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Articles

Historic Rope Production in Mexico

Ever wonder where rope is made? The largest industry used to be in the Yucatan in eastern Mexico. I recently toured a restored plantation…here is what I learned.

A species of agave cactus is the source of henequén (green gold) production still found on a fascinating hacienda outside Merida, Mexico. Situta de Peón, a working henequén hacienda, was one of many established in the 1800’s and restored from its abandoned state over 25 years ago. The European style plantation buildings and fields of agave cactus offer a glimpse into the past that is the focus of this living history village. Over 80 local Mayan families, descendants of the original workers, are employed here.

     

The fibrous leaves of the cactus are harvested, placed on mule-drawn carts, and taken to the processing plant where they are fed into a 100-year-old stripping machine which can process 100,000 leaves per day. The resulting long strands of green fiber are then hung to dry in the sun before heading to the bummer press where they are formed into 400 pound bales for shipping to Merida several times per week for further manufacturing. The green waste material from the stripping machine is used as animal feed and fertilizer.

     

A walk through the museum illustrates the many types of manual processes that have been mechanized over the years. In its heyday between 1860 and 1915, multiple products were produced on the plantation. Spooling machines could twist the fibers into ropes of varying thickness, including the large gauges for marine use especially popular during the shipping era of the 1900’s, or transform them into balls for easy transport. Looms would weave long bolts of coarse mesh which could be made into bags, mats, grain sacks or hammocks.

The entire area is fed by an underground water system of rivers and cenotes. The hacienda name Sotuta comes from the Mayan term “Tzu Tzut Ha” which means circulating or moving water. The future of henequén is questionable as synthetic materials have become more popular.

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Mexican Hearts for Valentine Gifts

February 14 here in Mexico is known as “Dia de Amor y Amistadt”–a special day for loved ones, lovers, and friends.  Although expressing our love and appreciation should happen often, this is the day to really focus on giving back to those who have given us so much!  Here are some gift ideas from the local artisans of Vallarta that I have found while giving my walking tours.

Hammered tin hearts are typically from San Miguel de Allende where this art form continues to thrive based on hundred year old techniques. You can find them in several of the shops in El Centro. These are from Payote People on Juarez.

Milagros (Spanish for miracles) affixed to wooden hearts have a long history as these metal icons were originally purchased in front of churches. One would then pin them to the gown of Our Lady of Guadalupe to symbolize the “miracle” or prayer needed. Now you can find these to hang in your home as blessings. This one is from Faith Collectiva on Basilio Badillo.

Glass hearts have become very popular to hang in windows or where ever they can catch the light. Hand-blown of different colors, these and the little ceramic hearts are from Senior Talavera on Calle Encino. There are also a variety of glass hearts available at the Botanical Garden.

Little wooden trinket boxes with glass hearts inside and wooden pictures of hearts can be found at Corozon Vallarta on Augustine Rodriguez one block west of the Municipal Market or in the evenings at the north end of the Malecon across from the Cuban restaurant.

Last but by no means least are chocolate hearts, long the favorite of young and old alike.  These and other Valentine candy can be found at the small candy store on Hidalgo just before Libertad.

Whatever you are giving on Valentines, I hope you have a LOVEly day!

Articles

Winter Holidays in Vallarta

December is a big month here for religious and spiritual celebrations deeply ingrained in the Mexican culture. A mixture of Old World Mexico and New World Catholicism contributes to a festive and meaningful coming together of all peoples, Mexicanos and expats alike. The first 12 days are dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, symbol of love and devotion as the Mother of Mexico. Before the Conquistadors and the advent of Catholicism, she appeared as an apparition to shepherd Juan Diego in the early 16th Century in the hills of central Mexico. Following her message to Juan, a church was built on the spot where she appeared. As Spanish missionaries arrived and Catholicism descended on the country, the Virgin Mary and Our Lady Guadalupe became joined as the Mother of all Catholics. Even so, Guadalupe is continually honored throughout Mexico during these 12 days in keeping with the original beliefs of the indigenous people.

