Apr 052014
 

How are bananas grown commercially?

Banana plants (their lack of a central woody stem means they are plants, not trees) can grow to heights of 10 meters (30 ft), with leaves up to 4 meters (12 ft) in length. Banana plants grown commercially are usually much lower in height for ease of management and to limit wind damage.

Each individual plant produces a single stem. Each stem contains six to nine clusters of bananas (“hands”), each with 10 to 20 individual bananas (“fingers”). Commercial banana stems each produce six or seven hands with 150 to 200 bananas. Each stem weights between 20 and 50 kg.

A typical banana plant grows to a size with harvestable fruit in nine to 18 months. Harvesting bananas is often done by workers in pairs, with one cutting the fruit off the stem and the other catching the bananas to prevent them striking the ground and being damaged.

After the fruit is harvested, the stalk dies or is cut down. In its place one of more “daughter” (or “ratoon”) plants will sprout from the same underground rhizome that produced the mother plant. These shoots are genetic clones of the parent plant.

Banana plants require rich soil, nine to 12 months of sunshine and frequent heavy rains (2000-4000 mm/yr), generally more than can be provided by irrigation. Bananas are either spayed with pesticides or wrapped in plastic for protection from insects. Wrapping the fruit also reduces the bruising caused by friction with leaves in windy conditions.

Bananas are easily bruised and damaged in transit, but can be picked green (unripe) and ripened quickly at destination. They are generally picked and packed on or close to the plantation.

Commercial plantations of bananas often use very large areas of land, with 2000-2400 plants/hectare. Good access to transportation routes (roads or railways) is essential in order to avoid damage after packaging. Banana cultivation is very labor intensive. Banana plants are often used as shade for crops such as cacao or coffee.

Banana packing plant. Credit: Sagarpa.

Banana packing plant. Credit: Sagarpa.

Challenges for the commercial cultivation of bananas

Weather and climatic hazards

Banana plants can easily be damaged by strong wind and entire plantations can be destroyed by tropical storms and hurricanes.

Disease

Bananas are susceptible to a wide variety of pests and diseases. For example, Panama disease (aka Black Wilt), an infection in the soil, ravaged banana plantations throughout the Caribbean and Central American in the 1950s, virtually wiping out the Gros Michel variety cultivated at that time. The more fragile Cavendish bananas proved resistant, though they required more specialist packing. A new strain of Panama disease (Tropical race 4) capable of killing Cavendish bananas has emerged in Asia, but has yet to reach Latin
America.

Fungal diseases such as black sigatoka are one of the current major issues faced by banana producers. To combat black sigatoka, plantations may be aerially sprayed with pesticides from helicopters. Black sigatoka has already reduced banana yields in some parts of the world by up to 50%. Fighting this disease apparently now accounts for about 30% of Chiquita’s costs.

Commercial bananas have limited genetic variability and limited resistance to disease. This has led some experts to argue that fungal diseases may wipe out commercial banana plantations permanently, though the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) disagrees. The FAO argues that export varieties of bananas make up only about 10% of the total world banana crop, and that considerable genetic diversity remains in the plants grown for local consumption by small-scale farmers in developing countries.

Pesticide applications and pollution

Numerous studies have suggested that commercial banana production is often accompanied by high levels of pollution, both of the soil and of water courses. For example, the authors of “Soil and Water Pollution in a Banana Production Region in Tropical Mexico” studied an area of 10,450 hectares in Tabasco where the “agricultural activities are primarily banana production and agro forestry plantations (Spanish cedar and bananas).”

The area had been sprayed weekly with the pesticide Mancozeb for a decade at an application rate of 2.5 kg/ha/week. The study monitored soil, surface, subsurface and groundwater pollution. It found that there was a “severe” accumulation of manganese in the soil, while surface and subsurface water was “highly polluted” with ethylene thiourea, the main metabolite of Mancozeb. The authors concluded that “The level of pollution in the region presents a worrisome risk for aquatic life and for human health.”

Banana research

In Latin America, the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research is a leading banana breeding center and the source of many promising hybrids, including some that can either be cooked when green (like plantains) or eaten as ripe bananas. It usually takes decades to develop and introduce a new hybrid. Scientists are also working on genetically-engineered (GE) bananas that will remain ripe longer, and are trying to develop dwarf hybrids that produce large amounts of fruit for their weight, are easy to work, and less susceptible to storm damage.

