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Hanging out in Tepic

Not exactly a tourist magnet, the capital of Nayarit state is not without charm. At just over 900 meters (2952 feet) above sea level, the city of fewer than a million inhabitants has an agreeable climate. Pleasing to plants as well as humans, the surrounding areas produce all kinds of vegetables and fruits. Nayarit is the country’s leading grower of tobacco.

Fields of sugarcane wave in the breeze, the cane heading to Tepic’s molino for grinding and processing, the feathery tops a sweet-scented meal for brown-and-white bovines. The beautiful countryside is a backdrop of blue mountains: la Laguna de Santa Maria to the east, and separating Tepic from the sea, La Sierra de San Juan. Rock climbers challenge themselves on Cerro Bola; hikers head for picturesque Laguna Santa Maria del Oro, with inexpensive cabins and camping. A dozen quaint towns and villages as Jala, La Escondida, Bellavista, El Pichon, and El Trapichillo invite exploration.
Photo 1910

A Place to Speak Spanish

I’ve decided that this city---easily accessible but almost magically hidden by its... normalcy---would be a great city for students of Spanish. As I roamed the city a recent trip, I note that despite my foreign accent and obvious gringa appearance, not one person attempted to segue a conversation into English. In Puerto Vallarta or Cancun, I have to battle to maintain a conversation in Spanish, but here, it’s the lengua franca, no doubt about it.

Americans and other foreigners often go to schools in Guadalajara or Oaxaca, where they receive hours of instruction each day but ultimately end up speaking English with their fellow students, despite their best intentions. In these centers of tourism, shopkeepers speak excellent English and locals are anxious to improve their own skills. While novice Spanish speakers might be at a loss in Tepic, those with some grammar under their linguistic belts would definitely have the opportunity to improve their conversation skills.

Despite the pleasure of being in an untouristy city with an enviable climate, Tepic can be noisy when traffic snarls its mid-size streets. Jumbles of phone wires jut from cement poles, mangling the cityscape. And many lovely colonial and republican-era structures were unfortunately razed to make way for “improvements” a half century ago. Many of these buildings, considered cutting edge in the sixties, now look square, squat, and definitely out of fashion.

Origins of People and Place Names

Although the origin of the name Tepic is unclear, it is probably is a derivation of a Nahuatl word. Like the Aztecs, the Cora and Huichol people who have traditionally inhabited the area are Nahuatl-speaking descendants of tribes from La Gran Chichimeca, the great northern deserts. You can learn a bit about these cultures at the free Museo de las Cuatro Culturas (Museum of Four Cultures). And you’ll spot Cora men and women in their colorful clothing doing their shopping in downtown Tepic or selling along the streets near the main square, Plaza de Armas.

Living in scattered family groups as well as in villages throughout the mountainous state, the Huichol and Cora follow many ancient traditions based on spiritual beliefs. Sacred “god’s eyes” of bright yarn; beaded bowls, statuettes, and jewelry; yarn paintings; shoulder bags with double-headed eagles, and more Huichol pieces are wonderful reminders of this beautiful culture. An excellent place to peruse Cora and Huichol art (along with pieces by their cousins, the Mexicaneros and Tepehuanes) is Artesanias Cicuri, on Avenida Mexico.

Another Sacred Icon

La Iglesia de la Cruz de Zacate (The Church of the Cross of Grass) was built to commemorate on a natural phenomenon first discover in 1540 (other historians say 1619). The story goes, a muleteer noted a patch of grass in the shape of the cross, and his animal refused to tread there. Today people pray at the side chapels of this pretty neighborhood church but also in front of the grass cross, which church officials say grows in that shape without receiving water or special care.

Wet season or dry, the cross can still clearly be seen, although the top portion looks more like a triangle than the separate arms of a cross. Still, it’s close enough; who couldn’t use a few more miracles in her life? Say a prayer, then toss a coin into the grass beyond the grill to seal the deal. Plaques on both sides of the outdoor niche give thanks for favors granted.

What to See in the City

It’s a walk of 15 or 20 minutes down Calle Mexico to Plaza de Armas, where you’ll find the Cathedral and Municipio (City Hall) in addition to shops and restaurants. Lining Calle Mexico are department stores like Coppel and Fábricas de Francia, mom-and-pop print shops, and funeral parlors with glossy coffins on display. If you’re walking south from the Church of the Grass Cross, take a detour at Calle Insurgentes to look at the block-long mural depicting the Spanish dominion of the Cora Indians.

After looking at the mural, continue on Avenida Mexico to Plaza de los Contituyentes, where the salmon-colored state government building, Palacio de Gobierno, has murals depicting highlights of Mexican history.

Three blocks farther is Tepic’s most important museum, the Regional Museum of Anthropology and History. None of the exhibits is labeled in English, but as entrance is free it’s certainly worth a look. On the second floor are several recreations of shaft tombs where in pre-Cortesian times, important people were buried.

Nearby are several other museums of marginal interest. All of Tepic’s museums are free, so why not check them out? Also free is the “Tepibus,” a red tram that trundles around the city for a hour while your guide gives non-stop commentary, in the Spanish, of course. Have we mentioned that Tepic is a most convenient place para practicar el espanol?

My last morning in town, I confirmed my hypothesis about this possible paragon of conversational Spanish lessons. A young, blond-haired woman, unmistakably foreign, was using the free Internet computer at the Hotel Tepic. Before asking how long she’d be online, I asked “Hablas inglés?” She leveled cool gray eyes at me before answering, “Sí, y espanol también.” (“Do you speak English?” “Yes, and Spanish too.”) We finished our brief conversation in Spanish, and left it at that.

Quieres aprender espanol? Pues, ve a Tepic! When you tire of the city, you can head for the beach at San Blas (62 km/39 mi) or Puerto Vallarta (170 km/106mi) away. But that’s another story.
Photos 1910


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