Oct 272014
 

The following account of Mexico’s traditional (folkloric) and introduced musical instruments consists of extracts from an article by Andrea Teter. [1]

Pre-Columbian instruments

Archaeologists have noted the existence of more than 1,400 musical instruments used in pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America. These were used primarily for religious, and healing rituals and for ceremonies, but also for war, dances, fiestas and entertainment. Some of these instruments, primarily the huehuetl, and teponaztli, both percussion, and the tlapitzalli, a four-hole flute, were considered divine or endowed with supernatural powers, say Mexican archeologists, and were worshiped as idols.

Teponaztli

Teponaztli

The Mexica (Aztecs) used flutes and trumpets made of clay, bamboo and metal. Drums, including the ayotl, made of tortoise shells, and other percussion instruments were used extensively. The huehuetl was the principal drum used by the Mexica and was made from animal skin stretched over a hollowed-out tree trunk. The teponaztli was made from hollowed-out trees or dried gourds, and sometimes gold and silver, with grooves or tongues cut into the top. Rich and varied tones are produced when played with small mallets. Pre-Columbian musicians also used cymbals, maracas, bells and even stones to produce their music.

The Youtube clip below is one interpretation of what some of Mexico’s indigenous musical instruments may have sounded like when played:

Europeans arrive

With the invasion of the Spanish, these musical instruments were immediately used to help convert the indigenous population to Christianity, while the Conquistadors began introducing European musical methods and instruments. A Franciscan missionary, Pedro de Gante, established the first music school in Mexico in 1523 and trained students in the construction and playing of European instruments.

Little by little, all of the European instruments were introduced to Latin America, starting in the 16th century with organs, guitars, harps and flutes, and later followed by the violins, trumpets, mandolins and accordions. Especially important and influential were guitars, which rose to prominence in the seventeenth century, as an easier-to-play alternative to the lute.

Six-string guitars, viheulas, became extremely popular in Mexico with other instruments of the same family also put into general use: five-string charangos, tiples, or treble guitars, and a large 12-string guitar similar to a bass, the bajo sexto.

Another string instrument that became popular in Mexico was the mandolin. The mandolin, which comes from Southern Italy, is the most recent development of the lute family. It was popularized in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Verdi’s “Othello”.

The salterio, originally from Egypt, is a stringed instrument a little larger than a briefcase with a sound resembling a harpsichord and a playing method resembling a steel guitar or autoharp. The musician plucks the 97 strings while it rests on his knees; the sound is unique and quite beautiful.

Once the Spanish began importing slaves from Africa, these blacks began constructing marimbas, which imitated the African xylophone. As early as 1545, a Spanish scribe in the state of Chiapas wrote of an instrument of eight wood bars played with heavy sticks by the local natives at tribal ceremonies. The modern sophisticated Mexican marimbas was developed by Chiapas musician Corazon Borraz, who in 1896 brilliantly added a second row of half-tone bars to the common single row (like a piano’s black keys) adding to the musical scope of the original instrument, allowing it to play more complex music.

marimba

A marimba band: two marimbas plus guitar and drums

Today, a concert marimba can be three meters long, have 70 keys and weigh more than 55 kilos. This grand instrument demands four musicians; the bass man at the wide end with two sticks or baguetas having small rubber balls on the striking tips. This end has long resonance boxes hanging below the sound keys. Then the harmonics man with one or two sticks in each hand above shorter resonance boxes. Then comes the melody maker and leader, wielding two sticks per hand; then the narrow end controlled by the treble master, a stick in each hand producing counterpoint to the melody. Talk about a compact orchestra!

The variety of instruments Mexican musicians and composers have access to has resulted in a distinctive music for this country. At least one Mexican composer, Carlos Chavez, has gained international fame with his integration of Mexican pre-Hispanic instruments in his works such as “Sinfonia India,” “Xochipilli” and “Macuilxochitl.”

