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Mar 082010

A Lot of Good and a Little Bad

The view from the cabin at Los Chorros. The ocean lies obscurred in the distance.

After a wonderful afternoon exploring Amy’s finca and eating deliciously fresh fruit, we head down to a Tico house she had found for us to rent. We agree to meet at her finca the next morning at 9:00 AM.

The house is in San Salvador, a tiny pueblo a couple of kilometers from her farm. It is pretty basic but fine, especially for only $20 a night. As evening quietly falls and fire flies light the trees, we sit outside, enjoying a meal of greens, fruit and heart of palm Amy provided us. Around 7:30 I lay down in bed to read and suddenly, my legs are crawling with big, black ants. Turning up the mattress reveals a nest, larvae and all.

Yolanda is freaked out and insists we find another place. We had checked out Capt. Jan’s B&B, Villa del Diamonte, that afternoon, so we head back up in the dark. The TV is on, her two doberman are barking, but I can’t rouse anyone.

The gutless wonder parked well off the road with the cabin beyond

Heading out to the highway, we rent a cabin at Los Chorros, a restaurant with incredible views. I’m told to park the car well down a road off the highway. “Es seguro.”, “It’s safe.” assures the manager. In the night, someone brakes a window stealing a jacket. There was almost nothing in the car but some dirty underwear, shoes and the jacket.

We never could get all the broken glass out.

Lesson learned: leave nothing, not even trash, in the car.

My phone doesn’t work. Tricolor, the rental agency, can’t be called until the restaurant opens at 10 am, an hour after we are supposed to be at Amy’s. They said if anything happens, don’t move the car until you call them. It turn’s out this applies only to accidents. I could’ve moved it and gone to Amy’s. That would’ve been so much easier and caused much less stress all around.

On the way back to Amy’s, Capt. Jan is home and gladly takes us in. Of all nights, last night had been darts night. She was at a neighbor’s. Jan has led a very interesting life commanding luxury yachts for rich folks. She provides a contrast to Amy’s mindset and the gentle, loving, helpful mindset of Amy’s ex-pat friends toward Ticos. We learn a few things about the arrogant attitude some Gringos can have.

Amy, of course, was very concerned when we didn’t arrive around 9:00. She left messages on my phone, called her mom in San Diego and emailed me. She called the Tico’s who rented us the house and found out we had left. I had no way to contact her so there was relief all around when we finally show up.

Amy's rancho

Once again, we spend most of the day together. I interview her, we hike around her land, and I take more photographs for the article I’m writing on Amy and sustainable living in Costa Rica for the Organization of American States, www.oas.org/americas/.

A water ram pump Amy uses to move water from a spring up to her fruit trees. It is powered solely by water.

The next morning, we’re up early. I had volunteered to do portraits of the students in La Florida, another tiny pueblo, and to photograph their new library. Students and teachers from Landmark University have been visiting La Florida for the past five years. They were brought in by Drennan Flahive, a 10 year resident of La Florida. Each year they worked in the community and brought $2,000 to go toward building the library. Drennan designed the library and donated the labor of his company, Jungle Brothers Construction. http://sustainablesolutionscr.com

Amy as well, solicited donations from family and friends,raising almost $10,000. One friend donated $6500! Probably a total of $27-28,000 was required to build a truly lovely library for the community. It provides a connection to the world through books and the internet for a community that has historically been isolated.

The biblioteca in La Florida

Another gringo organization, Creer, http://www.truenaturecommunity.org/creer-site/index.php, has also benefited the community, bringing in America students who spent part of their vacation repainting the school adjacent to the library.

The recently painted school in La Florida

Clearly, ex-pats are benefiting Costa Rica. Many, like Amy and Drennan, come looking for alternatives to the materialistic culture they were born into. They actively seek ways to involve themselves in their chosen communities and are creating sustainable lifestyles as well as influencing the people in their communities toward the same.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging


Mar 032010

Two Beautiful Birds of the Costa Rican Forest

Male Resplendent Quetzal.


Amy Shrift on her finca with her home in the background.

The most beautiful bird in the world. That is our destination before visiting the farm of my friend Amy, who left Manhattan to live alone in the jungles of Costa Rica.

After two wonderful nights in the Orosi Valley, we head south via the Pan-American Highway across the Cerro de Muerto, the summit of death. It is so-named not from the narrow road and its death defying drivers, but because at over 10,000 feet, unprepared people die from hypothermia.

We reach 8,500 feet and the turnoff to El Mirador del Quetzales. For $80 there’s a small, basic cabin with meals and a Quetzal tour. Relaxing on the porch presents a stunning panorama dropping away to lush Costa Rican forests and mountains.

The view from the Mirador del Quetzals

Cabins at the Mirador del Quetzals

An afternoon hike in their private reserve of ancient, bromeliad and moss encrusted oaks reveals no Quetzals. The manager assures me Quetzals for the morning guided hike, “Guarantizado!”.

