June 20, 2011

June 19th: Father's Day

Yesterday was Father's Day in Mexico. Día del Padre (Day of Fathers) always falls on the third Sunday in June, so its date, unlike Mother's Day, can change. Other than that, the day holds many similarities to Día de las Madres, only the parental focus has changed.

Día del Padre

Día del Padre is a day for honoring fathers and father figures. Children and adults alike will have presented their dad with a card and gift. As with Mother's Day, the little ones will often have made something at school, while older children and adults will have bought their tokens of appreciation from a shop.

This is a day for family. Being Sunday, in a staunchly Catholic country, the whole extended family might well have met up for Mass at their local church. Afterwards, everyone congregates at the parental home, where a shared meal usually evolves into a small party. It is all for the patriarch of the home, who could expect a steady stream of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, lining up to tell him how great he is.

Día del Padre

In some areas, the celebrations spill out of the homes and into larger events. In Mexico City, the 31st annual Carrera del Día del Padre (Father's Day Race) was held in Bosque de Tlalpan (Tlalpan Forest). Organized by professional athletic associations, the 12,000 participants will have paid up to $400 entrance fee. But there are substantial cash prizes attached to a sliding scale of awards. The overall winner will net $50,000.

Categories include everything from athletic standard to veteran fun runs; though a popular one is the Father and Son Race. Birth certificates proving their relationship is required to sign up to that one. They hurtle out over 13 miles (21km), after the 7.30am starting whistle sounds, into a mostly forested route. However, some of the roads in the city will be closed as part of the race. Afterwards, there is a carnival atmosphere, as times are displayed for all (gathered from chips clipped to each runner) and the award ceremony takes place.

Día del Padre

For most fathers in Mexico, the day is less competitive and more family oriented. If it isn't the Mass, meal, party combo around the home, then it will be a day trip with everyone in tow. The whole family might descend upon a local attraction or beauty hotspot; or attend a sports venue as spectators only!

A (slightly belated) feliz Día del Padre to all the Mexican fathers (and other nationalities visiting) out there!

June 17, 2011

Cocktails in Cancun


There's been a lot of talk about tequila, mezcal and cerveza, when it comes to alcoholic beverages in Mexico. But this is not the whole story by any stretch of the imagination.

In Cancún, the undisputed Party Capital of the country, the visitors want more and Cancún delivers! Just check out some of the exotic, fun cocktails on offer here, then imagine sipping them, on a white sand beach overlooking the clear blue Caribbean. Now you're on vacation!

Practically every bar and hotel has its own signature cocktail, as evidenced by the Melon Monkey demonstrated, in the above film, by bar-tenders at the Cancún Palace. However, there are also bespoke cocktail bars aplenty. Naturally Boulevard Kukulcan is where the discerning tourist will find the majority of them. Sunset Bar (km 20); Caña Brava (km 7.5); Pat O' Brien's Cancún (km 11.5); Rendez Vous (km 14); and Beach Bar (km 16.5) are just a handful of them.

They range in reputation and price from the high end of the market down to budget. For example, somewhere like Rendez Vous or Gustino is going to tap your pocket a whole lot more than, say, the Pool Bar at Holiday Inn. But they are catering to a different clientele and who can say which is best? The fair thing would be for us to have a cocktail in each, then decide on own personal taste, just before passing out at the end.

Inevitably, there had to be a cocktail named for the whole city and yes! It does exist! The Cancún Cocktail should be served in a highball glass, filled with crushed ice. Then add in the ingredients, one by one:

1/2 oz amaretto almond liqueur
1/2 oz banana liqueur
1/2 oz coconut rum
5 - 6 oz pineapple juice

Serve with a flourish and sip. This caters for one. Just double each measurement for two, and so on, until your entire party is getting a taste of Cancún.

Sorry, did we say one eponymously named Cancún Cocktail? There is a pretender to the title, so make that two! The second version is served in a hurricane glass, again filled with ice.

1/2 oz Dark rum
1/2 oz Peach Schnapps
Fresh orange juice
Fresh pineapple juice
Fresh papaya juice
Garnish with tropical fruits

Once again, the quantity there is for one, so multiply it all by the number of people here to sup!

With such a choice on offer, it's not unusual to find people on personal quests to sample them all. Blogger Candice, of 'Candice Does the World', gave it a good go, then reported back in her blog entry: 'The Cocktails of Cancun'. Here are a couple of her conclusions:

1. Xtabentún – A liqueur made solely in the Yucatan from anise seed and fermented honey. It sounds all sweet and docile, but I assure you this drink packs a punch. Like tequila, but maybe with more bruises...

4. The Julio Loco – A drink specifically developed at the Cancun Caribe Park Royal Grand resort, it’s a daunting (but pretty!) mixture of crushed ice, mango and chocolate. By the time we left Cancun, the drink had caught on and was spreading like wildfire.

Visit her blog to read the rest. Happy drinking!


June 16, 2011

A Taste of Mexico: Quesadilla!

Many Mexican foods have been exported and found their variants in countries around the globe. Up there in the vanguard is the packed quesadilla, brimming with diverse fillings, based on own personal taste. It can be sampled practically anywhere in the world, wherever a Mexican themed restaurant has sprung up. But, of course, there's only one place to find and enjoy the real thing: Mexico.


