Over 200 balloons rise with the sun, entertaining thousands at famous festival

The four-day-long León, Guanajuato, Hot Air Balloon Festival is on this month

It is still well before dawn and thousands of people have packed into Parque Metropolitano in the central Mexican city of Léon.

If you thought they had been here all night partying, you would be mistaken. Families, youths and adults of all ages crowd the pathways as they make their way to the fairgrounds to watch the launch of hundreds of brightly coloured, uniquely shaped hot air balloons into the morning sky.

The Festival Internacional del Globo, or International Hot Air Balloon Festival, is the largest festival of its kind in Latin America, and one of the most important in the world. Every year in mid-November, around 200 balloons from 15 countries as far away as Spain, Turkey and India gather in the Guanajuato city to entertain up to 400,000 visitors who attend the four-day festival.

It’s not just the traditionally shaped oval balloons appearing at the festival, either. From frogs to owls, Van Gogh to Darth Vader, the creativity of the designs knows no bounds. No matter the shape, the balloons work the same way; by filling the “envelope” portion of the vessel with hot air fueled by the propane burner below, the aircraft becomes lighter than the surrounding environment, allowing it to take off from the ground.

In addition to the hot air balloons, the festival packs together several of Mexico’s top musicians, bands and DJs, a wide variety of foods and beverages, and plenty of entertainment for the entire family.

Creativity abounds in the balloons at León's famous festival.
Creativity abounds in the balloons at the León festival.

Now in its 17th year, the 2019 festival takes place between November 15 and 18. Musical acts set to perform include the popular Mexican band Banda MS, María José and Yahir, and Dutch DJ sensation Martin Garrix.

With the gates opening at 5:00am, the crowds arrive early to grab the best viewing spots around the Presa. Most people head right to the launch area in the northern section of the park, where visitors can also find the main stage, food and beverage stands, and the numerous vendor booths that are set up for the event.

For a more secluded spot to witness the launch, find a location along the seven-kilometer stretch of paths that surround the Presa, and venture down to the edge of the water.

The roar of the propane heaters reverberates on the lake, accompanied by the pleasant chirp of the more than 200 species of birds found in the park. Gradually the sun peaks over the mountaintops, exposing a bright yellow hue to the morning sky. Like being in a Disney movie, the scene unfolding in the air is breathtaking.

Around 8:00am, the balloons make their way back to the landing area, carefully navigating through the crowds of people and other pilots as they descend expertly back to terra firma. The skill and expertise of the pilots are incredible, as they delicately touch down to bring their morning journey to an end.

Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh at a previous festival in Guanajuato.
Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh at a previous festival in Guanajuato.

Following the morning show, spectators can get up close and personal with the balloons, chat with the pilots and wander the grounds. The opening acts of music start to play, as the daily activities for the whole family continue.

As the balloons deflate, the energy in the crowd wanes. The spectators spread out and relax while waiting for the main event of each evening.

While the last light of day fades away, the intense blaze of the propane-fired flames replaces the golden glow of the setting sun, and hot air envelopes the balloons once again. This time, however, the balloons stay grounded, and a dazzling show of light and sound takes place as the giant vessels work together in a coordinated manner to entertain the audience.

Throngs of onlookers watch in amazement as the power of the burners contrasts against the blackened sky.

If you go: camping is available on site to make your early mornings a little easier. From downtown Léon, it takes about 30 minutes by car, taxi or Uber or one hour by transit to reach the festival grounds.

Although there are plenty of accommodations in Léon, it is recommended to book early as hotels book up quickly for the festival.

While in Léon, be sure to check out the Zona Piel, where you can browse and shop for a wide selection of locally made leather goods, for which Léon is famous.

Mark Locki is a Canadian writer and a frequent contributor to Mexico News Daily.

Venture south of Puerto Vallarta for small inlets, quaint towns and beautiful beaches

Take a boat from Boca de Tomatlán to Yelapa and get off the beaten track

When director John Huston came to film The Night of the Iguana in 1963, Puerto Vallarta was just a sleepy little fishing village. A little Hollywood glamour, provided by the famous cast and scandalous and media-drenched affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and this little pueblo suddenly became an international beach hideaway for starlets and regular folks alike.

