April 29, 2011

Estíbaliz Chávez and the British Royal Wedding

It's a story which reads like the plot of a human interest movie. A desperate endeavour against hopeless odds; an epic adventure spanning the globe; a morality tale about the empowerment; or a cautionary tale about encouraging exttreme behaviour. The world's media has been gripped. Would Mexican teenager, Estíbaliz Chávez Guzmán, make it to the Royal wedding on time?

Estíbaliz Chávez Guzmán in Madrid

Estíbaliz Georgina Chávez Guzmán's mother died giving birth to her. It's a difficult thing to grow up without a mother, especially when there is so little known about her. But one thing that the young Estíbaliz did know is that her mom had loved Princess Diana, from the British royal family. It was a facet that made the girl feel close to the woman who had carried her. It was a shared interest that could help fill the gap in her life.

Estíbaliz grew up in a suburb of Mexico City. It's been called 'modest' by much of the press, though the more sensationalist have opted for 'slum'. It's safe to say that the Chávez Guzmán family are not wealthy. What little pocket money that Estabalis could get or earn, she spent on British royal memorabilia. Pictures, cut from magazines, adorned her room, alongside her own artwork.

She also made a pledge to herself. In honor of her dead mother, she would go to London if and when Prince William married. It would be a homage. As Mama Chávez Guzmán had idolized Diana, then her daughter would be there, however tenuously, for Diana's son.

Estíbaliz Chávez Guzmán at home

Then it happened. The announcement that everyone had been waiting for. Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton and the news flew across the world. For 19 year old Estabilis, her moment had come. It was time to make good on her childhood promise; she had to make her dream come true. But there was a huge catch here.

How does a young, foreign national, with little money, even get to London, let alone attend the wedding? After all, this is an event that not even the President had been invited to! The invitations were being delivered at the descretion of the Queen of England and they were going to heads of state, British politicians and those of the Blood Royal. The working classes of Britain weren't even invited, so how on Earth was a Mexican girl going to get in?

Most people would have given up there and then, but Estabilis Chávez Guzmán is not 'most people'. She had a dream and the determination to make that dream come true. She went to the British Embassy, in Mexico City, and asked for an invitation. They very politely told her 'no'. So she defaulted to plan B. She set up camp outside the Embassy and went on hunger-strike, until she got her invitation.

Estíbaliz Chávez Guzmán on hunger strike

To be fair, the reaction of the average Mexican to her plight wasn't good. She was ridiculed in the press and in private conversations throughout the nation. Dubbed 'the crazy woman of the Embassy', she suffered people laughing in her face. She had friends telling her that it was ridiculous to risk her health over something so 'frivolous and silly'. After all, this wasn't a protest over world peace nor the end of Mexican troubles. This was for an invitation to a wedding, that wasn't even happening within her own country's upper classes.

For the British Embassy, the whole thing was a bit of an embarrassment. The Royal Wedding is a nice bit of feel good news for Britain. They could boost their own tourism and exports on the strength of it. But here was some kid stealing the attention. A representative of Prince William wrote a nice, formal letter to Estíbaliz. It explained that the invitations had already been sent and, unfortunately, there were no places left at the wedding.

Estíbaliz Chávez Guzmán on hunger strike

Estíbaliz revised her promise to herself. She might not be able to get into the church itself, but she wanted to be on the streets outside. She wanted to, at least, get a glimpse of the royal couple. She had a present for them. An oil painting, that she had created herself. She would give it to a member of the papparazzi, in London, in the hope that they would be able to pass it onto William and Kate. The British Embassy, in Mexico City, had refused point blank to accept it.

Estíbaliz Chávez Guzmán on hunger strike

The Embassy heard the latest request, but didn't wish to help with that either. They would not fly her to London. She was not welcome.

Estíbaliz's hunger strike went on. For sixteen days, she starved herself in full view of the public and a growing number of reporters. The story went global. Debates were being had all over the world, in a variety of different languages. What was the harm in letting her go? Why couldn't the British just show some humanity here? Or was she just a 'whacko'? Should such behaviour be encouraged? If other teenagers saw a success story here, then where would it end? Kids starving themselves for a new games console or tickets to a concert? Parents everywhere shuddered; and hoped that el señor Chávez Guzmán would hurry up and drag his daughter home.

In the meantime, Estíbaliz starved. Asked why, she simply replied, 'How else will I ever get there?'

Estíbaliz Chávez Guzmán on hunger strike

Estíbaliz Chávez Guzmán on hunger strike
Her sign reads: 'I’m on a hunger strike. Will they let me die for just not giving me an invitation to the royal wedding?'

Then her luck abruptly changed. It was the kind of happy ending that has everyone sighing through smiles, in theater seats, as news spread through cyberspace.

