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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


Feb 262009

Published in the Vail Daily February 22, 2009

The Ex-Pats


Yolanda enjoying the sun on the steps of an abandoned hacienda at El Charco del Ingenio reserve and  botanical garden.

 It began in the 1930’s. The Instituto Allende Art School initiated an influx of foreigners unabated to this day. The GI Bill after World War II enabled veterans to stretch their benefits while studying in San Miguel de Allende. Over the ensuing years , especially the last fifteen, the growth of the expatriate population has brought significant changes.

San Miguel has grown from a sleepy backwater to a thriving, international community. There are somewhere between 6,000 and 13,000 foreigners in San Miguel, nobody knows the exact figure. In a town of 85,000, the impact is remarkable and disproportionate to their numbers. 

Some decry the gentrification, the large, expensive homes and rising prices but on many levels, gringos make vital contributions to the social fabric

An expat docent leading a tour of San Miguel’s Centro Historico.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 am the dedicated, knowledgeable docents of the Patronato Por Niños lead tours of the historic center. Each year, the Patronato, founded in 1970, provides medical and dental care to thousands of children living in and around San Miguel de Allende. Last year, over 7,000 children received care ranging from eye glasses to kidney surgery.

The 100 peso donation, $7, goes directly toward this care. The popular tours are a usual first stop for hundreds of tourists each week who gain first hand knowledge of the town and it’s history from the expatriate guides. 

The second thing most tourists do is the home and garden tour. This is another philanthropic venture began by the expat community. Every Sunday, up to 700 people, (no where near that amount on the day Yolanda and I attend), tour three beautiful homes. The charge is 150 pesos, around $10. The money goes to fund the Biblioteca Publica, the public library, and it’s many educational programs for the youth of San Miguel. 

An Indonesian tourist dances with the band leader in the courtyard of the Biblioteca.

The biblioteca is a cultural and social epicenter for visitors and residents alike. From morning to night plays, concerts, lectures, movies and discussions groups fill it’s busy calendar. 

The Sunday morning tours begin in the spacious courtyard of the library. Visitors from around the world join the numerous resident volunteers mingle and enjoy a band of local musicians before boarding the buses to this week’s homes. Three hundred homeowners have volunteered to open their homes for the tour. Every week is different.

When we went, each home provided a unique experience. The first, belonging to a several generation native, was elegantly understated, with clean interior lines and bright, airy rooms. 

Looking over the roofs of San Miguel.

The second, perched above the town, held a panoramic view. Each room situated to partake of the town below. It’s rich interior punctuated by a wall of exquisitely framed, original Rembrandt etchings.

The last house was just plain fun. Like so many houses in San Miguel, the exterior walls give no hint to the surprise lurking behind them. Upon entering, an 85’ long, bright red, arched roof leads the visitor into a garden that is a riot of life. Every room of the house, every brightly colored wall, nook, cranny and horizontal space is filled with fun, fantastic folk art. The sense of humor at work is infectious. 

The garden is a work of art, a labor of love filled with ponds, plants, fruit trees, sculpture and tranquility. The zen-like quality of the recently added rear cactus garden and spare, modern guest house are a quiet exclamation point juxtaposed against the tumult of the house and original garden.

And these are just three of the three hundred homes available to the tour!

I must write another article on the impact expats have on their adopted San Miguel de Allende. The “Insiders Guide” lists 22 organization where one can volunteer and there are others deserving mention. 

Lastly,  there is the Jardín Botánico and El Charco del Ingenio preserve.


The lake and a tiny part of the botanical collection of El Charco del Ingenio with San Miguel de Allende in the distance.

El Charco covers 250 acres of canyon, hillside, lake and wetlands, Well maintained trails provide access to the preserve. The crown jewel is the beautifully designed and landscaped Botanical Garden and Conservatory containing a collection of 850 species of native succulents and cacti.

The Conservatory in the Jardin Botanico.

El Charco was also honored by the Dalai Lama who proclaimed it a “Peace Zone” during his 2004 trip to Mexico.

The beginning of 6 miles of well-maintained trails at El Charco del Ingenio.

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones www.dreamcatcherimaging.com


Feb 162009

Published in the Vail Daily 2/15/09

Settling In


Here's a very unusual cross I found, likely with shamanistic overtones.

Here’s an unusual cross I found, likely with shamanistic overtones.

One of the challenges and opportunities of travel is not knowing where you will end up. Planning inhibits spontaneity. Spontaneity allows synchronicity to reveal  unforeseen possibilities. 

We typically reserve a place online for our first few nights. Then, we look around. The Casa Crayola is lovely. We met some wonderful people there. For a month though, it is on the expensive side.

During our forays into the Centro, we stop by the office of tourism across from the Jardin. Tourist offices are always excellent sources of information. Besides the free map, we get a long list of accommodations. Yolanda asks for recommendations and, using their phone, the first place we call has a vacant casita.

It’s only a few blocks uphill from the Jardin so we make the first of what will be many trudges up the increasingly steep street to the Englebrecht apartments. Guillermina, the owner’s sister visiting from teaching in Abu Dhabi, greets us warmly at the door ushering us into the family’s spacious courtyard. 

The lovely, plant filled courtyard of Casa Englebrecht.

The lovely, plant filled courtyard of Casa Englebrecht.

She shows us an adequate, one bedroom apartment for $250 per week then takes us down several levels beneath huge trees to a manicured lawn and flower-filled garden fronting a little two-story house with a rooftop terrace, $300 a week. I envision sitting in the lounge chairs on the roof, drinking margaritas as the sun sets over San Miguel below. Yolanda walks upstairs to the spacious, all-white bedroom which clinches the deal.

The casita is light and airy. Large windows open to the garden and town beyond. Ferns, calalilies and cactus partially enclose the tile-roofed veranda whose table and chairs become our dining area. The ivy and bougainvillea-covered stone walls surrounding the garden exude tranquility. From this lovely perch, we continue our explorations of San Miguel.

Yolanda enjoying our rooftop terrace.

Yolanda enjoying our rooftop terrace.

We’ve only been in our casita one day when Theresa, our warm, lively landlady, invites us to a fiesta. The celebration is to honor sixty years of the family living in this hacienda as well as to say goodbye to Guillermina who is returning to teach at the women’s university in Abu Dhabi.

A tent is erected on the upper terrace. Beneath, tables with lovely flower arrangements are set. Caterers are preparing food, three, excellent musicians are playing and singing and of course, tequila, wine, rum and beer flow freely. The extended family and many old friends are in attendance. 

One other gringo couple is here and we become fast friends. Lou and Mary Lynn Dahmen are from Santa Fe. They’ve been coming to San Miguel for years and are long-time family friends, having hosted one of Theresa’s sons so he could attend school in the U.S.. We feel honored to have been invited.

In appreciation, I grab my camera, do my professional thing, photographing everyone there and later give Theresa a CD and set of prints.

One of the many steep, narrow, cobblestone alleys in San Miguel.

One of the many steep, narrow, cobblestone alleys in San Miguel.

One evening, our new friends from Michigan invite us to visit the home they are renting. Map in hand, we wander through the gathering dark down steep, narrow cobblestone alleys, zigzagging our way past parks and along dimly lit streets. Finding the most level route in this hilly part of San Miguel de Allende is a challenge. Security is a mild concern but several long-time residents assured us that crime against tourists is almost non-existent.

We arrive safely at the nondescript door to their house giving no hint to the architectural wonder behind it. Lou Heiser, an architect himself, leads us on a tour. Even though it was built only a few years ago, the ancient, worm-eaten beams, weathered doors, artistically distressed walls and lovely tile work create an aura of another era.

After wine and good company, we wander down to Hecho en Mexico, a popular, reasonably priced Mexican restaurant they’ve discovered. Meals range from large, fresh salads for $4, enchiladas and fish tacos for $5-6, to fish specialties for under $10.  With it’s friendly and courteous staff, Hecho becomes a favorite restaurant.

The next morning we all gather at the Jardin to meet Archie Dean and buy his “Insider’s Guide to San Miguel”. Archie leads us to a favorite nearby haunt for breakfast and a deeper introduction to the wonders of San Miguel and it’s surroundings.

Margarita Gralia and her wonderful Churros y Chocolate

Margarita Gralia and the wonderful Churros y Chocolate at her Cafe San Augustin.

Café San Agustín was started by Argentinean actress/heart-throb Margarita Gralia who’s sexy photos decorate the walls. A house specialty is churros con chocolate, so good, we visit every few days to savor the thick, rich Chocolate Espanol, or the sweet, cinnamony Chocolate Mexicana served with three of their crisp, delicious churros, the traditional, foot-long, deep-fried “donut” sprinkled with sugar. Richisimo! Delicious! And under $2.50.

The doors of San Miguel de Allende, definitely a cliche'.

The doors of San Miguel de Allende, definitely a cliche

Besides recommending many excellent restaurants, too many to try in one trip, Archie tells us about a number of things not to be missed. The many expatriates living in San Miguel de Allende, either full or part time, have involved themselves deeply in the community, creating institutions benefiting both the gringo and Mexican residents.

The example these charities, organizations and cultural institutions set is so important and enlightened, I must devote the next article to them. Suffice it to say, we are deeply impressed with the contributions the expatriate community has made to their adopted home.

Along a very narrow callejon or alley in San Miguel.

Along a very narrow callejon or alley in San Miguel.

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones www.dreamcatcherimaging.com


Feb 092009

Published in the Vail Daily 2/8/09

Authenticity Found



La Parroquia-

It’s three am. The roof dog across the street has joined doggie facebook, adding his two bits to the nightly chat. What could they possibly be communicating and why don’t their owners, who must be dead to the world, shut them up!.

Yes, this is authentic Mexico. Real people live in San Miguel de Allende. Dogs bark, roosters crow, skyrockets explode at odd hours, church bells toll for indecipherable reasons, and it’s all so very charming.

We breakfast at the Casa Crayola, meeting a wonderful couple opening the only Thai restaurant in San Miguel. Foo and Manot Swasdee are restauranteurs from Dallas whose “adopted” son has returned to Mexico after working for them for many years. They have helped him open Bahn Thai and, loving Thai food, we vow to eat there tonight. Before then though, there is a beautifully warm, January day ahead of us and a town to explore.


The Clocktower with La Parroquia behind in the historic center of San Miguel

San Miguel de Allende was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site only last year. Like other UNESCO sites we’ve visited, Halong Bay in Vietnam, Luang Prabang in Laos, Colonia in Uruguay, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, San Miguel is a treasure. Founded in 1542, only twenty one short years after the improbable conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish, it has flourished in recent years partly due to it’s remarkably benign climate, it’s well preserved 18th and 19th century architecture and it’s attraction to a growing population of Norteamericano expatriates. 

I always have pesos at the ready to help those far less fortunate than I.

We make the ten minute walk along ancient cobblestone streets passing colorful shops, tranquil courtyard restaurants and numerous rustic doorways echoing centuries of habitation, to the Jardin, the main plaza and center of life in San Miguel,. Wizened widows wrapped in tattered rebozos, the traditional, multi-purpose shawl, beg quietly in doorways, hands out to the passing gringos. They bestow their blessings as I hand them a few of the pesos I always have ready for such an encounter. There is no social security or any other safety net in Mexico.


The Jardin, the center of life in San Miguel de Allende

The streets surrounding the Jardin are closed to traffic adding to the sense of calm. Large, sculptured Laurel trees shade the square. At this time of morning, few people occupy the many benches. That will change come evening when families, lovers, gringos and mariachis arrive to mingle beneath the watchful gaze of the brightly lit Parroquia, the most prominent of the many churches in San Miguel.

La Parroquia was started in 1683. The unique, pink and tan facade was added in 1880 by a self-taught Indian stone mason/builder who sketched his designs in the dirt. The large, six foot bell can be heard all over town. While sitting in the Jardin, its deep, pure tone resonates within your soul, transporting you to an earlier era as the harmonics fade into the quiet conversation around you.


The lovely pink and tan facade of La Parroquia

One of the leaders of the 1810 Mexican revolution against the Spanish, Ignacio de Allende was born in a house, now a museum, across the street from the church. The revolution started 27 miles away in Dolores Hidalgo, the “Birthplace of Independence”, when the priest, Father Hidalgo, issued his famous cry for independence proclaimed to this day by the president every September 16th.

After some enjoyable people watching, Yolanda and I set out to explore the labyrinth of hilly streets comprising the historical center of town. In 1926, San Miguel de Allende was preserved as a National Monument. Strict rules on signs and development have maintained its colonial character. Unlike so many other places in Mexico, trash is non-existent. People take pride in their town. Every morning, we find someone washing the narrow, stone sidewalks in front of their home or business. 


The exterior wall of Casa Liza, hides the beautiful, lush interior of the B&B.



Casa Liza, surprises await behind the walls.

As we aimlessly wander the narrow, colorfully, walled streets, we steal the occasional peek into interior, plant-strewn courtyards where so much family life takes place. Galleries with interesting art, shops selling colorful crafts, stores filled with whimsical and bizarrely fantastic decorator items entice us inside.


The Market Bistro, an excellent and reasonable priced French influenced restaurant shows movies in it's theater 3 times a day.

We check out menus of courtyard restaurants with tables scattered amidst thriving orange trees, restaurants in old monasteries and with rooftop terraces. It’s getting late and my stomach is growling. Thai food sounds better and better so we explore our way toward our new friend’s restaurant.

Bahn Thai’s two floors yield three rooms each brightly painted in ruby, emerald or azure. Foo andManot greet us effusively, proudly showing us around. Yolanda is carrying a book we found at theCasa Crayola, “The Insider’s Guide to San Miguel”, a bible for the newly arrived.http://insidersma.tripod.com/

Foo sees the book saying enthusiastically, “Oh, that’s Archie book. He’s downstairs eating. Would you like to meet him?”

Once again, synchronicity knocks on our door, affirming that we’re on the right path. Like every ex-pat we meet, Archie Dean is warm and gregarious. We share a delicious, reasonably priced Thai meal, regaled with stories of life in San Miguel. We set a date to meet in the Jardin for breakfast, to learn more about this charming town and of course, to purchase the latest edition of his book.

Behind La Parroquia along Calle Aldama.

Behind La Parroquia along Calle Aldama.


The cops of San Miguel's Centro Historico


Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones www.dreamcatcherimaging.com