Palm-lined beaches, turquoise waters, brown sugar sand and a sultry year-round climate — there’s a lot to love in Puerto Vallarta.

Unbeknownst to a lot of travelers that beach-hop north – to the beaches of Punta Mita, Sayulita and San Francisco – Puerto Vallarta’s southern shores are dotted with delicious little inlets and a handful of quaint towns that boast some of the coast’s most beautiful beaches. It takes a little effort to get to these off-the-beaten track expanses of sand, but I think you’ll find it worth it once you arrive.

From Boca de Tomatlán to Yelapa

The road south out of central Puerto Vallarta is a jungle-lined trek past luxury hotels, public beach accesses and a half-dozen, half-built dream houses. Despite the constant construction, a dense fog of humidity and heat permeates everything, slowing even the most ambitious projects and most energetic tourists.

Along this road you’ll pass the now-closed Night of the Iguana hotel, and several exclusive housing developments in pre-sale before you reach the highway entrance to Boca de Tomatlán, a small village about 30 minutes down the coast. Whether you go by bus or by cab, it’s easy to find the town’s boat dock as you enter Boca’s small handful of streets. This is one of the bigger towns along this stretch of coast and the take-off point for the boat that takes you down the shoreline.

You’ll see handfuls of locals and Mexican tourists waiting for the next water taxi to set out. Boats to Yelapa leave every hour on the hour starting at 8:00am with an additional final boat at 6:30pm. Sounds prompt, but everything here is variable, so arrive with sunscreen and patience. The Yelapa taxi will drop you off at any of the beaches between Boca and Yelapa (about a 40-minute ride) but you have to ask the boat’s captain in advance.

Alternatively you can ask around to see which boats are going to the specific beach you want and you can often find someone leaving sooner and getting you there faster. There is a single walking path that will take you overland to both Animas beach and Quixmo beach but it is a long and hot walk. The boats are infinitely faster and more enjoyable. In the case of the water taxi you pay when you get off; a private boat ride requires you to set a price in advance.

I suggest riding the entire way to Yelapa to take a look at the beaches as you decide what suits your fancy. There is a first tiny, rocky-edged beach called Madagascar as you pass a palapa “house” on the edge of a cliff heading out from Boca. There is nothing here as far as amenities and not much shade, but it is an isolated pinpoint of a beach to drop anchor and swim for a bit.

This a popular beach for tourists because there are a couple of dozen restaurants that sit between the sand and the jungle backdrop. The water is nice but not as crystal clear and gorgeous blue as some of the others.

Morning in Yelapa.
Morning in Yelapa.

The next big beach is Quimixto, which you will recognize by the terracotta-roofed house that sits to one edge, almost in the water. This is a splendid beach for an afternoon, and many locals told me it was their favorite. There are a handful of restaurants and hotels but much fewer than at Animas.

Next is Caletas, which is the home to the Ritmo de Noches show put on by Vallarta Adventures at night. This was also the once home of director John Huston and the beach is absolutely adorable, even though there are just a few hotels and no restaurants open to the public. Majahuitas beach (the next down) is similar in that there are a few hotels but not much with open arms to the public. Still the beach is delicious and small.

Yelapa is next up, with an ample beach to one side of the town, home to about 1,500 people. Several restaurants, including the most famous, Fanny’s, sit center-stage on the beach and boats bob in the water near the town dock as many of the locals you see working in this area either live here or in Boca. Yelapa is a nice town to make your base if you’re comfortable depending on water taxis for transportation or paying exorbitant rates for private boats (someone quoted me US $70 an hour for a private ride).

The town has some nice hotels including Hotel Lagunita, Casa Pericos and others that sit along the edges of Yelapa’s tiny bay. The rock outcropping to the south end of the bay down the little coast to Playa Isabella has nice snorkeling.

Yelapa to Chimo

Twice daily from Yelapa runs a taxi that heads farther south down the coast to Chimo beach, about 30 minutes away. Again, beware of trusting timetables too much and always be early and prepare to wait. Catch the morning taxi to head to La Manzanilla, a minuscule beach that glitters like a jewel just 10 minutes down the coast by boat. There’s nothing there to distract from the beauty of the crystal-clear water but a shady palapa for picnics.

Manzanilla glitters like a jewel.
Manzanilla glitters like a jewel.

From Manzanilla you can walk south over the rocks (watch out for iguanas!) to the next beach ingeniously called Playa del Medio, or beach in the middle. This is another gorgeous little gem, and quiet, unless there is a rowdy yacht parked just off the coast like the day I was there.

From Playa del Medio you can walk along a cement path to Pizota, a small fishing village at the farthest end of this strip of beaches. Pizota has that same lovely water, but the beach is scattered with locals’ kayaks and canoes and the water with taxis and fishing boats. Most days you will have a little audience if you want to swim there as the local boat operators hang out in the shade near the edge of the beach, gabbing and drinking beers.

Pizota is a regular stop on the Chimo taxi’s route, but be sure to ask the taxi captain and not the locals what time they will be coming through – answers varied wildly and I ended up missing it altogether. There is a small convenience store on the edge of beach with some surly women running it – a fine place if you need to get a beer or water or snacks.

Inland and then out again

Too far to go by water (unless you have your own boat) there are a handful of places farther south, what is commonly called Costa Alegre, that I think you should know about.

Mayto beach is absolutely divine. The water makes a deep drop just past the sand-dune style coast, but while it looked rough, the day I went the waves were a joy. A single hotel sits on the beach, the Mayto Hotel (what else?), and they serve cheap beer and delicious food in an exclusive setting. This beach is starting to be on people’s lips, but it’s still so far out there (about an hour from the closest town of Tuito) that it’s yet to be overrun with tourists.

Playa del Medio is another gorgeous gem.
Playa del Medio is another gorgeous gem.

The day I went (albeit during the low season) there were only about six other people (and most of those eating at the hotel). The beach stretches lazily around a 12-kilometer bay that the staff of the Mayto says can have rougher waves in the winter season. There is no shade here so bring that umbrella or prepare to fry. There is a small tortoise refuge that releases turtles in the evening if you stick around. You can camp at the tortoise refuge for about $8 a person a night.

Once you make it out to Mayto you can hop down the coast for a few other hidden beaches. The Playa del Amor (love beach) is just a five-minute drive and another five minutes will take you to Tehu, a small fishing village famed for their oysters and ancient lighthouse. Talk to Juan Pablo at the XXX, he speaks perfect English after living in Los Angeles most of his life and can give you all kinds of tips on where to hike and which beaches he loves.

His suggestion, which I didn’t have time to follow, was Playa Corrales, about an hour north, where he said the bay is so small and intimate it’s like floating in a Jacuzzi. Sitting at Juan Pablo’s place you can see the beaches of Villa del Mar across the bay. Supposedly the waves are rough because of their location but you should definitely decide for yourself.

For a stop on the way back to Puerto Vallarta, the tiny town of El Tuito is growing in popularity. It is famed for its dairy products so make sure to order the jocoque or queso fresco from a local restaurant. Another lovely side trip? The Vallarta Botanical Gardens on that same road, a breathtaking collection of local flora in the midst of the dry, tropical forest.

While travel times and complications can sometimes feel overwhelming, I promise you any of these hidden beach that you make the effort to visit will reward you with a delicious swim and an equally delicious day.

Lydia Carey is a freelance writer based in Mexico City and a frequent contributor to Mexico News Daily.

Record number of counterfeit banknotes found despite new security

The Bank of México removed more than 80,000 fake 500-peso bills from circulation

A record number of counterfeit 500-peso banknotes was detected in the first half of the year despite the release in 2018 of a new bill with enhanced security features.

The central bank reported that 80,891 fake 500-peso notes were removed from circulation between January and June.

It is the highest number of counterfeit notes of any denomination that have been detected in a six-month period since 2015. The figure exceeds the total number of fake 500-peso notes that were withdrawn from circulation in the entirety of each of the past four years.

According to the Bank of México, 156,278 bogus banknotes were removed from circulation in the first half of 2019. The total value of the phony bills was 54 million pesos (US $2.8 million).

The fake 500-peso bills had a face value of 40.4 million pesos, or 75% of the total, and accounted for 52% of all notes withdrawn from circulation.

Among the counterfeit cash detected were fake versions of all three 500-peso notes: the inaugural bill featuring army general Ignacio Zaragoza, that with the countenances of renowned Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera – which first appeared in 2010 – and the new blue-colored note featuring former president Benito Juárez on one side and a gray whale on the other.

Released on August 27, 2018, the most recent 500-peso banknote features a range of security features including fluorescent ink, a dynamic thread, embossing perceptible by touch, a watermark and a multicolor denomination.

However, it wasn’t long before the first counterfeit versions of the note were detected.

In the first half of 2019, almost 57,000 counterfeit bills that were removed from circulation – 35% of the total – were detected in Mexico City.

Almost 17,000 fake notes were detected in México state, 9,442 were discovered in Jalisco and more than 7,000 were found in each of Puebla and Nuevo León.

Bank of México reports indicate that forged banknotes are most commonly produced using inkjet or laser printers.

Source: Milenio (sp) 

Mexico Travel Dos and Don’ts

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Don’t Overpack

You can leave expensive jewelry and other valuables behind, and try to pack light—it makes things much easier at the airport and getting to your accommodations once you’ve reached your destination. Check out the weather in Mexico for a general idea on what you can expect for the time of year you’re visiting, and do a search to see what weather you can expect, so you bring the appropriate clothing.

SEE ALL HERE

SHOULD YOU TIP AT AN ALL-INCLUSIVE HOLIDAY RESORT?

‘In America the law colludes with the business model of restaurateurs who find it much easier to leave the tiresome business of paying staff to customers’

Simon CalderTravel Correspondent  

When in Mexico, do as the North Americans do. That’s the advice on tipping in all-inclusive resorts on the Riviera Maya from “Timbuktu Timmy”, who hands over a dollar for each all-inclusive drink. “Not because I necessarily want to or think it’s deserved,” he says, “but just to get served, as otherwise you get ignored whilst all the Americans and Canadians are served around you.”

I’m not a fan of all-inclusive resorts. They seem to me to deprive holidaymakers of one of the joys of travel: discovering great local places to eat and drink. And while “AI” resorts generate plenty of jobs, they deplete the ability of locally run enterprises to flourish by catering for visitors.

But British holidaymakers are keener than ever to cling to the umbilical of unlimited burgers and booze. According to Abta, the travel association: “Almost a quarter of people (23 per cent) are thinking of taking an all-inclusive holiday in 2018.” That’s up from 18 per cent two years ago. At that rate, all-inclusives will be in the majority within six years.

One of those AI newcomers asked me: “What is the correct tipping etiquette in an all-inclusive hotel in Mexico?” As it is not a specialist subject, I sought opinions on social media.

Melissa Smith says: “In AI resorts we tip for good, friendly service throughout the holiday – this helps a lot if it’s a particularly busy resort – and at the end of our stay.”

North of the Rio Grande, though, things get more serious. At Walt Disney World, warns Stewart Armstrong: “On the ‘free’ dining plan you’re still meant to tip 18-20 per cent on what would be the original value of the meal.”

See More Here

 

Is Mexico safe? Experts say yes, despite isolated attacks on tourists

Even with recent news of violent attacks against tourists in parts of Mexico, some travel experts say Canadians shouldn’t dismiss an entire country due to some events.

“Those travel warnings are broad in a sense and not for all of Mexico,” says travel expert Barry Choi of Toronto. These incidents are very, very isolated and it doesn’t make sense to block off an entire country.”

READ MORE: Alberta man carjacked, abducted in Mexico offers harrowing warning for Canadians

Travel advisories

“People are afraid when they hear about violence and crime, but think about how many people travel there and how safe people are. It’s just like people who are scared to fly,” he tells Global News.

Last week, Canada issued a travel warning for Playa del Carmen after a ferry explosion, cautioning Canadians to avoid tour ferries and travelling to the region until further notice.

READ MORE: ‘I will never go to Mexico again’: Ontario man claims he was attacked, robbed in Playa Del Carmen

According to the government’s latest advisory board, Canadians should exercise a high degree of caution in some parts of the country due to crime, protests and occasional illegal roadblocks, as well as an ongoing warning for Playa del Carmen.

The government is warning against non-essential travel to Mexico’s Northern and Western states due to the high levels of violence and organized crime.

Recent headlines

Since the news of a Calgary man dying in a Mexican hospital in February and the ferry explosion later that month, there have been several incidents involving Canadian tourists.

Recently, an Ontario man claimed he was attacked, robbed and left for dead in Playa Del Carmen after hopping into a cab to go back to his hotel at night. And on Thursday, an Edmonton man, who has been an on-and-off tourist to the country for 50 years, said he was carjacked and abducted.

Peter Grosser, a travel agent of Escapism Travel, based in Burlington Ont., recently came back from Mexico and says he never felt unsafe there.

“I’ve been travelling to Mexico two to three times a year for 25 years,” he tells Global News. “I am very cautious about safety and I always found it safe enough to take my family.”

Like Choi, Grosser says when we hear about acts of violence, we have to consider how often it happens and where.

“It’s an over-generalization. [People] take one incident from one part of the country and don’t fully understand the geography of Mexico and how large the country is,” he says. “No country is completely 100 per cent safe. You need to take that into consideration.”

He says lately, he does have people come into his business and ask for sunny beaches or all-inclusive resorts, but steer clear from Mexico due to the news.

“They have this predetermined decision and they don’t feel comfortable,” he says, adding as an agent, it is his job to ensure his customers feel safe wherever they go.

And although, according to his research, most resorts in Mexico continue to be fully booked and agents in his network don’t see trends in price reductions or discounts for travel, Grosser says it’s unfair to avoid hot spots that don’t have any warnings just because of some incidences in other parts of the country.

He says while the local hotel industry in Mexico is also aware of the fear, the industry will do anything to keep their tourist dollars coming in — tourism continues to be one of country’s largest markets.

“It’s a matter of using common sense and not putting yourself into situations [where] you become vulnerable,” he continues. “Sometimes when we’re on vacation we let our guard down a little bit and do things we would never do here, not clearly thinking of what we’re doing. There is no problem going out and experiencing the culture, nightlife or restaurants, but just be vigilant and use common sense.”

Safety while travelling

Choi says there are general rules all tourists should follow if they end up travelling to Mexico or other countries with isolated events.

“You always gotta think about your personal safety,” he says. “I would never flag down a random cab in certain countries, the locals will tell you the same thing. If you need a cab, book it through your hotel or through a local cab company.”

READ MORE: Canada issues travel warning for Playa del Carmen, Mexico after ferry explosion

And although he doesn’t discourage tourists from using local buses or cabs, always talk to hotel management first. You can also do research on your own before you get there.

For excursions or activities, you can either book at the hotel or through a local company. While local vendors tend to be cheaper, Choi suggests doing the research online beforehand for the best recommendations.

“At the same time you don’t want to make yourself look like a target, don’t flash your money.”

arti.patel@globalnews.ca

Traveling Safely in Mexico

by Kitty Bean Yancey

Source

Ten tips to make your vacation a fiesta vs. a fiasco

En español | The image of Mexico as a dangerous country with a drug cartel on every corner is far from the truth. The government puts a priority on making tourist areas safe. Still, it’s never a bad idea to take a few precautions — before you leave and while you’re traveling — to minimize the chances of something going wrong.

1. Choose your destination carefully

Drug runners, carjackers and kidnappers are active in a number of areas, which caused a spike in 2016 homicides and prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a travel warning for certain locales. (Get the latest updates at travel.state.gov.) When it comes to personal security, there’s a world of difference between, say, Acapulco (which U.S. government employees may now visit only on official business) and Cancun’s well-secured hotel zone. Typically, areas such as the Riviera Maya south of Cancun — as well as inland cities popular with Americans, including San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and San Cristóbal de las Casas — are considered low risk. The tourist areas of Cabo San Lucas in Baja California also belong in this category.

2. If you’re a trepidatious traveler, consider an all-inclusive resort or a cruise

In addition to having a single fee cover all your meals, most alcoholic beverages and most activities, all-inclusives typically allow only guests and employees inside a gated area. And cruise ships generally call at well-guarded ports.

3. Think twice about renting a car

Driving can be risky in Mexico. It’s possible to be stopped by police demanding bribes, slangily called mordidas (Spanish for “bites”). If that happens and you don’t want to pay, act as if you don’t understand. Alternatively, politely ask to follow the officers to the police station. Chances are, they’ll move on to another victim. The State Department strongly recommends buying auto insurance in Mexico that includes bail. If you’re involved in a serious car accident, both drivers can be detained — and even jailed — until fault is determined. Also, most experts advise against driving at night, given the greater chance of robbery, carjacking or hitting an animal (or even a person) on a dark road.

4. Monitor what you eat and drink

Whether it’s the mild inconvenience of turista (traveler’s diarrhea) or a more serious case of food poisoning, no one wants to spend their vacation in the bathroom. To head this off, drink only water that you know has been filtered or purified. Water in a bottle with an unbroken seal is safest.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises eating food that is cooked and served hot. That means you should avoid salads or uncooked vegetables, which could have been rinsed in contaminated water or prepared by someone who didn’t properly wash their hands. It’s not a bad idea to stick to fruit you peel (such as bananas). Avoid ice unless you’re sure it was made from filtered water. Wash your hands often, or pack some hand sanitizer.

To stave off the effects of contaminated food or drink, the CDC advises Mexico travelers to get a hepatitis A vaccine. It also suggests a typhoid vaccine, especially for adventurous eaters and those traveling to small cities or rural areas. Bring an over-the-counter antidiarrheal medicine. Savvy travelers should also carry an antibiotic, such as Cipro, to treat a debilitating bacterial attack. And if you do get sick, take care to stay hydrated in order to avoid hospitalization and possible IV treatment.

5. Bring more cash than you think you’ll need

Should you require emergency medical attention, it’s not unusual for a doctor or a hospital to demand payment in cash. The peso is the official currency, but U.S. dollars are often accepted.

6. Leave the bling at home

Flaunting costly watches and jewelry is an invitation to be relieved of them.

7. Be cautious of cabbies

Try to use only taxis that are official. If in doubt, ask a front desk staffer at your hotel to call a cab or have a restaurant call one. Before you get in the vehicle, ask how much the trip will cost; again, hotel and restaurant staffers should be able to give you an estimate. Cabs aren’t always metered, so if a quoted fare strikes you as unreasonable, bargaining is worth a try.

8. Don’t leave valuables in your hotel room

This is a good rule of thumb no matter where you travel, but with poverty rife in Mexico, iPads, diamond earrings and pricey headphones make tempting targets. And, of course, always stash your passport in your hotel’s safe (room or front desk).

9. Pack a copy of your passport and credit cards

Keep tabs on credit- and debit-card transactions; fraudulent charges or withdrawals can be a problem, the State Department reports. Learn the location of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate beforehand in the event that you need help.

10. Don’t let tequila drown your judgment

Keep your wits about you. Never accept a drink from a stranger, and be wary of unsolicited attempts to befriend you. That said, be reassured that the overwhelming majority of Mexicans are friendly and hospitable to Americans — even in the wake of recent friction between the two governments. “Everyone we’ve encountered has been welcoming,” says Wisconsin native Laura Bly, who lives part of the year in San Miguel de Allende. So clap in time with every mariachi band — and enjoy your stay.

Travel writer Kitty Bean Yancey has been visiting Mexico for three decades.

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