We dine with a Dutch family and a Brit, all very congenial, with stimulating conversation.

Afterward, we prepare for a cold night. I doubt there’s insulation in the walls and only two blankets. We’re grateful for having brought our thermals and the thin, down sleeping bag we’re taking Amy.

5:30 comes too early. Coffee, thankfully, at 6:00 and then the guided tour into another private reserve directly behind the cabins. Within ten minutes I spot my first, male Resplendent Quetzal.

Male Resplendent Quetzal high up in an oak tree.

It is a magnificent 14” tall bird, glittering green, with a crimson breast, white tail feathers and two 25” long turquoise streamers that float with the breeze. His fuzzy, green, helmet-like crest gives it a somewhat bewildered look.

For years I’ve wanted to see one and here are four males and two females, even three on the same branch. A satisfying morning.

Our next stop is south of the mountains, the city of San Isidro del General, to meet Amy at the market and take her and her week’s worth of supplies to her farm. Five years ago, Amy Schrift exchanged her life as a jazz trumpeter in the concrete jungle of Manhattan for life in the jungles of Costa Rica.

Yolanda and Amy on her finca.

She has transformed a former coffee finca (farm) into a veritable Garden of Eden. Amy appears an unlikely pioneer. Slight of frame with thick, black hair framing lovely, dark eyes that betray her intensity of purpose. She speaks passionately of growing her own food, working with local farmers developing markets for organic produce, translating for sustainable farming classes and teaching English to young Ticos.

Wandering through her stream, her bathtub.

On the forty-five minute drive to her finca, up the mountains and then down the dirt road into the Valle del Diamante, we catch up on the happenings over the four years since we first visited. Arriving at her finca, we are overwhelmed by the changes.

Four years ago, where a newly built palapa was surrounded by bare earth, a stone path  now meanders between lush, flowering bushes and fruit trees. We are surrounded by so much natural beauty it’s breathtaking. Amy’s hard work has been richly rewarded.

Amy at the door to her bodega (store room). Bare dirt four years ago.

Talking on her rancho (palapa).

Talking on her rancho (palapa).

We spend the afternoon learning more about her sustainable philosophy. Amy is dedicated to eventually eating only what she grows herself. She sleeps without walls, usually under the stars. Up well before sunrise for two hours of yoga and meditation, then it’s to work, nurturing the abundantly, fertile land she is so fortunate to have bought and become it’s temporary caretaker.

What a place to meditate!

Morning yoga.

Over these past four years, she has planted pineapples, guavas, papayas, mangos, avocados, jackfruit, oranges, durian, bananas, berries, and an amazing fruit, guanabana, with the taste and delicate texture of custard. Through a government program, Amy has planted over 3,000 hardwood trees to help with the reforestation of her former cafetal (coffee farm).

A jackfruit tree she planted a couple of years ago.

The rancho with banana trees below.

As we hike down to the river flowing through her land, she plucks edible leaves and flowers from trees and bushes, urging us to taste; peppery, sweet, lemony, sour, salty, each a surprisingly different flavor. Toucans fly overhead. Bird song surrounds us and the lion-like growls of Howler Monkeys reach us from the primary forest surrounding her finca.

If only humans could learn that the Garden of Eden is not some fairy tale place, but a possible living reality right here and now.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging


Feb 242010

Arriving In An Oasis of Tranquility

The junction of the Waterfall and Pava trails in Tapanti’ National Park

You would have thought that, of all things, after a five hour red-eye flight they would have served coffee. It is 6 AM in Costa Rica, 5 AM Colorado time, and the only thing offered is water. This is going a bit far in the cost cutting, especially when flying to the land of coffee. How much could it possibly cost to serve a measly cup a coffee?

Customs is easy and bleary eyed, Yolanda and I are outside waiting for someone from Tricolor Car Rental. Recommended by a friend, it costs fully half of what the big boys wanted. We are quickly picked up and whisked off to their office to rent the gutless wonder of a Daihatsu Terios 4W drive.

Also, not having been served the typical stale, airplane omelet and unripe, canned fruit cup, not to mention the coffee, we head to Denny’s down the street; standard Denny’s breakfast fare at double American prices.

Having over-filled our bellies in anticipation of a nap instead of lunch, we begin the ordeal of finding our way through the unmarked streets of San Jose Centro at rush hour.

In Costa Rica, directions are generally given using landmarks and there’s an expectation that everybody knows them: at the park, go two blocks and turn left at the gas station, turn right at the hospital, go one block and turn left, at the mall drive under the bridge and…etc.. There is precious little signage to something as important as the only road south, Ruta 2, the Pan-American Highway.

Street names appear grudgingly every 5-6 blocks inscribed high up on a building, sometimes in the middle of the block, sometimes near the corner. Just enough to let you know, when you are able to stop and consult the map, that you did miss that turn at the gas station.

