patzcuaro last weekend, we headed southwest to the Pacific Ocean. Sandwiched between the resort areas of Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, the long, craggy coast of Michoacan is largely undeveloped. It was, so far, one of the most sparsely populated areas I’ve visited in Mexico, especially along the coastline. It is one of the many stretches of Highway 200.

There are a few really good surf spots here,  such as Nexpa, but otherwise the area gets few tourists passing through. Most guidebooks don’t even mention it — even though it consists of more than a hundred miles of beaches. Of course, this piqued my interest – what would it be like?

Turns out, when traveling with a Shih-tzu in a small rental car, this meant good things and bad things.

The beach at Nexpa, a popular point break.

The beach at Nexpa, a popular "left" point break.

We were able to find a great surfer’s house to rent for a couple of nights in Caleta de Campos, a town big enough to have roasted chicken and cold beer, but not much else (the town, in all honesty, was horridly ugly but had incredible views of the ocean).

If there was one person I wished I could have traded places with during my trip, it was this girl.

If there was one person I wished I could have traded places with during my trip, it was this girl.

Who needs whales when you have a rock with a blowhole? (OK, OK, I need whales...they arrive in the winter, so I always seem to miss them.)

Who needs whales when you have a rock with a blowhole? (OK, OK, I need whales...they arrive in the winter, so I always seem to miss them.)

The sun rises behind the lighthouse, Caleta de Campos.

The sun rises behind the lighthouse, Caleta de Campos.

Charlie and I try to cool off, but it was difficult.

Charlie and I try to cool off, but it was difficult.

The drive was espectactular (but often stomach-churning) and about as remote as it gets. Suddenly a pristine beach would come into view, and you’re several hundred feet above it, watching the waves roll in, and not sure if there’s any real path to the beach from the tiny, two-lane highway that has so little traffic. In the back of your mind, you’re thinking: my car could be robbed while I’m frolicking in the Pacific, unknowingly becoming the lead actress in an American Express Traveler’s Checks commercial. The area is still quite well-known as a drug smuggler’s paradise, mostly due to its remoteness, which is why this paranoid thought kept popping up: Would the smugglers turn Charlie into a mule?

We didn't really see a clear path down to this beach; there may not have been one.

We didn't really see a clear path down to this beach; there may not have been one.

Just a typical view from the road as you drive along Highway 200.

Just a typical view from the road as you drive along Highway 200.

But, as with everywhere in Michoacan, the people were generally friendly. We’re also eternally grateful to two of the state’s residents, who got us out of a really bad scrape. Yep, turistas’ nightmare: We managed to get our car stuck in the shimmering white sand (we were aiming to park in a tiny spot of shade for just a few minutes so we could leave Charlie in the car, if needed, while we walked on a beach). We had a few initial moments of panic when we realized we had driven about 4km from the Highway 200, and hadn’t seen anyone in mucho tiempo.

After assessing that yes, we were indeed f’ing stuck in the sand, we grabbed some metal roofing sheets left on the beach and stuck them under the tires. Then watched them sink under the spinning tires. All while Charlie sat, head tilted, inside, perplexed.

Once this failed to work, my panic manifested as such: I threw all our valuables in the trunk, put Charlie in the front seat so he could be shaded, and forced us to spray down with sunscreen, in case we had to walk miles and miles to civilization. Of course, that was all incredibly unnecessary (whew, whew, sweat-wiping-away wheeeeeeew), as there were a few small houses off the tiny beach road, and two men chatting in the street — one was sitting in a truck, hallelujah!

As we walked up, he waved good-bye to his amigo and started to drive off, causing us to start running, screaming “Senor! senor!”  Once we reached the two men — looking I’m sure like the two goofiest gueros to ever drive through Michoacan — we mustered our best “please, for the love of Maria, help us!…” en espanol as we panted.

Problem solved. They unstuck us, and I even chatted up one of the men about how beautiful the beach was, how badly I had wanted to see it, how Chilangos suck compare to Michoacanos, etc. Of course, once unstuck, we were in no mood to sightsee and we immediately got in the car and hauled ass north to the highway, and to the lovely beach city of Manzanillo, where we stayed two nights before heading home.

