30 January 2007

Chilling in Oaxaca

Iglesia en Oaxaca/Church in Oaxaca

I've been in Oaxaca for the past nine days and loved pretty much every minute of it, spare the mezcal hangover this morning. For a place that just exited almost six months of turmoil, it's remarkably calm and tidy - not to mention friendly and safe.

For anyone contemplating a trip, check out planeta.com and be sure to visit the artisan towns, which are explained in detail on the website. For those living in Guadalajara or the Lake Chapala area, discount airline Avolar has round trip fares for only 1,500 pesos.

27 January 2007

Puerto Vallarta parking problems continue

Sandcastle in Puerto Vallarta

The Puerto Vallarta municipal government started turning four of its public parks into parking garages in 2005. The work is pretty much done and new, concrete-intensive parks now sit atop underground parking garages at three locations. The projects have been controversial for some people, who argue that a rash of development in the central part of the city is jeopardizing the charm and ambiance that made Puerto Vallarta so popular. Here's what I wrote on the subject for the Miami Herald, Mexico edition.

BY DAVID AGREN/The Herald Mexico
El Universal
Sábado 27 de enero de 2007

PUERTO VALLARTA - Over his three years as a vendor near this town´s Playa los Muertos, Pedro de Jesús Álvarez has noticed more and more traffic pass through the area and parking spaces become increasingly scarce.
To remedy the situation and accommodate a growing number of tourists arriving in private vehicles, the Puerto Vallarta municipal government unveiled a polemic solution several years ago: Convert four of its public parks - three of which were either in or adjacent to the Historic Center - into parking garages. New concrete-intensive parks would be built on top of three of the underground garages.

Álvarez´s old business location, Parque Lázaro Cárdenas, was dedicated as an underground parking garage by outgoing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) Mayor Gustavo González Villaseñor in late December, capping a pro-development term in office, during which time the seaside destination has grown immensely in popularity with both domestic and international tourists and building has been rampant.

According to the local tourism board, the once sleepy fishing village on a spectacular bay now trails only Cancún in tourist preference and 3.5 million people visit Puerto Vallarta each year.

The ongoing modernization of the Historic Center - site of the famed Malecón - and nearby Zona Romántica, though, unsettles some longtime residents and environmental groups, who accuse the municipal government of charging ahead without drawing up a proper development plan and recklessly approving projects that could, if not carried out with caution, turn Puerto Vallarta into another Acapulco.

Read the whole article at: http://www.mexiconews.com.mx/23166.html

23 January 2007

Dolf Horn, R.I.P.

Dolf Horn
Mr. Adolf B. Horn Jr., the former U.S. consul in Guadalajara, passed away earlier this week. He was 95. The Cuban-born Horn, a pioneer in Jalisco's expatriate community, founded Helados Bing in 1965 at a location near Guadalajara's Los Arcos and served for more than three decades as the local president of the American Chamber. Horn sold Helados Bing in the early 1980s and later became involved with Dolphy, another chain of ice cream stores.

Over the years Horn became somewhat of a living legend in Guadalajara's business community. A road in suburban Tlajomulco de Zuñiga was named after him, although it was in somewhat of a sorry state in recent years.

Horn also counted friends on all sides of the political spectrum. He was friends with various presidents and governors and was always a proponent of Mexico opening up to the outside world.

I interviewed Horn previously. Here's something I wrote on him for the Miami Herald, Mexico edition back in Oct. 2005. http://agren.blogspot.com/2005/10/ice-cream-pioneer-still-going-strong.html

22 January 2007

Buy your iPod in Canada

Perhaps drawing inspiration from the The Economist magazine's annual Big Mac index, which gauges currency valuations and purchasing power, an Australian bank substituted the increasingly ubiquitous iPod for the oft-maligned hamburger.

Canada ranked as the cheapest place to buy a 2 GB version of the device, while Brazil was the most expensive. Surprisingly, Mexico was the fourth cheapest place on the list. An iPod, according to the survey, costs only $5.46 more in Mexico than in the United States.

On sombreros and U.S. politics


From Jesse Walker on the always amusing and at times raucous Hit and Run blog at Reason.com:

Bill Richardson is dipping his toes in the presidential race. Here's how The Australian headlined the news:
Latino throws his sombrero in ring
I have no comment, except that I'm not sure whether I'm laughing with or at the fellow who wrote that.

19 January 2007

Canadians flock to western Mexico, but not necessarily San Miguel de Allende

Photo by Steven H. Miller

The Atencion newspaper in San Miguel de Allende published a feature I wrote on why so many Canadians settle in the Lake Chapala area instead of San Miguel. Basically, the Lake Chapala area is cheaper. The weather is also more agreeable. Most of us didn't leave Canada to freeze in the winter - and San Miguel can get pretty chilly. The Lake Chapala area has also been well promoted in parts of Canada and word of mouth advertising is now really spreading quickly.

Here's the top of the story:

Canadian retiree Dan McTavish, who has lived in Ajijic, Jalisco, for more than a decade, listed several reasons why so many of his fellow Canucks settle in the Lake Chapala area instead of San Miguel de Allende or any other part of Mexico’s interior.

Like many Canadian expats, he mentioned the weather as one of the main factors. The microclimate surrounding Lake Chapala is decidedly less chilly and often described as “perpetual spring.”

“Canadians come to Lake Chapala because it is not as cold as San Miguel,” the former Toronto native said. Additionally, “It is near ... Guadalajara. I can get off an airplane from the US or from Mexico City [on my way back from Canada] and be at my home in 35 to 40 minutes.”

While San Miguel de Allende has a noticeable Canadian community—estimated at about 15 percent of the expatriate population —Canadians seemingly dominate the Lake Chapala area, which is considered the largest enclave of Canadians outside of Canada, except parts of Florida in the wintertime.

Read the whole feature under the community section of Atencion's website.

18 January 2007

Oaxaca no longer off limits - for some

Avolar jet in Oaxaca

The U.S. State Department rescinded its travel advisory for Oaxaca yesterday, but the Canadian government still says its citizens shouldn't go to the southern Mexican state - scene of a nasty teachers' strike that descended into open revolt against the local PRI governor. The Canadians at least acknowledge, "The situation is showing signs of improvement."

Headlines of a 19-year-old Canadian traveler in Acapulco meeting an untimely end on Jan. 7 generated endless headlines in Canada and promoted no shortage of calls for a blanket advisory cautioning against Mexican travel. Perhaps that explains the Canadians' tepidness in lifting its Oaxaca advisory. But Adam DePrisco was struck by a vehicle, according to autopsies performed in both Canada and Mexico. It was most likely a hit-and-run collision, although his family alleges murder.

The two situations shouldn't be linked in any way. I've booked my ticket for Oaxaca - just 2,150 pesos round trip from Guadalajara on Avolar - and I suspect others will follow suit. The state could use the boost and it's not to be missed - even if the Canadian government can't get its act together and scrap the travel advisory.

*For a telling statistic on how bad the tourism economy in Oaxaca is, look at these stats from the local airport operator, which saw a 32.6 percent fewer passengers in Dec. 2006 than in Dec. 2005.

Check out the Chapala Forum

A good friend, Steven Miller, launched a new web board on the Lake Chapala area - and all of Mexico for that matter. The idea came about after several talented writers were turfed from other boards serving the area. Also, some topics were off limits due to potential conflicts with advertisers and the moderators were seemingly asleep at their keyboards.

Check out the site - and be certain to join in the fray.


17 January 2007

Drug war silencing journalists in Mexico

Mexico's war on drugs keeps claiming more victims. A Committee to Protect Journalists' report says seven Mexican reporters lost their lives last year and the country is now the most dangerous place to practice the craft in the hemisphere.

In the bad old days of one-party rule, the government silenced upstart journalists and newspapers with a newsprint monopoly and the withdrawal of lucrative advertising contracts. Many reporters had patrons and penned favorable articles in exchange for cash. (Reporters also sold advertising.)

Nowadays, reporters regularly criticize the government and all politicians draw scrutiny. Media-shy drug gangs, however, have effectively scared off reporters through a series of gruesome executions and disappearances. No reporter I know, will touch a drug-related story. It's a potential death wish.

16 January 2007

Sliding oil prices jeopardize Mexico's budget

Former president Vicente Fox - he seems so out of memory these days - in many ways righted Mexico's financial situation and ushered in a period of macroeconomic stability. He even drove down the country's budget deficit. He received high praise, but University of Guadalajara political science professor Marco Antonio Cortes shrewdly observed: "He deserves credit, but not all of the credit that's been attributed to him.

"He's been lucky."

Lucky enough to ride an upswing in world oil prices. Oil - more specifically, Pemex profits - floats the Mexican government. Fox took advantage of high prices to rectify government finances - even though Pemex is as troubled as ever.

Now with prices falling, President Felipe Calderon faces a problem. The Mexican government budgeted for an average price of $42.80, but the price for Mexican crude recently tumbled below that threshold. Compounding the problem, production in Mexico's principle oil fields is falling as Pemex remits 60 percent of its income to the federal government. The lack of exploration and maintenance is finally catching up to the company and country. Columnist Sergio Sarmiento, an advocate of private participation in the Mexican oil industry, dubbed it: "The end of the lottery." This could be Calderon's most vexing problem over the next six years.

UPDATE: Pemex is predicting its production will decline by 13 percent over the next six years - Felipe Calderon's presidential term.

14 January 2007

Some people say the stupidest things about Mexico

A young Canadian traveler sadly died outside of an Acapulco nightclub last week and news of his death is generating no shortage of headlines and emotionally charged comments on message boards. The facts are still sketchy, but similar to the case of the two Canadians killed in their Playa del Carmen hotel room last winter, the grieving family is alleging police and judicial ineptness. Many Canadians are also urging the federal government to issue a travel advisory for the entire country - instead of just certain zones like Oaxaca.

That would be overkill. Guadalajara is as tranquil as ever, as is Chapala and Ajijic - where record numbers of Canadians keep arriving each winter - and San Miguel de Allende. I spent the days leading up to New Year's in Mexico City with a Canadian friend and found it an ideal time to visit.

Canadians - even the ones that take winter junkets down to Puerto Vallarta and Cancun - really know very little about Mexico and thus a number of stupid and downright prejudiced comments have been appearing on message boards. These comments on the Globe and Mail's site by someone called Lyn Alg tops them all for sheer ignorance:

"One would be safer and wiser to take a vacation in the centre of Baghdad or in Afghanistan than in Mexico."

Please. It's small town cheap comments like this that make me not miss Canada, which for all of its supposed tolerance and worldliness, is distressing parochial and small minded - not to mention ignorant of Latin America.

To its credit, CTV posted a large collection of comments, which often struck a more reasonable note and included the feelings of Canadians presently residing in Mexico. One interesting theme was how many people had negative expriences in Acapulco. Those going to Puerto Vallarta grouse frequently about pushy time-share vendors, but those in the CTV forum raved about their experiences. Acapulco is badly over-built and ringed by slums. It's also in Guerrero, perhaps Mexico's most corrupt and backwards state. Acapulco is now a playground for rich chilangos (Mexico City residents) and not a prime destination for foreigners.

Update: Mexican authorities attributed Adam DePrisco's death to a hit-and-run accident. The DePrisco family disagreed. Now an autopsy in Ontario confirms DePrisco was struck by a vehicle, but Adam's family said the results "don't add up."

The DePrisco family is also now charging Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and the Canadian government with not doing more to help. Justice is unfortunately bad for Mexicans - not just foreign tourists. The government, in reality, can do little - and Canadians don't have a reputation of pushing for answers like their American counterparts.

10 January 2007

Allan Rose: Canadian trailblazer in Ajijic

Allan Rose

Allan Rose served as honorary Canadian consul in Guadalajara for more than a decade. The Ajijic resident was one of the early Canadian arrivals in the Lake Chapala area, which is now site of the largest enclave of expatriate Canadians outside of Canada - spare parts of Florida in the winter. He's a charming and engaging fellow, here's profile I wrote on him for the Miami Herald, Mexico edition: http://www.mexiconews.com.mx/miami/22907.html

09 January 2007

Tequila flows like never before while subsidies trickle in for struggling agave farmers

Agave reception

Tequila once again surged in popularity as distillers increased their output by 15.7 percent in 2006, making it a record production year. Exports grew by an even bigger number, 17.8 percent and another legendary tequila brand, Herradura, slipped into foreign hands. The region around Tequila, Jalisco was also named a UNESCO World Heritage Site last year.

But all isn't well in Mexico's tequila country. Farmers still receive only a fraction of the sky-high prices agave fetched during the salad days of the late 1990s. The price of agave has bottomed out at around one peso per kilo after reaching as high as 16 pesos per kilo. Prices have hovered at that low level for several years now.

To ease the hardship, the Mexican government unveiled a plan to give agave growers 200 million pesos in subsidies. Agriculture secretary - and former Jalisco governor - Alberto Cardenas Jimenez announced the relief, but commented that the previous high price drove many growers to plant agave and attracted many speculators into the industry. Agave arriving from outside of the designated growing area - Jalisco and certain municipalities of Nayarit, Michoacan, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas - is also aggravating the situation.

Somewhat ironically, the Jalisco government's rural development secretariat forecasts the supply of agave will plunge by the end of the decade after the glut works itself out, which would, of course, put the same boom-bust cycle in motion again.

Los Reyes Magos go for a boat ride

King being feted

A mesquite statue of Melchor, one of the Santos Reyes (three kings), is carried off of a humble fishing boat yesterday at the wharf in Cajititlan, Jalisco. The town just south of Guadalajara celebrates Dia de los Reyes every January with the usual activities - fireworks, indigenous dancing, church services, etc. - but the local fishermen also take the kings on a tour of the Laguna de Cajititlan. The tradition dates back to at least 1587 in the municipality of Tlajomulco.

I wrote about the event; here's my account for the Catholic News Service.

02 January 2007

Chowing down on birria in Jocotepec

The Chapala-area town of Jocotepec recently renovated its centro - quite well, actually - but the famed birrierias remain, churning out steaming hot bowls of goat meat in a spicy onion and tomato sauce. The Birrieria (a place the sells that sells birria) La Playita serves amazing handmade tortillas with every order. It's probably the best cheap lunch at Lakeside.

Durango drops into the deep freeze

Contrary to popular belief, many parts of Mexico shiver through the winter - at least at night. Many visitors to cities like Guadalajara and Mexico arrive with attire better suited for Puerto Vallarta or Cancun, mistakenly thinking the whole country has beach-like temperatures.

I spent a chilly Christmas in San Miguel de Allende. The daytime highs reached into the mid 20s (Celsius), but the mornings and evenings were another matter. On my way back from Mexico City on Sunday morning, I departed on a flight taking off from the Toluca airport. The terminal was very was open and lacked heating.

And now, the temperature in parts of Durango, a desert state famous for being the setting of many western movies, dipped to -21.5 Celsius over the new year's holiday.

01 January 2007

Going low-rent at the Lucha Libre

Lucha Libre at the Guadalajara International Bookfair

I finally went back to the Lucha Libre (Mexican professional wrestling) at the Arena Coliseo in Mexico City. While not exactly "high brow" - Mexicans might say "naco" (tacky) - it's unbelievably fun and at times silly. Go with an open mind and pick up a couple 70-peso masks afterwards as they make great souvenirs.

Discount carriers jet across Mexico for less

I escaped the Federal District yesterday morning on a Volaris flight, taking advantage of one of Mexico's new discount airlines. Even though the flight departed from Toluca, 70 km to the west, the whole process was just as easy - but much cheaper - than going from the main Mexico City airport. (Finding an available taxi in the Colonia Roma at 5 a.m. was another matter.)

My one-way flight to Guadalajara cost less than 600 pesos - about the same as a first class bus ticket on ETN. Everything was top notch - especially the lattes served in the Toluca airport - and Volaris provides many nice touches like free cajeta snacks upon deplaning. The Pinguinos (Mexican version of a twinkie) served for breakfast were a little disappointing, but that's about all.

Great - and artful - coffee in San Miguel de Allende

Great coffee in San Miguel de Allende

Adam, the owner of CAFE on Calle Correo in San Miguel de Allende, shows off one of his specialty lattes with an artful leaf design poured into the foam. The five-month-old cafe, which is also site of Adam's art studio, serves pretty much nothing but coffee, which is made the right way from properly-roasted Oaxaca beans. As Adam, a native of Montreal, put it: "I just couldn't stand the other places," when asked why he started his business.

Making coffee right means doing things other coffee shops neglect. He grinds the beans right before making a cup of coffee as the oil in coffee is highly perishablele and will go rancid shortly after being ground. The water is heated to 90 degrees Celsius as boiling water "scalds the coffee." Adam also adjusts the coffee grind several times throughout the day, depending on the temperature and humidity in the store. Milk is also important; he uses whole milk from the Santa Clara ice cream stores since it creates a thicker, more pourable foam. Being an artist, he then fashions a design in the foam by quickly flicking his wrist.

If you're in San Miguel, check out CAFE. You won't go anywhere else after trying it.