Aztec Ruins National Monument – Whispers from the Ancients in New Mexico!

May 2017 – After spending some quality time with the alien eggs at Bisti Badlands in New Mexico, we took our RV about 50 miles north to Aztec Ruins National Monument near Farmington, New Mexico. We’ve visited a lot of ancient Indian ruins over the years, but this site was astonishing because of its sheer size.

Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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The “Aztec” ruins are not Aztec at all. Those people were way down south in today’s Mexico City. The name was given by early discoverers of the New Mexico site who may or may not have known better.

These ruins were actually built by the Ancestral Puebloan people about 900 years ago.

This particular site is startling because it contains as many as 400 rooms! Most of the rooms are square or rectangular and abut each other, however there are quite a few circular structures too, some of which are thought to have been ceremonial.

Aztec Ruins National Monument Map

The layout of the many rooms at Aztec Ruins National Monument

The first thing we saw as we entered Aztec Ruins National Monument was the Great Kiva, a large round structure that has been stabilized and renovated several times since the 1930’s.

Great Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

The Great Kiva has been stabilized and renovated several times.

It is now a very modern feeling building, and as we walked through it Indian sounding music played softly in the background to give the place a certain air.

Inside the Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

Inside the Great Kiva. Indian music was playing as we walked through.

Ceiling of Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

The ceiling in the Great Kiva.

After walking through the Great Kiva we passed several more round structures.

Ceremonial circle Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

There were several circular structures. Some were ball courts.

Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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Aztec Ruins National Monument is called a “Great House,” and when it was first discovered several of the rooms had quite a bit of pottery in them as well as grain. It is thought that some people lived here beacuse there is evidence of smoke from fires in some of the rooms. But it is also thought that it was a ceremonial gathering place.

Round walls at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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As we walked through the rooms, we passed through a “T” shaped doorway. This reminded me of the “T” shaped windows we saw in the Mayan ruins in Palenque in southern Mexico and the “T” shaped doorways we saw in the ancient Khmer ruins in Cambodia (I haven’t posted those pics yet).

Rooms in Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

A T-shaped doorway.

T-shaped doorway Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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Although the ancient Khmer people were building Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples in Cambodia at about the same time the Ancestral Puebloans were building this site and many others in the American Southwest, the Mayan structures in southern Mexico actually pre-dated them by about six hundred years.

Walls at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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Even though these ruins are not on a scale of complexity or size that is anywhere near those in Cambodia or southern Mexico, it is still fascinating to walk from room to room and contemplate what life might have been like back when it was being built and occupied.

Window and room at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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This stuff definitely gives me a thrill, but Mark doesn’t get quite as excited about it.

We both had to laugh as we remembered visiting exotic Monte Alban outside Oaxaca Mexico when I wondered out loud about the communities that had lived there and the succession of builders who had created the mammoth temples.

I mused that first there were the Zapotecs, and then the Mixtecs, and later the Aztecs… after which Mark had joked that next came the Discotecs followed by the Village People.

Double windows at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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Stone walls at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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I love traveling because it allows us to share a moment in time with people from all over the place who are living in the same world but have very different backgrounds and histories than ours. By the same token, I love seeing ancient ruins because they allow us to share a place, if not a moment in time, with a culture and group of people who stood in the exact same spot many centuries ago.

Ironically, we also share the spot with all the discoverers and archaeologists who have examined these same ruins in the light of their own cultures and personal histories, whether it was the mid-1800’s when “Aztec Ruins” was first uncovered, or the 1930’s when it was studied yet again, or today.

If only the walls could talk.

Walls and grass at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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Overgrown walls at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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I always find it kind of amusing, though, that so many aspects of ancient cultures get attributed to ceremony and spiritual beliefs. It sometimes seems as if the archaeologists believe that ancient people lived largely in the spiritual realm and not so much in the here and now.

A work camper at Tonto National Monument surprised me when she mentioned that a modern archaeologist was pursuing a line of thinking that much of the exquisite pottery that was created by the Ancestral Puebloans throughout the Southwest was actually made just for trading purposes. She said the thought was that perhaps the pottery was manufactured in large quantities, and stockpiled, and warehoused for distribution. Apparently there is evidence in many ancient sites from the American Southwest on down into Mexico that this could have been the case.

I love this idea because it gives the ancient people a kind of sophistication and practicality and accessibility to our own culture that is often absent when everything they built or pecked out of rock walls is seen solely through the lens of ceremonial spirituality.

Brick wall construction Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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Rooms and walls at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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Back in 4th Grade, I remember my teacher reading a document to our class about a very strange group of people who had extraordinary ceremonial body grooming customs that they performed on a daily basis in a very special shrine they found in every home. They were the Nacirema People.

Low doorways Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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Log beam at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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Our class was studying ancient Greece, and our teacher wanted show us the challenges that archaeologists and anthropologists face as they study various cultures both current and ancient.

As she read this anthropological study to the class (link below), the Nacirema seemed very odd. They had a very involved “mouth-rite” that they performed daily because of a strongly held belief that if they didn’t do this ritual their teeth would fall out.

As we listened to our teacher we kind of shrugged because we saw weird stuff like that on National Geographic shows on TV fairly often. It seemed perfectly believable.

Walls with doors at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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Original ceiling beams Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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She read to us about the Medicine Men who would visit certain members of the Nacirema tribe who spent all day lying in beds in a special temple called a latipsoh, and she read to us about a very painful ritual where the Medicine Man jabbed tribal members in their arms with a needle.

We also learned about the unusual witch doctors who were “listeners” that encouraged tribal members to pour out all their woes, going back to early childhood.

It was only as our teacher got near the end of the document that a few brighter buttons in the class began to snicker. I wasn’t one of them.

Series of doorways Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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When our teacher finished reading to us, she stood up and put the word “Nacirema” on the blackboard, writing it from right to left. Then she put up the word “latipsoh” and wrote it from right to left as well.

The light bulb suddenly went on for the whole class, and we were all in stitches. She read the whole essay a second time and we were all doubled over in laughter throughout.

Ever since then, I’ve been a little skeptical about attributing too much spirituality and religious ceremony to the various relics that the ancients left behind!

Looking at Aztec Ruins National Monument New Mexico

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No matter what the fabulous buildings at Aztec Ruins National Monument were used for — whether it was housing, product warehousing, or spiritual gatherings — it is a terrific site that evokes a thousand questions and answers very few.

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Ta Prohm Temple – Exotic Ancient Ruins at Angkor in Cambodia

February 2017 – When we began planning our trip to Thailand, our friend that inspired us to go sent me an email saying, “As long as you’re going that far, make sure you go see Angkor Wat in Cambodia.”

As soon as I saw images of the fabulous and mysterious ancient Khmer ruins that dot the landscape deep in the jungle at this breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Site I was hooked and made plans for us to fly from Bangkok, Thailand, to the town of Siem Reap in Cambodia.

When we arrived in Siem Reap we were astonished by what we found.

Tuk-tuk driver with passengers at Angkor Wat in SIem Reap Cambodia

A tuk-tuk driver takes tourists to the ancient Khmer ruins at Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia.

Siem Reap hums with life and the streets are filled with people on motorbikes and tuk-tuks going about their daily business. We took a walk to the heart of town from our hotel and couldn’t believe the crazy traffic in the street as one motorbike or tuk-tuk after another whizzed by.

Motorbikes in Siem Reap Cambodia

Families scoot around town on their motorbikes.

Whole families climbed aboard their motorbikes to get around town, often with mom, dad, the kids, and maybe even the baby all hanging on as the family zipped around town doing their errands. Sometimes even a teddy bear got to come along for the ride!

Family on motorbike with teddy bear Siem Reap Cambodia

Even Teddy gets a ride on the back!

Cars mingled with the busy two-wheeled traffic, and we saw little buggies of all kinds that weren’t familiar to us. We couldn’t stop our cameras from clicking constantly as we tried to capture the wild scene.

Little minibus Siem Reap Cambodia

We saw some cool vehicles we don’t see back home.

Standing on an insanely busy street corner where four streets came together and crammed themselves into one before going over a bridge, I took my camera down from my face and closed my eyes to listen. Small engines and narrow tires whooshed past in a constant stream, but the air was filled with life and there was a peacefulness to it, a happiness and contentment I couldn’t put my finger on.

Tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

Tuk-tuk drivers and motorbikes in Siem Reap, Cambodia

The rare toot of a horn was just a notice of “I’m here,” rather than an angry honk yelling “You’re in my way!” and everyone seemed to zig-zag around each other and get to where they needed to be without pushing or shoving or being mean.

Tuk-tuks and motorbikes Siem Reap Cambodia

The traffic was insanely busy and non-stop.

I looked over at Mark to say something about this to him, and noticed he was no longer taking photos either and was in the same kind of trance I was in. “It’s like flowing water,” he said, mesmerized.

We began to stroll along the river and suddenly saw bunches of schoolkids walking home from school, smartly dressed and carrying huge backpacks on their backs. A group of boys raced each other and bounced around on the sidewalk, laughing and teasing each other, and then they swung themselves into a tree to dangle from the thick vines in total glee.

What a cool place and what a great vibe!

Cambodian school children playing in Siem Reap

Schoolkids walking home from school stopped to take a quick swing on the vines.

The traffic of motorbikes and tuk-tuks continued to flow past us endlessly, and we saw vendors going about their business selling their wares from bikes and carts.

Bicycle with a heavy load in Siem Reap Cambodia

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Rolling cart in Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

Junior gets a ride underneath!

And if anyone had a heavy load to carry but relied on a motorbike to get around town, well they just strapped it onto the back of the bike! Where there’s a will there’s a way!

Motorbike carrying a large cannister Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

Wide load!

Our friend who had suggested we go to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat had emailed me the most enchanting story of when he had hired a tuk-tuk driver to take him around town and show him the sights. I loved this idea and hunted around online for a tuk-tuk driver.

I found the website of a very sincere sounding young man of 25 that had started his own tuk-tuk business by investing in one of these unusual rigs and hanging out his shingle online as a driver (website here).

Tuk-tuk driver in Angkor Wat Siem Reap Cambodia

Mark with our tuk-tuk driver Pisal Rom.

His name was Pisal, and I emailed him a few weeks before our trip. I was tickled to get an email right back with a quote for his services. It would be about $20 a day to have him chauffeur us around town and take us to any of the temples we wanted all day long. Signing up with him was a no brainer, and a few email exchanges later we had worked out the days and times and which temples we would go see.