A Mexican tycoon, Octavio Fitch Lazo, happened to be walking past one day, when he spotted her camp. He'd heard about her in the media, of course, but here he was able to stop and see for himself.Octavio Fitch Lazo He spoke with her and read her hand-written signs. Then he put his hand into his pocket and paid for her ticket to London.

"It moved me to see that no one understood her very well," He told the press. I think she is right to fight for what she wants."

Suddenly, even the most scathing and cynical of commentators changed their tune. This had changed from the story of a ridiculous teen to that of an adventure; a battle against the forces of old and evil; a saga of the triumph of the human spirit over poverty and scorn; a fairy tale where Cinderella DID get to go to the ball.

Estíbaliz went home and rested up, before being collected to go to the airport. She had packed her oil painting and a sleeping bag, along with two Union flags. She would be on that sidewalk in time and she would see the royal couple! Her childhood dream accomplished through sheer grit; her pledge realised against the odds!

She flew to Madrid, in Spain, then onto London. But there disaster struck again. The British customs officers stopped her to inspect her oil painting. They questioned her as to where she was going. They soon learned that she had no address to stay in the UK; neither did she have any money for a hotel. They wouldn't even let her out of the airport. They put her on the next plane back to Madrid.

Estíbaliz Chávez Guzmán in Madrid

Estíbaliz found an internet cafe and immediately e-mailed Octavio. It read simply, "Help me." But she hadn't got this far to turn back now. She gained lodgings in a Puerta del Sol youth hostel, then turned to the Spanish press. They broke the story and angry editorials appeared in newspapers from the Middle East to the Americas. There had been a definite sea-change in public opinion and now everyone wanted her to be there. The British Home Office said that they would look into it. Nothing else happened there.

However, her story had gone viral; and where there's a story, there's Facebook and Twitter. There are several Facebook groups dedicated to her now. The biggest have loads of comments, from Mexican people, telling her that she's embarrassing the country and just to stop now.

On the other hand, there were others really trying to get her to the wedding on time. 'John', from New York, USA, sent her $800, as a gift; while a new friend, met through a Facebook group, arranged for her to stay with a Mexican living in London. There were offers of paying for her flight back to Britain. The Immigration Authority, in London, refused to comment.

Estíbaliz Chávez Guzmán in Madrid

Thus it stands, with Estíbaliz still waiting in a hostel in Madrid. Will the money and letter come on time? Will the British finally let her in? Will she make it to the church on time?

Update edit: Estíbaliz did receive the money in time, along with a letter from a Londoner, who agreed to offer her accommodation. She flew back to England, but was stopped at customs again. She was informed that, after being deported once, she had to wait at least two weeks before attempting to regain entry. The fact that she now had somewhere to stay, plus several hundred pound to spend, cut no ice with them.

Estíbaliz ultimately watched the Royal Wedding on a television screen in Madrid. She has to wait until May 7th, until she can fly back to Mexico, as that is the date on her ticket.

April 28, 2011

Nelly, featuring Kelly Rowland: 'Gone'

Back in March, we gave you all of the details of a music video shoot: Nelly and Kelly Rowland Film 'Gone' in Cancún. Then we criminally never showed you the finished product. Let us rectify that error right now.

The video was filmed, on February 8, 2011, at ME Cancun Hotel and Resort, Boulevard Kukulkan, km. 12, in the Hotel Zone. All of the wider, scenic footage is the landscape in and around Cancún and the Riviera Maya. The fortress-like ruins, shown in the opening scenes, is Tulum.

'Gone' is a track taken from Nelly's sixth album, '5.0'; and it is the sequel to his 2002 megahit, 'Dilemma'. It didn't garner the mainstream success, that its predecessor had enjoyed; but did moderately well in the R&B charts of several countries.

However, it had a great showing with add-ons, gathering 45 of them within two days of being released. It was the second most added tune on Urban Radio, and the third on both the Top 40/Mainstream and the Rhythmic Radios.

Tulum, on the Riviera Maya, glimpsed at the beginning of the video.

ME Cancun
ME Cancun Hotel and Resort, used extensively in the video.

April 27, 2011

Setting the Green Standard in... Shopping Malls...

Think green architecture and a shopping mall is usually the last place that you will have in mind. But Mexico has its mind firmly set on ecology of late, particularly after hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Cancún, last year. Thus, when Mexico City planning officials highlighted the need for another mall, they had a very definite caveate. It had to be green. It had to be energy efficient. The result has shaken the world of corporate building.

Santa Fe City Center Mall

Santa Fe City Center Mall

What do you mean, you can't see? The shopping mall is right there!

