Guanajuato – Full of Song and Spirit!

Guanjuato has colorful streets

We were captivated by Guanajuato’s beautiful streets.

Early June, 2013 – Guanajuato continued to enchant us. The beautiful cobbled streets wound in and out and up and down, and all were lined with colorful buildings.

There was a cheerfulness about the place that was infectious.

As we were walking down a crowded street one afternoon, it seemed everyone we passed either gave us a nod, or a smile, or was laughing in conversation with a friend.

Incredulous, I said to Mark, “It’s just a happy city!” Behind me I heard a man’s voice say, “Si” I turned around and he grinned at me.

 

A colorful hillside in Guanajuato Mexico

Every time we looked across at Guanajuato’s hills,
we were amazed — again — by the colors.

We couldn’t walk ten steps without stopping to photograph something, and we both kept wandering off, attracted by some fantastic image that took us down an alleyway or up a staircase.

Guanajuato is truly photogenic, and we had beautiful sunny days to enjoy it.

Street photography in Guanajuato

Guanajuato is really fun for photography!

 

 

 

 

 

I think it is the colors of Guanajuato that will stay in our memories forever. Primary colors and pastel colors — they’re all there, making the hillsides look like they’ve been spattered from a rainbow paint can.

Plaza de la Paz Guanajuato

Even plaza de La Paz is colorful.

Everywhere we turned, the buildings were done up in vivid shades.

University of Guanajuato

Spiky roofline of the University of Guanajuato

 

 

 

But one building stood out against the crowd: the enormous and rather grand University of Guanajuato in the very heart of town. Imposing, yet ornate, it is bright white and has a series of spiky decorations around the top.

Nuestra Senora de Guanjuato

Inside the Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato basilica.

The city’s most impressive architecture dates back to the 18th century when the region was the world’s leading silver producer.

Since the indigenous silver miners were slaves, there was plenty of profit for the mine owners to spend in whatever way they liked, and the ornamentation in the churches, mansions and former government buildings reflect that immense wealth.

Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato

Teatro Juarez – a lavish theater at the center of it all.

Silver production continued to support sumptuous lifestyles in Guanajuato into the 20th century, and the stunning Teatro Juarez theater is a central landmark dating from that time. It was a thrill fto watch it light up in the early evening.

In front of the theater, the Jardín de la Union is the local hangout. Most Mexican cities have a town square, or “Zócalo,” where everyone can kick back with a beverage and a book or enjoy a conversation with a friend or just sit and people watch.

Jardin de la Union Guanajuato

Shade trees and shiny tiles surround the Jardín de la Union
— thetown square (or triangle!).

But this square is unique. For one thing, it’s not a square. It’s a triangle! Also, rather than cobblestone or paved paths, the wide walkways that encircle it are made of shiny, decorative tile laid in pretty patterns.

A stand of trees arches over this waking path. The trees are planted so close together and their foliage is so thick that they make an incredible shade cover for the whole place.

They looked like ficus trees to us. We’ve kept ficus trees as houseplants, but for us they haven’t done very well in a pot. Their leaves always seem to begin to yellow and then slowly drop off, one by one, until the tree is nearly bare.

Vegetable sellers in the street

Selling vegetables street-side.

Not these trees! Their vibrant green leaves are so tightly packed that in mid-day the whole area is dark under their shade, and it makes a great place to escape from the heat of the sun. We kept coming back and back and back again — as did everyone else in town!

But daily life is always humming in the streets beyond the Jardín. And in this town, you just never know what you’ll see.

Scooter carrying lilies

Delivering flowers…

 

Wandering around, we came across the many scenes we’ve become accustomed to: juice vendors selling fruit juices from rollable carts and people offering veggies for sale on makeshift tables and chairs they’ve assembled from shipping pallets and plastic buckets, or whatever is handy.

But it was the unexpected and whimsical sightings that kept us on our toes and laughing. We just never knew when we might glance up and see something unique, like a scooter rolling past. loaded with bouquets of yellow lilies. What a fun way to deliver flowers!

Horses and donkey in the street

We look up and see these guys coming down the street!

Traffic on the streets can be quite heavy, especially at rush hour, so we were astonished when we were out looking for a bite to eat and suddenly saw a pair of horseback riders and a donkey clip-clopping towards us on the cobbled streets. Was this for real? Yes!

We followed them back towards the town square but quickly lost track of them in the throng of activity. The crowds in the square had grown so jam-packed that when we stood on tip-toe and looked down the street, all we saw was a sea of heads, hats and the occasional waving hand.

Ballerina on Teatro Juarez railing

There’s a ballerina dancing on the theater railing!

Looking past all that, Mark’s jaw suddenly dropped and he pointed, “There’s a ballet dancer on the railing up there!’ I followed his gaze, and sure enough, a dancer in a leotard and toe shoes was posing on the stone railing in front of the majestic columns of Teatro Juarez.

Balloons released above Teatro Juarez

A group of people release a bunch of white balloons from the theater steps.

We made our way through the crowd and discovered she was in the middle of a photo shoot of some kind.

A photographer was nearby, and she assumed one graceful pose after another on the railing while he took a stream of photos.

As this gal was dancing on the side rail of the theater, a gathering of people holding white balloons had assembled on the front steps. What could this be? Who knows!

All of a sudden, they all let go of their balloons at the same time, and we tipped our heads back to watch the little white bubbles disappear into the sky. Then the group of people on the stairs broke up and everyone vanished into the river of humanity flowing around us.

Mariachi band walking

Mariachis doing the Abbey Road walk.

Guanajuato is not just a visual delight. It’s soul is steeped in music too. Everywhere we went around town we heard music.

Mariachi trumpet player

Music is the heart and soul of Guanajuato.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the Jardín, in the center of town, a myriad of outdoor cafes lines the square, and each boasts a mariachi band. These weren’t the little wandering three-piece bands we were used to seeing on the beach. These were full-on 8-member orchestras, complete with trumpets and violins in addition to the usual guitars.

The town square’s cafes are crammed together side by side, with no space in between. Music springs up from one cafe and then another, and frequently from a few of them at once. Periodically, a band takes a break, and the musicians take a load off and chat together under the shade of the trees.

Jardin de la Union bandstand

A band does a lively rendition of ?Stars and Stripes Forever.”

There is a bandstand at the center of the square, and one afternoon we noticed the crisp white shirts of a band sitting up there as they tuned their instruments to a clarinet’s A-note. Oooh – fun!!!

We found seats on a park bench and were amazed when the conductor tapped his baton on his music stand and the cacophony from the mariachi bands around the square suddenly stopped.

 

Kid running at the bandstand

Weeeee – two kids zoomed round and round the bandstand.

The band began to play a string of familiar pop tunes, and I found myself transported to my childhood when our town band would play in the bandstand on balmy summer nights. I started telling Mark about how all of us kids would get so wound up at these things, running round and round the bandstand, skipping and leaping and doing cart-wheels.

Suddenly, just as the band started a rousing rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a little brother and sister began to tear around the band stand at top speed. They ran in opposite directions, and each time they met, they’d stop and high-five each other and then take off again, laughing giddily as they ran.

Street musician in Guanajuato

People make music in every corner of Guanajuato.

Out on the streets of Guanajuato the music continued to fill the air, day and night.

Street musician in Guanajuato

There were street musicians everywhere.

Street musicians of every variety strolled up and down, playing for themselves and playing for tips. It is hard to find a street corner in this city where you don’t hear music.

guitar player on the bus

We were even serenaded on the bus!

Even when we clamored onto a city bus, a guy suddenly broke into song behind us. We turned around to see him standing in the middle of the bus strumming his guitar.

Musician statue at Jardín de la Union

A sculpture depicting the famous Callejoneadas.

But the most famous musicians in Guanajuato aren’t the mariachi bands or the bandstand band or the street musicians. It is the Callejoneadas.

The what? When I first heard this word I had to have the person repeat it three times. “Cah-yay-hone-ay-ah-das.”

An alley is a “callejón” (cah-yay-hone), and although most cities in the world have lots of alleys, they are often kind of dark and scary places sandwiched between the good stuff. In Guanajuato, the alleys are celebrated, and they harbor the lively soul of the central neighborhoods.

We watched in amazement our first night Guanajuato as a collection of men in renaissance garb gathered in front of the Juarez Theater. Carrying lutes and mandolins and stringed instruments of all kinds, the men mingled with the crowd, urging them to sit on the stairs and watch them perform.

 

Callejoneadas de Guanajuato

A wandering minstrel.

Suddenly they began to engage the crowd with crazy antics and songs. We couldn’t really understand what stories were being told, but when they persuaded two couples to come in front of the crowd to dance, we laughed with all the rest.

As the couples swung about, everyone around ua began to sing along. Everyone knew all the words to all the songs! Sadly, we didn’t know any, but we sure wished we did.

The callejoneadas start their nightly song-walk through the alleys.

The callejoneadas start their nightly song-walk through the alleys.

After a few songs and stunts, the medieval men in black began to walk out of the town square, strumming their instruments and singing as they went. The crowd of people on the stairs got up and began to follow behind, singing heartily in their wake. Then they disappeared into the alleys.

Donkey carrying wine for Callejoneadas

A donkey carries bottles of wine.

After a short while, the space that this throng had cleared was taken up by another group of musicians and the whole thing began again. The groups of singers gathered in several different areas around the town square, and it seemed there were dozens of these groups.

As they all made there way out into the streets in the early evening, we could hear their songs faintly wafting back to us from various corners of the city.

Donkey with wine on his back

His load will be completely empty in a few hours!

Now we understood why we had been seeing so many men in tights around town. These guys were the Callejoneadas!

We also discovered what all the donkeys we had been seeing in the streets were for.

Wandering through the alleyways on our way back to our B&B, we came across a group of minstrels and followers in front of a neighborhood church.

Callejoneadas de Guanajuato at night

The callejoneadas entertain a group in front of a church.

The minstrels were performing a skit, and every so often a roar of laughter would go up. A donkey stood off to one side, and the pack on his back was quickly becoming lighter as the singers grabbed bottles from the pack and poured wine into special little flasks that the followers were carrying with them!

What a hoot!! We found out later that this whole thing started back in the 1970’s, when a group of people from the university occasionally gathered in the alleys and wandered up and down the streets in the evenings singing songs. Someone would bring along drinks to share, and the participants would contribute a few pesos to whoever did the buying.

Juarez Theater Guanajuato

The Juarez Theater looks very grand at night.

Nowadays, this once impromptu event is a regular nightly party, hosted by university students and faculty.

The whole thing is very well organized, so it is not as spontaneous (and unruly) as it probably was when it first started forty years ago.

A ticket to participate in the festivities is 100 pesos ($8 USD), and along with great memories, you get a very cool souvenir wine flask.

What we loved about all this, though, was that the little B&B where we stayed was right on one of the most popular Callejoneadas routes.

Don Quijote statue

There are statues of Don Quijote
all over the place.

Every evening, if we were back in our room, we’d hear the troupes come by. I don’t know who was singing with more gusto, the wandering minstrels or their followers!

Fortunately, there must be some kind of agreement between the singers and the neighborhood residents, because all the noise and mayhem stopped before 10:00 each night!

Don Quijote statue

Don Quijote, like Mr. Magoo, stumbled in and out of trouble, quite oblivious to it all.