Sources for science of cultivation methods and issues:

  • Morton, Julia. 1987. Banana, chapter in Fruits of warm climates.
  • Violette Geissen, Franzisco Que Ramos, Pedro de J. Bastidas-Bastidas, Gilberto Díaz-González, Ricardo Bello-Mendoza, Esperanza Huerta-Lwanga, and Luz E. Ruiz-Suárez, 2010. “Soil and Water Pollution in a Banana Production Region in Tropical Mexico”, in Bull. Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, October 2010, 407–413.

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Apr 032014
 

Geo-Mexico agrees entirely with Joseph Kerski (a key member of ESRI’s Education Team), that it is amazing “how little American students really know about their neighbor to the south.” In order to help remedy this situation, ESRI’s Witold Fraczek has created a series of online “story maps” about Mexico. The maps can be accessed in several different ways, including as an ArcGIS Online presentation and an iPad iBook, or via this webpage.

The six stories are entitled:

Each “story” includes several maps (covering topics such as population, landforms, climate, historical landmarks, caves, indigenous cultures, tourist attractions), some of which are interactive in the sense that clicking on a marked point brings up a pop-up panel with a photograph and/or additional information about that place. The maps, linked by short commentary notes, can be viewed at a variety of scales.

This series of maps has many strong points, and could certainly be useful in some geography classes, but it also has some weaknesses that should be taken into account when using them. Brief comments follow on each of the six stories.

1 Explore Mexico (Crime vs. Tourism)

The first map in this mini-series depicts “tourism attraction density” based on “650 major points of interest”. No clues are offered as to how the 650 points were selected, and indeed, some can not really be shown by points on a map since they cover larger areas. The map appears to weight all 650 points equally, though some are major, major tourist attractions (like the pyramids of Teotihuacan) that attract thousands of visitors a day, while others are very much less significant.

The second map, showing the “20 cities with most murders” uses data from 2011 (now out-dated) to conclude that “crime, measured by the total number of murders” appears to be “spatially isolated from the areas most attractive to tourists”. Surely murder rates (per 100,000 people) are a better measure than the number of murders in each city?

Murder rate per 100,000 is used as the basis for comparing Mexico with its regional neighbors, but Mexico is so large (and the murder rates across the country so varied) that comparisons at this scale mean relatively little, especially when some of the nations are tiny Caribbean islands, where one or two murders extra in any year can mean a significant spike in their murder rate.

2. Mexico’s Natural Wonders

The introductory text to this section rightly highlights how “the natural world of Mexico varies amazingly, from tropical jungles and coral reefs to deserts and glaciers.”

However, the statement that “Central Mexico is home to billions of Monarch Butterflies, whose 2 year /4 generation long trip to Canada and back amazes both scientists and the general public” is misleading. First, there may be millions of Monarch Butterflies, but there are not billions. Secondly, not all Monarch Butterflies migrate. Thirdly, those that do migrate are part of an annual (1 year) cycle involving 4 or 5 generations, not a two year cycle.

The text later claims that the Monarch Butterfly reserves “are located on old volcanic hills covered with pine-oak forest”. Actually, they overwinter in pine-fir forests. Mexico’s pine-oak woodlands occur only at much lower elevations.

The only birds incorporated into Mexico’s “biological wonders” are its pink flamingos, yet there are dozens of other bird species that are equally worthy of inclusion. Fortunately, the texts accompanying the maps of caves and cenotes (sinkholes), waterfalls, volcanoes, canyons and geologic sites appear to be much more accurate.

Screenshot from ESRI's story maps of Mexico.

Screenshot of ESRI’s story maps of Mexico.

3. Historical monuments

This section includes a useful map of Mexico’s World Heritage sites, though absent (from both the declared sites and the proposed sites) is the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve in Sonora, which in June 2013 became Mexico’s 32nd World Heritage Site.