KMD Architects have won the Design Competition for an Urban Park, along with a contract for constructing their mall. It will be located in the Sante Fe area of Mexico City. However, it's a mall with a difference. It will be built entirely underground, with the roof serving as a park. Grassy areas, shrubs and flowers will be interpersed with colorful trees. There will be jogging paths and cycle routes, alongside a performance area for street theater.

An extensive range of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues, with the car parking to facilitate them, will all be subterranean. However, don't think that will make it gloomy. Light is an integral part of the design; and natural light at that.

Santa Fe City Center Mall

Santa Fe City Center Mall

KMD explained that the large, conical skylights, penetrating deep into the mall, will provide all of the natural light necessary for the whole building. In addition, the fact that it is underground, with a grassy roof, will insulate it. This drastically reduces the need for air conditioning, as a comfortable temperature will be maintained throughout.

Of course some electricity will still be requred, but the architects have thought of that too. They will be fitting solar panels for the mall's energy needs.

Santa Fe City Center Mall

The result will be one of Mexico's most sustainable buildings to date. Construction will start later this year.

April 26, 2011

Easter in Mexico

Easter in Mexico

A combination of three Catholic festivals makes this an exciting two weeks in Mexico. Semana Santa (Holy Week) runs from Palm Sunday until Easter Sunday; while Pascua (Passover) is from Resurrection Sunday through to the following weekend.

Therefore, Easter is another way of saying 'holiday season!' in Mexico. During this holy fortnight, the roads are packed, as Mexicans themselves travel around to their favourite destinations; and the whole country appears utterly relaxed.

Of course, that doesn't stop tourists from other countries joining the throng. Amongst the visitors to our country this week was 'Desperate Housewives' star, Eva Longoria. She was snapped, hand in hand with boyfriend, Eduardo Cruz, exploring the coastal city of Mazatlán.

Eva Longoria and Eduardo Cruz

Later, the couple met with Sinaloa state governor, Mario Lopez Valdez, and had lunch. As evening dawned, they flew to Cabo San Lucas to enjoy the rest of their vacation on the beach.

Eva Longoria and Eduardo Cruz

Cabo San Lucas is one of the Mexican resorts that is increasingly popular with the Hollywood jet set. Any time of the year, it's highly likely that a celebrity will be spotted there.

Underpinning all of the festivities, in Mexico, this fortnight is a Christian story; it's horrific, sombre and joyous all at the same time. Jesus Christ, having been arrested in the garden of Gethsename, is taken into the custody of the Romans. He is tortured, before being forced to carry a heavy wooden cross through the streets. Upon Calvary Hill, he is executed by crucifixion.

A crowd of witnesses watched him die; the fact of which is proved when a soldier stabs him with a spear, and Christ neither reacts nor bleeds. Then, three days later, Christ appears, scarred where the nails pierced him, but otherwise alive and extremely well. To Christians, this is the miracle of the resurrection. This is what Mexicans, in general, are marking and celebrating this fortnight.

Cuautepec, Mexico City
Good Friday, Cuautepec, Mexico City

Throughout Mexico, there will be reconstructions of these Biblical scenes. Many of these take the form of parades, where Christ carries His cross and Romans escort Him through the streets. In many communities, the full Passion Plays are enacted. Actors depict the events all of the way from the Last Supper, before Christ's arrest, through to the Resurrection. In some, there is even a staged crucifixion, with Christ going up on the cross; obviously ropes, rather than nails, are involved here. They are highly colorful and often profound spectacles, which shouldn't be missed, whatever your religion.

April 21, 2011

Real de Catorce: A Magical 'Ghost Town' Part Three

While some people see a ghost town, steeped in history, spirituality and freely growing peyote, others see a movie set. The empty streets of Real de Catorce have been used as the backdrop for so many documentaries and films, that many outside Mexico subconsciously picture the town as Mexico.

Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts

'The Mexican', starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, is one of the more famous movies shot in Real de Catorce. Here are two scenes from it, both showing the town.

Brad Pitt was later interviewed after the shoot and he said that Real de Catorce was 'a trip'. There are places in the town, where photographs of the filming are displayed. Local people were able to get very close to the stars, so some of the photos are very candid.

The movie also had a huge effect on the town in terms of amenities. Just one 'phone line and the electricity switching off at 8pm might have been considered fine for the residents, but a Hollywood film crew wasn't about to put up with that. By the time they left, the town had much more wiring and communications infrastructure.

Brad Pitt

Some of the local residents don't stop at allowing their town to be used as the backdrop to movies. They feature in them too. The chef of Ruinas del Real Hotel was in 'Pirates of the Caribbean'.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Ruinas del Real Hotel is just one of the handful of hotels and B&Bs set up to cater to the boom in tourism here. It is also the place favored by the incoming film crews. Guests here can stay in 'The Julia Roberts Suite', where the bathroom was especially built to the actress's specifications. (I guess that she wasn't prepared to 'slum' it, though the bathrooms throughout the hotel are quite satisfactory!)