We soon discovered that Guanajuato has an affection for medieval things that goes beyond (or was inspired by?) this nightly music event.

All around town we kept running into statues and references to the Spanish medieval author Cervantes and his famous hero, the rather misguided — and Mr. Magoo-like — Don Quijote (or as my little kid’s ears always heard it: Donkey Hotey).

 

Don Quijote impersonator

This Don Quijote impersonator mingled with the callejoneadas in the town square

Why Cervantes and Don Quijote? Well, around the time that the wandering minstrels started serenading folks in the alleys of Guanajuato in the 1970’s, another group of university students began doing spontaneous performances of Cervantes’ works in the same neighborhood squares and church steps.

This blossomed into an annual event, and now Guanajuato’s Festival Cervantino is known internationally and includes operas, drama productions, film showings and live music with invited guest luminaries from all over the world.

The festival wasn’t going on while we were there, but we did see a fellow dressed up as Don Quijjote who mixed it up every night with the callejoneadas singers.

We were loving the free spirit of Guanajuato, and our curiosity about its origins soon led us to the edge of town and down into the mines where the silver was — and still is — mined in abundance.

 

 

 

<- Previous                                                                                                                                                                                       Next ->

Guanajuato – Colors, stairs, tunnels and characters!

Guanajuato Mexico Artits's pallet

Guanajuato is a true artist’s pallet of colors.

Early June, 2013 – We had been in Puerto Vallarta for over two months, loving the fancy shore-side resort life, but the beautiful colonial cities in the interior of Mexico beckoned. Back in Zihuatnanejo, our friend Francisco (1/3 down the page), who sells pretty painted plates from a folding table on the street, had told us he had lived all over Mexico. When we asked him which place was his favorite, he instantly said, “Guanajuato.”

Colorful houses of Guanajuato

No one is bashful here about using bright colors on their homes!

Where? He repeated the name and then spelled it for us (a rough pronunciation is “Whanna-Whatto” ).

Even though Francisco is usually quite a jokester, he went on very seriously to say this was a place we absolutely should not miss. He explained that the city was built on several hillsides and there were lots of colorful houses, old cobblestone streets and alleyways, and that there was a community of artists and musicians that gave the place a special spirit. It sounded wonderful. Even though we had never heard of it, Guanajuato zoomed to the top of our bucket list.

Guanajuato Pipila Overlook

The bright colors of Guanajajuato make an awesome backdrop at the Pípila Overlook.

Guanajuato Cathedral Domes

The domes of Guanajuato

The bus from Puerto Vallarta to Guanajuato is a very easy and comfortable 10 hour ride (it goes direct with just one stop), and we arrived in the late afternoon just in time to see the breathtaking views from the Pípila overlook. Wow! Francisco was right. This place was incredible.

Every house was a different color, and no one was shy about painting their home lavender or turquoise or pink or emerald green. Several yellow and red church domes rose above the houses, and the grand University of Guanajuato building was a dazzling white in the center of it all.

We quickly discovered that Guanajuata is all about climbing up and down stairways. The heart of the city is in a valley on the ground floor, but the buildings rise up along the sides of hills, and the fantastic Carretera Panorámica (or Panoramic Road) encircles the entire city up above.

Funcular Cable Car Guanajuato

The funicular cable car makes it easy to get up and down.

 

 

 

 

After soaking in the magical view of the city from this overlook, we took the Funicular cable car ride down into the city center. How cool it was to creep down the mountain in this window-lined car and watch the buildings grow tall around us until we arrived in the throbbing heart of Guanajuato’s Centro.

Teatro Juarez Guanajuato Mexico

Artists’ paintings for sale outside the
stately Teatro Juarez

 

The main part of Guanajuato’s Centro is the Jardin de la Unión, a triangular city square that is lined with dense shade trees and park benches and has a bandstand at its center. A cacophony of music rises up from every corner of this park as costumed mariachi bands, sax players, classical guitar players and wandering minstrels serenade anyone and everyone within earshot.

One end of this park is anchored by the ornate Teatro Juarez, a stunning theater whose facade is defined by a row of elegant columns and a collection of sculptures on the roof. As we wandered closer to the theater, we noticed a street performer with a big clown nose entertaining a crowd on the steps.

Our cameras instantly sprang into action to capture his act and his audience, but this guy was even faster than we were. Suddenly turning his back to his audience, he wheeled around to face us and began to pose for us like a swimsuit model, contorting himself into all kinds of provocative poses. Everyone was laughing, but we suddenly noticed all eyes were now turned towards us!

 

Street performer mime at Teatro Juarez

A street performing mime with a clown nose plays games with us.

We played right along with him, encouraging him and shooting away, pretending to be high fashion photographers. The audience laughed and clapped — and then he rushed over to us with his hat out looking for a tip! The audience roared.

He’d pulled one over on us! Mark turned his pockets inside out in jest, but soon found a few pesos to reward his funny act.

The next day we saw him again. He instantly started miming and pretending to take photos of us! We responded by doing goofy poses for him. Suddenly, he rushed over to us, his wallet open as he fingered a dollar bill inside, as if to tip us.

Callejoneadas de Guanajuato

A Renaissance Man!

This was the spirit we found in Guanajuato. Fun-loving, free-wheeling and happy.

For the rest of our stay, all of our forays into town began and ended with Teatro Juarez as our main landmark, and the next day, just a few steps from the theater, we bumped into a man dressed in complete Medieval garb. What the heck? Out came the cameras!

Plaza de La Paz Basilica Guanjuato

Plaza de La Paz and the Basilica de Nuestro Senora de Guanajuato

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We quickly learned that dressing up and wearing costumes is an integral part of Guanajuato street life. Wandering away from the city park a few paces, we came to Plaza de La Paz and the beautiful brilliant yellow Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato. Talk about stunning! Not only did the vibrant yellow of this enormous building light up the whole plaza, but someone had decided to trim it in scarlet. What a combo – especially for a church!

Renaissance Man

Another man in tights!

I was just tipping my head back to admire this gorgeous cathedral when Mark nudged me and pointed. Right in front of me was another man in tights. What next? This guy was dressed a bit like Robin Hood. I whispered to Mark, “I bet he’s a drama student at the University.” Well, my whisper must have been just a little bit too loud, because the guy suddenly gave me a huge grin and a nod. “Yes!” he said in English. “We’re performing tonight at Teatro Principal. Come and watch!”

Plaza de La Paz Guanjuato

Plaza de La Paz

There’s nothing like a university town for action, energy, crazy stunts and the arts!

 

Mime in a fountain

A mime stays cool in a fountain.

Guanajuato has a whimsical soul, from performing clowns to men in Renaissance costumes to Crayola colored churches. So it was no surprise at all when we saw a man painted head to toe like a green copper statue rushing past us with a briefcase in hand. Whatever he was up to, we didn’t want to miss it! We quickly hustled along behind him to see where he was headed.

Bronze Mime

A bronze mime has a skull face under his sombrero

In no time at all, he had set himself up as a permanent looking water fountain statue. It was exceedingly hot in the sun, but he had a clever water pump setup where he perpetually poured a glass of water that dribbled into a pool at his feet.

The bronze statue a few doors down didn’t have it quite so good. He had baked in the sunshine so long that under his sombrero was a skeleton’s face with dark, sunken eyes. A little kid came over to him and giggled as he rolled his eyes at him.

Guanajuato's colorful streets

Beautiful colors on the streets of Guanajuato.

 

 

 

 

Guanajuato was rapidly capturing out hearts. There was an excitement in the air here that was palpable, and everywhere we looked people were smiling. Our trip to Oaxaca last year had been our favorite inland tour to date, but just like Francisco-the-plate-painter in Zihuatanejo had told us, Guanajuato was special.

 

Street of Guanajuato

There are no straight roads here.

The city is made up of a zillion little curvy streets and alleyways, and we soon got lost as one beautiful street after another drew us in. There are no straight roads in the entire town, and nothing runs in parallel either.

We just poked our heads around corners and were invariably smitten by what we saw. Then we’d head off down the alleyways to see what might lie around the next corner.

We passed many happy hours this way each day, zig-zagging from one end of the city to the other, and we fell into bed utterly exhausted with aching feet each night. It was so much fun!

 

Doorways of Guanajuato

Many doorways.

The thing was, we just never knew what we might find. Turning one corner, we both stopped short when we looked up and saw a donkey, burdened with heavy sacks, standing in front of an Oxxo store.

Donkey at Oxxo

A donkey at Oxxo?

These convenience stores are similar to Circle K or 7-Eleven — not the kind of place you’d expect to see a donkey tied up with a huge load of sacks on his back!

Colorful hillside of Guanajuato

Whatever your favorite color is, put it on your house!

But what really got us was the color. There are no inhibitions in this town. If your favorite color is purple, then paint your house purple!

We joked that the town council meetings where these colors get approved must be quite lively. But we later learned from a cab driver that this isn’t far from the truth. Building owners must get city approval for their color choices.

 

 

Casa de Pita Square

Our B&B was right off this square.

On the flip side, the municipality pays for all exterior painting and repairs. This is apparently true for all of Mexico’s “Magic Cities” (Pueblos Mágicos). And the type of paint is carefully specified — no gauche glossy finishes allowed!

One afternoon we looked between two buildings and saw a stairway that went straight up to heaven. This wasn’t just a one story or two story staircase. This was a set of stairs that went up and up and up.

Callejones de Guanajuato

The narrow alleys are called “Callejones”

 

 

 

 

We started up the stairs, just to see what was beyond the highest stairs we could see. When we got up that point, the staircase continued, with as many stairs above us as there had been below.

Guanajuato Callejones

We zig-zagged all over town on these fun little streets.

We walked up these stairs in the company of a few other people for a ways. But they stopped at various doorways, took out their keys, and disappeared inside. Their lives are lived entirely up and down, carrying groceries and everything else up six or eight flights of stairs to get home.

We continued trudging upwards, turning every so often to compare our height against the mountain on the far side of the city. A quarter of the way up, then halfway… it continued on and on.

Stairways up Guanajuato hillsides

The stairs head upwards with no end in sight on either side.

Looking down the unending staircase, we saw a man climbing towards us carrying a huge propane tank on his shoulder. He climbed slowly up towards us, balancing the tank on his shoulder no-handed.

Escalera de Guanajuato

A strong and well balanced man carries a huge propane tank up the stairs on his shoulder, no-handed.

As he neared us, Mark said something to him about the tank being heavy and the stairs being long and the work of carrying the tank being hard. He huffed and puffed once or twice, rebalanced the tank on his shoulder, smiled, and said, “Pan comido” (“piece of cake”). Then he climbed on past us and disappeared around a bend.

Wow. I wonder how many deliveries he has to make in a day?!

Living with your home on a staircase rather than a regular street is one very different way of living!! As we continued on, the view behind us became ever more sensational, but we wondered where the heck we would come out.

Dog on Guanajuato rooftop

Woof! Instead of living in the backyard, the dogs here have rooftop terraces.

We stopped to ask a group of older men that were chatting among themselves if we were actually going to come out somewhere or if we were wearing ourselves out for nothing and would find a dead end at the top. “Oh yes!” they said, “There’s a great view at the top. Keep going.” We took a deep breath and carried on, secretly wondering if the joke was going to be on us or if those men had been sincere.