The great weakness of the maps of “archaeological sites” and “missions and monasteries” is that no clues are given as to how and why particular locations were selected for inclusion. This leads to some anomalies in the distribution. For example, Oaxaca is almost a no-show for “missions and monasteries” according to the map, despite such buildings being the subject of an excellent and extensive book by Richard Perry published as long ago as 2006, Exploring Colonial Oaxaca: The Art and Architecture.

The map of Magic Towns is also a useful map, though many more towns have been added to the list since 2012.

4. Geography of Mexico – Did You Know?

This series of maps will be quite useful to many classes as a quick way to introduce the basic physical and settlement geography of the country. Maps of relief and precipitation are accompanied by one of time zones and a simple map of states (though these are not named on the “map story” version) and major cities.

The introductory text to this section claims that “the array of Mexican volcanoes stretches along the same latitude as the volcanoes of Hawaii. Analogously, those located at the eastern ends are the newest and highest.” This may be true for Hawaii, but is not the case for Mexico. There is no simple pattern to the heights of Mexico’s major volcanoes, and certainly those in the east are not significantly younger than those in the west.

5. Indigenous People of Mexico

The single map in this section attempts to show the location of about 25 of Mexico’s many indigenous groups. The colors chosen for each group are in many cases confusingly similar, though the names of each group do appear as you zoom in on parts of the map.

The introductory text makes a strong case for Mexico’s attractiveness to tourists, yet concludes with the strange (and unanswered) question, “So why isn’t Mexico a major tourist destination?” Mexicans would beg to differ. Mexico is a major tourist destination. In 2013, for example, it received 23.7 million international visitors who spent 13.8 billion dollars. In fact, Mexico is ranked #11 in the world in terms of tourist arrivals (and that number excludes the 70 million or so border tourists each year).

6. Cartograms of Mexico

The cartograms in the last section certainly add interest to the map stories, but the basis of the “travelers attractiveness” map (those 650 tourist attractions again) means that the map is not a very good reflection of tourist numbers across the country. The significance of the State of Mexico is greatly exaggerated, while states such as Quintana Roo (with the resort of Cancún) and Baja California Sur (with Los Cabos) fail to stand out.

The final “fictional map” purports to portray Mexico as perceived by Californians. Based on the author’s personal impressions, in some ways this is the single most interesting map in the entire collection!

All in all, these maps are a mixed bag. The idea behind them is great, as is the decision to produce them in a flexible GIS system. If the details were refined a little, and more explanation offered about the basis for selecting places for inclusion, they would be even more useful in geography classes, and might go some way towards helping American students gain a better appreciation for their southern neighbor.

Latin America’s biggest solar energy plant helps power La Paz

 Mexico's geography in the Press, Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Latin America’s biggest solar energy plant helps power La Paz
Mar 312014
 

Latin America’s largest solar power plant is now supplying power to the city of La Paz in Baja California Sur. The Aura Solar I photovoltaic power plant has an installed capacity of 30 MW. The plant was officially inaugurated on 19 March 2014, and will supply about 82 GWh/year of electricity to around 164,000 residents of La Paz, more than two-thirds the city’s total population of 220,000. It is located a short distance east of the city, and replaces an old, air-polluting thermoelectric plant.

Auro Solar 1 project, La PazThe new power plant, owned by Corporación Aura Solar, is the largest photovoltaic power plant in Latin America, according to company chairman Daniel Servitje Montull. The 100-million-dollar plant occupies 100 hectares (250 acres) and was constructed by engineering firms Gauss Energía and Martifer Solar. The project relies on about 131,800 solar panels and has an estimated operational life of 30 years. About 25% of Mexico’s electricity is currently generated using clean energy sources. Mexico has set a national target of 35% clean energy by 2024, in order to minimize Mexico’s contribution to global climate change.

This 2-minute YouTube video shows various stages in the building of the plant:

For a description of one traveler’s informal visit to the plant, click here

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Road collapse in Baja California in December 2013 increases trucking costs

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Road collapse in Baja California in December 2013 increases trucking costs
Mar 292014
 

The adverse effects of the dramatic collapse in December 2013 of a 300-meter section of the Tijuana-Ensenada coastal highway are likely to be felt for at least six months and probably longer. The extent of the problem is clear from the images in the news reports from the time:

tijuana-ensenada road collapseThe collapse took place about 95 km (60 mi) south of the border, and closed the scenic coastal highway near the San Miguel toll booth. It is still unclear whether or not an attempt will be made to rebuild the coastal highway, or whether a new highway, or new sections of highway, will be built further inland.

