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Mexico Travel: The Toluca Excursion
( Originally Published 1939 - Presented For Historical Purpose )
THIS EXCURSION IS NOT SO MUCH A SIGHTSEEING TRIP AS IT is a buying orgy. In Toluca itself there is only one great sight, the market that is held on Fridays, which is probably one of the best stocked and surely the most picturesque market in all Mexico.
Toluca can be reached by train, but automobile is preferable. You can either hire a private car or take advantage of one of the organized excursions operated by a tourist company.
The road out from Mexico City offers interesting scenery all along the way. Just outside Mexico City you can visit the DESIERTO DE LOS LEONES, or in English, the Desert of the Lions. This is an old Carmelite retreat, situated in a beautiful bit of rugged country, and a favorite spat for excursions from Mexico City, particularly on Sundays. It can be reached from Mexico City via the trolley cars marked "La Venta."
This Carmelite retreat, built in 1606, is at present in a state of ruins, but you can go through and see the cloisters, the gardens, and the underground labyrinth. The dark cells to which the monks were committed as a form of punishment, still stand. Nearby on the hills are little huts, once inhabited by either hermits or monks who wished more complete seclusion than they could find in the main retreat itself. The retreat is an interesting sight, but don't miss the surrounding country in your enthusiasm over it. It is so beautiful that it is difficult to realize that it is merely an incident in an excursion.
After passing the highest point on the road at Las Cruces, 3,158 meters over the sea, you descend through pine forests of great beauty to the valley below. At kilometer 23, near the highest spot in the road, a monument marks the spot where in the early revolutions the insurgents defeated the Spaniards. Unfortunately, they failed to follow up their victory, and consequently, although they won the battle, they lost the war.
You will get wonderful views of the valley of Toluca as you descend the slope. Be sure to notice the beautiful old bridge at kilometer 42.
Just before reaching Toluca, you will enter the town of LERMA arid cross the LERMA RIVER, the longest river in the Republic. It rises nearby, flows to Lake Chapala near Guadalajara, changes its name when it leaves the lake at the other end, and is called the Santiago until it flows into the Pacific 'Ocean near San Blas.
From the valley near Lerma you will get your finest views of the NEVADO DE TOLUCA, also called the "Volcano of Toluca," and in the old days known as "Xinantecatl," or in English, the "Naked Man." The mountain is 15,168 feet high. Not a startling height for a Mexican mountain, but it rises so sharply from the plain that it appears to be higher than it actually is. An automobile road leads from Toluca to the base of the peak, and it is quite possible to make an excursion up to the crater, where there is a lake with a curious whirlpool. However, you should not, under any circumstances, make this particular excursion without advance arrangements.
You would probably enjoy a visit to the shrine and sanctuary of EL SENOR DE CHALMA, near the town of that name. However, the road to it is poor, and in wet weather practically impassable. You would have to be a very enthusiastic sightseer to devote the time necessary to get to it.
The Road to Toluca
TOLUCA is interesting on Fridays, which is market day, but at no other time. There really is almost nothing to see in town. The Franciscan parish church of the Third Order has a handsome facade, but it is not worth while going in to see the interior-you can see far finer ones elsewhere. The same holds true for the church of El Carmen near the market.
The Toluca market is unique. Here you can buy sarapes, pottery, baskets, needlework, toys, and almost every conceivable type of merchandise. Some of the articles are beautiful and rare; others are cheap, machinemade goods.
After the buying spree in the market, you will realize that you have been standing for hours. A sip of the local liquor, known as moscos, will revive you wonderfully. Moscos is made in four grades: one (for children), two (for young ladies), three (for old ladies), and four (for men). I warn you not to make the mistake of thinking that you can begin with the first grade and by degrees arrive at the fourth. If you wish to last for the trip back to Mexico City, you had better begin with grade oneand stop there!
The Arts and Crafts Villages
A rather special excursion, and one which I enjoy much more than the excursion to the Toluca market, is a trip to the arts and crafts villages, where the natives make the products offered for sale in the Toluca market. This trip cannot be made alone. Although the Indians are extremely cordial to friends, they are rather suspicious of strangers, and without a guide you will find it impossible to enter their homes and observe them at work. Mr. Aguirre of Aguirre's Guest Tours has spent many years among the Indians of these villages, and to the best of my knowledge, his organization is the only one which conducts an excursion to their homes, or, at any rate, which is equipped through long acquaintance with these people to make the trip successfully.
It is a slow trip, requiring an entire day, with never a dull moment. If you wish to get the most out of this excursion, take along a bag of cheap candy to give to the children en route. They will appreciate it far more than money, and so will their parents, for you must remember that you are not "going slumming." You are going to visit some extremely self-respecting craftsmen, who take deep pride in their handiwork, which they have developed to the point of an art.
