The Best Place to Buy Piñatas in Saltillo

img_4636A birthday party in Mexico just isn´t a birthday party, unless a piñata is beaten to a pulp.

In fact, the word piñata is often an abbreviated term for birthday party.  “Ceci is going to a piñata tomorrow” is a legitimate way to say that Ceci is going to a birthday party.  Because, after all, what is the point of a birthday party without the piñata?

Among other places, piñatas are sold at the market downtown and any materias primas store.  (For those who haven´t been to a materia prima store, that´s a whole cultural experience in itself!  The Cuellar stores on the Periferico, or El Doblón on Eulalio Gutierrez are great examples.  The first time I wandered through one, I thought I had died and gone to candy heaven.)  However, in my experience, the best place to get a piñata in Saltillo is on the corner of Luis Corona and Matamoros, downtown.
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Four or five family-owned stores dot the corner of Corona and Matamoros.  Piñatas are made right there, and they cost anywhere from $75 to $160, depending on the size.  Yes, even those freakishly huge, larger-than-the-birthday-boy piñatas can cost $150.  img_4635

Now, my birthday girl had to scan the stores, as she hates to hit anything that has a face.  Almost all piñatas have a face.  Fortunately, her birthday is close to Christmas, and one store still had two traditional star piñatas left over from Christmas.

Traditionally, the piñata is a seven-pointed star.  The seven points represent the seven deadly sins.  When the piñata is broken, the children are showered with the rewards of resisting evil.  What the symbolism becomes when a princess or superhero is beaten to death, I´m not sure.  But kids (over the age of 4) sure love it!

The pre-Christmas posadas usually involve piñatas, so if one is looking for a piñata during the Guadalupe Reyes season (December 12-January 6th), they recommended buying one ahead of time.  These stores on Corona and Matamoros are also willing to make custom-made piñatas with a week´s notice.  (It would be a good idea to give them a bit more notice during December.)  625

The birthday parties at our house are usually a bit different from typical Mexican birthday parties, given cultural norms that I either don´t want to participate in or don´t realize exist.  But we do always have a piñata.

Everyone goes home happy.

 

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This is the first of a series “The Best of Saltillo”.  Know of a great place for . . . well, basically anything?  Share with us!   Send in your recommendation with at least 2 photos, an address or good directions and as many specific details as would be helpful for others to saltilloexpats@gmail.com.

 

 

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Back to School: in Mexico!

All around the world, it´s that time of year.  All of us who have school-aged children are battling the crowds, shopping for notebooks, pencils, and uniforms.  School is school the world over, right?

Yes it is.  However, when I first came to Mexico, there were a few customs that threw me through a loop, and life would gone more smoothly with prior warning.

 

So, without further ado, here´s my Mexican Back to School To Do List:

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Once kids are in elementary school, they have at least 5 notebooks and 5 textbooks (likely more) that all need to be covered.  The notebooks need to be color-coded, according to subject, and then sealed with contact paper.  The textbooks also need to be preserved for all time with the help of contact paper.

Has anyone else noticed how contact paper gets static electricity and takes on a mind of its own?  Yes it does.  It makes this never-ending job all the
more tedious.

On the bright side, I have heard that some papelerías offer book-covering services for $50 or less.  That´s $50 well spent.  They just need to advertise better on my side of town!

 

Stock up on newspapers

Homework  for kids in preschool and early elementary school often consists of bringing in magazine or newspaper cutouts.

  • Bring in cutouts of musical instruments.
  • Bring in 10 cutouts of people waving hello or goodbye.
  • Bring in 10 words that start with the letter C.
  • Bring in 5 cutout triangles.
  • Bring in 10 proper names.

Apparently, there is no end of things kids can be asked to cut out.  Now, if I were to let my 5-year-old use the scissors and look for all 10 of those letter Cs himself, we could easily spend hours and hours on kindergarten homework.  To facilitate things, I have him look for one (and sometimes help point it out) and he cuts out the first one (to work those fine-motor skills, of course).  Then I cut out a number of words, about a third of which start with C.  Out of the words I cut out, I ask him to identify which ones start with C, so then he can pick them out and glue them in his notebook.

And then he cuts words out here and there as he sees fit, as that boy loves scissors.

In the end, the homework gets done in a timely manner, and the kid works both his brain and his fingers a bit.  Win-win.

 

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In the list of school supplies that the teachers give out every year, there is always that odd addition:  4 rolls of toilet paper.

