Instead of going home for Christmas, this year I decided to get on a plane to Mexico and visit the lovely (and very missed) Toluca de Lerdo and some wonderful friends of mine who live there. It’s true that nothing quite beats Christmas at home, but a Christmas spent staying with an excellent cook (Mexican mums know how to do EVERYTHING), a constant supply of ice cream, two adorable cats and one of my best friends and his lovely family comes a very close second!
Given that I would only be back for two weeks, my stay was very much orientated around one thing: food. This mania began the very day after I arrived, when I awoke to a lesson in the preparation of tamales. Gary’s mum gave me a demonstration and put up with my initial incompetence. The results were three delicious batches of tamales (lime, chicken and green salsa and beans). It was, without doubt, the best breakfast EVER. But, I’ll refrain from rambling on about food and save it for another post!
During my stay I spent most of my time in Toluca, however I also went on several day trips to places outside the city, so much so that it began to feel like I’d seen more of the neighbouring towns in two weeks than in ten months…
My first little excursion was to Tenango. In the hills overlooking this town lie the ruins of the ancient civilisation Teotenango, of which only a fraction has been excavated and preserved. The site was originally inhabited by the Teotenancas between 650-750 AD and then conquered by the Matlatzinca people in 1100 AD and finally by the Aztecs, before the arrival of the Spanish colonisers and the establishment of the colonial town, Tenango. It was first excavated only in 1969. Granted, I’d already been once, but the ruins are really impressive and the town itself is enjoyable to stroll around, so it was worth a second visit. We also went exploring in the forests and fields beyond the excavated part and befriended an elderly farmer (Don Florencio) in his maize field.
Before Christmas I went on a trip to Chalma, a little town about 40 miles from Toluca, with Gary and the gang. All four of us piled into his ancient bocho (google it) and, frankly, I was surprised we made it there and back in one piece!
Hundreds of people participate in pilgrimages to Chalma, given that at its centre is the Sanctuary of Chalma, the second most important pilgrimage site in Mexico. Many people travel great distances to reach this church and pay their respects to the Señor de Chalma or ask for his help. In pre-Hispanic times people used to worship the Nahua god Oztoteotl in the caves near Chalma. According to legend, two Spanish friars visited the caves in order to destroy such idols and found them replaced by an image of Christ, aka. the Señor de Chalma. One of my friends told me that the people of his town make the eight hour pilgrimage together at night time, travelling by foot through the fields. To get to the church we walked through a maze of stalls under an enormous tarpaulin, where sellers were peddling a huge range of sweets, souvenirs and religious artefacts, which led us down to the entrance of the church. Here, much to my disappointment, I had to leave the flower headdress I had purchased earlier (because it was my first time) as an offering. Not bitter at all… We walked around the church and queued to visit the shrine of the Señor de Chalma. Before going back to the car we passed by a fairly large pool. Turns out that it you throw a 5 peso coin in, boys will jump from great (ridiculous) heights to retrieve it. Apparently it’s a well known Chalma thing. We went for a wander down by the river where lots of children and families were splashing around before making our way back to the car.
During my stay I also visited a little village called Tlaltizapan (Mexican place names…) where my good friend Juan Antonio lives. After being introduced to half the family and being given a somewhat terrifying tour of the place on the back of a motorbike, we set off for Tianguistenco (they just get better), a small city a ten minute drive away, to watch some kind of pre-Christmas parade. We ended up getting there in time to catch the last half, but it was enjoyable nonetheless! Afterwards, we went for a wander around the centre, bought some fireworks from a little stall on the street (as you do) and tried something called a gringa (kind of like a quesadilla, but with carne al pastor too). Seeing that “gringo” is a slang term used to refer to North Americans, or any foreign looking white person, I thought it appropriate.
However, out of all the little day trips I went on, my absolute favourite was FINALLY going to see the monarch butterflies. My friends spent pretty much the whole time I was in Mexico promising to take me there, so much so that it became a running joke. Hence, I didn’t really believe we were actually going until we were halfway there… Certain parts of the drive left me fearing for my life (for some reason overtaking on a curve is ok), but it was well worth it in the end!
The Monarch butterflies migrate every year from Canada to reach the warmer temperatures in Mexico. There are many sites where you can go and see them, however the closest to Toluca is in the Piedra Herrera Sanctuary, near Valle de Bravo. The whole area is BEAUTIFUL. As soon as I stepped out of the car I was completely blown away by the place; an open, green, sunlit valley surrounded by huge, rolling tree-covered hills. After being in the city it was such a refreshing change, and it only got better. The area with the greatest concentration of butterflies is found a two hour walk away, up in the hills. The volume of butterflies just kept increasing the higher we climbed, until the air was literally alive with them flying in all directions. There were so many that, if you closed your eyes, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the beating of their wings for the flowing of a river. As we climbed, our guide gave us a fascinating description of the area and its history, as well as the life cycle of the butterflies. According to him, the butterflies that reach Mexico are actually the 4th or 5th generation from those that leave Canada. At the very top, where the butterflies were most concentrated, the trees were literally black, so thickly they were covered in butterflies. All in all it was an incredible experience, and one that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone visiting the area.
After returning to the valley below, we set off once again to spend the afternoon in nearby Valle de Bravo. This town lies on one side of a huge lake. It’s a fairly touristy place and home (or rather, holiday home) to many of Mexico’s rich and famous. We spent a happy and relaxed afternoon wandering around the centre and enjoying a few beers in the plaza looking out over the lake. Perfect!
Moving on from travel, I should probably take a moment to describe Christmas itself, given that it is celebrated very differently to the UK. Perhaps the greatest difference is that in Mexico (as in other Spanish speaking countries) the main Christmas celebrations take place on the night of the 24th. So, my Christmas didn’t properly begin until late into the evening. Gary’s family spent the morning preparing food, and during the afternoon we visited various people. I tagged along to Christmas at Gary’s girlfriend’s house, where, despite leaving before the eating and celebrations got underway, we still managed to get in on the piñata smashing; an important Mexican Christmas tradition. For some reason there’s nothing quite so entertaining as watching some poor blindfolded soul flailing about with a huge stick trying to hit a sweet filled papier mâché star strung up on a washing line. Genius. Unfortunately, I wasn’t successful in breaking it myself, and almost inadvertently attacked Gary in the process, but I LOVED it nonetheless. I now have a plentiful supply of chilli coated sweets.
After a few hours we headed back to Gary’s house where a delicious Christmas dinner awaited us! His mum had prepared romeritos (a kind of mole with rosemary and potatoes) and bacalao (cod), two typical Christmas foods which are eaten with fresh bread rolls. The meal started around midnight and after we finished eating we spent an hour or so chatting, listening to music and dancing (or at least attempting to). Much to my surprise, at around 2 am everyone decided it was time to go and visit the grandparents… We piled into the car and drove through the fog to their house. On Christmas it’s typical to set off an excessive amount of fireworks (we could still see people doing so at 2 am), hence the fog was not actually real fog, but smoke from the fireworks. We returned home little before dawn, easily making this one of my longest and most unusual Christmases yet!
New Years Eve was a similar affair. I spent the day with friends and got back to Gary’s in the evening for another midnight meal – turns out in Mexico turkey is more of a New Year thing. What most interested me about New Years in Mexico was all the funny little superstitions that go with it. It’s considered good luck to wear red or yellow underwear on New Years Eve (or both!) in order to attract love or money in the coming year. For this reason you can pretty much guarantee that in every market there will be at least one stall dedicated entirely to the sale of red and yellow underwear. Madness. It is also custom to eat 12 grapes on the stroke of midnight and ask make a wish for each grape. Another tradition is to pack your suitcase and run around the block a few times with it, with the idea that in the coming year you’ll be able to travel. The grandmother of the girl I tutor here in Colombia told me that she liberally sprinkles lentils all over the house for good luck.
All in all I had a fantastic, albeit rather short, time in Mexico. I’m really grateful to all the people who made my two weeks so lovely. It’s so nice to be able to go back after two years and feel just as at home as I did when I left. Mexico is truly a magical place.
Finally, as a little parting gift I bring you painted chickens. Yep. That’s a thing here.