This article is from the May 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.
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A Well-Kept Secret, Valle de Bravo

by Bill Wilcox

Bill Wilcox, a frequent contributor to The Mexico File, hails from Scottsdale, Arizona.

Several years ago, in what I must call a moment of irrational impulse, I purchased for annual use three weeks of vacation timeshare lodging in Pinetop, Arizona. Each year since then I have had to play "catch-up" to avoid losing one or more weeks due to non-use during the eighteen month "window" which, according to the terms of the contract, is available for scheduling. To date I have traded weeks of lodging with cooking privileges at the Pinetop facility for stays in Korea, England, Jamaica and Mexico. Over the last several years my Mexican trades have been at La Rinconada in Tequisquiapan, the Golden Shores at Plaza del Sol in Guadalajara (this was quite an "upscale" trade!), and most recently at Tiempo Compartido Avandaro in Valle de Bravo.

Valle de Bravo is in the State of Mexico, west of Mexico City via a two-hour bus ride and considerably more than two hours by train. It is definitely the best of the three Mexico time-share resorts I’ve used. This development abuts a man-made lake, Avandaro, and caters mainly to Mexican nationals. It may be Mexico’s best-kept tourist secret.

But I’m way ahead of myself. En route I spent four days in Mexico City. The room charge at my favorite hotel, near the zocalo, the city’s historical center dating back to pre-Columbian times, had gone up, so I decided to stay at the Ritz Hotel, which is also in the historical district. The senior citizen’s rate at the Ritz is $45.00 per night. While in Mexico City I was able to see two operas at the Palacio de Bellas no cost, since I attended the dress rehearsals. I also attended a piano concert in a side room at the Palacio, as well as a delightful symphony, Liszt’s Second Hungarian Dance, which seemed to shake the pillars of the Palacio.

Perhaps the most tranquil space in all of Mexico City is the Museo Franz Mayer, where, for an entrance fee equivalent to about one U.S. dollar, one can purchase a light breakfast and contemplate a pleasant courtyard. This colonial style in the past has served as an infirmary and a hostel, and now it is a place for reflection and relaxation. By all means visit the museum galleries with their comprehensive collection of art from a variety of times and places.

During a visit to the zocalo I was startled to see a revolutionary banner hung on the Cathdral fence by the military arm of the Zapatistas, the Popular Revolutionary Army. This is the indigenous group from the southern state of Chiapas which is in revolt against the central government. Later I learned that the banner had something to do with an ailing woman from the group who had wanted to attend a conference of indigenous tribes in Mexico City, and the government had been in a quandary about allowing this to happen.

I had been hesitant during past trips to Mexico City to use the subway, but I decided now was the time to give it a try. As is the case in transit systems in many cities of the world, blind beggars passed through the cars. The passengers seemed generous.

I took Route Two to the end of the line, planning to take a bus from there to the home of the famous late artist Frida Kahlo. Unfortunately no one at the terminus of the subway, including the one person I could find who was fluent in English, could tell me how to get there by bus. In the end the taxi fare was three-fifths of what the fare would have been by taxi from downtown.

I was struck by the artistic versatility and imagination of Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, whose monumental work took a back seat here. I especially noted likenesses of Stalin and Mao mounted in several rooms.

I then walked several blocks to the home of Leon Trotsky, the place where he was assassinated by agents of Stalin. This visit for me represented the end of an era. That same week, Pavel Sudoplator, who plotted the assassination, died at the age of 89. I still recall as a young man in 1940 seeing the headline announcing Trotsky's death. In contrast to an earlier visit I had made to this site, there were no English speaking guides available.

After four days in Mexico City it was time to go to Valle de Bravo, my real destination for this trip to Mexico. Since I wanted to experience once again the trains in Mexico, I planned to go by train west to Toluca, the capital of the state of Mexico, and from there proceed by bus to Valle de Bravo.

Since the first-class train left Buena Vista in the evening, I would have been dumped in Toluca in the middle of the night. I decided to take the 6:30 a.m. second-class train. This was definitely not my best idea!

At the Mexico City station in the second class train area, all was chaos. Several lines had formed for destinations I'd never heard of. A policeman was handing out slips that apparently authorized one to approach the appropriate ticket window. He looked in his little reference booklet and could not find Valle de Bravo. In my confusion and dealing with luggage (double what I really needed), it finally occurred to me that I was going by train not to Valle de Bravo but Toluca. Little wonder the policeman was not able to help me! Everyone tried to be helpful and one elderly Indian woman in no uncertain terms told a fellow passenger that he had cut in front of me. My ticket for a four-hour train ride was equal to $0.40 US. No typo here...really 40 cents!

The train platform and the floor of the train were far from a precise fit. The empty space was about twelve inches across and six inches down. I ended up with a nasty bruise on my ankle getting my heavy, wheeled luggage aboard. There were no lights in the train, and the windows, like most windows on Mexican trains, appeared to have never been washed. A slightly sour smell could be detected. The pairs of train seats faced other. A pretty Indian woman sat across from me and her daughter next to me. Trash was disposed of by opening a small sliding window above the main window. At many spots along the route pretty daisy-like flowers were in bloom. The terrain was somewhat varied, some of it mountainous with tall pine trees along steep ravines.