 

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In Vallarta, there are processions, called peregrinaciones, daily from December 1-12. Thousands of people representing local neighborhoods, businesses, organizations, and groups walk several miles to finally reach Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the city center. Joined by multiple groups of Aztec dancers dressed in their feathered finery, drum and bugle corps walking in precise formation, Mariachi bands with their colorful costumes and familiar music, and floats carrying children dressed as Juan Diego and Guadalupe, the processions slowly make their way down the main street which is crowded with people on both sides waiting and watching the amazing spectacle before them. Upon reaching the church, each group, baskets of food and flowers in hand as gifts for Our Lady, ascends into the beautifully decorated interior to be blessed by the priest. Bells and fireworks from the bell tower can be heard throughout the town after each blessing.

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In between groups, there is usually a time lapse during which one can wander the plaza and surrounding side streets to partake of the many food vendors offerings of typical fare found during this time of year. Atole, a hot cornmeal drink made with sugar, vanilla and sometimes coconut or chocolate is sold everywhere. Sometimes, Christmas punch is available–a hot drink of stewed fruits, sugar, water and maybe red wine. Then there are tacos, pozole, tamales, roasted corn served with mayonnaise, grated cheese, picante and lime, dozens of desserts with enough frosting and cream to push you towards a heart attack, and huge spits of roasting pork with a pineapple dripping down its surface.

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After all of this is over, the posadas begin. These are neighborhood wanderings representing the journey Mary and Joseph took on their way to Bethlehem when they could not find an inn to spend the night. As neighbors continue along the street, visiting other neighbors, they will finally come to the house designated as “the inn” where food and festivities will begin lasting into the wee hours. Businesses also offer posadas to their employees as a way to thank them for a year of service.

Christmas Eve is usually spent going to mass in the evening after which families gather for a big late night dinner in preparation for a solemn Christmas Day of rest and relaxation. In the past, gifts were only exchanged on Three Kings Day (January 6) duplicating the Three Wise Men’s bringing of gifts to the Christ child. Today, lucky Mexican kids get presents twice…once on Christmas day and again on January 6. This is also when a special orange-flavored sweet bread, called Rosca de Reyes, is shared with family and friends. A little plastic baby Jesus is baked inside so that whoever gets the piece with the baby must then host a tamale feast on Candlemas, February 2.

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Dia de Los Muertos

Unlike the commercialized Halloween holiday in other parts of the world, in Mexico the original meaning comes from the Catholic All Saints’ Day, and represents a mixture of pre-Hispanic customs and beliefs containing both European and indigenous elements. November 1 and 2 mark this annual celebration in remembering deceased family members. November 1 is often referred to as Dia de los Angelitos or Holy Innocents’ Day for children who have died.  November 2 is Dia de los Muertos for adults who have died.

Colorful alter, Dia de Los Muertos, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!

This is also an important social as well as religious ritual for Vallarta with a parade and all-night candlelight vigils at the graves of the family members at local cemeteries. The whole occasion is festive, and everyone talks of the dead as if they were still alive. During this time, people remember, re-live, and enjoy rather than fear evil or malevolent spirits.  Some Mexican families spend hours in the cemetery where they clean the grave, plant flowers, have a picnic and hire musicians to sing a favorite song of the deceased.  From the indigenous side comes the use of the “cempasuchil” the large yellow/orange marigold used to adorn Mexican graves.  It is believed that the candle light, as well as the scents of the marigold flowers and the copal incense, help the returning souls find their way back.

Alters dedicated to the memory of a departed loved one are elaborate creations which take hours to construct and contain many favorite food items of the deceased including something from the four elements water, earth, fire and wind; photos, poems, letters, trinkets, and other memorabilia specific to the person to whom the alter is dedicated.  Walk the streets of Vallarta to see many of these beautiful offerings outside homes, government buildings, hotels and stores.

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The traditional food of the day, pan de muerto, a sweet yolk bread sprinkled with sugar, is of European origin.  It is said to be good luck to be the one who bites into the plastic toy skeleton hidden by the baker in each loaf. The “calavera” (skull) is a humorously morbid poem which is addressed to a friend or public figure. This genre of poetry has its origin in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in early 17th century Spain. Candy in the shape of small sugar skulls are meant to be consumed signifying eating one’s death. Catrina dolls are artistic creations of skeletons dressed in the clothes symbolizing the person who has died.

