The legendary ruins of Teotihuacan, Palenque and Chichen Itza in Mexico are a fascinating introduction to Precolumbian cultures.
There are many unfortunate cliches which persist about Mexicans. That they’re all taco eating, tequila-swigging, mariachi playing “bad hombres”. And even worse ones about the country itself. That visitors run the risk of being kidnapped, robbed or caught in the crossfire of the much mythicised War on Drugs. Too little, I think, is made of the incredible historical heritage of Mexico as testified to by the many archaeological sites of pre-Columbian civilisations found here. Not just Mayan but many others like the Teotihuacan, Zapotec, Toltec and Aztec. Too little is made of the quaint little colonial towns of San Cristobal and Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-ha-ca) with their cobblestoned alleys, ridiculously colourful houses, leafy squares and surprisingly buzzing nightlife.
And too little is made of the thriving culture of arts and crafts – my favourite example of which is the dramatic murals that grew popular in the 1930s in the aftermath of the socialist Mexican Revolution. Bold, colourful, allegorical, these vast canvases often glorify peasants and workers who are shown straining their sinewy muscles and raging against evil (vaguely American looking) capitalists. Sometimes on a closer look, you can spot a Lenin-like figure smiling cryptically in their midst. As you get closer to the Yucatan coast the theme of the murals changes to Mayan warriors shown taking a defiant stance against armoured Spanish hordes.
In many parts of the American continent European invaders more or less replaced the indigenous cultures that existed before their arrival. In Mexico however, there is a kind of continuity that reaches across the 300-odd years of Spanish rule to bridge the pre-Columbian cultures with the present day. Mexican Catholicism is often said to be syncretic – an amalgamation of Christianity and more traditional pagan religions. The most popular example of this is the Day of the Dead festival which honours dead relatives and ancestors. Another example is the cult of Santa Muerte or the Goddess of Death – a skeletal saint sometimes shown wearing a virginal bridal gown. She holds the dubious honour of being held as their patron saint by many gangs and cartels.
The majority of Mexicans are in fact “mestizos” i.e. of mixed European and indigenous descent. In the southern and south-eastern part of the country, which is where I spent most of my time, people have mostly indigenous ancestry. There are still Maya-speaking people in the Yucatan and Zapotec-speaking people in Oaxaca. In all, there are about 60 different languages spoken in Mexico!
And as far as the question of safety is concerned I haven’t seen such a large military presence anywhere else I’ve travelled considering the country is not actually at war. Apparently, this started back in 2006 when the then President Felipe Calderon called in the armed forces to crack down on the cartels. Whether he actually succeeded in reducing drug-related violence remains highly debatable. Nevertheless, it is simultaneously reassuring and slightly disturbing to see masses of machine-gun toting men in camouflage driving around in trucks, open jeeps and on bikes. Though they are surprisingly affable and some will even appreciatively whistle and wave at flocks of female tourists as they’re driving past…
Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the travel company responsible for organising my two-week trip – G Adventures. I went on their “Mexico: Cities, Cuisine and Ruins” tour in March 2017. It was a jam-packed itinerary which started in Mexico City, then went on to Puebla, Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas, Palenque, Merida, Chichen Itza and ended with some downtime at the beaches of Playa del Carmen.
Mexico Travel Diary Part 1: Mexico City
Mexico City is, for the most part, a fairly nondescript urbanised sprawl – all concrete high rises and traffic-clogged freeways. There is not much that hints at the fascinating story of its origin. Legend has it that a nomadic tribe of the Mexica civilisation happened upon a small island set amidst swamp land. Here they saw the sign that had been long prophesied in their religion: an eagle perched on top of a cactus clutching a snake in its talons. The cactus represented the Axis Mundi or the centre of the world which formed the connection between heaven (the eagle) and the underworld (the snake). This is the symbol now depicted in the national flag of Mexico.
Despite the inhospitable terrain the Mexicas, or Aztecs as they were later known, built a city which grew to be five times the size of its contemporary London! When the Spanish first came upon the city they rubbed their eyes in disbelief. Huge pyramids and towers seemed to rise out of the water surrounded by an intricate system of floating gardens and canal waterways. Unfortunately as they were wont to do, subsequent to defeating the Aztecs and colonising the city, the Spanish destroyed it almost completely. They then used the materials of its wreckage to rebuild a capital more to their taste. Some glimpses of the erstwhile Aztec city can be seen in the ruins of Templo Mayor which lie in silent reproach just behind the rather grotesque Baroque hotchpotch that is the Metropolitan Cathedral.
