Monday, December 12, 2016

At Mexico's Holiest Shrine Miraculous Image of the Guadalupe Virgin Shines

Words and Images by Russell Maddicks, author of Culture Smart! Mexico

The spiritual heart of Mexico, and the country's most important pilgrimage site, is the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), an enormous concrete chapel on the outskirts of Mexico City dedicated to the Virgin Mary. 

The sacred image of the Guadalupe is the holiest relic in Mexico and arguably in all of Latin America, inspiring both the devotion and fervent patriotism of the Mexican people and Catholics all over the planet. 

So many pilgrims come to see the revered image each year that the basilica has been fitted with a series of moving walkways - Catholic conveyor belts that speed the faithful along as they snap photos of the iconic image on their smartphones. 

The biggest crowds, not surprisingly, are on 12 December, the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, or the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, when tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world come to worship at the shrine, some in indigenous dress, others in simple smocks, many inch-worming their way around the holy site on their knees, rosaries in hand, muttered prayers playing across their lips.

The basilica is actually a collection of churches built around the spot where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared several times to an Aztec convert to Catholicism called Juan Diego in 1531.

The history-changing encounter took place just ten years after Hernán Cortés and the Spanish conquistadors had bloodily defeated the Aztecs and founded Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

The original image of the dark haired, brown-skinned Virgin Mary that miraculously imprinted itself on Juan Diego's tilpa (indigenous tunic) is housed in circular concrete church that was built in 1974.

Across the plaza, is the old Baroque-style basilica with wonky walls and a sloping floor that at one time threatened to collapse due to subsidence in the marshy soil, necessitating the move to the modern basilica.

Pilgrims file past the Holy Image of the Guadalupe and then climb the steps up to a chapel on the hill where the second apparition of the Virgin took place and where roses are now grown to represent the flowers that the Virgin sent as a sign so Juan Diego's story of his meeting with her would be believed. 

Miraculous Manifestation of Our Lady of Guadalupe
According to Catholic tradition, the venerated image of the Guadalupe was miraculously imprinted on the tilma (agave-fiber cloak) of a Nahua-speaking native called Juan Diego de Cuautitlan, an Aztec who had converted to Christianity.

The Holy Virgin reportedly first appeared to Juan Diego on 9 December 1531 as he was passing the hill of Tepeyac, which coincidentally housed a shrine to the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin.

To calm the astonished Aztec after bursting forth in a halo of radiant light, the Virgin Mary said: "Do not be afraid. Am I not here who is your mother?"

She then instructed Juan Diego to tell the local bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, to build a church in her honor on the site she stood upon, but the bishop did not believe Juan Diego's amazing tale and sent him away. 

On 12 December the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego again, telling him to pick flowers from the hill and take them to the bishop.

When the astonished bishop saw the beautiful flowers and an image of the Virgin imprinted on the tilma he was convinced Juan Diego's story was true and oversaw the construction of the first shrine to the Guadalupe, which was built in 1533.

Some investigators have cast doubt on the "miracle", suggesting the story of Juan Diego and the radiant Virgin was just a myth cooked up by the Catholic clergy to speed up the conversion of the indigenous population.

They highlight the fact that the name Guadalupe comes from the Virgin of Guadalupe in Extremadura, Spain, the place where Hernán Cortés and many of his fellow conquistadors were born.

Despite the naysayers, the Virgin of Guadalupe remains as important to Mexico and to Mexican identity as she was 500 years ago.

Given the resonance of the Guadalupe story to Catholic America, it is no coincidence that Juan Diego became the first indigenous saint from the Americas when he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2002, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to be the most visited Catholic shrine on the planet.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Life under the volcano: Twin-town travels to Nicaragua

In March 2015 I made my first trip to San Francisco Libre, a small town in Nicaragua that has been twinned with my adopted home town of Reading since 1994. In September I plan to return. In the meantime I have created a Flickr album of images from my first trip that highlights the educational and environmental projects that a local charity called the Reading San Francisco Libre Association is helping to fund there.