Siem Reap tuk-tuk driver for Angkor Wat in Cambodia Pisal Rom

Being a tuk-tuk driver is an entrepreneurial and independent business venture in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

He even came to the airport to greet us, and because I had sent him a link to our website he recognized us right off the bat! This was very handy because at least 50 cab drivers and tuk-tuk drivers greeted our plane holding up signs with names on them. All of us tourists were in a daze after going through customs and getting fingerprinted electronically (thumb and then all four fingers of each hand), and we stood there lamely trying to find our names in the sea of signs!

Tuk-tuk driver in Angkor Wat Siem Reap Cambodia Pisal Rom

Pisal picked us up at the airport when we arrived and took us to our hotel.

The next morning he picked us up at our hotel and took us to the Visitors Center where we bought tickets to the Angkor Archaeological Park. Just like the very formal process we had gone through at the airport where we had been fingerprinted in order to obtain printed visas in our passports to enter the country, our one day tickets to Ankor Archaelogical Park were adorned with our mug shots!

Angkor Wat National Park entrance tickets Cambodia

Our one-day tickets for the Angkor Archaeological Park had our photos on them!

We hopped in the back seat of the tuk-tuk and enjoyed a quick ride to our first temple of the day. Almost all the vehicles on the road were tuk-tuks like ours with tourists sitting in the back. In various spots we saw groups of tuk-tuks parked, waiting to take someone for a ride.

Hammock in a tuk-tuk at Angkor Wat temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

One tuk-tuk driver we saw had an ingenious way to relax between customers!

And then we arrived at Ta Prohm temple, a magnificent group of structures built in 1186 by the ancient Khmer king Jayavarman VII.

Entrance to Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

Entrance to Ta Prohm temple

Like most of the ancient Khmer ruins, the buildings are carefully positioned and laid out. Ta Prohm has entrance gates facing in each direction of the compass.

Ta Prohm ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

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I hadn’t fussed over the history of these ruins before our arrival, preferring instead to let the experience of seeing them wash over me as if I were an archeologist discovering them for the first time.

Courtyard Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Angkor Cambodia

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As we looked down a hallway with columns on one side opening into a courtyard, I was struck by how the shape of the arches was identical to that of the Mayan ruins we had visited at Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico.

The ancient Khmer temples were built about three hundred years after the Mayan empire fell, so who knows! Certainly, many aspects of the ruins reminded me of the Mayan ruins at Yaxchilan.

Hallway in Ta Prohm Angkor Wat ancient Khmer ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

The shape of these arches reminded us of the arches in the Mayan ruins in Mexico.

Doorway Ta Prohm Temple Angkor Cambodia

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We found all kinds of nooks and crannies to explore.

Ta Prohm temple columns Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

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One of the things that is most impressive at Ta Prohm temple is that almost every stone used in its creation was carved with decorations. The carvings are on doorways, lintels, windows and in every corner.

Dancers stone carvings Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

Almost all the stones on the walls, windows and doors were carved with wonderful sculptures.

I wandered down one hallway and found myself standing next to a wall that was intricately carved with a floral pattern from floor to ceiling.

Intricate stone carving Ta Prohm ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia 2

This pattern was repeated, floor to ceiling and a few feet wide. Ancient wall paper!

Stepping outside, I noticed that the outer wall of one building had carved sculptures inset into the entire length of the wall.

Wall carvings Ta Prohm Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

The outer walls had statuary built in.

Stone carving Ta Prohm Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

The ancient Khmer people were Hindus when the temples were built and later changed to Buddhism.

Stone carving Ta Prohm Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

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The more we looked, both outside and inside, the more carvings we saw.

Elaborate carving at Ta Prohm Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

Every inch has elaborate carvings!

The doorways — and there were dozens — were truly ornate.

Ta Prohm ancient Khmer ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

The dozens of doorways were all similar but no two were exactly the same!

Oddly, the entire Ta Prohm temple ruin was strewn with enormous boulders that had once formed the walls and ceilings and floors of rooms that were no longer standing.

Doorway and fallen blocks Ta Prohm temple Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

Both outside and inside the temple buildings were rubble piles of large stones that had fallen. These piles were often waist high or more!

Ta Prohm temple ruins Angkor SIem Reap Cambodia

Wonderful columns — and lots of rubble, including a column piece to the left.

Rubble at Ta Prohm Temple Ruins Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

Beautiful – but what a mess!

Looking closely at the rubble, we could see stones that had been carved.

Carvings on blocks at Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

Many stones in the rubble had carvings on them.

It was like an enormous jigsaw puzzle that just begged to be put back together again.

Ruins and fallen blocks at Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

Sometimes it was easy to see how the stones had gone together before the wall or roof collapsed.

Carved stone rubble Ta Prohm ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia 2

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But what Ta Prohm temple is actually known for is the gargantuan trees that have enveloped the ruins with their roots. It is known as a “Jungle Temple” because it has truly been engulfed by the jungle.

Walking along the outer wall of the temple, we saw the most incredible tree and root system snaking over the wall.

Giant tree roots engulf wall at Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

Ta Prohm temple is known for the Invasion of the Giant Trees.

If this looks like a modest tree and a knee high wall, look again:

Enormous tree covers wall at Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

Yes… the Giant Trees!

Trees like this were all over the place, their gnarly roots reaching out across the walls and buildings.

Tree roots covering wall at Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia

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Huge tree roots engulf wall Ta Prohm ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia 2

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Jungle temple Ta Prohm Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

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In some places it seemed like the roots were flowing from the tree down across the temple buildings.

Tree roots on doorway Ta Prohm Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

A waterfall of roots!

Roots on wall at Ta Prohm Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

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I turned one corner and noticed the head of a sculpture peeking out at me from between the tree roots!!

Face in tree Ta Prohm Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

Hey… there’s a face in there!

Everywhere we turned, the trees and roots had taken over the temple.

Tree and roots engulf ruins at Ta Prohm Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

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The temple of Ta Prohm was used as a location in the movie Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie, and some of the places were recognizable to tourists and were favorite spots for selfies.

Tourists at jungle temple Ta Prohm Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

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Ta Prohm is undergoing renovation and construction to put various bits back together again and to make it easier for tourists to get around, and we saw construction crews here and there with hard hats and cranes.

Reconstruction at Ta Prohm ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia 2

Construction workers in hard hats watch a stone being lifted to the roof.

Eventually we wound our way back to the entrance gate where the crowds were growing ever bigger.

Tourists at entrance to Ta Prohm Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

When we returned to the entrance there were lots of tourists coming in.

We spotted a sign suggesting we slow down a bit.

Cambodia sign to Slow Down

Cambodian letters are not from the Roman alphabet.
But they’re not Thai letters either!


Nearby we saw lots of tourists who had been approaching Temple Sightseeing Overload (which is easy to do in this part of the world where Ta Prohm is just one of dozens of exotic ruins). They were taking a load off in the shade.

Resting at Ta Prohm Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

Time for a break!

But we were still fired up. We found Pisal waiting for us and hopped in the back of his tuk-tuk for more temple adventures!

Fabulous ancient Khmer ruin Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia

This area is so rich with ancient Khmer ruins it would take many months to see them all.

We’ve seen quite a few ancient ruins in our travels now, and I found it fascinating to put together a timeline of who was building and living in which places at various times in history.

The meso-American ruins of Mexico and Central America predate all the others by a few hundred years. Interestingly, the ancient Khmer temples and kingdoms of southeast Asia were built about the same time as the cliff dwellings of America’s southwest!

  • 600 BC – 850 AD – Monte Alban – Zapotec step pyramids near Oaxaca, Mexico
  • 100 – 650 AD – Mitla – Zapotec ruins close to Monte Alban near Oaxaca, Mexico
  • 359 – 808 AD – Yaxchilan – Mayan pyramids on the river between Mexico and Guatemala
  • 431 – 800 AD – Palenque – Mayan pyramids in Chiapas, Mexico. One of Central America’s major Mayan sites
  • 580 – 800 AD – Bonampak – Mayan site in Chiapas, Mexico, with truly evocative fresco paintings depicting battles and coronations
  • 921 AD – Koh Kher – Ancient Khmer temples (upcoming post)
  • 1113 – 1145 AD – Angkor Wat – Ancient Khmer temples (upcoming post)
  • 1182-1225 AD – Wupatki Pueblo – Sinagua People multistory stone dwellings north of Flagstaff, Arizona
  • 1186 AD – Ta Prohm – Ancient Khmer temple described on this page
  • 1190-1300 AD – Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings – Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings in southwestern Colorado
  • 1200 AD – Angkor Thom – Ancient Khmer temple (upcoming post)
  • 1330-1450 AD – Tonto Cliff Dwellings – Salado People in central Arizona

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National Parks and UNESCO World Heritage Sites – North America and SE Asia

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Tonto National Monument AZ – Lower Cliff Dwellings

December 2015 – One of the treasures in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona is the exquisite sunrises and sunsets that light up the sky in vivid shades of pink and orange.

Arizona sunset fifth wheel trailer RV

Sunset over our fifth wheel

Another treasure that lies inside the Tonto National Forest near Roosevelt Lake high up on the mountain sides is the Tonto National Monument ancient Indian cliff dwelling ruins.

Lower Cliff Dwellings Tonto National Monument Arizona

Tonto National Monument Lower Cliff Dwellings

These ruins, built by the Salado people around 1300 A.D., are surrounded by saguaro cactus that stand so thickly on the hillside that, from a distance, they seem to transform the landscape into a pincushion! Up close, however, they are very tall.

Saguaro cactus Arizona Sonoran Desert

Saguaro cactus are very tall plants!

One of the best things about visiting the Tonto National Monument cliff dwellings is the half mile uphill hike to get to them. A narrow paved path takes numerous switchbacks up the hill, passing by dozens of beautiful saguaro cactus on the way to the ruins.

Tonto National Monument trail to Lower Cliff Dwellings

It is a half mile hike on a paved path through lush Sonoran desert to get to the ruins.

Saguaro at Tonto National Monument Lower Cliff Dwellings Arizona

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As the path climbs ever higher, the view of Roosevelt Lake down in the valley grows ever wider.

Tonto National Monument view of Roosevelt Lake Arizona

The hike to the lower cliff dwellings is short and steep but has some incredible views of Roosevelt Lake

Then the ancient ruins appear, built into a huge cave in a sheer rock wall cliff face.

Cliff Dwellings Ancient Indian Ruins Tonto National Monument Arizona

High rise apartments!

It is startling, after climbing up through all the natural vegetation of the Sonoran Desert, to come face to face with the remnants of a distant culture’s masonry creations. The current theory is that the 20,000 or so Anasazi people who had built and lived in the immense Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in Colorado had left there for some reason and moved south, a few of them making their way through northeastern Arizona to the Tonto Basin to live here.

Tonto National Monument Lower Cliff Dwellings Arizona

You can wander freely in and around the Lower Cliff Dwellings

As a point of reference, in this same time period over in Europe, Florence had become the heart of commercial and cultural activity, and the Renaissance (the rebirth of interest in classical literature, art and music) was in its earliest stages.

At Tonto National Monument, the 700 year old walls are still standing, although they have broken down over time. With a little imagination, we could visualize the structure as it once stood as we moved from room to room.

Anclient Cliff Dwellings Tonto National Monument Arizona

Crumbling walls that must have many a story to tell…

There were quite a few rooms, most of them quite small, just 8′ square or so. The rooms near the front of the cave have a view across the valley to the lake.

Tonto National Monument Arizona Lower Cliff Dwellings

The ruins are built into a huge cave. The outer rooms have an incredible view!

Little openings led from one room to another, and the rooms stretched to the back of the cave.

Tonto National Monument Lower Cliff Dwellings Arizona

The cave faces east, so after about noon, it is shaded and cool, even in the blistering heat of mid-summer.

Tonto National Monument has two sets of cliff dwellings that are open to the public, the Lower Cliff Dwellings and the Upper Cliff Dwellings.

Lower Cliff Dwellings Tonto National Monument Arizona

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Even though the Lower Cliff Dwellings are slightly smaller, the fun thing about them is that you are free to explore them at your own pace and they lie just 1/2 mile from the visitors center.

Tonto National Monument Salado Cliff Dwelling Ceiling

A few roofs made of juniper logs and saguaro ribs are still intact.

It’s a fairly steep hike to reach these ruins, but it is short, and the views along the entire trail are just wonderful.

Roosevelt Lake view Tonto National Monument Cliff Dwellings Arizona

Even if you’re not into ancient Indian stuff, the views are well worth the hike.

The hike to the Upper Cliff Dwellings is about 3 miles long, and those ruins are open to the public only on guided tours on the weekends. We took that hike too and will share photos in an upcoming post.

Saguaro cactus Tonto National Monument view of Roosevelt Lake Arizona

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Tonto National Monument makes a terrific daytrip from the Mesa and eastern Phoenix area, and it is an absolute “must see” if you are camping at one of the campgrounds at Roosevelt Lake.

Sunset on Four Peaks at Roosevelt Lake Arizona

Sunset over Roosevelt Lake

A word of caution to travelers taking a big RV to this area: The once stunningly scenic drive along US-60 from Superior to Globe is now a chaotic nightmare of construction (probably in preparation for the world’s largest copper mine that will be built between the two towns). Even though the distance is 10 miles longer, it is a much less stressful (and also very scenic) rout to take SR-87 (the “Beeline Highway”) from Fountain Hills north to Punkin Center and then go south on SR-88 to Tonto National Monument.

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Montezuma’s Castle & Schnebly Hill – Sedona Heights!

Montezuma's Castle National Monument

“Montezuma’s Castle” – were the Aztecs in Arizona??!!

May, 2014 – We have driven past those tantalizing signs on I-17 in Arizona a hundred times:
“Montezuma’s Castle” & “Montezuma’s Well.”

But we have always been in a rush either to get up to Flagstaff or down to Phoenix.

Did those signs refer to the 16th century Aztec king, Montezuma?

If so, what the heck had he been doing way up here in Arizona when his real castle was down by Mexico City?

If not, then why did these places bear his name? Continue reading

Mesa Verde National Park, CO – Life on the Edge with the Ancients

Great pics and stories from our trip to Mesa Verde National Park. Also includes our visit to Blanding, Utah and Utah's Bicentennial Highway.

Unusual rock formations line the road.

A deer says

A deer says "hello" at Mesa Verde.

We peer out over The Tower House, Mesa Verde Nat'l Park

The Tower House, Mesa Verde Nat'l Park

We take a closer look at The Tower House, Mesa Verde Nat'l Park

Stone masonry from sandstone bricks.

The Ansazi built round walls as well as straight ones at The Tower House, Mesa Verde Nat'l Park

They were as good at round walls as straight ones.

Communities are tucked under overhanging cliff walls.

Communities are tucked under overhanging cliff walls.

Looking closer in at Balcony House.

Looking closer in.

Mesa Verde was scarred by wildfilres but the cliff dwellings survived unharmed.

Above the cliffs is flat land -- some has

been burned by wildfires.

You'll need a telephoto lens or binoculars to see the cliff dwellings across the canyon at Mesa Verde.

A closer look at the buildings below.

The Ancestral Puebloans built split-level homes in caves along the canyon walls at Mesa Verde.

Split-level living with some buildings on a higher ledge

and others on a lower one.

The Cliff Palace is the biggest Anasazi ruin at Mesa Verde Nat'l Park.

Cliff Palace.

Here are a few of the rooms at Cliff Palace.

A closer look at Cliff Palace.

A tour group walks through the Cliff Palace ruins.

A tour group walks through the Cliff Palace ruins.

An above-ground structure at Sun Temple.

An above-ground structure at Sun Temple.

The Far View Sites.

Don't Touch!!!

No climbing -- unless you're a

ranger.

There are beautiful fields and farm country between Colorado and Utah.

Landscapes as we leave Colorado and enter Utah.

We met a young, hard-working cowboy in Blanding.

The real deal.

Winter wheat at twilight in Blanding, Utah.

Winter wheat at twilight.

An old truck out back behind JM Welding.

An old truck out back behind Jack's shop.

Twilight in the fields around Blanding Utah.

What else to do while waiting for work

on the trailer - take photos!

The round plastic handle was becoming square.

An excellent welding shop that does awesome metal fabrication:  JM Welding in Blanding, Utah. What our hitch extension will look like.

The design.

Jack brings us the finished product.

Jack and the finished product.

Here's how our hitch extension works and what it does.

How it works and what it does.

Finished product.

Ta da!!

Photos from the Bicentennial Highway, Scenic Route 95 in Utah.

The Bicentennial Highway, Route 95 in Utah.

These are typical rock formations seen along the Bicentennial Highway, Scenic Route 95 in Utah.

Typical sights along the "Bicentennial Highway"

Here's one of many spectacular views along the Bicentennial Highway, Scenic Route 95 in Utah.

Scenic Route 95.

We spot a perfect boondocking spot.

"Oh oh oh oh -- it's perfect!!"

We're happily camped alongside the Bicentennial Highway, Scenic Route 95 in Utah. Views out our window from our boondocking spot on the Bicentennial Highway, Scenic Route 95 in Utah.

View out the window.

We have found one of the most amazing camping spots ever, on Scenic Route 95 in Utah.

No one for five miles in any direction.

Here's why we love RVing in Utah.

Why we love RVing in Utah.

Mesa Verde National Park & Eastern Utah.

Early June, 2012 - The mysterious cliff dwellings of Canyon de Chelly

National Park in Arizona had inspired us, so now we pointed our buggy

in the direction of Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park where another

massive cluster of cave homes lines the canyon walls.

We passed many

dramatic rock

formations on our

way, and we were

greeted by a deer

when we first

entered the park.

Mesa Verde is a vast park that requires a lot of driving on hilly twisty roads to

see all the sights.  We were surprised by the huge number of tourists crammed

into the Visitors Center, especially compared to the quiet and laid back nature

of Canyon de Chelly.  This is a park where you could easily stay a week or

more.  The place is packed with different cliff dwelling structures as well as

above-ground ancient Indian ruins.

We tried to get our bearings quickly and headed out to the

Square Tower house.  After driving some 10 miles or so

through the park winding along hill crests on curvy roads, it

was quite a surprise to walk down a short trail, turn a

corner, and find ourselves staring down at a beautiful intact

ruin.

The little community stood tightly pressed against a back-sweeping cliff

wall.  The tower building was four  stories tall with a large window on each

floor.  But it all looked like a miniature doll house compound down there, far below our feet.

The buildings are made of sandstone bricks, each one about the size of a

loaf of bread, and they are mortared with a mixture of dirt and water.  The

Ancestral Puebloans - or Anasazi - built these structures around 1100 to

1300 AD, but sadly left no written documentation behind.

At the Mayan ruins of southern Mexico we had been shocked to discover

that entire dynastic histories are known in detail today, right down to kings'

birthdays, city-state conquests and squabbles for power.  However, at

these Indian ruins in Colorado we learned that very little is known with

certainty about the people who built and lived in them.

As we wound along the tops of the canyon walls, we were amazed to look

out across the narrow ditch and see all the tiny dwellings tucked into the

opposite canyon wall.  At first all we could see was the faces of the cliffs,

but as our eyes adjusted to spotting the cave homes across the way,

suddenly they become obvious in every nook and cranny.

The park offers inexpensive tours of most of the ruins, but we contented ourselves

with getting an overview of it all from the top rather than climbing down in.

When we finally reached the Sun Temple overlook, the best place

to view the magnificent Cliff Palace ruins, we were amazed by the

complexity and density of the buildings.  It was a complete town

nestled into a cave midway up a rock wall.

A tour group was passing through the ruin, and the tiny, brightly

colored people walking among the buildings gave us an interesting

perspective on this place.  This canyon and its massive rock

formations is immense and timeless.  But the people who built their

homes here stayed for just a few generations and filed through this

ageless place rather quickly.  Fortunately for us today, they left a

most unusual signature behind: uneven, jam-packed housing.

We learned that the

first people to settle

this region were the

Basketmakers who wove very fine

basketry and built pole-and-adobe

houses above ground starting

around 750 AD.  By 1,000 AD, just

before the Norman conquests of

England, they began building their

homes using stone masonry.

Interestingly, archaeologists say

their basketmaking skills showed

a marked decline once they

began to specialize in masonry.

It's intriguing to me that one skill rose while another

fell.  And isn't it still so true today.  We are all expert

at moving over ground at 60 mph but most of us

would balk at killing, plucking and carving up a

chicken for dinner, something our great-

grandparentss happily did years ago.  We have all

become so adroit with electronic and keyboard

technology, but gosh darn if we aren't all forgetting

how to spell.

We wandered among the above-ground dwellings

and hiked around the Sun Temple and Megalithic

house.  Like the Mayans at Bonampak who had

created an elaborate series of murals inside one

of their ruins but abandoned the building before

it was finished, here at Mesa Verde the Anasazi

had also abandoned their property before it was

totally completed.  It is baffling to ponder how a

society can reach such heights of sophistication

and then vanish.

Unlike the Mayan ruins, however, where today's

visitors can scamper all over every building at

will, we saw signs posted everywhere telling us

not to touch or climb on anything.

Rangers, of course, are excepted…

Somewhere in our meanderings through Mesa

Verde we realized that we had reached total saturation with seeing the ancient

dwellings of antique cultures.  We had seen some of the best of the best in the

last six months, and we were ready for a change of pace.

We left the Indians and Colorado behind and

crossed over into Utah, stopping at a gas station

to fill the truck.  From somewhere in the distance

we heard the clank-clank-clank of spurs coming

towards us, and suddenly we found ourselves

face to face with a cowboy.  Not a cowboy-hatted

urbanite donning the clothes and stance of his

country idol, but the real deal: a young,

hardworking cowboy who had just finished a dirty

week of cattle work.

When he started gassing up his truck, Mark struck up a conversation.  It turned out he'd been

ranching all his life and now commuted every other week between Ogden at the north end of Utah

and Blanding a few hundred miles south at the other end of the state, to work on a ranch.  He beamed

as he told us he had just found a house in the Blanding area so he could move his family down this

way.  "Heidi is real happy," he drawled slowly, his bright blue eyes twinkling.

We asked him if our planned drive along Route 95 would be okay with our big truck and trailer (we

had read something about 8% grades).  "Oh yeah," he said very slowly.  "It's a real pretty drive.

That's how I go back and forth to Ogden."  What a life: outdoors all day in some of the country's most

dramatic landscapes, and commuting to work on a National Scenic Highway.

Reassured that we would't be facing any gnarly

driving, we left the gas station and promptly

bottomed out the back end of the trailer on the

lip of the driveway.  Our brand new bike rack that

we both just love scraped the pavement loudly

and the truck ground almost to a complete stop.

Mark made a face at me, and we leaped out of

the truck to check the damage.  "We gotta fix

that!" He said nervously.  But we were both

relieved that there was no damage worse than a few scratches.  Our fantastic

new bike rack has been such a great addition to our travels this season, but it

hangs way out from the back of the trailer.  This was the fourth time we'd

scraped it hard on the ground, and the once-round plastic knob on the back

was becoming rather square.

We drove over to the Visitors Center and found an old fellow deep in conversation with

the lady behind the desk.  We asked if there was a good welder in town who could

fabricate something for a trailer hitch.  They told us that JM Welding just on the edge of

town by the airport would do a great job for us.

Still uneasy about the Scenic Route 95 ahead of us that was known to

be so beautiful but scurried diagonally across the Utah map as if it

were a cat chasing a butterfly, I asked the pair if that route was okay

for a big truck and trailer.  "Route 95?" the man said, "Why, I built that

road."  Turns out that the construction of this road, known as the

Bicentennial Highway, had spanned from the 1930's to 1976 when it

finally got paved, and this man, Ferd Johnson, had been part of the

team that built it.

"We all lived out in the canyons for two and a half years while we built

that road."  He said, telling us how rugged and wild and beautiful the

land was.  "There are three bridges crossing the Colorado river, and

those were tough…" he trailed off.  The lady behind the desk piped

up.  "I did the drive once with him," she said nodding in his direction,

"and he talked the whole way.  He had a story about

every mile of that road."

We left really excited to see this

scenic highway for ourselves.  But our

first stop was at JM Welding.  Jack,

the owner, understood exactly what

we wanted and said he could order

something like that and have it for us

tomorrow.  "Or I can build one for you

right now that would be better quality

for about the same cost."  Go for it!!

He grabbed a piece of chalk from his

pocket and drew an outline of a z-shaped

hitch extension on the shop's concrete

floor.  Within moments his son had cut the

pieces and welded them.  Jack powdered

coated it and cooked it for an hour while we chatted with Jed,

one of Jack's long-time customers who had just showed up.

"I'm really looking forward to driving that famous scenic Route

95 tomorrow," I said, making idle conversation.  Jed looked at

me blankly.  "Scenic road?  There's a scenic road out

here?"  I did a double-take.  "You know, that Scenic Route

95.  You take a right just a mile south of here…"  He

scratched his head.  "Oh, right…of course…oh yeah.  I

drive that road all the time.  It's pretty."

As we drove this magnificent road over the next two days,

our jaws dropping repeatedly at the stunning beauty around

us, we had to laugh.  Utahans live in some of the most

spectacular scenery America has to offer, but I guess after

a while it becomes an ordinary backdrop for their lives.

In no time Jack had finished our hitch extension

and Mark mounted it on our trailer.  Suddenly all

our fears of grinding our new bike rack into the

dust while boondocking down rough dirt roads

vanished.

Next morning, after a peaceful

night parked out behind Jack's

shop where fields of winter wheat

waved softly in the twilight and

dawn, we struck out on scenic

Route 95.

From red rock cliffs to exotic

pink-and-white striped swirling

rock formations to dramatic

descents into vivid green valleys,

we drove with our heads turning

constantly.

I literally hung

my whole

upper body out

the window a

few times to

snap photos at

55 mph.

The road swerved here and

there, curving deliciously

between cliffs and canyons.

Suddenly I saw a dirt road

scooting off to a wide flat

plateau.  "Oh oh oh!!!"  I

cried, not quite getting any

words out.  "It's perfect!"

Mark skidded to a stop,

squeaked out a u-turn and

drove back.  What a

sweetie!

Down the dirt road we went, bumping along to the most fabulous

and dramatic boondocking spot.  There wasn't anyone around

us for at least five miles in any direction, and we had the

canyon, the cliffs and the sky to ourselves.  That is the magic of

RVing in Utah.  50% of the state is public land, and you can

camp anywhere you dare to take your rig.  It was so beautiful we

stayed for a few more days before exploring Natural Bridges

National Monument.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yaxchilan and Bonampak – Haunting Ruins in the Jungle

Sail blog post - the remote Mayan ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas, Mexico were highlight of inland trip from Marina Chiapas.

Kim Tours starts our day with a big breakfast.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Cowboys on horseback hustle cattle down the road.

Cattle are hustled down the road.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver.

Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver. Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We all pile into our boat for an hour's journey to Yaxchilán.

We all piled into our boat for an hour's journey

to Yaxchilán.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take us to Yaxchilan Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Our guide.

Our guide.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We spot the edge of the Yaxchilán ruins through the trees.

We spot Yaxchilán through

the trees.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -

Hiking up to the

"Little Acropolis."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - The

The "Little Acropolis."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Entering

Entering "The Labyinth."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We emerge...

Light at last…!

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - ...in front of

We emerge in front of "The Labyrinth."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Green moss clings to everything.

Green moss clings to everything.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Note the boxy hieroglyphs above the doorway.

Note the boxy hieroglyphs carved

in the lintel above the doorway.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Structure 33.  When built by Bird Jaguar (752-772), this made quite a sight from the river.

Structure 33.  When built by Bird Jaguar (who reigned

752-772 AD), this made quite a sight from the river.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Structure 20.

Structure 20.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - King Bird Jaguar IV plays ball amid symbolism about his rise to power.

King Bird Jaguar IV plays ball amid symbolism and hieroglyphs about his rise to power.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - King Bird Jaguar IV's mother, Lady Eveningstar.

King Bird Jaguar IV's mother,

Lady Eveningstar.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -We're faster than that croc, aren't we?

We're faster than that croc, aren't we?

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Van ride for our leg into the Lacadón Forest.

Van ride for our leg into the Lacadón Forest.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Bonampak'a main plaza has shaded stelae and an enormous stairway with small buildings.

Bonampak's main plaza.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - The three doorways leading into the matchless rooms of Mayan murals.

Three doorways lead into three rooms of

matchless Mayan murals.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 1: Pomp and circumstance for the presentation of Chaan Muan II's infant heir.

Room 1: Pomp and circumstance surround the presentation

of King Chan Muan II's infant heir.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Mayans bound their foreheads to flatten them.

The detail -- nearly 1200 years later

-- was astonishing.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -

Celebrating with trumpets.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 2:  Prisoners are tortured by pulling out their fingernails.

Room 2:  Prisoners are tortured by pulling out their fingernails.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 3:  Nobelwomen pierce their tongues in ritual blood-letting.

Room 3:  Noblewomen pierce their tongues in ritual blood-letting.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Lintel above Room 1's doorway:  Chan Muan holds a captive by the hair.

Lintel above Room 1's doorway:  Chan

Muan holds a captive by the hair.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Modern day Lacandón girl.

She got a kick out of taking a

photo of Mark.

Yaxchilán & Bonampak, Mexico

March, 2012 - There are many beautiful things to see in the Palenque area and, for most tourists, rather than struggling to

drive on the little winding roads, the easiest way to see them all is by van tour.  Van tours are a big business in this region, and

almost all the vehicles on the small roads outside Palenque are vans filled with tourists.  Our van from Kim Tours picked us up at

7:00 a.m. for a 12-hour tour to the remote Mayan ruins of Yaxchilán and Bonampak.  After several hours on the road, everyone

in our group was grateful when the van stopped mid-morning for a sumptuous breakfast at a casual open-air restaurant.

Besides van tours, farming and agriculture play an important role

here too, and we watched with amusement as two cowboys on

horseback hustled a herd of cattle down the road while we were

getting back in the van after breakfast.  Those cows could trot

pretty fast!

After another hour or so of negotiating skinny, speedbump filled

roads, we finally arrived at the river that defines the border

between Mexico and Guatemala, the Río Usumacinta.  Here we

boarded a small outboard-driven boat with a canopy top for an

hour-long boat ride up the river.  Talk about remote -- these ruins

are really out there!

We were five

couples all together.

Two couples hailed

from Mexico City

and Argentina, and

they gabbed away in

Spanish with each other

and the guide.  The other

two couples were from

French Canada and

France, and they

chatted easily in

French.  We mostly

listened and enjoyed

the views.

The narrow river

meandered between

thick jungle greenery along its banks.  At long

last we spotted a tall pile of rocks between the

trees heralding our arrival at the ruined Mayan

city of Yaxchilán.

We climbed a steep, moist hillside trail and

suddenly found ourselves staring at the

familiar pyramid shape of a huge Mayan building, the "Little

Acropolis."  This building was extensive and had rooms and

windows and unroofed hallways that begged to be explored.

However, we were given only an hour to see the whole sight

and the "Great Acropolis" complex of buildings awaited us

further on.  If only you could go to a place like this easily on

your own and hang out for a few days...

Hiking back down and then up again,

we came to "The Labyrinth," a crazy

maze of winding tunnels that is pitch

dark inside.  We relied on flashes

from our cameras to light the way.

Finally shafts of light penetrated and

we emerged on the other side,

standing in front of a series of doors

into the Labyrinth and looking out

into the Grand Plaza.

The jungle here has been

conquered, seeded with grass lawns, and swept back to reveal these

impressive ruins.  But mossy overgrowth clings to everything.  As we

wandered past sturdy walls and rows of doorways, two thoughts kept

swirling through my mind:  what did this place look like when it was

newly constructed and filled with inhabitants?  And what did the

European discoverers think when they first found this large complex of

buildings in the tight grip of the

jungle in the mid-1800's?

It is mind-boggling to think that this

little bend in a nondescript, brown

silty river was once a very important

spot, a destination, a port for trade.

Today it would be indistinguishable

from the rest of the jungle

riverbanks if it weren't for the

sprinkling of tourists

arriving every few

hours in colorful

canopied boats.

Who built this stuff

and when?

Fortunately, Yaxchilán is loaded with doorway and window

lintels that are covered with square-shaped Mayan

hieroglyphic text, and they tell the story.  Unraveling the

meaning behind Mayan hieroglyphs began in the late

19th century, when the numeric system was first

deciphered.  Major breakthroughs came in the 1980's

(while studying lists of rulers in Palenque), and now

90% of Mayan writings can be read.  The history of

conquests, defeats and transfers of power in Yaxchilán

are surprisingly well known, right down to specific days

and years due to the detailed Mayan calendar.

The area was likely settled by 250 AD, but

the first historic text points to 359 AD when

Yaxchilán's first ruler ascended the thrown.

Rulers with evocative names like "Bird

Jaguar" and "Moon Skull" reigned for

centuries, each date of ascension to the

throne carefully recorded in stone.  One

ruler's wife, Lady Pakal, lived to the ripe old

age of 98.  That may not have been a typical

ancient Mayan lifespan, but the ruling class

obviously lived well.

The city reached its peak in the early 8th

century, and most of the ruins date from that

time period when the reigning king (who lived

into his nineties) went on a building spree.

The amazing thing at this site, besides the expansive

grounds filled with 120 or so ruined buildings, is the

detailed carvings on the lintels.  Passing under a

doorway you look up and see the most beautiful and

intricately carved stone just overhead.  The images are

clear, and archaeologists have sorted out what almost

all of them depict -- with the help of the descriptive boxy

hieroglyphs that accompany each one.

One relief shows King Bird Jaguar IV playing ball in the

ball court, a game that had deep mystical overtones in

Mayan culture.  The text around the images makes reference to

both blood letting and the decapitation of three deities leading to

three "dawnings."  Two dwarfs are marked with the signs of Venus.

It is thought that they figuratively sweep the path for this rising king

as Venus sweeps the path for the rising sun.

Now it helps to know a little background about this guy Bird Jaguar IV.  He was not born

in direct line to the throne, being the son of the 2nd wife rather than the 1st wife of the

king.  It seems his mother, Lady Eveningstar, was quite ambitious for her son, however,

and there might have been a power struggle after her husband's death.  She may have

even ruled Yaxchilán temporarily while she waited for her boy to grow up and take

over.  After nearly ten years her son was finally crowned King Bird Jaguar IV.

Another relief shows this woman, the ambitious Lady Eveningstar, dressed to the nines.

Yaxchilán and its neighbors alternated between being friends and enemies, making

alliances through marriage, and taking each other's kings captive by turns.  Victory

seems to have rotated between the city-states for a while, but Yaxchilán seems to have

come out on top in the early 9th century AD before

the entire ancient Mayan world slipped away into the

grasp of the jungle (possibly due to deforestation and

overpopulation).

One of the nearby rivals was Bonampak, and

fortunately for us, its unique ruins were our next stop.

First, however, we had to take another river boat ride

back to the van.  Waiting to see us off at the river's

edge was a very large, grinning crocodile.  Our

boatman took us pretty close to this fellow so we

could get a good look, but he assured us our

outboard engine was

faster than the croc!

The ruined Mayan city of Bonampak is situated in the

Lacandón Jungle where a very special group of

indigenous people, the Lacandones, make their home,

deep in the rainforest.  When the Spanish arrived in the

16th century, the Lacandón people retreated further

into the rainforest and were never discovered.

Although they had frequent contact with other Mayan-descended groups through the centuries, the rugged lands around them

helped them keep the world at bay, retain their identity and avoid the fate of most other indigenous groups for a long time.

Numbering just 650 or so native speaking Lacandón people today, it is only in the last fifty years that relentless logging,

ranching and tourism development have invaded their space and forced them to go through the conversions and changes that

the rest of Mexico underwent four hundred years ago.  Besides learning Spanish, many converted to Christianity (mostly

Protestantism).  Conversion was a change the men largely frowned upon because of its intolerance of polygamy.  But the

women favored the idea because there was very little ritualistic cooking involved (unlike their own traditions).  Ironically, the

recent introduction of TV and popular culture has largely brought an end to spiritual rituals of any kind among the younger

generation.

Today the Lacandones hang onto their traditions as best they can while

participating in the modern economy by working within the tourist trade.

They offer a peak into their world selling hand-crafted items, shuttling

tourists to ancient Mayan sites, taking them on tours of the rainforest, and

hosting them overnight.

At the edge of their land we were transferred into a van driven by a

Lacandón man in traditional dress (a white sack-like garment with wide

short sleeves).  He spoke perfect Mexican Spanish and wore an official

badge.  As I watched him behind the wheel I wondered what his

grandfather would have thought of his grandson chauffeuring international

tourists into his homeland in a van.  Would his own future grandkids want

to stay in the forest, hosting tourists and preserving the memory of a

vanishing culture, instead of joining mainstream Mexican society?

The main plaza of the

Bonampak ruins are

very compact.  A few

large, carved stelae

under shade canopies

are sprinkled across a

wide lawn.  An

enormous stairway

with small buildings

fills a hillside at the far

end.

We climbed the stairs and poked our heads into the first doorway of the little white

building half-way up.  Holy mackerel!  We were absolutely blown away.

Inside was a single room with a steeply vaulted ceiling, and every single square inch of

the interior was painted with extraordinary, brightly colored frescoes.  In the images

encircling the room people were engaged in all kinds of activities, wearing loincloths and

elaborate headdresses.

The side-view stance of each figure looked like those of the ancient Egyptians with the

feet placed one before the other and head in profile.  But unlike the Egyptians the

shoulders were shown in side-view rather than twisted with one shoulder forward and

one back.

We moved on to

the next doorway

and found another similar room with a

totally different story to tell, and likewise

inside the third doorway.  Wow!

Bonampak's construction began in the 6th

century, but the paintings were completed

in 790 AD.  This was the same time that

Charlemagne was rising to power in

Europe and the Vikings were beginning

their raids in England.

These murals were "discovered" in 1946

when a Yale researcher was brought to

them by a Lacandón guide.  The

Lacandones had revered the murals and

worshipped at the site and never shown

them to outsiders before.  Sadly, in an

effort to document and preserve them

(hadn't they been preserved already for

1,150 years?), the scientists covered the

murals with

kerosene which

brought out the

colors temporarily

but weakened the

plaster so it started

to flake off.  They

photographed like

mad, but today the

photos they took

are considered

incomplete and Yale

has renewed their

efforts to document the

paintings.

Standing there, jaw agape, however, I didn't

care how much the paintings had faded in

the last 60 years.  They are magnificent.

The expansive story-telling nature of the

paintings and their incredible detail had all of

us visitors oohing and ahhing to each other

in the doorways.

We later learned that the first room depicts

the presentation of the son and heir of King

Chan Muan II and Lady Rabbit (a

noblewoman from nearby Yaxchilán), in 790 AD, with great processions, trumpet playing and fanfare.

Unfortunately the city was abandoned before the infant came into power.  The second room depicts the

violent conquering of an unknown enemy.  Among several gruesome scenes, the unfortunate captives are

being tortured by having their fingernails pulled out.  The third depicts a royal celebration, including ritual

blood-letting that the noblewomen performed by piercing their tongues.

Like Yaxchilán, the lintels over the doorways are highly decorated,

and the image carved over the first door shows King Chan Muan

holding a captive by the hair.  Not only is the carving beautifully

executed, but the original blue painted background and some of the

red trim can be seen even today.  Astonished by their good

condition, I had to ask the attendant if the lintels were original -- and they

were.

While I was standing in awe of all this, trying to twist my body so I could

get the best possible shots of the murals despite the restrictive tourist

barriers, Mark had wandered off down the hill.  When I caught up to him

he excitedly showed me a photo of a little Lacandón girl he had taken.

These ruins were her playground, and she climbed among the trees and

played with sticks in the dust as she watched the tourists coming and

going.  Mark tried to talk to her, but Spanish and English got him nowhere.

Then he handed her the camera and showed her how to take a picture of

him and she grinned.  They traded taking pics of each other and giggled

at the images on the back of the camera, all language barriers gone.

We got back to Palenque exhausted but happy.  It had been quite a day.

But after a rest day in town we were ready to go again to see the famous

Agua Azul and Misol-Ha waterfalls.

Click here to see more from our adventure travels in Mexico.

Find Yaxchilán and Palenque on Mexico Maps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palenque – Ancient Mayan Ruins and Terror in the Jungle!

Sail blog post - We traveled inland from Marina Chiapas to the thought-provoking and myserious ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque, Mexico.  Beautiful photographs!

Valley farmlands between San Cristóbal and Palenque.

Lush mountains on the way to Palenque.

Lush mountains behind corn fields.

Palenque is closer to the Caribbean than the Pacific.

Palenque is closer to the Caribbean!

Pretty La Cañada neighborhood in Palenque, Mexico

Pretty La Cañada neighborhood in

Palenque

Back streets to Palenque town.

Back streets to Palenque town.

Flowers in Palenque jungle, Mexico

Hard little beaded plant, like

Mardi-Gras necklaces.

Flowers in Palenque jungle, Mexico Flowers in Palenque jungle, Mexico Flowers in Palenque jungle, Mexico La Cañada neighborhood, Palenque, Mexico Palenque is a busy town that is surprisingly unaware of its tourists.

Palenque is a busy town that is surprisingly nonchalant about

its tourists.

A tailor in Palenque, Mexico

Quickie on-the-fly tailoring

Temple de la Calavera, Palenque, Mexico

Temple de la Calavera

Temple XIII and Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico

Temple XIII and Temple of the Inscriptions

Temple XV, Palenque, Mexico

Temple XV

Temple of the Sun, Palenque, Mexico

Temple of the Sun

Temple of the Cross, Palenque, Mexico

Temple of the Cross

Temple XIV, Palenque, Mexico

Temple XIV

The Palace, Palenque, Mexico

The Palace

The Ball Court, Palenque, Mexico

The Ball Court

Palacio, Palenque, Mexico

Vendors sell trinkets on shaded blankets before the Palace.

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico

Temple of the Inscriptions

Burial place of Pacal the Great

Palenque, Mexico

Elephant ear leaves

Jungle, Palenque, Mexico Palenque, Mexico

A moth

Palenque, Mexico

A ruin yet to be excavated and studied.

Palenque, Mexico El Palacio, Palenque, Mexico

The Palace, a building worthy of a great king.

Palace courtyar, Palenque, Mexico

Palace courtyard

Watchtower, Palenque, Mexico

The watchtower -- or celestial

observatory.

Palenque, Mexico

Hallways with the characteristic almost-peaked roof

Palenque, Mexico

Thick walls

T-window, Palenque, Mexico

T-window

Mayan bas-relief sculpture, Palenque, Mexico

Bas-relief sculpture shows what the Mayans looked like.

Palenque, Mexico

Left unattended, the jungle always wins.

Mayan Ruins of Palenque, Mexico

Mid-March, 2012 - We left the cool mountain air of San

Cristóbal de las Casas and took a five-hour bus ride north to

the jungle town of Palenque, home of an amazing ancient

Mayan city.  This turned out to be another spectacular bus

journey through mountainous terrain.  We climbed and

descended, first through beautiful pine forests and then into

more jungle-like landscapes.

As the elevation rose and fell, the pines mixed with palms and

banana trees.  Eventually the pines disappeared all together and

the hills became lush and green all around us.  Then we

descended into the thick, hot, humid jungle.

It was odd to look at the map and discover we were now closer to the

Caribbean than the Pacific, our home for the last six months.

Through an incredible stroke

of luck, the budget hotel we

booked online was under

construction and we were

moved to the lovely, upscale

Hotel Maya Tulipanes for the

same price.  We took one look

at the plush king bed, the

large and beautifully appointed

stone tile bathroom and the

enormous flat screen TV and

said in unison, "We're never

leaving!"

The hotel is in the La Cañada

neighborhood of the town of

Palenque, a pretty, quiet,

shaded street that hosts a

handful of small hotels and

outdoor bistros.  We wandered

through the jungly back streets

behind the hotel and were

amazed at all the new-to-us plants and flowers we saw.

The weird warbling cries and calls of the birds in the trees

added to the exotic feeling.

After the buzz,

excitement and breezy

international flavor of

San Cristóbal, the laid

back warmth of this

jungle town charmed

us right away.  The

sultry heat kept people

outside on our little

neighborhood street until late into the night, and we

discovered that many of the people enjoying the

outdoor eateries were locals who had just gotten off from work.  A group of Mexican guys invited us

to sit with them at their table.  "Welcome to the jungle!" they said.  They hailed from Cancún and

Mérida, several hundred miles away in different directions, and they were as excited as we were

about spending a few days in the rainforest.

The town was wonderfully vibrant and self-possessed, despite being a tourist hub for the nearby ruins.  The stores sold

everyday items like shoes, clothes, and electronics, and the uniformed school kids hung out in Burger King in the afternoons.

We had to hunt around a bit to find a shop with a souvenir t-shirt that said "Palenque" on it.  On our walk down the main drag

the music poured out of every storefront in classic Mexican style, thumping modern pop tunes and loud Mexican songs.

One thing we love about Mexico is how easy it is to get immediate walk-

in service for anything from haircuts to dental work.  While walking

around one afternoon, Mark was frustrated that his shorts kept slipping

down.  We searched high and low for a belt, but after trying on at least

a dozen in several different stores, he just couldn't find one with the

right style and fit.  Then we passed an open doorway where a guy was

kicked back in a chair, shirtless, watching the world go by.  A sewing

machine sat idle in front of him.  The most delicious aroma wafted out

from a back room.  It seemed he was passing the time people-watching

until his wife served lunch.  Mark poked his head in and asked if he

could take in his shorts.  "No problema!"  The fellow sprang into action,

throwing a tape measure around his neck.  Mark stripped down to his

skivvies and handed him his shorts.  Ten minutes and two seams later,

the man handed the shorts back to Mark.  "Ahhh," he said putting them

on.  He turned around a few times and wiggled to see if they'd slip.

"Much better!"  We paid the tailor a few pesos and continued on down

the street.

The famous Palenque ruins were a short combi van ride from town.  When we piled out of the

van at the entrance to the ruins we found ourselves in a shark pit of hustlers trying to sell

guided tours.  These guides are freelancers who charge about 100 pesos ($8 USD) for a one

to two hour tour.  Some speak English, all speak Spanish, but it wasn't clear just how much

they had studied the archaeological record of the site.  "Why are there so many guides?" I

finally said in exasperation to the group crowding around us.  "No jobs!"  Fair enough.

We escaped the crowd and

discovered at the main front

gate that Mexican government

sanctioned tour guides offer

similar tours for 500 pesos

($40).  These guides wear

official government badges.  But

the guide we spoke to had been

in Tulum last week and

Guanajuato two weeks prior,

and on a two week jaunt around

Mexico with a Hollywood

celebrity before that.  Hmmm.

His knowledge of Palenque??

We decided not to use the services of a guide but to enjoy the ambience of these stunning

ruins in our own way and at our own pace.  Walking up the stairs from the entrance -- under a

thick canopy of jungle trees -- we emerged onto a grassy field where we were staring right at

the Temple de la Calavera.  Wow.  Next door, to the left, was Temple XIII and then Temple of

the Inscriptions.

Most of the structures were tall, yet massively

thick and squat.  The dark stone was

formidable and imposing, set against the

bright green grass and dark green trees.  All I

could think of was what it must have been like

to weed whack through the jungle to these

buildings, at the suggestion of a local Mayan,

as did the Spanish priest Pedro Lorenzo de la

Nada in 1567.  The 16th century Mayans

called the place "Otolum," or "Land with

strong houses."  The priest called it

"Palenque," Spanish for "fortification."

To my delight, just like

the Zapotec ruins at

Monte Alban, visitors

are allowed to scramble

up and down and all

around these ruins.  It is

amazing and inspiring to

climb stairs that were

climbed fifteen hundred

years ago by people a

world away.

Palenque was first

settled in 100 BC, but

reached its heyday

between 600 and 800 AD, becoming the main power center in much of modern

day Tabasco and Chiapas.  So while Rome was undergoing its various sackings

by the Vandals, Visigoths and Ostragoths in the fifth and sixth centuries, the

Mayan culture here was on the rise and not yet peaking.

Palenque was never a huge metropolis like Rome.  In its prime

only 6,200 people called it home.  However, the carved bas-

reliefs and inscriptions have divulged many secrets to insightful

archaeologists, and, to my amazement, we learned that the

entire dynastic line of kings is known by both formal name,

nickname and date, along with the history of the major events in

the city.

Powerful cities are prime targets for eventual sacking, and Rome

had company in Palenque a few centuries later.  Palenque was

sacked by rival Calakmul twice: in 599 and 611.  The second

defeat resulted in a break in the line of kings while the city

regrouped.  An amazing 12-year-old boy emerged as king in

615, and during his 68 year reign he oversaw the rebuilding of

the city and the creation of many of the

buildings that are visible today.  He

was nicknamed "the favorite of the

gods" and he was known as Pacal the

Great.

We walked through the parklike setting

of massive structures and crawled up

and down, in and around each

building.

The site is spread out over a square mile, and we were stunned to find out

that just 10% of the ruins have been excavated and rebuilt.  The rest are

hidden in the surrounding jungle.

One of the most impressive and most studied excavations here was the

tomb of Pacal the Great inside the pyramid atop the Temple of the

Inscriptions.  Unfortunately visitors aren't allowed inside.

Our cameras had led

us in different directions

by now, and I had lost

track of Mark's

whereabouts in this

vast site.  He finally

turned up amid a cluster of elephant ear leaves.  He cocked his head towards a path that

exited the grounds to one side, suggesting we head that way.  We had seen tour guides

slipping off into the tangle of greenery to the right of the ruins with their clients when we first

entered the site.  Now we followed the path in that direction.  Stepping into the jungle, we were

quickly swallowed up by plant life.

Suddenly we heard the most horrendous noise -- quite

definitely the roar of a jaguar.  It wasn't just a roar.  It

was a growl, a bellowing snarl made by a huge and angry

animal really close by.  And it wouldn't quit.  It just went on

and on.  I stopped dead in my tracks.  Mark flashed a grin

at me.  "I want to see what it is!"  He disappeared down

the path ahead.  "Are you kidding?"  The roaring just

wouldn't stop.  In fact, I suddenly realized that whatever it

was wasn't alone.  There were two of them.  Two jaguars

circling each other, somewhere terrifyingly nearby, jaws

agape, huge canine teeth bared.

I couldn't move.  I just stood there transfixed, imagining wild, angry animals, and

wondering when Mark was going to come back.  I imagined the headlines: "American

hiker found half eaten in Mexican jungle…"  And who would find him if I kept standing

here?  Oh dear.  I screwed up my courage and continued down the path.  At long last I

saw him standing with his camera held high recording the sound.  Did he know what it

was yet?  No!  He continued moving towards the noise and I tromped through the brush

behind him, my heart in my throat.

Suddenly we saw another hiker up ahead, and then three more.  All were

standing with their heads thrown back, craning their necks to look up

high in the trees.  And there it was, an enormous, black howler monkey,

bellowing away without stopping even to catch his breath.  He was big,

and apelike, with a long furry tail wrapped around a branch.  We had

been told there were monkeys in the jungle, but I'd expected something

little and white, something nervous and yippy.  Not a big hairy roaring

beast like this guy!

We stayed and watched the monkey and his mates moving about the

forest canopy for a long time.  Finally the big guy grunted a few times,

settled down and fell silent.  He had said all he wanted to say.  The

heavy, damp, jungly woods were still.  We tiptoed back out again,

thrilled at what we had seen.  On our way out we passed the

unmistakable rock wall of an unexcavated building.  What a cool place!

The impressive thing about

Palenque is the completeness

and detail of the buildings.  The

Palacio is a huge structure with a

tall watch tower, or celestial

observatory -- or maybe it was

both.

Hallways and rooms and tunnels fill this enormous

structure, and we wandered freely through it.

This is a hot environment, and we found an intriguing

interior opening in a wall that seemed to act as a

vent, blowing a continual stream of cold air up from the stone rooms below ground level.

The Palace also had several T-

shaped windows that looked to me

like the perfect place to point a

weapon outwards while

remaining well protected behind

the rock wall.  However, these

windows are theorized to have

something to do with the Mayan

god of the wind whose glyph is

also shaped like a T.

Many of the buildings are

decorated with ornate sculpted

images, most of which depict

historical events that archaeologists have miraculously been able to unravel.  Several

have been set aside in the courtyard of the palace.  What we found intriguing was the

surprising resemblance, in many ways, of the ancient peoples to some of the people

walking around Mexico today.  Ironically, while the Spanish thought the builders of these

awesome ruins must have been Egyptian or Polynesian or anything other than the ancestors of the people they found living in

the area, it wasn't until 1831 that one Juan Galindo wrote of the resemblance.

We followed a narrow path that headed down, down and more down into a lower set of

buildings deep under the trees.  Here we saw just how aggressive the jungle can be, as the

roots of very tall trees wrapped around the low walls of the ruins.  Palenque was overtaken

by the jungle sometime after it was fatally sacked for the last time in 711 by the rival

community Toniná.  The city was abandoned when the entire ancient Mayan civilization

fell, sometime in 10th century, almost six hundred years before the Spanish arrived.

There is a wonderful magic to

these ruins, and despite their

ongoing study and reconstruction,

we felt a deep mystery within their

walls that echoed in our souls.

We decided to stay in Palenque a

little longer so we could visit the

ruins of Yaxchilán & Bonampak.

Find Palenque on Mexico Maps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oaxaca’s Monte Alban – Mysterious Ancient Zapotec Ruins

Sail blog post - Heading inland to Oaxaca, Mexico, from the marina in Huatulco, we were awe-struck by the evocative Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban

Carved stone figures at Monte Alban's museum.

Museum at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

A local school group is on a field trip.

Museum at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

The teacher asks which god he is pointing to.

Elaborate clay urn at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Elaborate clay urn.

Clay figure at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Hillsides at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Monte Alban sits high on a hill overlooking the

Oaxaca Valley.

Clay figurine vendor at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

A vendor shows us his

artifacts.

Vendor at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

The vendors are everywhere.

Ballcourt at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Zapotec ball court.

Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Monte Alban pyramid.

Stone pyramid buildings at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Looking across the central plaza.

Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Archaeological site at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Layout of Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

"You are here" in Zapotec.

Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Archaeological site at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Central plaza at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Los Danzantes, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

"Los Danzantes" - Captured

rival leaders castrated &

ready for sacrifice.

Tall stairs at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

School kids burn off energy out on the stairs.

Schoolkids at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Now they can sit still for a class picture.

Restored pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Restored pyramid building.

Original

Pyramid building unchanged since "discovery" in the early 1800's.

Painstaking restoration at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Painstaking work numbering all the stones and resetting

them in the walls.

Courtyard of the Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Courtyard of the Oaxaca Cultural Center in the Santo

Domingo Cathedral.

Ceiling decoration at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Ceiling art in the Cultural Center.

Gold leaf decoration at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Grand double staircase in the Cultural Center.

Gold Mixtec artwork from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Fine gold Mixtec handiwork.

Crystal urn from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Crystal urn.

Ornate necklace from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Mixtec jewelry from Tomb #7

Sculpted clay urn from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Clay sculpted urn.

Clay figurine from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral Sculpture from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

God of old age and wisdom (note

the wrinkled skin).

Bear sculpture from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Mid-February, 2012 - Just six miles outside of Oaxaca are the

outstanding and thought provoking ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte

Alban.  We took a public bus to get there and found the first museum

room filled with carved stones.  The carvings featured crazy looking

animals and people.

We came in right behind a

school group, and I was as

intrigued by this group as

by the carved stones.  It

was a Saturday and this

was obviously an exciting

field trip for them.  A

museum guide gave them a rousing talk about the Zapotecs, the original builders

of Monte Alban (around 500 BC) and their gods who were depicted in the stone

carvings.  All the kids were extremely attentive, taking notes and answering his

questions.

He explained what a lot of the carvings represented.  Most were gods

of various things, recognizable by certain characteristics like a beaked

nose, a particular arrangement of feathers on the head or wrinkled

eyes.  To my amazement, when the guide asked the group which god

a particular image represented, their hands shot up.  They knew.

There were lots of little clay sculptures that to

us simply looked other-wordly.  But most were

images of Zapotec gods which, like those in

other ancient pantheons, represented war,

old age, wisdom, fertility and other things.

We headed outside and found the Monte

Alban site is about the size of six football

fields and is situated within an overall archaeological zone of about 8

square miles.  It sits on a hill at 6,400' elevation, and the Zapotecs

partially leveled the hilltop for its construction.  It was the capital city of

the Zapotecs, built away from three other major valley communities of

the time (500 BC).  Its population was 17,000 people between 100 BC

and 200 AD, and continued to grow until it reached its zenith between

200 and 500 AD, some 800 or so years after its construction.

Taking the path less traveled, we entered the ruins from a track that went around the back side.

While we were blocked from the sight of other tourists by the back of a large monument, a fellow

stopped us to show us some things he carried in his backpack:  little clay copies of some of the

items that have been excavated here

and a few original chips from larger

artifacts.  We looked at his stuff

quizzically and he explained that not only had he made the little clay

figures himself, but it was legal for local people to sell any artifacts

they found in their fields while farming.  The artifacts in his backpack

were things that had turned up under his hoe in his fields, and he

pointed in the general direction of his

house in the valley.

It all sounded pretty good, until we

rounded a corner into the main plaza of

ruins and discovered that there were

guys like him at every turn.  They all

had little clay replicas they had made

themselves, and presumably their

backpacks all held original artifacts they

had dug up in their farm fields.  Hmmm.

We asked later at the museum and they

assured us it was definitely not legal to

sell anything original, no matter how

small, and that nothing those guys had

was a real artifact.  Oh well, it had made

for an interesting conversation on the

back side of the ruins!!

The first ruin we came across was the

ball court, built in 100 BC.  Monte Alban

was the first true Meso-American State

with a government run by the priestly

class.  Its economy

was based on tributes

(taxes) paid by the

outlying communities in

the Valley of Oaxaca.

It is thought that the

ball game helped

resolve legal conflicts

and land and tax

disputes and that the

ball was hit with the

elbows, hands and knees.

We were intrigued by the difference between this ball court and

that of Wupatki outside Flagstaff, Arizona, built some 600 years

after Monte Alban.  Wupatki's ball court is the northernmost

known ancient ball court, and it is elliptical rather than

rectangular.  It is thought that the game there was played with a

curved stick.  So it seems the southerners played a soccer-like

game which the northerners transformed, years later, into

hockey!

The ruins are dramatic.

They squat in quiet

splendor around a central

suite of buildings, all

spaced apart by a large

flat open area.

Some of the

buildings are

thought to have

been either

religious or

administrative

buildings and

others may

have been

residences.

Visitors from all over the world ran up and down the stairs of each

building, taking photographs and saying "Wow!" to each other.

Meanwhile the school

group got quite an

education that day.  I

asked the teacher if the

kids were of Zaptotec

descent or were from a

Zapotec community

nearby.  He said no, they

were just from a local

school and the kids

probably had mixed

Mexican heritage,

although of course

some might be

Zapotec.  But these ruins are part of the rich legacy of all Oaxacan kids,

whether they trace their routes to the Zapotecs or the Mixtecs who moved into

Monte Alban once the city went into decline, or even the Spanish who came in

later and crushed all things indigenous.

Interestingly, the signs were all in Spanish,

English and Zapotec, including the little

phrase "you are here."

In one area we found the carved stone replicas of the

stones we first saw inside the museum.  Created between

350 and 200 BC and now called "Los Danzantes," these

once formed a wall.  Today the replicas stand side by side

out in the harsh elements while the originals are inside the

museum.  Oddly, the characters are mostly heavyset men

who appear to have been castrated.  It is thought that

perhaps they were the leaders of outlying communities who

were captured and then offered up to the gods in sacrifice,

perhaps using the stunning Meso-American method of

carving their still-beating hearts out of their chests and

holding them up to the sky.

Wonderfully gruesome imagery like that will get any kid excited, and the school children were

suddenly let loose and told to run around and get the wiggles out.  They ran up and down the

stairs of one of the buildings, shrieking excitedly until they were all tuckered out.  Then they

sat obediently for a class picture with their teacher.

Having walked up and down the

very tall stairs of these buildings all

day, we wondered why the small

indigenous people had made

buildings with such tall steps.

Watching the kids line up with their

teacher one possibility became

apparent:  they make perfect stadium

seats.  The stairs of all the buildings

face the main plaza, so perhaps it was

a good place to watch an event -- or

just eat lunch like the tourists do

today.

As we left Monte Alban we passed one of the buildings that is still in the state in which it was first discovered, before the

archaeological digging and reconstruction began in the 1930's.  It made a dramatic contrast to the fully restored buildings that fill

the site today.  This suddenly made me realize that what we see at Monte Alban now, like Wupatki and all other restored

archaeological sites, is at best a recreation of its once former glory and is subject to the interpretation and knowledge of its

rebuilders.

The center buildings were in the process of being restored, and it was amazing to see the

scaffolding, the pile of carefully numbered stones, and the newly restored wall filled with

numbered stones.  It is a painstaking process to bring the site back to its original

magnificence, but you have to wonder at the same time if what we see today is really how it

looked in its heyday.  Archaeologists claim the walls were covered with stucco at the time and

were smooth, unlike the raw rock facing we see now.  But what else?  Was there

landscaping, was the open plaza filled with market stalls and people?  The silent stones are

coy with their secrets.

Back in Oaxaca we checked out the

Cultural Center that is located in a

former monastery in back of the

Santo Domingo Cathedral.  The

building alone is worth the price of

admission.

It not only has a grand courtyard

but has an even grander double

staircase that, together with the

walls and ceiling, is ornamented

with gold leaf.

If you walk through the rooms of

this museum in the correct order,

you are taken through all of

Mexico's history -- from the

Oaxacan perspective --

beginning with the first

indigenous peoples and going

right through to the new

millennium.  It is a terrific visual

presentation of the very

convoluted and confusing

history of Mexico, from its

indigenous states, to the

Spanish conquest, to the

revolution, the war of

independence and the world wars.  Of course all of this happened

right alongside the technological advances that have brought

humanity to where we are today, and the domestic tools and weaponry of

the last 500 years are all finely displayed.

We managed to go through the

museum in zig-zag order, passing

through most rooms backwards, from

later years to earlier years, thus picking

up tid-bits of history in a rather jumbled

chronology.  Oops.  It really didn't

matter, though, as the museum is

absolutely fascinating no matter what

order you go through it.

Over at Monte Alban archaeologists

discovered several tombs that were filled with fantastic

Mixtec artwork.  The word "Mixtec" comes from the

Nahuatl word for "Cloud People," which gives a

wonderful image of the people that moved into Monte Alban after the

Zapotecs.  They remodeled some of the buildings and created lots of

delicate sculptures and jewelry.   One tomb in particular, Tomb #7, was the

richest discovery of artifacts in Meso-America to date.  The Zapotecs had

used the tomb in their time too, but the Mixtecs buried one of their most

prominent leaders in that tomb and sent him off to the afterlife accompanied

by a boatload of treasure.

From fine filigree gold jewelry to cut crystal glass to endless sculpted clay

urns, this leader met his maker surrounded by worldly wealth.  What great

fortune that this one tomb was not robbed and emptied by the conquering

Spanish like so many other tombs in other places.

It was a dizzying day of culture and history and relics from an era and from

peoples we had known nothing about.  I came away shaking my head, trying

to get it straight in my mind.  "Okay," I said to Mark, "So first it was built by

the Zapotecs.  Then they were later replaced by the Mixtecs.  And those

guys eventually succumbed to the Aztecs…"

"Yup," he added.  "And then came the Discotecs and

last of all the Village People."

So goes our anthropological education in Oaxaca,

which we continued with a trip to the ancient Zapotec

palace ruin, Mitla.

Find Oaxaca (Monte Alban) on Mexico Maps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wupatki Nat’l Monument – Ancient Indian Ruins & Great Camping in AZ!

Flagstaff's San Francisco peaks seen across the meadow outside Bonito Campground.

Flagstaff's San Francisco peaks seen across the meadow outside Bonito Campground.

Coconino Forest's ponderosa pine woods.

Coconino Forest's ponderosa pine woods.

Wildflowers at Bonito Campground, Flagstaff, AZ

Wildflowers at Bonito.

Sunflowers and San Francisco Mountains, Flagstaff, AZ San Francisco peaks, Flagstaff, AZ

San Francisco peaks.

National Forest Service campground, Bonito Campground, Flagstaff, AZ

Bonito Campground.

NFS Campground, Coconino National Forest, Bonito Campground, Flagstaff, AZ Coconino National Forest, Bonito Campground, Flagstaff, AZ Coconino National Forest, Bonito Campground, Flagstaff, AZ Meadow near Coconino National Forest Bonito Campground.

The meadow that used to be filled with

sunflowers is now parched and cracked.

Sunflowers outside Coconino National Forest Bonito Campground.

Some sunflowers line the road.

Ponderosa Pine outside Coconino National Forest Bonito Campground. Sunset Crater National Monument

Sunset Crater just before a downpour.

Nalakihu Dwellings in Wupatki National Monument.

Looking down at Nalakihu from Citadel Pueblo.

Nalakihu Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.

Nalakihu Pueblo.

Box Canyon Dwellings in Wupatki National Monument.

Lomaki Box Canyon dwellings.

View from inside Wupatki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument.

View from inside Wupatki Pueblo.

Lizard spotted at Wupatki National Monument, Flagstaff, AZ Lizard spotted at Wupatki National Monument, Flagstaff, AZ Box Canyon Dwellings at Wupatki National Monument, Flagstaff, AZ

Lomaki Box Canyon dwellings.

Lomaki Pueblo at Wupatki National Monument, Flagstaff, AZ

Lomaki Pueblo.

Window in Lomaki Pueblo at Wupatki National Monument, Flagstaff, AZ

Lomaki Pueblo.

Citadel Pueblo at Wupatki National Monument, Flagstaff, AZ

Looking out at the high desert plains from Citadel Pueblo.

Wupatki Pueblo and Kiva at Wupatki National Monument, Flagstaff, AZ

Wupatki Pueblo and its round Kiva (gathering place).

Wupatki Pueblo at Wupatki National Monument, Flagstaff, AZ

Wupatki Pueblo, home for about 100 people.

Blow hole at Wupatki National Monument, Flagstaff, AZ

Mark plays with the blow hole's breezes.

Imminent thunderstorm and downpour in Coconino National Forest outside Sunset Crater National Monument

Our picnic is cut short by looming black skies.

Lightning in Coconino National Forest outside Sunset Crater National Monument

Lightning!

Bonito Campground & Wupatki Nat'l Monument, Flagstaff, AZ

August, 2011 - We crossed the Sea of Cortez from just north of Bahía Concepción on the Baja side of Mexico to San Carlos on

the mainland side in late June, a 75 mile jaunt.  It was the very best sailing day in our entire seven months spent cruising the

Mexican coast: bright sunny skies, flat seas, and a sprightly wind drawing us along on a close reach.  Our arrival in San Carlos was

the first step of our re-entry into civilization and the US, and each stage of re-entry was a shock.

Perhaps the most jarring

moment in this process was our

first trip to a Super Frys

supermarket in Phoenix.  What a

staggering abundance of

gorgeous produce, so beautifully

presented and in such perfect

condition!  Mark and I stood and

stared in amazement, mouths

open in awe.  "Where's my

camera?" I cried.  Our friends

thought we were nuts.

Getting to Phoenix from San

Carlos required an 11 hour bus ride,

and we then returned to San Carlos by

truck (a mere eight hour drive) to deliver

some things to the boat and relieve the

boat of other things

we didn't need any

more (winter

clothing!).

Then over the next

six weeks we

skidded from being

merely bone tired to

being utterly

exhausted as we ticked off the endless items on our "to do" list of

chores.  We lived as perennial house guests, bouncing between

generous friends' homes.

The madness culminated with finding new tenants for our

townhouse.  Sleeping on an air mattress in our empty

townhouse during a frantic week of repainting the interior, we

realized we had come full circle.  Four years of traveling, with

only the briefest visits to Phoenix, and here we were back in

our townhouse again, surrounded by the same smells, the

same noises, the same sensations that had been the essence

of our old home.  What had the last four years meant?  Had we

grown or just taken a big detour through life?  There was no

time to think about that; there were chores to do!

Once our

responsibilities were

behind us, we grabbed

the trailer out of

storage and dashed up

to Flagstaff as fast as

we could go.  We made

a beeline for Bonito

Campground, our all-

time favorite

campground.  Despite

being die-hard

boondockers, we splurged on a weeklong stay there while we re-familiarized

ourselves with the RV lifestyle and restocked the trailer with everything we had

pillaged from it for the boat.

Here at 7000' elevation we finally began to take stock and get some perspective on all

that we'd been through.  When we left Phoenix in 2007, real estate was peaking at

astronomical prices.  Now, on our return, there was a sea of homes in various stages

of financial distress and foreclosure.  Few real estate signs were visible, however.  The

panic was largely on paper and online, and too often was manifested in midnight

moves.  Some of our once-wealthy friends were now scrambling to pick up the pieces

of their lives, while other less well-heeled friends were suddenly able to afford

gorgeous homes.

The city's everpresent, massive

expansion into the outlying pristine

desert was temporarily on hold while it adjusted to the new economy.  Our

memories of Phoenix as it once was were overlaid onto Phoenix as it is today,

and there were areas where the images meshed, and areas where they were

like two different places.

Some of the changes were within ourselves as well.  Our souls were the same,

but all this traveling had expanded our knowledge of the lands around us, and

we had come to know ourselves better too.  These thoughts swirled around us

as we rested and strolled about Bonito's pretty grounds.  Life aboard Groovy in

Mexico felt like a far distant dream.

The land surrounding Bonito Campground has changed too.  Last year this part

of Coconino National Forest was devastated by the Schultz wildfire which wiped out some

15,000 acres, mostly on the area's mountain slopes.  Campers at Bonito were evacuated

twice, first to escape the fire and later to avoid the erosion-caused floods.  As a ranger

explained to us, the floods altered the landscape forever and

even moved floodplains.  Many nearby homes were damaged

or lost, a young girl drowned, and the water rose to about 8' in

the campground's amphitheater, leaving the place buried in

sludge.

Knowing some of this before we arrived, it was with trepidation

that we approached the campground.  The meadow that is

usually teeming with bright yellow sunflowers at this time of

year was devoid of blooms and parched and cracked in

places.  But what a thrill it was to see and smell our beloved

ponderosa pine woods.  Bonito's soul is the same, just singed

a bit here and there.  The wildflowers still line the edges of the

roads and promise to return to the meadows.  The

hummingbirds still buzz the campers looking for easy

meals in feeders.  Some ponderosas have blackened

trunks, but the tops are green.

However, the Schultz fire was

nothing compared to the volcano

that erupted at next-door Sunset

Crater around 1050 AD.  Spewing

marble-to-football sized chunks of

rock into the air for a few months

(or possibly several years), the

evacuation of the local farmers

lasted for generations.  The

volcano layered the land for many

miles around in a thick blanket of

cinder.  In its last moments it spat

out a final burst of cinder that was oxidized to a rust color.  This gives the mountain a distinctive

orange-red top to this day, and the sun and shadows spend their days playing with the color.

We took a drive through the

nearby Indian ruins at Wupatki

National Monument.  These

were built 50-100 years after

the eruption by the so-called

Sinagua people who returned

to the area to find that the

blanket of volcanic ash now

helped keep rare moisture in

the soil.  They somehow eked out a farm life, living essentially

"sin agua" or "without water."

The ruins are like tiny dots on vast open plains, each located

several miles apart.  The San Francisco mountains line the

horizon, but there are few trees or other protection between the open lands and the sky.

We opted to start at the far end of the drive, visiting the more remote

ruins first. These were built above small box canyons that are

essentially ditches in the ground bounded on two or three sides by 100'

rock cliffs.  The cliffs provide the only weather protection in the area.

The Sinagua people understood real estate:  location location location.

It was early

morning and utterly

silent.  The

crunching of my

feet on the gravel paths made the cottontail

bunnies run, and lizards of all shapes and

sizes scurried for cover under rocks along

the trail.  We were the only visitors at each

ruin, lending a sense of magic to each

place.

At the biggest ruin, Wupatki Pueblo,

Mark played with the natural

"blow hole" air vent.  The

National Park Service has built

a structure around it, but the

blow-hole itself is the real deal,

blowing air out or sucking it in

depending on ambient

temperatures and air pressures.

As we returned to the

campground the sky turned

black, thunder rolled and

lightning streaked the sky.  For

seven months on the boat in

Mexico we hadn't seen a single

drop of rain.  The deluge that came now was fantastic.

We drove through it

laughing, barely able to

see the road ahead, and

we jumped back in the

trailer, glad to have real

shelter.  It was so great to

be back in our RV lifestyle

again.  The rain pummeled

our roof all afternoon, and

we fell asleep to the plink

plink plink of raindrops

overhead.  Little did we

know the downpours

would continue for several days.  The sun finally returned in full blaze

as we took off to head north to Dixie National Forest in Utah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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