You start this excursion as though you were going to Toluca, turning off the main road to the village of ACOYOACAC, which lies in a fertile valley of great beauty. The village is reached by an amazing old cobblestone road, apparently built just after the Conquest and rarely repaired since. There is a simple but impressive church here, built in 175o and restored in about 1 g 1 o, worth admiring from the outside, but hardly worth a visit in side. This is one of the villages where they make chiefly HOMESPUN WOOLENS. Here you can purchase beautiful cloths and sarapes at ridiculously low prices. They also make lovely linen tablecloths and dresses, with designs done by drawn work. On the woolen scarfs and cloaks the embroidery generally takes the form of a sort of cross-stitch.
At GUADALUPITA lives one of the master craftsmen of Mexico. His name is Perez, but this is hardly an adequate identification, for the village seems to be populated by some three or four hundred Indians named Perez. The village is reached by a so-called "road" which seems to be a river bed in the rainy season and which must be practically impassable for an automobile then. In the workshops of the craftsmen here, you will see few articles on display, except the things on which they happen to be engaged at the moment. Most of the work is made to order.
The master craftsman, in common with the other craftsmen (most of whom are related to him), shears his own sheep and then cards his own wool. He dyes the wool in natural colors with pure vegetable dyes which do not fade or run. He spins his own yarn on his own wheel and weaves his own sarapes on his own hand loom. Although the craftsmen here have little to show you except the work on which they happen to be engaged, you can order sarapes from them and be confident that some time or other, when they get around to it, you will get them. However, they are so beautiful that they are de cidedly worth waiting a month or two to get. I bought one about 3 feet by 6 feet of pure wool to use as a rug, made according to designs that I had selected from those which Perez normally uses, and the total cost was less than $4.
While you are in Guadalupita, go down to the shore of the stream and see the tiny church with its equally tiny roofed-over shrine in the center of the arch on the tiny bridge. It is a lovely little spot, and if you are lucky, you may see the BROOM MAKERS plying their trade on the rocks beside the stream.
At TIANGUISTANCO there is an interesting market every Tuesday. Although it cannot compare with Toluca in size, it is equally as exciting. Frequently you will see the Indians engaging in actual barter without the exchange of any money at all. This is an excellent place to buy sarapes in which the natural colors of the wool predominate, and particularly POTTERY. The simple flat pottery made by hand without the use of a potter's wheel is particularly good, and you could not get a finer tray or ornament for a summer cottage than one of the big clay plates designed for the cooking of tortillas. Of course, along with it, you will find extremely bad pottery. Here I was very much amused by some pottery marked with all kinds of sayings, like "Greetings to Juan," and "Adios, Carmelita."
All through the market place, beside the native products, you will find machine-made products which our five-and-ten stores would not carry, and which are so cheap that they are gradually cutting into the native handicraft trade.
Be sure to walk through the food section and see the amazing shapes in which they make their breads. The loaves are baked in the shape of animals, men, fishes, and stars. The most popular design seemed to be something about the shape of a flounder.
For this excursion you will have to take along a box lunch, which you can eat comfortably in a little park at the town of ALMOLOYA DEL RIO. The park stands beside a fish hatchery, where a spring flows into the great sedge-filled lake which forms the real headwaters of the Lerma River. Here the rivers flows through a landscape completely Oriental in effect, and here in the rain the Indians wear straw coats exactly like those you see in a Japanese print
The chief industry in this town 1S NEEDLEWORK. It is the custom for the native women to come down from the town and wait beside your automobiles with samples of their work until you have finished lunch.
A few miles away is the HACIENDA DE ATENCO, a fine example of an old hacienda, standing near a grove of willow trees. Its fame today rests on the fact that they breed here some of the finest fighting bulls in Mexico. No doubt you will wonder why the bulls are not confined within fences, but are kept back from the road only by a fairly narrow ditch. However, since the ditch is filled with water, and consequently the bulls will under no circumstances cross it, there is no danger of their escaping. At MEXICALZINGO the craft is WOODWORK, and here, among other things, they make very beautiful chessmen. At METEPEC 1S made the simplest form of POTTERY, made without the use of a potter's wheel. It is interesting to watch the men at work. The workman first molds his clay by hand on a slab. The Indians claim that there is no machine known that they have ever tried which will give them the same texture as this painstaking handwork. After the workman has the clay molded to the consistency that he desires, he sprinkles wood ashes on the slab as a binder, puts the cake of clay on it, and spanks it into the desired thinness. Then he uses another pot as a mold, carefully places the thin clay over it, smooths it down with water and a stone, and then leaves it to dry for a while before taking it off for burning.
SANTA ANA is the basketry village. Here you can buy the attractive baskets which are shipped all over Mexico, and here you will really have a stock from which to choose.
By this time you will be probably ready to return to Mexico City, having satisfied every desire you had for buying, and having at last learned the answer to the question: "Where do the old Fords go to?" Where they go to is evidently the little villages of Mexico. You will pass wagon after wagon with steel wheels and a vaguely familiar shape, and when you get close up, you will discover that it is the chassis of an old Model-T Ford, with no tires, no body, and no engine, but with a strong wagon bed which can hold up against even the types of roads they have around the arts and crafts villages.