Mexico – Beyond Beaches: The Hidden Gems of Hidalgo

For many Canadians who frequent Mexico, vacations to one of the many beach-front resorts are typical.
Who could blame us. With a dizzying amount of advertisements throwing out words like luxury, cheap and all-inclusive, why not. These resorts offer beautiful surroundings, are generally safe and can arrange local trips to neighbouring towns and villages to view historic sites. As fantastic as they are, if this Mexico is the only you see, you are most definitely missing out! If you are up for a bit more adventure, check out Hidalgo for some wondrous waterfalls, a soothing dip in a natural thermal river or a “magic town”.

Prismas Basalticos

Considered one of Mexico’s ’13 natural wonders’, this site is a must for nature lovers. Water that runs from a nearby dam comes crashing over tall colums of rock that, over time, have been formed perfectly into geometric shapes. So perfectly, the columns almost look as though they have been constructed and intensionally placed there.

Enjoy the view from the top of the ravine or venture down to the bottom to get a feel for the grand stature of the columns. The path down is lined with gardens of vibrantly coloured flowers. Stop off at the hut for a traditional snack, or a unique souvenir. A limited selection of local artesian crafts are on display and are available for purchase. For an alternate view if the falls, cross the suspension bridge that spans the ravine.

The rest of the site is very much a full service recreation area. There is a swimming pool, playing fields and places to picnic. Take a hike along the river or rent a four wheeler to explore this natural wonderland. If these activities are too subdued, adrenaline junkies can zip line across the ravine. For stays longer than a day, consider renting a basic cabaña. Details are on their website, but be prepared to enlist a translator as the site is in Spanish only.

Los Prismas Basalticos may be a bit out of the way, but the spectacular view is well worth the trouble.

Real del Monte (Mineral del Monte)

Within reach of Prismas Basalticos is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos (Magic Towns). Though a bit disappointing that no wizardry was found here, Real del Monte certainly has many enchanting qualities. This quaint mining town was home to English settlers in the 1800s and the evidence of this is at every turn. Architecture of the town shows signs of English influence and high atop the mountain an English cemetery looms over the town.

Plan to spend the day wandering along the narrow, cobblestone roads or hike up the mountain to check out the view from the cemetery. Silver was the primary resource extracted from these hills which makes it a great place to shop for jewelry or trinkets crafted by local silversmiths. An authentic mine tour is also one of the attractions that can be added to the itinerary.

When you have worked up an appetite, finding something to snack on will be done with ease. Street vendors have stands with a variety of dolce (sweet) treats on offer. With a large selection to sample, it was hard to choose. These little indulgences are made with coconut, peanuts or fruit, but the soft chewy cajeta (caramel) squares were my favourite.

If you are looking for something more substantial to eat, hit one of the local shops for a great food with a local flare. In the centre of town is a market where you can enjoy some freshly made quesadillas or barbacoa. Lamb barbacoa is traditional, but beef, goat, chicken and pork are also common. In this region, barbacoa is classified by the traditional cooking method used. Now prepared in more modern ovens, historically, this meat dish was slow-cooked underground. Barbacoa tacos are a popular dish that is particularly found on the weekends.

By contrast to this Mexican meal, English influence comes in the form of a savory pocket of dough called a ‘pasty’. Traditionally filled with potatoes and meat, pasties are sold in every corner of the region. In true food fusion, the Mexicans have made it their own by preparing it with mole, chillies and chicken or pineapple in addition to the English-style. Initially prepared as a lunch for miners, this piece of culinary history is now taken quite seriously in Real del Monte and the annual International Paste Festival is a must for any foodies travelling to the state of Hidalgo.

It’s uncertain if the beautiful mountain views, the rich history or the delicious food is responsible for the allure of this town. However, the majestic and regal charms of Real del Monte are certainly unique as far as small Mexican mountain towns go.