Best irony of the moment? It was Playa La Llorona — crying woman’s beach. What we missed. (And you may wonder: Why is it called this? Well, as it turns out, not because of some scary ghost story involving a dead crying woman rising out of the espuma, or a  pale turista lamenting her sand-sunk Dodge Attitude and sunburnt skin, but the cute noise the sand makes.)

Had we not had Charlie in tow with us, (and had we rented a 4×4) we perhaps would have stayed at least one night in one of the uber-rustic cabanas between Caleta de Campos and Manzanillo (perhaps here in Maruata, which I’m now kicking myself for not stopping and visiting), where I imagine we would have felt like the only souls on the planet, under very bright stars. But it would have been incredibly humid, mosquito-prone and we’d pine for cold beer — so we’d only stay for one night.

Manzanillo, where there are hotels, and air conditioning.

Manzanillo, where there are hotels, and air conditioning.

Overall, do I recommed this drive? Yes, but be prepared to fill up at every Pemex station you see — there aren’t many. Be prepared to stay in “one-star” lodging. Be prepared to see an extraordinary amount of poverty (wooden shacks, at best, for most people here).  Bring food and snacks for spontanous beach stops, especially if you’re traveling in the off-season when most places are closed. And  for the love of Maria, stay out of the loose sand.

(More on the hidden beaches of Michoacan, en espanol.)

Come With Me to Patzcuaro, Michoacan

So, I’ve got a new favorite place in Mexico: Patzcuaro, in the state of Michoacan. It’s about a 4 to 5 hour drive west of Mexico City, located just south of Morelia, the capital of Michoacan (which is supposed to be lovely, too, but we didn’t have time to visit).

Normally, I’m a beach girl and most of my favorite Mexican places involve the ocean and the creatures that inhabit within. But Patzcuaro takes the cake for:

1. Best little Mexican town, for architecture

I’ve been to a lot of “colonial era” cities in Mexico, meaning they were built soon after the conquest and still have a lot of traditional and very old Spanish architecture. They’re adorable, by and large, but after you’ve visited a few, they do start to look all the same (what’s that? Another Italian Coffee Company in a historic hacienda building? Great). Not with Patzcuaro, with its supremely maintained architecture. It’s also relatively flat, so it’s not a killer city to walk around, like equally cute but incredibly steep Taxco. We stayed at squee-worthy La Casa Encantada, which, btw, has half-off their room rates through July, so get it while it’s cheap.

Every street in Patzcuaro looks like this.

Every street in Patzcuaro looks like this.

Our room at La Casa Encantada (included a kitchen).

Our room at La Casa Encantada (included a kitchen).


2. Best little Mexican town, for arts and crafts

Patzcuaro and its nearby small towns operate under a unique system set up by a Spanish priest hundreds of years ago. He taught the local indigenous communities to individually specialize in specific trades, a practice that exists today. Many of these crafts are for sale in the stores that line Patzcuaro’s main plaza, but it’s also fun to get out and explore the actual towns where the products are made.

In Santa Clara del Cobre, as just one example, you can find copper galore:

At the National Copper Museum

At the National Copper Museum

More shopping:

Pottery for sale in Tzintzuntzan -- which means 'place of the hummingbirds' in Purepecha.

Pottery for sale in Tzintzuntzan -- which means 'place of the hummingbirds' in Purepecha.

3. Best climate, ever?

Simply driving around the countryside is gorgeous. It’s hilly, green, and because of the elevation, not too hot, and not too cold. I’ve heard Michoacan contains many areas considered “most hospitable to human life” and you really feel it when you’re there, because you don’t want to leave.

Blue skies, green trees, the open road...

Blue skies, green trees, the open road...

4. Fantastic bodies of water nearby!

Rare for Mexico, this is a lake-filled region. The most popular is Lago de Patzcuaro, which contains several islands, all swarmed by visitors come Day of the Dead, especially Isla Janitzio. Instead of visting it, we took an off-the-beaten-path tour of two other islands, Pacanda and Yunuen, where the indigenous Purepecha people live.

After spotting a sign for "eco-turistico" stuff, we turned left and headed to shore.

After spotting a sign for "eco-turistico" stuff, we turned left and headed to shore.

Gregorio talked us into a boat tour, and we visited two. We were the only people out.

Gregorio talked us into a boat tour, and we visited two islands. We were the only people out.

It was so quiet here we almost heard our brains thinking.

