May 18, 2013

Colima, Comala, and an Active Volcano

If you don't know where you're going,
Any road will get you there.
Lewis Carroll 

Colima church and volcano, by Jupiter Rivera, our host
We feel the anchorage in the Barra de Navidad lagoon is safe so we decide to leave Déjàlà by herself to visit inland for a couple of days.  We kept an eye out for someone else’s vessel while they were out; they do the same for us when we leave. 

Even this precaution is probably not necessary for locals seem to ignore empty vessels and we already had 36 knot winds and know our anchor is well set.  If we did drag, we would only get stuck in mud, not ending on incapacitating rocks or reefs.

We are ready to leave the Gold Coast behind for a few days – this area is named the Gold Coast after a steamship, in 1862, caught fire and beached somewhere between here and Manzanillo a few miles to the south.  Bags packed, simple picnic lunch made, boat locked up, we take a water taxi to town.  We will be traveling with another boater, sharing costs.  We are renting a car to head up near Volcan de Colima, one of the top 12 active volcanoes in the world.  Volcan de Colima reaches 12,000+ feet and is often covered with snow but not now.
Entrance to Comala - Pueblo Magico
In less than 200 km (125 miles), we are in the small striking town of Comala at 2,000 feet near the base of this majestic mountain still sporadically spewing out smoke.  About 4,000 years ago, a large eruption brought lava from there all the way to the ocean near Cuyutlan (50 miles away); creating a beach with black volcanic sand, much different than all the white beaches we’ve landed on since sailing on the mainland side of Mexico.

Another 20 miles or so and we reach 4,000-6,000 feet but cannot go further; we don’t have the proper vehicle and forest fires have closed the way until June when the rainy season begins.   We’ll have to wait until next year to access the top of the sister volcanic cone which is dormant but higher and from which we can get a clear view of the active volcano 6 miles away.
Second most active volcano in Mexico
One of the top twelve in the world...
From our host Jupiter Rivera
We have traveled a toll highway and very narrow twisty mountain roads to get to and from here.  We are mostly surrounded by jungle, a few rivers, ravines, mountains, and mines.  Iron ore is still mined in this region but mostly the area is agricultural.  Grown are peanut, mango, mamey, coconut, corn, papaya, banana, pomegranate, fig, mango, lime, sugar cane, guaba, and organic coffee. 

Once in Colima and later Comala, we see many men and boys on horseback.  Magnificent horses abound.  We learn that there is a renowned veterinarian here that is flown all over the world to examine, for his stamp of approval, expensive horses before they are purchased.  Each year from December 1st through 12th, 100 or so horses and riders parade through the streets of Comala.  In February, in the suburb of Colima (Villa de Alvarez) nearby will be the kick-off of the 156 year old tradition of bullfighting and horseback riding show.  In this festival 500-600 horses with riders dressed in their very finest parade around for nearly two weeks. 

What is interesting about the bullfight during this festival is the ring itself.  A few days before the fight, with the help of many volunteers, it is built with rope, woven mats, and wood but no nail or screw fasteners.  It can accommodate 7,000 people and is taken down after the festival.  It comes in seventy 100-seat sections with 70 families in charge of one section each – having to safely maintain, store and put up each year.  It would be quite a sight to see the erection of this temporary ‘stadium’. 

Colima is a government town and we didn’t spend much time there preferring to visit the more interesting outskirts.  We took the time to taste some ‘birria de chivo’, a type of goat stew.  In the old days, the meat was cooked in the ground for 24 hours.  With modern cooking, it is no longer prepared this way but since it still takes quite a while to cook, many restaurants only serve it once a week.  There are places that specialize in birria, which can also be made with beef.  It was definitely a simple dish that filled us up until dinner.  As with most simple Mexican dishes, you get to garnish it the way you like by adding anything from beans to cilantro or lime juice to various types of salsa – spicy or not…  I would love to find a place that still cooked it the old way. 
One church, three different styles of steeples
Comala is one of the 100 towns listed as “Pueblo Magico” in Mexico.  In an attempt to lure tourists away from the beaches and further inland, the Mexican government compiled a list of what they call Magical Towns.  They capped that list at 100.  These towns were chosen for what they have to offer in terms of gastronomy, culture, location, traditions, architecture, hospitality, unique identity, patrimony, etc.  People here are quite a bit like the people we had met in the Sierra Madre last year – proud and fairly well off.  It seems like when you get away from tourist areas people are happier, healthier, wealthier and more proud.  It shows in the way they address you, the way everything is well kept, and the way people treat each other.  I hope that becoming a Pueblo Magico won’t change that.  Comala has been named such for its location near a live volcano, in a beautiful setting surrounded by lakes and farms.  The town center only has white buildings – giving it quite a distinctive look from other more colorful Mexican towns.  It is known for three local drinks: tuba, bate and ponche (more on these later), for a type of bread called picon, for its central plaza gazebo donated by Belgium in 1891 (some other sources say Germany?), its organic and kosher coffee, for its accurate equatorial sundial and for its local art and native mask making. 