Las Grutas de Tolangtango

Ever travelled to a place where words cannot do it justice. A place where photos provide a fraction of the picture? A setting that washes you in pure contentment? Las Grutas de Tolangtango is one of these places.

The vistas through the slow and steady climb through the mountains of Hidalgo were stunning. Cliffs and sharp mountain peaks are visible through the tall grasses and wildflowers that the line the country road. Little roadside stores offer food and snacks, but filling up the tank should be done in Pachuca as gas stations are few and far between on this route.

Though the 3 hour journey was breathtaking, the distance and the rough roads might deter some. But the motivation is found in the prospect of wading in a natural thermal river.

East of Ixmiquilpan, leads to a steady decline down a curvy dirt road. The kind of road that makes you grateful that it hasn’t rained in a few days. Traversing down this challenging path leads to the obvious conclusion that this destination must be pretty spectacular, otherwise why would anyone bother.

Upon reaching the entrance, at first glance, it doesn’t seem like much and in truth, this destination is very bare bones with no frills at all. You won’t find any boutique shopping or high end decor. What you will find is an unaltered and unspoiled oasis.

The sounds of water trickling all around combined with incredible views of lush foliage lining the hillside overload the senses while descending along the walking trail. Over 2 dozen pools are on the grounds, including large basins on the mountain hillside where visitors can wade in the warm water while soaking in the vistas of this deep canyon. It is also possible to swim around and explore the water caves. Once at the bottom of the canyon, pick a spot on the river, climb in and splash around in the soothing warm water.

The accommodations at Las Grutas de Tolangtango are basic. Many visitors opt to pitch a tent along the shores of the river but if camping is not your thing, cabin style rooms are available at decent prices. Keep in mind that they do not take reservations for the rooms. Tents and other camping gear can be rented on-site.

In any case, this natural thermal spring and surroundings is one place beyond the beaches of Mexico, that is not to be missed.

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Doesn’t Anyone Around Here Work?

My ride!

My ride!

Sitting outside the local coffee shop, leisurely scanning my twitter in a beautiful tree-lined Toronto neighbourhood, a mid-aged man wearing a grocery store uniform passes and casually says to the younger man by his side, “Doesn’t anyone around here work”.

I couldn’t help but think he was taking about me. Truth be told, I hope he was.

My eyes followed as the two men passed me and entered the coffee shop. I smiled to myself but couldn’t help but feel a little indignant. I have a job. A good one, a tough one that keeps me very busy. It can be stressful at times, but is also thoroughly rewarding.

So why then, on this first day of school, is it the ‘first day of no school’ for me?

Well, the fact that I’m sitting here under this tree, sipping on my latte, on this sunny September morning is not a matter of luck. It’s not for a lack of work either. Quite the opposite in fact. Because of a lot of hard work, a little bit of planning and a ton of courage, here I am. And the best part is, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

So, good for me, right? Well, there is good news for you too. Simply, if I can do it, so can you! More on that later because for now, I am going to ride my bike and thoroughly enjoy my first day of no school.

Swinging From Trees and Other Cool Things To Do In Miami Beach

For Families with Children or if you are a ‘kid at heart’, here are a few things to check out while in Miami Beach.

Miami Beach is well-known for its lively nightlife scene, particularly in the South Beach area. As awesome as it is, families often opt out in favour of more ‘kid friendly’ destinations in Florida. For the record – my son loved the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios, but actually preferred our time in Miami Beach. So what did he love so much?

1. The Beach – This one is an obvious one, right?

Aidan swimming at Sunny Isles Beach

Sure, it is, but you might not know that there is a long list of Beaches in the Miami Beach Area (16 to be more precise). Since we were able to score a great deal to stay at the Trump International Beach Resort, we spent a bunch of time in Sunny Isles Beach.

Sunny Isles Beach from Trump International Beach Resort

Sunny Isles Beach from Trump International Beach Resort

This is an area in the north that has recently undergone a major revitalization. Since it is some distance from South Beach, it is less crowded and cleaner; fantastic for families that want a bit more space for the kids to play.

