Monday, January 30, 2012

Costalegre Chili Cookoff

Chili cookoffs in Mexico seem to be a very popular way of raising funds for the local communities.  The Costalegre Chili Cookoff was held in Barra de Navidad and was quite well attended. So much so that we gave up on trying to get any chili and took a walk around town.
I loved seeing these girls walking down the street, one with a tray balanced on her head, just chatting away.
We stopped at a seaside restaurant for a drink and saw some of the devastation from Hurricane Jova which hit Barra de Navidad particularly hard last fall. The patio and second floor of the restaurant we were at are completely gone. Much of the beach has been cleaned up, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

We got back to the chili cookoff just in time for the entertainment. Good to know that Elvis is alive and well here in Mexico.

We were then treated to traditional dances by the local children. It was obvious that they had performed before and were delightful to watch.
I just had to take a picture of these girls with their long braids. They reminded me of a painting that was done by Martin Gambee, the husband of Brian's Aunt Mary. His painting is of two Navajo girls who have braids just like these girls going down their backs.
Here are the girls in action..

Some of the other performers...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Melaque Area

Melaque in only a few miles from our RV park and shares the beach with Barra de Navidad. We found it to be a bigger town with more RV parks, stores, restaurants, and people but it's similar to Barra.
While wandering around we found an incredible store with gorgeous handwoven rugs and other crafts. Actually we had just stopped to get some water and happened to look across the street where we saw a beautiful display.
We were able to speak with Reynaldo and his wife Teresa who were in their store. They told us about the rugs and the tradition of weaving that has been in their family for hundreds of years. Following is an excerpt from their website..

For Reynaldo and his family, making rugs (‘tapetes’) is not just a business; it’s a way of life! The Vasquez Hernandez family, an indigenous zapotecan family, have been creating beautiful designs for hundreds of years, and passed them down from generation to generation.
Their rugs are completely hand made on traditional looms in their home village of Teotitlán del Valle. The wool yarn is hand spun and dyed using all natural dyes, and the unique designs are based on traditional colours and patterns.
In December each year, Reynaldo and his immediate family (Teresa, Reynaldo, Felipe, Jessica and Reynaldo Jr.) travel to Melaque, Jalisco to sell the rugs made by the whole family. The rest of the family continue weaving more rugs during the winter in Teotitlán del Valle to send to Melaque for sale.

Teresa was working on weaving a rug and we were able to watch her. There was a book in the store that detailed the process from shearing the sheep to the end product but unfortunately they only had one copy.  Reynaldo said he would have to make more and they wouldn't be in until after we're gone from the area. 
We are always thrilled when we can experience the process and see the work that goes into creating a beautiful craft. Having the opportunity to meet the artisans is very special. Of course we didn't leave empty handed and purchased a couple of rugs and a handwoven belt. Reynaldo told us that he sells quite a few rugs in Boulder and other areas of Colorado, so those of you who live there can keep an eye out. Their website is quite fascinating and has pictures showing how the rugs are made from start to finish. Just click on Reynaldos Tapetes for more information.

One day we took a drive up the coast to the little town of La Manzanillo to meet some of our friends from Hacienda Contreras for lunch. We had a nice lunch with Heinz and Ulli, Paul and Helen, and met some new friends as well.
It was a nice day and we enjoyed the company, the food, and the beach.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Barra de Navidad and Boca de Iguanas

We haven't spent much time on the west coast of Mexico so we decided make the Melaque/Barra de Navidad area our next stop. We are about 140 miles south of Puerta Vallarta on a section of the coast known as the Costalegre, or joyful coast.  We're not right on the beach but we do have a nice spot in an RV park called Cadillac Ranch, and we have easy access to both Barra and Melaque.
Barra de Navidad claims to be the sailfish capital of the world, and they even have the statue to prove it. The town is fairly touristy with many shops and restaurants but also very picturesque. The beach near town is a bit steep but has some great views. The buildings on the far end of the beach are in the town of Melaque.
There are man-made canals in Barra with some very nice boats and pricey houses. It's another area that attracts both Americans and Canadians.
After checking out Barra, we drove north about 15 miles to an area called Boca de Iguanas. The RV park there is right on the beach. There are few amenities but people go mainly for the beach, which is beautiful and set in a lovely bay.
While we were at Hacienda Contreras in Valle de Juarez we met Heinz and Ulli who told us about Boca and invited us to stop by if we were in the area.  Fortunately they were home and were gracious enough to show us around. We had a nice visit and enjoyed our time with them.

Chapala Area

We enjoyed hanging out in the Ajijic/Chapala area for a few weeks. I thought I would post some random pictures taken during our stay.

This last picture was taken on our way to the coast. They are working on the road and the drop-off was about 3 feet. The car in front of us is around 6 feet wide and we're over 8 feet wide so driving was a bit challenging in construction zones (the rest of the road was fine). Of course Brian did just fine.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Jocotopec Patronales

Jocotopec, the town nearest our RV park, has been celebrating Patronales for the past two weeks. Patronales festivals are a custom found in many countries with a Spanish influence.  The yearly celebration is dedicated to a saint who is the patron of the city that holds the fiesta. Town members adorn the town streets with colorful decorations and there are parades, fireworks, live entertainment, carnival rides and games, markets and street vendors.We didn't go into town at night because the crowds were incredible, but we went in during the day for the parade...

the market (note the mangos carved like flowers).....

and the carnival rides where the horses on the carousel carried Tequila casks.

It was a huge celebration with fireworks beginning at 6 AM every day and usually not ending until well after midnight. Although we didn't attend the nightly music events we were able to hear them and most of the music sounded pretty good.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Lake Chapala

We were having such a great time at Hacienda Contreras that it was hard to get ourselves moving again. We did, however, and arrived at Roca Azul on Lake Chapala yesterday. This morning when I woke up and looked out the bedroom window I was greeted by this amazing sunrise.
Roca Azul, the RV and resort park where we are parked is near Jocotopec and is located on the western end of Lake Chapala. It has tennis courts, a large swimming pool, a separate thermal pool, a huge soccer field for Tilly to run around on, and many other amenities.
Our spot backs up to a nice view of the lake and has a patio and grass yard area.
Today we went into Ajijic where our friend Micky has lived and worked for the last 9 years. We did some shopping at Walmart and it was almost like being in the States. There is also a market called Super Lake which caters to the large gringo population here and has just about anything you could want.  The latest statistic we heard was that there are over 100,000 American and Canadian citizens in this area which is easy to believe when you see as many signs in English as in Spanish. We also wandered into Ajijic centro around the plaza. This is one of the many beautiful murals in that area.
 We saw this guy patientlywaiting for his owner as we made our way out of Ajijic centro. Pretty cute.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mezcal Moonshine

To start the New Year off right we visited a Mezcal ‘still’ in the mountains nearby. The owner and master Mezcal maker is Jesus “Chuy” Lupian. His family has been making Mezcal for over 100 years, while he has been the “maestro” for at least the last 40 years. His son, who lived in Spring Valley, NY near the Palisades Mall, will take over the operation in a few years.
The Tequila/Mezcal differentiation is confusing. They both come from plants in the Agave family which includes Mezcal and Maguay. Tequila only comes from the Webber Blue Agave and by law can only come from very specific areas of Mexico. Most Mezcal comes from the state of Oaxaca but can be found in many areas of Mexico - including the state of Jalisco near the border of the state of Michoacan where we are. It takes about 7 years for a Blue Agave to grow to where it can be harvested to make Tequila. Only the Webber Blue Agave is blue – all others, including the Mezcal, are green. Chuy says his mescal is from plants aged 20 to 25 years.

The Mezcal process is similar to the Tequila process we saw in the town of Tequila at the Jose Cuervo Distillery. The way Chuy does it is the way it has been done for hundreds of years – this is not factory made brew. First the “leaves” of mescal plant are chopped off by a guy called a Jibaro. The root ball (pina), that looks sort of like a very big pineapple and and can weigh up to 200 pounds, remains.

The first stop for the pina is the fire pit, which is very old. It appears to be about 10’ deep and about 10’ across. Wood – a certain type of wood that someone translated as oak but not sure – and lava rock are put into this stone-lined pit to create sort of large oven. The fire is lit and burns for days and the lava rock heats up. The pinas are piled on top and covered with the Mezcal leaves and other stuff – dirt maybe. This cooks for 3 to 4 days.

Next is the grinder which is sort of a grist mill. A large round stone like a wheel which appears to be 100 years old is pulled around in a round pit by a horse or donkey to crush and mash the pinas. The mash is very fibrous.

The mash then goes to open vats to ferment. Chuy has a couple of square concrete tubs that appear to be about 6’ across but we couldn’t tell how deep because they were at least partial full of fermenting mash. It has a very sweet aroma. These pits were lined with tile.