It was so quiet here we almost heard our brains thinking.

(If you’re interested in a very unique lodging experience on Pacanda, contact Gregorio Campos who operates tours of the island and has new cabanas on the island, too, at 43-4104-2511. He’s already booked for Day of the Dead but the rest of the year he’s less busy.)

Besides Patzcuaro, there are several other lakes that are supposed to be better for swimming — deeper, cleaner, etc.

All this, gleaned in just TWO DAYS I spent there! Suffice it to say, I’ll be back.

Only in Mexico, and Only Funny in Hindsight

So the other night I stumbled upon this note I wrote in December of 2007, about two months after we first moved to Mexico City. That night,  I wrote the note long after Brendan had gone to sleep, and I left it for him on the dining room table to read in the morning.

As I re-read it for the first time since writing it the other night, I started laughing hysterically, and ran out to show to Brendan.

“Remember this? Good times.” He started giggling, too.

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If you can’t read my scrawl, it starts out romantically enough:

“Baby…”

But quickly goes downhill.

“I am very ill right now. Wednesday morning, can you please do me several favors?

1) Don’t wake me if I’m somehow asleep.

2) Plz get me several Gatorades.

3) Can you ask co-workers about a doctor I can see ASAP?

4) At this point, I am too sick — shitting water every 10 minutes — to travel.”

The note basically says it all, don’t it? It was my second bout of food poisoning, and since then, I’ve suffered about three more incidences of it, each of varying severity. The note I wrote above was during a bad incident, but not the worst. The worst involved projectile vomiting before I could make it to the toilet, an injection of medicine into my flanks to stop the nausea, and severe dehydration.

Of course, Montezuma’s revenge is a frequent topic of discussion of Americans living here, from the practical (how to live through it without breaking down, mentally) to the philosophical (should it be accepted a fact of life here, or do Mexicans deserve to live with clean water, too?) Let’s just say, while there are many things I love about Mexico, and many other things I’ve learned to accept (like those obnoxious men who sell propane gas by shouting “Hay GAS!!!!!” up and down the street at 7 in the morning, or even the frequent earthquakes), the constant threat of food poisoning is not something I’ll ever learn to live with. Although it does make for a good laugh to find a note chronicling my nights of hell — many months after it happened.

Delightful Isla Mujeres Mexico Rocked My Socks

So before my amiga Sue-Lyn moved back to Chicago this week, we took a quick trip to Isla Mujeres, in the Yucatan. I love spur-of-the-moment trips, especially when they involve perfect turquoise-water-and-white-sand beaches, swimming with whale sharks, and half-off the price of an incredibly fun bed-and-breakfast, Casa Sirena!

I’ve already blabbed about the awesomeness of whale sharks, now it’s time to blab about Isla Mujeres. The little island — only about 7km long — is located off the coast of Cancun, but has somehow escaped the predictable and aggressive tourism found on the mainland. Sure, there are overpriced trinkets and bad food for sale along the island’s most popular beach, Playa Norte, but there’s also a refreshing hippie vibe to the place. (This may have been helped by the fact that many tourists have been scared away from Mexico because of the swine flu, leaving behind people like me, who don’t give a damn. Also, a new pet peeve of mine: Locals who won’t talk in Spanish with me when I visit touristy areas.)

A few Isla Mujeres must-do’s:

1. Eat lunch (I recommend the sopa de lima and shrimp cocktail, with a limonada) and then soak in the pools at zen-inducing Zama Beach Club.

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2. After watching a rainstorm roll by, walk to the end of the pier at Zama, and dive in.

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3. Rent a golf cart — hands-down the best way to get around the island. The top speed of 20 mph means you’re forced to “take it slow” and take in the sights. Definitely do a loop across the entire island. The windward Caribbean side — with its higher cliffs and land stripped of trees, thanks to all those hurricanes — has a stark beauty all its own. And it’s just sorta absurd to cruise around in a golf cart.

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4. If you don’t go visit the whale sharkies (which will probably include a coral reef visit after the swim), then schedule a snorkel trip. There are several options on the island, like the overpriced Garrafon park or the next-door and much cheaper Garrafon de Castilla beach club. It’s a little downtrodden, but for $50 pesos, the price can’t be beat. The reef is pretty beat up in this area, but I did see elk coral, a grouper, barracuda and a huge queen parrotfish.

