Friday, December 26, 2014

Windy Point Part 2: Pioneering a trail to Matty's Point

The view looking west from Windy Point. Just below, the ground drops off into a deep ravine that runs back into the face of the plateau's 1000 foot escarpment. Matty's Point (center-right of the photo) was the goal of our hike. The mirador (viewpoint) extends out from a broad, rolling plateau covered with small cattle ranches. The escarpment runs along the south side of the plateau.  In order to reach Matty's Point, we had to find a way around this ravine and through the thick, sticker-filled acacia brush and spiny cactus that cover much of the plateau. In the photo's background, Cerro Garcia rises to 9000+ feet. To the left (south) the long valley at the bottom of the escarpment extends all the way to the dry lakes at the base of the Tapalpa Plateau.

The search for a trail

My fellow hikers (left to right) were Chuck, Gary, Jerry, and Matty, Chuck's dog. Above, Chuck checks his GPS while Gary and Jerry view the cloud bank sweeping in from the north over Cerro Garcia. Fortunately, the area where we were hiking remained relatively clear and sunny. The Lake Chapala area is full of micro-climates. One place may be bone dry, but a few miles away a heavy rain can be falling. The country here consists of a series of grassy meadows separated by thick brush. To move from one meadow to another, we had to locate paths through the brush created by cattle in search of fresh grass. In other words, we had to think like a cow.

A rustic gate opens the way through an old dry-stone wall. Until we found this gate, we hadn't encountered any man-made trails, only a maze of cattle-paths. Just beyond the gate, a clear path led off toward what I hoped was a route across the ravine. Notice the colorful lichens on the stone wall. Lichens are some of the hardiest and longest living organisms in nature. They can be found everywhere from icy Arctic tundra to the hottest deserts, and from high alpine meadows to sea level environments.

Patches of lovely little nettles dotted the grass at our feet. Nettle is the English name for a genus that includes many species, some with stinging leaves and some without. We didn't handle these so I can't attest to their stinging qualities. They grew in small clumps here and there throughout the meadows.

Half-buried volcanic boulders covered some of the open areas. This area is very volcanic and people have been using the hot springs along the shores of Lake Chapala since far back in pre-hispanic times. To avoid a twisted ankle, one should step carefully in an area like this.

Jaw bone of a cow. We found many such remains scattered through the meadows. When a cow dies om these remote pastures, no effort is made to remove the body. Animals and insects feed on the carcass, leaving only a scattering of sun-whitened bones.

Soon, we glimpsed a presa (dammed pond) through a grove of oak trees. Presa in Spanish also means prisoner, which makes sense because building a dam imprisons the water. The appearance of the presa was good news, because they are often created by damming a stream at the head of an arroyo. Of course, we now had to find our way across the presa.

Viewed from atop the dam, the presa proved to be considerably larger than if first appeared. The trail continued across the top of an earthen dam. This provided us with a convenient bridge across the ravine. I took this shot from about half way across the dam. Local ranchers create presas to ensure that their cattle have a year-round supply of water. Once across the ravine, a short climb led us to the top of the ridge. From there, we made our way out to the mirador at the end. I took it upon myself to dub the mirador "Matty's Point" in honor of our always-enthusiastic hiking companion.

The view from Matty's Point 

Looking west from Matty's Point down the valley toward the Tapalpa Plateau. The dry lakes can be seen running along the base of the Tapalpa Plateau. The lakes fill with water during the rainy season, but even then are usually only a few inches deep. During the dry season, their surfaces are absolutely flat and covered with a spiderweb of cracks. Driving out into the middle of one of these dry lakes reminded me of visits to Death Valley in California. The Tapalpa Plateau is named for a very picturesque town of the same name which is on Mexico's list of Magic Pueblos. They are so designated because of their special scenic or historical qualities.

The valley below is a checkerboard of small fields separated by lines of trees. Maiz (corn), mallow, and sugar cane are the main crops raised here. When the corn is harvested, the farmers turn their horses and cattle loose in the fields to feed on the dry stalks. While tractors and other mechanized equipment  are increasingly prevalent, you can still find farmers using old-fashioned horse-pulled plows.

