Exploring Ancient Ruins (not beaches) in Mexico
03/01/2006 - 03/05/2006 82 °F
The Pyramid of the Sun, seen from the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico
I've explained before my concept of a Back Pocket Trip. This is a place you've done some research on and picked out to go to when plans for your original destination fall through. As idea after idea was dashed this past March, Jenny and I reached into our pockets and pulled out a gem: The pyramids of Mexico.
As I did even more research in the weeks leading up to the trip, I began to wonder why I hadn't undertaken this one before. The Mexico City area has a wealth of Ancient ruins, pyramids and temples -- way more than I'd thought. Paring the list of ones we'd like to see down to a half dozen or so was difficult. We wanted to minimize the amount of time we'd spend in transit, though, so we decided to base ourselves out of Mexico City. From there, we further narrowed it down to sites within two hours of the city, on its excellent bus network. Everything we'd read steered us away from attempting to rent a car and drive ourselves. Two excellent resources were "Archeological Mexico" by Andrew Coe, and the website of George and Audrey Delange, who in a half dozen trips to Mexico, have managed to see more than 70 different Aztec, Toltec, Mayan, etc., archeological sites, and feature tons of photos and interesting accounts of their visits to each.
Myself, Audrey, George and Jenny
So compelling is their site that Jenny and I actually began our trip by visiting George and Audrey! They live in Phoenix (where our flight to Mexico City departed from), and we arrived the evening before so we could meet them. George and Audrey were excellent hosts. They drove to our hotel, picked us up, and took us to dinner in their favorite Mexican restaurant. We spent hours talking with them about Mexico, other trips, and our lives in general. The time we spent with them erased the bad start we'd had to the trip (flights were so full out of Columbus, we didn't get out till two days later than we'd planned), and got us off on the right foot for our journey to Mexico.
The omens seemed to improve even more when we were upgraded to first class on our flight from Phoenix to Mexico City (nowadays, a rarely obtained perk for airline employees). To save money, Jenny and I had planned on extensive use of the city's subway system. The price of less than 20 cents a ride is hard to argue with, and Jenny and I pretty much used it -- and walking -- as our exclusive means of transportation within the city. We took the subway from the airport to Hotel Roble, in the historic center (which required three connections, but taxis are about $25 there: "Hmmm...$25 or 20 cents...which one...?).
After checking in, we decided to visit one of the many Aztec sites within the city, itself. We headed north to the Tlatelolco, or the Plaza of Three Cultures. It is named that for the Aztec ruins, Spanish church and modern apartment buildings which are all essentially in the same plaza. George and Audrey recommended it, and we figured it was close enough to get to before closing time. A gentle drizzle fell while we slowly paced around the ruins, which prompted me to tease "Jamaica Jenny" -- who claims an amazing ability to draw rain to her wherever she goes for vacation. I'd seen it firsthand last year in Jamaica, thus the nickname. Tlatelolco was an interesting primer for our upcoming overload of ancient Mexican sites, and the attendants were gracious and let us stay nearly a half hour past closing time to take it all in.
That night, we discussed how to rearrange our sightseeing schedule, since we'd lost the two days getting out of Columbus. Monday (the next day -- our first full one in Mexico), was a bit of a problem. Many archeological sites in Mexico are closed on Monday. Our guidebooks (in addition the Coe book, we also took Joyce Kelly's "An Archeological Guide to Central and Southern Mexico") listed the times for each site, and it seemed only two were open tomorrow: Tula, an hour and a half north of Mexico City, and Teotihuacan -- a world class site only about 45 minutes from town. We thought it'd be a good idea to save Teotihuacan for last -- build to a climax -- and do Tula on Monday. That plan was dashed when we arrived at Mexico City's "North" bus station, and were told Tula is also closed on Monday. So, Teotihuacan it was! Start at the top!
Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Moon, seen from the Pyramid of the Sun Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Moon
Teotihuacan is dominated by the Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun (which is the third largest in the world). It is a huge site, the main street along which most of the temples, plazas and pyramids are located is more than a mile long. The street is atmospherically called the Avenue of the Dead. That name, though, along with the Sun and the Moon are not necessarily what the builders called them, though, because Teotihuacan is a bit of mystery. With many ancient Mexican sites, archeologists know who built them, i.e., Tula is Toltec, Cacaxtla was likely Olmec, and so on. They have little clue as to the identity of the original builders of Teotihuacan. Later cultures like the Toltecs and Aztecs knew about the place, and some even used the buildings for sacred ceremonies. However, who the Teotihuacanos were is still a mystery.
Carved column at the Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly
What is certain, though, is that Teotihuacan is one of the most amazing places in Mexico. Jenny and I spent an entire day tramping around the ruins, climbing temples and pyramids, and marveling over murals that have survived more than a thousand years to today. And somehow, Jenny's jinx made for only about 10 minutes of rain sprinkles -- the rest of the day was gorgeous, sunny and warm! Our guidebooks were great, and we were able to follow our progress on the maps, read about the various buildings, and experience it fully as if we had an English-speaking guide. More importantly, we could take our time visiting the site, and not be hurried through it like tour guides often do. The view from atop the pyramids of the Moon and Sun was panoramic. Teotihuacan was the only site we visited that was thronged with tour groups -- mostly Mexican school children (dressed in identical athletic apparel). There was a constant line ascending the towering Pyramid of the Sun, despite its breathtaking steepness. Nevertheless, Teotihuacan is such an overpowering place that its appeal wore through the crowds, and we had a magnificent day.
Under the covered roof at Cacaxtla
In our original trip plans, Jenny and I had planned on staying two days in Puebla -- a city two hours east of the capital. There were three distinctly different sites in the Puebla area that we wanted to see, and we figured it would take about that long, including travel time. I proposed that we still try to do all three, but as a day trip from Mexico City. I suggested that, upon arrival at the bus station in Puebla, we hire a taxi to shuttle us to all three sites (and leave us at the third, Cholula, where we would take a bus back to the capital). Jenny agreed, and we got started early Tuesday morning to give us the maximum amount of time that day. In Puebla, we quickly found a couple of the independent taxi drivers and began our bargaining. We must have negotiated a good price (300 pesos -- little less than $30), because one of them absolutely refused to do it for that amount, while the other accepted.
Two Mayan-looking Jaguar knights kill an Eagle knight (Battle Mural)
The first site on our list was Cacaxtla, which is a palace complex located atop a hill covered by a 459 foot by 230 foot metal roof. The roof is to protect the amazing murals that Cacaxtla is known for. The most famous is called the Battle Mural. This six foot high mural is 72 feet long, and its bright blue and red colors are still vibrant today. Archeologists have had long discussions over the POINT of this mural, why it was painted, and what are the politics behind it. It depicts Jaguar Knight warriors slaughtering Eagle Knights. The ancient peoples of Mexico had military "orders," or associations, named after certain animals -- jaguars and eagles being most popular. Their colorful uniforms were even made to resemble that animal. The mural is done in a very southern, Mayan style, and the faces of the victorious Jaguar knights look very Mayan, while the defeated Eagle Knights look more Aztec (and this in the heart of Aztec country, so to speak). Whatever the truth behind the mystery of the mural, it is an exciting and interesting place to visit.
At Xochitecatl, view from the Serpent House to the Pyramid of the Flowers
Next on our itinerary was Xochitecatl, which is also built atop a hill, and is visible from Cacaxtla. Xochitecatl is one of those small to medium sized archeological sites that I simply love. They are off the beaten track enough that you often have them to yourself (we did, other than two couples that had left by the time we finished). They are reconstructed enough so that you can climb around on them, admire the view, and imagine what it was like in its heyday. Plus, there are no distractions to jolt you back to the present -- no chattering tour groups, no vendors hawking wares and no waiting for half a dozen folks to get their pictures taken standing in front of something. As Jenny and I explored Xochitecatl, we enjoyed the magnificent weather -- the sky was so blue and the weather so comfortable that Jamaica Jenny was in danger of losing her nickname. Xochitecatl has several interesting features, including a spiral pyramid. There is no grand staircase ascending the face, instead, archeologists think that celebrants (or victims) wound their way around and around the circular base till they reached the top of the conical building. Across from the spiral pyramid, the Pyramid of the Flowers actually had a row of stone columns at its top, surmounted by "Stonehenge-like" lintels (one of which survives today). The view from its summit is incredible, the countryside stretching out green and inviting beneath you. Jenny and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit.
Round n' Round, Xochitecatl's Spiral Pyramid
Our final stop on our taxi-aided schedule was Cholula, perhaps the most unusual one we would visit in Mexico. The archeological site of Cholula is dead center in the town, and when you pull up to it, looks like nothing more than a natural hill. Beneath that hill, though, is the unexcavated base and sides of what would be the largest pyramid in the American continent. Archeologists have dug tunnels through the "hillside" (which is the accumulation of earth over the top of the pyramid in the intervening centuries).
You can access these tunnels burrowing into the side of Cholula, and you come to various points where archeologists have widened it so you can see the sides of the pyramids, its staircases and sloped sides. This was one place where I wish we HAD hired a guide, as I found out later that they will open some of the locked gates we encountered and explore even more underground.
Model of Cholula's Pyramid beneath a hill with church on top
After about ten minutes of creeping through the tunnels, you come out on the western face of the hillside where most of the excavations have been done. There you get your first look at one of the most interesting aspects of Cholula -- the Spanish church built atop the hill! This gorgeous, tile-domed yellow church soars overhead and has dramatic views of the ruins, town and countryside. Since the church is atop the hill (essentially the pyramid itself), the only actual excavations and reconstructions archeologists can do is on the hillsides. They can't very well knock down the beautiful church, so Cholula is an interesting place to visit for that duality alone.
After our explorations, Jenny and I plopped down in a colorful local restaurant for a late lunch of Mexican tortas, or sandwiches. We then climbed the hillside to the church and admired the view for miles, watching the approach of a storm and wondering if it had heard "Jamaica Jenny" was in town and was rushing to its appointment with her. The storm missed us, though, and we then toured the site's museum, found the bus station, and waited for our ride back to Mexico City. That night, while we were heading to an internet cafe to check in with folks back home, the rains came down in earnest, perhaps angry that it has missed us in Cholula.
Tula's magnificent Pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli
Our final site to visit was the Toltec site of Tula, which is known for its "Atlantean" statues atop its main pyramid temple. My guess is a clever archeologist came up with that name because the statues were once the carved stone columns supporting the wooden temple that was built atop the pyramid. The wooden building is gone and all that remains are the free standing columns, shaped like Toltec warriors. Like mythical Atlas, they once supported the roof on their backs (or heads in this case). Anyway, the pyramid with the statues atop is the main draw of Tula and is an amazing sight. It has a suitably amazing name, too, the tongue twisting Pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli. I always make it a point to learn how to correctly pronounce the various Mayan/Aztec/etc. sites I visit, but I didn't even TRY that one!
The 'Atlantean' statues of Toltec warriors at Tula Anyway, Tula is a one of those medium sized sites, like Xochitecatl, that I adored. After about an hour's exploring, Jenny and I looked around and noticed that we had the place to ourselves. I dashed back up the steep steps of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, to take some pictures without a crowd of folks jostling for position or milling amongst the statues. Jenny was visiting the restroom, so I had my moments alone atop the pyramid, communing with the 1000 year old Toltec warriors. The blue sky and sweeping views, made for a special moment, and I once again wondered why I had not taken this trip sooner.
1,000 year old statues of Toltec warriors at Tula
Since our flight did not leave till about 4 pm Thursday, we took the morning of the next day to visit Mexico City's awesome National Museum of Anthropology. It is truly a world class museum, with amazing displays of Olmec, Aztec, Toltec and other cultures that have blended to create the people of modern Mexico. I was able to see a couple of the giant Olmec heads that I wanted to see, as well as massive Aztec calendars, statues, reconstructions of temples alive with colorful paint as they would have been in their heyday, and so on. In 3 1/2 hours, we barely scratched the surface of the museum. Too soon, it was time to hurry back to the hotel, grab our bags, and head to the airport.
All in all, it was a gem of a trip that contained many sparkling memories -- the view of the soaring Pyramid of the Sun from atop the nearby Pyramid of the Moon, the whisper of the wind while admiring the panorama of the countryside atop the Pyramid of the Flowers, and quiet moments under blue sky in the presence of 1000 year old statues of Toltec warriors. Mexico's wealth of ancients sites offers up many memories like these for those who will come and take them.