In the interim, passenger vehicles and light trucks are using the old two-lane road between Tijuana and Ensenada, while heavy goods vehicles are being rerouted via Tecate, adding at least 30% to their costs, according to Mexican National Confederation of Transporters (MNCT).

The MNCT says that 300 trucks a day travel between Tijuana and Ensenada and that the rerouting adds at least  80 km (50 mi) to each trip, with corresponding expenses in gasoline, driver salaries and vehicle maintenance. It also almost doubles the time required. A spokesperson for the MNCT has called for authorities to allow heavy trucks to use the more direct non-toll route (Highway 1). However, the increased traffic on the old road is already leading to backups and an increase in minor accidents, so it is unlikely that authorities will allow any larger trucks to use that route.

It is too early to say how serious the effects will be on Ensenada’s economy. The city has Mexico’s third busiest cruise ship terminal and is the main gateway for travel further south along the Baja California Peninsula.

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León hosts Latin America’s largest trade fair for footwear

 Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on León hosts Latin America’s largest trade fair for footwear
Mar 262014
 

Mexico’s footwear industry is heavily concentrated in three main cities: León, Guadalajara and Mexico City. Factories and workshops in the city of León in the state of Guanajuato account for about 68% of all shoes made in Mexico. The two other important manufacturing areas for footwear are Guadalajara (Jalisco) where about 18% of the national production originates, and Mexico City (together with surrounding parts of the State of Mexico), responsible for 12%.

Footwear industry in Mexico

Concentration of shoe industry in Mexico.

According to the 2009 Economic Census, there were close to 7500 “productive units” related to shoe manufacturing in Mexico, with about half of them located in the state of Guanajuato. In 2012, national producers turned out 244 million pairs of footwear, of which 171 million pairs (70%) were made in Guanajuato.

Shoes are also an important international trade item. In 2013, shoe exports reached 26 million pairs, worth almost $600 million (an increase of 14% compared to 2012). The main export markets were the USA, Canada, Colombia, Guatemala, Panama and Japan.

Mexico’s shoe industry hosts several major trade fairs each year. The single biggest event, SAPICA (Salón de la Piel y el Calzado), is Latin America’s largest international footwear trade fair and is held in León twice a year. The next SAPICA trade fair opens today and runs 26-29 March 2014 in León, Guanajuato. This show has 45,000 square meters of exhibition space, more than 2000 stands and 850 presentations. SAPICA has gained international recognition and attracts 11,000 buyers (from the USA, Canada, Europe, Japan, and Central and South America) and 35,000 visitors each year.

The flexibility of León’s shoe manufacturing industry has enabled firms such as Poppy Barley (based in Edmonton, Canada) to be able to market custom-made boots via their website and without the overheads of any conventional footwear stores . Individual purchasers take their own foot measurements, and then the boots are made to order and shipped to their homes. This “made to measure digital retail” approach flies in the face of the mass production that has become the norm in the footwear industry. The Poppy Barley website includes a section devoted to its manufacturing partner in León.

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Mar 242014
 

According to Eduardo Barroso, the CEO of management consultancy EB Turismo, in his presentation at the XII Foro Nacional de Turismo held in Mérida, Yucatán, in February 2014, Mexico’s 83 Magic Towns (Pueblos Mágicos) attracted more than 4 million visitors in 2013, and tourist spending of more than 6 billion pesos (460 million dollars). However, he also pointed out that the program has not been prudently and carefully developed, but has been distorted by the designation of 46 Magic Towns in just two years (2011 and 2012), compared to the designation of just 37 Magic Towns in the preceding decade. (The Magic Town program started in 2001.)

Magic TownsThe Tourism Secretary Claudia Ruiz Massieu has called a halt to the program while officials work out how to reinstate it in a manner that will ensure that only towns worthy of the designation can actually acquire the status. This will no doubt require establishing new guidelines and regulations governing the program.