Another big name movie shot in Real de Catorce was 'Bandidas', starring Penélope Cruz and Salma Hayek.

It's not just modern film crews that have descended upon the town. Back in 1948, John Huston arrived, with an ensemble cast, which included Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt, in order to shoot 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre'. (You'll know it by the classic line, "We don't need no stinking badges!", which has been parodied in so many places since, despite being a misquotation.)

This was the first American movie to be shot on location entirely outside the USA. Some scenes were filmed in Durango and Tampico. It was also amongst the first 100 films to be selected for perservation, in the United States National Film Registry, as being 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant'.

April 20, 2011

Real de Catorce: A Magical 'Ghost Town' Part Two

Real de Catorce

Real de Catorce sits 2,750 meters (9,022ft) above sea level, high up in the Sierra Catorce mountains. This is one of the highest plateaus in Mexico. In 1779, there was no access road, no buildings, no sanitation and no water, but there was silver. With silver came the mines; and with the mines came the people. Almost overnight, it seemed, a large town sprang up from this barren, desert landscape. It was hedonistic and practically lawless. Life savings could be lost, and fortunes made, on a single cockfight. Yet still the people poured in.

It wasn't only the Mexican people here. As news of Real's silver wealth spread, people came from all over the globe to try their luck in this anarchistic town. Many were Spanish, but there was a British mining company too; and it was a Guatemalan, Silvestre Lopez Portillo, who first set about forging a proper town from the chaos. He brought the amenities, law, local government and planning that served a population, which had now boomed to 15,000 people.

Real de Catorce

In its heyday, Real had 190 mines, extracting some of the highest price silver in the world. It had its own mint, a bullring and shops selling luxury items from Europe. It had a theater, which the celebrities of the day would visit. In 1895, the town even welcomed the president, Porfirio Díaz, when he came to the inaugaration of new machinery in one of the mines.

Yet the greatest achievement had to be the tunnel which allowed access into Real itself. 2,300 meters (7,546ft) long, this subterranean road is still used to reach the town. Walking or driving through it can be an utterly surreal experience. Thousands of people have passed along it, filled with their hopes and dreams, or the desolution of their losses.

Real de Catorce

In 1900, the international price of silver plummeted. It wasn't worth keeping the mines open, so one by one they shut. The trickle of people leaving became a flood, until only a few were left. Buildings lay empty. The mine-shafts were boarded up. The great and grand mansions sank into ruin. Thus the town is now and, for many tourists, is its charm. They wander through streets that, just a century ago, were teeming with crowds; and peer into windows, where people lived and worked and raised their families.

Only a thousand people still live permanently in Real de Catorce. A couple of the mines remain open, but the digs are small scale. Many of the residents find work in serving the tourists: those who come for the indian shamans, the peyote, the history or the ghost town spectacle. A couple of the mines have been opened as tourist attractions too. But there is also another class of regular visitors - the Catholic pilgrims.

Real de Catorce

Templo de la Purisima Concepcion (Church of the Immaculate Conception) was lavishly built in the 1790s, but was added to throughout the 19th century. Master builders and silversmiths were brought in from Mexico City, to create some of the beautiful details throughout the interior. It's a truly glorious church to visit. However, the pilgrims aren't here for the spectacle. They are here for the miracles.

The church is home to an image of St Francis de Assisi. The statuette has the affectionate nick-names of 'Panchito' or 'El Charrito'. Reports of miracles occurring, after leaving votive offers in front of St Francis, started early in the town's history. As Real died, this belief never did. Today, the area around the image is shrewn with candles and metal plaques, engraved with details of successful blessings.

Real de Catorce

On his feast day, October 4th, the town is busy again, as the streets fill with thousands of Catholics come to pay homage to this image. The festivities begin around September 20th and last into late October, though the 4th has the largest events.

Many people, who trace their ancestry to those who used to live in the town during the silver days, return with their families. They come to ask for favors, or give thanks for miracles enacted in their own lives. There are so many pilgrims that they couldn't possibly fit into the church, thus St Francis is taken out and paraded through the streets.

It is a time for piety, but this being Mexico, food, drink, song and dance also make up a large part of the tradition. Yet all of this is done in simplicity. It's a time for self-reflection and the emotions, not lavish hedonism. Just part of the inherent spirituality of the place, as was discussed in yesterday's blog.

Real de Catorce

By the end of October, the Catholic pilgrims all go away and Real de Catorce takes on its ghost town aspect again.