Combine this with crazy drivers, aggressive motor bikes, lanes suddenly ending, busses blocking traffic to pick up passengers and pedestrians crossing when and wherever, and it is very challenging finding your way through town where finally, thankfully, signs to Cartago and Ruta 2 appear.

Kiri Mountain Lodge and Trout Farm

Our goal is Kiri Mountain Lodge Tapanti’, a lovely remembrance from our trip four years ago. It lies at the end of the road on the doorstep of Tapanti National Park. Tapanti is a vast, wild, inaccessible swath of primary cloud forest and jungle that, in combination with other Parque Nacionales, stretches from here, more than one hundred miles into Panama. These comprise the entire southwest quarter of Costa Rica between the Pan-American Highway and the Caribbean.

Tapanti National Park

The densely forested mountain sides of Tapanti’ National Park

A waterfall in Tapanti' National Park.

A waterfall in Tapanti’ National Park.

Tapanti National Park

Yolanda relaxing on boulders along Rio Tapanti’, a kayakers dream when full

Difficult terrain is a gross understatement. Mountainous to the extreme, Tapanti is incredibly dense, primordial forest with only a couple of relatively short trails open to the public. Access to the rest is limited to scientists. Biodiversity is enormous.

Kiri Lodge lies far up the lovely Orosi Valley formed by Rio Tapanti whose wide, boulder-strewn bed belies the intensity of floods that accompany the summer rainy season.

The narrow two-lane road wends it’s way steeply down the mountain through lush terrain dotted with trees filled with bright orange blossoms. These give way to groves of shade grown coffee; low coffee bushes beneath towering, widely spaced trees. The road passes the charming town of Orosi, a place we explored on the previous trip.

The Orosi Valley

Orosi Valley

The bridge of Rio Tapanti’ and our gutless wonder

Using faith and experience, I follow the widely separated signs leading to the potholed, dirt road which takes us the final eight kilometers to the one-lane bridge spanning the river and to Kiri Tapanti Lodge and its trout ponds. The lodge is nestled within the head of a stunningly lush, steep valley. With clouds blanketing the surrounding mountain tops it is drenched in tranquility.

Orosi Valley Costa Rica

The head of the valley above Kiri Lodge

First, a brief sojourn on the veranda basking in the gentle sounds of the river mixed with calls of exotic birds while watching fog wraiths appear and dance their brief existence along the mountain tops. Then, I have the most deliciously long nap I’ve had in a long time.

Afterwards, in the lodge’s new, open air veranda, with rain gently falling on the forest outside, I have my first, much needed cup of robust Costa Rican coffee.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging



Apr 142009

Published in the Vail Daily 4/12/09


Mexico 10-Final Impressions

Fireworks announce the approach of the Lord of the Column

Fireworks announce the approach of the Lord of the Column

I sometimes feel that, compared to Mexico, we live in a sterile, homogenized culture. In San Miguel de Allende, any minor saint’s day provides reason for a festival. At any time, you can be surprised by a parade or procession disrupting traffic. 

One afternoon a raucous parade of fifteen foot tall dancing puppets and crowds of masked, costumed characters followed a solemn procession of young girls dressed in white. Another day, thousands of fantastically costumed children paraded past the Jardin. Another, a circus parade clogged the streets. Almost daily, fusillades of rockets celebrating lord knows what, are heard from some corner of town. 


There is a peculiar joy to being rocketed out of a sound sleep early on a Sunday morning by a fusillade of bombs bursting overhead immediately followed by a band and a chorus of bells. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord! 

Close to noise it is and clearly joyful. From the squealing clarinets, the out of tune trumpets, the blaring trombones projecting their hearts through their instruments, to the punctuating blasts of a sousaphone, enthusiasm reins.

How can I not smile, a former orchestral musician, at the joyful cacophony of a band playing in multiple keys. Charming though, is not an adjective I would use before sunrise. Add roosters startled into an early crowing, roof dogs barking their counterpoint, the joyful songs of hundreds of birds and how could it not bring a smile? Nobody I ask has any idea what occasion it is. It goes on for hours.



I love Mariachi music. There is no more joyful sound as when a Mariachi band strikes up the moment a newly married couple exits the church. So, don’t get me wrong…  If you have a Pride of Lions, or a Gaggle of Geese, or a Shrewdness of Apes or an Exaltation of Larks…what do you have when, on a typical Saturday night, 4-5 Mariachis bands are playing different tunes in different keys simultaneously at one end of the small central plaza? Why a Cacophony of Mariachis of course!

The Procession of the Lord of the Column:

We were told to get up at five am and follow the crowds. The streets are dark, practically empty but for groups of people closing the bars. Couples, arms wrapped around waists, waver unsteadily down the cobbled sidewalks. 

Rounding a corner suddenly presents an amazing spectacle. Under bright lights, carpets of fragrant herbs and elaborate, colored designs, stretch for blocks. The street is a mosaic of paintings and designs. Columns crowned with arrangements of fresh flowers line the route. Overhead, thousands of intricate paper ornaments shroud the street. People worked all night, putting great effort and skill into the artwork composed of dyed sawdust and wood chips. Finishing touches are still being applied.

