MEXICO (Estados Unidos de Mexico)

Until 2002, the only part of Mexico I had visited has been Mexico City itself, and only twice. While the country is beautiful and interesting, the opportunity for more exploration had not been provided during business trips. But during a cruise in November of 2002, Betty and I saw the “Mexican Riviera,” and found it to be not at all like the French Riviera.

Mexico City

My first arrival in Mexico City was from Buenos Aires (via Quito and Guayaquil) in September of 1980. My flight took me over the snow-capped crater of Popocatepetl, an active volcano nearly 18,000 ft above sea level, only a few miles from the city—I have an excellent picture of the crater taken from the plane. After a cold and wet week in Argentina, made worse by an intestinal infection, I was glad to leave there for a more pleasant clime. I arrived in late afternoon, and Betty arrived from home shortly afterward to join me for the week. She came down with Montezuma’s Revenge after my case had cleared up. We stayed at the Holiday Inn downtown, in the Zona Rosa, the Pink Zone, where most of the international visitors live. There was an authentic Mexican restaurant across the street where we ate the first night—the food was hot!!

My seminar lasted for three days, and each evening we were wined and dined. One evening in particular, we were hosted at an old hacienda—beautiful place, and a most enjoyable dinner. Another evening we were taken to the Palace of Fine Arts downtown, where there was playing a musical extravaganza. The Palace is a beautiful domed building in the baroque style, which is actually sinking into the ground. The city is built on an old lake, and the soil is not firm. The walkway around the palace bends slightly downward toward the building, in all directions. The musical program was excellent, with players in costumes representing all the different provinces (estados) performing their traditional ballads. As expected, the music is rich in guitars and trumpets, but it was quite varied, and most enjoyable.

I had not expected such a high level of culture there, perhaps having seen too much of bandidos and desperados in the movies, in their run-down villages. But on the other side, we found the traffic and air pollution quite severe. While there are parks scattered through the city, walking through them was not particularly pleasant because of the noise, congestion, and exhaust fumes. One day after work, we were taken to see the pyramids of the sun and the moon. While not as large as the pyramids of Egypt, they are in better condition.

The site I was most interested in was the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. On December 12, 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Indian, and asked him to have the bishop build a church on the site of the apparition. This went on for several days, with the Indian asking for a sign. The Virgin then raised roses out of the snow on the mountainside, instructing him to collect some and bring them to the bishop. He did, carrying them in his tilma, a cloak coarsely woven from fibers. When he opened the tilma, spilling the roses before the bishop, the latter was astonished to see the picture of the Virgin on the inside of the tilma. The church was eventually built—a magnificent twin-towered basilica in the baroque style, and it contained the tilma in a glass frame on the high altar. During the Mexican revolution, a bomb was thrown on the altar, which destroyed it, but without damaging the image.

When we visited the site in 1980, the basilica had been condemned, as it was sinking unevenly into the ground, and had developed a list. We could not enter, but only admire the beautiful church from without. Next door, a new basilica had been built to take its place, but it was a poor substitute. The design was conical in shape, made of aluminum and plywood and plastic—cheap, and not at all attractive—a tragic come-down from the magnificent structure next to it. This is the best evidence I have seen for the decline in art and architecture since the 18th century—the buildings in Oxford and Prague also create the same impression. Inside, the main altar stands approximately in the center, with pews radiating out from it. But on the main altar is the image of the Virgin, just as it was given to Juan Diego 450 years before—not faded or damaged. The Virgin appears with the face of an Indian maiden; she is wearing the traditional blue gown, and from her radiates golden rays in all directions. She is the patron saint of Mexico. I also commented on her while recounting my visits to the church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Caracas, Venezuela.

I was invited to return to Mexico City in 1998 to give a one-day seminar. This came in June, after surgery in April for a double hernia, so I was in no condition to do any exploring. I arrived in the afternoon, gave my seminar the next day, and returned home the following day. My hopes of avoiding Montezuma’s Revenge with such a fast trip were dashed, when I came down with it the day after arriving home. I stayed at the Sheraton Maria Isabella, near the American Embassy. At that time, some tourists had been robbed and mugged en route from the airport to the city, so I requested pickup and delivery. The afternoon of my arrival, I walked a bit around the hotel, but didn’t feel comfortable on the street, so didn’t go far. I dined at the hotel. The day of the seminar, I was taken to a nice lunch near the auditorium, and promised dinner, which failed to materialize.

Later in 1998, I was invited to lecture at a conference on offshore-platform operations in Villahermosa in October. Locating it on the map, I felt it was too close to Chiapas state, where the revolutionaries are active, so I declined to go. So much for Mexico.

The Mexican Riviera

My shipmates from the Henry W. Tucker scheduled a reunion of all the crews from 1944-1973 for San Diego for Novenber 7-10, 2002. Inclined to attend, I looked for another event to make the trip worthwhile, and found one–a cruise of the “Mexican Riviera” departing San Diego on November 10th. We had vouchers on American Airlines for tickets we failed to use in November of 2001. At that time, we were planning to spend a week in Barbados with my sister just before Thanksgiving, when an American Airlines jet leaving Kennedy Airport bound for Santo Domingo crashed following takeoff. The tail fin had sheared off and the engines fell off–it looked like terrorism to me, only 2 months after the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists in hijacked jets. So we canceled. Tourism in Barbados was down about 75 percent. But now we were ready to fly again.