Success stories for the Magic Town program include San Miguel de Allende, which was first designated a Magic Town but has since been elevated to the much more exalted status of a World Heritage City;  Real de Catorce, in San Luis Potosí, which has seen visitor numbers jump by 1200% in only 12 years; and the town of Tequila, in Jalisco, where the coordination of three levels of government has seen visitor numbers quickly rise from 18,000 to 165,000 visitors a year.

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Mexico’s 2014 Economic Census is underway

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Mexico’s 2014 Economic Census is underway
Mar 222014
 

Mexico’s National Statistics Institute (INEGI) has begun collecting data for the 2014 Economic Census. The census, held every 5 years, surveys the estimated 5.7 million business places throughout the country, excluding only those used for agricultural, forestry and fishing operations, or exclusively for informal business activities.

Economic census 201425,000 trained census takers are now systematically covering all urban areas, together with a representative sample of rural areas, gathering data such as type and sector of operation, number of workers, educational levels, fixed assets and use of information technology.For the first time, companies can opt to enter data directly via a webpage.

Preliminary census results will be released in December this year, with more detailed tables released in stages between July and December 2015.

The Economic Census is held every five years. The results of previous economic censuses (2009, 2004, 1999, 1994, etc) can be accessed via the INEGI website.

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Eight types of bananas are grown commercially in Mexico

 Other  Comments Off on Eight types of bananas are grown commercially in Mexico
Mar 202014
 

In an earlier post, The geography of banana production in Mexico, we provided an overview of banana production in Mexico. Eight different kinds of bananas are grown in Mexico (see graphic). The harvesting of bananas is mainly in the third quarter of each year. A series of maps showing the distribution of each of the eight types can be accessed via the tabs on this page.

Eight kinds of bananas grown in Mexico

Eight kinds of bananas grown in Mexico. Click to enlarge. Credit: SAGARPA

The eight main types of bananas grown in Mexico are:

  • Cavendish gigante – thick skin, milder taste, the most popular of the smaller varieties, 55% of national production, half of it from Tabasco
  • Macho – plantains, best eaten cooked; about 15% of national production, mainly in Chiapas (municipalities of Suchiate and Acapetahua), Tabasco (Centro and Cunduacán) and Veracruz (Otatitlán and Tlacojalpan)
  • Tabasco – high quality, medium sized fruit with excellent flavor. About 7% of national production
  • Valery – less firm fruit, consistency more like a cherry (4%)
  • Dominico – short, squat, relatively straight and sweet-tasting (3%)
  • Pera – fat, slightly curved, and up to 24 cm in length. Each finger can weigh 300 grams (2%)
  • Manzano – long rhizomes, pleasant taste and smell (1%)
  • Morado – disease resistant, stronger tasting, orange-tinted skin (0.5%)

Mexican banana and plantain recipes (from MexConnect)

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Mexico and Ireland: a St. Patrick’s Day special

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Mar 162014
 

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we offer this short list of references highlighting some of the more significant connections between Ireland and Mexico.

Séamus Ó Fógartaigh in his “Ireland and Mexico“, published in Irish Migration Studies in Latin America by the Society for Irish Latin American Studies (based, curiously, in Switzerland) looks at the early links between Ireland and Mexico, including suggestions that the travels of St. Brendan the Navigator may have inspired Christopher Columbus and that the famous “Plumed Serpent” of Mexican mythology may have originated from the deification of an Irish monk.

Much better known are the later links. During colonial times, several of the Spanish administrators sent to New Spain (now Mexico) were direct descents of Irish exiles to Spain. They include the 63rd and last Spanish Viceroy of New Spain Juan O’Donojú (formerly O’Donoghue) who arrived in the New World shortly before Mexico became Independent in 1821.

A generation later, Irish soldiers who chose to leave (deserted) the US army formed the backbone of Mexico’s St. Patrick’s Battalion (Batallón San Patricio) which fought the invading Americans in 1846-48. They are especially remembered for their bravery in the Battle of Churubusco (in Mexico City) in 1847. Their story is well remembered by Mexicans today, their exploits commemorated every year at a ceremony in Mexico City, and the basis of several books and the movie “One Man’s Hero.” For a summary account, try The St. Patricio Battalion, The Irish Soldiers of Mexico by Jaime Fogarty, published in UNAM’s Voices of Mexico magazine, April-June, 2000.

