I had a surprise, as the first person at the meeting site, at 6:45 a.m., when a huge Mercedes Benz van drove up, and I realized that I had already met the tour guide, Rodrigo, some years ago in the jardin.  But then, that’s so San Miguel.  Rodrigo called me by name and gave me a big hug, introduced me to his wife, Carmen, and our driver, Juanito, who had come from Querétaro, over an hour away, to bring us our transportation for the trip.  This was my first Eco-Journey sponsored by La Sociedad de Audubon, the only chapter of the Audubon Society in Mexico, and celebrating its 45th year.  Their tagline, “Nature and Culture, a Perfect Combination,” summed up what I love and was seeking from this trip to the small, mountainous state of Hidalgo, located southeast of San Miguel de Allende, which is in the state of Guanajuato.  (If you’re familiar with the area, it’s approximately the same distance from San Miguel to Mexico City — four hours, más or menos — as to our first destination, the Pueblo Mágico of Huasca de Ocampo, a short drive from Pachuca, the capital of Hidalgo.  Because of its close proximity to Mexico City, there are lots of weekend tourists there.  Two separate mountain ranges, with pine, cedar and holm oak forests, present excellent opportunities for hiking and bird-watching.  In fact, the area has about the widest variety of wild birds anywhere in Mexico, including eagles, hummingbirds, falcons, and wild turkeys, not to mention 31 species of serpents, and mammals such as skunks, spider monkeys, wild boar, anteaters, and gray foxes.

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The other three travelers, Arlena and Judy, year-round San Miguel residents with their respective husbands, who did not accompany them on this trip, and Kevin, Judy’s visiting brother, rounded out our very intimate group.  Four was the minimum needed for the trip to go, and we had just made it.  Most of the Audubon trips have many more sign-ups — although they are always kept small — but since by mid-April, most of the “snowbirds” have flown back to the U.S. or Canada, this was it.  So there were a total of seven of us in a luxurious 19-passenger van, which included a flat-screen TV.  As we stowed our gear, got on the road, and were given the first of many bottles of water, Rodrigo asked if, to pass the driving time, we’d like to see some documentaries about Mexico, and of course we did.

Because the trip had started at such an early hour, we were given sandwiches that we had chosen the day before online, scones, and apples.  I happily munched mine while watching an extraordinary film called “The Royal Tour,” which featured Felipe Calderón, while he was still president of Mexico, along with his wife, a two-term senator, and their three children, as they hosted Peter Greenberg of PBS on a whirlwind tour of the country.  They went to Jalisco; Morelia (the president’s home city); Baja to see the migrating and calving whales (I want to go!); Michoacán for the migrating Monarch butterflies; Chiapas for the Maya culture; and others I can’t remember, all at break-neck speed.  They explored caves and swam in cenotes.  They rode on zip lines.  I was mightily impressed with President Calderon’s spirit, friendliness, and relaxed attitude.  I could only imagine what went into making all of those adventures happen in a very short period of time for a head of state, his family, and a guest.  We made a pit stop after only an hour and a half because the traffic was just horrendous on a super highway, with more trucks than I’ve ever seen before at one time.  As soon as we came to a stop, a young man sprang into action, washing all of the windows.  He was not an employee of the gas station, but a freelance worker.  Juanito gave him a tip.  Reminded me of the squeegee guys in NYC.   It seemed a good omen for an Audubon trip when we spotted a magnificent moth.

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The second documentary was called “Blossoms of Fire,” about the town of Juchitán on an isthmus between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean in the state of Oaxaca, where matriarchy is practiced.  We were asked to stop at a check point by the federales (federal soldiers).  Rodrigo told us not to say anything if they came on board.  There was a bit of panic when Rodrigo asked us if we all had our passports, and some didn’t.  Only Juanito got out of the van.  The soldiers only looked us over from the outside and asked where we were headed.  When Rodrigo told them, their response was, “Why so far?”  We got a good laugh out of that as we were waved away, much relieved.  We got onto another highway — new and charging a toll — Arco Norte, where there was much less traffic.  We drove through Pachuca, which had been a mining town in the past.  After the war for independence, when the Spaniards were no longer running the mining operations, a company from Cornwall, England, took over, and although they were there for only 25 years, their influence is still very much in evidence today all over the area.  Houses, which look as if they were in the Swiss Alps or perhaps in Cornwall (I couldn’t say, as I’ve never been there) rather than in Mexico, are painted in pastels, and the traditional flaky Cornish pastes (“miners’ enchiladas”) are sold everywhere.