Articles

New Malecón Walk for Wheelchair Travelers

Whether you are a roller or stroller, you will enjoy this walk along Puerto Vallarta’s seawall (Malecón). From Indians and Aztecs, pirates and Spanish Conquistadores, farmers and fishermen, stevedores and early settlers to Hollywood actors and famous politicians, today’s Malecón continues to hold a special magic over those who meander its two-mile length from Hotel Rosita past the Los Arcos Amphitheater all the way to Los Muertos Pier. The ocean, the waves, the breeze, and the jungle covered mountains only add to the beauty and enjoyment of this important historical symbol of Vallarta.

Amphitheater area on Malecon, vendors, tourists, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!

Join this newest walking tour as we stroll or roll the Malecón while learning about the history and local culture of Vallarta, stories of its people, the origins and inspirations behind the many bronze sculptures, significant historic buildings, outdoor art and Huichol Indian symbology that is embedded in the sidewalk. End at the stunning Los Muertos Pier. A list of beach restaurants we pass is included with the walk.

Wheelchair sunset gazer, woman, Malecon, pirate ship,Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!

This is a two-hour walk, reservations required 24 hours in advance. Book and pay online on Home page. More photos in the Photo Gallery.

Meet at Hotel Rosita seawall by bronze Millennium sculpture on the north end of the Malecón, 2 pm. M,W,F

Articles

Get an Insider’s View of Puerto Vallarta

Couple enjoying encheladas, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!-

This review was posted recently on my Trip Advisor page by one of my clients who took my El Centro Walk. I am so grateful for what she says that I just had to post it!

“My husband and I loved Sandra’s Learn Vallarta Walking Tour. It was a small group which made it feel so personal – we didn’t have to fight to hear what she was saying and we could ask as many questions as we liked. She took us on an easy walk around the city, reviewing the history, the art, and local shop vendors. It was so neat being able to see behind the scenes of local shops and their owners. We visited several very cool spots and it really set the rest of our trip up for success! The best part about the tour (besides the amazing city itself) was Sandra! She was so much fun! She knows the city and the local people so well – you really feel like you are getting an insider’s view of the city! Not only did she show us amazing native art, but she also gave us the insight on the best ceviche and candy to die for! We couldn’t be happier with our tour! Everyone should do this on their trip to PV!”

Robyn M.
Anaheim, CA

Articles

Mexican Vanilla Extract: Pure or Immitation?

Vanilla beans cultivated around the world originally all came from Mexico.  When Cortés came to conquer Mexico in 1519, he sent samples of the vanilla orchid back to Spain where they eventually spread to other growing areas around the world including Madagascar, Indonesia, Reunion (at the time called “Il de Bourbon”),  Tonga, Costa Rica, and Papua New Guinea. There are several distinct species of the vanilla orchid, the most common being Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla tahitiensis (a Mexican hybrid), and Vanilla pompona .

Vanilla extract is usually marketed as “Bourbon vanilla”, most of which is grown in Indonesia and Madagascar. It comes from the same species (Vanilla planiolia) grown in Mexico which is called “Mexican vanilla,” purely a marketing designation. The difference between the two is mostly in the processing of the Vanilla beans after harvesting. Some of the vanilla extracts sold in Mexico are stretched with tonka bean extract, which has a similar taste and aroma to vanilla but contains coumarin which can be toxic to the liver and is banned as a food additive by the US Food & Drug Administration since the 1950’s. Most reputable companies avoid this additive. Other countries have less strict regulations.

vanilla beans, shop, for sale, best, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours, vanilla shop, store, purchase

Pure Vanilla Extract is a complex flavor, comprised of approximately 300 individual flavor components all working together to create it’s rich flavor and bouquet. To produce premium pure vanilla extracts it always begins with the beans. You cannot produce high quality extracts with inferior quality beans!  It can be found in several strengths called fold:  single (1X) and double (2X) are common for the baking industry.  There is even a 60X strength available only to industrial users where excessive liquid is a problem.

Pure Mexican Vanilla has at least a 35% alcohol content and higher natural vanillin concentration. It is therefore best utilized in those items which require high heat such as baking. This allows much of the alcohol to cook out.  The balance is water.  The color is light brown from the cured beans.  Although expensive, this is the BEST vanilla you can buy in Mexico

Traditional Mexican Vanilla has 10% alcohol (90% water) and less than 1% of natural vanillin. The vanillin helps hold the flavor. Also the less alcohol makes the vanilla much more versatile and can be used for anything that calls for vanilla such as French toast, smoothies, homemade ice cream, whip cream, cookies, cakes, oatmeal, etc.

Artificial Vanilla Extract    In the 1880s the first synthetic vanillas came from Germany, providing a cheaper alternative to natural vanilla.  Soon it was discovered that synthetic vanillin could be made from the waste water of paper pulp and coal tar processing. Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean began selling cheap synthetic vanillas hoping to cash in on Mexico’s vanilla connection.

 LABELING

There are numerous words used to label “vanilla” sold in stores today.  BEWARE!  The cheap product in the big bottle is not vanilla at all.  It is imitation vanilla with unknown ingredients.  Make sure the brown bottle doesn’t contain clear “vanilla” liquid.

Natural and Artificial Vanillas are a blend of natural vanilla fortified with artificial vanillin, flavors and other “ingredients.”

Clear vanilla is artificial vanillin. It’s often called “crystal vanilla.”

Dark and murky is synthetic vanillin, most likely ethyl vanillin derived from coal tar. It may also be dark because it contains red dye or caramel (carmelo) coloring.

vanilla flower, orchid, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours

PRODUCTION PROCESS

Another clue to finding good quality vanilla extract is the price.  Vanilla is the second most expensive “flavoring” after saffron.  This is due mainly to the labor-intensive growing and curing processes.

Quality vanilla beans come when the vine is grown on rich soil using good farm practices (not crowding the vines, water/moist environment and the right shade/sun).  The flower that produces the bean only appears for one day and in most countries has to be hand-pollinated. The most important part of the process is WHEN to cut the bean from the vine. This has to be done bean by bean when yellow at the tip indicating a fully matured bean with the highest concentration (2%+) of vanillin inside.

First, the pods are heated (the “Bourbon Process”) to stop growth, to prevent sugar from turning to starch and to break down the cell walls. The “Mexican Process” is to place the beans in the hot sun, wrapping them in a blanket overnight to keep them warm.  This process of exposure to daily sun then wrapping in cloth is repeated for up to six weeks. This stage develops vanillin, the main flavor component.

The next step is the drying/curing process. If the bean has been cut when yellow at the tip, the process of curing will be shorter. Additionally, there will be very little loss due to mold which occurs more often when the beans are cut “green” instead of yellow at the tip. Drying and curing go together.

Then comes maturation in boxes which straightens the pods to further enhance the flavor. It is in this last stage that Mexican vanilla differs most significantly–whereas vanilla from Madagascar may cure for about 5 weeks, Mexican vanilla will cure for up to nine months.  Beans are graded for quality and are then ready for the extraction phase.

The cured beans are ground and then exposed to heat and pressure to extract the vanilla into an alcohol solution.  Some companies are experimenting with a cold extraction process that they claim preserves the nutrients and rich flavors better than using heat.  At this point, the extracted liquid is ready for bottling.

Note:  Gracias to T.J. Hartung, Puerto Vallarta orchid specialist, for his editorial help.

 

Articles

Cobblestone Streets…Charm or Curse?

Cobblestone streets of Puerto Vallarta lend to the charm of the historic city center. Although some would call them dangerous due in part to their uneven surface and ability to form potholes, the original use of cobblestones during the early days was quite practical.

Paving with cobblestones allowed a road to be heavily used all year long. It prevented the build-up of ruts often found in dirt roads. It had the additional advantage of not getting muddy in wet weather or dusty in dry weather. Shod horses or mules were also able to get better traction on stone cobbles. The natural materials or “cobbles,” a geological term, originally referred to any small stone having dimensions between 2.5 and 10 inches (6.4 and 25.4 cm) and rounded by the flow of water; essentially, a large pebble. Although the noise of riding over cobbles may seem annoying, it was actually considered good as it warned pedestrians of oncoming traffic….horse, mule or automobile!

Donkey rider on cobblestones, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!

Cobblestones are typically either set in sand or similar material, or are bound together with cement or asphalt. Cobblestones set in sand have the environmental advantage of being permeable paving and of moving rather than cracking with movements in the ground.

In Vallarta, the making or remaking of a cobblestone street begins with the leveling of the underlying dirt. Then comes sand. Next parallel lines of larger stones are laid in rows, sometimes with cement holding them in place. Rows are them filled in with the smaller stones. Finally, sand or cement is packed around all the stones and left to settle with gaps filled in as needed. Repair of potholes tends to be a mixture of stones, sand, cement, pulverized terra cotta, or asphalt. In the historic area, the original streets are required to remain in keeping with the original construction, the stones having come from either the Rio Cuale, beach, or nearby quarries.

Laying a cobblestone street, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!

Today, walking on cobblestones has been considered good exercise depending on the distance, frequency, surface and grade. Author Via Anderson in a recent article in the Vallarta Daily News (November 4, 2014) wrote, “Find and walk on the many cobblestone walks here (in Vallarta). Walking on cobblestones a few times daily with bare feet (preferred) or minimal shoes (to protect from debris) provides stimulation to the foot musculature that in turn adapts by becoming stronger and better able to handle these forces for longer periods of time…. and may be significant in reversing aging.”

So keep on walking folks! Join one of my walking tours for even more fun and enjoyment. Maybe one day we can do it in bare feet!

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Popular Hand-drawn Vallarta Maps

PV Map

Well-known cartographer Jeffrey Obser, or Mapa Jeff as he is known in Vallarta, continues to produce exceptional hand-drawn and enhanced maps of many of the Banderas Bay areas. These maps are so detailed, indicating every street name, stairs, trails, pathways, and points of interest, that they are THE maps to have for anyone who enjoys walking. Jeff does much of his research by physically walking every inch of the area he is working on and taking detailed notes so when he gets back to his studio in California, he can produce these wonderful maps as accurately as possible. He updates the more popular Vallarta maps annually, reflecting the changes that have occurred during the year.

Maps are coated to protect them from moisture, can be rolled for purse or pack, and can even be used as placemats or framed souvenirs from your travels around Banderas Bay. Couple these maps with my Walking Guidebooks, and you have all you need to strike out on your own and never get lost!

Now also available, many of Mapa Jeff’s maps in foldable format for pocket, purse, or glove compartment.

If you are in Puerto Vallarta and not familiar with these great maps, you can find the most popular (Vallarta, Yelapa, Conchas Chinas, Cabo Corrientes) at my Walk Vallarta! Learn Vallarta! booth in the Hotel Marsol Artisans Market near the Los Muertos Pier. Fridays, 9:00-1:30

If you live outside of Mexico, you can order Jeff’s maps online at: http://www.mapajeff.com

 

 

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Puerto Vallarta Artisan Markets

During high season, there are artisan markets every day of the week where local merchants gather to sell their wares in the old open market style of years ago. Typically there are from 40 to over 100 vendors in each market. Strolling among the tables one can find arts, crafts, farm fresh produce, flowers, homemade desserts and culinary delights, specialty breads, organic coffees, clothes, woven scarves and embroidered purses, handmade sandals and leather shoes, jewelry of all types, fresh juices, and on it goes. But what really makes this experience special is the people, both vendors and buyers.

Three Hens Saturday Market, local artisans, vendors, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!

I have a table the Hotel Marsol Artisans Market near Los Muertos Pier Friday mornings selling my educational walking tours, guidebooks, hand-drawn maps, and photographs. Come enjoy the friendly atmosphere, relaxed conversation, have a cup of coffee and a scone, taste samples that vendors are passing around, listen to live music, read the local Mirror or Tribune and feel the warmth and laughter shared amongst friends.