Camommile, Fennel, Basil

Camommile, Fennel, Basil

With the dawn, bursts of rockets approach along with the procession. Fireworks explode overhead. A band and voices of hundreds, singing hymns, gets louder. Girls, dressed in frilly, white dresses lead the procession followed by Jesus in a purple robe and a squad of Roman soldiers. Next comes the statue of the Lord of the Column and two other large, heavy figures, each born on the shoulders of eight men. The procession left the shrine of Atotonilco at midnight, walking the eight miles to arrive at dawn.

For generations, one family has had the honor of portraying Roman Soldiers

For generations, one family has had the honor of portraying Roman Soldiers during Easter

Thousands line the route, crossing themselves as the figures pass. The procession stops beneath my rooftop perch as mass is said, then moves toward the Church of San Juan del Dios, home to the figures through the Easter holidays. The pungent aroma of crushed herbs fills the air.

The procession approaches after walking most of the night from Atotonilco

The procession approaches after walking most of the night from Atotonilco

Jesus, followed by a centurian, walks the last blocks to the San Juan del Dios church.

Jesus, followed by a centurian, walks the last blocks to the San Juan del Dios church.

The Lord of the Column

The Lord of the Column

And this is only the first procession of Easter. 

The moment the procession passes, those who made the designs and decorations quickly clean everything up.

The moment the procession passes, those who made the designs and decorations quickly clean everything up.


At no time did we feel even the least bit unsafe, nor did we get even a little sick. All the more, in the large cities we visited, Guadalajara and Guanajuato, also in smaller Puerto Vallarta, there was no time when we felt threatened. I was always very aware and watchful, of course. Yet, I walked the streets freely, even at night, expensive camera in hand, often with $10,000 worth of cameras and computers in my backpack, and felt perfectly safe.

We crossed the border twice in our car, drove 600 miles each way; no problems. We met people traveling in small RVs all over Mexico for months on end. No one reported anything but wonderful experiences. Clearly there are problems along sections of the border. Those places are easily avoided. You also do not drive at night. That is a basic precaution. 

The U.S. State Department is performing a grave injustice in issuing warnings against travel to Mexico. The incessant reporting on border violence by the news media, as usual, fans irrational fears. This violence, I might add, is a direct result of the complete and utter failure of the so-called “War on Drugs”, forty years of un-enlightened prohibition wasting tens of billions of dollars every year. 

We are the ones fueling the violence.


The expatriate population has influenced and benefited San Miguel deeply. Tourism provides good, relatively stable jobs, supporting many families. Restaurants, hospitality, shops and markets benefit while the resident gringo population employes services of all types and contributes charitable works.

Yet there is clearly a divide. Expats have driven up housing prices to unimaginable heights. Large houses go for over a million dollars. Segments of expatriates lead the insular lives led by colonial occupiers throughout history. Though most gringos are gracious and respectful, arrogance is not unseen.

The Art Scene

A gallery in the Fabrica de Aurora during the Champaign and Chocolates artwalk.

A gallery in the Fabrica de Aurora during the Champaign and Chocolates artwalk.

San Miguel de Allende has been an art colony for decades. Artists from around the world have drawn inspiration from its colorful ambience. The arts scene continues to be lively with frequent gallery openings, regular art classes, concerts and plays. An old factory has been turned into an arts center. It features scores of galleries and work spaces for artists in all mediums. Their semi-annual Champaign and Chocolates evening brought out thousands of people.

James Harvey with some of his art at the Fabrica la Aurora

A few private collections are open to the public by simply calling ahead. One, in Casa de la Cuesta, a B&B, features possibly the largest and best collection of indigenous masks in Mexico. Another in Atotonilco, Galleria Atotonilco, is an exceptional folk art gallery. It has one of the largest serape collections in the world.

A few of the masks for sale, not part of the collection, at the Casa de la Cuesta.

A few of the masks for sale, not part of the collection, at the Casa de la Cuesta.

From painting to stained glass, photography, sculpture,  weaving and music, San Miguel de Allende remains a center of vital arts activity. Literally every day sees several arts activities on the calendar.

Clara Dunham, Gaby Perales and Xavier Hernandez, accompanied by Mauro Ledesma

Clara Dunham, Gaby Perales and Xavier Hernandez, accompanied by Mauro Ledesma perform a recital of operatic arias at the Biblioteca Publica

Making Friends:

We have never been to a place where we’ve made such fast friends. You could say there must be something in the water, except it’s all purified. The gringos coming to San Miguel are unlike others we’ve met in places around the world. Frequently, when one meets an English speaker while traveling abroad, there is a bond and often quick, friendship. But we’ve never experienced it on this scale. Where ever w were, after a lecture, in a restaurant or sitting in the Jardin, we met people who were sincerely warm and open. Frequently, deep conversations developed leading to shared meals and more time together. Of all the memories, the people we met will be the most lasting.