Suddenly we heard a dog bark and we whipped around to see a cute little face peering at us from a roof terrace. Because the homes on this steep hill don’t have yards, all the dogs live on the roofs!

Finally, we came out at the top and were rewarded with an easy stroll along the Panoramic Road looking out over the entire city below. What a sight!

Colorful buildings of Guanajuato

We emerge at the top to see a spectacular view.

 

 

 

 

A few days earlier, when we were prowling along a different staircase, Mark had discovered a wonderful mural that depicted the story of heroism that put Guanajuato in the history books. Guanajuato was a town that was built by the immensely wealthy Spanish mine owners who set up shop in the mid-1500’s to extract silver, gold and other precious metals from the mountains.

Pipila Wall mural

Protected from musket fire by a stone on his back, Pípila torches
the front door of the stone granary, making way for the
first big defeat of the Spanish.

The Spanish enslaved the local indigenous people for over 200 years to do the miserably hard mining labor for them (mining slaves lived an average of just 5 to 10 years after they were put to work in the mines). When the miners and other indigenous people rose up against the Spanish in the Mexican War of Independence, the Spanish citizens and soldiers of Guanajuato barricaded themselves in the local granary that served very well as a fort because it had extremely thick stone walls.

A young indigenous miner, who’s nickname was El Pípila, strapped a flat stone onto his back for protection and took a torch to the wooden door of the stone granary, leading the way for a brutal indigenous attack on the Spanish inside. This was one of the first major defeats of the Spanish in the War of Independence, and Pípila became a hero.

Pipila Statue Guanajuato

A monument to the brave miner Pípila.

Universidad de Guanajuato - University of Guanajuato

The ladder of success at the University of Guanajuato.

Up on a hill in Guanajuato, there is a huge statue to honor this brave man, and as we emerged from our very long walk upstairs from the bottom of the town, we found ourselves face-to-face with this statue.

 Tunnels of Guanajuato

Upstairs – Downstairs… Guanajuato has an underworld too.

Stone arches in Guanajuato

Stone arches over the roadway leading out of one of the tunnels.

Guanajuato has stairways everywhere, and the University is no exception. Rather than the usual ten or twelve stairs that lead up to most university buildings, this staircase seemed to be a true ladder of success with many many stairs to get there!!

Ironically, Guanajuato is not just a town of hills and stairs and steep alleyways. We soon discovered that there is an entire maze of tunnels that wanders below the streets of Guanajuato. This underworld of tunnels makes a wonderful diversion for car traffic and also offers walkers a way to get from place to place in total shade.

Whether going up to the sky or down into the “subterreneo” below the city, we were loving our stay in Guanajuato, and we hung around for quite some time.

Where is Guanajuato? Here is a map showing some landmarks:

Map of Central Mexico

For sailors, Guanajuato is most easily reached from PV but is accessible from other ports too.

<- Previous                                                                                                                                                                                       Next->

Monarch Butterfly Migration at El Rosario – A Fabulous Daytrip!!

Contepec street sign Morelia Mexico sail blog

Not so easy to say these names!

Mid-February, 2013 – After our whirlwind tour of beautiful Morelia, we piled into the car with our friends Joe and Nancy and headed even further into the mountains to see the phenomenal throngs of butterflies that migrate there each winter. We were getting off into the hinterlands now, and the road narrowed dramatically and began to climb even more steeply, easily reaching 15% to 20% grades at times, while the town names quickly became very hard to pronounce.

Topes speedbump sign Morelia Mexico sailing blog

“Topes”

The thing that sets Mexican roads apart from roads elsewhere is the plethora of speed bumps, or “topes” (pronounced “toe-pays”). This is a very effective way to slow drivers down without having to post patrol cars and radar everywhere, but it sure makes for some hair-raising driving. The speed bumps are very steep, usually they are unpainted, and they are only occasionally marked with a sign. So you don’t know if a speed bump is there until you hit it and go flying.

Tlalpujahua church Mexico sailing blog

We spot a centuries old church in the distance.

A two hour drive in the Mexican countryside can quickly become a torturous “all eyes on deck” pavement scan while you wait for the inevitable jolt accompanied by the sound of scraping metal as the underbody of the car loses yet another layer of skin to the road.

Tlalpujahua Sr Monte statue Mexico cruising blog

Tlalpujahua was having a special festival.

Tlalpujahua Sr Monte fiesta Mexico sailing blog

There was lots of music…

However, the little towns we passed through were intriguing. One boasted a beautiful church we saw from the distance, and when we got there we discovered a huge festival was in full swing.

Tlalpujahua Sr Monte fiesta Mexico sail blog

Dancing…

A fellow told me the town was called “Tlalpujahua,” which is pronounced (“Tlal-poo-hah-wah”) and it was once a gold mining town and has churches dating to the 1500’s. Along with a huge outdoor market that lined the main street, they were celebrating the Day of Señor Jesús del Monte.

What luck!! Kids were dressed up in fantastic costumes, and they paraded in the streets and climbed the steep path to the church where they danced and sang and made music.

Tlalpujahua Sr Monte fiesta Mexico cruising blog

All the kids in town helped celebrate.

Tlalpujahua Sr Monte fiesta  Mexico sailing blog

Great costumes.

It was a colorful celebration, and every kid in town seemed to be a part of it.

Tlalpujahua Sr Monte fiesta Mexico living aboard blog

These machetes were real!

My favorite was the line-up of youngsters that were reenacting a sword fight, clashing their (real and sharp) machetes together while doing some dance steps and singing.

We wandered around town, fascinated by what was going on but not understanding what it was really all about. There was so much music and noise and hand clapping going on that we couldn’t have heard an explanation even if someone had been willing to try and give us one.

Kansas City Southern Train Mexico sailing blog

Kansas City Southern.

We jumped back in the car and continued our journey higher into the mountains. A very long freight train labeled “Kansas City Southern” went past pulling an endless stream of cattle cars that bore the same name on the side. We couldn’t tell if the cars were empty or full, but if they held cattle coming from or going to Kansas, those animals had a lot of miles under their hooves.

 

Haystack Michoacan Mexico sail blog

This is farm country.

 

We passed old style haystacks and horses in pastures, and eventually we made it to El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary.

Horse grazing Michoacan Mexico living aboard blog

Horses were grazing in the fields.

We hadn’t had any idea what to expect, and we were surprised to be greeted with several stages of fees: parking fee first, entrance fee second, and then the mandatory hiring of a guide to take us into the woods.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Michoacan Mexico sailing blog

Joe opted to catch a ride.

We are experienced hikers, and we couldn’t imagine it would be all that hard to find the butterflies. But when we protested against taking a guide, we learned that viewing the butterflies is an eco-tourism tour that helps sustain the people in this area.

The sanctuary provides a job base for the locals and, on that note, a guide — who was paid only tips — seemed like a fine idea.

The hike is an uphill, hour-long jaunt through the forest, and the locals provide rides on “caballitos” (little horses) for those who don’t want to walk. These cute little horses are just about my height, and I thought it was neat to be able to look a horse right in the eye.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Michoacan Mexico sail blog

The guides hoped we’d catch a ride too.

Joe opted to go on horseback, and he and his guide set off into the woods. Mark ran behind them, getting quite a vigorous (and dusty) workout in the process.

Nancy and I were directed to the walking trail, which is a different trail than the horses follow. The horse guides are shrewd businessmen, and they know that lots of people will change their minds about the $150 peso ($12 USD) fee for a round trip horseback ride once they’ve hiked a little ways up on the steep trail.

an Mexico cruising blog

Wonderful woodsy trail into the forest.

So a collection of horses and guides accompanied us for quite a while, patiently waiting for us to ask for a ride. Eventually Nancy saw the wisdom of arriving at the butterfly site rested, so she selected a horse and vanished into the woods after Joe and Mark, and that left me and my guide alone on foot on the walking trail.

My guide, Berenice, was 14 years old and a sophomore in high school. She lived in a town nearby and she said she guided two tours a day when she wasn’t in school. Today was a weekday but it was a school holiday, so she was out on the trail. She didn’t speak any English and she was very shy.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Michoacan Mexico sailing blog 260

Butterflies filled the air like leaves.

The path wound higher and higher. We were now at 10,000′ elevation (3,000 meters), and although I didn’t need my jacket, I knew if I stopped hiking I’d get chilled. We had heard reports of people getting snowed on during these wintertime butterfly excursions.

The woods were very similar to the woods in northern Arizona: full of evergreens and with a fine, grey dust underfoot. We stopped to take in a few views of the valley below, and as I scanned the horizon I saw brief flash of orange go by. Then I saw another and another. They were here… the monarchs!

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico living aboard blog

The pine trees seemed to have orange blossoms.

“There’s more up ahead,” Berenice told me. And sure enough, more and more of them floated by us until we turned a corner and saw literally thousands filling the air.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico sail blog

They loved these flowers…!

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico living aboard blog

The monarchs let us in close.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico sailing blog

Joe holds one up.

 

 

 

 

 

They clung to the pine branches so thickly that the pine trees seemed to be in bloom. The air was so full of orange butterflies it was as though there were an autumn breeze blowing tiny leaves around.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico cruising blog

These hardy souls are incredibly frail.

Mark and Joe and Nancy had already arrived at the spot when we got there, and they were playing with some of the butterflies.

Joe held out a flower and coaxed a butterfly onto it, and then held it up so we all could see. What a miraculous little animal.

 

El Rasario Monarch butterfliies Morelia Mexico sailing blog

So delicate…

Looking at them closely, although many were in fine shape, we noticed that many of them had faded and tattered wings, and they looked tired. There’s little wonder, as their north-south migration route is 3,000 miles between southern Mexico and the US and Canada.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico living aboard blog

All that orange mossy stuf is butterflies.

The butterflies have three different routes into the northern US states after they cross the border a little west of Brownsville, Texas.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico living aboard blog

Usually we feel lucky to see one butterfly, but here they numbered in the millions…

Some head northwest, some due north, and some northeast. Unlike birds that migrate long distances, though, individual monarchs don’t live long enough to travel the full migration path.

Wildflowers Morelia Mexico cruising blog

A little different than the tropics!!

Busily courting and mating here in the mountains of Michoacán, these monarchs will fly north in the spring to produce the next generation in the southern parts of the US.

Lupine flower Morelia Mexico cruising blog

Familiar mountain flowers.

The butterfly lifecycle of pupa to caterpillar to butterfly will take place, and then somehow the young butterflies will all know to continue the flight north that their parents had started.

Then the cycle begins again in one of the most complex animal migrations on the planet.

How do these delicate little guys do it? Tiny butterfly corpses were scattered all over the ground, with pieces of wings and bodies strewn among the leaves and flower petals, ready to decompose at the blink of an eye. These creatures are frail! Yet they doggedly get their species across 3,000 miles of treacherous ground twice a year.

El Rasario Monarch butterflies Morelia Mexico cruising blog

Commuting on horseback is common here.

We wandered among the butterfly laden trees for quite a while, enjoying this miracle that science can’t yet fully explain.

As we hiked back down the mountain path, we passed familiar wildflowers we see in the summers up north: lupine, penstemon and others. This had been a beautiful day in the woods, and Mark, a man who comes alive among the mountain pines, was completely in his element.