Looking east across the ravine to Windy Point. The heavily wooded slopes don't appear to be unusually steep. However, the sheer cliffs below them are out of view behind the bush in the foreground. The blue ridges of the Sierra del Tigre appear on the upper right. Line after line of these ridges continue all the way to the Pacific Coast.

At the end of Matty's Point, we found this large Gringo Tree. We hikers call it that because its bark turns pink and peels, just like Gringos do. It is more generally called Madrone and its formal name is Arbutus menziesii. Wikipedia claims that the Madrone's range is from British Colombia to Santa Barbara, California with some rare stands in northern Baja, Mexico. However, they are plentiful in the mountains of western Mexico, more than a thousand miles to the south of Baja. 

The return hike

We followed a rutted cow path back down from Matty's Point. As long as we could find paths like this one, the hiking would be relatively easy. The day continued to shift from blue skies to overcast, and then back again. 

This spikey maguey had thread-like fibers hanging off the edges of every narrow leaf. The fibers of the maguey have been used by indigenous people for centuries to make twine, fabric, sandals, etc.

An old weathered stump functioned as a natural flower pot. My eye caught this little vignette as I passed through a grassy meadow. The center of the stump has rotted away and a tiny flowering plant has taken root. Little jewel-like creations are everywhere if you bother to pay attention.

Grasshopper love. We found these two rather elegant grasshoppers mating on a large rock. They didn't seem to mind, or even notice, my photographic efforts.

Matty takes a dip. Chuck's dog is a mixed breed, what I like to call "100% Mexican dog." She also seems to be a natural water dog and is drawn to every puddle and pool along the trails we hike. Unfortunately, she had recently been attacked by another dog and still had stitches on her belly. Chuck was quite upset about her jump into the water because of the possibility of infection. However, she has since recovered fully, so his fears proved unfounded.

The ruins of an old stone structure were partly obscured by brush. We could see the remains of a window in the wall. The ruin apparently had once been a small cottage. This remote and beautiful spot may have once been the home of a vaquero (cowboy) and his family.

Looking out through the cottage window. There was no mortar holding the stones together. Either none was used, or perhaps the builder used mud which has since washed away. In other parts of the wall, we could still see a row of holes where rafters had supported a ceiling. Now, the cottage was overgrown and forgotten.

A bovine line of battle. These cattle were behaving in a very unusual way. Normally, brahmans are very placid and a little shy. When this small herd spotted us passing by, they formed up, horns forward, and advanced like a line of medieval knights. It was a rather intimidating display.

My hiking companions hustle out of the area. Once we got over our surprise at the aggressiveness of the brahmans, we decided that discretion was better than valor. Above, Chuck, Gary, Jerry and Matty are putting some distance between themselves and the advancing cattle. After a few minutes, the cattle stopped, seemingly satisfied that they had protected their turf.

White flowers and buds of the Morning Glory tree. The formal name is Ipomoea. A wide variety of Morning Glory species can be found throughout the mountains of Western Mexico. They grow as trees, bushes, and flowering vines. I found this one at the trailhead, growing right next to our cars. This, and the other plant and flower identifications are courtesy of my friend Ron Parsons. His website "Wildflowers and plants of Western Mexico" is a goldmine of information.

View of the North Shore across Lake Chapala. I took this shot as we began to descend from the plateau. The South Shore can be seen in the foreground. There is a lot more arable land on this side of the lake. For most of its length, the North Shore contains only a narrow strip of land between the base of the mountains and the edge of the Lake. Most of the Lake's population lives along this narrow North Shore strip. At this point, Lake Chapala is about 12 miles wide.

This concludes my two-part posting on the newly discovered (by us, at least) Windy Point Trail to Matty's Point. I hope you have enjoyed the adventure. If so, please leave your thoughts in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The lush meadows and dramatic vistas of the Windy Point Trail