Sunny Isles Beach

Sunny Isles Beach

On the south side of the Trump property you’ll find a hut equipped with water sport rentals. Even though we are typically paddlers, it was here that my son had his first epic ride on the back of a jet ski. A bit pricey, but most memorable. When you’re through building sandcastles and splashing in the waves, the ocean-side pools operated by the hotels are a good option. The pools at the Trump International Beach Resort were fantastic and were open very late allowing us to enjoy some refreshing night swims.

Night Swimming at Trump International Beach Resort

Night Swimming at Trump International Beach Resort

2. Go Fish!

If you are in search of a unique experience, take the opportunity to take part in some saltwater fishing while in Miami. Not interested in the full commitment of renting a boat – no problem. Florida is well-known for fantastic inshore fishing.

Bal Harbour, Miami, Florida

Bal Harbour, Miami, Florida

Miami has several piers and inlets that are purposed specifically for anglers. The Newport Beach Fishing Pier is one of them. This brand new Pier, destroyed by Hurricane Wilma, was recently rebuilt. The beautiful Pier spans over 230 meter’s into the ocean. The fee to fish is minimal and rental equipment is easily available right on the pier.

Bal Harbour - Miami Beach, Florida

Bal Harbour – Miami Beach, Florida

Another option is the Bal Harbour Jetty, a concrete structure where you can find many locals dropping a line. It didn’t seem that there was a spot for renting gear at this location, but one of the locals let my son hold the fishing pole for a moment. A surprising offer as the fishers at this spot appear to take their sport very seriously. If you plan on fishing from Bal Harbour, make sure you investigate the necessity of purchasing a fishing license. Any of the many bait and tackle shops around the area will be able to help you out here.

If the prospect of catching a barracuda at one of piers or jetty’s is too much to handle, these locations are still worth a visit. Go to check out what the locals bring in or simply hang out with the friendly pelican on site. And, if your timing is right, nothing beats a sunset walk on the pier.

IMG_8349

Friendly Pelican – Bal Harbour – Miami Beach, Florida

3. Let’s Go Fly a Kite!

Let's Go Fly A Kite! Skyward Kites

Let’s Go Fly A Kite! Skyward Kites, Haulover Park, Miami Beach, Florida. Photo courtesy Skyward Kites: https://sites.google.com/site/skywardkites/home/

Is there anything more idyllic then kite flying? Sadly, this is one of the activities that we had to forgo due to time and weather, but one that I really wish we didn’t have to miss. On a day with clear skies, you cannot miss the vibrant colours floating through the sky as you drive North on Collins Ave.

Kite Flying at Haulover Park, Miami Beach, Florida.

Kite Flying at Haulover Park, Miami Beach, Florida. Photo Courtesy of Skyward Kites: https://sites.google.com/site/skywardkites/home/

Haulover Park near Bal Harbour is dedicated to kite flying. They even have a mobile shop on site where you can pick up a nice nylon kite for a good price to get you in the action. The next time we are in Miami, a visit to Skyward Kites and this kite park is definitely on the list.

Kiteday 2013, Haulover Park, Miami Beach Florida. Photo Courtsey of Skyward Kites: https://sites.google.com/site/skywardkites/home/

Kiteday 2013, Haulover Park, Miami Beach Florida. Photo Courtesy of Skyward Kites: https://sites.google.com/site/skywardkites/home/

Find out more about Skyward Kites on their website at: https://sites.google.com/site/skywardkites/home/

4. Swinging From a Tree

Pinetree Park, Miami Beach, Florida

Pinetree Park, Miami Beach, Florida

No. Seriously! Though I am pretty sure that this one is not sanctioned by any Miami officials, it was way too much fun to not mention. A friend who was fortunate enough to spend his teenage years in Miami Beach took us on a nostalgic tour of the area. One of the stops was Pinetree Park. This serene and picturesque park lies on the other side of Indian Creek (more like a canal if you ask me). It is an easy walk from the hotel strip and is visible across the creek from the well-known Fountainbleau Hotel. Complete with friendly lizards scurrying up and down the trees, this park is a nice walk for a change from the beach scene.