Yolanda and I enjoying a Valentines dinner on the rooftop terrace of La Posadita

Yolanda and I enjoying a Valentines dinner on the rooftop terrace of La Posadita

San Miguel de Allende is a very special place. A place of warmth, hospitality and culture. A place where cultures co-mingle, creating a synergy benefiting each. A place of deep history and rich sacred traditions. San Miguel is not just a place to vacation, but a place to learn, to grow and to experience life on a level outside our sometimes pale homogeneity.

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging


Apr 062009

Published in the Vail Daily March 29, 2009


The Geographical and Historical Center of Mexico

The Basilica in the heart of Guanajuato

The 16th century Basilica in the heart of Guanajuato on the Plaza de la Paz.


Historical currents swirl around San Miguel de Allende. Events emanating from the region have swept over Mexico several times. Within an hour’s drive, revolutions began, tragic empires were vanquished and the western United States was created. The state of Guanajuato, Mexico’s geographical center, is the birth place of Mexican independence and its silver mother-lode.

The statue of Father Hidalgo with his parrish church behind, stands proudly at the center of Dolores Hidalgo's main plaza.

The statue of Father Hidalgo with his parrish church behind, stands proudly at the center of Dolores Hidalgo’s main plaza.

The 1810 revolution began in Dolores Hidalgo a half hour from San Miguel de Allende. On the morning of September 16th, Father Hidalgo, issued his cry of independence galvanizing a downtrodden people against their Spanish masters. 

The Santuario of Atotonilco behind ruins from another time.

The Santuario of Atotonilco behind ruins from another century.

Seven miles from San Miguel lies the tiny town of Atotonilco, one of Mexico’s most sacred shrines. After issuing his cry for independence, Father Hidalgo, leading his growing army of ill-armed peasants, along with Ignacio Allende for whom San Miguel is named, stopped at the shrine of Atotonilco. Taking its banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe to use as their standard, they passed through San Miguel and surrounding towns, gathering a force 20,000 strong. This ragtag army then marched on the city of Guanajuato for the first battle in a thirteen year struggle for independence.

Guanajuato with the University and Basilica to the left and the San Diego Church and Plaza de la Union at bottom center.

Guanajuato with the University and Basilica to the left and the San Diego Church and tree covered Plaza de la Union bottom right.

Guanajuato is a lovely university city set deep within a mountain valley. Steep, narrow alleys, wall to wall with brightly painted houses, zigzag up the precipitous hillsides, one person’s roofline sometimes becoming another’s foundation. 

Traffic is restricted. The primary thoroughfares move within a labyrinth of stone-walled tunnels beneath the city. Guanajuato is a walking city with a wealth of tranquil, tree-shrouded plazas in which to sit, converse, enjoy a drink and people watch. The opulent, 19th century Teatro Juarez and the ornate, San Diego Church, preside over the elegant Parque de la Union, the city’s focal point.

Spanish colonial influence is ubiquitous. I have not experienced a city in the Americas so full of European flavor. With a university dating back to 1732, it is an intellectual and cultural center. The annual Cervantes Festival has a long tradition. October plays host to theater, musical, and dance performances in the plazas and theaters across the city.

A statue of Don Quixote and the front of the Cervantes Theater.

A statue of Don Quixote and the front of the Cervantes Theater.

A traditional pastime, musical groups lead people through the streets singing.

A traditional pastime, musical groups lead people through the streets singing.

The elegant Baroque organ in the Basilica of Guanajuato

The elegant Baroque organ in the Basilica of Guanajuato

The vast wealth of Guanajuato’s silver mines fueled the city’s importance making it the commercial and financial center of the region. For a period, one mine alone, La Valenciana, supplied the majority of riches accumulated from the New World by the Spanish crown.

Ceramics stores along the streets of Dolores Hidalgo.

Ceramics stores along the streets of Dolores Hidalgo.

Other than Dolores Hidalgo’s historical significance and its lovely plaza fronting Father Hidalgo’s parish church, two reasons remain to visit: the beautiful, talavera ceramics, and it’s ice cream. Several ceramics factories supply store after store with colorful and inexpensively priced pots, plates, bowls, decorative items, wash basins and even toilets. Find an intricately painted wash basin you like and there’s a toilet to match, inside and out.

Ceramics in the factory Artesanos Gamez being displayed for sale and readied for export.

Ceramics in the factory Artesanos Gamez being displayed for sale and readied for export.

Artists decorating ceramics prior to firing.

Artists decorating ceramics prior to firing.

Dolores Hidalgo’s ice cream though, is in a world unto itself. The central plaza practically overflows with ice cream vendors, each apparently trying to out do the next with exotic and unique flavors. Ever had avocado ice cream? How about tequila? Chicharron, fried pork skin, is a popular flavor and maybe some shrimp ice cream would go well after your meal of camarones al mojo del ajo: garlic shrimp.

Don Gabriel, a patriarch of Dolores Hidalgo ice cream vendors.

Don Gabriel, a patriarch of Dolores Hidalgo ice cream vendors.

Moving yet closer to San Miguel de Allende, Atotonilco, “place of hot waters” is a popular day trip. The Santuario has been called the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas”. Its walls and ceilings are covered with a “riotous outpouring” of folk art frescos. Unfortunately, the murals have deteriorated drastically, but with the coming bicentennial of Mexican independence in 2010, teams of conservators are painstakingly restoring the interior of the shrine to its former outlandish glory.

The as yet unrestored ceiling in the Santuario of Atotonilco.

The as yet unrestored ceiling in the Santuario of Atotonilco.

One of the several ornate altars in the Santuario.

Devoted pilgrims come from all over Mexico, swelling the population of this tiny town by thousands for much of the year, to crawl on bare, bloodied knees around the Santuario, to sleep in bare stone cells, and flagellate themselves with whips. I saw several men walking around with crowns of thorns loosely wrapped around their heads

Finally, an hour to the southwest lies Queretaro, the capitol of Mexico in the mid-1800’s when American troops invaded Mexico City. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed here in 1848, ceding half of Mexico; California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado, to the U.S.. In 1867, the hapless, Habsburg Emperor of Mexico, Maximillian I, a somewhat naive Austrian Archduke installed by the French, was captured and brought here to be executed, ending his tragic, three year reign. 

Clearly, history walks the streets and roads of the region instructing those who would listen, speaking of tragedy and hope, fortune and struggle, ever-present within the rich culture of the Mexican people.

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging


Mar 292009

Published in the Vail Daily March 22, 2009


The Center for Global Justice-Expatriates Assisting Locals Toward a Sustainable Life Under NAFTA

Center co-founder Cliff DuRand

Center co-founder Cliff DuRand addresses a gathering beneath the incredible mural by David Leonardo in the Biblioteca Publica

It is well nigh impossible to be bored in San Miguel de Allende. Every day upwards of twenty-five offerings from art openings, concerts, and lectures, to classes of all types provide stimulating reasons to get out of bed. 

Of these many cultural and intellectual events we have found ourselves drawn to those of the Center for Global Justice, www.globaljusticecenter.org, another project by expatriates concerned with their adopted community. Several times each week the Center screens interesting, pertinent documentaries. It offers lectures on topics like globalization, immigration and the effects the North American Free Trade Agreement is having on Mexico.

Each Saturday, the Center sponsors trips to small communities outside San Miguel who they are assisting in their efforts to remain self-sufficient and build viable alternatives to traditional lifestyles that are currently under threat.

I have participated in two of these trips. One, to the community of El Moral, where women of the town have joined together to form a sewing cooperative, the other to Peñon de los Baños, where six families in this dairy community are working to establish a cooperative venture growing organic, greenhouse tomatoes.

Exploring the small community of El Moral

Exploring the small community of El Moral with Leo Maldonado of the Global Justice Center

Ben Zion of Solar San Miguel explains some of the issues surrounding su

Ben Zion of Solar San Miguel explains some of the issues surrounding sustainable living in Penon de los Banos.

Prior to NAFTA, Mexico was self-sufficient in their primary staples; beans and corn. It now imports huge quantities of these basic food stuffs from subsidized agriculture in the United States. This has brought prices below where local farmers can compete. At the same time, huge amounts of land formerly belonging to small self-sustaining farming communities called Ejidos, have been bought up by wealthy land owners who export their food to the US. To understand how this happened, it is necessary to know a bit of Mexican history.

A primary cause for the second Mexican revolution in 1910 was that the vast amount of arable land was owned by a few wealthy landowners and the church. The average peasant, working for landowners, barely scraped by. The new constitution brought about a redistribution of land under the “Ejidal” system, a structure of land tenure in which groups of farmers were given land which they farmed individually and cooperatively. Under the constitution, Ejido land could never be sold, protecting the peasants from predatory developers.

Ratification of NAFTA in 1992 required a change to the Mexican constitution so farmers could sell their ejido land. Globalization and pressures from agribusiness have forced many peasants to sell. The result has been an accumulation of land in the hands of wealthy land owners with the previous owners now farming it as low wage laborers. 

One such corporate farmer, not far from San Miguel de Allende, has accumulated about eight square miles of ejido land, producing vegetables for the U.S. market. Adjacent to it lies Peñon de los Baños, which has resisted selling out. 

Inside a greenhouse that’s being prepared for the first planting with one of the co-op members and Leo Maldonado and Yolanda Millan of the Global Justice Center

Lunch prepared by co-op members

Lunch prepared by co-op members is a highlight preceeding the discussion.

Learning directly from the co-op members about the challenges they face in their business and everyday lives.

Learning directly from a few of the co-op members about the challenges they face in their business and everyday lives.