The blue ridges of the Sierra del Tigre stretch off toward the south west. Several years ago, Carole and I and some others visited a dramatic mirador (viewpoint) on top of a plateau on the South Shore of Lake Chapala. When viewed from across the Lake, the tops of the mountains that overlook the South Shore at first appear to form a sharp east-to-west line. However, several miles of the mountains between the pueblo of Tuxcueca and Cerro Garcia are topped by a broad, rolling plateau. A very steep escarpment runs along the south side of this plateau. The cliffs lining the escarpment drop 1000+ feet to the floor of a long valley that parallels the southern slopes of the South Lake's mountains. Several deep ravines run northwards into the face of the escarpment. The ravines are separated by points of land that end in rocky miradors. These provide stunning views of the valley below and of the Sierra del Tigre stretching off toward the coast. Windy Point is one of these miradores. We had found it through an article in the Guadalajara Reporter written by John Pint, a knowledgeable expat whose writings have inspired a number of my hiking adventures. The Windy Point mirador got its name from the strong afternoon updrafts caused by warm air rising up the steep cliffs. Various species of raptors enjoy riding these air currents, including hawks and turkey vultures. Our first visit in May 2009 was to photograph them. Ever since that visit, I had speculated that a path might follow along the cliffs. I hoped that such a path would provide further broad vistas. Over the following years, I shared my speculations with various fellow hikers, but somehow we didn't get around to doing anything about it. Finally, in late November of 2014, three of my regular hiking companions finally said "enough talk, let's go see!" To locate the Windy Point area on a Google map, click here.

Windy Point Mirador

At the trailhead, we strapped on our gear, picked up our hiking sticks, and posed for a photo. Jerry is on the right, Gary is in the middle and I stand on the left. As Chuck took this photo, his dog Matty sat at my feet, quivering and whining her eagerness to get going. The view here is directly to the west. Cerro Garcia's 9000 foot peak looms in the distance. The escarpment's cliffs drop off less than 50 yards to the left of the photo. To get to the trailhead, we took Highway 15, which runs along the South Shore of the Lake, to a small pueblo located just west of Tuxcueca. A rough farm road switch-backs up the mountainside and across the plateau. After passing through a farm gate, we drove across a meadow and parked only a few minutes walk from Windy Point. Anyone who visits this area should do it in a high clearance vehicle because much of the farm road is pretty rocky and rutted.

Chuck takes a photo at the edge of the precipice. He is facing directly south, with Cerro Garcia to the west in the background. Visitors should be cautious about the footing here because there are no protective rails or barriers. The drop is far enough that you would have some time to think about the errors of your ways before reaching the bottom.

Looking south over the valley toward the pueblo of Citala and the Barranca Yerba Buena. The Barranca (canyon) can be seen in the upper left of the photo. Upon seeing Barranca Yerba Buena for the first time in 2009, I was immediately intrigued and persuaded Larry, another hiking friend, to help me find a way into the canyon. We found some trailheads and later, with more hikers, returned for a series of expeditions into the Barranca. During these adventures, we discovered two huge waterfalls in the deep gorge. Each waterfall drops almost vertically for more than 150 feet into deep pools. The pools are surrounded by sheer canyon walls several hundred feet high. To the best of my knowledge we were the first expat hikers to ever explore this canyon, although local Mexicans, and indigenous people before them, were certainly familiar with the place.

The Barranca cuts through a plateau covered with small farms, then enters a deep gorge. The outer canyon is perhaps 100 feet deep for most of its length, but when it hits the bluffs, the walls rise three or four times that high. In the deep gorge, the base of the canyon is no more than 30 yards wide, with cliffs on either side that rise several hundred feet. Below the two big falls, water rushes down the canyon with considerable force. On the way to the canyon's mouth at Citala, this year-round stream cascades over many smaller falls. In 2009, while on one of our early explorations of the gorge, we met local farmer named Raul. He obligingly guided us to the top of the upper falls. After the hike, Raul invited us to come back in a few weeks for a Corn Harvest Fiesta. This fiesta has become a yearly event. In October of 2014, 28 expats hiked the Barranca and celebrated our Sixth Annual Corn Harvest Fiesta with Raul and his family.

View to the south west, looking toward Tapalpa. The valley floor is a checkered with small farms and dotted with little pueblos like Atotonilco in the center of the photo. The valley continues all the way to the dry lakes that run north and south in the great valley leading from Guadalajara to Colima.

Atotonilco nestles right at the foot of the escarpment. It is a quiet, out-of-the-way little village, filled with friendly, unassuming farm families. They don't make much money, but they seem happy. This whole valley used to be controlled by Hacienda de Citala and Hacienda San Juan de Gracia two estates that had dominated the area since at least the 18th Century. When these haciendas were broken up after the Revolution, the lands were distributed to families whose ancestors had worked those fields for hundreds of years, often earning little more than a pittance. When the hacendados (hacienda owners) lost the lands, they abandoned their sumptuous cases grandes (great houses) and other outbuildings. These buildings then became the centers of the pueblos that grew up around them. In many of these communities, the local church was once the chapel attached to the casa grande of a defunct hacienda.