The recipe for quesadilla (pronounced kess-a-dee-ya) changes as it travels. The basic idea is there. It has an outer crust, soft or hard depending on the location, called a tortilla. This is folded, in a half-moon shape, around an array of delicious ingredients (mushrooms, vegetables, beans, chicken or beef are favorites), all held into place with melted cheese. Salsa and/or guacamole are usually offered for inclusion too. Nevertheless, outside Mexico, quesadilla rarely tastes the same.

Often this is due to the little changes of convenience and culture made beyond our borders. For example, in Mexico, the salsa is often a matter of honor and pride. It may be a family secret recipe, handed down from a succession of grandmothers, and experimented with until perfection is reached.

In other countries, salsa is just salsa with none of the judgmental values attached. It's ok to just reach for the mass-produced jars of chopped tomato with flavoring and still call it salsa. A Mexican cook would never get away with that. They wouldn't dare produce a bland salsa and hope to escape with their culinary reputation intact.


Also Mexican tortillas tend to be made out of corn. They are rolled by hand and individually formed over smoky comals. In America, Canada, Australasia and Europe, the tortillas are generally made from wheat flour and fried or baked as a batch.

It all comes down to what works and what is acceptable. Corn is more plentiful and cheap in Mexico (it is one of our major exports) than wheat; while the reverse is true for other nations. Those little taste details, as with the salsa, would pass without remark elsewhere, so it makes sense for businesses to take the cheap and lazy option. But all of these things alter the quesadilla too, as it is created across the world. Hence the assertion that, for the real deal, Mexico is the only place to eat one.


Quesadillas are incredibly popular here. Just about every street corner, mercado and food court has vendors selling them. No self-respecting restaurant and cafe would be without them on the menu. The savoury smell whafts out drawing locals and tourists alike. A wedge of quesadilla can be a light snack, to see the hungry through their journey towards their own kitchen. A full-sized portion can (and often is) the full meal itself.

It is universally savoury here, though some have experimented with sweet quesadilla. The 'quesa' part of the name comes from the Mexican word for cheese, 'queso'. Oaxaca cheese is usually used here (another taste difference, as Monterrey cheese is often exported for quesadillas elsewhere). This is white and arrives semi-hard, until it is softened over the comal. Then the cheese becomes stringy and melts with a taste similiar to Italian mozzarella.

The fillings are limited only by imagination and availability. Chicken and beef are standards, though other cooked meat or seafood, like shrimp or crab, can be used. For the vegetarians, many a tasty quesadilla has been made with mushrooms, refried beans and vegetables. So much may go into this mix. Seeds, stew, mole... the list goes on. Just ask and it may happen.


June 15, 2011

96% of Mexico is Safe for Tourists

With harsh headlines about Mexico still dominating the world's press, it might be expected that vacationers would keep away. However, reports are out that demonstrate that tourists, especially in America, are too savvy to be hoodwinked by scare stories. Now the government is fighting back with answers for the country's critics and data for those weary of being spoon-fed bad news.

Cabo San Lucas
Cabo San Lucas

23 million international visitors came to Mexico last year, on business or for pleasure; with their numbers boosted by a further 6 million docking for day-trips from the cruise ships. The majority were citizens of the USA. In 2010, 10% more Americans entered Mexico than in 2009. President Calderon informed a Las Vegas conference of travel executives that 'almost zero' of these even encountered drug violence.

The reason is clear. They were nowhere near the trouble. Mexico is a huge country, divided into 2,500 counties. Of these, only 80 counties are experiencing the problems that dominate coverage in the newspapers. That's only 4% of the total landmass. The remaining 96% of the country ranges from 'relatively safe' through to 'completely safe' from drug cartel violence.

Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá

Tourism Secretary Gloria Guevara was asked, in a recent interview, where is it safe to travel to? She replied, "I would say they can go to all the tourist destinations because all the tourist destinations are fine. It depends on whatever you like, but there are a lot of places you should visit and have a great time. Stay away from a couple of cities within the border." ('Popular destinations safe, says Mexico tourism minister'.)

This is a message that is supported by the USA's federal travel warning. This was last updated on April 22nd, 2011, and reads,

Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day for study, tourism or business and at least one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico.

The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations. Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major trafficking routes...

...you are urged to defer non-essential travel to the states of Tamaulipas and Michoacán, and to parts of the states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Sinaloa, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Jalisco.

In short, Mexico's northern border with the USA.

Guadalajara City

This was not the message conveyed by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which issued its own, more extensive warning earlier this year. Spring breakers were told to stay out of Mexico full stop. The penalty for traveling south, the declaration darkly cautioned, would almost certainly be dire. DPS Director Steven C. McCraw was reported widely stating, "Our safety message is simple: avoid traveling to Mexico during Spring Break and stay alive."

He was almost universally ignored. Not only did his predicted bloodbath utterly fail to occur, but the numbers of Spring Breakers reached record proportions in 2010.

Spring Breakers
Spring Breakers in Cancun

In addition, there has been a steady stream of celebrities crossing the border, for work, pleasure and, in some cases, matrimony, throughout the year. By their very nature, these are the pampered and protected products of film and TV studios or record labels, who would soon be forbidding any destination which might threaten their star.