Equatorial sundial
When we arrived we checked the time on the sundial.  It was exactly one hour off from our watch – accounting for daylight savings time, it was right on target.  For six months one has to read the time on the left side of the shadow, the other six months one has to read the time on the right side of the shadow. 

Tuba is an interesting drink made of palm tree sap fermented in a 1-2 gallon size dry gourd.  The sap is mixed with palm tree flowers and hibiscus.  They also add small pieces of cucumbers and apples.  This pinkish (thanks to the hibiscus) slightly sweet drink is then served with salted roasted peanuts or almonds.  It has a rather interesting taste but I think I would prefer it without the nuts.  For a Mexican drink it is fortunately not overly sweet as most other locally made drinks.

Bate is made of toasted, ground seeds of chan (chia), sweetened with honey.  This type of drink is usually made in homes and not served to the public so we didn't get to taste any.  

Ponche was originally made with mescal (the poor man’s tequila) and pomegranate.  Now they make ponches with sugar cane liquor (i.e.: rum).  It is mixed with milk or water based flavors.  Milk based ponches come in nut flavors (pistachio, almond, peanut), coffee, pineapple, or coco.  Water based ponches come mostly in fruit flavors (plum, tamarind, blackberry and many other fruits unknown to me such as nance, maracaya, guayabilla, etc).  Our favorite ponches are of pomegranate, peanut, or pistachio...  They do not keep well once open so drink up!

The town of Comala has been nicknamed White Town of America.  In the early 60’s everyone used whitewash to paint their houses.  Whitewash contains lime, a chemical that can be very irritating.  By the 80’s people started complaining that the white harmed their eyes.  It wasn’t actually the color that was hurting people’s eyes but the lime dust floating around as it wore off the walls.  When the government declared the town a Pueblo Magico, it dictated that all houses within a certain periphery of the town’s center would have to stay white (about 3 blocks by 6 blocks).  People still complained that the white paint was too bright.  The government asked a paint company to come up with a flat type of white that wouldn’t reflect the sun as much.  Once that mission was accomplished, the government would offer homeowners the paint and the manpower to keep their house white.  For a while, a few people against the leading party of the time would show their dissension by painting their houses another color, perhaps even the color of the party they supported.  In the last little while however peer and government pressure has been put on these people to get with the program to keep the Pueblo Magico monetary support coming in.  It gives the town a very clean slick look with only doorways and windows to give each house their distinction from others. 

There are few trees so white walls, red tile roofs, and cobblestone streets are what you see.  If you are lucky enough to peek inside a doorway to the inner courtyards you will see beautiful places with water fountains, plants, plush seating areas and colors everywhere, a stark contrast from the sparse outside. 
Garage and inner courtyard of a house... imagine the rest!
We were told that the majority of homes are built on long skinny lots, the front of the house built on the short side of the lot.  A tall wall with a doorway faces the road.  The first two rooms behind that wall hold the bedrooms which also serve as living rooms.  When you visit you literally sit on your hosts’ beds.  The next two rooms are the kitchen and dining room.  The room furthest from the wall is the bathroom with an open patio next to it.   The rest of the long property contains a yard for horse, chicken, plants, water fountain, etc.  The majority of the time is spent outdoors (patio or yard) where there is more airflow.

Being so close to an active volcano means earthquakes are a daily occurrence in Comala but they are really small in magnitude.  We didn’t feel anything when we were there but driving around on cobble stones you get so shaken up that even an earthquake of a little larger magnitude would be hard to feel.  We did quite a bit of driving around.  We are glad it wasn’t our vehicle…

Another part of the history of this town is a little surprising.  It is now believed that around 1,500 BCE, Chinese and Philippine people influenced this area.  Palm trees came from the Philippines.  Wine was made from the palm tree sap.  When the Spaniards invaded, they didn’t want competition for their own wines so they had all wine making stopped.  They had all recipes and supplies destroyed and tried to have all palm trees cut down but there were so many that they couldn’t accomplish the latter completely.  Today all that remains of this process is the making of the previously named drink in this post: tuba made with the fermented sap of the palm tree.  As for the Chinese influence, we see it in some of the locals.  A number of them truly look more Chinese than Mexican; round faces, high foreheads, slightly slanted eyes and a somewhat lighter complexion.