Now the real interesting part. The mash goes into large urns. Under the urns are fires which apparently burn continually. On top of the urns are round concave bowls through which there is a constant flow of cool fresh water. The fire heats the mash which causes vapors to evaporate and condense on the bottom of the bowls. The condensation drips and is directed to little drippers so the drips go into little jugs. As the little jugs filled Chuy watches and when a jug is full he dumps the contents into large plastic water cooler type jug – maybe 5 gallons or so? As near as we were able to translate, Chuy said he makes about 580 liters of Mezcal per year. We are not sure if he does this legally or not but when asked about government involvement he was very definite about not having anything to do with the government.
The fire is below the urns. Look closely to see the water flowing in from above and then the black hose out the back of the copper pan. This is how the water flows out and into the trough/gutter behind the row of urns where it is carried out of the building. Normally the firewood is stacked over each fire but they moved a few logs so we could see the fire. It gets quite smoky and the Mezcal acquires a very pleasant smoky flavor.

We got to taste the still hot brew that dripped from the urns and then the cooled brew from the water cooler jugs. Having some experience with Tequila we all felt that Chuy makes some really good stuff and many of us bought liters. They had some used Coca Cola 2 liter plastic bottles and just measured and poured each of us a bottle.
After tasting the Mezcal a bit of food seemed like a good idea. Chuy’s family insisted on providing a really nice lunch for us all and would not accept any money – you are guests in our house. Sal’s cousin Bougy (Bougainvillea sp?) helped and I think she brought a lot of the food too. It's such a treat to find such generous and welcoming people.

Chuy told us his land has been in his family forever.The road past his house goes another 5 kilometers and everything on it and everything we could see was his. He said he has about 100 cattle and feeds the used mash to the cows to produce superior dairy products.
Chuy was very insistent about the difference between Blue Agave and what he calls the Mezcal plant. There is a website with many of the plants but we aren't sure which one Chuy uses. He takes great pride in the fact that he makes Mezcal, not Tequila. According to online sources all Tequila is Mezcal but not all Mezcal is Tequila. It seems Chuy has his own ideas about thsi.
Links for more info:
Travel with Kevin and Ruth  Kevin and Ruth were with us on this excursion and they blogged about it as well - they have a very interesting blog to check out.
Interesting plant/agave info  shows a jibaro chopping the leaves from the pina and has other interesting info   

One final piece of information. Somehow a group of Japanese businessmen found out about Chuy's Mezcal. They spoke to him about buying it and having exclusive distribution rights, which evidently amounted to quite a bit of money. He turned them down in favor of keeping things the way they are - nice to know some things really are priceless.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

More Valle de Juarez Adventures

We've continued to be so busy that it's been hard to find time to blog. The picture above was taken last week when we had one of our fabulous sunsets. Such a beautiful area.
 One day we took a hike to a place we call The Castle. It is a mind-boggling place which the owner says will someday be a restaurant. When we hiked up there 2 years ago he told us that the grand opening would be in a few weeks. Good thing we didn't stick around for it since it's still not open. He has everything on the grounds from John Deere tractors to life-size plastic elephants to beautiful stone statues and carvings. We got a tour of the inside again this year - the picture below is the ceiling in one of the three domes. This place is definitely one of a kind.
We were graciously included at a wedding reception for Sal and Barb's nephew Coco. Everyone was very welcoming and it was a great opportunity to see how weddings are celebrated here. The first band was a 14 piece Mariachi band and they were really good musicians.

We had seen 6 or 7 piece Mariachi bands but never the full 14. We enjoyed listening to them but had to leave once a different, very very  loud band came in for the younger generation.

Our friend Michele from the Colorado days now lives fairly close to here in a town called Ajijic, which is on the north shore of Lake Chapala. She came up to visit and spent the night with us. We showed her around Valle de Juarez, and went in to Mazamitla the next day. Mazamitla is a tourist town in the mountains and resembles a Swiss village. We took a nice hike out towards a waterfall, had lunch and watched the tourists go by on their horses or quaddies.
New Year's Eve was a potluck here at Hacienda Contreras. There were 22 people, so lots of good company and food. On New Year's Day we were invited to another of Sal's relatives for a birria feast. The birria was made by cooking a young calf in a huge pot with chilis and seasonings all day. It was really very good!
It was nice for all of us to be included in another local tradition and a special way to begin the New Year.