The Plateau

Jerry prepares to explore the plateau in hopes of finding a trail. Jerry and his wife Lori have been periodically visiting the Lake Chapala area over the last few years. Jerry retired from a small landscaping business and he and Lori now own a home in Hawaii. He is an extraordinarily friendly guy. My wife and I like to joke that Jerry met and befriended more people in Ajijic within a few days of first arriving than we had gotten to know over several years. Lori, as a young woman, narrowly escaped from the killing fields of her native Cambodia. In spite of that dark beginning, she is a bright and cheerful woman. She is also a wonderful cook who loves throwing dinner parties.

The gently rolling plateau is not a difficult hike and has very little elevation gain or loss. Grassy meadows are separated by swathes of thick brush. The trick in getting around lies in thinking like a cow. Each grassy area is connected by a path through the brambles created by the cattle that graze these meadows. Sometimes the paths are faint, but you can find your way through the maze by paying close attention. Spiny acacia brush abounds, as well as nopal cactus seen above. Sticking to open areas and cow paths is the only way to avoid getting scratched up. I recommend long pants and ankle-lenghth boots in this country.

Cempasuchil is the Nahuatl word for wild marigolds. Nahuatl is the language spoken by the Aztecs and still spoken today by many of Mexico's indigenous people. A large number of words and place names in modern Mexican Spanish are of Nahuatl origin. After the fall rains, the little yellow flowers flourished, giving the meadows a yellowish tinge. Cempasuchil is used during the Day of the Dead fiesta at the beginning of November. The flower was one of the symbols of death for the pre-hispanic people.

What NOT to bump into while hiking. The spines on this nopal cactus are 2-3 inches long and needle sharp. However, the flesh of the nopal "paddles" is very nutritious and quite tasty. It is, of course, necessary to carefully shave off the spines. Once that is done, the paddles can be roasted whole, or cut up into strips to be boiled or sauteed. I like to eat the freshly cut strips raw. They are crisp and juicy with a slightly tart taste. Used with a dip, they can be delicious. Nopal cactus grows throughout most of Mexico. It is one of a large variety of natural foods available at little or no cost to those willing to harvest and prepare them.

A large cloud bank engulfs Cerro Garcia. The clouds came in quickly and soon most of the mountain was shrouded. Even as we were exploring the plateau, another group of our hiking friends was climbing to the summit of Garcia. We hoped that they had thought to bring rain ponchos because it looked like it might get wet up there. Getting soaked at 9000 feet would not be fun and hypothermia is always a danger in those conditions. A couple of years ago, I hiked Cerro Garcia during a white-out like this. However, that was in summer. We later learned that everyone returned from the summit safely.

A small herd of brahman cattle dozes in a sunny meadow. Brahmans are generally placid and unaggressive. They were developed by crossing several different breeds of cattle from India and Pakistan. They made their way into Mexico probably by way of the United States and Brazil, both of whom were developing brahman herds in the early to mid-20th Century. The breed is favored because of its ability to stand heat, its resistance to insects, and a long reproductive life span which exceeds that of other kinds of cattle.

Other types of cattle shared the plateau area. This little calf seemed utterly fascinated by us. He followed us for a considerable distance and kept edging closer. Finally he began dancing around us in ever narrowing circles. I had never seen anything like it. Cattle, and particularly calves, are usually very shy and move away from hikers when approached. Finally, Gary stopped and got into a staring contest with the calf. Eventually the little fellow lost interest and moved back to his mom, who had been mooing anxiously in the distance.

Salvia, or sage, grew in moist, shady areas of the plateau. We encountered various flowering plants along our route. Due to the unusually late rains, wildflowers of many types abounded. Generally, the rainy season runs from mid-June to late October, but it has lasted into December this year.

We found this beautifully marked fellow hopping through the grass. The grasshopper was about 4 inches long from the tip of his feelers to his tail. He was relatively easy to catch, so I placed him on this flat rock for a photo. He remained still long enough for the shot but then sprang away into the brush.