The roadbed was so poorly maintained that it was not possible to read the book I had purchased on the unrest in Chiapas. It is written largely from the viewpoint of the rebels and is titled First World, Ha Ha Ha, The Zapatista Challenge. Many passengers were standing with baskets at their feet. The toilet was so unpleasant that I will make no attempt to describe it other than to note that half the seat was missing. In the mountains I was cold and could not retrieve my heavy sweater. All in all, I thought, "Why am I doing this to myself ?" and was reminded of similar thoughts expressed by Paul Theroux in The Old Patagonian Express while traveling by train in southern Mexico .

Approaching Toluca, a city of about a half a million, we passed many large factories. I was to learn later that this city is the center of a wide range of large and small manufacturing activities and that the state of Mexico is a major generator of the economic activity of the nation.

When at last I arrived at the Toluca train station I had the problem of descending the train's steps with my heavy luggage mounted on the two wheel contraption I had bought at the Hong Kong Airport several years ago. Only with the help of several young women who were being prevented from boarding the train by me and my clumsy gear was I able to dismount.

.I asked the taxi driver to take me to the autobus estacion. This caused considerable puzzlement by the taxi driver and his friends. It turned out I wanted the autobus terminal. With the language difficulty solved, in no time at all I was at the bus station..

I found the autobus terminal, like most large city bus terminals in Mexico, spacious, crowded and efficient. In no time at all I was aboard a bus bound for Valle de Bravo. Much of the hour-long trip is through farmland where, at least in early fall, corn seemed to be the major crop. Stream bank erosion was evident, probably due to the lack of riparian growth. About a half-hour from my destination we entered wooded areas and the road began to wind around rolling hills. When I arrived in Valle de Bravo I had little difficulty getting a taxi to my time-share, Tiempo Compartido Avandaro, a pleasant cluster of A- frames. Lilies bordered the brick walkways and a small but adequate swimming pool was located inside a circle of the cabins. The first of the daily brief showers rolled through, this one louder than most.

Soon I was visited by the only English speaking member of the staff. He briefed me on the sponsored activities of the week. The two I chose were a hike up a mountain bordering the large manmade lake, Avandaro, and a visit to a beautiful Roman Catholic House of Prayer in the hills. I expressed concern over the lack of a grocery store and he suggested I visit the the "Indian market" up the road. This weekly open air market proved to be quite massive with a wide range of commodities for sale. No one, and I mean NO ONE, spoke a word of English. I did buy three pairs of socks, fearing I had been greatly overcharged. Subsequent checks proved I had not.

Reminding myself of my earlier language difficulty, I decided I needed to find someone who could speak English to help me shop. After a brief search at a small outdoor restaurant I found a delightful and gracious young lady who soon became my guide, interpreter, negotiator and friend. Her name was Gabriela but she was widely know as "Gabby," without, I'm sure, the common connotation associated with the name here. Gabby proved to be the first of several delightful people I met, all associated with an evangelistic church named The Church of the Lord of All the Nations.

After shopping at the Indian market with the help of Gabby, I soon found myself the breakfast guest of Tim and Roberta, from Oklahoma, the pastors of the church. The scrambled eggs, warm sticky buns and steaming coffee were just great!

Tim and I formed a special friendship and he took me for a day's visit to the village of San Martin Otzoloapan, which was inhabited by members of the Mazahua tribe. Interviews with tribal members disclosed nothing about their history. Tim advised that they had a history of violence within the tribe, but he felt that violence had been reduced through his efforts The women wore colorful blouses and skirts and sold delicate handwork at minimum prices. Tourists seldom visit this remote Indian village so that most of the handwork is sold in the open air markets in the area.

Subsequent research disclosed a footnote in a scholarly paper contending that the Mazahua, along with a still existing neighboring tribe, the Otomic, may have participated in the burning and destruction of the great theocratic center of Teotihuacan in A.D. 650. (For more information on this unique ruin see the National Geographic of December 1995, Vol. 188, No.6.)

Tim and Roberta are devout in their fundamentalist beliefs but are open-minded toward people like me who have a significantly different outlook. Most of Tim's efforts with Indians are directed to creating or improving agricultural skills. Roberta, in addition to also being a pastor, is a qualified midwife. Tim had left a mainline church over the issue of modern-day miracles.

Arturo, a devout worshiper, translated for me on a real-time basis the substance of a Wednesday night sermon. He and his wife hosted a dinner for Gabby and me my last night in Valle de Bravo.

Some days were spent at el centro sipping coffee in veranda restaurants, reading the American and Mexican political sections of the English language Mexico City Times, and wandering on the zocalo watching finely dressed children preen for a confirmation ceremony in the Cathedral. One day I wandered into the local headquarters of the conservative Party of National Action (PAN). Material provided me claims the PAN now controls four states, ten capital cities and 221 municipalities. More recent elections in the state of Guerrero have added to these numbers. The six-decade-long political monopoly of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) seems to be nearing an end.

After six days of exploring this beautiful area, meeting people with different life experiences and having a chance to relax and read, the uneventful return trip to the Mexico City Autobus Terminal seemed anticlimactic, as was the taxi trip to the airport. The flights from Mexico City to Phoenix, Arizona,were enhanced by the use of two upgrade certificates provided me earlier by Delta Airlines.

All in all, I regard Valle de Bravo as Mexico's best kept vacation secret. I already have reservations to return next March !