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5. Or, pay a little bit more and take a boat trip to the reef north of the island near Isla Contoy, which is protected and in much better shape.

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6. Eat traditional Yucatecan food at El Charco’s, located in the neighborhood where most Isla residents live.

7. Or, if you’d rather just drink beers, swim in calm shallow water (that seems to stretch across all the way to Cancun) and take in a little sun, then head to Playa Norte and rent a couple of beach chairs and an umbrella for 80 pesos or so. You may have to fight off some annoying beach vendors, and the food will be mediocre, but one can’t deny how pretty it is.

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Dream Fulfilled: Swimming with Whale Sharks

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A whale shark fishing for plankton, near the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

You know how some kids plaster their bedroom walls with images of dinosaurs? Or cartoon characters? Or boy bands?

Me, it was whale and shark posters — I even owned a bumper sticker that said “I Love Whales” long before I could drive. I devoured every issue of Ranger Rick from front to back. I knew who Eugenie Clark was. I spent 5 years volunteering for the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

But as I got older, I got a little lost on my life path and switched college degrees from marine biology to nursing to journalism. Part of my problem was math — I made a D in pre-calculus my freshman year and couldn’t imagine sweating through calculus class (a requirement for biology majors, something I think is atrocious and really unnecessary) nor some of the more advanced chemistry classes. So I let myself be persuaded by comments I’d get on essay papers, such as “A+, please consider joining student publications.”

All told, I’ve so far had a great career, first as a journalist, now as an online editor and consultant. And while my career is not always so thrilling (countless hours in front of a computer is not as adrenaline inducing as scouting the Pacific Northwest for pods of killer whales) it does pay the bills pretty nicely (probably a lot better than a marine biology degree would have) and so, in some ways, it’s letting me fulfill those dreams I had as a kid.

Case in point: This weekend, when I swam with a whale shark in the Caribbean Sea, north of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The whale shark species is at least 60 million years old, and the world’s largest fish (and of course, the world’s largest shark). It grows as long as a school bus. It’s endangered, as many sharks increasingly are because of the ridiculous demand for shark fin soup. Unlike most of its brethren, the whale shark is docile and harmless to humans. It’s got a big, gaping mouth that it uses to suck in plankton, and it moves slowly and gracefully, unconcerned with everything around it, a luxury for most animals, but not the whale shark. Beyond that, not much is known, because no one started researching the whale shark intensely until the 1990s.

As with any blow-your-mind experience, it’s hard to describe what Saturday was like. First we went out in a group of boats with certified whale shark guides, rounding up and over the Yucatan Peninsula’s eastern corner, to a wide shallow area where whale sharks congregate each summer.

The guide then stands on the top of the boat, searching for the tell-tale brown shadow and scurry of smaller fish who hitch rides around the shark (their momentum could power a wind farm…). As the plankton rises to the surface around mid-day, so do the whale sharks…..you can spot them from the surface, their 6-foot-wide mouths gaping open:

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How they look from the surface when they are eating. A snorkeler is on its right side.


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Sue and I gearing up to “dive in.”

It all happens very fast. It’s suddenly your turn to go, and boom, you slide into the water, and start paddling hard.  Once you reach the shark, you’re captivated, if not hypnotized. Time stops, sounds go away, and there you are, moving slowly with a whale shark (he does all the work, you just go along for the ride).

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When you swim next to them (or often, above them, since they like to swim downward after eating), their big gills puff in and out.

My friend Sue-Lyn and I each got to swim three times.  I was lucky enough to be on the last team to go out, and because the other boats in the area had left, it was even more peaceful. The shark did a looooong swim in one single direction, and I was sucked into his vortex, swimming along his right side, until the guide grabbed my flipper, signaled it was time to go back to the boat, and forced me to end my incredibly awesome day. (But then we went snorkeling at a nearby reef, so the awesomeness soon started all over again…)

Mexico, as far as I could tell, does an excellent job strictly regulating the tours — rules were enforced, and the shark spent most of his time with us eating plankton (he seemed a little oblivious of us, really) something a stressed shark won’t bother with. Our shark was tagged #827 as part of the research program.

To see the full fabulous slideshow (including coral reef photos), see Swimming With Whale Sharks on flickr.