Sunday, March 11, 2012

Garden of Colima

Click on image to see full panorama.
 COLIMA, Mexico – The state of Colima accounts for less than one-third of one percent of Mexico’s land mass. It would give Rhode Island a superiority complex.

And, yet, in a half-day visit, here’s what I actually saw being cultivated or otherwise raised: coconuts (grove after grove after grove, actually) pineapple, sugar cane, agave, limes, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, bananas, coffee, corn, soybeans, chicken, cattle, pork, all manner of truck produce (tomatoes, garlic, beans, peppers, etc.), and there were dairies, grapes, berries, and mangoes (a half-dozen varieties). I didn’t see but was told of others – rice, for example, and salt – something like a fifth of Mexico’s table salt comes from the shallow seawater lagoons near Manzanillo.

I’m forgetting something. Oh, yeah, the sea and inland fresh water lagoons yield tilapia, trout, tuna, shellfish, sailfish, swordfish, octopus. I didn’t actually see any of the latter, but the evidence was on my plate. One could live comfortably and healthily on stuff originating only in this tiny state.

Manzanillo, where the cruise ships dock, is decidedly ugly, despite the fact that the Sierra Madre Mountains basically end where the sea begins. Manzanillo is a working town, all full of smoke stacks and cranes waiting to load and unload seagoing freighters. There was a time when movie stars lived here part time, but, like Acapulco, Manzanillo has lost out to Cabo San Lucas and Cancun. The lovelier part of Colima state is inland, where mangroves give way to mile after mile of beautiful, stately coconut palms. 

Here’s something: The ground water is so good and plentiful (a mere 12 feet below the surface) that both Coca Cola and Pepsi have put in major bottling plants here. So, you know what you can do with your Montezuma’s Revenge.

East of Manzanillo, stay on the highway to Guadalajara long enough and you arrive in Colima, Colima (like New York, New York), the state capital, where state employees proudly report to work in a brand new adobe-stucco-and-glass complex done up in earth tones. No borrowing faux Romanesque architecture here – the official buildings tell you right away you’re in Mexico.

Yes, yes, Colima has a thriving marijuana crop to feed the ever-burgeoning American market, and there is violence in some of the border areas to the east, south and north. The week before we visited, a bus full of American tourists was hijacked up the coast near Puerto Vallarta to the north and its unfortunate occupants were stripped of their cash and jewelry. We left our wedding rings and most of our cash in the safe of our cabin, just as a precaution.

The state also includes many small, beautiful villages, each with an impeccable town square and the ubiquitous Catholic cathedral, some dating back to the 1800s. Life is clearly slow here, complete with the daily 3 p.m. siesta. Comala, one of these villages, also is the one place I’ve ever seen a mariachi band serenading only fellow Mexicans. One of our favorite memories is a prior visit to nearby Copala, hidden down a narrow, winding road just off the Guadalajara highway.

The only excitement on this day is a spicy tomatillo sauce at a lovely indoor/outdoor restaurant in Suchitlan, which is home to the region’s coffee industry and happens to be a charming cobble-stoned village near where the foothills begin rising toward the local active volcano.  Alas, the volcano did not erupt for our visit, so we had neither a tale of desperados nor a near-miss from lava to report. The fellows in the town square selling crappy souvenirs were polite beyond all understanding.

Fewer and fewer cruise ships are porting in Manzanillo, and Mazatlan, just to north a bit, has been all but abandoned because a few tourists got mugged. If we applied the same standard to the U.S., Detroit, New York, Chicago and Miami would shut down. This is too bad, because Mazatlan has a stretch of long, undeveloped white-sand beach that is part of a coconut collective that would bring nearly any other stretch of ocean-front property on the planet to shame. Should you ever get the chance to visit, ask for directions to Stone Island.

I insert here an editorial comment: Go to Mexico. By all means, avoid Juarez, Nogales and Tijuana (unless you’re making a quick dive for cheap Viagra of questionable quality). It’s our appetite for drugs that has caused most of the violence in Mexico, but that certainly doesn’t mean we should volunteer for the slaughter that kills 50,000 Mexicans a year.

Acapulco is a dying city, Mazatlan is on the ropes when it comes to tourism, and Manzanillo isn’t far behind. Americans would rather go to Cabo San Lucas or Cancun, which we have remade in our image. Rest assured, however, that our fear of the occasional mugging hasn’t stopped us from visiting most American cities of any size, and it shouldn’t stop us from visiting most coastal Mexican towns, either. At least, not yet.

All of this is sanguinity easy for me, writing this, as I am, on the private balcony of a luxury cruise liner 15 miles out to sea, having pulled out from Manzanillo at sunset. That assumes, of course, that the Italian captain of our ship doesn’t steer us into some rocks as we sleep, in which case we’ll soon be on CNN (long before you read this post, dear reader, so if we’re not famous by now, assume we arrived back safely).

Tomorrow, if all goes well, we land in Puerto Vallarta, where we’ll once again leave before dark to avoid whatever alleged mayhem befalls the place when the sun goes down. A few years ago, we left port at PV around midnight, having spent the evening on an island more than an hour’s high-speed boat ride from town. One day, perhaps, such a visit will be possible again.

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