Yet just today, American journalists were writing, 'Now that Mexico's tourist industry is pulling out of a long, well-publicized slump... we can't help noticing that the uptick parallels an accelerating stream of celebrities visiting the country.' ('Stars head to Mexico for work and pleasure.')

Celebrities in Mexico
American actors Soleil Moon Frye, Eric Dane, Rebecca Gayheart and their children, on a Memorial Day vacation, in the Four Seasons Resort, Punta de Mita, Mexico

Terry Denton, president of the Travel Leaders/Main Street Place Travel in Fort Worth, explained that, "In the past, people in Texas have rolled things like this off their back because they were savvy with Mexico travel." Though he did report a substantial increase in concerned people visiting his office with their questions, after the DPS warning was issued. "In many cases, we could alleviate any fears and concerns they had by sharing our knowledge of statistics and geography."

However, American travel agencies remained unimpressed with the scaremongering, which could well have hit them right in the pocket. Adventure Travel Trade Association president, Shannon Stowell, was blunt in her response to the issue. "If you look at federal travel warnings, they are very editorial free, just reportage on the facts. But the one that came out of Texas had what I would call an inflammatory message. It was an unfair blanket statement. It's a damage to our membership." ('Tourism groups ask Texas DPS to refine its warnings about Mexico'.)

No-one in government, nor the American tourist agencies, are denying that there are severe troubles in certain parts of the country. Javier Sicilia's peace caravan, which has weaved its route throughout Mexico and is currently at the US border, is just one testimony to that.

Javier Sicilia
Javier Sicilia at the head of the Peace Caravan

President Calderon is the first to admit it. "Yes we have problems... We are dealing with that, we are facing it." He stated, at the Las Vegas conference, but he also commented, "Mexico is a safe place to visit." Because once the hotspot 4% of the country is avoided, then it is.

Tourism Secretary Gloria Guevara also recognized past marketing errors. "We left a gap of lack of information. That gap was filled up with bad news and that happened for a couple years. We realized that was a mistake and we’re fixing it. Yes, we have some challenges but, I haven’t met a country that doesn’t have challenges."

In the meantime, 2011 has been declared the Year of Tourism by Mexico's government; and that tourism is going from strength to strength.

June 14, 2011

Bono's Birthday Bash in Mexico City

Irish supergroup, U2, were in Mexico last month, as part of their 360° Tour. If the notion of seeing them in concert was enough to excite fans, then what happened next drove them into a frenzy.

Lead singer, Bono, was celebrating his 51st birthday, with crowds gathered at his restaurant to catch a glimpse of the band. That was all the excuse he needed to step out onto the streets. The champagne cork was popped right in the middle of his over-joyed fans.

Bono had already been establishing his Mexican credentials. On stage, he donned a sombrero offered by a fan; wearing it for a chorus of 'The Real Thing' before handing it back. Later, he declared, 'we are Irish Latinos'. The crowd appreciated it. They apparently had adopted Mexican pseudonyms for the event.

Adam was introduced as Rafa Marquez, while 'behind me, he never changes, he still looks 24, the chicharito of the band, Larry Mullen' and Edge was christened Hugo Sanchez.
'Where's Frank?' www.u2.com

Mexico City's Aztec Stadium was packed out for the three nights that they played. Each concert had sold out to its capacity of 105,000 tickets, but a good view was assured by the staging. The 360° Tour refers to the circular platform upon which U2 were playing. Huge screens relayed images of the band above their heads.

U2 in Mexico

The 300k plus crowds in Mexico were just a drop in the ocean for this tour. It has already become the high-grossing tour, by any artist, in history. An estimated $558 million has been made from it.

Since forming, in 1976, U2's activism and promotion of social issues have been as famous as their music. Their trip to Mexico was no exception. From the Aztec Stadium's stage, on the final night, Bono highlighted the plight of victims of drug violence in northern Mexico; and castigated the unchecked flow of arms from the USA. His speech led to a rendering of 'Pride (In the Name of Love)', with slightly altered lyrics to create a Mexican context. (Footage of the event can be found here.)

Bono and Calderon

Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, was in the audience that night. Bono, who seems to have had a private audience with just about every world leader, prominent peace activist and religious representative of the past two decades, was invited to meet with President Calderon.

Their discussions took place behind closed doors, in the presidential offices at Los Pinos, in Bosque de Chapultepec. It is believed that they covered the issues caused by arms and drugs trade, poverty, global warming and Mexico's role as host of the G-20 meeting in 2012.

June 13, 2011

Bacalar and the Lagoon of the Seven Colors

It is one of the gems of the Caribbean coastline; a haven of artists, nestled within an area of outstanding natural beauty, where the adventurers zoom, at 125mph, across the ocean's clear, blue horizon. This is Bacalar, named a Pueblo Magico (Magic Town) by the Mexican government; the first with such a designation in the whole of Quintana Roo. It is known as the Lagoon of the Seven Colors.


The town sits just twenty minutes drive south of Chetumal; and the residents of the state's capital have found it well enough. Bacalar is where they come to kick back and relax. A tranquil outpost, where the pace of life winds down to a snail's crawl; where fun is informal and the food is rich, authentic Mexican fare. This is the Mexico that the tourists think that they are getting, up in sanitized, Americanized Cancun. This is real.

Yet external influences have made their mark here too. Bacalar lies right on the River Hondo, the deep river, which provides a natural, national border with Belize to the south. The best of Belize makes it into the town, in dishes, dances and music.

This is especially true during the first fifteen days of August, when the annual Fair of San Joaquin de Bacalar is in full swing. In those heady days of concerts, races, staged fighting, demonstrations, ballets, mercados and fiesta fuelled celebrations, there is as much Belizean as Mexican. Their neighbour is an ally and the fun is shared.


But parties can be had all over Mexico. What most people are here for is the scenery. Hemmed around with lush, jungle foliage, Bacalar boasts a wide and shallow lagoon, that changes color as it moves towards the shore.

Out in the bay, the mirror calm ocean reflects back the rays of the sun, in a twinkling array of glistening gold. This is the Caribbean, so the waters are crystal clear, allowing the underwater world to throw up its colors, in softening hues of green and blue. The white sands are seen long before it sheds the blanketing sea and envelopes the beaches.

It is not unusual to find a tourist here, losing hours in misty-eyed contemplation, at the quiet wonder of it all; nor to overhear the delighted shrieks of the newly arrived, "I feel like I've died and gone to Heaven!!" The artists know. They've been painting it for years.


The lagoon, of course, isn't merely pretty. The waters, stretching out as far as the eye can see, are never deeper than 20ft (6 meters). That makes it perfect for adventure sports, like kayaking. There are places throughout the town, where sail-boats can be hired or trips arranged on a speed-boat. Scuba diving, snorkelling, swimming and every water activity under the sun can be indulged in Bacalar.

This includes cenote diving, swimming and exploring. Cenote Azul, a vast sinkhole, lies right at the entrance to the town. It is the gateway to a sprawling network of underground rivers, caverns and passageways, some of which are yet to be fully discovered. That is the preserve of the experts, but many are mapped for tourist treks. Meanwhile, the cenote itself is one of the most popular attractions in the area, drawing people from miles around to enjoy its refreshing waters and cool, beautiful rockface.

Competitive races are held here too. The biggest is the Rio Hondo-Bacalar Nautical Marathon, which draws crowds in early August. They naturally stick around for the town's large fair.


There is history to explore in the town too. The Fort of San Felipe Bacalar was originally built, in 1725, to protect the town from pirates and illegal loggers. But its importance grew towards the end of that century, when hostilities erupted between the British, in Belize, and the Spanish, in Mexico. With soldiers lined up on either side of the Rio Hondo, the nearby fort became a base of operations and supplies.

Again, in the 19th century, the fort held a pivotal role in the Caste War, when the local Maya rose up against those of European descent. The fort changed hands several times in that conflict; and the history is still there for visitors to see.

Today, it is difficult to imagine battles ever touching Bacalar. The less energetic lie draped on hammocks or sun-loungers; or amble around Bacalar's streets and shops. There are beach-side bars and quiet cafes, or higher class restaurants for those meaningful moments. The beautiful town goes on, in peace and relaxation, and the ever changing colors of its tranquil lagoon.


June 10, 2011

Chihuahua: The World's Smallest Dog

There are 1,700 different species of animals indigenious to Mexico. Some are world famous, yet one stands out above them all. The national emblem of our country is the Mexican golden eagle, but it might as well be the chihuahua.


This is the world's smallest dog, standing at around 6-10" (15-23cm) tall. It is named after the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Along with chocolate, coffee, corn and tequila, the breed is one of the country's most successful exports. Most of the globe is familiar with the little guy.

The ancestor of the chihuahua was slightly bigger. This was the techichi, a favorite dog of the Aztec people. It apparently had a mystical significance too. The techichi were thought to be so loyal that they would guide their human companion's soul through the Underworld into safety. It would fight off all evil spirits in their path. As a result, the poor techichi was often sacrificed and burnt, along with their owner, so that the two could journey on together.

Even after the coming of Christianity to Mexico, this practise continued. Only now, the techichi were used as scapegoats. Cremating one in a human funeral pyre meant that the techihi dog would take on the human's sins. Thus its owner could carry on straight into Heaven.


The techichi, as a distinct breed, is extinct now, but its genes live on in the tiny chihuahua.

There is a theory that Spanish conquistadors brought with them a toy breed, like the Chinese crested dog. This mated with the techichi, in order to create a brand new hybrid, which eventually became the chihuahua. Others argue that images and other artifacts, including remains, have been found in Maya and Aztec archaeological sites. These obviously pre-date 1530, pointing to the fact that chihuahuas were in Mexico long before the Spanish came with their pets.

In 1904, the American Kennel Club officially registered the breed of toy dog, that the fashionable society ladies of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico were buying in Mexico. It was called the Chihuahua Dog, as in the breed from Chihuahua, though that quickly became shortened to a chihuahua. This is the moniker by which it is known throughout the world.

(For a moment there, it could have been called the Texas Dog or the Arizona Dog, which is where they were most prevalent in the USA, at the start of the 20th century. Today, they are stereotypically seen, in Mexico, as the pets of Manhattan's social elite, hence the dog's nickname here of 'New Yorker'.)


It is a popular misconception that chihuahuas have to be pampered by humans in order to survive. They were certainly the dogs of kings (the Aztec monarchs all owned one), but they have been known to form wild packs too. One such pack famously took up residence in the ruins of Tenochtitlán Palace, in Mexico City. Their ancestors had been abandoned after their Aztec owners, all members of the nobility, had been killed in the Spanish invasion of the 16th century.

Generations of this pack of chihuahuas lived there for three centuries, right up until the construction of the National Palace of Mexico, in 1850, near to the site. It's hard to build grand architecture, with dozens of 10" dogs yapping in defense of their patch, so, unfortunately, the wild chihuahuas were removed.


Chihuahuas are usually differentiated between two types: long-hair and smooth-hair. They are genetically exactly the same breed, but their fur is respectively long or short. (Smooth hair doesn't necessary mean 'smooth'. It can be velvetty or coarse, as long as it's short.) As show dogs, they shouldn't weigh more than 6lbs, though 2-4lbs is the ideal.

They are the favorite of the world's celebrities, with actresses and socialites in particular often seen with one under their arm. Famous chihuahua owners include: Marilyn Monroe, Sharon Osbourne, Paris Hilton, Hilary Duff and Cesar Millan. Chihuahuas often turn up in shows and in films, including 'Evil Con Carne', 'Invader Zim', 'Batman Returns', 'That's So Raven', 'The Soup', 'Legally Blonde' and 'Transformers'. They've also advertized Taco Bell. Let's not also forget that Ren Höek, the eponymous hero of 'Ren and Stimpy', is a chihuahua.

Boo Boo, the world's smallest, living, adult dog, is a chihuahua. She is 4" high, 6.5" long and weighs just 24oz. She can be found in Raceland, Kentucky, in the USA.

June 9, 2011

Strange Plants of Mexico

In a megadiverse country, you are spoiled for choice in looking at plants. There are 23,424 known, different variaties here, with more being discovered all of the time. We have selected just a few of the interesting ones to show you.



Cleome Isomeris, aka Bladderpod, is mostly found in Baja California. By 'found', we mean whole fields and hillsides bathed in a vibrant yellow, as the Bladderpod spreads as far as the eye can see. They grow up to 6.5ft (2 meters) and they are gorgeous.

To the disappointment of small children everywhere, the 'bladder' part refers only to the shape of its seed-pod. Inside each of them, there are dozens of tightly packed seeds, just waiting to pop out.

Burro's Tail

Burro's Tail

Burro is the Mexican word for a donkey, hence the common name for Sedum Morganianum (though this is surely a missed opportunity to name it 'Knatty Dreadlock Plant'). It takes a second look to realise that those tendrils aren't woven. It's just a visual fallacy caused by the shape of the blue-green leaves. In season, there is also a red flower at the end.

The tendrils grow to nearly 2ft (60cm) and are often exported for use as foliage houseplants. It can be found throughout Southern Mexico.

Fishbone Cactus

Fishbone Cactus

It looks like it's all leaves and the occasional magnificent flower, but those green parts are actually branches. This is Epiphyllum anguliger, also known as the fishbone cactus. It flowers at night, and then only for a handful of nights each year.

In the wild, it is only found in the rainforests of Chiapas, at a high altitude. However, people do successfully cultivate it as a rare houseplant.

Jelly Bean Plant

Jelly Bean Plant

Doesn't it look good enough to eat? This is Sedum Rubrotinctum, better known by its nicknames, the Jelly Bean Plant or Pork and Beans. Despite those tasty sounding names, it's better not to attempt to eat this plant. The 'jelly beans' are actually poisonous. Either ingesting or touching them might cause irritation.

It grows easily throughout Mexico and is one of the popular gardening exports. It will grow in any soil, except mud or swamp; however, it can't cope with frost. The leaves change color, from green to red, during the course of the year. Its flowers are bright yellow.

Little Hermit of Mexico

Senita Cactus

In 2005, a botanist, from St Louis, Missouri, in the USA, was on holiday in Mexico. He climbed up into the mountains east of Acapulco and found a strange, parasitic plant growing all over a tree. George Yatskievych, with a botanist's instinct, cut off a segment, then pressed and dried a whole specimum. Once he returned home, he attempted to find out what it was called. The world's experts didn't have a clue.

Wayt Thomas, from New York's Botanical Garden, did have a sneaking suspicion that it matched another specimum. That had been found in 1985 and hadn't been seen before nor since. They compared their plants and they matched. It's still being studied, but it appears to be an extremely rare, undocumented plant. It currently wears the moniker, 'Little Hermit of Mexico'. They are working on the Latin name.

It can be found in the Guerrero mountains, though you may be looking for days before you spot one.

Old Man Cactus

Senita Cactus

Ok, that's cheating just a little, as you're only seeing the top of Pachycereus Schottii, aka Senita Cactus, Whisker Cactus and Old Man Cactus. As it grows up to 21ft (6.4 meters) in height, and congregates in clumps around 15ft (4.6 meters) wide, you're unlikely to actually see the summit of the mature plants. It's very pretty though.

Here is the rest of it, growing around the base of a dead Ironwood Tree, in the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, Sonora.

Senita Cactus

It is in bloom right now, with pale pink flowers showing from April until August. However, they only appear at night. Another feature of this cactus is that, as it ages, the spines at the top become quite large, in comparison to those at the bottom. These top heavy spines hang down, giving the impression of a long, flowing, white beard. Hence its nicknames of whisker cactus and old man cactus.

