I worked abroad for a number of years, sometimes in hairy environments where famine, floods and conflict became the norm, but I always felt that should the manure hit the fan, I could up sticks and go home to where I felt safe. So, when Covid landed upon us in 2020, like many others, I felt trapped, with nowhere to escape. I took to early morning walks to avoid the droves of people who appreared every afternoon as if they had just discovered the miracle of walking. Jaunts to the supermarket were so stressful it felt like going into battle in a coliseum facing a couple of hungry lions.
Other than a short trip to Spain in November of 2021, I didn’t leave the island for 18 months, the longest time I’ve been at home for many a year. Then it all kicked in through 2022 with the help of work meetings in Jordan and Iraq, breaking the travel hiatus. And so, with some experience and renewed confidence in travel, I planned a trip to Mexico to visit an old Texan friend (she’s not old per se, I just know her a long time) and ‘retired’ to the Pacific side of Mexico a few years ago. Helping me make the decision to decamp for the winter was of course Senor Putin in Russia, whose war with the Ukraine triggered the greedy oil companies to increase prices of fuel and gas to heat our homes during the harsh winter months. Don’t get me wrong… I’m lucky and grateful to be able to afford the airline flight to Mexico and sympathise with the people who have to choose between eating and heating – I don’t take it lightly.
I had a really good experience on the 12-hour flight down here on Aero Mexico, which kinda surprised me. What else surprised me was discovering that, according to the Economist magazine, Mexico is the 15th wealthiest country in the world. Corruption is rife, but the ordinary Mexican, from my limited experience, is hard working and particularly friendly. I did see illegal logging going on and illegal dumping in the jungle, which I find upsetting and of course you have the cartels who don’t always just focus on the drug trade, but have moved into the avocado and lime growing business, forcing farmers off their farms and hiking up prices beyond the reach of the poorer sections of the community. If you’re planning on travelling through Mexico, pay the tolls on the major roads and don’t travel at night!
Probably because of its distance from Europe where most Europeans think that Cancun is Mexico, it remains largely undiscovered. There are large swathes of Americans who have retired to places like Ajijic and Manzanillo, in the state of Colima, but once outside some of these areas are hidden gems with beaches, mountains and the most exquisite flora and fauna with huge jungle/forest areas. My friend Kelly has lived here for the past 10 years and travelled the length and breadth of the country, so a great woman to have as a travel companion with every nook and cranny well sussed out.
Mexico has ‘magic towns’, designated as area of interest for tourists. They must meet a minimum standard of hotel availability and suitability, free parking, good internet and be of historic value. We took off to visit some magic towns after Christmas as a way to escape the newly arrived Americans and Canadians who increased the possibility of catching COVID and the terrible flu virus circulating. I’d hate to praise her too much for fear it would go to her head, but I have to admit that Kelly makes a good travel companion as we hit the road to see some of the magic towns.
Not only did I not expect such great beauty in the country, but I also didn’t expect the devotion of the average Mexican to the Catholic religion. Coming from Ireland where religion, which was once deeply ingrained in the culture and is now largely passé, I found it both fascinating and impressive. There are saints’ celebrations every other week and religious iconography at every street corner, in every shop and restaurant and in the most unusual places – the side of cliffs, the roadsides and many houses with shrines to the Virgin. December is the feast of the Virgin of Guadalajara and every town and village has either a church dedicated to the Virgin or some sort of shrine. The celebrations are accompanied by firecrackers that go off randomly throughout the day and night, (terrifying most dogs who bark and howl the night away). The Virgin is said to protect the fishing boats going out to sea, so on our day out on a boat, we had to stop on the way out and the way back so the captain and his mate could pay their respects and thank the Virgin for a safe trip.
I missed the Day of the Dead, which of course is a huge festival celebrated in Mexico. Graveyards are decorated with Christmas-like decorations and those who passed before us are remembered and celebrated. Travelling with Kelly through San Sebastián del Oeste we came across a graveyard – thinking it was locked up, Kelly was walking away when I realised that the door was could indeed open once you lifted the bolt. We walked in to discover a farmer had left his cows there for grazing, hence the reason for the locked door. The cows looked up when we entered before going back to their job of keeping the graves neat and tidy. I don’t think I’ve seen such ornate graves anywhere and many remained decorated since the November celebrations. One of the weirdest shrines we came across was when we stopped at a truck rest point on the way out of Manzanillo where I wanted to take a photo of the vista below. The small shrine had a skeletal (Day of the Dead) statue where some water, a fresh apple and some candy was left as an offering. We checked with some local friends of Kelly who confirmed that it was some sort of black magic ritual and not what one would expect to see at a roadside truck spot.
By the time I got to Mexico on 1 December, there was a proliferation of nativity scenes – in restaurants, by the roadside, in construction sites and in every town plaza, where hymns and Christmas songs were belted out night and day from speakers. The entrance to a nearby large housing area where we were based had the crib outside the guards’ gate. Many of the baby Jesus statutes§ were dressed in white, sometimes with hand-made crochet dresses, or beautifully embroidered christening gowns. Travelling high in the mountains around Mascota, another travel companion Emily thought she had spotted a zipliner, something I fancied trying. She was convinced it was a zipline because it had a construction similar to what you’d come across if you went to a ski resort. Prior to our arrival at the spot, I realised that it wasn’t a zipline, but rather some electricity wires! The ski hut was in fact a shine to St. Michael the archangel, with a statue of Jesus on the cross. It was rather weird then seeing a glass case with the baby Jesus enclosed wearing rosary beads around his neck – almost as a portend of his future demise. Visiting Thailand, you must see the temples to appreciate the culture… well visiting Mexico it is a must to visit churches to get an insight into some of the culture. In several churches there were life size statues of Jesus in enclosed in glass cases. Apparently, the statues are taken out for parades and brought through the towns and villages as part of the religious processions. One church in Navidad had Jesus in a robe with a long black wig, which momentarily led me to think I was beamed up to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London town.
As a throwback to the Spanish conquistadores the Three Kings is the big celebration in Mexico whereas in Ireland it signifies the end of Christmas. It was a full week after the 6th of January before the decorations were taken down and the crib dismantled.
The tourist office in the magical town of Mascota recommended we visited a special area with a magnetic field where visitors could be cured of their ills. We walked up the hill in the village of Yerbabuena to the holy area where the holy man was performing some sort of ceremony on the five women who came to visit. It felt as if there was a lot of woo woo going on at the site.
There was a concrete circle with three concrete painted columns and each person had to enter the area barefooted where they faced each column and declared in a loud voice their love and belief in Jesus. Some looked as if they were under a spell as the ‘holy’ man anointed them with oil, mumbled something over them and poked them in the breast and other areas. Kelly has a good command of the Spanish language as she eavesdropped into their conversation about how their aunt/mother/cousin’s daughter had been cured by the holy man. He didn’t want money but pointed them to the donation box. We didn’t consult with the holy man but myself and Emily entered the circle for the cure. Rather than be a hypocrite and profess a belief in Jesus, I silently proclaimed my belief in the power of the universe. Let’s see if I’m cured of my ailments by the time I get home to Ireland.
I have another few weeks to go before my return home and another few road trips to make, including 36 hours in Mexico City. So, for now, hasta luego.
Photos by Órla Fagan