A tour of the local markets in Mexico City is quite worthwhile. In these labyrinthic bazaars there are many curiosities like stalls catering to shamans peddling everything that might be needed to concoct a spell like dried rattlesnake skins, skulls and voodoo dolls. There are also stalls selling brightly coloured potions in dusty bottles. Their labels promise everything from love, sex, money and health, to revenge and death – whatever floats your boat. There are flower markets with bouquets shaped into puppies and teddy bears(!), stalls selling the famous mole (spices ground into paste), and of course pinatas – giant colourful pinatas of all shapes and sizes.
Also unmissable is the Palacio de Bellas Artes (the Palace of Fine Arts) which houses some fine examples of the murals I mentioned before as well as paintings by Mexico’s most famous artist the indomitable Frida Kahlo.
But the absolute highlight of my visit to Mexico City was the Museum of Anthropology – which houses by far one of the most impressive collections of archaeological artefacts I have ever seen. Unfortunately most of the explanations next to the individual exhibits are in Spanish. All the more reason to learn the damn language and make a second trip!
Mexico Travel Diary Part 2: Teotihuacan
A short drive from Mexico City is Teotihuacan named after the civilisation that flourished here from around 200 BC to 500 AD. Their culture and architectural style influenced later civilisations like the Aztecs (who rose to prominence almost 1000 years later) and the Mayans. Hence there are many similarities across archaeological sites of all three.
Very often there is a large stepped flat-topped pyramid, which served as the main temple, facing an open square. Smaller pyramidical structures are scattered at strategically designed positions around the square to enhance the acoustics of the area. Its easy enough to imagine a priest resplendent in his feathered finery climbing up the steps of the temple-pyramid. His booming voice reverberating around the whole plaza as he executes a bloody human sacrifice and then throws the body of the poor doomed soul down the stairs.
The tour guides who take you around the ruins often focus on these more gory aspects of Mesoamerican civilisations. They recount with ghoulish glee the tales of human sacrifice. How the priests would stab the sacrificial victim, tear out his still beating heart and hold it up to the gods, then flay the body and wear its skin like a body suit! It was considered a great honour to be chosen to be sacrificed, in fact, child sacrifices were often chosen from noble families. Nevertheless, despite all the efforts made to glorify the act the chosen victims often got understandably skittish as the day of the ritual grew near. So opiate substances were used to put them in a drug-fuelled haze. Blood and the human heart had great symbolic significance in these cultures, which is why most buildings were painted a fiery red.
Along with architectural styles there were similarities in the religions, mythologies and gods of the various Mesoamerican civilisations as well. For example, Quetzalcoatl (depicted as a feathered serpent) who was considered the creator of the world by the Aztecs was also worshipped albeit under a different name by the Teotihuacan and Mayan people. Similarly, the Aztec Rain God Tlaloc was very similar in form to the Mayan Storm God Chaac. He is frequently depicted with bared teeth and fangs, round glaring eyes, and an elaborate nose ring.
For the Aztecs, every day in the skies there played out a constant battle between darkness and light. Every night the Sun God fought his way across the sky to make his way to daylight again. There was the perennial danger of him not being strong enough to survive the night which would plunge the world into eternal darkness. Hence sacrifices had to be made to sustain him and give him strength. The Mayans had their own version of this myth. In theirs after sunset the Sun God took the form of a Jaguar who then made his way through the underworld fighting various nocturnal terrors along the way. The Aztecs also believed the world would end every 52 years unless (you guessed it) appropriate sacrifices were made to appease the gods.
Mexico Travel Diary Part 3: Oaxaca
Oaxaca is a charming, impossibly colourful Spanish colonial town. At its heart, as is the case in almost every Mexican town, is the Zocalo or main square. Life slows to a crawl in these squares in the afternoons. Many a pleasant hour can be whiled away dozing on the benches and soaking up the sun, browsing around the markets for street food or souvenirs, or simply people watching. The church of Santo Domingo (there is one of these in pretty much every Mexican town as well) is a giddily kitsch confection – every inch of its interior is covered with a profusion of gold designs.