The Center for Global Justice has been assisting the people in contacting other groups who are successfully growing organic tomatoes in greenhouses using drip irrigation. With the center’s help, they have applied for government grants and loans. 

From the contacts facilitated by the center, and with much hard work, they have learned the intricacies of growing and marketing tomatoes. They now have eight greenhouses and are building homes for community members returning from the US to work in this business.

Angelina Sotto Rios

Co-op founder Angelina Sotto Rios shows off one of the school uniforms made by the co-op.

Learning about the operation of the cooperative.

Learning about the operation of the cooperative.

The sewing cooperative in El Moral is spearheaded by the dynamic Angelina Sotto Rios. Faced with the need to either sell land or send community members to El Norte for work, she and members of her community decided that forming a sewing coop to provide work in the town was a far better choice. Her tireless efforts, along with assistance from the center navigating the legal complexities, have resulted in organizing the coop and attaining government grants to buy the land, building materials and sewing machines.

Angelina and her son outside the co-op building.

Angelina and her son outside the co-op building.

She and her fellow coop members are now producing school uniforms for local communities as well as clothing for the tourist market. Sotto Rios hopes to expand into other markets. 

One major hurdle solved through the Center was the difficulty getting their product to market. Carrying large, heavy bundles of finished clothing three miles to the nearest transportation was extremely difficult. The donation of a vehicle by a person how had attended one of the Center’s Saturday trips has helped propel the woman of El Moral toward their goals.

At present, about 150 people from El Moral are working in the U.S.. As in Peñon de los Baños and the ten other communities the Center for Global Justice is working with, the hope is to enable their community members to come home, to return from the U.S. to opportunities within in their own towns and to provide an environment in which their children can flourish.

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging



The New York Times recently did a very good article about Mexico under NAFTA. Here’s the link:


Mar 172009

Published in the Vail Daily 3/15/09



The Dancers of the Lord of the Conquest


The drumming resounds throughout the Jardin, reverberating along the narrow cobblestone streets of the historic center of San Miguel de Allende. As Yolanda and I approach, it becomes an elemental force, primordial in it’s insistence, a deafening, all encompassing thunder.


Scores of elaborately costumed dancers, brilliantly resplendent in huge, feathered headdresses, are being driven by this force, a chaotic symphony of color. I count nine different groups, each with their own drummers, each in more extravagant regalia than the last. 



Most groups of danzantes move through a choreography of well practiced steps,  gyrating, twisting and pivoting in unison with every change in cadence. Other groups are more free form, the persistent pounding driving them into a sweating frenzy of self-expression.

This is the Festival of The Lord of the Conquest. Loud explosions rocked the town at 6:30 am, jolting us and everyone else out of a sound sleep. Fusillades continued until 7 am mass.


The dancers gather to celebrate the anniversary of the Chichimecan’s conversion to Christianity almost 500 years ago. The indigenous peoples of the region held agricultural rites at this time. After conversion, the priests likely adopted this festival. Today, it honors San Miguel’s most venerated figure, Our Lord of the Conquest, a life-size crucifix, placed on the Parroquia’s central altar for this occasion. Group after group enter the church in full regalia to pray and recite the Apostle’s Creed before the figure.



Outside, the cacophony goes on unabated into the evening as fireworks explode overhead. Though loosely based on depictions of Aztec dress, the dancer’s costumes and makeup have evolved into the elaborate and fantastic works of art we see today. Skulls, horns, shark’s jaws, bird and alligator heads creatively adorn the brilliant plumage of the headdresses. 




Rattles, conch shell trumpets, walnut shell and seed pod ankle bracelets, as well as small drums, add to the dissonance. Concheros, playing armadillo shell guitars, lead the procession. These local families guard ancient relics and maintain traditions of their Chichimecan ancestors. The fervor, spirit and creativity of the participants is unlike anything we’ve seen. 


We leave after the fireworks, our ears and bodies reverberating with rhythm. Climbing into bed, we still hear the drumming in the distance as the dancing goes on into the night.


Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging


Mar 082009

Published in the Vail Daily March 1, 2009


The Butterflies of Michoacan

Two Monarchs partaking of a mid-day snack.

Two Monarch Butterflies sipping a mid-day snack.

After a whirlwind trip back to Colorado, we’ve returned with our car to San Miguel de Allende for March. It was an intense four day drive from Vail, not without a bit of unease at the border.

After talking with people who had driven here, reading the State Department warnings and watching the horrible news about the drug wars in the border areas, we decided that crossing at Laredo, Texas would be safest. It was also the shortest route through Mexico, entirely on the more secure Cuota highways or toll roads.

Getting the proper permits in Nuevo Laredo was very easy and at 7 am took only  half an hour. The highway was equal to any in the US. Ten hours later we arrived before sunset tired but happy. A calming margarita on the rooftop terrace returned us to the tranquillity of church bells and crowing roosters as the sun set over the island of security that is San Miguel.

