Monday, October 31, 2011

MALINALCO--Mexico's Shangri-La

One way to deal with the craziness of living in Mexico City is to escape to the country once in a while, and my favorite place to go is Malinalco, a magical spot hidden in the mountains of the Estado de Mexico.

The Aztec goddess Malinalxóchitl thought the place magical enough to call it home, and the Mexican government officially endorsed her opinion when it included Malinalco in its Pueblos Mágicos program, which protects and promotes small town culture.

I knew it was magical the first time I saw it more than 20 years ago,” said Adriana Pérez de Legaspi, one of a small group of Mexico City residents who have weekend homes here, and who offers tours and cooking classes in ‘pre-Hispanic gastronomy’. “There’s a feeling of something ancient here, something secure and grounded. ”

Located 110 km (65 miles) southwest of Mexico City, Malinalco feels like another world. It’s nestled in a lush, semi-tropical valley where flowering shrubs, tumbling vines, banana and palm trees grow in jungle-like abundance, and undulating mountains frame every vista. Adobe houses with red-tiled roofs and painted stucco walls line the streets around the main plaza; an Aztec shrine, carved into the hillside, presides over the valley.

The division between town and country is blurred here. There’s only one asphalt road, bisecting the town east to west. Other streets are of cobbled stone, fading off into well-trodden dirt pathways, old creek beds, and winding animal tracks.

Exploring the hills around the town you’ll find rock carvings and paintings that date back to 600 B.C. When the Aztecs showed up in the 1400’s they built a ceremonial site known as the Cerro de los Idolos (Hill of the Idols). A zigzag staircase of 427 steps leads to the site, where priests once offered sacrifices to the Aztec gods (closed Mondays).

Down below, just off the main plaza, is another sacred spot, the imposing Church of the Divine Savior, founded by Augustinian monks in 1543. The adjacent cloister is painted with murals depicting local flora and fauna, a mix of indigenous and Spanish artistic influences.

In the market, women with long braids and carefully ironed aprons sell hand-made tortillas and fresh cheese wrapped in cornhusks. The produce spread out for sale looks pre-historic: edible, scarlet colorín flowers, pink guavas, granadas chinas (the fruit of the passionflower), wild blue mushrooms, and guajes, wrinkly green pods whose seeds are used to flavor tacos and guacamole.

Several street food stalls stand against the high stone walls of the church yard. Locals and tourists alike line up for specialties like tacos of cecina adobada (dried, spiced beef) or tlacoyos de haba (oblong corn cakes filled with fava beans). The enchiladas verdes I ate at one stand were the best I’ve had in Mexico. The ice cream at Malinalli, across the plaza, is made with those exotic fruits you saw in the market like mamey, zapote, or guanábana. There are several 'nice' restaurants, too, like Los Placeres on the plaza across from the church, which has great food and atmosphere. The local tamales, sold from baskets by women in the market, are flat--they look like they've been run over by a truck--but are delicious. 

Malinalco, whose population is around 7000, is primarily a town of agricultural workers, but it’s been a getaway for privileged city residents for decades--in a flea market in Mexico City I found a travel magazine from 1948 with a cover story on Malinalco. Smaller and less developed than weekend retreats like Valle de Bravo and Tepotzlán, it has a few high-end hotels, a handful of good restaurants, two art galleries, and a private golf community. At the elegant Ollinyotl holistic center ( you can get a massage, take a yoga class, or wander in their meditation labyrinth.

Politicians, corporate executives, a museum director and even the grandson of Diego Rivera have homes here. But most of the wealth is discretely hidden behind high, bougainvillea-clad walls, and on the roads around town you’re more likely to encounter a stray cow or a herd of sheep than a Mercedes Benz.

It’s Mexico’s best kept secret, “ says Ada Marie King, a travel consultant, who along with her architect husband, Lynn Wallach, were among the first foreigners to buy property here. “Mexicans have heard about the town, but the lousy roads keep people away.” Indeed, my arrival by car felt a bit like slalom skiing as I swerved frequently to avoid big potholes. But the difficulty in getting there heightens the pleasure of arrival.

Like the mythical Shangri-La, Malinalco seems to exist in another time. Although you are able to connect to the internet and find a decent cappuccino, it’s the feeling that nothing has changed for centuries that makes this place truly magical.

By car from Mexico City, head toward Toluca (toll road), exit at km 32 (toward Chalma), then follow signs to Malinalco (MX15 is the road number).
By bus from Terminal Observatorio, there are a few direct, second-class buses in the afternoon. Otherwise take a bus to Chalma (they leave every 30 minutes) and then a taxi (40 pesos) to Malinalco, 10 km away. Look for the Aguila Bus Line.
There is a kiosk in the main plaza where you can get tourist information.
Pre-Hispanic Gastronomy Tours:
Hand woven rebozos:
Wednesday is market day when the streets fill with vendors of everything from avocados to zippers—lively and fun.
August 6th is the Feast of San Salvador, the town’s biggest fiesta. There's lots going on during the week leading up to that date. offers a number of houses in Malinalco.
The stunning pre-Hispanic site Xochicalco is only one hour from Malinalco:
one hour from Malinalco is a good day trip:

Cuernavaca is also about an hour from Malinalco. Be sure to eat here:

View of the vally of Malinalco

Hand-woven mats sold in the market

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

ARTES DE MEXICO: Celebrating Our Culture

Anyone who has poked around bookstores in Mexico City, the magazine section at Sanborn's, or the gift shop at almost any museum in the country, has probably encountered the publication Artes de Mexico.

Founded by Miguel Salas Anzurez, with Vicente Rojo as graphic designer, this large glossy magazine has been celebrating Mexican culture since 1953. After more than 200 issues, it fell on hard times in 1979 and lay dormant until 1988, when a group of investors decided to bring it back to life. Margarita de Orellano and Alberto Ruy Sanchez were invited to be general directors and since then, they have maintained its position as one of Mexico's most important cultural publications. They have enlarged the scope of the business to include books on poetry, photography, travel, as well as titles for children.

According to the website, the magazine's function is to promote "el placer de contemplar nuestra cultura" (the pleasure of contemplating our culture) and "comprender mejor quiénes somos" (to better understand who we are). Artes de Mexico is recognized around the world for the high quality of the research and writing, as well as for its elegant graphic design.

Margarita, (or Magui as she is known to friends), is the 'hands on' manager of the magazine. It's comfortable, old-fashioned offices are located in a converted Porfiriato mansion in Colonia Roma. Magui recalls first seeing the magazine as a young girl when she got into trouble at school and was called to the principal's office. "He had a copy on the table in the waiting room that I looked through--I was very impressed."

Alberto Ruy Sanchez, her husband as well as co-director, is a renowned poet, novelist and essayist. He travels the world as unofficial cultural ambassador, speaking frequently about Mexico and literature. France's Le Monde recently published a series of articles he wrote about contemporary Mexican culture.

The bi-lingual (Spanish and English) quarterly has covered a wide range of topics. Some of the most popular issues have been those on Talavera of Puebla, the Centro Histórico of Mexico City, Dia de los Muertos, architect Luis Barragán, and the textiles of Chiapas. There are hundreds more.

Artes de Mexico's Colonia Roma headquarters features a store which carries the magazine and a selection of Mexican handicrafts. Be sure to go
upstairs and check out the beautifully preserved interior of this architectural gem, located at Cordoba 69, between Durango and Colima. The store is open Monday through Friday from 9 to 6.

You can buy Artes de Mexico at the places mentioned above, or through the website:

Monday, October 3, 2011



Colonia Roma (see my last post) has become one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Mexico City, and it's attracting increasing numbers of foreigners. I wrote a previous post about an American/French couple who retired there.

When my friend Brad (an American who lives in Mexico and New Orleans) first told me about his new apartment in Roma, I thought he was joking.

“It’s on top of an fabulous art-deco building. You walk down a narrow alleyway, past the old incinerator, up a rattling metal staircase, then zigzag through lots of laundry cages to get there. It’s got five rooms and a tiny balcony that overlooks a synagogue. Oh--and it all measures 32 square meters.”

Five rooms? Thirty-two square meters (about 350 square feet)? It sounded like a dollhouse to me. I was skeptical.

Brad found his apartment by walking around the neighborhood and writing down the phone numbers of any ‘for sale’ signs he saw.

“I covered every street in Roma. I looked for about 10 days to find this apartment. It’s the only building in the neighborhood designed by Francisco Serrano, the architect of many art-deco gems in La Condesa. Unfortunately, the building is in a sorry state. Nobody pays maintenance, so nothing gets repaired. But I’m up on the roof in my own little world. It was pretty awful when I found it,” he confessed. “But the place had good bones and the price was right.”

As a foreigner, he needed a permit, which cost about 600 dollars, to buy the property, . “In general, the buying process went quite smoothly. I had to find three Mexican citizens to vouch for my character. That was a little odd but it all worked out, and now I have the escritura (deed) in my name.”

Three months later he invited me over for champagne to celebrate the completion of his renovation. After climbing and zigzagging to his rooftop hideaway, I was amazed to see what a combination of daring and imagination had achieved. This doll’s house is a real home.

The apartment has a funky, retro look, while maintaining the integrity of the original architecture. The boldest move was to paint the living room, dining room and bedroom all one color. Even the ceilings are a vivid pink (Comex bugambilia).

“I jumped when I first saw the color chip,” Brad confessed. “But once the apartment was furnished, and lit up with carefully placed lighting, it took on a warm glow. I painted the ceilings the same color so there wouldn’t be lines to show how small the apartment really is.”

The tiny bathroom is completely covered in half-inch glass tiles—six different colors in a random pattern that creates a lively feel. The tiles undulate over pipes and bumps in the wall, giving it an organic, slightly humorous look.

A small balcony faces the street, and there's an outdoor dining area in the jaula, a fenced-in area that was used to house the gas tanks and to hang laundry. "Having a bit of outdoor space makes a huge difference," said Brad. "Otherwise the place might feel claustrophobic."

The furniture is an eclectic mix gathered from flea markets and antique stores. “Some things were really inexpensive, like the sky-blue floor tiles in the kitchen--they practically gave them to me. What I spent the most money on, by far, is the portrait over the sofa of an Indian girl by Alfonso X. Peña, a contemporary of Diego Rivera who hasn’t yet gotten the recognition he deserves.”

“I’m not sure I’d have the nerve to do this kind of thing anywhere else but in Mexico. There’s something about the light, about the culture in general, that makes strong colors feel natural. It’s one of the things that keeps me coming back. And I love living in Colonia Roma--it's constantly changing and getting better all the time.”

Brad spent about $30,000 to buy his apartment and other $15,000 to renovate and furnish it. Once you own property in Mexico City the expenses are reasonable, e.g. his property tax last year was a whopping 195 pesos (about $16 US--yes that's sixteen dollars, not a typo).

If you're thinking of moving to Mexico City check out my previous blog for more tips.

Note: Read my review of Colonia Roma's hip Hotel Brick at great place for a drink and people watching.