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Filosofy in the Flats – Turneffe Atoll, Belize

We were eating breakfast at Turneffe Flats Lodge with other guests fueling up for a day filled with adventures like fly fishing for bonefish, permit and tarpon or SCUBA diving some of the most colorful and life-filled sites in the world. Here on one of the largest and most diverse collections of islands (cayes), atolls and mangroves in the world, the day is never dull. A fisherman at our table was wearing a perfectly worn in, perfectly comfortable, perfectly cool Turneffe Flats baseball cap. We coveted his cap, which was obviously made of memories, not mere cotton at this point, and the fisherman confessed that he feared it was on its last legs just as it had reached perfection.

Belize - Turneffe Flats Lodge - fishing & Belkin Beer

It got us thinking about what we could learn about life from looking at his sun-bleached, frayed across the brim, sweat-stained cap:

1. Style matters but not as much as shading your eyes so you can keep them on the prize.

2. Your favorite things will last longer if you’re gentle (hand wash whenever possible).

3. When something (or someone) goes from simply being worn to being worn in things start to fall apart so be sure to appreciate the events and adventures and lessons and moments that get you to your perfect point.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled posts about travel in Mexico and travel in Belize.

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Clowns and Cloisters – San Luis Potosi, Mexico

The charms of San Luis Potosi are more subtle than those of many towns in Mexico, but there are charms nonetheless–not the least of which is the fact that much of the central downtown area is either a car-free pedestrian mall or a lovely leafy plaza anchored by a church. Every Mexican city has plazas and churches but SLP has more than its share and it gives the city a garden-town feel.

San Luis Potosi's baroque cathedral was built between 1660 and 1730.

San Luis Potosi has a lot of pedestrian-only streets. This one leads to the cathedral.

Plaza del Carmen.

With such lovely places to congregate, it’s not surprising that a good deal of life in SLP takes place on the streets and in the plazas, disturbed only by a preponderance of clowns which give Karen the heeby-jeebies. Always have. Maybe they can smell her fear because one persistent clown roped Karen into his schtick and wouldn’t set her free until he’d given her a balloon flower. Which would be sweet except for the creepy shoes and fake sad makeup.

Karen is force to face her fears after getting roped into a street performance by a CLOWN.

Museo Regional Potosino is housed in what was originally part of a Franciscan monastery which was founded in 1590.

San Luis Potosi also has more than its share of high-end restaurants too and the city lays claim to some every day edible attractions as well such as enchiladas posotinos and an extremely tasty take on traditional pozole which is pleasingly heavy on the cilantro (or so it seemed to us). We enjoyed both dishes at a comfortable and affordable restaurant called El Pozole which, we are happy to report, is now open until late at night not just until 3:00.

San Luis Potosi is filled with many lovely squares, including Jardin de San Francisco.

Another thing that SLP has that most Mexican cities don’t is a Parisian hotel. Okay, not really. But Palacio San Agustin Museo Hotel comes as close as you’re gonna get within the borders of Mexico.

The hotel, which claims to be the first “Museum Hotel” in Latin America, is housed in what was a mansion  before becoming a kind of guest house for monks and visiting dignitaries associated with SLP’s San Agustin monastery in the late 1600s. The hotel’s current owner, a regional big-shot who prefers to remain pretty-much anonymous, bought the property and spent five years (and at least that many millions) amassing a collection of more than 700 certified French antiques. Even the chef is from France, though he’s just of normal age.

Local artists were commissioned to copy historical European decorative styles on almost every paint-able surface. The owner even added a to-scale replica of the carved stone facade of the San Agustin Temple that’s just down the street and installed it at one end of the lobby floor. Subtle he is not.

The 20 room hotel opened in 2008 (be warned, a couple of the rooms are windowless closets) and, to be honest, the place can be a bit overwhelming, especially when they’re blasting “Flight of the Valkyries” over their excellent hotel-wide sound system. But even if you hate classical music and can’t stand tapestries, you have to be awed by the sheer feat of the place. It’s worth signing up for one of their guided tours (60 pesos or about $5)  during which a staff member (English is available) will walk and talk you through the hotel’s fascinating nooks and crannies. Then you get a cocktail.

The wonderful staircase in the Palacio San Agustin Museo Hotel.

Looking up into the spiral of the wonderful staircase in the Palacio San Agustin Museo Hotel.

http://www.palaciodesanagustin.com/

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The New Old Mazatlan – Sinaloa, Mexico

We headed to Mazatlan as much because of its illustrious past as Mexico’s first truly glamorous beach resort and to see what’s become of it lately. We were pleasantly surprised on both fronts. Yes, Mazatlan’s Zona Dorado (Golden Zone), the main and more-modern drag, is a kind of low-rent Cancun or Fort Lauderdale with high rise resorts of  certain era  (one 1,000+ room monster is literally called a Mega Resort), lots of restaurants offering buffets or hamburgers and a half-hearted attempt at style. However, the original heart of Mazatlan is still a charmer.