Of the many lectures happening on a regular basis, one stuck out; a lecture by Arturo Morales on the migration of the butterflies. I was determined to attend to learn about the incredible 2,500 mile journey the Monarchs make every year. I have known of the Monarch Butterfly’s over-wintering sites in Mexico since they were first written about in National Geographic years ago. I always dreamed of visiting one of the sanctuaries to experience the visual feast as millions of the bright orange and black jewels festoon the forest.

Thousands of butterflies coat the branches of the confirs.

Thousands of butterflies coat the branches of the confirs.

Arturo’s lecture was liberally punctuated with photos from the Sierra Chincua sanctuary high in the mountains of the state of Michoacan, the southerly neighboring state to Guanajuato in which San Miguel de Allende resides.

We learned that this year held the highest population in years and that right now was the peak of the 4-5 day mating season. After they mate, the males die, immediately reducing the population by 50%.  Of course, Arturo owns a tour company that happens to run tours to the sanctuary every Wednesday. For only $80, how could I resist!

Caught in Flagrante Delicto!

Caught in Flagrante Delicto!

I am picked by a minibus in the gathering pre-dawn light out front of our casita. The driver deftly maneuvers through the extremely narrow, steep alleys and streets picking up others before heading south out of town to the mountains of Michoacan.

As we travel through the broad, rich agricultural valleys of the volcanic central highlands, Arturo reiterates parts of his previous lecture. The long migration of the fragile Monarch Butterfly is truly among the most amazing in nature.

When the fertilized female Monarchs migrate north from Mexico in late March, they follow the blossoming the Milkweed plant, their pupae’s only food source. Arriving around the Great Lakes and in Canada in May/June, they begin laying their eggs on the milkweed. When the eggs hatch, the tiny worm immediately begins feeding on the poisonous milkweed. The sap contains a compound that not only makes the caterpillars poisonous but later gives them their bright orange color warning off predators.

They grow in five stages and around the second week of October, after their metamorphosis, the new butterflies emerge from their chrysalis. Somehow sensing the Autumnal Equinox they begin their journey south through the Mississippi basin.

Following thermal currents that switch from north to south at this time, the millions of butterflies make around 25-30 miles a day, flying ninety feet above the ground.  They arrive at their winter sanctuaries in Michoacan around the second and third weeks of November.

There are twelve separate areas in the mountains, all around 10,000’. These provide the nectar, water and protection that will sustain the population for the next four months. The colonies were discovered in the late 1970’s and since have become protected habitats. The indigenous peoples around the over-wintering grounds were slow to realize their value, encroaching on the habitat through cattle grazing and deforestation. With world-wide publicity and the ensuing tourism, they have become fierce defenders of their forests.

Aboard Ol' SloMo and the way to the colony.

Aboard Ol’ Slo Mo on the way to the colony.

After 4 1/2 hours we finally arrive at a tiny village, the trailhead to the sanctuary. Ten additional dollars gets me a small horse with only one speed, slow, for the steep, dusty, forty-five minute descent to the butterflies. Numerous wildflowers fill the forest. At each tiny creek I see more and more Monarchs sipping water and nutrients from the damp earth.

Monarch Butterflies sipping water and nutrients at one of the creeks along the dusty trail.

Monarch Butterflies sipping water and nutrients at one of the creeks along the dusty trail.

After leaving the horses, butterflies become suddenly more numerous until the sky above is dotted with hundreds of orange flecks. Thousands now sit on branches. When we arrive as close as we are allowed to the heart of the colony, we see entire branches weighted down, engulfed by tens of thousands of the ephemeral creatures. The air is filled with the sound of hundreds of thousands of beating wings.

The sky is filled with thousands of butterflies.

The sky is filled with thousands of butterflies.

Mature males have release their pheromones causing a sexual frenzy. Love is literally in the air. Mating couples on the ground force us to watch every step. A slight breeze stirs up a cloud of orange.

Why don't we do it in the road! You have to avoid stepping on the mating couples.

Why don’t we do it in the road!

Even my telephoto lens doesn’t accurately capture the dense masses drenching the trees 75 feet away, my only disappointment. Regretfully, our time with this phenomenon of nature draws to a close. Perhaps sometime again I will come on my own, camping in the town to experience them in the early morning and at my leisure. Perhaps without a group I will be allowed closer.

Even my telephoto lens does not do them justice.

As I sit in our garden writing this the following day, I see that the northerly migration has just begun. There have always been butterflies visiting the garden, small white ones, large yellow ones, several other species, but not until today have I seen Monarchs. One after another passes through, pausing to sip nectar from the flowers or water from the grass.

Arturo told us that come March 26-28, the main wave of the northern migration will pass over, through and around San Miguel de Allende. The first step on their 2,500 mile journey to the Great Lakes, 140 million illegals headed north. If these few now are a foretaste, I can’t wait. Perhaps from dozens in an afternoon their will be hundreds, maybe even thousands and I will to relive, if only through a shadow, the incredible experience of yesterday

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging