By Jane Bauer
“From my earliest memory, times of crisis seemed to end up with women in the kitchen preparing food for men.”
To say that I regard food as important is an understatement. For me food is a religion and I try to make choices that reflect my values the same way we do when picking our sins.
Although throughout the past year, the world has been struggling with random closures and socially-distanced dining, I have had some very memorable food moments. Here are my top 5 in chronological order.
- Blue Corn Tortilla with Quesillo in San Jose del Pacifico, after spending the morning participating in a mushroom ceremony led by a Shaman. Even without the drugs I’m pretty sure the tortilla made with heirloom corn, warm off the comal, would have been one of the year’s food highlights.
- Sea Bream in Athens. First off, it was wondrous to be in Athens sitting in a restaurant on a pedestrian street in what is known as the ‘anarchist’ neighbourhood. The fish was served with garlic potatoes, tzatziki and a glass of crisp white wine. Plus, I was sharing the meal with my Huatulco neighbor half-way around the world.
- Raclette with Chorizo and Pineapple. Eating raclette with Mexicans in Switzerland is a different affair than how my German father prepared it. I was skeptical at first but was soon won over by the tanginess of the pineapple with the chorizo and cheese.
- Rabbit Biryani. I made this dish using a mixture of different recipes- which is something I often do. I added slivered almonds, dried apricots and dates. The fragrant scents of cinnamon, ginger and turmeric that filled my kitchen were a delight.
- Chacales in Copalita. The taste of home. Similar to crawfish, fried in garlic butter and served with crispy tostadas, black beans and a tangy mayonnaise onion dip. Absolutely finger licking!
We hope you enjoy our Food Issue.
Thanks for reading,
By Carole Reedy
In a city of 20 million, not all restaurants receive the recognition they deserve, especially smaller venues without the funds for publicity. Reviewers try their best to visit the countless eating establishments in Mexico City, but they do have their limits.
Here I present small (sometimes tiny) eateries, a few of which may be short on ambience but big on flavor. I discovered them while flaneuring through the city or from friends who introduced me to them by enthusiastically declaring “You MUST try … ”
El Auténtico Pato Manila
This might be the best-kept secret in Mexico City. My downstairs, restaurant-going neighbor recommended this tiny venue on the spur of the moment one day as I climbed to my third-floor apartment in Roma Sur. Upon hearing my footsteps he opened his door and said, “Shall we pop out for a bite to eat? Feel like duck tacos?”
That was the start of many visits to Manila Tacos. What a find! The owner has created a small, eclectic menu, with just five items offered:
· Tacos Manila: four duck tacos on corn tortillas
· Tacos Kim: two duck tacos on flour tortillas
· A torta filled with duck (carnitas style) and avocado
· Won ton
· Spring rolls, filled with duck or without
Enjoy these delicacies while sitting at the counter in the wee locale. Take-out and delivery are available too. Each item is made to order and served piping hot with several sauces. A variety of beers is also available, as well as soft drinks. And that’s it! Perhaps you, as I have, will make this a staple in your diet.
Location: I frequent the Manila in Condesa at Culiacán 91. There is also a Manila in Roma Norte on Álvaro Obregón, close to Casa Lamm.
La Selva (move over Starbucks)
Hooked on Starbucks? Mexico offers many high-quality alternatives at much cheaper prices. One of these is La Selva in Condesa, located conveniently a short block from Parque México. Here you will find organic coffee from the Lacandona jungle in Chiapas.
I buy a half-kilo of organic dark roast coffee for about $7 US. There are small eating areas both inside and outside. on the tree-lined street at Iztaccihuatl 36. Unlike Starbucks, La Selva serves full breakfasts and lunches instead of sweetened pastries and expensive sandwiches.
People watching is a satisfying pastime at this location any day, but especially on Sundays when the park is most active.
Location: Iztaccihuatl 36, a short tree-lined street that runs between Parque México and Av. Insurgentes Sur.
Good bakeries are a satisfying alternative to restaurants for breakfast or a snack. Alcazar is one of my favorites as they serve marvelous croissants and an English biscuit, a type of scone that my guests request during every visit.
There’s also a selection of small cookies and rich, flavorful cakes, unlike the cardboard, elaborately decorated sugary cakes that adorn many party tables in Mexico. The chocolate truffle cake from Alcazar is especially decadent, with several types of chocolate precisely layered. There are pies too, from lemon-lime to the sweeter fruit pies with whipped cream. Candles and other adornments needed for your celebration are also available.
For lunch, Alcazar offers sandwiches, both vegetarian and meaty, as well as a few salads. In my neighborhood of Roma Sur, all the medical personnel from the hospitals stop at Alcazar for a coffee or lunch, which in my book is a great recommendation.
Need a quick gift? Pop in and buy a packet of chocolate-covered almonds or coffee beans. Coffee sold by the kilo and a variety of teas also make for thoughtful gifts. There’s even a fun selection of coffee cups for sale.
Location: Pastelería Alcazar has many locations around the city … fortunately for us!
Cafebrería El Péndulo
You may think yours truly is confusing her regular book column with this month’s food article. Actually, not only is El Péndulo the most attractive and original bookstore in the city, its cafés offer surprisingly good food. There are seven locations throughout the city, and all have the same cozy ambience of rooms lined with books in Spanish, English, and other languages.
The coffee shops serve not just java but also light meals. The breakfasts are especially tasty. I was happily impressed that a simple goat cheese and spinach omelet could radiate such distinct flavors.
Location: The Polanco location is at Alejandro Dumas 81; in Condesa, it’s at Nuevo León 115; in the Zona Rosa, it’s at Hamburgo 126; and in Roma, Álvaro Obregón 86.
Believe it or not, this little-known restaurant, named for the large island off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea, is smack dab in the middle of Avenida Reforma, near the Ángel de la Independencia. It is indoor/outdoor, no better ambience for people watching.
Spanish and Mexican cuisine easily blend to give diners a variety of excellent choices and flavors. You’ll find the traditional Spanish serrano ham, as well as our beloved Mexican chilaquiles. Entrees such as salmon a la plancha, risotto, and the traditional cream soup from Córdoba, Salmorejo, star on this appetizing menu.
There’s also a magnificent pastry shop attached to the restaurant that’s filled with scrumptious treats such as brownies, chocolates, scones, chocolatíns, croissants, marmalades, and fine breads.
The hours shift daily, but most days the restaurant is open from 7-8 am until 9-11 pm.
Location: Avenida Paseo de la Reforma 365; there’s another one in Lomas de Chapultepec, at Avenida Explanada 710.
Foreign influences abound in Mexico City. Most tourists understand the French and Spanish architectural and culinary fingerprints left all over the city, but there is a considerable Asian influence here as well, including that of the Japanese.
Many of you are aware that Mexico’s landmark tree, the jacaranda, native to South America, was installed in Mexico City by Japanese imperial gardener Tatsugoro Matsumoto in the late 1800s. Ever since, these stately trees with purple blooms have adorned the avenues of the city, most notably in Coyoacán, Avenida Reforma in Cuauhtémoc, and colonia Roma, among many locales. If you visit from February through April you’ll relish the blooms followed by the carpets of purple they drop on the streets. (For the tale of Matsumoto and the jacaranda, see “How the Jacaranda and Blue Hanami Came to Mexico – and the Japanese Paisajista Who Made It Happen,” The Eye, July 2020.)
After World War II, with the many Japanese immigrants arriving on Mexican shores, the area around the Japanese embassy in the neighborhood known as Cuauhtémoc became a popular spot to gather. Here you’ll see the beginning – and subsequent growth and success – of Little Tokyo, in the area north of Reforma around the Ángel of Independencia.
Of course, it began with small informal restaurants but has grown into a formidable Japanese cultural area. This includes the finest of Japanese cuisine and even a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, if you choose to spend a night or two in the area. The inn Ryo Kan boasts a blend of Japanese and Mexican culture, with four tubs on the roof of the inn for your viewing and relaxing pleasure.
Most of the restaurants, the Toki Doki Market with Japanese gourmet goods, and shops line the street of Rio Pánuco. There is a Japanese contemporary art bookstore called EXIT La Librería at number 138. And at number 170 the popular Daikoku Restaurant serves all your favorite Japanese specialties.
A day exploring Avenida Reforma with a stop at Little Tokyo is a perfect way to ease yourself out of the isolation of the pandemic.
Wherever you roam, Buen Provecho!
By Alfonso Rocha
I’m pretty sure you’re already familiar with the “slow” concept that’s been tossed around for a few years in reference to sustainability, and maybe also you’ve already heard about a movement called “Slow Food,” which usually goes along with a shiny red snail. But have you ever investigated it? Or formed part of the international network that represents this movement? Now you have the chance to do so from Huatulco or any other part of Mexico.
Even though I have been formally a part of the organization Slow Food International since 2012, headquartered in Italy, I am still amazed at how this philosophy can grow and adapt to any circumstances or themes that surround the food sustainability and justice movement worldwide.
The official textbook definition of Slow Food is “a global, grassroots organization, founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.” Since its beginnings in Italy, Slow Food has grown into a global movement involving millions of people in over 160 countries, working to ensure everyone has access to good, clean and fair food.
Slow Food believes food is tied to many other aspects of life, including culture, politics, agriculture, and the environment. Through our food choices we can collectively influence how food is cultivated, produced, and distributed, and change the world as a result.
The Slow Food international headquarters are located in Bra, Italy – the town in the Piedmont region where the movement was born. It is from here that the association plans and promotes the development of the network and projects worldwide. In Mexico, the Slow Food network began around 1999 among the chefs of Mexico City, but it didn’t expand much beyond that urban scenario of high-class kitchens and restaurants until 2012, when Slow Food´s governing body decided to move away from the “old ways” of Slow Food 1.0, the main activities of which were dinner events around the table in an expensive restaurant, drinking fine wines accompanied, of course, by local and seasonal foods of high quality.
During the International Congress of Slow Food in 2012, the association promoted a shift into a new era, Slow Food 2.0, going outside the restaurant environment and involving farmers, indigenous communities, young members, and food justice/sustainability activists who are not involved in the restaurant or chef scenarios.
Slow Food 2.0 – a Good Fit for Mexico
Since then, Slow Food in Mexico has grown and is now present from Tijuana to Chiapas, with a very diverse network that includes academics, indigenous communities, chefs, students, and more people interested in promoting this philosophy in the country. It is an honor for me to have formed part of the great journey and growth of Slow Food in Mexico. As an International Councilor I have been lucky to have traveled to different countries like Italy, Colombia, Costa Rica, China, Kenya, Turkey and USA to learn about the diversity of the movement.
And now I am lucky enough to be in Huatulco where a new Slow Food Community has been founded with local actors. Soon you can join – and enjoy – activities that promote good, clean and fair local food in Oaxaca.
Alfonso Rocha is an International Councilor for Slow Food Mexico. To connect with the local Slow Food Huatulco community, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or look for “Slow Food Huatulco” on Instagram.
By Deborah Van Hoewyk
The Stealth Food Tour
Almost 20 years ago, my husband and I left Orizaba, Veracruz, after visiting a friend, and set off down the Sierra Madre del Sur to see the Pacific Ocean. We stopped over in Tehuacán, where we wandered around the zócalo (main square) that evening, eyeing the brightly-lit taco carts with trepidation. We were intimidated by the rapid-fire system for ordering, paying, and getting plates of three tacos with bewilderingly different fillings. But the local eaters, perched on the plastic stools circling each cart, didn’t let us go hungry. They gestured, they pointed, they chattered in Spanish we didn’t yet understand – and we had a delicious dinner!
Further down the road was the state capital, Oaxaca de Juárez, where we ate more tacos, crunched on grasshoppers, and tried to figure out why the sauce on the chicken was redolent of chocolate. The food highlight, however, was the La Noche de los Rábanos (The Night of the Radishes), which takes place on December 23.
The zócalo was turned over to an elaborate network of boardwalks past tables displaying scenes largely made up of intricately carved radishes. These are not your namby-pamby Cherry Belles or French Breakfast radishes. They put Japanese daikon to shame, reaching a weight of up to 10 pounds and a length of up to 2 feet. Complemented with separate competitions in scenes made of cornhusk (totomoxtle) and dried flowers (flores inmortales), the radish displays compete for a large prize ($21,000 pesos in 2018) in the traditional and free (libre) categories. Traditional includes religious and cultural scenes, while there’s no limit to the imagination in free scenes. Unfortunately, the radishes wilt, so the whole thing – including the actual carving and competition – is over in one day.
Back on the road, at the end of the road, we discovered La Bocana, then a quiet paradise of palm trees and the Pacific Ocean (not so much, not no more). As it still is, however, Los Güeros was very much a family restaurant, and there we learned to love camarones al mojo de ajo.
While we were completely unaware that we had taken a food tour, we had. We had walked through a century-plus-old cultural event with the radishes, eaten traditional foods (those grasshoppers and that mole), and talked to (sort of) local people eating local street food. It was a harbinger of things to come.
Tourism Trend Alert – It’s All about the Experience!
Although we see a lot of old-style tourism in Huatulco, aimed at relaxation and consumption – all-inclusive hotels with endless buffets, massages, and multiple pools, cruise ships with guided tours and careful activities – we also see that newer trends in tourism have arrived in Huatulco.
Sometime around 2015, tourism associations and researchers started commenting on “experience tourism.” Travel now offered the chance of “having a once-in-a-lifetime experience or gaining an emotional connection with cultures and nature.” By 2016, the Harris poll reported that 72% of millennials (25- to 40-year-olds) preferred spending their travel dollars on unique experiences than on souvenirs, embroidered blouses, or standardized hotels. The poll doesn’t mention that experiences take a lot more travel dollars than, say, an alebrije carving that fits in your carry-on.
Journey Mexico (www.journeymexico.com), a guide-owned and -operated agency located in Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, and Cancun, “specializes in crafting unique, authentic and unexpected travel experiences for the discerning and sophisticated traveler.” The words “luxury,” “adventure,” “culture,” “nature,” and “villas” appear on the photos scrolling across the home page.
According to Stephanie Schneiderman, of Tia Stephanie Tours in Ann Arbor, Michigan (www.tiastephanietours.com), “People are turning away from mindless consumerism and are realizing that what really fills the mind and soul are experiences, not things.”
And, of course, what better way to experience a culture than with food? In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), designated traditional Mexican cuisine an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” because it is “a comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners. It is made possible by collective participation in the entire traditional food chain: from planting and harvesting to cooking and eating.”
There are many ways to experience food in Mexico – sampling the range of regional cuisines, learning to cook popular and/or specialized Mexican dishes, visiting the makers of tequila or mezcal – and the Mexican government has jumped on the food-culture bandwagon. Impelled by the UNESCO Patrimonia Mundial de Humanidad designation and building on the already established Rutas Turisticas de México (e.g., the Missions Route through Baja California, the Route of Silver in Aguascalientes, the Mezcal Route in Oaxaca), the Secretariat of Tourism has organized 18 Rutas Gastronómicas de México. The routes involve 155 destinations in 32 locations, more than 1,500 dishes and beverages, and over 500 chefs who have “created dishes that merge tradition and modernity.” There are routes about particular foods – cacao in Chiapas and Tabasco, coffee and vanilla in Veracruz, the “thousand flavors of mole” in Oaxaca. In Querétaro and Guanajuato you can order “dishes with history”; in Jalisco your experience is accompanied by the “sound of the mariachis.”
Like the Rutas Turisticas, the food routes are self-guided tours. The Secretariat of Tourism has put together a 96 page booklet that covers all the tours – download it from https://cedocvirtual.sectur.gob.mx/janium/Documentos/12282.pdf.
Both Journey Mexico and Tia Stephanie offer experiences in Mexican cuisine, for example, an 8-day tour of “Food, Wine and Tequila in Colonial Mexico” and another 8-day tour, “Maíz, Mole & Mezcal: Traditions and Flavors of Oaxaca,” respectively. Eat Mexico Culinary Tours (www.eatmexico.com) will take you on a street food and market tour in Puebla; see “¡Salud! A Toast to the Vinyards of Mexico” in the May-June 2021 issue of The Eye to put together your own wine-tasting tour in Guanajuato, Querétaro, Baja California, or Coahuila. Intrepid Travel (www.intrepidtravel.com) provides a mega itinerary from Mexico City through Puebla and Oaxaca City right on down to Huatulco, where tour participants experience a Pacific Ocean boating expedition followed by a coastal cuisine masterclass on one of the area’s “stunning beaches.”
Not that the Huatulqueños don’t have their own culinary experiences to offer – most take a half or whole day. Wahaca Cooking School in La Bocana offers a tour to the Monday market in San Pedro Pochutla (https://wahacacooking.mx/). Maxi Travel will take you to the Pochutla market en route to the El Pacifico Coffee Plantation high in the mountains of Sierra Madre del Sur (https://www.maxitravel.mx/). A number of local guides will take you to agave fields to explore the making of tequila and mezcal, or to coffee plantations.
Hagia Sofia is a fascinating place on the Magadalena River in the mountains between Santa María Huatulco and Pluma Hidalgo; proprietor Armando Canavati has created an eco-park with adventure activities and the largest collection of exotic heliconia flowers in the western hemisphere. Armando’s underlying goal, however, is to cultivate exotic fruits from around the world that will grow in the lower Sierra Madre, with an eye to creating agricultural employment. Have you ever eaten the fruit that surrounds a single cashew? How about mangosteen? You can on a trip to Hagia Sofia! (https://hagiasofia.mx/hagia-sofia-eco-park/).
And we don’t just write about the foods of Mexico at The Eye. Multi-entrepreneur Jane Bauer offers cooking classes at her Chiles&Chocolate school in the village of Zimatán, where she also hosts “Village to Table” dinners of 8 courses with wine pairings (http://www.huatulcocookingclasses.com/). The dean of mezcal education is Eye writer Alvin Starkman, who runs Mezcal Educational Tours in the rural areas around Oaxaca City. Alvin offers day tours to local palenques (mezcal-making operations), and multi-day tours (up to a week long), “Comprehensive Mezcal/Culinary/Cultural Expeditions.” Were it nor for the pandemic, I would have been on one of Alvin’s tours in March 2020 … sigh. Tours have resumed, however: https://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com/.
By Randy Jackson
As a bread lover, it’s of little wonder that wherever or whenever I tried my first tortilla, I loved it at first taste. The Aztec (Nahuatl) word for tortillas is tlaxcalli (pronounced PLUX-cal-a). The Spanish name for this delightful flat bread is tortilla (“little round cake”). Maize tortillas emerged in early Mesoamerica and almost single-handedly enabled the flourishing of successive advanced civilizations in Mexico and Central America. The maize tortilla provided a stable source of calories and nutrients for millions of people across centuries.
Mexico remains the world’s largest consumer of tortillas. The Mexican per-capita tortilla intake, mostly in the form of corn tortillas, is 85 kilos per year (a little more than 187 pounds). In some parts of Mexico, this consumption is as high as 120 kilos per person, per year (just over 264 pounds). Checking in our fridge, 1 pkg of 10 whole wheat tortillas is 340 grams, so doing the math; 120 kilos of tortillas per capita per year = 9.6 tortillas per person per day. Global sales of tortillas in 2012 was estimated at $12 Billion USD, while tortilla chips and other corn snacks accounted for a further $10 Billion USD. Eso es mucho!
As a tortilla consumer – I’m a flour tortilla guy. And, although I’m OK with the reasonably healthy tortilla wraps, there are other, some might say, less healthy tortilla options too. I’m referring to a category of tortilla recipes called “stuffed tortillas.”
I would define stuffed tortillas as a baked or fried dish where some sort of filling is encased in tortillas. Enchiladas, chimichangas, and quesadillas are the most recognizable versions of stuffed tortillas. Of course, there are many more. One recipe I can speak to is something I call Mexican Deep Dish Tortillas. My version of this dish is made using an air fryer, and you can see my YouTube recipe video for it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJtCC9OSsiM.
Of course, there is Tortilla Lasagna too, a dish that is right up my alley. Unfortunately, the current (July) heat wave in Western Canada has kept me from using the oven to make and report on this delectable stuffed tortilla dish.
Beyond food, for the real tortilla lovers the Internet has plenty of tortilla-themed items. In wearables I’ve found women’s dresses and skirts that look like tortillas. Something that caught my eye was a tortilla-style baby blanket. This could allow young parents to wrap their newborn up like a burrito. There are tortilla/burrito blankets for adults too – as you might imagine, they are round. I’m putting one on my Christmas list. And what about tortilla car air fresheners to hang from your rearview mirror? Yup, that too is just a click away.
In 2003, the state of Texas, proclaimed tortilla chips and salsa to be the official state snack (who knew – Texas even has an official state cobbler – Peach). NASA has used tortillas for astronaut meals in space since the 1980’s. Unlike bread, tortillas don’t leave crumbs to float about the space station. Scientists at the University of Houston have been working on extending the shelf life of tortillas for long-duration space missions. Tortillas now remain fresh tasting for up to 18 months on the ISS (International Space Station).
In 1977, in southeast New Mexico, in the kitchen of Maria Rubio, the face of Jesus appeared on a tortilla. This event became known as the Tortilla Miracle. The apparition became an international curiosity. Over the years thousands of people came to see the tortilla. The Tortilla Miracle changed the lives of the Rubio family. There were several TV appearances for Maria, including one on the Phil Donahue show. A movie titled “Tortilla Heaven” was made (starring George Lopez) based on this tortilla story. Through it all, Maria Rubio remained a devout Catholic. She believed in the divine origin of the Jesus image on the tortilla. It arrived at a critical time for the Rubio family. They were facing severe poverty and Maria’s husband was an alcoholic.
Unlike the Rubio family, few lives are changed by a tortilla. The virtue of tortillas is that they do represent an important food staple for the peoples of the Americas. And, I believe, eating a stuffed tortilla while wrapped in a tortilla blanket, can only be a good thing.
“We look and listen to the mortally wounded nature … where the worst is yet to come.”
We have been waiting in sweltering humid days for drops from the sky to give us a respite. We move through the world masked-up, struggling to breathe and wondering when relief will come. Grey skies that yield not a drop and thunderous sounds seem to taunt us. May and June on the Oaxacan coast are months filled with longing and anticipation. The landscape is brown and thirsty, its hunger mirrored by the people, who after an anemic tourist season, are also in limbo.
This month our writers explore the environment. To most of us, this means nature but it is also a state of being. We accept in nature the cycle of life which inevitably leads to death; dry tree branches or a fish that ends up on our plate. That which once danced through the fantastic blue depths of the ocean eventually stops swimming, whether by having fulfilled its allotted time or by being prematurely snatched up in a net.
For the past year we have lived in a collective environment, whether you are in Calgary or Delhi, we have all been moving towards a common purpose and defeating a common enemy. Humanity has become a school of fish that moves in sync like some other worldly dance. Yes, there are still so many things that we disagree about, but we are like the great network of trees that communicate through root systems; united by our fears and worries.
I have never felt greater reverence for nature than I have this past year. The symphony of birds is like the voice of god, whichever one you believe in, majestic trees have been reminders of our own individual insignificance. How can we ever improve our environment more than a tree does?
The world is slowly unfolding into its previous normalcy. People say it will never be the same but I believe they are wrong. We will slip back into our minutiae of concerns; getting more stuff, more power, just more for the sake of more. Will this time have been in vain? I hope we will remember the importance of nature when contrasted with the human experience and revere the one that has the greatest importance.
Then the sky opened, rain fell and suddenly everything is green.
See you next month,
By Julie Etra
Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO), president of Mexico, recently called on Mexican farmers to stop using the herbicide glyphosate by 2024. By his final executive order of 2020, AMLO made a surprising decree to phase out both genetically engineered corn (GE, maíz transgénico), often referred to as GMO, or genetically modified, corn, and the use of the herbicide glyphosate.
Glyphosate, commercially known as Roundup, is a non-selective herbicide in that it kills all herbaceous (non-woody) vegetation to which it is applied. GMO corn, however, has been genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate. This creates a market cornered by the multinational agro-chemical giant Monsanto (bought out by Bayer in 2016), as they produce both the genetically modified corn (among other crops) and the herbicide. The national campaign, known as “Without Corn There is No Country” (Sin Maíz, No Hay País), and Greenpeace Mexico support the initiative that opens a path to eventually eliminate the use of glyphosate in Mexico by 2024. They urged AMLO to sign and publish the decree in the government’s Official Gazette of the Federation (Diario Oficial de la Federación), which occurred on December 31, 2020.
According to Reuters (May 24, 2021), the decree has held up: “A Mexican federal judge ruled against a request by the National Farm Council to freeze a government plan to ban genetically modified (GMO) corn and the widely used herbicide glyphosate by 2024, the national science council said on Monday. Judge Martin Adolfo Santos Perez’s ruling allows the executive order issued by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador late last year that outlines the planned ban to proceed.”
This is a huge economic issue. Since the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during the Clinton administration (1992), there has been a catastrophic decrease in domestic production, particularly of what we would call heirloom corn (maíz criollo) by small farmers who could not compete with the industrially-produced U.S. corn that poured into Mexico after passage of NAFTa. (An essential read on the subject is Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico, by Alyshia Gálvez [Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018]).
On the Mexican side, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari signed NAFTA betting that privatizing the economy and relying on market forces would modernize and grow the country, so to speak. This has not quite worked out as planned. Of the 20.4 million metric tons of corn imported by Mexico from the United States during from 2018 through March 2020 – 95% of it yellow corn, and 78% of it (16 million tons) in 2020 alone. According to Mexico’s national feed association (CONAFAB, Consejo Nacional de Fabricantes de Alimentos Balanceados y de la Nutrición Animal), Mexican feed companies used about 11.1 million tons of imported corn in 2020, the vast majority of it sourced from U.S. farmers; U.S. corn represented nearly 70% of the sector’s total corn purchases for the year.
What remains unclear as of this writing is that, although the ban would eliminate GMO corn for human consumption, the decree did not clarify what products would be included and it appears that feed corn would be exempt from the decree.
On the other hand, and as the wagons circle, the executive decree of course has its detractors. Mexico’s national association for Crop Protection, Science and Technology (PROCCYT, Protección de Cultivos, Ciencia y Tecnología), among others, rejected the order. PROCCYT warned that “the greatest economic and social blow will be dealt against Mexican farm workers, by promoting the publication of the Decree by which any possibility of import and use of glyphosate to protect food crops, despite the fact that it is scientifically proven that this herbicide does not harm health or the environment.”
But supporters of the decree have vowed to “defend our corn, since Mexico is considered the center of origin, domestication and diversification of at least 64 breeds of corn, and more than a thousand other species, including chili, beans, squash, vanilla, cotton, avocado, cocoa and amaranth.” The origin of corn is indeed Mexico, and more specifically the state of Oaxaca, where it was cultivated from its ancestor, the wild plant known as teosinte. Corn has achieved its current robust form over 8,000 years of plant breeding (my three-part article on the history of corn in Mexico appeared in The Eye in 2012).
Although there are few valid studies that link glyphosate to human health problems, the selective breeding of corn just for the ease of industrial production and the associated resistance to herbicides (and maximum profit) is anathema to Mexican culture, and has resulted in loss of nutrition and exhaustion of the soil as a natural, living resource. This depleted soil now relies on huge inputs of commercially produced, high nitrogen fertilizer, accompanied by its own suite of environmental problems. And the summer sweet corn we are accustomed to eating in the USA is mostly water and sugar and tastes nothing like the street corn – esquites y elotes – we find locally.
From this writer’s perspective Mexico has taken a big, progressive step forward.
By Deborah Van Hoewyk
Ten major-to-middling mountain ranges, replete with volcanoes and caves. Two oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the Sea of Cortez. Mega-biodiverse, with over 200,000 known species of flora and fauna. A plethora of online lists of 7, 10, 25 “natural wonders you must see in this lifetime!!!”
There are many must-see natural destinations spread across Mexico – Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, the Rosario sanctuary for Monarch butterflies reserve in Michoacán, Lake Chapala in Jalisco, or Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes covered in fourth-grade geography. You could even argue that the ghastly mummies of Guanajuato are a natural wonder, created by the arid soil in which they were hastily buried (apparently too hastily in multiple cases) during a cholera outbreak in 1833.
But if you’re already ensconced in Huatulco, there’s no need to wander afar – southeastern Mexico has plenty of natural wonders at hand.
Oaxaca: Hierve el Agua (“the water boils”) is located high in the mountains about an hour from Mitla, the archeological site to the east of Oaxaca City. Hierve el Agua offers a stunning pair of petrified travertine waterfalls, cascada chica and cascada grande, “falling” from high cliffs to the valley below. The falls themselves are twelve and thirty meters (about 40 and 100 feet) respectively. (The only other petrified waterfalls in the world are at Pamukkale in Turkey, so ¡Aprovechar!)
The small falls are more accessible and actually offer a better understanding of how the cascades were formed. At the top of the falls is a 60-meter-wide (about 200 feet) platform with four springs that bubble up (“boil”) and flow to small natural pools and two large man-made pools where you can swim – the high mineral content of the water, is supposed to have healing qualities. One of the springs spills over the edge, depositing minerals that extend the falls bit by bit, year over year.
There are visitor accommodations for changing clothes, getting a bite to eat, and souvenir shopping; there’s a basic hotel for an overnight. As is common in Oaxaca, you may also experience a bloqueo, a protest blockade, closing the road to Hierve del Agua. You can arrange a tour in Oaxaca City, or take a bus to Mitla and arrange a local tour or just transportation via a colectivo.
Chiapas: Sumidero Canyon is near the Chiapan capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez (the cañon is the defining feature on the state’s coat of arms). Just north of the town of Chiapa de Corzo, about 35 million years ago, the earth cracked and the Rio Grijalva emerged to start carving out the eight-plus miles of canyon. In places, the walls are now a thousand meters (about 3,300 feet) high; the canyon ends with the Chicoasén Dam, which has created an artificial lake and raised the water level in the canyon – the gorge used to be higher. Should you be a geologist, the walls diagram the history of the earth’s crust in this area, with layers of limestone boasting marine fossils.
The canyon is located in the Sumidero Canyon National Park, designated a RAMSAR wetland. (RAMSAR is the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Ramsar, Iran, being where the Convention was signed in 1971 – Mexico has 142 RAMSAR sites.)
You can view the canyon from any one of six miradores (overlooks), but the best way to “do” the canyon is via boat. (There was an EcoPark within the national park, to which the boat would take you, but at last word it had closed for financial reasons.)
Most boat trips leave from Chiapa de Corzo. The round-trip boat ride takes about 2-3 hours, because it takes a while to get from Chiapa de Corzo to the actual canyon. You might see wildlife – the park is home to several endangered species (spider monkeys, jaguarundis, ocelots, anteaters). The vegetation in the park is mostly deciduous rainforest (Chiapas is much higher than Huatulco, which has mostly selva seca, dry deciduous jungle.) You can see the entrances to a couple of cave systems in the walls.
You can arrange a tour in Tuxtla Gutiérrez or San Cristobal de las Casas (apparently the best prices are in San Cristobal, and you should make sure your tour includes at least some of the miradors and the town itself). You can also just get yourself to Chiapa de Corzo (less than 20 pesos in a colectivo) – if you can get one to drop you off at the embarcadero (boat landing) in Cahuares, great, otherwise find a colectivo in the square going to Cahuares. If you get to Chiapa de Corzo, you will have no trouble getting to the canyon boats.
The Yucatán, ah the Yucatán! The Yucatán peninsula is all nature, all the time – and archaeology, and beaches, and swimming with sharks, and shopping – but mostly nature. You could go to the flamingo reserve, visit a biosphere, or canoe through the mangroves in Celestún, in the state of Yucatán. You can swim in the hundreds of cenotes, or sinkholes formed when underground rivers caused the limestone above them to collapse (some say Cenote Ik Kil, near Chichen Itza, also in Yucatán state, is the most beautiful). You could visit the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico’s largest – it also contains the Calakmul archeological site – located in Campeche state. Or the colored lakes at the Las Coloradas salt flats, back in Yucatán. Or go kayaking on the brilliant, multicolored blue waters of Lake Bacalar in Quintana Roo.
But the Yucatán peninsula is home to the 700-mile-long Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world’s second largest, which runs along the Caribbean coast from the tip of the peninsula down through the shores of Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. Sometimes called the Great Mayan Reef, it’s been described as an “underwater wilderness,” with, at last count, over 100 species of coral, over 500 species of fish, not to mention multiple species of sharks, sea turtles, and dolphins – and a few sunken ships serving as artificial extensions of the barrier reef.
You can book dive trips all along the Caribbean coast of the peninsula. SCUBA divers might have the most fun, especially for the wrecks and the Museo Subaquático de Arte (Cancún Underwater Museum). Never fear, though, there are two galleries in MUSA, and both snorkelers and riders on glass-bottom boats can visit the shallower one to see the sculptures of pH-neutral concrete that explore the human-reef relationship.
Manchones Reef, off Isla Mujeres (Quintana Roo), is considered a “true paradise” for snorkeling and SCUBA diving. The waters of Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel have great visibility; SCUBA divers can visit the Felipe Xicoténcatl, a C-53 gunboat sunk by the Mexican Navy to start an artificial reef. Ideal for snorkeling is the section of reef in the Biosphere Reserve of Banco Chinchorro – only 5 feet deep and partly comprised of wrecked pirate ships. Banco Chinchorro is off the coast at Chetumal, Quintana Roo. At the Parque Nacional de Arrecifes de Xcalak, also in Quintana Roo near Tulum, the “coral heads” of the reef start only a few meters off the beach and are only 2-3 meters below the surface. The main reef is 400 meters out – if you swam the 440 in high school, and can still do it, you’re good). Xcalak is perhaps the least crowded dive site for the Mesoamerican Reef, and arguably the least spoiled by tourism.
The impact of tourism is perhaps the greatest threat to all of Mexico’s natural wonders, but this is particularly true for coral reefs. You can catch a boat out from the beach at Puerto Morelos in Quintana Roo to see or snorkel Kan Kanán, a huge snake-like construction of hollow pyramids made of cement and micro silica. (Kan Kanán is a guardian serpent in Mayan mythology.) Over a mile long, Kan Kanán lies between the beach and the Mesoamerican Reef; it is the longest artificial reef in the world, intended to protect the coastline from erosion, kickstart the formation of new natural reefs, and regenerate the marine ecosystem. Hope for the future.
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
- Sunscreen: wash it off before swimming in lakes, lagoons or ocean bays. Previously, much of coastal Mexico was a natural aquarium, teeming with brightly colored fish and exotic sea life feeding off myriad varieties of coral. Today, many of the most accessible bays and lagoons have a visible oily slick of sunscreen on the surface, with mainly dead coral and greatly reduced sea life. Many inland lakes have also been polluted.
There are still wondrous places to snorkel and dive, mainly accessible by boat. If you are fortunate enough to visit some of these sea or lake homes to see thousands of aquatic creatures, please help preserve them by wearing a sun-guard shirt (an inexpensive teeshirt will do) instead of poisoning the waters with sunscreen.
- Picnics: if you carry it in, carry it out. The beaches, vista points and forests in Mexico are great places for a picnic. It’s tempting after an afternoon of eating and drinking to just leave your empties and other trash behind. If you do, you’re basically creating an unattractive garbage dump and providing the animals with materials that can choke or otherwise kill them. It’s so simple to bring and use paper bags to collect your detritus (recyclables in one bag and trash in the other) and dispose of them in bins for recycling.
- Flora and fauna: observe but do not disturb. Plants and animals, both on the land and in the water, are fascinating. We can spend hours watching whales playing in a bay, or geckos scrambling around our patio walls, or an octopus hiding under a rock and sending out a tentacle to catch a fish or a sea turtle nesting on a beach. We’ve also watched in horror as people use sticks to poke at iguanas and disfigure other animals, or disturb nests of turtle eggs, or surround whales with multiple motor boats, or dig up plants that support multiple forms of animals. Please remember that you are a guest in their homes and, just as you wouldn’t enter a human home and purposely maim or torment your hosts, be a good guest to the animals and plant life here.
- Paths and trails: stay on the beaten path. In addition to not trampling or otherwise disturbing flora and fauna, staying on the beaten path will help you avoid unpleasant encounters with the native life. Many forms of plants and animals in Mexico have developed excellent forms of self-protection, including sharp spines, toxic stingers, pincers and teeth that can deliver a painful bite. Not all snakes rattle or give a warning before they spring. So keep on track and keep your eyes where you are about to step.
- Drinking water: avoid plastic bottles. In many places in Mexico the water is fine to drink. If you are at a moderately or expensively priced hotel or restaurant and you are served water from a pitcher, it generally is filtered and potable. The same is true of ice. If you are at an economy-priced place where you are not sure about the hygiene, you can ask for a glass of water from their garafon, the huge jugs of filtered water kept on hand for the staff to use. But please, please, please, help stop the world-wide pollution of the earth with billions of tons of plastic bottles. Until someone figures out how to turn plastic back into its natural components (a future Nobel-Prize-winning discovery), every plastic bottle of water you drink and discard will contribute to choking off life in Mexico and around the world.
- Restaurants: no plastic straws or one-use plastic anything. Plastic straws are literally killers. They find their way into the ocean and are gobbled up by short-sighted sea turtles. Hundreds of turtles die each year from ingesting a plastic straw. Many fish and sea-birds are also injured. Other plastic utensils also contribute to the injury and death of marine life. If you must use a straw, at least use a paper straw. But folks, who really needs a straw? Every sip from a plastic straw you take shortens the life of rapidly disappearing species.
- Shopping: bring your own bags and select ecofriendly packaging. Buy organic.
Fortunately, most Mexican supermarkets are legally prohibited from providing plastic bags for packing your purchases. And there are wonderful colorful cloth or other material shopping bags for sale in gift shops and from vendors all over Mexico. They’re not always environmentally friendly but they are easily packed, great souvenirs. But before you even reach the checkout counter, please think ‘green’ before you place something in your shopping cart. Two or three tomatoes really don’t require a thin plastic bag to keep them separate from an avocado; and the avocado comes in its own natural wrapper. By reaching for the fruit and vegetables that are labelled ‘organic’ you may pay a little more, but you are helping keep toxic pesticides out of drinking water and out of the bodies of many living creatures – including your own.
- Signs: read them and obey them. Much thought and effort has been spent on placing signs around Mexico to protect wildlife and to protect you. The road signs depicting silhouettes of local fauna are charming – but they are danger signs. Keep your eyes peeled on the road in front of you and to either side and slow down so you can stop in time to avoid an animal that darts out to cross to the other side. The signs on beaches and in parks that have the universal multiple “no” symbol should be studied and heeded. At the very least, they will give you a heads-up about human behavior required to protect life in Mexico. And ultimately, you may be saved from a hefty fine or even drowning.
- Showers: keep them short. Many places in Mexico, as throughout the world, are suffering from severe water shortages. You are encouraged to shower off before entering pools to save filtration systems; but all that is required is a quick rinse to remove sand and salt. A long hot shower before you dress is as passé as a flip-top cell phone. Remember to save water in other ways too. Turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth. If you have a kitchen, fill that dishwasher before you run it. And although washing your hands frequently is highly recommended, turn off the water while you soap and sing the canonical ‘happy birthday’ song twice.
- Prevent COVID: You may be on vacation, but the coronavirus never takes time off from work. Until Mexico vaccinates most of its population and enters a low COVID tier, wear your mask, frequently wash your hands and stay at a safe distance. The life you save could be your own.