We made our way back to Morelia through small mountain towns where riders commuting on horseback are a common sight. After collapsing into bed, the next day we topped off our excursion into Mexico’s interior with a brief stop at the colorful town of Pátzcuaro.

<- Previous                                                                                                                                                                                       Next ->

Morelia Mexico’s Magnificent Cathedral & Aqueduct – Awe-inspiring!

Infiernillo Dam Michoacan Mexico sailing blog

The lakes and mountains reminded us of Arizona

Mid-February, 2013 – This was our third season of enjoying boating in Zihuatanejo, and we wanted to see something new in the area. Our friends Joe and Nancy, who have a condo in Ixtapa, kindly invited us join them on a whirlwind driving trip to the beautiful colonial city of Morelia, Mexico, about 4 hours inland.

We packed some bags, left Groovy quietly swinging on the anchor in Zihuatanejo Bay, and jumped into the back of their car for a fun four days of adventure.

Infiernillo Dam Michoacan Mexico sail blog

Six bright yellow and orange bridges cross the river.

The sights were stunning right from the get go. The drive began at sea level and then climbed up and over some mountains, scooted back down along the cactus-studded desert floor and then soared into the mountains and pines once again. Along the way we passed the Infiernillo Dam and its lake which spreads out between the brown mountain peaks like a rich blue carpet.

Rio Infiernillo Steel Bridge Michoacan Mexico cruising blog

A quick pic out the back window…

 

There are six wonderful steel bridges that criss-cross the river, each painted vivid yellow or orange. The bridges winked in the sun at us as we approached, and we played with trying to catch something of their essence with our cameras as we zipped under them at breakneck speed.

Hay stacks Michoacan Mexico sailing blog

Unusual looking small haystacks dot the countryside.

 

 

 

 

It was an odd feeling to be back in a car on the highway again after nearly four months of leisurely, barefoot ocean living. Our socks and shoes felt clunky on our feet and the world whipped past in a blur. Little haystacks and vast valleys filled with farms seemed to open their arms to welcome us, and the scenery looked achingly like our beloved home state of Arizona.

Mexican hero José María Morelos y Pavón on horseback.  Morelia was named after him.

Mexican hero José María Morelos y Pavón on horseback. Morelia was named after him.

Arriving in Morelia, we were now at 6,300′ (2,000 meters) elevation, and the air was crisp and dry. This historic city was built in 1541 (the same year that Michelangelo completed his fresco “The Last Judgment” on the wall of the Sistine Chapel). The city was originally named Vallodalid after a city in Spain. It was renamed Morelia in 1828 in honor of José Maria Morelos y Pavón who was a hero during Mexico’s push for independence from Spain. In 1991 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sanctuario de Guadelupe Morelia Mexico sailing blog

Sanctuario de Guadelupe is relatively plain on the outside…

Our first stop was at the Sanctuario de Guadelupe which looked like a plain old stone church on the outside but is a jewel box of colorful decorations and gold leaf inside. We walked through the mammoth front doors and stood in awe at the back end of the church. What a sparkling and glittering space!

Sanctuario de Guadelupe Morelia Mexico sail blog

But inside it is a masterpiece.

This church was under construction from 1708-16. (For reference, J.S. Bach was a young, budding composer on the other side of the Atlantic at that time). The intricate sculpted patterns all over the walls and ceiling of this church are a feast for the eyes.

Sanctuario de Guadelupe Morelia Mexico cruising blog

Stepping inside this church was like walking into a jewel box.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sanctuario de Guadelupe Morelia Mexico sailing blog

Looking up into the heavens…

We wandered around soaking up this wondrous place, marveling at the elaborate and brilliant designs that filled every inch of the interior walls and ceiling. We wanted to yell across to each other, “Wow, did you see THAT? Have you been over HERE yet??!!”

Sanctuario de Guadelupe Morelia Mexico cruising blog

For centuries the devout have worshipped at this altar, and during our visit quite a few knelt down to pray.

But this is a church, and devout worshippers came and went throughout our stay, sitting in pews and kneeling in front of the altar, crossing themselves and murmuring their prayers. We felt a little guilty intruding on their private moments, wondering if we should silently tip-toe out and respect their privacy.

Sanctuario de Guadelupe Morelia Mexico sail blog 260

Every inch of the interior is meticulously decorated.

Yet the beauty of the place enchanted us. Maintenance people wandered around sweeping and running wires for some event, and that made us feel a little more comfortable about clicking away with our cameras.

Morelia Mexico cobblestone street cruising blog

Outside the Sanctuario de Guadelupe is a charming tree-lined
and pedestrian-only cobblestone street.

Mexico quincenero sailing blog

A young girl poses for her quinceañera (15th birthday) photos.

Mexico quincenero sail blog

Beautiful gowns are part of this wonderful celebration.

Outside this amazing church there is a narrow tree-lined cobblestone walking street that passes by stout colonial walls of houses and buildings. The walls are a bit imposing, but have a decidedly grand air.

How perfect it was when we came across a young girl dressed up for her quinceañera (15th birthday). This is a very important celebration for girls in Mexico, kind of a coming out party, and a full ball gown and photo shoot and elaborate fiesta are all part of the fun.

Callejon del Romance Morelia Mexico cruising blog

We walk down Lover’s Lane
(Callejon del Romance)

We joined the professional photographers to get some pics of her too, and suddenly she nervously mouthed “Mama” at her mother as the paparazzi moment became a little too much. The party was going to be a few days later, and her parents were visibly proud of their lovely daughter.

columns Morelia Mexico sailing blog

Historic Morelia is all about elegance from a bygone era.

Romance is definitely in the air in this part of town, and at the end of this street there is a narrow “Lover’s Lane,” (“Callejon del Romance”). This is a spot for hand-in-hand strolling and even some smooching, and we did our best to keep up the tradition while we were there.

Water flowed from a pretty fountain further down this lane, and pink flowers spilled from bougainvilleas clinging to the walls.

Morelia Mexico hand sculpture sail blog

An artsy bistro with a musical bent looks intriguing…

A tiny bistro and bar at the far end of the lane beckoned us in, and we peeked in the doorway to see a grand piano adorned with a sculpture of a large hand holding a miniature violin. This place had an artsy air and seemed to be a charming place to stop for a bite in the evening.

Callejon del Romance Morelia Mexico sailing blog

A fountain decorates the far end of Lover’s Lane.

Morelia is loaded with captivating places like that. Sculptures, fountains, columns and flowers are the kinds of ingredients that make up this city, and it is a place to linger and enjoy the sights. We didn’t have time to stretch out our visit like that, but we’ll be back…

Tarascas fountain Morelia Mexico cruising blog

The Tarasca fountain

crazy cross-dressers sail blog

Any town with character is bound to have characters…

Of course, since this is a city with character, it has its fair share of characters. Mark spotted a cluster of hot gals strutting down the street and instantly made a beeline in their direction. But the joke was on him this time, as the gals turned out to be a group of cross-dressers. They simpered and posed for him with delight.

Morelia Mexico aqueduct living aboard blog

Morelia’s 18th century aqueduct brought water into the city

One of the engineering marvels that sets Morelia apart from other Mexican colonial cities is its 4+ mile long aqueduct. As Morelia rose in prominence, Spanish nobility were encouraged to settle there, and the city grew rapidly. The aqueduct was built in 1785-1788 (near the end of Mozart’s life, just prior to the French Revolution) to supply the growing city with fresh water.

Morelia Mexico aqueduct living aboard blog

The aqueduct is more than 4 miles long and has 253 arches.

Morelia Mexico aqueduct living aboard blog

The late afternoon sun lights up the aqueduct’s arches.

There are 253 arches, and we were delighted when they lit up for us in the afternoon sun.

We hopped back in the car and headed towards the historic city center, hoping to catch the sunset on the cathedral spires. Of course, Morelia is loaded with pretty churches, and on our way there we had to stop and peek at another one or two…

Morelia Mexico church steeple living aboard blog

Beautiful old churches everywhere.

Morelia Mexico church living aboard blog

The door-within-a-door entrance to once of Morelia’s pretty churches.

 

 

 

The cathedral dominates the city skyline, piercing the heavens with two towering spires. It took over a century to build, starting in 1640 with the style of architecture that was popular at that time and ending in 1744 with a “more modern” style of architecture popular 100 years later. For reference, while the cathedral was in its latter phases of construction, Vivaldi was born, lived 63 music-filled years, and died.

Morelia Mexico cathedral at night living aboard blog

The cathedral lights up the early evening sky.

 

The sunset didn’t develop for us, but a rising crescent moon floated in the night sky above the beautiful stone steeples. We wandered around the plaza in front of the cathedral, trying to figure out how to get the whole thing in one image. Not possible!

Morelia Mexico cathedral at night living aboard blog

At night the cathedral is the pretty centerpiece of
the main city plaza.

 

 

A very short Mexican university student named Geronimo suddenly approached us, speaking in an unusually accented English. It turned out he was an English language major with hopes to become a high school English teacher or to work in the tourist trade in Cancun. Part of his homework was to go out and practice his English with tourists.

Morelia Mexico cathedral spire at night living aboard blog

One of the cathedral’s spires.

Morelia Mexico cathedral entrance at night living aboard blog

A crescent moon rises behind the cathedral.

We were more than happy to oblige and were fascinated to find out that English was his third language. His mother tongue was Tzeltal, an indigenous language spoken by Mayans in Mexico’s state of Chiapas. He had learned Spanish in grade school. We had loved seeing the ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque a year earlier, and we were charmed listening to his accent and talking about the wonders of his hometown.

He was equally intrigued to learn that Tzeltal is taught at the school where we took a week of immersion Spanish classes last spring, Instituto Jovel in San Cristóbal de las Casas. If teaching high school English or working in Cancun doesn’t pan out, he could always teach Tzeltal.

Morelia Mexico aqueduct arches at night living aboard blog

A night drive along the aqueduct is a memorable experience.

One of our favorite things about travel, besides spectacular sights like these in Morelia and learning a little of the history behind them, is meeting unusual people we wouldn’t be able to meet in our old neighborhood at home.

Geronimo disappeared into the night to find some more folks to speak English with, and we drove away in heavy commuter traffic along the impressive aqueduct. The arches stood in a row like soldiers, iconic and proud reminders that Morelia was an important city centuries ago when Mexico was “New Spain.” Even in the hustle and bustle of today’s crazy, traffic-filled modern world, this city brings home the depth of Mexico’s Spanish roots.

In addition to beautiful old architecture and history, Morelia is also known for its nearby mountains where millions of monarch butterflies migrate each winter.  The next day we drove higher up into the mountains to see these lovely creatures deep in the woods.

 

 

<- Previous                                                                                                                                                                                       Next ->

Agua Azul & Misol-Ha – Waterfall Adventures in Mexico

Sail blog post - traveling inland by bus from Marina Chiapas, we toured he incomparable waterfalls outside Palenque, Mexico: Misol-Ha and Agua Azul.

Misol-Ha waterfall, a thin, pure stream.

Behind the falls, Misol-Ha waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Behind the falls.

Through the trees, Misol-Ha waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Misol-Ha.

Four-year-old Amina.

Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Agua Azul's falls are wide and fast.

Crashing water, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Agua Azul.

Tumbling into turquoise pools, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico Serene aquamarine pools, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Agua Azul's pools of turquoise.

Little Amina goes

swimming.

Visitors get photos of themeselves, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Everyone gets photos of themselves at the falls.

Vendors at Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Vendors in palapas line the falls.

Eating mango-on-a-stick, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Mango-on-a-stick.

Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

The falls tumble down many layers of boulders.

Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico Van tour, Agua Azul & Misol-Ha waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico.

Our companions get into another van.

Comitán's Santo Domingo Church, late 16th century.

Comitán's Santo Domingo, built in the late 1500's.

Santo Domingo Church, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Santo Domingo steeple.

Church steeple, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Lots of church steeples in this town.

Church bells, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Lots of churches to visit in Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Modern sculpture in the Zócalo, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Modern sculpture in the Zócalo

Mayan woman, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Happy old vendor, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Lovers in the Zócalo, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Patio of wooden columns, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Patio of wooden columns.

Flowering trees in spring, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Spring is in the air.

Hilltop view from Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Hilly streets offer views into the surrounding

countryside.

Tenem Puente ruins & Spring Equinox celebration, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Crowds take seats on the Mayan stadium stairs.

Tenem Puente Spring Equinox performance, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Performers appear on the 1200-year-old ruins.

Spring Equinox at Tenem Puente, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Blowing a conch shell, spring equinox celebration, Tenem Puente, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Blowing on a conch shell.

Dramatic headdresses, spring equinox performance, Tenem Puente ruins, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Mayan rituals for the deceased victim in a spring equinox celebration at Tenem Puente Mayan Ruins, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Rituals for the dead victim.

Marina Chiapas at dawn.

(Photo courtesy of Capt. Andrés Reyes Prudente).

Agua Azul, Misol-Ha & Comitán, Mexico

March, 2012 - Besides the mysterious ruins of Yaxchilan & Bonampak, the Palenque

area is bursting with beautiful natural features as well.  We hopped on another van

tour, this time to see waterfalls.  We went with a no-name tour company, one of dozens

selling tours in town.  It was cheap, this was just a day trip, and all we really needed

was transportation to the falls.  We sat behind a very seasoned Central American

traveler from North Carolina named Tom who was just starting a four-month tour from

Mexico to Colombia.  His itinerary, unlike ours for some reason, included both the

waterfalls and the Palenque ruins.

"I never have any expectations

when I get on a bus in these

parts."  He said knowingly.  We

had had plenty of bus

adventures, so we nodded with

him, almost as knowingly.

Our first stop of the day, after

bouncing over the rough roads

out of town, was the magnificent

Misol-Ha waterfall.  A thin wisp

of water flowed in a steady

stream off a cliff into a cool, wide

pool.  We followed a short trail

down to the falls and discovered

we could crawl underneath a rock

outcropping behind them.  The fine

mist that sprayed us all was

refreshing.

Our group was in high spirits in the

early morning air as we piled back

into the van.  Young European

backpackers dominated our group,

including a pair of gorgeous, tall,

leggy, blonde Danish girls up front

and three boys from Switzerland, Austria and Germany speaking German together in the

rear.  A little four-year-old Mexican girl, Amina, from Playa del Carmen in the Yucatan, sat

next to me and asked to see our waterfall photos on our cameras.

A very comical and rudimentary conversation in Spanish ensued as our chatter wandered

to our granddaughters and she told us about her cousin.  There's nothing like having a

four-year-old native speaker show you just how poor your command of Spanish really is.

Her giggles and funny faces made it clear we sounded pretty goofy to her.  Luckily her

grandma bailed us (and her) out a

few times when our conversation

reached a total impasse of

incomprehension.  We were quite

humbled when she later talked up a

storm with the van driver!

Our next stop was Agua Azul, a

series of cascading waterfalls that

rushes over stair-stepping boulders

and lands in the most exquisite

turquoise pools.  Wooden viewing

platforms encourage tourists to take

their time soaking in the views and

posing for photos.  The water

thunders down the rocks from

several directions and then rests for

a bit in shades of aquamarine before

sliding on.

The tour vans line up outside the park

while visitors are granted anywhere from

an hour to an afternoon to enjoy the falls

and pools.  Lots of young travelers

eagerly donned their swimsuits and

jumped into the water.

Vendors selling all kinds of snacks and

trinkets under makeshift palapas line the

sides of the waterfalls at various levels beside the endless wooden stairs going up.  We climbed up

and up and up looking for the top of the falls.  The clan of young boys from our van rushed ahead

and later reported that there was a fantastic swimming hole

a mile or so away.  We never got that far.  Instead we

settled at a picnic table to enjoy eating mango on a stick (a

great way to eat mangos!) and watermelon slices in a cup.

After a few wonderful afternoon hours at these rushing

falls and placid pools, we all made our way back to the

van, a little damp, and rather tired at the end of a great

day.  The drive back should have taken just an hour, but

this was a budget van.  It turned out that not only had our

North Carolina friend, Tom, not been taken to the ruins in

Palenque as he expected, but the European travelers with

us were not returning to the town of Palenque at all.  They

were headed in the opposite direction to San Cristóbal de

las Casas, some 5 hours away.  Huh?

Apparently our van was supposed to meet another van on the

road somewhere and transfer the travelers over.  Problem

was, "where" and "when" were not well defined, and although

we all stood by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere

waiting for over an hour, the other van never showed up.  Tom

just nodded knowingly with a smirk on his face.

Luckily we all had lots to talk about, comparing notes about

what we'd seen in Mexico, and talking about what we missed

most from home.  The young German fellow said he missed

his wiener schnitzel terribly, and we all missed our favorite dark

beers from home.  Travel is wonderful, but homesickness for

familiar things steals over you once in a while.

Eventually the driver hailed a van labeled "San Cristóbal" and payed

for five tickets out of his own pocket so our companions could get to

their promised destination.  That van was already full, so I can only

imagine what everyone thought when five extra people and their

luggage were piled into and on top of it for five hours of travel on

twisty, miserable roads filled with speed bumps.  Tom said he'd just

catch a cheap combi van to the Palenque ruins on his own the next

day.  No problema!

We could have easily stayed in Palenque another week, but

disturbing news from family in the US began to take on a more and

more urgent tone, and we decided it was best to begin our trek out

of the jungle just in case we needed to fly back soon.  In the bus

station I saw a poster for a huge Spring Equinox celebration at the

Palenque ruins.  Oh my!  We were leaving the Mayan world on the

eve of the equinox!  You can't do that!!  Oh well.

The distance from Palenque to Puerto

Chiapas where Groovy was waiting for

us is only 550 miles, but it is two long

days of bus travel.  We decided to

break it up by stopping in Comitán, a

colonial city we had glimpsed from the

bus window on our way to San

Cristóbal and that had perked our

interest.

After spending several weeks plunk in

the middle of the touristy Gringo Trail,

surrounded by fellow travelers from

foreign countries, it was a delightful

change to walk the streets of Comitán.

It has all the colonial charm of other similar towns, but has

not been singled out for tourism development in the same

way.  Everyone on the streets was a local, or at least

Mexican, and all the happenings around town were put on

by the locals for the locals.

It is a hilly town, with a multitude of church spires piercing the sky.  The

Santo Domingo cathedral is the oldest, dating to the late 16th century,

some 50 years or so after Comitán was conquered by the Spanish.

Santo Domingo sits on the edge of the Zócalo, or town square, and while

we wandered among the beautiful shade trees and colorful flowers in the

late afternoon, we listened to the priest giving a sermon to his flock,

broadcast over speakers on the outside of the church.

The Zócalo is the heart of the town, and people hang out in the park doing all the fun

things that parks are made for: relaxing, people watching, selling stuff, buying stuff,

and, of course, enjoying each other's company in a romantic setting.

While wandering around I

looked up to see a huge

poster advertising -- a

celebration of the Spring

Equinox at the local

Mayan ruins of Tenem

Puente!  That afternoon!!

What luck!!!

We quickly jumped into a

local combi van and

headed out to the ruins a

few miles away.  This was

a hugely popular event

and the van was stuffed

to overflowing with

people.  It was full body

contact on all sides for

everyone.  Every

bare limb, thigh,

elbow, etc., was

pressed tightly

against those of fellow

passengers on each side.

We all breathed each

other's breath, except

those lucky enough to be

near an open window.

Dads stacked their kids

on their laps, oldest ones

on the bottom and

toddlers on top.

We learned that the

Mayan city of Tenem

Puente was at its peak

between 600 and 900

AD, although it was

occupied until 1200 AD.

It wasn't discovered by

archaeologists until 1925.

Unfortunately, when we

got there the ruins had

been closed off for the

celebration, so we saw

just the first building which stood opposite a hill of

staircases so common to Mayan sites.  Those stairs make

perfect stadium seating, and as they quickly filled with

hundreds of people I got a chill thinking of

how the ancient Mayans had probably sat

there just like we were now for their own

gatherings over a thousand years ago.

Suddenly a trumpet sounded and some

figures appeared on the building.  The men

wore enormous feather headdresses and

scrambled over the ruin.  An announcer

had talked for a while about the

performance before it began, but I couldn't

quite catch all the details.  The performance

depicted a battle, a killing, and some rituals

related to the death of the victim.  I think I

had expected something mystical involving

the alignment of the setting sun and the

buildings and some fascinating connection

to the Mayan calendar.  But this dance and music celebration had its own special

magic, especially as I scanned the crowd and realized that more than a few among

them may have had ancestors that lived inside these ruined walls when they were first built.

We took the overnight bus

to Tapachula that night, and returned to our sailboat Groovy in

the morning.  The boat, the marina and the world of cruising

suddenly seemed very foreign in those early dawn hours.  The

Tehuantepec had quieted down for a few days and boats

were arriving from Huatulco at the marina hourly.  As we

caught the dock lines for the incoming boats our groggy minds

were still far away, filled with the vibrant images of the jungle.

Soon, however, we would be immersed in reality and thrust

back into modern American life on a long road that eventually

led to northeastern Arizona.

Find Palenque and Comitán 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 “Mitla Tour” – Ancient Zapotec Ruins & More!

Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

Santa María del Tule

Town center Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

Home of the "Tule Tree"

Church in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico The Tule Tree in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

The "Tule Tree," 190' around!

Baby Tule tree in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

The baby Tule Tree, just 1,000 years old.

Gnarled trunk of the Tule tree in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

What fantastic creatures lurk here?.

Tuk-tuk taxis in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

"Tuk-tuk" taxis zipped everywhere.

Zapotec weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Zapotec weavings in Teotitlan

del Valle.

Natural wools are dyed with flower or bug based dyes in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

All these colors were obtained from flowers or bugs.

Sea turtle rug made by Zapotec weaver in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Our sea turtle rug.

Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico is a unique, mystical place.

Hierve el Agua is a unique,

mystical place.

Manmade pool in Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

A manmade pool to control the water flow a bit.

Swimming pools in Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Kids play in the water.

Up close shot of mineral deposits, Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

A thin film of water leaves a

microscopic layer of minerals behind.

Waterfall frozen in time, Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Waterfall frozen in time.

Petrified waterfall, Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Petrified waterfall at Hierve el Agua.

Petrified waterfall, Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico Pools in Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Reminded us of Yellowstone but the water was cool..

Travel companions on our Mitla tour in Oaxaca, Mexico

Our charming tour companions.

Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Mitla is square and ornate, very different than Monte Alban.

Intricate stonework, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Intricate patterns like this adorn every wall inside and out.

Perfect stone joinery, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Precise mortarless stonework from 2,000 years ago.

Huge lintel over short doorway, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Massive lintel over a short doorway.

Interior room, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

One of the interior rooms.

Stone dovetail corner wall joinery in Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Impressive dovetail corner joinery made

of precisely cut decorative stone.

Fine stonework, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

No two patterns on the buildings are alike.

Underground tomb, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

One of the underground tombs.

Mezcal makers!

Mezcal makers!!  The king of Matatlan.

There are hundreds of varieties of Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico.

There are hundreds of varieties of mezcal.

Young blue agave plants at mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

Young blue agave plants.

Blue agave plants ready for processing, mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

Pineapple-like core used to make mezcal.

Agave is burnt over a fire, mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

First they are cooked over a fire.

Grinding up burnt agave plants to make mezcal in a distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

Then they are crushed under a rotating wheel.

Mezcal fermentation barrels, mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

The duration of the fermentation makes all the

difference in the taste.

Sampling mezcal, mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

Here, try this one!!

Mitla Tour, Oaxaca, Mexico

Mid-February, 2012 - We enjoyed the Monte Alban ruins and history so

much we decided to take another trek out to the other side of Oaxaca to

see the ruins at Mitla.  The easiest way to do this was with a van-based

tour, and our day-trip included several colorful stops in addition to the

tour of the Mitla ruins.

The first stop was in the cute town of Santa María del Tule, home

of the famous "Tule Tree."  The funny thing about an organized

tour like this is that you follow the pace of the leader.  Our

designated stop here was just a half hour or so.  But it was such an

appealing little town that I'm sure if we had been on our own we

would have probably stuck around for a day or two!

The Tule plant is a grassy reed related to cat tails that was used by the

indigenous peoples to make mats, shelters and boats.  It grows in

abundance in and around Santa María del Tule.  The "Tule Tree" is

actually a Sabino (Montezuma Cypress) tree, totally unrelated to the

Tule plant, but it is affectionately known as the "Tule Tree" because it

was once surrounded by tule reeds.

According to the sign in front of the tree, this monster is

over 2,000 years old, 190' in girth around the trunk, 138'

tall, 28,846 cubic feet in volume and 636,107 tons in

weight.  It is considered to be the widest tree (the one with

the largest girth) in the world.  Our tour guide suggested

that if we couldn't fit the whole tree in our cameras we

could always buy a souvenir postcard instead!

Just around the corner stands the offspring of this famous tree.  It is a

mere 1,000 years old and not quite as large -- and it was all by itself

without a crowd around it elbowing each other to get a photo!  Of course

neither of these trees is quite as humongous overall as the giant

sequoia named General Sherman that stands 275' tall and has a

volume of 52,000 cubic feet.  Nor is either quite as old as the bristlecone

pine called Methuselah which has had its rings painstakingly counted to

total 4,841 years of age.

The trunk is

very gnarled

and people

see all kinds

of shapes

and creatures

in its depths.

Scooting around the streets of town we saw these funny looking three-

wheeled vehicles.  These tiny taxis, called "tuk-tuks," buzzed all over the

place, not just in Santa María del Tule but in other towns we passed along

the way.

Our next stop was at Teotitlan del

Valle, home of about forty families of Zapotec weavers.  We had met the son of one of

these families in the harbor town of Santa Cruz in las Bahías de Huatulco where he had set

up a loom and quietly turned out one brilliant woolen rug after another.  Here we were

given a demonstration of the traditional methods used by the Zapotecs to spin and dye

their wool.

The demonstration started with the

original Zapotec method of spinning

wool which involved a balancing a

spool precariously on one knee.

What luck the Spaniards showed up

way back when and brought the

familiar spinning wheel with them.

Even so, two daring members of our

group tried to spin a little wool using

this more conventional old fashioned

spinning wheel, and neither met with

much success as the wool kept

separating in their fingers.

It was amazing to learn what the Zapotecs used for dyes to create the vibrant colors of

their wool.  Starting with either white, grey or brown wool right off the sheep, they get

bright blue from the indigo plant, using ash to fix the color.  Green comes from moss,

using salt to fix the dye.  Yellow is from marigolds.  Most intriguing, however, was that

they squash an insect that makes a cocoon on prickly pear cactus leaves, and the

squished bug produces a vibrant blood red dye.  How much trial and error did it take

over the years to perfect these methods?

Again, we could have lingered for a long time in this shop and in the town in general.  I

love wools and yarns and weaving, and the intricate designs, both modern and

traditional, were fantastic.  We did end up holding up the tour van for a few minutes

while we negotiated to buy a lovely small rug featuring sea turtles.  It had been woven

from undyed sheep wool by Rafaela, whom I met (but didn't think to photograph--darn!).

In all the thousands of miles we have sailed our boat in Mexico, the most common

wildlife sighting we have had everywhere has been sea turtles.  In places

there are literally hundreds of them.  So this seemed a perfect souvenir.

Jumping into the tour van for more adventures, we drove a long way out to

Hierve el Agua ("boiling water"), a phenomenal oasis of pools and petrified

waterfalls out in the mountainous hinterlands.

Apparently

"undiscovered"

until the mid-1980's, this grouping of shallow pools and

calcified deposits is reminiscent of parts of Yellowstone

National Park, except the water is cool.

In the distance three large waterfalls stand frozen in time,

suspended forever mid-fall.  A thin trickle of water drips over the

edge, leaving behind a microscopic layer of mineral deposits to form

the next cascade.  There is a mystical, ethereal quality to this place.

Kids played in the pools and

everyone crawled all over the site, testing the

water with their hands and taking endless

pictures.

Just as the sun

started to come out,

giving the whole place

a wonderful glow, it

was time to jump back

into the van with our

tour buddies to make

the trek to the

Zapotec ruins of Mitla.

One of the highlights of this tour was meeting the other folks that

were along for the ride with us.  Three charming young women

from England filled the back seat and an older Danish couple was

up front, giving our van a decidedly European flair.  The English

gals were in their first week of a three month trans-Central America

tour, and we all bubbled with excitement as we talked about the

places we'd been and where we wanted to go.

Mitla's construction was begun by the Zapotecs in more or less

the same era as Monte Alban, a few hundred years BC,

although Mitla's first inhabitants settled there much earlier.  And

like Monte Alban, Mitla was built by the Zapotecs but ended up

under Mixtec control.  However,  in the years between 750 AD

and the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500's, Mitla was thriving

whereas Monte Alban was already in decline.

Monte Alban is built

on a hilltop while

Mitla is built in a

valley, and Monte

Alban was a city

made up of pyramids

whereas Mitla has

long and narrow

rectangular rooms

and appears possibly

to have been palatial

housing for the most

noble families as well

as a religious center.  Mitla was still functioning when the Spanish arrived (the Zapotec

population in all the outlying areas was some 500,000 people by then), and after

determining that the high priest at Mitla was similar to the pope back home, the

conquistadors promptly took up residence, dismantled and sacked as many of the buildings

as they could, and used the stones to build a church on top of one end of the ruins.

Just as stunning as the massive

pyramids at Monte Alban is the

incredibly fine stonework of the

frescoes at Mitla.  Each wall is

trimmed in intricately detailed

stonework patterns, all of which

were made by cutting perfectly

sized stones that fit onto one

another like jigsaw puzzle pieces,

held together without mortar.

Huge lintels lie across very low doorways,

and the corners of each room are made

with a dovetail style stone joinery, again

without mortar.

This construction is so finely and so tightly fitted, and

the walls are so massive, that a 1931 8.0 earthquake 50

miles away that damaged 70% of the buildings in the

city of Oaxaca didn't even make these buildings  flinch.

"Mitla" means "Place of the dead" in the Aztec's Nahuatl

language, and the Zapotec name for the area has the

same meaning.  The early Spanish conquistadors

interpreted the name as "Hell," and there are several underground tombs -- all

highly decorated with the intricately interwoven stone patterns -- where nobles and

high priests were buried and sent off to the afterlife, wether it was up to the

heavens or down.

I could have easily roamed

these ruins for quite a bit

longer, but the van was on a

mission, and this time it was

headed to a Mezcal tasting.

Actually, in hindsight, giving

up a few more moments with

the ancients for a quick

education in the art of

Mescal making

wasn't such a

bad trade-off

after all.

Like France's Champagne which is made only in Champagne,

Mexico's Tequila is made only in Tequila, about 40 miles outside of

Guadalajara, and a few other areas designated by Mexican law.  All

other identical libations made from the blue agave plant in other parts

of Mexico are called Mezcal instead.  And there are hundreds!

We stopped at a little place that still

makes Mezcal the old fashioned way.

After about 7 or 8 years the agave plant

has a pineapple looking core that is

removed, trimmed and cooked over a

fire.

It is then crushed using a heavy wheel

going round and round, driven by a

horse who has the fun job of walking in

circles.  This creates a stringy material

that looks like hay that gets boiled in a

kiln.  Eventually it is strained and placed

in casks to ferment.

The effect of the length of fermentation

was the amazing part to me.  Blanco

("white") mezcal -- the common, cheap

transparent stuff -- is aged less than two

months and burns a fiery path down your

throat and tastes terrible.  Reposado

("rested") mezcal is aged 2 months to two

years in an oak barrel and is barely

tolerable.  Añejo ("aged") mezcal is aged

for one to three years, barely tickles your

throat and has a pleasant flavor.

Extra Añejo ("extra aged") is aged for three

years or more, goes down waaaay too

easy, and tastes terrific.  It's a good thing

they were serving this stuff in thimble sized cups.

We tried some "crema" mezcals too, that is, flavored mezcals

made with cream.  The mango one was good enough that the

Danes purchased a bottle to take home with them, while we

and the English gals sampled the pineapple and some others I

forget now (we were having fun!).  The folks at the counter

would happily have kept on serving, but we needed to be able

to find our way back to the van, so we eventually said

"Enough!" and staggered off.

It was a great day on the outskirts of Oaxaca and the perfect

conclusion to our inland travels.  But Groovy was waiting for us back in Huatulco and it

was time for us to face the much feared crossing of the Gulf of Tehuantepec and head

to Puerto Chiapas and then inland to Antigua, Guatemala.

Find Oaxaca (Mitla) 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oaxaca – A City of Vibrance, Color & Soul

Colonial walking streets of Oaxaca.

Cobblestone colonial walking streets of Oaxaca.

A band plays pops tunes in the Zocalo bandstand.

A band plays pops tunes.

Balloon vendor outside the Santo Domingo Cathedral.

Balloon vendor outside the

Cathedral.

Instituto Eulogio Gillow 50th anniversary marching band.

A marching band shows up out of nowhere.

Oaxaca, Mexico Bright costumes on the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico

Kids proudly show off brilliant

Mexican costumes.

Bright costumes on the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico

Not a hair out of place.

Bright costumes on the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico Street vendor sells fruit at the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico

A street vendor strikes a deal on her fruit.

Pretty girl in a pretty dress at the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico Instituto Eulogio Gillow schoolkids play

Schoolkids play McCartney's "Yesterday."

Schoolkids in the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico

Happy teenagers.

Street vendor sells roses at the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico. Chiclet kid at the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico.

9-year-old Chiclet vendor

8-year-old Chiclet vendor Julia at the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Julia has a priceless grin...

Little street vending kid at the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico.

…but she has been taught it's

worth 50 pesos.

Etno-Bontanical Garden entrance, Santo Domingo Cathedral, Oaxaca., Mexico.

Etno-Bontanical Garden entrance.

Bird of Paradise flower, Etno-Bontanical Garden

Bird of Paradise.

Etno-Bontanical Garden, Oaxaca, Mexico Etno-Bontanical Garden, Oaxaca, Mexico

"Sunburned Tourist" tree.

"Monkey's Desperation"

tree.

"Air cactus."

Organ Pipe Cactus, Etno-Botanical Garden, Oaxaca, Mexico

Organ Pipe Cactus.

"Marriage Tree"

"Marriage" has nasty thorns and poisonous fruit.

Valentine's hearts in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Valentine's hearts show up all

over town.

Santo Domingo Cathedral wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico.

A wedding at the Santo Domingo

Cathedral!"

Santo Domingo Cathedral wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico. Santo Domingo Cathedral wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico. Santo Domingo Cathedral wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico.

The gracious bride invited the

onlookers into the church.

Young Chiclet seller gazes longingly at the wedding in the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico.

This little Chiclet-selling girl was transfixed.

Valentine's Day, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Oaxaca, Mexico (2)

Mid-February, 2012 - Oaxaca enchanted us.  We were visiting during the

week that includes my birthday, Valentine's Day and our anniversary, and

it was a special treat to be staying in a delightful little hotel in such a

spirited and radiant city.

The Zócalo is where it's at in this town, and every time we wandered over

there we found something -- or many things -- going on, especially in the

evenings.  A little orchestra was playing in the bandstand one night to an

appreciative audience.  They weren't the Berlin Philharmonic, and they

sounded much like any small town band, but they played with enthusiasm

and did all the old standard pops favorites that get the little kids around

the bandstand jigging and jumping and running.

A few steps away, the balloon

vendors were lined up, and behind

them the juggling clowns had their

audience in stitches.

Suddenly we heard the loud music of

a marching band in the distance.

They paraded right past, sweeping

us and everyone else up in their

wake.  The band in the bandstand

seemed to try to raise their volume a

little, but it was aural pandemonium

as the two bands played their

hearts out just 100 yards

apart.

Behind the marching band

came a dizzying array of

young kids in brilliant Mexican

costumes.  The girls had

primped for hours, getting

every hair and ribbon in

place, and even the teenage

boys got into it, with brilliant

satin shirts and classic

sombreros on their heads.

Meanwhile the band in the

bandstand kept on going, and the jugglers did their

thing, and the street vendors bumped through the

crowd selling their wares.  Fresh fruit snacks are a

popular item to sell, and across from us an old man

bought some munchies for himself and his wife.

A stunning young girl wandered towards us on the arm of her very

proud boyfriend.  I couldn't resist snapping a few photos of her,

which she enjoyed, and then I asked her what the parade was all

about.  She explained that it was the 50th anniversary of the

founding of her school, Instituto Eulogio Gillow.  There was a

stage set up and proud parents filled all the folding chairs and

stood in rows behind and around them.

Suddenly some kids got up on the

stage, the girls with recorders and the

boys with guitars.  The announcer said

they would play "Yesterday" by "John

Lennon" (apologies to Paul

McCartney).  Mark's ears perked right

up, since he is a Beatles fan from way

back, and we were treated to a

charming rendition of the song.

Just beyond the

circle of school

anniversary

celebrations the

madness of the Zócalo continued.  The

juggling clowns had lost some of their

audience when the parade went by, but they

had won it back with their crazy antics.  The

outdoor sidewalk cafes surrounding the

square were filled with happy folks imbibing

and eating, and the band in the bandstand

forged ever onwards, slightly out of tune but

so very charming to watch.

The kids from the school milled around in

animated groups, waiting their turns on stage.  Once up there they danced, sang songs and made music, while the parents'

video cameras took it all in.  It was amazing to me that a group of young teenagers would be so excited to wear traditional

costumes, strut around, and follow the instructions of their teachers who hustled them into groups and lines and got them up on

stage at the appropriate moments.

The vendors seemed well used to all this action.  The Zócalo has stuff like this happening every night.  Sure, it was a

Saturday night, but the press of people, the cacophony of music and noise, and the sight of couples ambling hand in

hand, kids smooching under the trees and prim and proper waiters serving patrons at the more elegant restaurants

around the square were all just part of the scene.

Many of the street vendors had their kids in tow -- kind of.  The babies were strapped to

the moms' backs, alternately sleeping and looking around.  The older kids were on their

own -- but with a job to do selling items out of their baskets.  These ultra slick saleskids

are really well trained.  They sell boxes of Chiclets, candies, bobble toys and cigarettes.

More than one patron at a restaurant bought a cigarette from an eight-year-old kid, getting

a light from the kid as well.  Cigarettes are 10 pesos apiece (about 80 cents), and earlier

we had seen the moms buying the cigarette packs at the little convenience stores around

town.  No wholesale pricing there, but they mark up their product pretty darn well.

Money is what its all about with these kids.  A little brother

and sister stopped by our table as we sipped on a beer.

They were very cheeky and lots of fun.  The boy was 9 (I

couldn't quite catch his name) and his little sister Julia was

7.  They were absolutely insistent that we buy some of their

very grubby looking candy.  How long it had been dragged

around town in their basket and handled by their dirty

fingers I have no idea.  We snapped a few photos of them

and they instantly had their hands out.  "50

pesos!" ($4).  We laughed.  I put my camera up to

take another shot and Julia covered here face with

her hands.  I clicked anyways and she shoved her

hand at me again.  "50 pesos!"

I teased her and said that she had to pay me 100

pesos for talking to me.  Her little lopsided missing-toothed grin got even bigger and she

rolled her eyes in exasperation, laughing.  I don't know if any other gringo tourist ever had

ever challenged her like that before, and she was stumped to find a response.  "50 pesos!"

she said again, seriously, hand out.  We went back and forth like that for a while, giggling.  I

asked her when she was going to finish working in the Zócalo and go home to bed.  She

shrugged.  Things wind down around 9 pm, but she was a street urchin and was probably

used to staying out however long mom needed her to be selling Chiclets.

They hung at the edge of our table for a while, refusing to let go of a potential sale.  Mark

finally came up with the perfect compromise on the 50 peso issue.  He pushed the remains of our little dish of peanuts in Julia's

direction.  "Have some peanuts!" he said.  Like greased lightning, she leapt into action.  She grabbed a napkin, spread it out on

the table, scooped up every last peanut with her sticky fingers, snatched a wedge of lime off another dish and plopped it on the

peanuts, wrapped up the napkin, and shoved it in her basket.  In a flash she and her brother vanished into the night.

The Zócalo is the heart of the action at night, but all of Oaxaca's

historic district is wonderful by day too.  We wandered through the

Zócalo the next morning and it was perfectly neat and tidy without a

single trace of the mayhem that had gone on the night before.  The

stage was gone, the chairs for the audience had disappeared, the

entire square was completely swept, and just a few people milled

around with coffee cups in their hands.  But by nightfall the whole

thing came to life once again.  The stage was set up for a different

performance by a different group, chairs were set out for the

audience, and street vendors wandered through it all.

The Santo Domingo Cathedral has a beautiful botanical garden

behind it, and we decided to take a tour.  Mark loves photographing

flowers, and he got some wonderful shots.

English tours are two hours long and happen just a few

times a week while Spanish tours are an hour long every

hour every day.  We opted for a Spanish tour, but

because there was just one other gringo couple and an

Austrian who spoke fluent English (and Spanish and

French), the guide spoke to us all in English.  What a

lucky break for us.  When our tour finished there were 50

gringos waiting for the next tour which would be officially

in English.  I wondered how this huge group would

manage on the tiny garden paths.

The Oaxaca region is very dry, so most of the

gardens were desert types of plants.  The

botanists at the garden work hard to propagate the species, and

many of the plants they have are endangered.  Those plants have

their flowers and seed pods wrapped in gauze so they don't

accidentally get cross-pollinated and hybridize with something else.

The best part of the tour for us was the funny nicknames of some of

the plants.  The "Sunburned Gringo" tree has an outer layer of bark

that peels incessantly.

The "Monkey's Desperation" tree

looks like it would be a wonderful

tree for a monkey to climb.  It is tall with long limbs

spreading wide.  But the base is covered with hard

little thorns that would prevent even the hardiest

monkey from shimmying up.

The "Air cactus" is a "guest plant" (not a parasite or a

symbiotic plant).  It arrives in the air and settles on a

tree, getting all its nutrients from the air without ever

bothering its host except for sitting in its lap.

The "Organ Pipe Cactus" is familiar

to us from Arizona, and in this

garden it had been planted as

fencing along two paths.

The "Marriage Tree" is a nasty

looking thorny thing.  The needles

are razor sharp and plentiful, and it

produces poisonous fruit.

Everyone in our group got a good

chuckle out of that tree...

Speaking of love and marriage, we were in Oaxaca for

Valentine's Day, which is also our anniversary.  Heart decorations

were everywhere, and love was definitely in the air.

As we came around the side of the cathedral we noticed a group

had gathered in front of the church.  They were very well dressed

-- and there was a bride in the middle.  "Wow!"  I yelled, running

to get a good angle with my camera.  A wedding in the cathedral!!

OMG.  What a place to get married.  For all you future brides and

past brides, this was the wedding many of us dreamed of at one

time or another, complete with a frothy, frilly white dress and the

grandest, most gold-filled, most magnificent cathedral imaginable as a backdrop.

I ran around like a madwoman taking photos.  All the tourists on the plaza started

closing in on the church too.  Most of us were enthralled little girls, seeing our princess

dreams unfold in front of us.  Chiclet-selling girls, white haired heavyset women visiting

from foreign countries, and young girls on the eve of such an event themselves all

pressed towards the cathedral.

This was clearly a very wealthy family, and the father was the

image of pride as he shook hands with his guests around him.

The bride welcomed everyone warmly.  Her friends, all of them

hot babes in stiletto heels and tight, short, brightly colored

dresses, emerged from fancy cars and exchanged kisses with

her.  More than one was a young mom, walking up pushing a

stroller just to hand it off to an older lady waiting outside the

church, giving her instructions for how to keep the baby

entertained during the coming hours of celebration.

The music began and the group dwindled to just the wedding

party as the guests entered the cathedral.  The throng of

enchanted women tourists and vendors hung back just enough

to give them a little space.  All of a sudden the bride glanced

over her shoulder at all of us and waved us in.  She looked

straight at me and motioned for me to come into the cathedral.

"Me?" I pointed to myself incredulously.  She nodded

vigorously.  I stepped over the threshold and received a strong

handshake from her dad.  Holy Mackerel, I was in the middle of

a wedding at this cathedral, wearing shorts and a tourist hat.

The other tourists all filed in, many genuflecting as they entered,

and we filled the back half of the church.  How totally cool.  The

bride and her father made their way down this most splendid of

aisles and the service began.  I didn't feel right about staying too

long, so I snuck back out once the priest got going in earnest.

As I left I noticed one of the Chiclet-selling girls outside the

entrance of the cathedral looking in.  The invitation had been for

all of us to enter, but she had stayed back.  The longing in her

face was touching -- and heartbreaking.

I found Mark at the

far end of the plaza

sitting on a wall.  I

started talking a

mile a minute,

thrilled and amazed

by the whole scene.

He smiled and

listened patiently.

He just didn't get

into weddings like I

did.  The princess

thing is a little beyond him, although I tried my best to explain it.  He hadn't

really known how when you're a little girl wearing a full skirt you have to

spin around and watch it flare out.  He hadn't ever dreamed of being

Cinderella, parading across a grand room in an elegant dress, nor of being

Prince Charming for that matter.  But then, I've seen him ooh and aah over

muscle cars from the 1960's like they were the sexiest of pinup models.

How many old cars can you look at and get excited about?  Apparently, all

of them.  How many princess weddings can make a girl's heart soar?

Definitely all of them.

Oaxaca held us tightly in its clutches and we still had more to see, espeically the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.

Find Oaxaca on Mexico Maps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oaxaca – Quirky, Fun, and lots of Gold Leaf

Sail blog post - We left the boat in Huatulco and took a bus inland to the magical city of Oaxaca, a community that is vibrant, quirky, lively and fun.

Our bus to Oaxaca.

Street vendor sells snacks to bus passengers in Salina Cruz.

Snacks for sale at a bus stop.

Mountains on the way to Oaxaca, Mexico

Mountains on the way to Oaxaca.

Poinsettias and trees in the Zocalo in Oaxaca, Mexico

Poinsettias and tall trees in

Oaxaca's Zócalo.

Outdoor eateries on the Zocalo in Oaxaca, Mexico

Outdoor eateries surround the Zócalo.

The Santo Domingo Cathedral lights up the night sky in Oaxaca, Mexico

Santo Domingo Cathedral.

We hoof it down to the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

We walk down towards the historic district.

Ornate cornices in Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca is loaded with charm.

Cute window balconies in Oaxaca, Mexico Cobble stone pedestrial street in Oaxaca, Mexico

One long cobbled street is set aside for pedestrians only.

Charming historic buildings on the cobbled pedestrian street in Oaxaca, Mexico Flowers grace many windows in Oaxaca, Mexico

Flowers adorn many

windows.

Unusual door knockers are the norm in Oaxaca, Mexico

Door knocker.

A window balcony offers a bistro table with a private view.

There are great places for a snack and a view

all over town.

Door-within-a-door is a major theme in the architecture of Oaxaca, Mexico

Many buildings have a door-within-a-door out front.

This church has two doors-within-a-door at their front gate.

This church has two doors in its

gate.

City library, Oaxaca, Mexico

The front of the public library.

City library courtyard in Oaxaca, Mexico

The courtyard inside the public library.

Grand staircase inside the Benito Juarez University courtyard in Oaxaca, Mexico

Fancy stairs from the courtyard to

the second story balcony in the

university courtyard.

No words needed to explain this bathroom sign.

Self-explanatory in every

language.

Odd sculptures fill the sidewalks around the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

Clusters of strange sculptures of

people spill all over the sidewalks.

Odd sculptures in front of the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

Sculptures of "migratorios" congregate by the cathedral.

Migrant sculptures. Inside the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

Inside the cathedral - gold, gold and more gold!!

Fantastic gold decorations inside the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

The overriding theme is gold.

Ornate gold trimmed pulpit inside the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

Pulpit.

Gold decorated altar in the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico Fanciful gold decorations on the ceiling of the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

A portion of the ceiling.

Baroque gold designs in the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico Street performers in Oaxaca, Mexico

Street performers abound.

Kids hang around the Oaxaca, Mexico cathedral after school

Uniformed schoolkids hang out by the cathedral after school.

Schoolkids, Oaxaca, Mexico. Paintings in the artisan district of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Paintings for sale on the sidewalks of the art district.

Home of former Mexican president Benito Juarez in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Home of former president Benito Juarez.

Protesters in Oaxaca Mexico.

Protesters cruise past us carrying signs.

Red clad protesters in Oaxaca, Mexico

Triqui protesters.

Tourists make a home video in front of the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca Mexico.

Two tourists make a video of

themselves in front of the

cathedral.

Oaxaca, Mexico (1)

Mid-February, 2012 - We left the seaside life of Huatulco behind for a

few days to get a glimpse of the colonial mountain city of Oaxaca

(pronounced "Wahaka").  There are two ranges of mountains to cross,

and there are several ways to make the trek.  A $12 ride in a small van

will take you on sickness-inducing switchbacks up treacherous single lane

mountain roads, but gets you there in six hours.  A daytime $23 bus goes

around the worst mountain passes but makes a lot of stops, getting you

there in 10 hours.  A $28 overnight bus makes the trip in 8 hours with just

one stop.  Or you can fly for $100.

Preferring comfortable budget travel and

sleeping in a bed, we opted for the day

bus.  This was a fun way to go with lots of

action.  At one stop a lady with a basket of snacks on her head showed up at the bus and

started calling out her wares in a shrill voice.  At another stop a security guard boarded the bus

and video-taped everyone's faces.  At a military checkpoint the men were all herded off the bus

while the womenfolk were left on board.  This seemed a little odd until we found out it was just

so the brawny guys could lift the heavy luggage out of the baggage compartment for inspection.

In the end they all re-boarded the bus carrying chips and drinks they'd gotten at a little roadside

stand.  The womenfolk were happy about that!  But the bus company didn't leave us hungry for

long.  At lunch time the bus stopped for half an hour at a cute little roadside restaurant.

It was a long drive, but the views in

the mountains approaching Oaxaca

were quite nice.  These mountains

are a major Mescal manufacturing

region, and many mountainsides

were a patchwork of agave cactus

fields.

We arrived in the early evening and,

after dropping off our bags at the

hotel, we dashed out to the Zócalo,

the main town square which is the

heart of the city.  Huge trees

dominate this city park, and

poinsettias were planted thickly

around them.

The square is actually made up of two

squares adjoined at the corners, and all

the edges of these squares are lined with

outdoor eateries.  As darkness fell the

place came alive.

Hundreds of

people were

everywhere,

walking, sitting,

eating, selling stuff,

buying stuff, talking

on the phone and necking.

You name it, it was

happening at the Zócalo.

Towering above it all, the

Santo Domingo Cathedral

lit up the night.

We stayed at the Hotel Casa del Sótano, a

charming little hotel built around a courtyard with a

pretty outdoor breakfast terrace.  We drank our

morning coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice

looking out over the city as it woke up, and we

were utterly enchanted.  This is a walking town if

there ever was one, and right after breakfast we

hoofed it straight down to the old town district.

Oaxaca oozes charm from every ornate balcony, wrought iron

gate and rooftop terrace.  It is a city with a past and a soul.

Built in 1521 by the Spanish on an Aztec miitary site, the flavor

is both historic and hip at the same time.

We couldn't stop the cameras from clicking.  Everywhere

we turned there was something begging to be framed

and remembered.

The streets are cobbled (one main artery is pedestrian

only) and the buildings are heavily embellished with

elaborate trim.

Flowers hung from the

balconies, and Mark was

fascinated by the crazy door

knockers on many of the

doors.

And there are a zillion places to get a bite to eat

with a view onto the city streets.

Many buildings have a very

large front door with a

smaller utility door cut into it.

The little door is the one you

use to get inside.

One of the churches has two utility doors cut

into its main front gate.

All kinds of things can reside behind these

imposing doors.  Usually it is a courtyard.  In

the public buildings we found the doors were

often open, and we wandered in and out of

quite a few.  The city library has a lovely

courtyard inside.

One of the universities -- Universidad

Autónomo "Benito Juárez" de Oaxaca --

has a plain courtyard but a grand, curvy

staircase going to the second floor.

There are several universities in this city, so there are young people everywhere.  It

is also a favorite international tourist destination, and we met folks from Austria,

Denmark and England during our stay.  To satisfy these groups of people there are

enchanting little restaurants, coffee shops and bars everywhere.  Just in case the

tourists visiting Cafe Brújulu don't speak Spanish, their bathroom signs need no

translation!

As we made our way over to the Santo Domingo Cathedral, we found little groups

of odd statues standing around in front of many of the shops.  Hundreds of them

filled a huge area in front of the church and spilled over into the sidewalks all

around.

We later learned that Oaxacan artist Alejandro Santiago

created these sculptures called "2501 Migrants" to

represent the 2500 people (plus himself) from his

hometown of Teoculcuilco that have left town to seek a

better fortune elsewhere.  He first placed the sculptures in

his hometown as a spiritual replacement of the people who

had left.  Then he lined them up in the desert between

Mexico and the USA along the most common migration route.

Now they stand around the Oaxaca's beautiful cathedral plaza.

After wandering

among these

intriguing statues for

a while we went

inside the cathedral.

Wow!  Every inch of

the interior is

trimmed in fancy

gold leaf designs.

Some 60,000 sheets

of 23.5 carat gold

leaf were used in its

construction, and the

walls and ceilings

sparkle with gold.

I couldn't help but wonder, as the sunlight

glinted off the baroque patterns, whether this

gold had once been the artwork of the

Zapotecs or Aztecs or other indigenous people,

melted down by the Spanish to

decorate the church.  Or had it

been mined by the Spanish

nearby?

I asked several guides and the

consensus was that it came from

the local gold mines that had

originally perked Spain's interest

in Oaxaca and wasn't the result

of melted ancient treasures.

As it turns out, the Oaxaca area mountains are still rich with

gold, and the Canadian-owned mine Natividad is

busy extracting it today.

But the real treasure in Oaxaca is not the gold or

even the architecture but the funky spirit that

makes this city a fun place to be.  Street

performers and artists strut their stuff on the

streets, and school kids hang out under the trees

by the cathedral.

There is an artisans district

where art of all kinds is for sale

on the sidewalks, along with

literary books in many languages

and hard-to-find music CD's.

These aren't the usual cheap

bootleg hawkers found in other

towns, but university types

selling off parts of their

collections for pocket change.

Wandering down a side street we bumped into the

boyhood home of Benito Juárez, Mexico's only

indigenous president (1858-1864).  A pure Zapotec, he

is revered for education reforms that are still in effect

today and for spearheading the separation of church

and state in Mexico.

Being the capital of the state of Oaxaca

as well as a university town, politics play

an important role here.  Strolling down

the street we suddenly saw a parade of

scarlet clad women marching towards us

carrying signs.

They were the Triqui indigenous people, and they were staging a sit-in in front

of the governor's building in an effort to gain support from the recently elected

governor for their cause, which, from what we could gather, involved land

disputes and violence in their hometown.

There was a vibrance and an energy

here in Oaxaca that made the Triqui

protests, the migrant statues and the

brutal history of the Spanish conquests all blend together as brilliant facets of humanity's

unstoppable ambition and its dramatic quest for happiness and prosperity.

This town is so photogenic that we saw tourists everywhere whipping out cameras to

capture snapshots to take home.  One couple got particularly creative and set up a tripod

with a video camera in front of the cathedral.  They pointed the camera at themselves with

the church in the background and talked for quite some time about how much their travels

meant to them and what great experiences they had had so far in Mexico, ending their

conversation with a "hello" to friends and family back home.

We sure were loving Oaxaca's action and color, and there was no need for us to leave

just yet.

Find Oaxaca on Mexico Maps.