April 19, 2011

Real de Catorce: A Magical 'Ghost Town' Part One

In its heyday, Real de Catorce, in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, was a bustling mining town with a population of 15,000. These days, it's a parched village, surrounded by ruins. It's often labelled a 'ghost town', despite the remaining 1,000 residents; and despite the steady stream of Catholic pilgrims and Pagan mystics. The industry may be mostly over, but the spirituality goes on; and, of course, this is the land of peyote.

Real de Catorce

Since ancient times, the Huichol Indians have returned annually to the Catorce Valley. They come from miles around, often walking for weeks, from their lands in far-flung states. Even today, they will come from Nayarit, Durango, Jalisco and Zacatecas, in order to pay their respects in this holy place.

Here is Cerro del Quemado, perched up in the mountaineous Sierra Catorce, a sacred center for these people. It is the birthplace of the God, Tatewari, also known as Grandfather Fire. Three concentric rings of stone, within which offerings have been left since time immemorial. To the side of the ceremonial shrine, there is a relatively recent addition. It's a limestone shack, within with a candle burns. The sacred flame. Traditionalists, amongst the Huichol Indians, will come here three times a year. Once to ask; once to say; and once to give thanks.

Cerro Quemado

The Huichol Indians will then venture down into the Catorce Valley (or Wirikuta in the Huichol tongue) to gather their holy plant. It will be used in rituals back home. It is a catcus called peyote, those properties cause hallucinogenic visions. For the hippies and drug tourists, steeped in chemically produced LSD, this is the real thing. peyoteThus they too come in their droves, to soak up the spiritual ambiance and to harvest their own wild peyote.

It's a situation which is threatening the survival of the catcus itself. So much of it has been removed that Wirikuta peyote is in danger of disappearing from the landscape.

The government recently launched a campaign to protect it. It's now illegal for anyone but the Huichol Indians to pick it. The whole valley has been made part of an ecologically protected zone. The wardens are all Huichol Indians, who patrol the valley. They not only stop people picking peyote, but also educate them on why this should be necessary.

Cerro Quemado

This isn't the first time that the native people have endeavoured to protect this holy place. The Spanish-Mexican name for the valley and the mountain is Catorce, aka Fourteen. The town that was built, when silver was discovered in the Sierra Catorce, is Real de Catorce, or The Royal Fourteen. This refers to fourteen Spanish soldiers ambushed by Chichimec warriors.

The Chichimeca were semi-nomadic people, who lived in this area, at the time of the Spanish conquest. Conquistador Hernán Cortés considered them not nearly as civilized as the Atzec people. In 1526, Cortés wrote to Spain, saying that the Chichimeca would be good as slaves and that they could be put to work in the fledging silver mines.

The tribe fought a long and bloody war against enslavement, from 1550-1590, with the Catorce name around here being a legacy of one of those meetings. The Spanish didn't get a foothold in these mountains until 1721. Even then, the Chichimeca were never conquered.


April 18, 2011

Newport to Ensenada Yacht Race

There is nothing like the Newport to Ensenada Yacht Race. Every year, for the past 64 years, boats large and small have been docking in Newport, California, for this free-for-all, 125.5 mile competitive gala. It pits professionals against amateurs; and the parties are often as famous as a place on the winner's podium.

Race start

The race starts with a fiesta and it ends with several. For many competitors, the festivities continue right through the interim, with the alcohol flowing all the way through their journey to the finishing post. There are also plenty of side-shows. On the eve of this weekend's event, in Newport, there was a 'I Want to Be a Chihuahua Parade', featuring the competitors' dogs in fancy dress.

The annual Newport-to-Ensenada International Yacht Race has long been to competitive sailing what Olympic swimming would be if Michael Phelps shared the pool with a gaggle of guys in inner tubes towing a keg of beer.
Mike Anton, LA Times

Yet there is a serious side too. One winner, Dennis Connor, even mused that it might be more difficult to complete than the America's Cup.

Watching the race

This year, 175 boats entered the race, yet only 167 actually made it off the starting line. Of those, a mere 112 reached Ensenada. While a steady breeze blew them down the coast of the Californias, the crews had to battle against it once they reached Todos Santos.

The difficulty is that no-one knows what to expect. The wind can change direction at any time over the Pacific Ocean and these people are relying upon their sails. Skill plays its part, but so does sheer luck. This is why the race is so popular. Amateurs have an equal chance of winning against the professionals.

Winning the race

This year's winners were:

1. Afterburner (Tennant Bladerunner 52), Bill Gibbs, Pierpont Bay Yacht Club, elapsed time 17 hours 8 minutes 53 seconds, corrected time 22:33:05.
2. Stars and Stripes (Farr 60), Dennis Conner, San Diego YC, ET 18:28:25, CT 20:40:11.
3. Alchemy (Dencho 70), Per Peterson, Oceanside YC, ET 19:20:23, CT 22:16:05.
4. Medicine Man (Andrews 63), Bob Lane, Long Beach YC, ET 19:24:13, CT 22:51:17.
5. Peligroso (Kernan 70), Lorenz Berho, Mexico City, ET 19:45:33, CT 24:02:49.
6. It's OK (Andrews 50), Tres Gordos LLC, ET 19:48:09, CT 21:47:23.
7. Taxi Dancer (Reichel/Pugh 68), Dick Compton/Jim Yabsley/Tom Parker, Santa Barbara YC, ET 20:28:13, CT 23:23:55.
8. Relentless (Santa Cruz 52T), Durant/Shew, Long Beach YC, ET 20:55:19, CT 21:45:31.
9. Stealth Chicken (Perry 56), Tim Beatty, ET 20:58:25, CT 22:07:27.
10. Piranha (Farr 40), David Voss, California YC, ET 21:05:45, CT 21:18:18.

Once all have reached the Pacific town of Ensenada, then the party can really begin. There are the award ceremonies, but there is also a carnival atmosphere throughout the town. The Bahia Hotel is the centerpoint and the place where many of the competitors will have stayed the night. It is here that Ensenada will have laid on its brightest and best entertainment, while the food piles up and the alcohol flows some more.


The Newport of Ensenada Yacht Race (N2E to those in the know) is billed as something that you have to 'do' once in your life. Watching it, and participating in the events around it, is a lot of fun, but experiencing being in that starting line is something else. It will run again this time next year. Plenty of time to get your boat and crew together. Good luck!

April 14, 2011


Eden must have looked like this. Little bubbles of paradise glimpsed from the ground. There are no natural lakes on the Yucatan. The porous bedrock can't support them, as it acts like a sieve sucking the water down into the hidden caverns. But there are the cenotes and they are wonderful.


Cenote (pronounced Sen-o-tay) is a Yucatan Mayan word meaning any sinkhole with accessible groundwater. For thousands of years, these cenotes have been the wells, providing water for the villages and towns dotted around them. They are formed because the bedrock here is limestone. Rainwater hitting limestone is a little like trying to hold water in a colander. It seeps through the bottom and drips down below. Eventually it will hit sturdier rock and will be allowed to pool. Hence the lakes, in the Yucatan, all being underground.

Yet, as the water filters through the rock, it dissolves it, undermines it or erodes it. In some areas, this finally becomes too much and the roof collapses, exposing the pool to the open air. Thus the cenote is formed around crystal clear water, filtered by its slow passage through the rock. For the local human population, it's a source of life, spirituality and entertainment.


There are thousands of cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula. Some are tiny, some are vast; some are self-contained bowls, some are the access points to a sprawling subterranean maze of rivers and caverns; some are shallow, some are deep; some are major tourist attractions, fitted with piers, springboards, rappel lines and all the comfort amenities, and some are hidden away in people's backyards. More are discovered all the time. Building work and landscaping can suddenly uncover a cenote. They are usually a welcome addition to the scenery.

For generations of locals and tourists alike, cenotes are a spectacularly beautiful place to refresh, after a trek through the jungle or a visit to the Maya ruins. Not only is it shaded in a cenote, but the water is deliciously cool. Some, like Ik Kill, near to Chichen Itza, are always full of bathers. They enter with a look of serene relief, then bob about in the water, with smiles on their faces. It's the purity of the water; the beauty of the scenery; and the sense of the sacred, in this hidden world.


Of course, sacred is right, because many of these cenotes meant more than just accessible drinking water and a place to bathe for the Maya people. In many cenotes, votive offerings have been found. The legends and histories also make it clear that, for the ancient Maya, these cenotes acted as holy places. They were the natural cathedrals.

Sometimes, this religious feeling had darker overtones. In the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Sinkhole), within the grounds of Chichen Itza, there have been found ancient human bones. This was where human sacrifice was offered to the gods of the underworld. Elsewhere on the Yucatan, in Sahcaba, a whole underwater complex of Maya temples were discovered in 2008. It was believed that the Maya viewed this as an access to the land of the dead.

If you are in Mexico, please don't pass up the chance to swim in a cenote. It is a sublime experience that will remain with you for years - a little piece of paradise on Earth.

April 13, 2011

The Cave of Swallows

Imagine a pit so deep that it could hold the New York Chrysler Building without a tip of it showing. Such a abyss exists in Mexico. It is the largest cave shaft in the world. It is the Cave of Swallows.

Some measurements:

* Elliptical cave-mouth: 160 by 205 feet (49 by 62 m) wide
* Cave shaft main body: 995 feet (303m) by 440 feet (135m) wide
* Cave's depth (shortest side): 1,094-foot (333 m)
* Cave's depth (highest side): 1,220-foot (370 m)

In Mexico, it is called Sótano de las Golondrinas (Basement of Swallows), because of the birds which make their home there. Unless there are extreme sports people demonstrating their skills, then the birds are the most popular creatures to watch. The pit is so large that it is difficult to gain a sense of its proportions, without seeing the birds fly into it. They freefall, tucking back their wings, so they can plummet into the depths. Then, as they draw near to their nests, their wings are extended. They glide into their perches and rest.

Literally thousands of birds live in this shaft. The vast majority are members of the swift family, hence the name 'Cave of Swallows', though there are also other species. These include the rare cave parrot (cotorras de la cueva) and green parakeets.

Cave of Swallows

Each morning, there is a wondrous spectacle, as the cave's feathered inhabitants flock en masse out of the entrance. The cave's mouth darkens and the sound of their wings is thundrous. It can take up to half an hour to get them all clear; then the sight is repeated, in the evening, when they all come home. Meanwhile, the parakeets spiral out. They emerge as lonely green dots, drifting around the interior far below, coming closer, until they finally reach the top and fly to the skies.

So many birds have lived in this cave, for so long, that the bottom of the pit is spongy to the touch. It is their waste that has built up to carpet the ground. They make their nests amidst the flora that eeks out an existance in the darkened crags. Also at the bottom of the pit are other creatures. Millipedes, scorpions, snakes and all manner of insects. The abyss is a vibrant hub of life, if viewed with the right kind of eyes.

Cave of Swallows

The Cave of Swallows is near to the town of Aquismón, in the state of San Luis Potosi. The local Huastec people viewed it as an entrance to the Underworld. The first foreign explorers were Americans. Three cavers, from Texas, named T.R.Evans, Charles Borland and Randy Sterns, entered the pit on 27th December 1966. They didn't make it all of the way to the floor; returning in 1969 to do that.

Their reports saw interest growing, in the giant hole, throughout the rest of the world. The resulting tourism has changed Aquismón from a small, jungle village, into a thriving hub of amenities. It takes just 20 minutes to walk from the town to the cave. For many, the great attraction are the extreme sports to be had there.

Cave of Swallows

Rock-climbers, cavers, rappellers and BASE Jumpers have all flocked to this site, including one balloonist, who managed to successfully fly a normal sized hot air balloon to the floor of the pit. It can take 10 seconds to BASE Jump down; twenty minutes to abseil; or 1 to 2 hours to climb. Temperatures in the pit can also make life difficult, damaging equipment with its extremes or exhausting the wary. Even highly experienced thrill-seekers and explorers have warned about the Cave of Swallows. (For an example, see this thread, on Cavechat.org.)

However, the sheer number of people visiting, to dive into the cave, has resulted in some restrictions being placed. All sports are banned during the time when the birds are flocking in or out. Also no damage may be done to their nests. The descent into the cave may be made at only one designated spot. Nothing may be thrown into the cave nor left in there afterwards. Helicopters may not be flown near to it. People may not shout into the pit (the echo was great!), as this disturbs the creatures living in there. All of these restrictions came after ornithologists realised how much the bird population was starting to decrease, due to the effect of adventure tourism.

Cave of Swallows

April 12, 2011

The Yucatan's Cliff-diving Daredevils

Acapulco's cliff-divers are world famous, but how many people knew that this thrill-seeking sport exists on the Yucatan Peninsula too? With 6,400 cenotes dotting the landscape, it can often be a long way down.

Cave Diver

The latest round of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series took place, on the Yucatan, this weekend. The centerpoint was the Ik Kil Cenote (sinkhole), near to Chichen Itza. The greatest international cliff-divers gathered to discover who would take the title of the best amongst them. They took turns to launch themselves, from an especially erected diving board, into the wide, gaping mouth of the cenote. Then it was a 27 meter (90ft) free-fall plunge, through thin air, reaching speeds of 40mph before hitting the pool at the bottom.

Colombia's Orlando Duque emerged as the best of them. In second place was last year's winner, Britain's Gary Hunt. However, this is just one round in a global competition. The overall champion will not be crowned until another leg of the series takes them into Athens, Greece, later this year.

Cave Diver

Cenotes form all over the porous, limestone bedrock of the Yucatan. As surface water is drawn down, into the rock, it causes submerged pools and rivers. Sometimes this erosion opens up a hole above, allowing access to the wondrous subterranean landscape below. These holes are the cenotes.

Ik Kil translates as Sacred Blue. The Maya often used cenotes as subterranean shrines; with the tunnels leading away from them being part of the rite of passage into adulthood. Young men would have to survive the descent into them and arrive safely out the other side. It was a rebirthing into manhood.

Diving into them, from the surface level, is certainly not recommended for amateurs. It takes great skill and training to cliff-dive like a champion. However, many cenotes have been developed for tourists to visit. Swimming is allowed in them and diving boards have been set up from safe heights.

April 8, 2011

The Star That Comes in the Afternoon

Quetzalcoátl's gift of chocolate has been referred to a couple of times this week. To end our theme of Mexico and chocolate, it is worth getting the full story. Pause now and get yourself a brimming, frothy, hot chocolate. Savour the taste, then sit back and enjoy. It is story-line.


Quetzalcoátl came to Earth in the afternoon. He had been seen before, of course, up in the sky, represented by the star that we now call Venus. But this was the first time that He had deigned to step on the ground and walk amongst humanity. The people stopped and stared. It was obvious that He was a God. No mere man looked like that!

Some Gods, when they come to Earth, do so disguised as carpenter's sons or travellers on the road. The point is that they blend in (give or take a penetrating stare and an aura of other). Not so Quetzalcoátl. He was a God, so He came as a God, with all the trappings of Godliness and symbolical items of office clutched in His Godly hands. It was all a bit disconcerting for a sunny afternoon; but, on the bright side, at least He hadn't arrived in His aspect of the man-devouring feathered serpent.


Imagine that same scene now. A bona fide God turning up in a shopping mall, or appearing in a flash of light, in the middle of a games stadium. Human beings aren't good with coming face to face with deity. They tend to either prostrate themselves or else attack, as a mob, and crucify their God. The ancient Toltecs were not much different to us. Self-preservation took over and they took the prostrating themselves option.

Moreover, they had that horrible moment, when they realised that their icons to other Gods were on full view. A few minutes smashing up clay pots and statues and the place was downright God-free. Obviously give or take the huge, live one, standing in the middle of their town. But, while this might have been good for Quetzalcoátl and good manners on the part of the people, there were other beings who were not at all impressed. The other Gods for a start.


Sometimes it's good politics to side with the flavour of the month, even if He was a usurper responsible for yourself being side-lined. One by one, the other Gods and Goddesses lined up to welcome Quetzalcoátl and to acknowledge Him as their leader. In response, Quetzalcoátl told them to teach the people nice things, like how to grow corn successfully and how to measure the march of the constellations.

The Toltec people immediately made plans for a huge temple to be built in Quetzalcoátl's honor. It would be their biggest architectural endeavour to date and it would tower over every other building in their town. It would have five sides to represent the five-pointed star, that was Quetzalcoátl in the sky. Atlantes warrior statues guarded its frontage and summit. (The remains of it survive to this day, at Tula de Allende, Hidalgo, in Mexico, where it is, unsurprisingly, called the Temple of Quetzalcoátl.)


Even now, the other Gods and Goddesses were merely seething, but then Quetzalcoátl went a step too far. To celebrate His temple, He asked for a cup of chocolate. The human population were nonplussed. They had never heard of this wonder. But the deities most certainly had. Chocolate was the drink of the Gods. It came from the beans of the cacao tree, which only grew in the Garden of Life. No human had access to them. "Oh!" said Quetzalcoátl, "We'll soon fix that!" And off he went to collect the beans and a few trees.

Humanity gets chocolateThe deities present exchanged shocked glances. He was really going to allow mere mortals to taste the sacred drink?!

Quetzalcoátl did more than that. He taught the people how to cultivate the trees and process the beans, so that they could produce a plentiful supply of chocolate. It was an amazing coup for the people. It was war for the Gods.

They were organized by Tezcatlipoca, the God of Darkness and Night. He had his allies in the Tzitzimimeh, the all-female, humanity-devouring star dwellers. His ire had already infected them and they were just looking for an excuse to attack Quetzalcoátl. Tezcatlipoca came to Earth, in the guise of a spider, and entered Toltec country. There he altered his form again, blending in as a travelling merchant. He quickly found Quetzalcoátl and enquired after his health.

"I'm a bit down actually." Quetzalcoátl informed him. "I think that the other Gods and Goddesses are plotting against me."

"Surely not!" The God of Darkness and Night replied. "But I have just the person to cheer you up."

Thus Tezcatlipoca introduced Quetzalcoátl to Mayahuel and... well, that story has already been told: Mezcal.


Quetzalcoátl returned to the stars after that, allowing the other Gods and Goddesses to regain their former prominence in the hearts of the people. But Quetzalcoátl would always be special for the Mexicans. He left behind him chocolate, tequilia, corn and knowledge of the night skies. It's a gift that we're still very much enjoying.
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