Next to the church is the Museo de las Cultures de Oaxaca famous for its exhibit on Tomb No. 7 excavated from the site of Monte Alban nearby. The intricate silver and gold jewellery and a ceremonial skull inlaid with turquoise are the highlights of this treasure trove. The upper levels of the museum also afford views of the cactus gardens behind it.
A popular full day trip from Oaxaca covers the aforementioned Zapotec site of Monte Alban as well as the famous petrified waterfalls – Hierve el Agua. The latter has a very dramatic setting amidst chocolate coloured mountains. Down the sheer side of a cliff what appear to be cascading waterfalls are actually not water at all but rock formations. They are stalactites made of calcium carbonate deposited over thousands of years by water dribbling down from fresh water pools at the top. The pools themselves create a breathtaking “infinity” effect.
Mexico Travel Diary Part 4: Palenque
One of the features that sets the Mayans apart from other civilisations is that they were in fact made up of independent city-states rather than a unified empire under one ruler. One of the popular theories about the decline of the Mayans is warfare caused by intensifying political rivalries between the city states. The city-state of Palenque set amidst a lush jungle environ was ruled by Pakal – one of the most legendary of all Mayan kings. He ascended to the throne aged 12 and ruled till the ripe old age of 80. Similar to the ones in Egypt (but unlike others found in Mesoamerica) the main pyramid in Palenque actually housed a royal tomb. It’s here that a Mexican archaeologist found a sarcophagus containing the remains of Pakal, his face covered by a jade mosaic death mask.
One of the highlights of this site is a complex of three temples facing each other – each built on a raised platform, climbing which offers great views across the jungle ruins. At the tops of these temples are chambers holding intricately carved stone tablets. The most interesting of these is the tablet found in the Temple of the Foliated Cross. Two standing figures stand in supplication on either side of a cross covered with lush foliage. The cross stands on top of a serpent’s head. The arms of the cross are actually carved into ears of corn from which emerge heads of men. The cross is supposed to depict the Tree of Life. The corn motif is widely used in Mayan religious imagery – maize was the main crop for the Mayans and worshipped as a life-giving deity.
Mexico Travel Diary Part 5: Chichen Itza
One of the most visited Mayan sites in Mexico lies a short drive away from the beaches of Cancun. Its named after the natural sink hole or cenote near which it was built. The Sacred Cenote was the site of many a sacrifice. An American archaeologist reaped a pretty penny back in the day, having bought the “plantation” surrounding it for a pittance and then dredged up a treasure trove of gold, jade and priceless artifacts from its depths.
The centrepiece of Chichen Itza is, of course, El Castillo or The Castle, the giant pyramid that the Mayans knew by another name – the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. On spring and autumn equinoxes every year at a certain time of day, along one of the sloping edges of the pyramid a series of triangular shadows is formed which looks like a serpent slithering down from the heavens. On all four sides are stairways of 91 steps with one common step around the top of the pyramid. The significance of this is 91×4 +1 = 365 which is the number of days in a solar year. As is often the case in Mesoamerican sites the outer pyramid was actually built over smaller inner pyramids much like Russian nesting dolls. In fact not so long ago it was possible for tourists to climb a staircase up the inner pyramid to a chamber at the top where archaeologists had found a beautiful jaguar throne inlaid with jade.
One of the other highlights of the site is the Great Ball Court with stone rings affixed high on the surrounding walls which presumably performed a similar function to the basketball hoop. On the walls are carved reliefs of ball players. One of whom is shown as kneeling and decapitated with blood spewing out in a way that will bring a tear to the eyes of any Tarantino fan. Yes, apparently even if you were the Tom Brady of Mayan times it didn’t preclude you from the prospect of being chopped up as an offering to the gods. The acoustics of the ball court are incredible, tour groups are often shepherded by their guides to one end and asked to holler and wait for the echo to bounce back from the other end. Another curiosity is the Skull Platform which, as the name suggests, is a stone platform with rows of skulls carved all around it and the Platform of Eagles and Jaguars.