By Russell Maddicks

Since 1994, the towns of Reading in the UK and San Francisco Libre in Nicaragua have been officially twinned. However, this longstanding relationship isn't widely publicized so when I stumbled across a street named "San Francisco Libre" near the old Reading Borough Council offices it really intrigued me.

In a sense, this is where my reconnection to Nicaragua began: on a grey, wintry day, when just by chance I happened to look up and see a Spanish-sounding name that stopped me in my tracks and started me out on a voyage of discovery.

As a journalist specializing in books and articles about Latin America the Nicaragua-Reading link instantly piqued my interest. 

How could my adopted home town of Reading, a prosperous but fairly uneventful town on the River Thames, have this historical bond with exotic Nicaragua, the land of lakes and volcanoes and the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti?

We're talking about a battle-scarred state that has survived a troubled past of invasions, dictatorships, revolution and counter-revolution and managed to reinvent itself as a tourist mecca for millenials and hailed as the second safest place to travel in the Americas after Uruguay.

A quick Google search revealed that San Francisco Libre is a small town of about 13,000 souls about two hours drive from Managua, the Nicaraguan capital. 

The centre of town, known as El Puerto (The Port), lies in the shadow of the mighty Momotombo volcano on the banks of Lake Managua, which only made the prospect of visiting even more appealing.

I also found an active local group in Reading called the Reading San Francisco Libre Association (RSFLA), which has supported educational and environmental projects in San Francisco Libre since the two towns were twinned and runs a number of annual events through its fundraising arm the David Grimes Trust. 

It was like fate was leading me back to Nicaragua, a country that offers amazing travel experiences, colonial cities, world-class surfing on Pacific beaches, volcano boarding, award-winning Flor de Caña rum, and the best food in Central America, but is barely known beyond a few Clash songs about the Sandinista Revolution.

The next step was to see San Francisco Libre for myself, meet the people, and document the educational and environmental projects that the RSFLA have been sponsoring there through a local NGO called Apreden.

My visit was also a chance to learn more about a German twin town group called Nicaragua-Verein from Oldenburg, which also works with Apreden.

It was a surreal but exciting experience arriving in San Francisco Libre. I was the honoured guest in town, and giggling kids in the Concepcion de Maria primary school nudged each other and pointed out the "chele" (an endearing word for a foreigner). Perfectly turned out in their white shirts, you would never think that these children come from homes where the daily budget for the whole family is no more than a few dollars.  

Up at Los Tiesos, a community of families made homeless by Hurricane Mitch, the sweltering heat of the midday sun didn't stop a group of smiling school kids from singing me a song, showing me their homework, and promising to study hard. The community only got electricity this year. They still have to draw their daily water from deep wells. 

At La Guayabita, a tree nursery set up to aid reforestation projects, earnest and hardworking local volunteers gave me the grand tour of the environmental projects funded by RSFLA. Nobody blinked as a porcupine scooted across our path. Nor did they find it unusual when a chocoyo (parakeet) alighted on my shoulder and started nibbling on my ear. Animal interaction is all part of a normal day in the tree nursery, apparently. 

The highlight for me had to be local Alcalde (mayor) José Angel Velásquez taking a photograph off his desk to proudly show me the moment he shook hands with Reading Mayor Jeanette Skeats during a visit to Reading in 2003. It hammered home how important the Reading-San Francisco Libre relationship is viewed here.

Having seen it for myself, I'm glad now that I made that effort to get off the beaten track and visit San Francisco Libre. It was a fantastic opportunity to spend time with the children and young adults who every day benefit in practical ways from the Twin Town relationship.

Lives are hard in San Francisco Libre, many families survive on just a few dollars a day, eking out a living by fishing in Lake Managua, or collecting firewood. The town has been battered by hurricanes, and suffers from seasonal floods and drought. But the people are resilient and resourceful and work together to solve their problems. 

The experience proved to me that small donations, if they are carefully targeted and monitored, can make a significant difference to people's lives. 

It also convinced me that if you truly want to help a country, get on a plane and visit, as every tourist dollar you spend contributes to the local economy and personal contact with the people you meet builds real and lasting bonds.  

This September I'll be heading back to Nicaragua to carry out research for a book I'm writing for the Culture Smart! series.

I hope to take more photographs that reflect the rhythms of daily life in San Francisco Libre. The next step will be to find a permanent space to exhibit them in Reading to raise awareness of the twin town connection.

In the meantime, I shall continue to upload photos to this online album and hopefully inspire others to follow in my footsteps and visit Nicaragua.

If you can't travel to San Francisco Libre yourself, you can still contribute. Even a small donation to the RSFLA will have an impact. Apreden uses the funds sent from Reading to provide local families with affordable shade and fruit trees to counter deforestation, and monthly becas (scholarships) help the poorest kids to get through school. 

The biblioteca (library) that Apreden uses for workshops and after-school clubs was built with funds from Reading and Oldenburg and has become an important community centre for the families living around it. 

The most exciting development since my visit has been the installation of wifi, again with funds from Reading and Oldenburg. Students can now surf the Internet on laptops provided by the RSFLA and the priority now is to get them communicating in real time with Reading, sharing their images and experiences and further building ties between the two communities.

To see how I get on in Nicaragua, and perhaps learn a little more about this fascinating Central American country, follow me on Instagram and Twitter - @latamtravelist - and browse through my photographs on Flickr.

To learn more about the Reading San Francisco Libre Association (RSFLA), make a donation, or volunteer, visit their website or Facebook page. They are also active on Twitter.

#‎Nicaragua ‪#‎LakeManagua‬ ‪#‎SanFranciscoLibre‬ ‪#‎Apreden‬ ‪#‎Managua‬ ‪#‎TwinTown‬ ‪#‎RSFLA‬ ‪#‎travel‬ ‪#‎volunteering‬ ‪#‎solidarity‬ ‪#‎Reading‬ ‪#‎environment‬ ‪#‎momotombo‬ ‪#‎landoflakesandvolcanoes‬ ‪#‎nicas‬ ‪#‎pinoleros‬ ‪#‎xolotlan‬ ‪#‎explore‬ #travel #inspire

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Mexican adventures for British author on the trail of Hernan Cortés

By Russell Maddicks

British travel writer John Harrison delves deep into the heart of ancient Mesoamerica and sheds light on the clash of Aztec and Spanish cultures that gave birth to modern Mexico in his latest book, 1519: A Journey to the End of Time. Russell Maddicks tracked him down to find out what drives this scholarly adventurer to venture forth on his Latin American quests. (This interview originally appeared in the Mexico News Daily.) 

John Harrison is an award-winning British travel writer and adventurer who specializes in books that seek to get to the heart of his subject matter through months of pre-travel scholarly research followed by adventurous off-the-beaten track exploration, usually in the form of a quest.

In his 2010 book “Cloud Road: A Journey Through the Inca Heartland” he spent five months walking 600 miles along the Qhapaq Ñan, the Royal Inca Road. Trekking along mountain trails at over 3,000 meters, he traveled from Ecuador to Peru, ending up in Cuzco and the magnificent lost citadel of Machu Picchu.

The author’s latest book, “1519: A Journey to the End of Time” (Parthian Books, March 2016), continues that quest, taking him to Mexico in the footsteps of the conquistador Hernán Cortés.

On a four-month trip from the Mayan coast of Yucatán to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, the ruins of which lie underneath modern-day Mexico City, Harrison finds that the Spanish legacy is far darker than the Aztec one.

Rather than a romantic hero who against all odds conquered a bloodthirsty empire obsessed with human sacrifice, Harrison suggests that Cortés should be remembered for finding the largest and best-run city on earth and reducing it to rubble.

1519 covers such an important period in the history of both Mexico and Spain. What made you decide to follow in the footsteps of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés?
As with my Peru book, Cloud Road, I was fascinated by the meeting of two great empires, previously unaware of each other: in this case, the Spanish and the Aztec.Arguably, the Aztecs were more civilized. Their capital, modern-day Mexico City, was the the largest and best-run city in the world. It was more like two planets meeting than two powerful individuals.

What made you feel you could add something new to the oft-told tale of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire?
I am not a kings and battles historian. I describe only one battle from a military perspective: the Battle of Frontera against the Maya, and the first one in which horses were deployed. I did so to show how simplistic many accounts are when they focus on technological superiority, or native fears and superstition. The locals adapted immediately to their first contact with firearms, steel and cavalry (there were no New World horses). It took two days of fighting before the Spanish won. The psychological drama of the protagonists is much more important than the violence.

For many people being diagnosed with cancer would have marked the end of a project as ambitious and physically challenging as following in the hoofprints of Cortés across Mexico for three months. What drove you on to complete the research for the book?
I was diagnosed with a rare throat cancer and given three months to live. In the end it delayed me a year, and at times I was close to dying. Completing the project assumed more importance, not less. It would be a sign that I had got through it.It came to represent a return to normal life. At worst, I would die happy traveling and writing, not expire in a hospital tower block overlooking Hammersmith flyover.

Was Mexico a country you knew well before you set out? What drew you to it as a subject for a travel book?
I knew it only through books and films. It was the Cortés story that drew me there. I had to research him a little while writing Cloud Road to understand what his second cousin Francisco Pizarro did in Peru, a decade later.I soon knew what the sequel was going to be. It was a huge bonus that Mexico itself is such a fabulously rich country to write about.

The conquest of the Aztecs is a key moment in Mexico’s past and still has ramifications for Mexicans today. How did people in Mexico react to your quest?
I had an even more generous reception than in Peru, and that’s saying something. They share a pleasure that anyone would fight their way to a village in the back of beyond, and sleep in a wood, just to track down their history. It’s a great virtue of having a theme that it draws me off the beaten track and into the real Mexico of backwaters and small towns.

Did you get a greater understanding of the Mexican psyche while researching the book?
The main surprise to me was how much the Mexican psyche is not Hispanic, but still a native one. They identify with the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma, and even more strongly with his fiery, short-lived successor Cuauhtémoc, treacherously executed when captive. Historian Salvador de Madariaga expresses the national melancholy bound up with their defeat in 1522: “Every day, within the soul of every Mexican, Moctezuma dies and Cuauhtémoc is hanged.”

Malinche, the indigenous girl sold to the Spanish by her family who became an important translator for Cortés, and his mistress, is a controversial figure in Mexico. On the one hand she’s considered a traitor for collaborating with the Spanish but after having a child with Cortés she also, symbolically, gave birth to the modern mestizo nation. What are your feelings on this much maligned character?
The only blunder the Maya made at the Battle of Frontera was in the truce. They gave Cortés women, one of whom, Malinche, became his translator, and bargained with the indigenous rulers in conflict with the Aztecs. Most Spanish victories were diplomatic, not military; it’s possible that without her Cortés would have failed.
All her life she was a chattel. She wasn’t criticized, even by Moctezuma, until a 19th-century Catholic historian wanted a scapegoat. Malinche became Eve, betraying man. I have the greatest admiration for her skill and stoicism.

Mexico is a fascinating country to visit with its well-preserved archaeological sites, colonial towns, stunning beaches and amazing food, art and music. What were your travel highlights?
It’s no use asking me about the food, my throat was lined with scar tissue from radiation! It’s hard to beat the atmosphere of temples in jungles, so the Maya ruins of the Yucatán are world class, as are its beaches. Yaxchilan, reached only by canoe and patrolled by howler monkeys and strange New World mammals was a highlight.
The hilltop city of Monte Alban, Oaxaca, is a little-known treasure. Swimming in a flooded cenote (sink-hole) in the jungle beneath circling swifts was also magical.

What advice would you give anybody who reads 1519 and wants to travel around Mexico in your footsteps?
Put aside anxiety. Stay away from the border with the U.S., and don’t mess about dealing drugs and you will be safe. If you can’t manage to stay several months, few of us can, pick a part and explore it well. Mexico really is magical. I promise you will return.

Apart from your own, of course, what are the travel books on Mexico that readers should seek out for an enlightening and inspiring read?
Carlos Fuentes’ The Buried Mirror is unsurpassed as a survey of Mexico past and present. For the history, the best contemporary account is undoubtedly Bernal Diaz’s eyewitness story The Conquest of New Spain; he is open to the virtues of the natives, and not afraid to tell it as it was, bloody and compromised.
There are Aztec versions told through poems, of which Miguel León-Portilla gives a fine prose version in Broken Spears. Los de Abajo by Mariano Azuela, translated as The Underdogs in the copy I have, is a novel about the Mexican revolution written at the time, and serialized in an El Paso newspaper in 1915.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Talking Cuba at the Destinations Holiday & Travel Show on 6 February

On Saturday, 6 February, I'll be giving a talk about Cuba at the Destinations Holiday and Travel Show at Olympia, London, the most important consumer travel event in the UK. 

Colourful Cuba - 11:45 - Meet the Experts Theatre Two

Cuba has it all. A fascinating history, a unique society, spellbinding architecture, a love of music and the arts, untouched nature, Caribbean weather and stunning beaches. 

Cuba is one of the world's most intriguing and enthralling countries, now on the threshold of change. 

Author Russell Maddicks conjures up a taste what it is like to be Cuban, how the country is changing, and how best to visit Cuba yourself.

For more information about tailor-made travel to Cuba, and birding, biking, hiking and self-drive trips, visit specialist tour operator Geodyssey at stand AC36. 

For a chance to taste a fine Cuban rum and speak to a member of the Cuban Tourism Board head to stand AC10 where they have maps, brochures and up-to-date travel information.

Alternatively, visit their website: 

For a full list of speakers and countries covered at the Destinations Holiday and Travel Show click here

Follow me on Twitter: @LatAmTravelist
Follow me on Instagram: @LatAmTravelist

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Insider Travel Tips from a 40-year Veteran of the Galápagos Islands

By Russell Maddicks

The weird and wonderful Galápagos, located nearly 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, is a volcanic archipelago that is home to sea lions, marine iguanas, giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies. These wondrous creatures are so unafraid of man that modern visitors can get up as close to them as the first recorded visitor, Spanish Bishop Tomás de Berlanga, who landed there in 1535

British author, photographer, tour operator and wildlife expert David Horwell has been travelling to the islands ever since the 1970s, when he worked there as a naturalist. 

David was a pioneer in bringing escorted tours to the Galápagos back in the 1980s. He's so passionate about these unique volcanic islands that he chose @TheGalapagosMan for his Twitter account.

He currently organizes tailor-made trips to the whole of Latin America, with his tour company Select Latin America, but his affection for the archipelago is clearly as strong as ever.

The Bradt Guide to Galápagos Wildlife, the book David co-authors with Pete Oxford, is widely recognized as one of the best introductions to the amazing creatures that inspired Charles Darwin to come up with his game-changing Theory of Evolution

So who better to ask for some insider tips on the Galápagos experience:

Q: Nowadays, the Galápagos Islands are considered a must-do, bucketlist destination for any travellers interested in a unique wildlife experience. What was it that first captured your interest in the islands? 
I always was fascinated by islands as a kid with stories of ship-wrecked sailors and pirates; coupled with living not far from Darwin’s house in Kent and learning about his famous finches at school. The mention of the name ‘Galapagos’ was a magnetic draw for me; I always dreamt of going there one day. Little did I know how much impact on my life the archipelago would have... 

Q: Things must have changed so much since the 1970s, is it still as exciting as when you first visited? 

As the plane lands in the somewhat barren island of Baltra, my heart still starts to beat hastily, as I know the delights waiting a short boat ride away (on the uninhabited islands), the animals and underwater life have not changed. Some of the fearless creatures are even more approachable. Unfortunately on the islands where people have colonized the population has grown exponentially, the worse are all the cars and trucks on the main island Santa Cruz. There is some good news, plastic bags have been banned and conservation groups are working to restore eco-systems.

Q: Your book Galápagos Wildlife describes the birds and beasts found in the air, on land and in the sea. Do you have a favourite creature or creatures? 

 Swimming with sea lions has got to be number one, close encounters with dolphins and whales is always a bonus, but it is a toss-up between the blue-footed booby and waved albatross for most amusing courtship dispay. 

Q: For many people considering a trip to the Galápagos the big decision is whether to book a land-based trip or a cruise? What advice would you give them? 

No contest - if you can afford it a boat cruise will take you to the more remote islands and visitor sites. There is no substitute for arriving at dawn and seeing an island appear through the mists, and then landing before all the day-trippers arrive. There are some nice hotels now but you are surrounded by concrete not nature. You would still need to do a boat trip to see the main species. 

Q: Is there any Galápagos experience that you encourage people to include? 

Swimming with sea lions again! Seriously it is worth having a go at snorkelling even if you have never done it; you will see a whole new world such as a penguin ‘flying’ underwater. Another fave is a dinghy ride, or even better kayaking through a mangrove lagoon. Here you will be greeted by turtles coming up for air, herons keeping a beady eye on you and with luck the chance of seeing one of the rarest birds in the world, the mangrove finch. 

Q: Do you have any tips on things people should pack to make the most of their experience? 

Good comfortable shoes or sandals that you can get wet, it will save having to dry off your feet when landing in the surf. A waterproof camera can be great fun and one that takes video as well. A wide hat and plenty of sun cream is essential, as the Equatorial sun is unforgiving even when it is cloudy. 

Q: Ecuador has so many interesting tourism destinations that can be combined with a trip to the Galápagos Islands, what are your personal favourites? 

The Amazon headwaters are only a 45 minute flight (or a day’s drive) from Quito. There are wonderful lodges with excellent naturalist guides like in Galapagos. If you have less time the cloud forest ( 2-3 hours drive) is hummingbird heaven. For those who like hiking or horse-riding there are some fantastic haciendas (historic country ranches) where you can pretend that you are an explorer like Humboldt or Whymper. 

Q: With your books, photographs and work as a tour operator you've made an important contribution to the growth of tourism in Ecuador and the Galápagos. How have your experiences in Ecuador enriched your own life? 

For sure Ecuador is my second home, (I often wonder why I came back to London). I still return to the islands and mainland at any chance I get. I have made life-long friends with Ecuador and its hospitable friendly people. It is hard to beat for diversity and the locals know how to enjoy life.

Follow me on Twitter: @LatAmTravelist
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Purchase a copy of my book Culture Smart! Ecuador

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Ancient Maya Lady Makes Dramatic Sacrifice at British Museum

Photos and text by Russell Maddicks
There's a fascinating collection of ancient Mexican‬ artifacts at the British Museum in London‬.
This stone stela from the Mayan‬ city of Yaxchilan‬, on the banks of the Usumacinta River in present-day Chiapas State, shows a woman identified as Lady Xoc pulling a rope studded with thorns or obsidian shards through a hole pierced in her tongue while the king, identified as Shield Jaguar III, illuminates the scene with a flaming torch.
Thanks to the fastidious timekeeping of the Maya we know that Lady Xoc's bloodletting sacrifice took place on 24 October in 709 AD. 
Shield Jaguar is also dressed for bloodletting, and may be preparing to pierce his ears and penis with a stingray spine, rituals depicted in other stelae.
The drops of blood that fall from her tongue are collected on the folded papyrus in a bowl at her feet.
The papyrus will later be burnt so Lady Xoc can communicate through a Vision Serpent - created by the smoke - with the deceased founder of the Yaxchilan ruling dynasty, Yopat Balam, a scene depicted in another lintel from Yaxchilan.
Hallucinogens would also probably have been involved in the ritual, and enema tubes have been found in Mayan tombs suggesting that infusions of psychotropic plants, tobacco and even chocolate would have been taken via enemas, which alongside the pain and lightheadedness caused by bloodletting would induce the state that allowed communication with important ancestors.
The only other other female nobles depicted undergoing these royal bloodletting rituals are in the stunning wall paintings of the nearby Mayan site of Bonampak. But the prominence of the stone lintels at Yaxchilan showing Lady Xoc's ritual sacrifice have led some scholars to conclude that Lady Xoc was a particularly powerful Mayan lady.

‪#Maya‎ ‪#‎Mexico ‪#BritishMuseum‎ ‪#‎bloodletting‬ ‪#‎tonguepiercing‬‪#‎visioninducing‬ ‪#art‎ ‪#culture‎ ‪#sacrifice‎ ‪#bloodletting‎ ‪#‎anthropology‬ ‪#ancestors ‎‪#civilization ‎#relief ‪#nobility‎ ‪#‎penispiercing‬ ‪#stingrayspine‎ ‪#‎sculpture‬ ‪#‎ladyxoc‬‪#‎shieldjaguar‬ ‪#Bonampak‎ ‪#‎chiapas‬

Rosca de Reyes: Mexico's Traditional Epiphany Three Kings Ring Cake

Text and Photos By Russell Maddicks

In Mexico, a flourishing Christmas tradition is the Rosca de Reyes, a circular sweet bread with a hole in the centre that is given to friends and family and eaten on 6 January, the Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings' Day), or Epiphany. This is the day that Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar - the three kings, wise men or magi - are said to have arrived in Bethlehem to give their presents to the baby Jesus.

The rosca itself is in the shape of a bejeweled crown, with the fruit representing the encrusted jewels.

The tradition of sharing these cakes around 6 January goes back to Roman times and the founding of the Catholic church. It was brought to the New World by the Spanish conquistadores and the Catholic priests who came in their wake to convert the native people.

In Spain, the cake is known as the Roscón de Reyes, and 6 January is the day that children traditionally check their stockings for presents (despite the influence of a certain chuckly, chubby, bearded guy to have all the present giving on Christmas Day). In Britain. although rarely seen nowadays, we have the similar Twelfth Night Cake.

In Mexico, it's traditional to share a rosca de reyes with work colleagues in the days leading up to 6 January or on the day itself with family.

The rosca is typically served with a cup of hot chocolate and as each guest is served, everybody waits to see who will get the slice with a plastic figure of the baby Jesus inside (like the sixpence in a Christmas pudding).

On the one hand, it's considered good luck for whoever gets the baby figure. Not so lucky is the fact that this person will have to serve tamales for everybody at another reunion on 2 February (Candlemass).

Nowadays you also find images of the wise men baked in the rosca, and whoever gets a wise man has to cough up the cash for the 2 February tamales or split the bill with the one who got the baby, although traditions differ in different regions of Mexico.

My birthday falls on 6 January so for me it was a real treat to find out about the Mexican tradition of the rosca de reyes, and an even bigger treat to find an authentic rosca at the PacificoMX taco stall in Atlantic Road, Brixton, London. If you fancy trying one, contact Su or Ivan at PacificoMX via their Facebook page:

#roscadereyes #mexico #traditions #Christmas #threekings #diadelosreyes #foodie #gastronaut #traveltoeat #culinaryculture #travel