San Patricio Melaque (Google Earth)

San Patricio Melaque (Google Earth)

On the Jalisco coast, the small town of San Patricio Melaque (around the bay from Barra de Navidad and the Isla de Navidad tourist development) holds an annual fiesta that celebrates both the town’s patron saint and the achievements of the Irish soldiers. Nine days of activity (church services, fireworks, parades, bullfights, fairground games) come to a climax on 17 March. (It is sometimes claimed that San Patricio Melaque is the only settlement named San Patricio in Mexico, but that is not quite true, since there are at least three others: two tiny hamlets called San Patricio, relatively close to Cd. Victoria in Tamaulipas, and one named San Patricio de la Mesa in the mountains east of Hermosillo in Sonora.)

In the twentieth century, Álvaro Obregón (family name O’Brien) was President of Mexico from 1920 to 1924. (We will take a critical look at his relationship with the indigenous Yaqui Indians of Sonora in a later post). The city of Ciudad Obregón in Sonora is named in his honor. Artists of Irish descent also impacted Mexico’s national life. They included architect, painter and muralist Juan O’Gorman (1905-1982), responsible for the monumental mosaic that adorns the walls of the National University (UNAM) Library in Mexico City, and a striking, colorful mural in Pátzcuaro that depicts an erupting volcano; this mural was completed just one year before the unexpected eruption nearby of Paricutín Volcano.

Today, according to Wikipedia, there are between 300,000 and 600,000 people of Irish descent living in Mexico, mostly in either northern Mexico or Mexico City.

Dr. Michael Hogan has done far more than most to publicize the links between Ireland and Mexico. In this 8 minute Youtube video clip, he talks to an Irish radio show host about the San Patricios, Irish and Mexican history, music and tequila.

Most of the links we’ve described might never have happened if Mexico had not sent an unwanted export to Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century. The census of 1841 in Ireland recorded a population of about 8 million. The staple Irish food at that time was the humble potato and Ireland’s rapid population growth during the early part of the nineteenth century was based on the so-called “potato economy”.  Ireland was bursting at the seams in 1841, but just a decade later, after the potato famine, the population had fallen to 6.5 million. The cause of the Irish potato famine was a water mold (Phytophthora infestans) that originated in Mexico and crossed the Atlantic in the 1840s, reaching Europe in 1845 before rapidly spreading across the continent to reach Ireland.

If a Mexican water mold had not provoked the Irish potato famine, maybe there would have been no settlements named San Patricio in Mexico today, and no cause to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Mexico! Wherever you may be, have a very Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Cosmic botanical garden in Toluca

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Mar 152014
 

The city of Toluca (population 1.8 million), the capital of the State of México, was in the news recently as the site for the tri-national meeting between the heads of state of Mexico, the USA and Canada to mark the 20th anniversary of NAFTA.

Nestled away inside the city, away from its burgeoning factories, is the former city market. The market closed in 1975. Plans to demolish it were forestalled when renowned Mexican artist Leopoldo Flores stepped up with a plan to restore the market building, which dated back to 1909, into an artistic gem housing a botanical garden.

Cosmovitral, Toluca

Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike attribution

The market’s original windows were replaced with large glass murals, comprised of half a million pieces of glass and covering a total area of more than 3,000 square meters. The revamped building, now known as the Cosmovitral, was reopened in 1980. In 2007, the Cosmovitral narrowly missed being named one of the 13 man-made wonders of Mexico.

The centerpiece of the Cosmovitral murals is the stunning image entitled Sun Man (Hombre Sol).

Possibly the world’s best decorated glasshouse, the Cosmovitral houses over 500 different plants from around the world and has become one of the city’s single most popular tourist attractions, though rarely visited by foreign tourists.

Where? The Cosmovitral is located in downtown Toluca at the intersection of Juárez and Lerdo de Tejada streets. Guided tours are available.

When? It is normally open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sundays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Admission? Tickets are 10 pesos (less than a dollar) for adults, 5 pesos for children. Guided tours, mostly to explain the Cosmovitral’s stained glass, are available. Art exhibitions are hosted regularly.

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