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Historic Rope Production in Mexico

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.

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

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.

 

Oysters!! And Tehuamixtle, Mexico

If you love oysters like I do then you must visit Tehua as the locals call it. Two hours south of Puerto Vallarta by car, this very small beach community, population less than 100, raises and serves up the largest and most delicious oysters I have ever eaten…and I have eaten many on my worldly travels. These are as large as your fist, juicy and succulent.  I ate 6 raw “en sus conchas” or translated “on their shells” or what we northerners call “on the half shell.”  That and a salad was all I needed…heaven. My local friend Rafa had the freshly-made seafood soup which included a half a lobster just freshly caught.

Tehuamixtle oyster lunch, huge, tasty, raw, on the half shell, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!

As we awaited our lunch, fishing boats began to arrive with sacks of 50 kilo freshly-harvested oysters.  Carried ashore to scales for weighing and then delivery to the beach restaurants or, in some cases, to Puerto Vallarta to the north, these were the freshest ever served to me…and well worth the wait!

Tehua also boasts other fresh fish, lobsters, and mussels in addition to the oysters.  Being a hot September day, there weren’t many in town…we were the only ones at the beachfront restaurant, tables with checkered cloths in the sand barely 20 feet from the water.  Come winter and the high season tourists, the town swells with many looking for tranquility, fresh seafood, and a few days from the city.  Next to Mayto, another beach community, Tehua access has improved as much of the old dirt road from El Tuito to the ocean has been paved…all except the bone-jarring middle 30 kilometers which have yet to be finished.

Seafood stew, fresh, lobster, local eating, man, Mexican, Tehuamixtle, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!

I drove from Vallarta to El Tuito to Tehuamixtle in a little more than 2 hours.  It’s an all day venture, especially if you stop in El Tuito for breakfast or dinner.  Next time I will try one of the small hotels for a more relaxing over-night stay.

“Puerto Vallarta – Tropical Paradise”

Climate

Warm and dry during the winter and humid in the summer, Puerto Vallarta has the perfect location as it is the same latitude as Hawaii. Puerto Vallarta combines the lushness of the jungle with the beauty of the Sierra Madre Mountains and the wonder of the Pacific Ocean. The ocean breeze and the fresh mountain air combine with unrivaled sunny days to create some of the best weather in the world.  Vallarta boasts three hundred sunny days a year.  November to June is the dry season.  June to October is the rainy season with fantastic thunder and lightning storms that bring daily refreshing relief from the humidity.  This is when the jungle is at its best.

Tropical paradise, deserted beach, quiet, sandy, Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours!

Great value for your money

While it is commonly known that the peso is worth less than the dollar, be it US or Canadian, you never truly appreciate it quite as much as when you see that your hard-earned money can buy you so much more than it can back home.  If you are living here, you know the dollar allows you a life equal to or better than what you had back home.  Getting more for less is good in anyone’s book, especially when it comes to looking for a home or rental.  A beautiful home here can be found for the price of a studio in New York City. Puerto Vallarta has a large array of both first class real estate developments and economical apartments for purchase or rent.

Stunning beaches

Here are a plethora of enchanting beaches that offer something for everyone. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie looking to do some kite surfing or simply someone that likes to lay by the water being tended to, Puerto Vallarta has the right beach for you. Many of these beaches have been certified by the Mexican Government for their cleanliness and beauty. At the north end of the Bay you can find fine sand beaches that extend for kilometers. On the south end you find tranquill inland coves accessible only by water taxi.

Amazing mountains

This is what puts Puerto Vallarta in a completely different league from other vacation destinations.  The Sierra Madre Mountains and their tropical forests with lush jungle vegetation, give Vallarta a completely different atmosphere.  Here is one of the few places on earth where the mountains come down to completely touch the sea. There is nothing that compares to watching the sun rise in the mountains every day and set in the Pacific Ocean. During the summer season the rains make the surrounding mountains glow an emerald green of a hundred shades that is difficult to explain with mere words. A hike up the mountain trails will take you to a time long before when mankind was one with nature.  You will feel its beckoning. The vegetation and beautiful flowers along with the many bird calls combine to give you the mystical feeling only a tropical paradise can give you.

Mexican Culture

The mixture of indigenous traditions with Spaniard customs has produced an amazingly rich culture, an explosion of color, spirituality, flavors, images and sounds that will never stop impressing you. Slowly discovering little idiosyncrasies of this beautiful culture is one of the best rewards for visiting and living here.  There are colorful celebrations and festivals every month of the year.  A photographer’s paradise.

The people

You have to travel a lot in order to be qualified to compare people and cultures. Well, I have done it, and I can tell you that, there are no warmer people in the world.  Mexicans always smile, they always say “please” and “thank you”, they will kiss and hug you, so be prepared; they will touch you all the time; they are a happy people and they like to show it. Family and friends are most important. You will have a lot of fun around them; they will make you feel at home.  You just have to let go and learn from their laid-back and unpretentious attitude towards life. This way of approaching life, where people work to live and not live to work, might be arguable, but for a place like Puerto Vallarta, where people  come to forget for a while about the problems of daily life, it’s just perfect.