Crazy about Cacti in Ocotlán, Jalisco, Mexico

Andrei Zúñiga's outstanding Cactus Garden at the Gran Vastaguera Restaurant


See related article below: THE FOCO TONAL OF OCOTLAN

Photos and text © 2010 by John Pint

Andrei ZúñigaUp until a few days ago, the only big attraction I knew of in Ocotlán (at the eastern end of Lake Chapala) was its curious “Foco Tonal,” said to be a place where cosmic energy is focused. So, when our friends Justus and Pinky Mohl invited us to join them on a visit to Ocotlán, we assumed it was to see the Foco Tonal. “Foco what?” they said, “We don’t know what that is, but we think you’ll love the cactus garden at La Gran Vastaguera Restaurant.”

Since we had brought up the subject of the Foco Tonal, naturally these two Mexican-German adventurers wanted to see it…and we the cactus garden.

First we went to the Foco Tonal, which is located an hour’s drive from Guadalajara, just southwest of Ocotlán, This is supposedly what Carlos Castaneda would have called a Power Spot—discovered by a Shaman some years ago. It’s usually crowded with people who hope to be energized by standing in this exact spot. Since you can read a full report on this place at the bottom of this very page, I’ll just mention that there is something curious about The Spot which everyone seems to experience, from the very gullible to the highly skeptical. Anyone who stands on The Spot and speaks loudly, hears his or her own voice distorted by a kind of reverberation, or echo. While everything else going on at this place could be attributed to wishful thinking or whatever, I haven’t heard any good scientific explanation for the weird sound distortion.

What’s new at the Foco Tonal is that you must now pay 15 pesos to visit the place and then you’re forced to listen to a long religious/occult “sermon” which, I suspect, no respectable shaman would ever stand for.

Sitting through the sermon

Energized or not, we were definitely hungry, so we finally headed for the Gran Vastaguera Restaurant, just off the road from Ocotlán to La Barca. Well, the Mohls were right. Once we had ordered, we were irresistibly drawn into the cactus gardens which surround the building and overlook the lake. We found one cactus called “viejito” (little old man) with long white “hair.” I never imagined it would be possible to “pet” a cactus, but this one’s locks are as soft and smooth as silk.

Next we came upon a truly bizarre plant: a large succulent flower with a whole lot of flies buzzing around its center. At this moment, who should walk up to us but Andrei Zúñiga Cruz, owner of the restaurant and the man who collected all the cacti around us. “This plant is Stapelia gigantea or Carrion Flower in English,” Andrei told us. “It looks like a cactus but it’s actually a member of the milkweed family. The texture of the flower—which can grow to a foot (35 cm) in diameter—resembles animal skin and it gives off a putrid smell like rotting meat. As you can see, it attracts lots of flies and that’s how it gets pollinated.”
Carrion Flower: Stapelia gigantea.

Andrei and Axel Orozco Mohl with old FerocactusNext, Andrei took us to see a large, barrel-shaped Ferocactus which he thinks is at least 90 years old. In sharp contrast, he then showed us a very small, unassuming cactus. “This is Geohintonia mexicana and it’s worth about 300 Euros in Europe.” This surprisingly valuable cactus (named after its discoverer, George S. Hinton, who found it in Nuevo Leon in 1992) opened up the subject of smuggling. We learned, to our surprise, that after arms and drugs, the next most profitable product for illegal trafficking in Mexico is cacti. The reason for this situation became a bit clearer when Andrei casually mentioned that all the cacti in the world originated in the Americas. “I didn‘t know this until I went to a magnificent botanical garden in Lanzarote, one of Spain’s Canary Islands. This garden specialized in cacti. To my surprise, I found that 90% of what I saw there was from Mexico.”




Axel Orozco Mohl of Guadalajara with a tiny Geohintonia mexicana cactus which is so rare it is said to be worth about 300 Euros in Europe.

In Lanzarote, Andrei Zúñiga fell in love with cacti and conceived the idea of what is today La Gran Vastaguera Restaurant. “I had been traveling around Europe for three years,” he says, “and right before going to Lanzarote, I had been working in a restaurant in England. I knew that my family’s restaurant, here in Ocotlán, had been closed for seven years and then and there I decided to reopen it, together with these cactus gardens.”

Andrei’s wanderings were over. Even though his studies were in International Relations, he set out to make his dream come true and today has over 700 varieties of cacti and succulents as well as a restaurant famed for excellent local and international food at reasonable prices.

I think you’d have to go a long way from Ocotlán to find a bigger, more interesting cactus garden than Andrei Zúñiga’s—or a more delicious salsa lathered over your pescado. You can phone the restaurant at (392) 9234421.

How to get there
From Guadalajara, take highway 44 south towards Chapala for 21 kilometers. Turn left (east) on highway 36 heading towards Ocotlán. To go to the Foco Tonal, drive 50 kilometers and look for signs. The exact location of the Foco Tonal is N20 19.464 W102 47.437.

To reach the Gran Vastaguera Restaurant, continue on highway 36, passing Ocotlán and heading toward Jamay and La Barca. About six kilometers past Ocotlán note a big sign on the right for Restaurante El Fuerte. You don’t want this one, but the very next right turn after it, is for La Gran Vastaguera (at kilometer 6.5).
Of course you can also get to Ocotlán via the more relaxing, but more expensive Autopista, highway 15. Driving time from Guadalajara is about one hour either way and if you live on the Lake, it’s practically in your back yard.



Photos and text © 2005 by John Pint

At the end of a dusty dirt road about three kilometers southwest of Ocotlán, lies an extremely curious “site” which is located next to an extremely curious “sight.” The latter, you can see from afar, towering over the nearby fields, farms and fences of piled volcanic rocks.

“What in the world is that?” I asked my neighbor, electronic music pioneer Joel Vandroogenbroeck, who had lured me out here among the ranchitos near Ocotlán with the promise that I’d definitely find something interesting to write about.

“That,” said Joel, “is The Castle, which, in my opinion looks like it was built with the collaborative efforts of Dali, Gaudi and Escher. It certainly is unique.”

In fact, we learned later that it was built by Don Manuel Domínguez, a local citizen with quite an imagination. Dozens of towers and turrets of many styles, colors and materials sprout like mushrooms above the garishly decorated castle, housing balconies galore. It’s the perfect setting for a great fairy tale, but, unfortunately, it is not open to the public because, after all, it is Don Manuel’s home.

The public, however, does not really come to this spot to gaze at the curious castle, but to visit the “site” mentioned above: a spot just 400 meters to the east, known locally as the Foco Tonal.

Readers of Carlos Castaneda’s books may recall that his mentor, Don Juan, often traveled great distances to visit a “place of power.” Well, it seems that in 1998, Don Manuel Domínguez invited a clairvoyant to visit him at the castle and this shaman, Don José Sebastián, wandered about the area and came back to Don Manuel with the news that there was “a very powerful foco tonal” on his property. Don José was quite excited about this, because he normally had to travel all the way to Michoacán to find anything similar. Soon, word spread far and wide that there was something strange about a certain spot on Don Manuel’s property and people started coming to soak up the good vibrations, psychic energy or whatever it was. Word spread that many were cured of various infirmities and from a trickle of visitors, it turned into a torrent, especially on weekends. It should be noted that there is no admission fee for visiting the Foco Tonal, although a few pesos are charged for parking (2010 update: there is now a 15 peso admission fee).

Jennifer Orozco Mohl on The SpotSo, what will you see at this place, which some people claim is a “door to infinity?” The answer, almost certainly, is: nothing out of the ordinary. The spot is marked by a sunken ceramic circle enclosed by a low wall. When you step into the exact center of the circle, you see nothing special, but your hearing suddenly changes, as if you had just stepped into a giant tin can and if you speak, you clearly hear a reverberation almost like an echo. I first suspected that this auditory phenomenon was due to reflection from the 50-centimeter-high circular wall around The Spot, but on a second visit, I tried covering part of the wall with a blanket, but this had no effect on the weird sound at all. You may want to visit the place and try to figure it out for yourself.

As for the curative powers of that special spot, my nephew Ricky Ibarra reported that three busloads of his schoolmates went to the Foco Tonal and most of them claimed they had been cured of one health problem or another. “I myself,” said Ricky, “went there with a painful back injury—from playing football—and left the place with no more pain. However, I must admit that several weeks later, the pain came back.”

Now, the maximum amount of time you are allowed to spend inside the Foco Tonal is fifteen minutes (in order to give everyone a chance). Perhaps longer exposure might produce a longer-lasting cure for someone like young Ricky. My neighbor Joel says that he always experiences a surge of energy for about three days after a visit to this place and the local caretakers report that droves of visitors claim to have been cured of all sorts of maladies. It is interesting to note that this seems to be a “secular site,” not associated with any saint or religious group and people who step into the ceramic circle are liable to do just about anything, from Tai Chi moves to simple gawking. You’re on your own (2010 update: the number of visitors has grown so large that you may now be forced to "join a group" if you go to this place).

Joel Vandroogenbroeck soaking up energy in the Foco Tonal

Between the castle and the Foco Tonal, there is, of course, a gift shop. This place features incense, chimes, quartz crystals, books on the occult and—somewhat to my surprise and amusement—sets of “stoneware” pots and pans, which seem to prove that no matter how much psychic power you accumulate, at the end of the day you still can’t heat up your frijoles if you don’t have a good old frying pan.

How to get there: see the article above.