There were also many varieties of the spiky maguey plant. Tequila is made from the blue agave, one species of maguey. The pre-hispanic people made many uses of this plant. In addition to pulque, a mildly alcoholic beverage, they used the fibre to make sandals, clothes, and rope. The sharp spines at the end of the leaves provided needles for sewing.

Chuck and Gary emerge from one of the many cow paths through the thick brush.  By this point, we had decided that there was no easy route to the east of Windy Point. The brush had gotten thicker and thicker and we encountered one barbed wire fence after another. We reversed course to try our luck in the more open country along the western edge of the cliffs.

This was our first glimpse of Matty's Point, with Cerro Garcia in the background. After thrashing through some brush, we came to the edge of a steep drop-off. In front of us, a deep ravine extended back into the cliff face. Directly across the ravine we saw this point of land. Below it were sheer cliffs. If we could get to the end of the point, we might find another great mirador. First, however, we had to find a way around the ravine. Crossing it was out of the question. To find out how we finally got to the mirador I later named Matty's point, you'll have to wait a week for the second part of this hiking story.

This completes the first of two parts of my series on the Windy Point Trail. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, please leave your thoughts in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Thursday, December 4, 2014

San Luis Potosí Part 8: The ornate Templo del Carmen

Inside the great dome of the Templo del Carmen. Any visit to San Luis's Plaza del Carmen should include a look at this ornate church. Of the great complex built by the Orden de Carmelitas Descalzos (the Order of the Barefoot Carmelites), the Templo is the only remaining structure still used for religious purposes. This view of the dome's interior provides a sense of the intricate ornamentation that distinguishes the Baroque style, particularly the version called Churrigueresque. To locate Templo del Carmen on an interactive map, click here.

The Templo's Exterior

The facade and tower of the Templo, with the main dome on the left. The Plaza del Carmen, in front of the church, was once occupied by various structures that were part of a large religious complex. The area that formerly served as the convent's orchard is now a huge park called Alameda Juan SarabiaMuseo del Virreinato (Museum of the Viceroyalty), the building to the right of the church, used to be the Carmelite Convent where the friars lived, prayed, and worked.

The two-tiered steeple is supported by spiraling Solomonic columns. Solomonic columns are a typical Baroque feature. The Carmelite Order originated in the early 13th Century among hermits living a life of poverty and contemplation on the slopes of Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land. Their name comes from their adoption of the Virgen del Carmen (Virgin of Mt. Carmel) as their patron. As a result of Christian military reverses during the Crusades, the Carmelitas were forced to leave for Europe. There, they traded their hermetic life for that of friars and nuns. However, faced with the Hundred Years War, the Black Plague, and the Renaissance, the Order became worldly and somewhat demoralized. In 1562, an extraordinary woman named Santa Teresa attempted to revive the Mt. Carmel tradition of isolation, contemplation, and prayer. She founded the Convento de San José for nuns in Ávila, Spain. Since poverty was a key element of the tradition, the nuns were called Carmelitas Descalzos (Barefoot Carmelites). Santa Teresa worked closely with a man called San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross), who founded a convent for friars with a similar orientation. In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII recognized the Carmelitas Descalzos as an independent unit of the overall Carmelite Order.

The exuberance of Churrigueresque Baroque can be seen in the facade of the Templo. The facade is designed with three sections, one above the other. The section on the bottom and middle are rectangular, while the one at the top is triangular. Each section is filled with intricately decorated columns, floral ornamentation, and niches containing saints. The first Carmelite convent in New Spain was founded in Mexico City in 1586, followed by several more in other parts of the country over the next few decades. When, exactly, the first Carmelites arrived in San Luis Potosi appears to be a matter of some dispute. Various sources cite the  dates of 1735, 1738, and 1743. There is some agreement that Friar Nicolas de Jesus Maria and Friar Joseph of the Assumption were the first to arrive. They managed to obtain a license for a Hospice in San Luis three years later. In 1747, King Philip V of Spain gave the Carmelites permission to found a convent. The first stone for the present church was laid on February 23, 1749.

The triangular top level is filled with religious figures and symbols. Along the roof line are six ornaments called finials. At the peak is a statue of the Arcangel San Miguel. Just below the roof line, cherubs lift a veil to reveal the face of God. Below that, in the center, is a niche containing the statue of the Virgin with the Christ Child. Four pilasters carved in the estipite style are on either side of her. A pilaster is a kind of false column. It functions as an architectural decoration and doesn't support any weight. Between the pilasters are Santa Magdelena de Pazzi on the left and San Angelo on the right. The construction of the Templo and its convent were greatly assisted by funds from the estate of Nicolas I. Fernando Torres, a Spaniard from Seville who married a rich woman named Dona Gertrudis Maldonado Zapata. Using her fortune as a base, he became even wealthier and eventually acquired the Haciendas del Pozo and Peotillos. The marriage produced no heirs and, upon his death in 1752, Fernando Torres left a will dedicating his fortune to the Carmelita Convent and Templo, and also to found Colegio de San Nicolas, a school for girls.

The middle section of the facade centers on the stained glass choir window. Once again four pilasters surround the window, two on each side. Between each set of pilasters is a niche containing the two founders of the Carmelitas Descalzos, Santa Teresa on the left, and San Juan de la Cruz on the right. Notice the intricate designs on the pilasters and the area around the window. Construction continued from 1749 until 1763, when the church was officially blessed. However, the steeple wasn't completed until 1768. The blessing of the church that year was a huge event in San Luis Potosi. Attendees included all the other religious Orders, the civil officials, and the people of the city. In particular, the neighborhood of San Sebastian was invited, because the masons who did the extraordinary stonework lived there. Chief among them was an illiterate--but very skilled--indigenous artisan named José Lorenzo. Today, when viewing a masterful work like the Templo del Carmen, it is all too easy to forget that humble people like José Lorenzo were its actual creators.

The bottom section is centered on the main entrance of the Templo. At the base of a towering Solomonic column, a vendor squats, hoping for a sale to an emerging worshiper. Once again, there are four columns, two on a side, each bracketing a niche. The niche to the left of the door contains San Elias and the right holds San Eliseo, his disciple. Those two are Old Testament figures associated with Mt. Carmel that the Carmelites claim as early founders. Unlike the pilasters on the upper two sections, the Solomonic columns are load-bearing. In 1758, while the upper sections were still under construction, a master architect named Miguel Espinosa de los Monteros visited the site. He was famed for his work on Mexico City's great Cathedral and the Royal Palace (now the Palacio Nacional). He used estipite pilasters in those projects and it is thought that their use on the Templo del Carmen was due to his influence.

Two huge, carved, wooden doors guard the main entrance. On the left door, the figure of the Virgen del Carmen holds the Christ Child. The right door contains the image of San José, her husband. San José is the patron of workers and ordinary people. The convent next door to the Templo did not have a long life. At the beginning of the 1810 War of Independence, two of the key friars supported the insurgent side and had to flee. By the end of the war there were only four friars left and the convent was effectively abandoned. The 1859 Reform Laws of Benito Juarez resulted in the seizure of the convent building and grounds. The orchard, which once produced food for the inhabitants of the convent, became Alameda Juan Sarabia, a public park. The convent building underwent a succession of uses, including barracks, warehouse, jail, gunpowder depot, Palace of Justice and, eventually, the Museo del Virreinato. Teatro de la Paz, situated next to the Museo del Virreinato, was also once part of the convent. Through the efforts of Bishop Montes de Oca, the Templo was recovered by the Church in 1886. It was finally returned to the Carmelitas Descalzos in 1923, and they have administered up to the present day.

The Main Nave

The main nave of the Templo contains more than a dozen carved and gilded retablos. Above, Carole inspects the retablos lining the sides of the main nave. Because there are so many, I will only show a selection. In the 19th Century, the interior of the church was remodeled with many Neo-classic features. Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras was the architect responsible for those changes. Several years before he worked on this Templo, he rebuilt the Carmelite church in Celaya. All over Mexico, examples of his work can be found. In addition to being an architect, Tresguerras was also an accomplished painter and sculptor. He was also a political activist and was jailed briefly by the Spanish during the War of Independence.

The richly decorated pulpit stands next to one of the tall, gilded retablos. Raised pulpits evolved from acoustical needs of the Church. From the earliest times, churches were constructed to amplify natural acoustics. The raised position of a pulpit, allows the speaker to be heard and seen clearly by the congregation. The elaborate decoration of the pulpit is intended to emphasize the importance of what is said, just as its positioning enhances the sound level. To the right of the pulpit is the retablo of Santa Teresa.

The altar designed by Tresguerras shows a strong Neo-classical influence. The four tall Corinthian-capped columns are typical features of Neo-classical design. As its name implies, this style imitates that of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The old altar was destroyed and replaced by this one in 1824-25. The lines of its Neo-classic replacement are clean, with far less adornment and detail than the Baroque altar contained. The figure in the center of the sunburst is, once again, the Virgen del Carmen.

The interior of the dome seen in the first photo of this posting. Catholic churches are often laid out in a cruciform (cross-like) design. The long rectangular room where the congregation sits is called the nave because it resembles Noah's Ark and the Barque of St. Peter.  The nave typically has an altar at one end and a raised choir loft at the other. The transept is a shorter rectangle which crosses the nave just in front of the altar area. The arms of the transept are often used as side-chapels devoted to the Virgen de Guadalupe or other saints. The main dome is situated directly above the point at which the two rectangles cross. The base of a dome is often octagonal, and framed by four triangular spaces decorated with portraits or scuptures of the four most important Doctors of the Church. The windows around the base of the dome help illuminate the area in front of the altar. In addition, they throw light upward onto the elaborately decorated interior of the dome itself. As you can see, the effect can be mesmerizingly beautiful.

The Retablos

Retablo de Santa Teresa was created between 1777-1780. It forms part of the right transept, just around the corner from the pulpit and the main altar. Elaborately carved and gilded retablos are another signature element of the late Baroque style.

Retablo de San Juan de la Cruz was created at the same time as the one for Santa Teresa. It stands in the left transept, with the altar area to its right. Thus, the two founders of the Carmelitas Descalzos were given positions of great honor. They not only bracket the main exterior door, but flank the main altar itself.

Retablo de los Arcangeles was created in 1790. It has been described as "the most exuberant work of Baroque art in the world." In the three niches on either side, and one at the top center, stand the seven principal Archangels. They are Michael, Gabriel, Rafael, Jehudiel, Azrael, Uriel, and Baraquiel. I found the size and incredible detail of this work to be simply overwhelming.

The Archangel Michael is placed at the top center, clearly the most important position. Michael is seen as the commander of the armies of God. He is revered among Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. In addition to Michael, this one small section of the retablo is populated with a host of cherubs and other figures. The amount of work required to create this rebablo boggles the mind.

Retablo de la Divina Providencia was also created approximately 1790. Some of the figures appearing in its niches include St. Albert of Sicily (lower left), Santa Teresa with the Christ Child (lower right), and San Juan de la Cruz (upper center).

Detail of Retablo de la Divina Providencia. Again, the incredible detail is almost more than one can absorb, even when focusing on just a small section of the retablo.

Camarín del Virgen del Carmen 

Camarín de la Virgen del Carmen. A camarín is a ceremonial dressing room where the clothing of the Virgin Mary or another saint is changed. This gilded retablo is in three panels, covered by a huge scalloped shell. The glass case in the center panel holds the Virgen del Carmen. Above her, looking down, is San José.  The right and left panels, respectively, contain Santa Ana and San Joaquin.

The scalloped ceiling of the retablo is rich in symbolism. The scallop shell is the symbol of St. James, or Santiago the Moorslayer, patron of the Conquest. The origin of the symbol relates to the transport of the body of Santiago to Spain after his martyrdom. According to legend, as the ship approached shore a great storm washed the body overboard. However, it later washed ashore intact, covered with scallop shells. The lines in the shell, meeting at a central point, also denote the many routes that pilgrims take on their way to visit the tomb of Santiago in Compostela, Spain.

The Virgen del Carmen forms the centerpiece of this magnificent retablo. While the original retablo was destroyed in a fire in 1957, the one above is a faithful replica. In reviewing the photos for this posting, I was struck by the contrast between the ideas of poverty and simplicity upon which the Carmelitas Descalzos were founded, and the incredible wealth it took to build this ornate edifice. One wonders how they reconciled it. I suppose it had something to do with celebrating the "glory of God." But still...

This completes Part 8 of my San Luis Potosí series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you take the time to leave a comment either in the Comments section below or directly by email. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim