Friday, February 24, 2012


Tues. Feb. 20: 
     The next morning, we fly past palms and evergreens and various flowering trees as we traverse the Coastal Highway. For a while, we can see the Pacific from the road, but after a while, we have turned away from it. We are on our way to the city of Colima, which is the capital of the state of Colima.
     We booked a two-day excursion from Pepé Tours, led by José Gonzales. He picked us up promptly in a huge white van, which reminded us of the vehicle we called “the bread truck” when we were in France. Of course, no one much younger than our gang will remember the bread trucks of old. Just know that they are huge. He could fit 14 people in it and we are only five, plus José.

     José is a slim, lively man with a great command of English and a wicked sense of humour. We took to him at once.
     As he drives, he talks about the natural gas pipeline that has been coming into Manzanillo for at least as long as Maire and John have been staying here (five years). It’s finally ready, simply awaiting the President of Mexico to open it on March 21 with a grand flourish and celebration. The gas will come from the Gulf of Mexico and the line was constructed by a Canadian company.
     The pipeline means a lot to Manzanillo, from cleaner air to more energy for more projects. There are tons of improvements an expansions being made to the harbour, for instance, which is already the largest in North America. I can still picture the development from the vantage point of the mountain yesterday.
     We are driving along a new toll road, which curves around the bay. Palms and evergreens and bushes are lush and partly flowering. José explains that the winter months are kind of like our “autumn”; leaves fall and the trees are comparatively bare of flowers. Some have begun already, though, such as the primavera. In April, our street in Las Brisas will be covered in red flowers from the “red flame” trees (also known as the Royal Poinciana). Black sand beaches glint in the sun, as we follow the chain of volcanoes that stretch from Central America to northern Mexico, including Mexico City. Colima is the third largest state in the country. Its main crops are coconuts, limes, sugar, and sea salt. Many of the crops were ruined in the October hurricane, but they’re well on their way to recovery now. Colima City is the state capital, as well as home to the largest Corona plant, yay!
     Green waving stalks of sugar, flowering coffee bean plants, row upon row of lime and papaya trees decorate our view as we drive along. A fence around one farm of bushy limes is covered in bougainvillea: red, pink and white bouquets of color.
     We stop and look down upon a clay brick operation, family-owned, where the red shapes are formed by hand. A huge oven cooks them into rounded half cylinders for rooftops. José says they get about half a peso per brick, despite the hours of work that goes into them.
     We cross the Armeria River, peer down from the winding highway at lagoons and trees, tiny shacks with laundry hanging in the sun. Cows resting amid tall palm trees. Sugar cane, which is now harvested by machine, wave long hairy green arms. Cement is a big industry in this part of the state, with its soft limestone mountainsides. These are part of the Sierra Madres, gorgeous undulating mountains of green.
     Yaka is another popular fruit. We pass dozens of stands selling everything, all appearing succulent and delicious in the freshness of the day. As we get closer to Colima, watermelon and cantelope are also on offer. We know how sweet these are from first hand experience. Agava plants dot the roadsides – ahh, tequila!
     The primavera trees are beginning to flower, their blossoms a deep yellow or pink in the sunlight against an azure blue sky. Cacti strike a straight backed pose along the folds of the hillsides.
      Now we can see the twin volcanoes of Colima shimmering in the distance. Here’s a tourist guide’s description from our favorite Internet site ( Driving north from Manzanillo, tourists will always remember their first view of the majestic mountains of Colima. The inactive, snow-capped Nevado de Colima, towering above 14,200 feet and its active smoke-and lava-spewing partner, Volcan de Colima, at more than 13,488 feet overlook a lush, forested valley and tranquil lake. Lake Maria is formed by another extinct volcanic crater, and is said to be 2,000 ft. deep. We stop and Vince snaps some fantastic photos. One of them shows a cloud that resembles an enormous iguana. Ben’s gila monster in cloud formation!

You have to look closely through the haze to see the twins!

Colima and its twin city of Alvarez hold nearly 250,000 people. The natives were the Aztecs, the last chief being Coliman, thus the name of this beautiful place. Colimotes means “place of my grandfather”. The enormous sculpture of the hairless dancing dogs (Perros de Colima Bailarines) greets us at the outskirts. José says they herald good times and I am smitten with the idea. The Shaman of the Aztecs would use them as symbols (and sacrifices) to ask the gods for joyful times. One of the dogs gives a “Tony” smile, just like my sister Chris’s dog.

We stop in the square where the Ave Maria church, the government building, stores and restaurants, plus our hotel, surround a lush Jardin. The church is partially constructed of volcanic rock and topped with one enormous cupola and cross, and another smaller one. Our hotel is a Best Western, the Ceballos Hotel, once owned by a family of that name. Its ornate balconies look out over the Jardin and the square. We check in, where we discover that we have two rooms side by side, with a lovely sitting room in between. All along are the Romeo and Juliet style balconies.

     The parade of horses has been postponed to tomorrow, so we decide to go to Comala today instead. As we head toward the smaller village, we pass an arena where cock fights still take place. People bet on the rooster of their choice. Once the bets are in, the doors are closed and no one can leave until everyone declares they are satisfied with the outcome. It is a fight to the death. I try not to picture the blood and feathers or to imagine the smell of such violence.  
     The town of Comala is known as Pueblo Blanco, the white city, as it is renowned for  every house being covered in sparkling white paint. The streets are cobblestone, which makes for a very bumpy ride as we traverse the narrow roadways. We pass coffee plants, sporting white flowers, and here and there, a red bean signifies it’s ready to be picked. Old wooden doors or grayish plaster walls hide the lovely little courtyards within. José points out a door that harks from the 17th Century. He says that no one really cares about the front of the houses; it’s the courtyard and home that count. Comala is famous for a special coffee drink, which we hope to try. It’s also lush with the parota, an exotic hardwood tree, which is used for furniture, doors, cabinets, and even ceilings. It’s easily carved and sanded into ornate decorations and shapes.
     We stop for lunch at Don Camalon. We’ve been here before, so we know what to expect, but it’s still an astonishing bounty. We are served at least eight dishes before we say, “No mas”. The food comes with the beer and is enough to make all six of us feel absolutely stuffed. José calls John a comelon, which means “good eater” because he is able to put away more than the rest of us.
     Afterward we set off for Nogueras, the site of an art museum, Centro Cultural Nogueras-Museo “Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo”. The buildings and grounds used to be a hacienda, some parts of which are over 450 years old. The chimney from the 17th Century sugar mill stands half crumbled above the rooftop of the old church and buildings. José points out the tamarinds and tells us the fruit from this tree makes a sweet sauce. Later, we find out that he is absolutely right.
     The hacienda shape is still evident. The master’s house stands at the top of a square horseshoe, behind which were gardens, the mill, and fields of whatever crop they grew. In front, forming the sides of the shoe, a church and stores. Further on, the workers’ homes. José recounts how the masters owned the only grocery store, so the workers would shop on credit. Since they never made enough to pay it back, they were always in debt. St. Peter doncha call me…

The church still exists, though it’s open only occasionally. Now many of the places are artists’ shops and studios, or offices for the University of Colima, perhaps homes for the professors.
The hacienda was purchased and remodeled by the artist Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo, who lived and created here. He is famous for his unique paintings, furniture design, and for collecting prehispanic antiquities.
We visit an old kitchen that has most of its accessories preserved in their original form. John and Vince remember that their parents used a variation of the “zarzo”, which hangs from the ceiling to keep food away from animals.  
      Some of the furniture that Hidalgo designed is on display. It’s exquisite. Lovely wood (parota?) with painted inlays, birds and flowers, yellows and oranges and blues. Ornate carvings and interesting designs. We find a book inside a glass case that’s signed to Alejandro – a friend of art and a friend of mine in Spanish – from Diego Rivera. He and Freda Kahlo were frequent visitors and contemporaries of Hildalgo and his wife. Hidalgo donated the buildings and the grounds to the University of Colima. He died not that many years ago.                                           
     After the museum and studio, we visit the Eco Parque. It’s impossible to recount the number of trees, flowers and bushes that we enjoy, all with the sound of the waterfall and waterways that are constructed on the hillside. The pictures say it best. We sit for a while listening to the wind in the bamboo making them click and groan, gasping at the beautiful yellow primavera through green trees and blue sky. 

     On the way back to Colima, we visit a coffee manufacturing business. It’s amazing to see the process and how much is done by hand. We sample the delicious results. We are much closer to the volcanoes now and snap more shots.
     Colima’s own Magnetic Hill is next. José stops the van and we walk it a bit, astounded. By sight, we’re going uphill, but it’s obviously downhill, both because we feel it as we walk and because the car keeps going even in neutral.
     Heading back to the city, I am struck by all the sights: clothes on hangers scattered over a barbed wire fence; plastic dolls in a window, staring sightlessly through the wrought iron; a bull rests on someone’s front lawn. A large house has an arch that announces, “Los Simpsons”. Chickens peck in several yards. José shows us a drive-thru beer store.  The Sierras glint in the sun and white clouds.
     Sculpted trees and bushes decorate the dancing dogs square and roadsides. One of them is a human form that looks as though it is sliding, arms raised, down the tree. It reminds me of the poem about sliding to the end of your life calling YIPEE all the way.
      Appropriately enough, when we return to the hotel, we are just in time for a seniors’ club parade. The dancers are all older and some very elderly. There are people in wheelchairs. The costumes are astonishing, reds, blues, golds…every color and style imaginable. We dance on the balconies and drink beer or margueritas. This activity makes for an early dinner and bed! We sleep with the sounds of the church, the people in the square, and traffic just outside our windows.

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