Some Mexican composers have been even more innovative. For example, Julián Carrillo (nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1950), one of Mexico’s top violinists, invented a microtonal music system known as Sonido 13. The system became sufficiently famous that Carrillo’s birthplace in the state of San Luis Potosí felt obliged to rename itself Ahualulco del Sonido 13: an interesting place to visit for any geographers interested in microtonal music! Ahualulco del Sonido 13 is located 39 kilometers northwest of the city of San Luis Potosí. Leaving that city, first follow federal highway 49 towards Zacatecas and then turn north on the road signed Charcas.

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Note:

[1] The bibliographic details for Andrea Teter’s article are currently unknown. Please contact us if you are able to supply any further information about these extracts, so that we can update to include the full reference.

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Mexico’s January weather serves as a long-range forecast

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Jan 042014
 

Many Mexicans use January’s weather to forecast what the weather will be like for the rest of the year.

Many Mexicans, especially campesinos (peasant farmers), who are closer to the land than most, believe that the weather during the month of January serves as a long-range forecast for the entire year. The precise prediction system, known as las cabañuelas, is thought to be based on long cycles of observations carried out in an age when people depended far more on the weather than they do today. The system is quite complicated.

The first twelve days of January are known as las cabañuelas “a derechas”. The weather on January 1 foretells the likely weather for the rest of the month. The weather on January 2 predicts the weather for February and so on, with the weather of January 12 suggesting likely conditions for December. The next twelve days (January 13 to 24 inclusive) are known as las cabañuelas “a rataculas”. This time, the weather of January 13 foretells December, that of January 14 November, and so on.

Jan 18: Pondering a miserable July

Next, each of the six days from January 25 to January 30 inclusive is divided at noon. The morning of January 25 represents January, the afternoon February. The morning of January 26 hints at March’s weather, while the afternoon applies to April’s, and so on.

Finally, even the 24 hours of January 31 are used. Each hour in the morning will be reflected in the weather from January to December. (Presumably the weather from midnight to 1.00am is a true reflection of what has already happened in January!) Then, each hour in the afternoon can be used to forecast future weather in the reverse direction. Hence, noon to 1.00pm gives us clues for December, 1.00 to 2.00pm for November and so on. Apparently, an alternative version, used in some parts of northern Mexico, divides January 31 into 12 periods of 2 hours each, with each division corresponding to the months in reverse order.

Whatever the details, the system is said to be at least as reliable as scientific forecasts over the same time period. (Though, thinking about it, perhaps that is not that hard!)

The same cabañuelas system is used in various parts of Spain, but the annual forecast does not always begin on the same day. For instance, in Alcozar, las cabañuelas “a derechas” begin on December 13. Elsewhere in Spain, they start on August 2 or August 13. According to Divina Aparicio de Andrés, predictions in Alcozar based on las cabañuelas lasted until well into the 1940s, but their use has declined since.

See also: The origins of the cabañuelas system of weather forecasting

This is an edited version of an article originally published on MexConnect.com

The climate of Mexico is discussed, with several maps,  in chapter 4 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Climatic hazards, such as hurricanes, droughts and floods, are looked at in detail in chapters 4 and 7. Mexico’s cultural geography and cultural landscapes are discussed in chapter 13.

Holy Innocents’ Day (28 December)

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Dec 272013
 

Among the many interesting facets of Mexico’s cultural geography are the subtle differences between beliefs in Mexico and similar beliefs in the USA and Canada. For example, 28 December, Day of the Holy Innocents ( Día de los Santos Inocentes) is the Mexican equivalent of north-of-the-border April Fools’ Day (1 April).

This is when Mexican children will borrow, but not repay, small loans from unsuspecting friends and relatives that they consider a soft touch. Once they’ve received the loan, they say either the following verse (quoted in Frances Toor, A Treasury of Mexican Folkways, 1947) or something similar:

Inocente Palomita
Que te dejaste engañar
Sabiendo que en este día
Nada se debe prestar.

Innocent little dove
You have let yourself be fooled
Knowing that on this day
You should lend nothing

So, be careful on 28 December if anyone admires one of your prized possessions… especially if it is your only copy of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico!

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The geography of the Huichol Indians: cultural change

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Feb 182013
 

Huichol Indians may have retained many of their ancestral traditions, such as shamans and their annual cycle of ceremonies, but Huichol culture has changed significantly in the past three hundred years.

During colonial times, the Huichol adopted string instruments, the use of metal tools, and the keeping of animals such as sheep, horses and cattle. They also accepted some aspects of Catholic religion.

Beginning in the 1950s, government programs financed the first airstrips in the region. Government agencies have since improved roads, opened clinics and constructed schools for basic education and trades. The government’s efforts have included agricultural aid stations, the drilling of wells, and support for the introduction of more modern agricultural techniques and equipment, such as barbed wire and tractors. Other programs have focused on providing alternative sources of revenue such as beekeeping.

Modern adaptation: Huichol "vocho" exhibited at the Smithsonian in 2012

Modern adaptation: Huichol “vocho” exhibited at the Smithsonian in 2012

All these changes have come at a price. The ancestors of the Huichol practiced a nomadic lifestyle over a large expanse of land in order to acquire the resources they needed for survival. When the Huichol were pushed back into the mountains,they adapted by undertaking an annual migration to gather their sacred peyote. At the same time, they became increasingly dependent on the cultivation of corn. However, in such marginal areas where rainfall is unreliable the corn harvest is never guaranteed and in bad years starvation is a real possibility.

Closer links to the outside world have meant that the Huichol can now buy cheap, bottled alcohol, and face increased pressure from outsiders who want more grazing land, timber and minerals. They have also led to the out-migration of many Huichol, whether permanently to nearby cities or seasonally to work on tobacco plantations in Nayarit. In the past fifty years, this has led to some innovations in Huichol art, including the addition of large yarn paintings and larger items decorated with complex bead work (see image) to their traditional arts and crafts.

Even though the Huichol are one of the most isolated (not just geographically but also economically and socially) indigenous groups in Mexico, there is nothing static about their culture. It will be interesting to see what changes the future brings.

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Bibliography:

This mini-series has made extensive use of several resources, including:

  • Barrin, Kathleed (ed) Art of the Huichol Indians. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1978.
  • Mata Torres, Ramón. La Vida de los Huicholes. Tomo I. 1980. Guadalajara, Jalisco.
  • Mata Torres, Ramón. El Arte de los Huicholes. Tomo II. 1980. Guadalajara, Jalisco.
  • Neurath, Johannes. Pueblos Indígenas del México Contemporáneo: Huicholes. Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas / UN Development Program. 2003. [link is a pdf download]

The cultural geography of Mexico’s carnival celebrations

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Feb 092013
 

Carnival celebrations are underway in many Mexican towns. Carnival (carnaval) is a time for merry-making in the days prior to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in the Christian liturgical calendar. (In 2013, Ash Wednesday falls on 13 February.) Carnival originated in Italy and was introduced into Mexico several centuries ago by the Spaniards. Even though the proportion of Mexico’s population that is Catholic has fallen steadily in recent decades – see Religious diversity is increasing in Mexico – the popularity of carnival shows no signs of decline.

Carnival float, Veracruz

Carnival float, Veracruz

According to Wikipedia, more than 220 towns in Mexico celebrate Carnival. Frances Toor, an authority on Mexican folklore, claims that carnival festivities in Mexico City “reached their climax about the middle of the nineteenth century and have died out since the 1910–1920 Revolution.” Very few large cities in Mexico have important carnival celebrations, the most notable exceptions being Veracruz, Mérida and Mazatlán.

Carnival float, Veracruz

Carnival float, Veracruz

By far the most interesting carnival celebrations in Mexico are those held in smaller towns and villages in non-tourist areas. In this regard, the carnival in Huejotzingo, in the state of Puebla, stands out. It is aptly labeled by Toor in “A Treasury of Mexican Folkways”, published in 1947, as “the most elaborate and brilliant of the village carnivals”. Toor describes this carnival in considerable detail, saying that it “dramatizes the capture and death of Agustín Lorenzo, a famous bandit, who with his men used to rob convoys between Mexico City and Vera Cruz and then hide in the near-by gorges or mountains. According to the carnival plot, he ran off with the beautiful young daughter of a rich hacendado, took her to one of his hideouts and was having a wedding celebration when the federal soldiers fell upon them.”

In Toor’s time, about 1000 villagers participated each year, dressed as soldiers in elaborate costumes representing several different battalions. She notes that “In recent years [1940s] some new features have been added to the Huejotzingo carnival. At dawn, all the forces fight against the French, who occupy the plaza, which is besieged and taken. The bride is said to be the beautiful daughter of the French Emperor Maximilian, instead of a rich hacendado”. Today, more than 2000 villagers take part. Most modern descriptions of the carnival in Huejotzingo describe it is an intermixing of three separate plots: the Battle of Puebla (where Mexican forces defeated the French on 5 May 1842), the kidnapping of the mayor’s daughter, and the first Christian marriage in Mexico.

Other places with idiosyncratic carnival celebrations include Huixquilucan (State of México), Calnali (Hidalgo), Tlayacapan (Morelos), Tuxpan de Bolaños (Jalisco), San Juan Chamula and Chenalho (both in Chiapas) and Zaachila (Oaxaca).

This Youtube video clip shows 2012 carnival revelry in Cozumel:

As with almost every aspect of Mexico’s cultural geography, there is no one fixed or rigid “tradition”. Instead, there have been so many significant changes over time that today’s celebrations of carnival across Mexico are characterized as much by their distinctive regional variations as by their similarity.

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Mexico’s Magic Town program loses its shine

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Jan 212013
 

Regular readers will be well aware of our concern about the number of towns in Mexico designated Magic Towns in the past few months. As we have written previously, some of the towns chosen are far from “Magic” and offer very little indeed of interest to any regular tourist.

Not content with devaluing the program by some dubious choices, at the end of November 2012, the outgoing administration of President Felipe Calderón rushed through the designation of no fewer than 17 more towns in its last few days in office, to bring the total number of Magic Towns to 83.

Added to the list at the end of November 2012 were:

  • 67   Tacámbaro, Michoacán
  • 68    Calvillo  Aguascalientes
  • 69    Nochistlán, Zacatecas
  • 70    Jiquilpan, Michoacán
  • 71    Tlatlauquitepec, Puebla
  • 72    Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán
  • 73    Mapimí, Durango
  • 74    Papantla, Veracruz
  • 75    Tecate, Baja California
  • 76    Arteaga, Coahuila
  • 77    Viesca, Coahuila
  • 78    Jalpa de Cánovas, Guanajuato
  • 79    Salvatierra, Guanajuato
  • 80    Yuriria, Guanajuato
  • 81     Xicotepec, Puebla
  • 82     Jala, Nayarit
  • 83     El Rosario, Sinaloa

The considerable charms of Mapimí, Durango were described in a previous post. Several of the latest towns to be included are well worthy of Magic Town status, but others are not. In future posts, we will take a closer look at some of the other towns on this list, and their relative merits for inclusion as Magic Towns. For now, we content ourselves with presenting an updated map of the distribution of Mexico’s Magic Towns, as of 1 January 2013:

Mexico's Magic Towns, as of 1 December 2012. Credit: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico

Mexico’s Magic Towns, as of 1 December 2012. Credit: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico

The domination of central and western Mexico is clear. All states (excluding the D.F.) now have at least one Magic Town, but southern Mexico still appears to be somewhat undervalued in terms of its cultural tourism potential.

Note: Four towns in the latest list—Tacámbaro, Jiquilpan and Tzintzuntzan (all in Michoacán) and Jala (in Nayarit)—are described in the recently published 4th (Kindle/Kobo) edition of my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (Sombrero Books, 2013). The book describes no fewer than 17 of Mexico’s Magic Towns as well as several more (such as Ajijic and Bolaños) that are reported to have begun their approval process.

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The important role of telenovelas and historietas as forms of communication in Mexico

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Dec 312012
 

The highest rating programs on TV are televised novels, telenovelas. A telenovela is a limited‑run television serial melodrama, somewhat like a soap opera but normally lasting less than a year, and where the eventual ending has already been scripted.

image of los ricos tambien lloranThe first global telenovela was Los ricos también lloran (“The rich cry too”), originally shown in 1979. Telenovelas are now a $200 million market. Some critics claim they are effective promoters of social change, others deride them as being nothing more than mass escapism. Whichever view is more accurate, their portrayals reflect society’s values and institutions.

Advocates of telenovelas point to their role in challenging some traditional Mexican media taboos by including story lines about urban violence, racism, homosexuality, birth control, physical handicaps, political corruption, immigration and drug smuggling. Early telenovelas tended to be shallow romantic tales. The form subsequently evolved to include social commentaries and historical romances, some applauded for their attention to historical detail. Some were used for attempts at social engineering. An early government-sponsored telenovela promoted adult literacy programs. Several others openly advocated family planning and have been credited with contributing to Mexico’s dramatic decline in fertility rate. Other telenovelas have targeted younger audiences, focusing on issues connected to pop music, sex and drugs.

Rius historieta: The failure of education in Mexico

Rius historieta: The failure of education in Mexico

Besides the shallowness of the plot lines in most telenovelas, the other common criticism is that their stars are almost always white-skinned, blue-eyed blondes. Sadly, all too often, actors with indigenous looks are relegated to roles portraying menial workers such as home help or janitors.

Telenovelas have been extraordinarily successful commercially. They have become immensely popular not only in Latin America and among the US Hispanic population but also in more than 100 other countries, mainly in Eastern Europe and Asia.

In print media, a similar role to the telenovela has been played by historietas (comic books), the best of which have tackled all manner of social, political and environmental issues well before such topics made the main-stream press. Historietas helped educate millions of Mexicans and were also a commercial success. Their circulation peaked in the 1980s but has since declined due to competition from television and, more recently, the internet. The most influential creator of historietas is the cartoonist and writer Eduardo del Río (Rius) whose work earned him a 1991 United Nations Environment Programme prize.

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The geography of music and dance in Mexico

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Nov 272012
 

Numerous different regional music styles are found in Mexico (see map), some strongly influenced by indigenous instruments but most relying on the string and brass instruments brought by early Spanish settlers. Curiously, mariachi music, which is often considered Mexico’s national musical style, is believed to owe its origin to French immigrants and refer to wedding (mariage) music. Other popular music types include rancheras (country style songs), corridos (songs telling stories, often about heroes), norteño (northern), rock and pop.

Music and dance in Mexico.

Music and dance in Mexico. Fig 13.3 of Geo-Mexico, the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. All rights reserved.

Musical instruments vary regionally as well. For instance, the marimba, a kind of wooden xylophone, is most often heard in Chiapas whereas the harp is more characteristic of Veracruz.

Regional dance styles have provided the stimulus for Mexico’s numerous baile folklórico (folkloric ballet) groups, many of which tour internationally. Some examples of regional dances are shown on the map.

Dance of the Quetzals, Cuetzalan, Puebla.

Dance of the Quetzals, Cuetzalan, Puebla. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Some of these dances are very localized. For example, the Quetzal Dance, with its elaborate headdresses (see photo)  is performed almost exclusively in the village of Cuetzalan in the state of Puebla.

In addition to these cultural manifestations there are significant spatial variations among many other facets of culture, including sport, dress, architectural styles and handicrafts. Regional differences are also found in some forms of literature.

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The Guelaguetza, the major cultural festival of Oaxaca state

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Jul 282012
 

Oaxaca’s single biggest cultural event, held in the second half of July, has come to be known as the Guelaguetza, which is Zapotec for “offering” or “mutual help”. It celebrates the cultural and ethnic diversity of the state. This year’s edition (the 80th) of the Guelaguetza ends on Monday 30 July, so this is the final weekend.

A massive open-air amphitheater, seating 100,000 people, is a permanent fixture on the side of the Fortín hill which overlooks the north west quadrant of Oaxaca city. The original Aztec garrison (for the collection of tributes), known as Huaxyacac, was established by Ahuitzotl at the end of the fifteenth century on this very hill. Today, a massive statue of Benito Juárez (cast in Rome in 1891) stares out over the suburbs.

Guelaguetza

The Guelaguetza

The Guelaguetza may have its origins in Mixtec and Zapotec celebrations of their corn crop. Later, the festival was carried on by the Aztecs in honor of their corn god, Xilonen. Later still, in the eighteenth century, the Spanish Carmelite missionaries linked the festival to their own Christian rites for the Virgen del Carmen (16-24 July). The timing holds even more significance today since July 18 also marks the anniversary of the death of Juárez, a much-revered politician of humble, indigenous origin, who served five terms as president of Mexico in the nineteenth century.

Guelaguetza

In the 1930s, the fiesta of the Guelaguetza took on its modern hybrid form, which includes a parade of stilt-walking “giants”. During the Guelaguetza, the Fortín hill is the scene for spectacularly colorful regional folkloric dances performed by several different ethnic groups (Mixtec, Zapotec, Trique, Popolac, Chootal, Chinantec, Mazatec, Mixe) from the seven main geographic regions of the state. The entire city comes alive with color. Color is everywhere from the beautifully hand-embroidered dresses and huipiles, to the food, to the paper streamers decorating the streets and to the mixture of merchandise sold on the sidewalks.

For travelers unable to visit in July, some central hotels, including the Camino Real, luxuriously housed in an architecturally-gorgeous former convent, and the Monte Alban opposite the cathedral, offer a weekly, scaled-down version of the Guelaguetza, year-round.

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Mar 222012
 

Mexico’s Magic Town (Pueblo Mágico) designation is given to inland destinations that offer a complementary tourism based on historic and cultural attributes. Between them, Magic Towns welcomed 2.3 million tourists in 2011. Mexico’s federal Tourism Secretariat has announced there will be 52 Magic Towns by 2012, when the promotional program is due to end. Mexico recently added two more towns, bringing the current total to 50 Magic Towns. The latest two additions are:

Magic Town #49: Sombrerete  (Zacatecas)

Fine stonework in Sombrerete

Fine stonework in Sombrerete. Photo: Tony Burton.

The town of Sombrerete (population about 20,000) is  a former mining center, located mid-way between the cities of Durango and Zacatecas. Early explorers in this area in the 1550s are said to have discovered its mineral riches by accident, when they found molten silver congealing in the dying embers of their campfire! Sombrerete, founded in about 1555, was named for a nearby sombrero-shaped hill, whose shape resembled the typical three-cornered Spanish hat worn in the sixteenth century.

Silver mining completely transformed the local landscape. Sombrerete become a wealthy mining town, its opulence transformed into an abundance of fine buildings. As ore deposits became harder to reach, the town fell into a lengthy decline. Its many fine buildings survived to tell their tale and are an important tourist asset today. Sombrerete certainly deserves its designation as one of Mexico’s “Magic Towns”.

Close to Sombrerete is the Sierra de Los Organos National Park, sometimes referred to as Valley of the Giants. This attractive area of meadows, woodland and cacti is overlooked by rocky crags with columnar basalt pillars (resembling organ pipes) and numerous precariously-balanced blocks. Several movies starring John Wayne were shot here, and the actor donated picnic tables and barbecues so that others might also enjoy this fascinating scenery.

Magic Town #50 Mineral de Pozos (Guanajuato)

Mineral de Pozos, in the state of Guanajuato, is another former mining community. Jesuits seeking mineral riches to finance their spiritual campaigns began mining here in 1595 but the mines proved unprofitable. The workings were abandoned until towards the end of the nineteenth century when a new influx of miners arrived, eager to try their luck. In 1895, with a population close to 60,000 and delusions of golden grandeur awaiting their picks and shovels, they temporarily rechristened their small, dusty home Ciudad Porfirio Díaz, in honor of Mexico’s then president. Today, Pozos, originally founded as a military garrison in 1576, is a ghost town, partially revived in recent years as it seeks to become an attractive diversion for “cultural, adventure, religious and family tourism”.

Given the extraordinary number of interesting and historic settlements in Mexico, I find it disappointing that some of the recent choices for inclusion on the Magic Towns list (such as Mineral de Pozos) do not appear to be based on an objective assessment of the cultural, historic, and ecological merits of particular places. Pozos is an interesting place, but hardly in the same league as most other Magic Towns. Perhaps it is just as well that the list is scheduled to end shortly!

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