The following week, we are then hit up to donate some bleach and mop soap.  Maybe this is just a public school thing (but I doubt it).  See, for public schools in Mexico, the government builds the building and pays the teachers.  The parents are responsible for the rest–primarily, maintaining the school building.  That donation that they ask for every year for the Parents´ Association?  That money is very necessary, paying for the school´s telephone bill, ink for the printer, repairs that need to be made throughout the year, etc.

So every couple of months, kids go to school, armed with a package of toilet paper.  Hands-down, it´s one of the more essential school supplies.

 

Fingernail Checks

This doesn´t happen at my kids´ public schools, but I´ve heard that some private schools will write notes home, chastizing the parent if a child has very long fingernails.  If they´re long enough to gather dirt, they´re at risk for the Fingernail Note!

Once upon a time, I worked at a children´s home, taking care of elementary aged kids. Those kids were sent back home if their fingernails were too long!  Watch out!

 

Other Quirks

Last Friday of the Month

A few years ago, it was mandated by the Secretary of Public Education that the last Friday of every month be set aside for teacher inservice days.  So, all public school students (and I believe most private school students) have the last Friday of every month free.

End of School?

The last day of school in Mexico has always been a bit of an enigma.  Even when I was a
teacher, I had no set date when the last day of school would be, because it´s possible for private schools to be finished a week or two before the official last day of school set by the government.  However, each school needs an official visit from the SEP by the end of the year, for them to determine if the students reached their academic goals (and could therefore be done for the year).

Things get even trickier this year, because it appears that the SEP is giving schools the option of having a longer school day, and having a 185-day school year.  Or schools can stick to their regular hours and use the 200-day calendar.  So the last day of school is either June 27th OR July 18th–depending on your school.

Since my son´s school day has been extended, but my daughter´s hasn´t, it seems one kid will start summer vacation in June and the other in mid-July.  Awesome.

 

But we´ve got 190 more days of school to get through first, so let´s enjoy them!

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Sidenote:  I haven´t had any experience with Mexican junior high and high schools yet–is there anything else at those levels I should prepare myself for?  (Besides the whole, “I have a teenager” thing, of course.)

Is there anything else with the Back-to-School season that throws you for a loop?  Let me know in the comments section!

 

Exploring Monterrey with Kids

 

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In Mexico, all schools take a two week vacation on Holy Week and the week following. Those with jobs—apart from the tourism industry—have vacation the Thursday and Friday before Easter. All over Mexico, everyone who can heads to the beach. Or the mountains, or the ranches—anywhere to get away.774b

Like everyone else, my family wanted a vacation. However, we hate
fighting crowds. Where is the best place to go
when everyone flocks to the beach? The cities. Over the course of these few days, Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey suddenly become uncongested, smog-free, cultural wonderlands.

While planning our Monterrey getaway, we had to keep in mind four different vacation styles. My husband hates crowds. I love to wander, preferably around a museum. My six-year-old daughter hates wandering. In her ideal vacation, she would never leave the     hotel´s pool. My three-year-old is usually up for anything, but (even though he doesn´t think so) he often needs a nap.

Given these realities, our choice of hotel was crucial. We chose the Holiday Inn at Parque Fundidora. It is within the gates of the park, which is an attraction in itself. So if the rest of my family wanted to be pool lizards, I could be free to wander. For a city that gets plenty of sun, Monterrey´s hotels have shockingly few outdoor pools. According to the internet, this hotel´s outdoor pool was the prettiest, and that sealed the deal for us.

Now, once there, what to do?

Parque Fundidora

IMG_2118Monterrey is fiercely proud of its industry, and this park showcases that industrial pride well. Parque Fundidora (Foundry Park, in English) is built on the site of a former steel foundry. Part of the original foundry has been converted into a museum. It´s a sight when lit up at night. Take advantage of their nighttime tours!

This park comes alive when the sun goes down. Each of the three evenings we were there, we spent about an hour wandering the park. Watch out for bicyclists—just $30 pesos rents a bike for an hour, and hundreds of people prefer to tour the park by bike. There are playgrounds for the kids spread throughout the park, bounce houses aplenty, a giant ferris wheel, and a small lake that rents paddle boats. As if Parque Fundidora didn´t have enough attractions of its own, the entrance to Plaza Sesamo, a Sesame Street-themed amusement park, borders Parque Fundidora. Plaza Sesamo would have taken the better part of a day itself, and was unfortunately not on our agenda this time around.

Paseo Santa Lucía

IMG_2004The Paseo Santa Lucía connects     Monterrey´s downtown with Fundidora Park, thanks to a blue canal, wide sidewalks, and grassy embankments. From one end to the other, it stretches for about 2km, with fountains and playgrounds interspersed. Closer to downtown, restaurants have tables right on the canal.

The best way to get downtown from Parque Fundidora (or vice versa) is to hop a ride on one of the boats that leave frequently from one end or the other. The ride each way takes about a half hour—so much easier than the hours it would take my kids´ legs to walk the same distance! At Parque Fundidora, the boats dock just behind the Holiday Inn. At the Macroplaza, take a flight of stairs underneath the Northeast Mexican history museum, and you can´t miss the dock—and the line that goes with it! Don´t worry, it moves fairly quickly.IMG_2095

Macroplaza

The boat ride ends at the Macroplaza. All Mexican cities have one main plaza, typically spanning one square city block. Monterrey´s Macroplaza is aptly named. While it is the standard one block wide, the Macroplaza is 5 blocks long. It boasts the Northeastern Mexican History Museum, the entrance to the Paseo Santa Lucía, the Government Palace (and connected museum), the City Theater, various courthouses, Monterrey´s cathedral, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
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We took about an hour to walk from one end of the Macroplaza to the other. While my husband and I thought this was a great way to pass an afternoon, the kids were not so amused. A little more than halfway to the cathedral, we stopped for popsicles, sat in the grass under a tree, and watched the traffic. This maneuver bought us a bit more patience on the kids´ part, so we could enjoy the cathedral and the Museum of Contemporary Art, relatively whine-free.

Cathedral

IMG_2076On the far side of the Macroplaza from the Paseo Santa Lucía is Monterrey´s cathedral. People from Monterrey have a tradition of visiting seven different churches during Holy Week. Despite our aversion to crowds, we joined the throngs pouring into the cathedral. The wooden latticework around the side doors give a nod to   Monterrey´s Lebanese population, and the murals around the altar manage to incorporate both Monterrey´s industrial pride and biblical Holy Week scenes—it´s odd, yet distinctive. To me, that mural seemed to sum up the city´s essence.

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Right next to the cathedral is Monterrey´s Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO). With
only three galleries, the MARCO was a great size for our kids to enjoy the museum without getting overwhelmed. With changing exhibits, there is something for everyone. The guys spent at least an hour in the Stanley Kubrick exhibit, while my daughter and I enjoyed Kati Horne´s photography, checked out the permanent display upstairs, and, of course, the gift shop while waiting for the guys.

Dinner

Almost opposite the cathedral, we spied a small franchise of our favorite restaurant in Monterrey—the Sierra Madre Brewing Company. They brew an extensive selection of quality beer. Microbrews are far and few in between in Mexico. Now that we´ve found one, we frequent it as often as possible. Despite labeling themselves a pub, they are family-friendly and offer a children´s menu.

Day Two

Hotel Pool

Day Two was dedicated entirely to swimming in the hotel´s pool. This was essential to our trip, because797

1) Mexicans believe that it is absolutely necessary to get wet at some point on the day before Easter.
2) after walking their legs off the day before, my kids would have gone on strike if we    didn´t spend a full day at the pool.

Once we had our fill of the pool (and the other children and their poorly-aimed squirt guns), we explored Parque Fundidora some more, in search of bounce houses and nachos.

Day Three

Planetario Alfa

050The Alfa Planetarium is Monterrey´s Children´s Museum. They boast four floors of exhibits for all age levels, plus a prehispanic sculpture garden (unusual this far north), and an IMAX screen, playing two different movies a day. While the kids were initially excited about the idea of a children´s museum, it took them awhile to warm up to the activities. The second floor had a Tinker-Toy exhibit, and they did have fun playing with the Tinker-Toys, although the exhibit wasn´t as hands-on as I would have hoped. Upstairs, they had a room dedicated to Clifford the Big Red Dog. I was afraid this would be too babyish for my six-year-old, but they jumped right in, and worked the store, drove a boat, fed Clifford enormous bones, and sat down a read a few books. They would have been content to spend all afternoon there.034

My husband got a little overwhelmed with the Easter crowds, so we met up with him again in the prehispanic sculpture garden. The Planetarium does have a cafeteria, but we brought a picnic lunch and ate outside on the picnic tables (which get hot in the sun!). After lunch, we braved a few more rooms, but they were geared for older kids, so we breezed through those. After paying one last visit to Clifford, we headed home.

Did we exhaust our options? Not even close. We´ll certainly be back, and on other visits, we may see:

  • Bioparque Estrella—a safari-style zoo about an hour outside of Monterrey. They also offer camping, either in tents or cabins!
  • KidZania—A kid-sized city. Children work various jobs, open a bank account, and spend the money they “earned” at those jobs. I´ve been told that it´s a lot of fun, but it´s on the pricy side, so be prepared!
  • Grutas de García—a system of glittering caves just northwest of Monterrey.
  • Cumbres National Park—full of hiking opportunities, plus some intense outdoor activities for families with older children.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Monterrey? Feel free to comment below!

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Furthermore, if anyone else in or near the Saltillo area would like to share their favorite places in or near Saltillo, send your reflections/thoughts/summary, along with pictures to saltilloexpats@gmail.com.  I look forward to hearing others´ perspectives!

Desert Museum

High on the list of things to see and do in Saltillo is the Desert Museum.  While Saltillo has an impressive number of tiny, free museums downtown, the Desert Museum is pretty comprehensive and well worth its reputation.  In less than 4 hours,IMG_1998 it gives the average visitor a reasonable understanding of this region.

Furthermore, there´s a little something for everyone.  Which is good to keep in mind, as the first room, where they explain in painstaking detail what exactly constitutes a desert, is about as dry as a Mexican sugar cookie.  (That means it´s pretty dry.)

But hang in there, because it gets much better.  Saltillo is the capital of the state of Coahuila.  Coahuila´s current license plates boast a ferocious T-Rex, because there have been some pretty serious paleontological digs just about an hour away from Saltillo, and throughout the rest of the state.  Again, one of the beauties of the desert is that it preserves dinosaur remains.  IMG_1977

The Dinosaur Hall at the Desert Museum is a sight.  Visitors first view the life-size dinosaur skeletons from above, and then, after learning a bit more about the Jurassic age and whatnot, visitors amble among the dinosaur bones.  Yes, some are replicas, but some are the real deal, and from this very state.

After the dinosaurs, there is a nod to Coahuila´s mining industry.  The state´s current slogan, “Coahuila tiene energia”  has little to do with Coahuila´s limitless potential for wind and solar power.  No, it´s a boast about our coal mines.  Which tend to entomb a number of miners every year.

The next feIMG_2145w rooms are dedicated to the human presence in Coahuila, from a 10,000-year-old well-preserved footprint to the twenty-first century.  As in any Mexican museum´s race through history, the focal points are the native Indians who lived in the area and how they used the land, the culture clash when the Spanish moved in, and the blending of both cultures in the current, mestizo Mexico.

Passing a small art gallery, the Desert Museum shows off Coahuila´s native animals, all preserved in taxidermied glory.  I enjoy noting how they´ve captured animals in the middle of a hunt, posed forever mid-leap.  However, my children are terrified of this room, so the last few years we´ve been running through here as quickly as possible.  Also, it appears that a hunter who frequented African safaris donated much of his collection to the museum.  There is a nice spot for photo ops with a stuffed lion, giraIMG_1980ffe, and crocodile–despite the fact that such animals have never set foot in Coahuila.

Moving on from the dead animals, the Desert Museum mercifully has a small collection of live animals.  Because, really–could one have a credible Desert Museum without a collection of 20 snakes?  No, I don´t think so.  Since this is an excellent museum, visitors familiarize themselves with a variety of snakes, learning which are poisonous, and which are not; which might live nearby, and which are safely tucked away in Asia.

But if snakes give you the willies, close your eyes, run through the hall, and take a few deep breaths by the turtle lagoon.  That room is really a chance to showcase Coahuila´s native plants.  The turtles make the display more interesting.

IMG_2146Outside, more animals await.  First, the prairie dogs scurry about their colony.  However, they tend to avoid the heat of the day, so you´re only likely to see them early in the morning or later in the evening–unless your midday visit is in January, of course.   The museum also has two black bears, who were cubs rescued from forest fires in Arteaga four years ago.  The cactus nursery is the place to get souvenirs, provided the cactus won´t be leaving the country.  Finally, mountain goats bid visitors adios.   IMG_1984

For smaller visitors to the museum, there´s an interactive fountain with water near the bear enclosure.  Kids can climb on it, open and close gates on the fountain, channeling the water down various paths.  On hot days, another patio pours water on visitors in the style of a desert storm.  (So beware, unsuspecting adults!  If you hear thunder, run for cover.)  Furthermore, a museum tour can take the better part of the day, so there is a restaurant with a limited menu, for those who need it.  Or want it.   IMG_1991

For those with limited time in this area, I recommend the Desert Museum.  It´s more or less a three-hour  whirlwind tour of the region.  And for those who have years here at their disposal, for pity´s sake–visit the Desert Museum at least once!

If you´re like me, you´ll come back for more.

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