This locale is so beautiful that a very private elite resort nearby is frequented by the likes of Bill Gates, Madonna, the Clintons, etc.  We only saw the entrance of San Antonio Resort – no chance of people like us getting in further!
At B&B, outside patio - Mike and Nikki
We settled for the night in a nice B&B, Casa Alvarada that was pet friendly.  Here people stay in posadas (small inns) or hosteles (think more in the lines of youth hostels).  We lucked out to find such a comfortable place with its own yard for Nikki to roam around in, and safe enclosed parking for the car.  A covered patio and lots of local artwork enhanced this great place.

The breakfast prepared and served by our host Júpiter was fabulous.  He told us that no matter how long you stay there, he will never serve you a simple everyday breakfast like bacon and egg or hot cakes.  He also assures you will not eat the same breakfast twice for as long as you stay.  The longest someone has stayed was 6 weeks; he created new breakfasts each morning.  Our breakfast started with fruits (mango atop melon atop apple) topped with honey roasted amaranth, fresh squeezed orange juice, organic coffee and picon bread (a yellowish small bun-like bread with few raisins – probably a bread made with eggs – very light, airy, and slightly sweet – delicious).  The main dish consisted of either a corn or a flour tortilla shaped like a horn of plenty, filled with vegetable, egg and chorizo mixture carefully sprinkled with local cheese and fine herbs.  The presentation was also beautiful.  Such delicately balanced dishes are rare to find in Mexico.  It was definitely a treat to the palate and eyes.  Our host, also a tour guide, answered all our questions about the region.

Júpiter told us about the volcano’s latest small eruption on January 13th, 2013 and how he was lucky enough to take night photos of red lava flowing down its flanks.  He showed them to us – they were amazing pictures.

We had dinner in a small café catering to locals.  Three of us ate 4 dishes and had one beverage each for less than $8!!!  There were only four items to choose from so we tried them all.  After dinner we sat in the central plaza where the townspeople gather.  We couldn’t see another Norte-Americano face.  My comment then was that we probably stood out like sore thumbs to which Joel, our trip companion, replied by playing his flute.  I had no idea what he was doing.  After he finished playing several tunes he asked me if I noticed anyone paying particular attention to us.  The answer was a definite no.  Even with someone playing a musical instrument, it was obvious that no one thought anything of us being there, Anglo or otherwise.  Good lesson.  Thank you Joel.
Making corn tortillas (left), stove (middle), tortilla press (right)
It was difficult to leave the B&B so quickly.  We really enjoyed our host, the location and the food.  We returned to Barra de Navidad following another route down the mountain.  We stopped at Minatitlan, a mining town, where very few tourists ever tread.  We were somewhat of a small curiosity to them.  We were only there for a quick lunch wanting to arrive home and off the road before dark.  The tortillas we had with our meals were made in front of our eyes.  Yellow or blue corn kernels soaked, washed, boiled, ground and patted into small balls, then pressed into tortillas to be cooked on wood-fire stove.  Everything was so fresh and delicious and all three were happily stuffed for less than $7.  It’s so great to finally be away from tourist areas and enjoy good food and fair prices.

Waterfall at end of dry season
Joel, Mike and Nikki at lower right to give size perspective
Our main target traveling this way down was to visit El Salto, a 70-75 foot waterfall on some ancient ceremonial grounds.  Although considered the end of the dry season, we still had the luck of seeing water flowing.  Many had said it could be dry.  One can only imagine its magnitude during the rainy season.  The fall was probably only 3-5 feet wide and could easily be 20-30.

Best erosion control - roots from fig tree
We made it home to Déjàlà before dark and all is well aboard.  Many more boats are at anchor.  During the afternoon of the day following our return, one of the boats went adrift with winds of 20 knots or more.  People in three dinghies went out to save it and re-anchor it.  The owners were unaware for they were in town.  Once again – thankful nothing has happened to us and happy to see the sailing community saving another boat from true injury.

BBQs made out of wheel rims

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