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The Cornish miners are much beloved in this part of Mexico.  We learned of the Great Trek of 1825, when the miners went from the beach at Mocambo, Vera Cruz, hundreds of miles overland, carrying 1500 tons of equipment, to revive the defunct silver mines.

We checked into our first hotel, in Huasca de Ocampo, just in time for a late lunch.  Unfortunately, it was much too cold to eat outside on their charming patio.  It had been very hot when we left San Miguel, and weather.com predicted 70s and 80s for the region we were visiting.  However, it was heavily overcast, drizzling, and we were at nearly 9000 feet.  This town is one of the highest inhabited places in Mexico.  While the waiters put the food out, we took a quick tour of the market and a peek into the church there.  A small statue of a very interesting saint, San Charbel, was there, covered in different colored ribbons with words written on them.  I learned later from my Spanish teacher that the colors of the ribbons have significance.  San Charbel, originally Charbel Makhluf, was born in Lebanon and became a Maronite monk and priest.  He lived as a hermit for more than half his life.  As a canonized Catholic saint, he is prayed to in matters of world peace, in addition to more personal concerns.

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I found this small church refreshingly plain.

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We returned to the hotel to eat inside, choosing what we liked from a buffet.

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Here’s our crew, minus Juanito, in front of our hotel, Casa Azul; photo by Carmen.  It was lovely to see grass again after many months, plus several different garden spaces.

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Here is my room, which, because I cheerfully paid the single supplement, I didn’t have to share with anyone.

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Following the lunch and a short time to get settled in, we were off to see the Prismas Basálticos (basalt “prisms”), which are a result of lava cooling very slowly.  Rodrigo warned us that the owner of the site had put in a water park right next to the natural wonder, so we were to shut our eyes to that and just concentrate on the unique formations.  Because of the cool weather, only one or two brave teen-aged boys were in the water.

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I cannot believe that I walked across this suspension bridge over a deep chasm.  It is so not my favorite thing to do.  Happily there was another way back that did not include re-crossing it.

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Note well the shape of these formations; you will see them later in a most surprising use.

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It being an Audubon trip, after all, we were thrilled to see this blooming cactus,

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and then the hummingbird perched on it, which came and went several times.

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From there we visited ex-Hacienda Santa Maria Regla, which was ownd by the Spaniard, Pedro Romero de Terreros.  In the mid-1700s, when he founded the town and built the hacienda, he was the richest man in the world.  This was not a place to live, but only used for smelting silver, gold, and other metals brought over from the mines in Pachuca.  Sr. Terreros lived nearby in another hacienda, San Miguel Regla.  The smelting hacienda was located here because of the rich abundance of natural materials for building, plus bountiful water, which was needed to process the minerals.  Sr. Terreros paid tribute to the King of Spain, Charles III, in the form of some of the processed minerals, and for this, he was named Count of Santa Maria Regla.  He used the indigenous population as slaves to produce the gold and silver; thousands died as they were viewed as completely disposable.  The only food they were given was rice and beans.

We had a Spanish-speaking guide who led us through the ex-hacienda and explained the separation process, to be translated for us by Rodrigo.  I have always loved the look of stones, and took many, many photos of them here.

As we were having our tour, many dozens of workers were setting up for a huge wedding the following day, Saturday.  While there was no denying the magnificence of the setting, I just didn’t think that I would want my wedding celebrated in a place that had seen so much human misery.

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This is just inside the entrance.

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We were captivated by this concrete-covered set of pipes that looked so alive and like the tree it was supposed to mimic.

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These are chimneys which let off smoke from the two ovens below.  On our travels, we saw similar chimneys sticking up out of the middle of a lake.  A damn had been built, completely submerging yet another hacienda, and only the chimneys told of its existence underwater.

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The two ovens below.

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Yes, we went down these unlit steps.  Thank goodnes I always carry a flashlight with me here.

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Our guide.

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The bottom floor of this structure is original.  The top two floors have been added on, and the entire edifice is now a (somewhat rickety-looking, in my opinion) hotel.

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We visited one of the guest rooms.

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There is also a restaurant on-site.

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As we left the restaurant, we passed through this door, which appears to be the original wood and metal, now seriously deteriorating.

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This may look like a decorative water feature in the background, but it was very much part of the process of bringing copious amounts of water to the scene for use in the ore-separation process.

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Of course there was a chapel on the grounds.  It was unclear to us if the wedding would take place inside.

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The door is original and is made from ebony.  It showed almost no signs of its nearly 300 years of use.

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Here are more of those prismas basálticos, but these are more-or-less horizontal.

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Remember that I asked you earlier in the text to take note of the shape of the prismas?  Here they are used to construct a wall.  They were not sliced and added to the building material.  What you are seeing are the ends of the prismas; thus the walls were as thick as their length!

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This table is surely not going anywhere else!

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We returned to our hotel and enjoyed dinner together, including Juanito, our driver — and that was very important to me.  I’ve been on trips where the driver, and sometimes even the guide, sat at a separate table from the travelers, and I found this disturbing.  Juanito and Kevin really hit it off and we all enjoyed each other’s company, a little in Spanish, and a little in English.

The following day, Saturday, those of us who were going bird-watching got up early, had coffee or hot chocolate and sweet rolls, and took off for a Biosphere Reserve.  In about three hours we saw many birds and some frogs.  Rodrigo is the perfect tour-guide for an Audubon trip, as in addition to his great organizational skills and his friendly, easy-going manner, he had the most amazing abilities at bird-watching I’ve ever seen.  He knew the names of all the birds in both Spanish and English, could identify most of them just by their call, carried several bird books with him to check on details, and could spot things most of us couldn’t see until he pointed them out.  He carried a scope and would set it up and allow us to see what he had seen.  It was an incredibly peaceful time near a rural lake with water flowing in ditches by the side of the road.

I saw my very first vermillion flycatcher; I have to admit, it was a thrill.  I had heard about it for years, but had never spotted one.

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We bird-watchers returned to the hotel and all had a big, late breakfast together.  Then we packed up and drove to Peña del Aire.  Peña means boulder in Spanish.  When you see the photo below, it will make sense.  It was humungous and very impressive, sitting out there all by itself.

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A man with a zip-line business demonstrated for us and a few other tourists, but he had no takers.

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None of us could figure out what he was doing by hitting the line with a stick as he went.

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There is no way I would ride this zip-line over the enormous chasm below.  Well, truth be told, I wouldn’t ride on a zip-line anywhere!  I wonder if he ever gets any business.

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But what did intrigue me were these beautiful children with their extremely well-kept horses offering rides.

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So young, but so self-assured!

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Next stop:  Real del Monte, another Pueblo Mágico, which, on a Saturday, was very busy with tourists.  Driving through there with the huge van, and especially parking, were real challenges, but Juanito was up to the task.  Rodrigo told us that the very first game of soccer played in Mexico took place in this town, introduced by the Cornish miners.  You’ll see the Cornish influence in the architecture here.  We learned that any buildings that were made of bricks were constructed after the Cornish came to town, as they had brought that technology with them.

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I was quite moved by this statue to honor all of the miners who died on the job.

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The words on the plaque say (not sure of the first phrase as the two top lines were somewhat obliterated):  Life in the mine consumes.  My ashes rest in the generous earth and my soul awaits glorious eternity.

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Some very non-Mexican-looking pastries, a throw-back to the Cornish miners’ days, and note the tartan.

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We stopped off at a branch of Santa Clara ice cream, a favorite in San Miguel, too, for a rest and a cone, and this enterprising fellow and his puppet came in and entertained us with some chatter and a mildly off-color joke (as translated by Rodrigo).  The couple at the table just to the right were not amused.  The woman refused to look at the puppeteer and kept a long, stiff face.  I was charmed.

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These two streets coming together formed an odd little triangle of land, on which someone had set up a watch shop.

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It being a weekend in a Pueblo Mágico, there was entertainment for the tourists.  This ghoulish fellow was the MC.

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Here are photos of some of the entertainment offered.  Wow!

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In true Mexican three-ring circus style, this was all going on right next door to a church that was hosting a wedding.  I would have been pretty upset if during my wedding ceremony, drums and other instruments were being played loudly right next door.  As the guests came out of the church after the ceremony, they stopped to check out the dancing girls before going on to the reception.

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The Cornish miners also introduced Methodism to Mexico.  Below is the first Methodist church in the country.  The wording over the door translates as Our Methodist Church of Mexico, R.A. (Religious Association) – Emmanuel.  What a stark contrast to the churches of Catholicism in Mexico!

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I found this display amusing in the doorway out to the street.  Several of our group loaded up on pastes (two syllables, please) in various flavors to eat at a later time.  Believe it or not, I never did taste a paste, as when I was offered some, I wasn’t hungry.

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From there we went to the Acosta Mining Museum.

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Our guide was a miner’s daughter.  She told us that her father had died at the age of 38, leaving his pregnant wife and seven children.  She was a college graduate.  I wondered how this was even possible, given her family circumstances.

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She described some of the horrendous conditions under which the miners worked.  Kids as young as 10 or 11 worked in the mines.  Women, who were considered unlucky underground, were forbidden to work there.  They worked above-ground, however, separating the mineral-rich stones for processing. Many miners died of silicosis, and because it was perpetually damp, they suffered from respiratory illnesses, and then of course, there were explosions.

There were many interesting photos from the mine’s working days.

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We put on hardhats in what had been the miners’ dressing room, and proceeded to go underground!

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This was one of the most unsavory details, the “cuba.”  It was the bucket that held human excrement (I didn’t even want to know about the mule excrement!), and the man who carried it up got extra pay.  That small piece of wood over the bucket was the “toilet seat.”

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Our final hotel, a real gem, was located in Mineral del Chico, in the heart of El Chico National Park, Mexico’s first, which was established at about the same time as Yosemite in the States.  Now owned by a family, one of the daughters told me of its history.  First, it was a prison, then a casino, then a hotel for the staff of wealthy people, who stayed up the street at the Hotel Paradiso, owned by Pemex (the nationalized gas industry in Mexico), and then her parents bought it.  They had and continue to have an extremely high standard for cleanliness and customer service.  There were flowers from their own garden everywhere, and turn-down service with chocolates on the pillow even.

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We met for drinks in an exquisite space in the hotel and then all dined together in the hotel’s dining room.  Someone mentioned wanting to eat trout, a specialty of the area, and there was none on the menu.  Soon thereafter, a chef appeared.  I assumed it was the chef of the hotel’s restaurant in which we were eating.  In fact it was the chef of a trout restaurant down the street called La Trucha Grilla (The Trout Grill).  He proceeded to tell us of the 15 different ways he prepared trout at his place, and we made a reservation for the following night.  In your wildest dreams, can you imagine a restaurant in the US allowing the chef of a competing place to come in and tout his wares?  Only in Mexico.  And how did he get there?  Our waiter, overhearing our desire to eat trout, must have called him to come over.

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Sunday morning, we breakfasted at 8 in the hotel dining room, and met Martin, who, along with his wife, Elena, would be hosting us for lunch at their home nearby.  We headed out for about 2 1/2 hours of bird-watching and hiking in the national park, which comprised nearly 7000 acres.  We were driven to the bottom of the road which entered the park.

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The area reminded me a lot of Pennsylvania’s forests, except for one major difference:  epiphytes.

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After walking into the park for a while, Rodrigo mimicked the sounds of a diurnal owl and another bird of prey, both of which, he said, would get the attention of the birds in the area.  It took a while, but after after 10-15 minutes, we could hear two other owls responding, and we were surrounded by lots of different birds, which Rodrigo patiently pointed out and located in his scope for our viewing pleasure.

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When we came to a mirador (look-out), we climbed up to see the view.  This proved to be difficult, as the steps were not in the best condition, although I was thankful for the handrails, which are not always a guarantee in Mexico.  By this time, it was intensely hot, and at over 9000 feet, most of us were really feeling it.

The path and steps up to the mirador.

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We arrived, and took in the views.

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We didn’t stay long, as there were other tourists there who were rowdy and clowning around in a dangerous manner.

Rodrigo called Juanito on his cell phone, and the van lumbered up the road to pick us up.  It was then an extremely difficult ride back down the road on the other side, and we loudly applauded Juanito’s driving skill when we were once again on a regular road.

Of all the highlights and treats on this trip, and there were many, the following was the best.  We went to Martin and Elena’s exquisite home and property for a a gourmet lunch, asti spumante, jamaica (a non-alcoholic drink made from hibiscus flowers, which I adore), and homemade cheesecake for dessert.

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And here is my (first) plateful.

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That’s Kevin standing, and Juanito sitting at the table.  Before we dug in, Martin made a toast to all of us and welcomed us to their home. Overwhelmed by this hospitality, I started to cry, and individually Rodrigo, Carmen, Martin, and Elena all came over to comfort me.

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The rest of their house was equally charming.

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After the meal, we just sat around talking.  I am embarrassed to say that I don’t have a single picture of our hosts.  When we first arrived, they were busy getting everything out and everyone settled, and I was busy photographing their place, and then, it just slipped my mind.

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Martin brought out his guitar and sang some wonderful Mexican songs.

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We had a tour of their veggie gardens, their orchard, and the rest of the property.

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The stone retaining walls had just been finished and plans were now underway to have garden plots in the spaces between the walls.

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Even the tool shed was charming.

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As we boarded our bus to return us to our hotel, we bid Martin and Elena a tearful adios, and got a last look at their home.  As we drove away, others in the van thanked me for my expression of emotion before lunch because that’s how they all were feeling.

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The story of dinner at the trout restaurant is something to hear.  When we first arrived, it was almost dusk, so the chef whisked us through one of the most disorganized back rooms I’d ever seen, outside to see his herb garden and fruit trees.

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We returned to the table to have an exquisite, nicely-paced trout dinner.  Martin and Elena made a surprise visit, stopping in for dinner with us on their way back to the city from their weekend retreat.

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After dinner, I noticed an unusual ring on Carmen’s hand that hadn’t been there earlier.  Turns out it was made of a snail shell, and both Kevin and I wanted to buy ones like it, but the stall that sold them was closed for the night and we were making an early get-away the next morning before it re-opened.  Now it just so happened that the daughter of the chef and his wife worked at the ring place.  A cell phone call was made to her and she appeared with about 8-10 different rings like Carmen’s for us to choose from, each for 60 pesos ($5.25 USD).  Because she was a savvy salesgirl, she also brought shawls, pillow covers, and purses (all hand-embroidered), in case we were interested in them, too.

As it was a cool night, we’d had a fire in the fireplace and somebody mentioned marshmallows.  Instantly, the five year-old son of the chef appeared with a bag of marshmallows and sticks for all, putting them on the table and saying in perfect English, “Here they are.”  (His grandmother is an English teacher.)

Only in Mexico would this entire scenario have unfolded.  This, and the afternoon at Martin and Elena’s, is so emblematic of the friendliness, kindness, and hospitality of the Mexican people.

They had lots of other food, drink, and cigar products for sale at the cash register, and people bought.  We took a family photo and got their e-mail address to send it to them.

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Monday morning, we had a quick breakfast and got on the road to return to San Miguel.  But first, we spent about an hour walking around the local Lake Cedral, where many workers were busy cleaning up after the weekend campers, a few of whom were still in residence.

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Still looks like Pennsylvania to me…

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After a long day of riding, about an hour outside of San Miguel, we stopped for barbacoa, a treat I’d never had before.  While there were dozens of barbacoa places along a certain stretch of road, Rodrigo knew the best.  It was gigantic, but not at all crowded on a Monday afternoon.  I don’t even want to imagine what the weekend traffic was like there.  Barbacoa is not barbecue.  It is young lamb, wrapped in agave leaves which impart a unique flavor, cooked overnight in a pot over hot stones in a pit dug into the ground.  It is served with lime, sea salt, chopped onion, three kinds of salsa, and hand-made blue corn and regular tortillas, of a little thicker variety than I was used to.  Using whatever ingredients you liked — or in my case all of them — you constructed tortillas for yourself.  The lamb was arranged on a platter with the fatter cuts at one end, which I appreciated, but didn’t touch.  The lovely, leaner pieces were equally delicious.  We arrived back in San Miguel at around 4:00 p.m.

Let me close with two interesting shots from the camp grounds.

This is the Mexican equivalent of American paint ball, which you could do at this park.

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And what was this truck doing in the heartland of Mexico?  It wasn’t even old, and no attempt had been made to paint out the former owner.

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About

Spurred on by my wonderful experiences on a Vagabundos group trip to Chiapas (see web-site address below), I decided to try another group travel experience, an Eco-Journey, sponsored by the Audubon Society in Mexico.  Although not a rabid bird-watcher, I do enjoy being outdoors, hiking, and seeing nature, and with the help of the leader of this tour, I got to see many birds close up, and really got excited about the hobby.

If you like this blog, perhaps you might want to check out my others:

My first winter (2009) in San Miguel de Allende:  http://hidalgohussy.wordpress.com

My second winter (2010) in San Miguel de Allende:  http://secondyearinsanmiguel.wordpress.com

My third winter (2011) in San Miguel de Allende:  http://Iamaregularinsanmiguelnow.wordpress.com

My first autumn (2011) in San Miguel de Allende: http:/firstautumninsanmiguel.wordpress.com

My fourth winter (2012) in San Miguel de Allende:  http://cynthiainsanmiguel.wordpress.com

A trip to Chiapas, Mexico, with Vagabundos (2013):  http://mytriptochiapas.wordpress.comå

A trip to Uruapan, Michoacán, for the annual Palm Sunday artisans festival (2013):  http://uruapanartisansfestival.wordpress.com

Elderhostel trip to Alaska (2005):  http://alaskaelderhostel.wordpress.com

Elderhostel trip to Copper Canyon in Mexico (2008):  http://coppercanyonelderhostel.wordpress.com

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