It can be found throughout Northern Mexico, including on the Baja California.

Shrimp Plant

Shrimp Plant

This is Justicia Brandegeana, also known as the shrimp plant, because its flowers, well, look like a shrimp.

The flowers are white, but they grow from red bracts, which give it the illusion of a pink color. The bracts keep on extending for most of the year, until they reach around a foot (30cm) in length. Then the weight snaps it off and it falls to the ground.

This plant is a favorite of hummingbirds and butterflies. It can be found all over Mexico.

Teddy Bear Cholla

Teddy Bear Cholla

Is anyone else getting the impression of a load of cacti, who just saw the camera come out and rushed forward to pose? That one at the front definitely has a, 'Hey Mum!', aspect to it. Or maybe it's just me on one two many tequilas.

Despite the cuddly name, it's better not to hug a Teddy Bear Cholla. They are covered in spikes and so it might hurt. Not least because they have a habit of detaching ends of their stems to embed themselves into bare flesh; hence you should wear long trousers while walking anywhere near them. (Stong language warning for the below video.)

The spikes are about an inch long, densely covering a plant that is between 3 to 7 feet (1 to 2 m) tall. The jumping segments are around 10 inches (25 cm) long.

Teddy Bear Cholla can be found in the Sonora Desert.

June 8, 2011

The Pelican Brief

The largest bird in Mexico is the American white pelican. In fact, it's the largest in the entire of North America. With a wingspan of up to 9ft (2.74 meters), they are quite the sight to see flying over.


As well as that impressive wingspan, the adult American white pelican has a body length of around 5ft 2" (1.58 meters). They weigh in at nearly 2 stone (25lbs; 11 kilo), thus you'd think it would be difficult for them to get air-borne at all. Not a bit of it. They soar in their thousands into Mexico each year, in great clouds of squawking whiteness. They are here for the fish.

Their destination are the great inland lakes, like Lake Chapala, which divides the states of Jalisco and Michoacán. This is the largest freshwater lake in Mexico, covering an area of approximately 424 square miles (1,100 km²); which is a good job, when you consider the size and number of its annual avian visitors.

The American white pelican settles over a vast area and immediately establishes itself at the top of the food chain. It swims on the surface of the water, gracefully ducking its head to scoop up fish in its long bill. Once it ventures into the shallows, then some community co-operation comes into play. The pelicans group together in a wide semi-circle, trapping fish before them. Each pelican then chases the fish right into the path of its neighbour. Thus group hunting means that everyone feasts.


American white pelicans can be spotted, in winter, along the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines, but they will be in the estuaries or inland lakes. Occasionally a stray, blown off course or just plain lost, will be seen along the Caribbean.

They had previously been in decline, as agricultural pesticides seeped into their habitat, but they have recovered. Environmental treaties, covering their migratory route between Mexico and Canada, have saved them. They live up to 16 years, in the wild, with the adult females laying two eggs a year.


American white pelicans might look impressive, but for pure entertainment value, their native cousins, the brown pelican, wins outright. These are the great divers of the avian world, with death-defying plunges that leave on-lookers breathless with anticipation as to whether they will make it or not. The adults, at least, invariably do, but the adrenaline rush is worth the spectacle.

Here is a version in slow motion. The reality is seven times faster. They will begin the dive at 40-60mph. They will have picked up speed by the time they hit the water.

A substantial number of brown pelicans don't make it past their first year. They break their necks learning how to do that. Then they drown.

Though dwarved by the American white, the brown pelican is not a small bird. Its wingspan can stretch up to 8ft (2.5 meters). Its body grows up to 4ft 7" (1.8 meters). It weighs nearly a stone (12lb; 5.5kg); and it drops from the sky at around 60mph. Aren't you glad that you're not a fish?

As with many creatures, it's not us who are at risk from them, it's the other way around. The use of DDT, in agricultural pesticides, came close to rendering brown pelicans extinct in the 1960s. It took a ban on that to see their population recover. By 1988, they were removed from the endangered register of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, redesignated 'least concern' instead.

In fact, their numbers have grown so great this year, that it's causing comment across their migratory route. (This report from San Diego, in the USA, is common: Buzz Rising Over Local Pelican Population.)


As a marine bird, brown pelicans can be spotted anywhere on Mexico's 6,300 miles (10,143km) of coastline. They are on the Pacific, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. The challenge is to try and film those dive-bombs. They're much too fast for the average camcorder holder to follow!

June 7, 2011

Endemic Species of Mexico

Endemic species are those creatures, birds, plants etc that are only found in one place in the wild. By their very nature, they are endangered. If there is only a population in one place, then something negatively effecting that habitat is going to threaten them with extinction. From volcanic bunnies to rare giant frogs, megadiverse Mexico has thousands of endemic species. Let us examine just a few.

Cozumel Thrasher

Cozumel Thrasher

The Cozumel Thrasher is a mockingbird that lives only on the Island of Cozumel, off the Yucatán Peninsula. It is the most critically endangered bird in Mexico, as its population levels have dropped dangerously.

It's not alone in that status on the island. This is the sole habitat of several other birds and mammals, all of which are protected, as humanity tries to hold back the tide of extinction for them.