The reunion was fun, though I saw only a few of the men I remembered from 1952-1954. After Mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Old Town on Sunday the 10th, we taxied to the cruise ship terminal and boarded the Legend of the Seas. We had been upgraded to a balcony stateroom, which we enjoyed very much, since the weather throughout the cruise was warm and calm. Our first stop the next day was Santa Catalina, which we had visited only 5 years before. It is a lovely island, though very dry. Since we had already taken the cross-island tour, this time we went to the botanical gardens and the Wrigley mausoleum. We returned to the ship for lunch, and enjoyed the scene from our balcony.

While I was munching on a pear, a seagull looking for a handout landed on the railing. Then another gull flew to the same spot, knocking the first one to the deck. Below the railing were Plexiglas panels which imprisoned the fallen gull–he could not elevate himself vertically enough to get over the railing. I let him try it for a few minutes until it became obvious that he was not going to make it, and was just beating himself up against the Plexiglas. At that point, I picked him up as quickly as I could and flung him over the side, receiving a bite on my right hand and a mess on the deck for being kind to animals. But all’s well that ends well–he was free.

Cabo San Lucas

The next day we spent at sea, traveling along Baja California, which is over 1000 miles long, arriving at Cabo San Lucas on the following morning. This is supposed to be the jewel of the Baja, “Paradise” to some in the tourist trade. We took a boat ashore in mid-morning for a boat and bus tour. The docks were crowded with hucksters hawking souvenirs, and the sun beat down unmercifully–it was hot. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long before boarding a boat bound for Los Arcos, the arches at land’s end. (The scene is remarkably like the pierced rock at Percé, on the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec, where we had been in July.) The blue water was gently rolling as we motored around the point of land and a short distance up the Pacific Coast. The shore is rocky, almost completely devoid of vegetation–a moonscape, with rows of condos and resort hotels perched on every level spot on the landscape.

After our half-hour boat ride, we boarded a bus to a local restaurant located across the bay opposite the town. It was situated up above the rocky shoreline, and our cruise ship was clearly visible in the distance. Everyone was offered a cold beverage–I took a bottle of the local imitation of Corona beer–the bottles were about 7 oz in size. We passed through the clean white-stucco dining room to the patio which overlooked the sea, where the heat was almost unbearable. There was a slight breeze lifting up the slope from the water, and so we perched on the wall at the edge of the patio under our straw hats to catch it while we sipped our beer. A few minutes later, it was time to reboard our bus to return to town. The guide wanted to let us off downtown for shopping, but we continued back to the docks. Finding nothing of interest in the stalls, we returned on the next boat back to our ship, and spent the afternoon viewing the scenery from our balcony. Paradise, indeed. But we had reached another “end of the earth!”


Next day we arrived in Mazatlan, a shrimp and fishing center where we had booked a bus tour to the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains. The city was shabby and rundown, poor and littered. Our first stop was to watch a man make adobe bricks, shirtless, shoeless, and hatless in the scorching sun. He would pack a wood frame with wet clay, scrape it smooth, and lift the frame out, leaving the bricks to sun-dry–later they would be fired. Brute labor for little pay.

Winding through the countryside, we eventually arrived at Copala, an old mining village. There was a row of small houses around a square, with an old church at one end. The church was being restored, with three artisans at work when we arrived. We sat in a pew while one worked on scaffolding at a fresco, another repairing a plaster statue, a third busy at the altar. A radio played classical music in the background as the three moved slowly about their tasks–in the deep shade within the high walls, it was a scene from another world, or another time.

We dined on the spacious veranda of a nearby restaurant. It was quite a pleasant place for lunch. However, the lunch was no different than what you could get at any Mexican restaurant in the U.S.–refried beans, Spanish rice, taco, enchilada, tostados and salsa. No different!

Puerto Vallarta

On the following day, we anchored off Puerto Vallarta, the southernmost point in our journey. Our shore excursion here was limited to a short city tour and a visit to a tequila distillery. Tequila is made by fermenting the heart of an agave plant, and distilling the product. This particular distillery seemed to be quite small and operated mostly in manual. The press and still we were shown seemed too small to be a production model, but it was interesting. We were offered samples of the fresh product, and some that had been aged is wood (reposada). While it was good, the prices they wanted were outrageous–$40 and 60 per bottle respectively!. No one in the tour group bought any.

The tour took us along a waterfront that had been severely damaged by a hurricane a month before. A 24-ft wave came ashore and caved in store fronts for three blocks. Because the area is so hilly, damages were limited to that extent, but the Sheraton Hotel was still shut down due to extensive flooding. Palm trees still standing along the beach had some of their roots exposed by the storm.

We visited the cathedral downtown, which was a couple hundred years old. One very noticeable aspect of Old Mexico is the electrical wiring. Electricity was added only recently, but it seems to have been done with extension cord. Light-weight lamp cord is draped along the church walls at various intervals, with no attempt made to hide or cover it up–ugly! And every street corner has a pole from which wire droops in all directions to nearby buildings, with insufficient support, and what appears to be loose electrical tape–it is all over the place!

We were dropped off in a shopping area and had to wait awhile before the bus returned us to the docks, the purpose of which was to get us to shop, but we refused. After browsing through a couple of local shops without buying anything, we proceeded to walk around the neighborhood until our bus returned. We bought nothing in Mexico.

The next day was spent at sea, heading north back to San Diego. We arrived before dawn, and I watched the loading of the ship for its next trip, to Hawaii. We had an early breakfast and disembarked with the first group because of our early flight reservations. After finding our luggage in the nearby terminal, we boarded a shuttle for the airport, which was only minutes away. We arrived so soon that we were able to catch a non-stop to Boston, and arrived home about 5 hours ahead of plan–that has never happened before!