Playa Olas Atlas, just a few blocks from the center of Old Mazatlan, was one of the first resort areas in Mexico.

Located down at the Playa Olas Atlas end of town, the original part of Mazatlan was once referred to as the “Pearl of the Pacific.” John Wayne used to keep a boat here and Ernest Hemingway spent more than a little bit of time in town. The area has long since let go of the last vestiges of its glamorous past and embraced–either out of choice or out of necessity–its decidedly faded present.

The result is an old travel battlehorse so comfortable in its peeling, slightly-crumbling skin that visitors are instantly made to feel perfectly, casually at home as well. A fresh crop of hip bars, a thriving arts scene and a growing number of boutique hotels (we’re talking about you Melville Suites and Hotel Machado) and bed and breakfasts keep the area from lurching into has-been-land.

More on the chic lodgings later. For now, let us stress that Old Mazatlan is also home to some exceptional hotel bargains, like the Belmar Hotel, a faded but still perfectly acceptable budget option (clean, safe, central, functioning Wi-Fi, secure parking) where we got a room with A/C for 200 pesos (about $13). Yep.

The Hotel Belmar was the first resort hotel to be built in Mazatlan. Opened in 1918 it was, at one time, THE place to stay. Now old school, open-air Pulmonia taxis pick up and drop off budget traveler guests at this ramshackle diva.

Old Mazatlan combines the pastels of Miami with the wrought iron and languid patios of New Orleans and many of Old Mazatlan’s original buildings have been (or are being) renovated, giving the area a kind of lazy boom-town feel. Another quirky Mazatlan plus? Free calls to the US and Canada from house phones at most of the hotels–even the penny-pinching  Belmar.

The restored buildings in Old Mazatlan bring color and style to the neighborhood.

The sights and sounds of a low-key seaside town like Mazatlan make a seafood meal sound good and we spent plenty of afternoons at Mariscos Tono enjoying wonderfully fresh ceviche and 12 peso cervezas. We were also tipped off about a  great taco place called Taqueria Playa Sur. Tender, tender beef and a bustling turnover. Want a tablecloth and live jazz and a wine list and a cappuccino? Restaurants like Pedro y Lola in Old Mazatlan deliver that too.

The heart of Old Mazatlan is the Plaza Machado which is surrounded by cafes and the beautifully restored Angela Peralta Theater.

Street art on one of the buildings in Old Mazatlan is too good to be called graffiti.

The 19th century cathedral in Old Mazatlan.

Though we originally checked into the wonderfully frayed (and equally wonderfully priced) Hotel Belmar we were intrigued by the number of really chic little boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts we walked past on our daily strolls through Old Mazatlan. One of them, the Casa Lucila, is right on the waterfront and has a story as irresistible as its location.

Opened by Conchita Valades de Boccard and her husband Christopher, this stunner is named after her mother and the eight over-sized rooms (many with sea-view patios) arenamed after Conchita’s eight sisters. The restaurant and lounge is named for Conchita’s father, Mazatlan crooner Fernando Valades Lejarza. Conchita jokes that she’s going to have to open another hotel so her five brothers can have rooms named after them and she’s done such a wonderful job with Casa Lucila that we really hope she follows through on that threat.

A native of Mazatlan, Conchita bought the property in 2007 and photos of the building at that time prove that calling it a shambles would have been a compliment. Today the tranquil and stylish two story hotel is properly dressed in Italian stone and windows and doors and plush linens. There’s even a plunge pool and a lovely one-room spa. The sublime custom mattresses are made by hand in Mazatlan by a man who can only be called an artist.

As if to seal the deal, the location of the hotel, on a slight rise above the seawall, provides gratis views down the long, sweeping crescent of Olas Atlas Beach. All in all, Casa Lucila is a wonderful new take on Old Mazatlan.

Sunset on the Pacific.

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The Town Time Almost Forgot – Alamos, Sonora, Mexico

After driving across the Copper Canyon and resting up at Torres del Fuerte hotel in El Fuerte we veered off the pavement once again and hit the back roads headed for Alamos. Sure you can get there on the highway but there’s also a network of good dirt roads that connect El Fuerte and Alamos on a route that takes you through the Sonoran desert and past a few isolated villages often on stretches of the original Camino Real.

The trick is knowing which way to go. It seemed like everyone suggested a slightly different route (frustrating) but we headed out anyway and only ended up making one wrong turn.

Cathedral Nuestra Señora de la Concepción in Alamos' Plaza de Armas.

Cathedral Nuestra Señora de la Concepción in Alamos' tranquil Plaza de Armas.

 

Alamos is an official Pueblo Magico and also a national historic site  but it almost ended up as nothing more than a collection of ruins. In 1540 Alamos was the encampment of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, in town as part of Spain’s efforts to turn the whole region into Nuevo Galicia. In 1683 silver was discovered in Alamos which was invaded again, this time by prospectors.

Town boomed to more than 30,000 people, then busted just as fast when the deposits became harder to mine. During the revolution in the 19th century Alamos was invaded many more times and by the 1920s most people had left and most buildings were in terrible shape.

Enter a new invader, this time a gringo, one William Levant Alcorn of Pennsylvania who arrived in the 1940s, saw potential in the ruins and decided to resurrect Alamos one building at a time, buying them up for $50 or $100 a piece. Alcorn eventually made a killing by publicizing Alamos and selling real estate in the town and there are still a number of streets and buildings that bear his name.

Wonderful architecture and pretty lanes abound in this pueblo magico.

Wonderful architecture and pretty lanes abound in this Pueblo Magico.

 

Today real estate agents still make a killing in Alamos which is a charming network of bright white buildings, cobblestone streets and lots and lots of Americans and Canadians who (thankfully) seem to have as much pride in the town itself as they do in their lovely winter homes. By all accounts the expats here devote a lot of time, energy and money to the local community providing funds and materials for everything from school tuition to costumes for local fiestas like the Revolution Day parade we watched as it snaked its way through town I (don’t miss the pictures, below).

Despite the growing number of expats and artists and a mish-mash of B-list celebrities and socialites (including the late actor Carroll O’Connor, still-living actor Rip Torn and an heiress to the Pabst Blue Ribbon fortune) who call Alamos home for at least part of the year, Alamos somehow manages to avoid feeling gringo-fied. Unlike other expat towns like San Miguel de Allende, the Americans and Canadians in Alamos seem genuinely invested in their Mexican  neighbors and genuinely friendly to visitors just passing through, like us. (Thanks, again, for dinner Elizabeth! We had a blast!)

Entrance to Hacienda de los Santos.

The entrance to Hacienda de los Santos Resort & Spa.

 

Another Alamos miracle? The Hacienda de los Santos Resort & Spa (a member of Mexico Boutique Hotels) which we check into for three blissful days. The Hacienda is not so much a hotel as a personal dare owners Jim and Nancy Swickard imposed upon themselves back in late ’80s when they retired and bought not but three neighboring haciendas and an 18th century sugar mill and set about renovating, connecting and decorating them.

The result is a seamless melding of the once separate buildings thanks in large part to the Swickard’s incredible attention to detail and stubborn insistence on perfection and the fact that the hotel has remained in the family’s hands (daughter Jamie is now heavily involved too). From the collection of Spanish Colonial art and antiques to the four (count ’em) pools to the lush gardens and private 75 seat movie theater and small putting green there are marvels at every turn.

The Swickards recently completed a new creation, opening the more affordable (and kid and pet friendly) Posada Tacubaya B&B right around the corner in December of 2009.

One of four swimming pools at Hacienda de los Santos.

One of four swimming pools at Hacienda de los Santos Resort & Spa.

 

We celebrated Eric’s birthday with a wonderful rooftop dinner at Hacienda de los Santos serenaded by the Los Haceandados, the resort’s house band which features Jamie Swickard’s husband, Ramon, on guitar and vocals.

The Hacienda's wanderful bar, Cantina Zapata has more than xxx different tequilas.

The Hacienda's wonderful bar, Cantina Zapata, has more than 500 different tequilas plus an impressive collection of saddles, spurs and sombreros.

Just a selection of the xxx tequilas in Hacienda de los Santos Cantina Zapata.

Just a portion of the more than 500 different tequilas on offer in Cantina Zapata at Hacienda de los Santos Resort & Spa, even though owner Jim Swickard doesn't drink.

Pool in the main courtyard of the Hacienda de los Santos at night.

The pool in the main courtyard of the Hacienda de los Santos Resort & Spa--one of four pools at the hotel.

Children dess up in period costume at Alamos' Revolution Day parade.

Children dressed up in period costumes as part of Alamos' Revolution Day parade.

Pancho Villa wanna'bes at Alamos' Revolution Day parade.

Pancho Villa wannabes in Alamos' Revolution Day parade.

Cool old truck turned food cart in Alamos' Plaza Alameda

This cool old truck has been turned into a food cart and now sells snacks in Alamos' Plaza Alameda.

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Our Latest Work: Zacatecas, Mexico

The travel section of the  Dallas Morning News published a feature we did about the surprising charms of Zacatecas, Mexico. Thousands of masks, the most unusual sandwich we’ve ever eaten and a subterranean disco are  just part of the story.

Read it here first!

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Visit the Published Work page of our website any time to see all of our freelance work in one place.

And don’t miss our latest round of hotel reviews and news from Mexico and the US including Posada Tacubaya a new family-friendly bed and breakfast in Alamos created by the same gifted family behind Hacienda de los Santos, the Aman group’s newest US hotel, Amangiri, and Las Alamandas, a bright spot (literally) on the Costalegre, Mexico.

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Ay, Chi hua why! – Chihuahua City, Chihuahua, Mexico

To be honest, the first time we visited the city of Chihuahua back in December we were surprised at how clean and orderly and historic this city is. Oh, and how pointy the cowboy boots are. Mate a stiletto with a traditional cowboy boot and you begin to get the idea. Make them baby blue or mint green or tangerine and made out of alligator skin and/or manta ray and you’ve hit the jackpot, so to speak.

The beautiful baroque cathedral of Chihuahua was begun in 1725.

Construction of the beautiful baroque cathedral in Chihuahua was begun in 1725.

 

This visit to Chihuahua, which is celebrating its 300th birthday this year, brought a new surprise: an actual boutique hotel.  We knew that Chihuahua had the usual suspects: your soulless chains like Holiday Inn and Best Western, and a whole passle of locally-owned el cheapo crash pads that are clean and safe and that’s about all you can say about them.

But Hotel San Felipe el Real is a whole different stay. Eight individually decorated rooms are clustered around an open-air inner courtyard with a gently gurgling fountain and bouganvillea draped back patio in a restored 19th century mansion located  in a quiet area tucked a few blocks off the main plaza.

Common rooms, including a library and sitting area, are peppered with antiques (just try to keep track of the number of antique sewing machines, record players and stoves in the place) and a made to order breakfast is served each morning by the ever-smiling Luz in a spacious kitchen and dining area which guests are free to use as well. Oh, and there’s reliable Wi-Fi throughout.

Hotel San Felipe el Real has managed to combine historic touches (original floors and ceilings) with thrift store chic decor and a charming mash up of Spanish and Mexican influences. The English-speaking owner, Santiago, is also a wealth of knowledge about the area including the Copper Canyon. The world famous Copper Canyon train actually departs from a station within walking distance of the hotel (we’ll be posting about our time in the Copper Canyon over the next few days). It sure as heck beats the el cheapo place we crashed in during our last visit to Chihuahua!

Apparently, in this economy it even tough to sell Chihuahua's in Chihuahua.

In this economy it's tough to sell chihuahuas even in Chihuahua.

gowns

Fancy gowns are big business in Chihuahua.

 

Apart from impossibly pointy day-glow cowboy boots, Chihuahua’s other fashion statement is fancy gowns for weddings and quinceañero celebrations–the mandatory party every 15 year old girl has. Think of it as the Mexican version of a sweet 16 party, only with peticoats, corsets and tiaras.

One of the dozens of fancy dress shops in downtown Chihuahua offers something the others don’t. Legend has it that the daughter of Pascuala, the owner of La Popular dress shop, was killed by a black widow spider bite on the eve of her wedding. Heart broken, Pascuala embalmed her daughter’s corpse and now uses it as a mannequin in her shop window. The thing is eerily life like. We’re just saying.

Piñatas fill a hallway of the market.

Mass produced piñatas fill a hallway in one section of a downtown market building.

 

Piñatas are also big business and range from crude likenesses churned out by entire famlilies of workers to hand-crafted pieces with amazing details like curled hair and artfully painted eyes.

A particularly artistic and deatailed piñata getting the final touches.

This special order piñata is particularly artistic and detailed.

Piñata's in process

Piñatas in process.

Piñatas

Luckily piñatas don't need sunscreen.

 

Santiago, the gregarious owner of Hotel San Felipe el Real, got us into a food show that was being held at the convention center in Chihuahua. Mennonite cheese makers (there’s a huge and prosperous community of Mennonite farmers not far from Chihuahua) rubbed shoulders with guys hawking machaca, a tasty dried and shredded beef and gourmet potato chips. It wasn’t long before we’d worked up a powerful thirst.

Luckily, the food show also had Tecate and Corona beer on tap and a stall doling out sips of Hacienda de Chihuahua sotol, a regional drink that’s distilled from a member of the agave family. The process is similar to tequila making but, in this case at least, the end product is smoother.

No convention center event is ever truly complete without scantily clad women traipsing around “promoting” something-or-other. At this event a gaggle of young women in tiny tops, tinier skirts and the kind of boots that would make Nancy Sinatra blush satisfied that need in their roles as the official Tecate Girls.

The Tecate girls, not to be confused with the Modelo girls, having a snack at the food show.

The Tecate Girls grab a snack.

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