The Thrasher is special though, in that it's already been extinct and come back. Well, not quite. It was assumed to be gone from the world and was thus registered. Then, in 2004, someone spotted one in Cozumel and there has been a scramble to save it ever since.

Some think that it's already too late, as there has not been a reliable sighting of Cozumel Thrasher since 2008. If you're on the island, please keep your eyes peeled. There will be a lot of relieved ornithologists, if you find it.

Flat-headed Myotis

Flat-headed Myotis

The bat is one of the smallest in the world. It weighs about the same as two peanuts held in your hand. It's also one of the rarest creatures to spot, even in its natural habitat in a valley in Coahuila. It was first seen in 1952, then not again until 1966, when there were two separate sightings. Then nothing. By 1996, it was declared extinct.

A team from the Program for the Conservation of Bats of Mexico weren't happy with this designation, so set out to try and find the miniature bat. That was in 1997. In 2006, they finally found eleven of them, in Los Pinos, Coahuila. You can read all about it in their article: 'The Flat-Headed Myotis is Alive & Well: 'Extinct' bat is rediscovered in northern Mexico'.

Great Peeping Frog

The Great Peeping Frog, aka Rana-fisgona Labios Blancos, is only found in the Zonas del Pedregal de San Ángel, just south of Mexico City. Its natural habitat is sub-tropical or tropical dry shrubland, thus it loves the lava fields of Volcán Xitle.

The problem for this frog was that it lives so close to Mexico's capital city. As the city expanded, it ate up more and more of its habitat, right up until the point when someone realised it was going to become extinct. Pedregal de San Ángel has now been made a nature reserve, with the Great Peeping Frog under the 'special protection' registration of the Mexican government.

Nevertheless, there are no natural corridors into the outside world and the population of these mighty frogs has dangerously decreased. Survey work is currently underway to determine how many are left and if they are going to survive as a species.

Guadalupe Fur Seal

Guadalupe Fur Seal

You used to be able to find the fur seal all up the Pacific coast, from Mexico to Canada. However, their skin is so soft, dense, waterproof and lovely, who wouldn't want to make clothes out of it? As a result, they had been hunted out of existance, in the USA, by 1825. Now they can only be found on and around Mexico's Guadalupe Island, off the coast of Baja California.

Commercial hunting stopped, in Mexico, in 1894, when just seven remained. The Guadalupe Fur Seal population has now grown to approximately 10,000, so their status has been altered to 'near threatened', as opposed to practically extinct. They remain listed as 'endangered' in the USA though. Guadalupe Island has been declared a seal sanctuary.

There was a bit of drama concerning one recently. A stray young male Guadalupe Fur Seal washed up on Torrey Pines State Beach, in the USA, in a terrible condition. He was starving and suffering from both hypoglycemia and hypothermia. He was taken to SeaWorld, in San Diego, where he was nursed back to full health. Nicknamed Buddy, the seal was then returned to the Pacific Ocean. As he was fitted with a tracking device, it is known that he immediately headed home and appears to be going strong. (Guadalupe Fur Seal Released Into the Ocean.)

Mexican Prairie Dog

Mexican Prairie Dog

Southern Coahuila and northern San Luis Potosi are the only places where the Mexican Prairie Dog might be found. However, they are another species which has made it onto the 'endangered' register. This time it is because they have been historically considered to be agricultural pests. Therefore ferrets kept being sent down their 'towns' (subterranean habitat of the prairie dogs) to kill them.

The 'towns' generally have a funnel-like entrance, leading into a sloping passageway up to 100ft underground. Leading off this tunnel are little rooms, all dug out by the prairie dogs. Inside them, the prairie dogs sleep and store grasses, herbs and other tasty items of food.

Since 1994, the prairie dogs, now living in less than 4% of their original habitat, have been listed as 'endangered'. Two organizations, Pronatura Noreste and Profauna, have taken it upon themselves to save them. They have been highly successful in securing the protection of 42,000 acres (170 km²) of grasslands for the prairie dogs. This involved getting a lot of signatures from private land owners and those using communal areas. It is hoped that the initiative will see the survival of these creatures.

Querétaro Pocket Gopher

Querétaro Pocket Gopher

In the north-eastern corner of Querétaro state, there is the Sierra del Doctor. Nestled deep in this remote, tiny mountain range is the Querétaro Pocket Gopher.

Very little is known about this small mammal. It lives underground and it is noctural. But there are so few of them, in such a remote location, that most research relies on hearsay. The locals know all about them. They see the evidence in mounds of earth, under which the pocket gophers have been burrowing.

For many farmers, they are incorrectly seen as pests, despite the fact that there is some evidence that the pocket gophers are responsible for the richness of the soil up there. All that digging has the effect of aerating it, while their droppings fertilize the it, deep underground.

San José Island Kangaroo Rat

San Jose Island Kangaroo Rat

As the name suggests, the San José Island Kangaroo Rat can only be found on San José Island, off the coast of Baja California, where it is steadily being eaten out of existence by feral cats. There are very few adults left now and they all live in very close proximity. These rats are, therefore, listed as Critically Endangered.

In addition to the feral cat problem, there's also the habitat destruction by wild goats and human development. The Mexican government, fearful of an actual extinction here, have stepped in to protect the immediate vicinity of the rats' home. They live in open grasslands, close to a sandy beach.

For the record, kangaroo rats aren't related to the marsupial. But they do tend to hop, instead of the scurrying of an average rat, hence the name.

Tres Marias Raccoon

Tres Marias Raccoon

It is thought that the ancestors of the Tres Marias Raccoon was just the same as any other common Mexican raccoon. But sometime in the past, the raccoons got trapped or taken to an archipelago, just off the coast of Nayarit. The Islas Marias became their home and, without contact with the mainland, the Tres Marias Raccoon evolved into an entirely different family.

This raccoon is quite large, compared to its mainland cousins, with an angular skull also setting it apart. Scientists are still arguing over whether it is a separate species or simply an interbred stray family. No conservation efforts are currently in practise.

Unfortunately, it's on the brink of extinction, having been listed as 'endangered'. Only 250 known adults survive on two of the three islands; while they've disappeared completely from Isla María Magdalena. The largest number exist on Isla María Madre, where the islanders are still killing them as pests.

Volcano Rabbit

Volcano Rabbit

Stand in Mexico City and look to the horizon. There are three large volcanos (not all are active), upon the slopes of which live the world's rarest bunny. The Volcano Rabbit loves the warm soil. In particular, it loves the leaves that grow on zacatón grasses, which only grow where there is thermal heating.

They live at an altitude of 9,186-13,943ft (2800-4250 meters), in an area of dense pine forest. They congregate in families of just two to five and emerge at dawn or dusk. The rest of the time, they are deep underground in their warrens.

The Volcano Rabbit is endangered, though, surprisingly, that has nothing to do with lava. The zacatón grass has been over-grazed, because natural corridors to other areas have been cut off by human development. In addition, the rabbit has been used for target practice. There are now laws in place to stop both things happening again.

Yucatán Wren

Yucatán Wren

The Yucatán wren is only found on the northern strip of the Yucatán Peninsula. This is an area of dense mangrove shrubbery, right on the Caribbean coast, which is a perfect habitat for them.

It is always dangerous, in terms of the survival of a species, to live in just one locality. The poor Yucatán wren had the misfortune to choose an area just north of Cancún for its home. As the demand grows for holiday accommodation, and homes for those serving tourists in all of the attractions, the borders of Cancún have crept ever northwards. Its now encroaching upon Yucatán wren territory.

Things aren't critical yet. The wren is listed as 'near threatened' and planners have been quick to react to conservation concerns. Ría Celestún, San Felipe and Río Lagartos are all designated national parks, where the Yucatán wren can live in protection.

June 3, 2011

Is the World's Largest Pyramid in Mexico?

Which is the world's largest pyramid? According to the Guinness Book of Records, the answer is the Great Pyramid of Cholula, in Puebla, Mexico. However, the answer might not be as simple as it sounds. It all depends upon your definition of 'large' and, indeed, your definition of a 'pyramid'. Guatemala and Egypt are both making alternate claims.

What do you mean, you can't see a pyramid? All of it is the pyramid! It got covered over with soil and turf, then the Spanish built a church on the summit.

The issue seems to be with the fact that pyramids were built differently by different people. The Egyptians have a base with steep, sloping sides, which then meet at a point at the top. The Mexicans and Guatemalans both have pyramids built by people from similar cultures. The magnificent structures here, known as Traidic Pyramids, have tiered terraces or else those which rise up into a single platform, with a building on top of that.

CholulaChichén Itzá
(l-r) Egyptian style and Mexican style

Guatemala's El Mirador is the tallest pyramid in the world, but its base isn't as wide as Mexico's Cholula. Then there are those who argue that you cannot include the entire complex in your calculations. In the case of stepped pyramids, then only those slopes fundamental to supporting the top should be counted as the main structure.

If this is so, then the majority of both Cholula and El Mirador's sites have to be discounted. Then the winner, by volume of pyramid, is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, in Egypt.

A strip-away model and an artist's impression of Cholula in its heyday may help illustrate the debate. In order for the Great Pyramid of Khufu to be the largest, then only the part immediately beneath Cholula's church can be calculated. The rest has to be considered merely a platform base.



It is difficult to get a sense of scale from pictures alone. It may be helpful to point out that, even if the base is discounted, then Cholula would still make it as the third largest pyramid in the world. Once the platform is added again, as part of the whole structure, then it positively dwarves those at Giza, in Egypt.

with base
without base
El Mirador
with base
El Mirador
without base
Great Pyramid
of Khufu
* See note230m
* See note230m
million m³
million m³
million m³
million m³
million m³

* El Mirador has a series of 35 small pyramids on top of its massive, terraced platforms. It is therefore difficult to calculate the length and depth of them, as there would be 35 different measurements to add here. None of them would be bigger than Cholula nor Khufu.

The height has been calculated from La Danta Temple, which is the tallest structure there. La Danta is the largest groups of pyramids there and has been calculated with 300m (984ft) in length and the same in depth. But if they are being judged as a collective, then all of the Giza pyramids should be grouped together too. That would elevate Egypt undoubtedly as the largest. (Thank you to Andy Robinson for highlighting this point.)

Entrance to Cholula

So is the largest pyramid in the world in Mexico? Naturally we are going to go with the Guinness Book of Records here, as we are proud Mexicans. The rest of you have to make your own minds up, about whether you are including platforms, as part of the overall structure.

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