A travel guide for the intellectually curious, Tony Burton’s Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury provides an insider’s entry to this extraordinary region of Mexico. The book, published by Sombrero Press and now in its fourth edition is less about logistics and instead focuses on the myriad of reasons–historical, ecological, cultural, and/or scenic–that make each place featured in this well-written and well-researched book both special and worth visiting.
Burton, an award-winning travel writer, educator, and ecotourism specialist, who was born in the United Kingdom and has an M.A. in geography from the University of Cambridge and a teaching qualification from the University of London, moved to Mexico in 1979 and subsequently was granted Mexican citizenship, looks for the road less traveled.
And in this book, he encourages us to explore the smaller, lesser known community with their many local customs, seasonal celebrations, sites, and events, places that, in his words, “offer a glimpse of the Mexico behind the mask; they are places where Mexico has retained her ancient culture and her ancient traditions.”
Providing a mix of interests, Burton opens the doors, so to speak, to such historical sites as Zacatecas, Lagos de Moreno and San Blas; artistic colonies like Ajijic; and lakeside communities including Chapala and Pátzcuaro.
Besides that there are ecological wonders, such as Manantlán, the monarch butterflies, the old mining towns of Angangueo and Bolaños, coastal communities like Barra de Navidad and Puerto Vallarta, Angahuan and other Indian villages, and a host of others. He delves into Pueblos Mágicos, designated as Magic Towns by the federal government in recognition of their cultural, historical, and/or ecological significance, their nearness to major cities, and the facilities they offer visitors.
This is a travel guide but of the most intimate kind. We drive with Burton along the lovely road to Tamazula, settled from pre-Columbian times, conquered by the Spanish in 1524, and a vital silver mining town and hacienda center until the mines were worked out by the end of the 18th century. As for its name, well, interestingly enough, it translates to “place of frogs.”
Where to stay when there? Burton recommends Hotel Real de la Loma with its spacious and comfortable rooms and pool and two person tubs in the room filled from a hot-water spring at the foot of a hill. The views from the hotel are of the Tamazula River and its valley made green with sugar-cane. A good time to go for many is during the two-week Our Lady of Sagrario festival.
We learn that Mazamitla is “one of the prettiest towns in all Jalisco. It is a graceful, charming town of cobblestone streets, adobe walls, wooden balconies, old doorways and red-tile roofs, one of Mexico’s Magic Towns. Among its many attractions are the fresh air and scenic beauty of the surrounding countryside, some fine restaurants specializing in Mexican food, and the chance to shop for fresh cream, cheese, and home-made preserves. As befits a mountain town, its inhabitants also make lovely woolen sweaters and ponchos, for sale in the local shops.”
Burton, who has lived in Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Jocotepec, has traveled widely, leading educational excursions and specialist ecological tourism groups to both well-known areas such as the Yucatán and Copper Canyon as well as little-known ones like Manantlán and Tingambato. At the former, at the Manantlán Biosphere Reserve visitors can experience the astonishing diversity of plant and animal life found in a cloud forest, one of the rarest types of vegetation anywhere in the world. In the latter, located near the major archaeological site of Tinganio, is one of the few sites in Western Mexico where there are genuine pyramids.
Larger than the previous editions there are dozens of new destinations and each chapter contains new material, updated travel directions, and redrawn maps.
Divided into parts, one and two are within three hours of driving time from either Guadalajara (Mexico’s second city) or nearby Lake Chapala, a popular retirement center for Americans and Canadians making them perfect for day trippers.
Parts 4 to 9 are longer journeys such as the trip to Jungapeo, where director John Huston filmed scenes from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre starring Humphrey Bogart. Here, in this small village, you can stay at Agua Blanca Canyon Resort which dates back to the 1940s. According to Burton, it is a charming spa-hotel with just 20 rooms arranged in the Purépecha Indian style around three sides of the greenest lawn in Mexico. Its pools and lawns overlook the deeply carved valley of the River Tuxpan.
“Many butterfly visitors, after the cool and dusty atmosphere in the fir forests want nothing more than a long soak in a warm tub and this is the ideal place,” he writes.
And, of course, there are the Monarch butterflies. Every winter, some one hundred million monarch butterflies fly into Mexico from the U.S. and Canada. On arrival they congregate in a dozen localities high in the temperate pine and fir forests of the state of Michoacán.
For me, a definite-not-to-be-missed is Zitácuaro, where my culinary hero Diana Kennedy lived. Famous for her cookbooks on Mexican cuisine, she made her home outside of Zitácuaro. And here again, is how deep Burton drills down into his destinations. Kennedy lived near the Rancho San Cayetano, a small, exclusive hotel on the road towards Huetamo and the Del Bosque reservoir.
“The San Cayetano’s charm lies not only in its comfortable rooms but also in its first rate cuisine,” he writes, asking if there could be a better recommendation for the food served there than the fact that Diana Kennedy regularly brought friends to dine in the hotel?
For aficionados of Mexican food, there are several outstanding restaurants to put on the list of where to go.
“Neither of my two favorites is well known to tourists, hence their inclusion here,” writes Burton. “Next to the gas station in Pátzcuaro, where the highway from Morelia and Quiroga enters the town, is the Camino Real restaurant where Sopa Tarasca, a local specialty which is a bean-based version of tortilla soup, has to be tasted to be believed.
Whatever you choose in this unpretentious restaurant, you will not be disappointed,” he writes. “The Camino Real has a sister restaurant, the Real del Cobre, in Santa Clara del Cobre.
My other favorite is an hour’s drive away, in the unpretentious town of Tacámbaro. Near the entrance to the town is the Hotel-Restaurant El Molino (The Mill), housed in a museum-piece nineteenth century flour mill, complete with grinding wheels. Simply and artistically decorated and furnished, this hotel-restaurant’s fixed-price comida features slightly finer cuisine than that of the Camino Real, with more subtle sauces and a more varied menu.”
Whether your interests are in art, architecture and/or archaeology; fiestas and folklore; unusual sights and natural wonders, or in Indian villages and indigenous handicrafts, Burton’s book is your guide to Western Mexico’s many hidden treasures.
Burton, author of many books about Mexico including If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants; Lake Chapala: A Postcard History; and Mexican Kaleidoscope: Myths, mysteries and mystique, is currently editor-in-chief of MexConnect, Mexico’s top English-language online magazine. He says the inspiration for writing this book came about with the “realization that it was impossible for me to personally introduce readers to many of the places and things I consider most rewarding to find and appreciate. Of the truly spectacular, I have yet to find anyone who ever forgets the magic of visiting the Monarch Butterflies in one of their overwintering sites. By sheer good fortune, I happened upon them the first time in 1980, several years before their locations became widely known or any organized tourist excursions to them had begun.”
Burton encourages opening up to new places and experiences.
“With an open mind ‘gems’ can be found everywhere in Western Mexico,” says Burton. “My greatest hope is that my book encourages readers to explore and find their own hidden gems.”
Pati Jinich’s Sopa Tarasca
- ½ of a medium onion
- 1 Cubanelle or Anaheim pepper stemmed, seeded chopped
- ⅓ cup chopped red bell pepper
- ⅓ cup roughly chopped cilantro
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled
- 3 oz. lime juice, freshly squeezed
- 2 oz. orange juice, freshly squeezed
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. ground coriander
- ½ tsp. turmeric
- ½ tsp. dried oregano
- kosher salt, to taste
- black pepper to taste
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1 ½ lbs. flank steak
- 2 tbsp. butter
- 2 tbsp. minced garlic
- 2 large green plantains
- canola oil for frying
- 8 slices of American cheese
- 8 slices of ripe red tomato
- Shredded head lettuce
- Add the first 13 ingredients to a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth. With the motor running slowly drizzle in the oil.
- Put steak in a glass baking dish or large Ziplock bag. Pour marinade over steak. Marinate refrigerated for at least 2 hours or overnight.
- When ready to grill, build a hot hardwood charcoal fire or preheat gas grill. Remove steak from marinade, removing excess. Grill over high heat for about 5 minutes per side for medium rare. Remove and let rest for 5-10 minutes.
- Meanwhile make tostones. Heat about an inch of oil in a large skillet to 350°F.
- Cut the ends off plantains. Cut the peel along a seam lengthwise then peel starting at the cut. Cut plantains in half crosswise and then again lengthwise so there are eight equal pieces.
- Fry plantains for about 4 minutes until cooked through, remove to paper towels.
- Place a plantain piece on a cutting board covered with waxed paper. Fold paper over the plantain and smash flat with another cutting board or heavy skillet. Flatten all eight pieces.
- Return plantains to hot oil and fry until crisp, about another 4 minutes. Remove to paper towels, season with salt.
- Make garlic butter by melting 2 tbsp. butter, then stirring in 2 tbsp. minced garlic. Garlic is meant to be raw.
- Thinly slice flank steak on a bias, against the grain.
- Spread 4 tostones generously with mayonnaise. Layer on sliced steak. Top each with 2 slices of cheese, two slices of tomato and shredded lettuce. Top each sandwich with remaining tostones and spoon a little garlic butter over the top.
- Serve immediately.
- From patijinich.com