This gigantic tree was easy to climb and it only took a bit of creativity to fashioning a swing from the vines.

This gigantic tree was easy to climb and it only took a bit of creativity to fashion a swing from the vines.

The series of paved walkways are surrounded by an expanse of well-manicured grassy areas and a variety of trees. There is no playground at this park, no monkey bars, no tire swings or ice-cream parlors nearby. But, if you head to the very back of the park, right beside the small boat launch (a great spot for paddlers who wish to canoe or kayak in the calm of Indian Creek) you will find the main attraction. This huge sprawling tree is hard to miss, with multiple trunks that add support to the massive limbs, it has sturdy vines ideal for swinging on. Take a few minutes to link a few of these vines together and Voila!

Do you know of any other cool, off the beaten path, locations in Miami Beach?  Be sure to share them in the comments below!

WHY TRAVEL WITH KIDS?

Travel erodes ignorance

This is my first thought when asked about my decision to take my son on a long-term trip to the other end of the globe. In this photo, Aidan is examining a crack in the bridge that is significant enough that the highway below is visible. What a great tool for a lesson about structures, corrosion or even civics.

Crossing a bridge in Mexico City

Crossing a bridge in Mexico City

This was truly unlike anything we’ve ever seen before and even though it was safe enough for us to cross at the time, I wouldn’t want to continue testing our luck!

Bridge in Mexico City

How Mexico City Beats Toronto

First, my disclaimer. I unequivocally declare that I adore Toronto! You’d be hard pressed to find an authentic Torontoian who doesn’t. After all, we are the centre of the Canadian Universe (just ask any Vancouverite). However, I’ll be the first to admit, when it comes to pedestrian friendly streetscapes, frankly –Toronto sucks!

Who could resist climbing on this sculpture?

Who could resist climbing on this sculpture?

With delicious food choices from anywhere in the globe, to our beautiful park lands and a festival for just about anything you can imagine, Toronto really is an incredible city. If you are a sports enthusiast, clubber or shop-a-holic, we’ve got you covered. Into the ballet, live theatre or would rather go ice-skating? In Toronto, you can find all this and everything in between. With increased infrastructure for cyclist, a relatively low crime rate and a population who constantly apologizes, there is very little to complain about (unless of course you have caught wind of our “Ford Nation fiasco”). But even the best city should not rest on one’s laurels. After visiting Mexico City, AKA Distrito Federal (D.F.), it is clear that when it comes to pedestrian friendly streetscapes, Toronto can stand to take a few lessons from Mexico’s bustling capital.

Taking a rest on the steps of the Angel of Independence Monument, Mexico City

Taking a rest on the steps of the Angel of Independence Monument, Mexico City

We estimated that the walk from our hotel in lovely Polanco to the Historic Centre of Mexico would be quick, easy and straightforward. While it was straight, we certainly underestimated the distance. Accounting for the fact that it was August in the heat trap of Mexico City, with temperatures reaching nearly 32 degrees Celsius, the would have been hour and twenty-minute hike was anything but a breeze. With a 6-year-old in tow, questioning every-darn-third-step, “where are we going?”, the journey could have been pure torture.

And then we were rescued!

Once recalling the old adage about the journey and not the destination, we slowed down and realized that there was a lot to take in along the way. The busy street of Paseo de Reforma runs diagonally through the city and as though the street was created with a variety of uses in mind; not merely a thoroughfare for vehicle traffic, is lined with grand sculptures, unique installations and historic plaques. The large installations were just too tempting for our son to avoid climbing on and when we paused, we found a ton of unique views to snap photographs of. The beautiful pedestrian friendly streetscape was our salvation in what became a 3.5 hour journey.

Resting on Paseo de Reforma, Mexico City www.tiwy.com

Resting on Paseo de Reforma, Mexico City
http://www.tiwy.com

 

Nonetheless, this is a fraction of the reason that Mexico gets my vote for best streetscapes. Under the blaring sun, we found it necessary to stop often to rest and hydrate and always found somewhere to sit and relax without having to leave the street or become a patron at one of the establishments. The sidewalk on this major street was wide with plenty of space for pedestrians to navigate, with plenty of options for seating. Some of the resting spots were incidental like curbs, retaining walls for gardens or steps of monuments. But, there was also a huge assortment of public spots specifically dedicated to taking a load off. The seats were not haphazardly placed and are carefully designed and arranged. Some seats are creative and artistic, some functional and some designed for groups of people to linger and enjoy each others company. In any case, they have created an inviting, pleasant and convenient streetscape.

Bloor Street West of Yonge Street

Bloor Street West of Yonge Street

By contrast, imagine walking along Bloor or Yonge Street in Toronto. From above, thus must resemble an interpretive dance, as people shuffle around each other, at times having to stop dead to allow others to pass. Now imagine needing to stop and have a seat to look at a map or have a snack. In the streets of Toronto, I find this nearly impossible. Before you say it, YES, it is true, Toronto has many sculptures, plaques and benches too, but perhaps out of fear that people will become too comfortable in the streets or maybe to discourage homeless people from being visible, places to sit are few and far between, unless you happen to be near a park.

A few of these lackluster benches dot Bloor Street. This one is at the cross section of Bloor/Queen's Park, Toronto

A few of these lackluster benches dot Bloor Street. This one is at the cross section of Bloor/Queen’s Park, Toronto

In the downtown core of Toronto, ‘incidental’ seating is typically on private property and is generally not welcome. Private landowners even go to great lengths to police this matter. As participants at this year’s Pride Parade, a security guard directed my son to get off the ledge he was resting on as we waited for the parade to start. City planners and decision makers perpetuate this mindset by making use of ‘hostile architecture’. That is, where there are benches and public seats, they are generally uncomfortable and are designed to discourage prolonged resting. All contributing to Toronto being less people and pedestrian friendly than Mexico City.

I dare you to compare. I would even hazard a guess that the number of available spots to sit on Paseo de Reforma alone exceed the public sidewalk seating options in all of downtown Toronto. This main street of D.F. has managed to integrate function, beauty and design to achieve an exceptional streetscape.

An example of the whimcicle nature of the benches on Paseo de Reforma, Mexico City

An example of the whimsical nature of the benches on Paseo de Reforma, Mexico City -www.tiwy.com

 

So, if you are planning a trip to Mexico City, make sure you save time to leisurely meander along Avenida Reforma. You won’t be disappointed. And, if you are a city planner in Toronto, take note! In this crucial period of redevelopment is an opportunity to make our streets more pedestrian friendly. Who knows, if we can manage to increase our sidewalk width, we may even acquire space for wandering mariachi bands to go with one of the many new burrito eateries that seem to have popped up on every other Toronto street.

 

Pizza in Mexico or Mexican Pizza

pizza in mexico

Mexico City

When my son and I were in Mexico City for the first time, amidst all the delicious cultural food choices, Aidan asked for pizza. I obliged and thus the quest began. While waiting for our order, we wondered if we would be treated to pizza similar to the kind we eat in Canada or would it have Mexican flavouring and thus be Mexican Pizza. To Aidan’s satisfaction, it was definitely Pizza in Mexico.

 

Dining with generous Cubans

Nearly four months later, we travelled to a resort in Santa Lucia, Cuba. In a rather poor area near the resort, where many locals live, a Canadian friend of mine was staying with family friends. The family invited us to a delicious home cooked Cuban meal with multiple courses, turning out to be the best meal we had in Cuba.

 

Horse-drawn carriage ride, Santa Lucia, Cuba

A few days later, we took a ride on a horse-drawn carriage to return to the small village with a few tokens of our appreciation. In our daytime tour of the community, Aidan pointed out a small restaurant among the houses. “Mom, pizza in Cuba, or Cuban pizza?” We convinced the driver to stop while we ran in and ordered from the limited selection.

 

 

Pizza restaurant, Santa Lucia, Cuba

The owner took Aidan to the back of the restaurant to see the pizza being cooked over an open fire, and not in a pizza oven. The dough was more dense and once cooked, it was folded in half to be eaten. Both the ham and cheese had a very distinct taste and there was no tomato sauce. The cheese was strong and not stringy the way we typically have it in Canada. The verdict; without a doubt, Cuban Pizza! Not something Aidan was familiar with or much enjoyed, which meant we had lots to share with our driver.

My Colombian friend tells me that the pizza in his country is simply the best! Since I wasn’t able to sample any during my last trip there, it’s on the list when we tour through South America. Stayed tuned for the results!

The Mommy Dilemma – Revisited

20140712-025039-10239564.jpgAs the Persian poet Rumi wisely wrote, “When setting out on a journey, do not seek advice from someone who has never left home.”

Most often when people talk about the mommy dilemma it is referring to the difficult decision a woman makes between maintaining a career versus devoting herself to child rearing responsibilities. In a similar fashion, as I begin to firm up what my year off will entail, On more than one occasion, I have questioned if this is in fact the best parenting choice.

As an educator, I am constantly reminded of the high value we place on the conventional form of education in North America. We most often see it as downright criminal for students to be absent from school and parents who dare allow relaxed attendance are most certainly neglectful.

In fact, I myself as a school counsellor, often help students who are struggling with attendance issues. In the secondary school setting one of the fundamental keys to success is in showing up. I know this sounds rudimentary, but some youth and families truly need support in this way, and this has become a typical task of counsellors in the system.

Perhaps to my son’s teachers chagrin, he is infrequently absent; admittedly tardy on occasion, but typically present. All testaments to my strong commitment to public education and advocacy of regular school attendance. And also the reason for the nagging voice in the back of my head calling me a “boldface hypocrite”. The same voice that makes me question what months out of my sons Grade 4 school year will do to his progress.

But I’ve got this covered, right? I tell that voice that I’ll dig up the curriculum books and I have enough teacher friends who will surely help me along the way. For a time, I feel settled with my decision when I randomly get an uncomfortable response from someone learning of my plans and the dilemma sets in again.

Some time ago a colleague went on a rant about a student who would be missing one week of school due to a family obligation overseas. A lengthy conversation occurred about this issue and the colleague suggested that we call the parents of the student in question to point out just how detrimental this absence would be. After this meeting I just about packed the idea in. If an esteemed individual, a knowledgeable longtime professional in education claimed that a one week absence was a detriment, certainly several months would be extremely harmful. Convinced that I was making a bad decision, I fretted for many days.

Then I came across an excellent Ted Talk presented by 13-year-old Logan LaPlante. Logan’s talk called “Hack Schooling” is incredibly well done. He points out the importance of embedding health and happiness into our Education. His parents began home schooling him at 9 and in his talk he describes many creative and unconventional learning experiences for helping him maintain his health and happiness. At the time, Logan’s talk was all I needed to inspire me to press on and put an end to my “mommy dilemma”.

My son will get a chance to spend time in nature, see historical sites and wonders of the world. He will experience a variety of cultures, climates and customs and be immersed in a different language. True, we will have to infuse some conventional curriculum into his days, but I truly believe he will be enriched by our adventure. As always, all opinions are welcome but I’ll be more apt to take advice from those who have “left home”.

If you are not among the 5,781,361 people who have already seen Logan’s talk, it find it here: