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


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


Palenque, Mexico

Hallways with the characteristic almost-peaked roof

Palenque, Mexico

Thick walls

T-window, Palenque, Mexico


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


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


We walked through the parklike setting

of massive structures and crawled up

and down, in and around each


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


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.





























































































































San Cristobal – Colonial Delights & Spanish Immersion

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, is a charming colonial city filled with worldwide travelers.  We spent several weeks enjoying the sights in this town.

Virgin of Guadelupe Church

Arches in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Pretty architecture abounds in

San Cristóbal

The cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

The Cathedral

Walking streets in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

There are lots of places to take a stroll.

Colonial streets in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Colonial doorways

El Arco del Carmen, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

El Arco del Carmen

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

A less-visited back street.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Chocolates in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Chocolatier "La Sonrisa del día" (the smile of

the day).

Windows, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Rooftops San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Real roof tile - what all those new Arizona

homes try to imitate.

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

A placement exam?!

What are we getting ourselves into?

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Mark with one of his teachers, Jorge

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Getting ready for class.

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Got it?  Good!  Next topic...

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

My instructor Jorge taught me a lot

about life in Mexico.

Back streets in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Mayan women on a back street.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Mayans selling textiles in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Little Mayan salesgirl in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

That's a lot of inventory for

a small girl.

Mayan girls pose for a photo - for 5 pesos each - San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Hippies play music in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Young travelers love San Cristóbal

Yummy rotisserie style grilled chicken in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Rotisserie grilled chicken - cheap and yummy.

Music on the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

A brass band suddenly starts playing.

The jingle of the propane truck provides the

soundtrack of San Cristóbal.

"Agua Agua!!"

Mountain biking club group ride in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

A group of mountain bike riders on a Sunday morning.

Jaguar graffiti in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Jaguar graffiti.  Jaguars have special meaning to the

local indigenous people.

Casa Na-Bolom Museum, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Courtyard arches in Casa Na-


Casa Na-Bolom Museum, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Casa Na-Bolom Museum dining room table, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Dining room table at the Casa Na-Bolom Museum.

Beautiful flowers in Casa Na-Bolom gardens, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Outside we found lush gardens.

Exotic flowers in Casa Na-Bolom museum, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Ingenious hot water heater / tortilla cooker at the

back of the garden.

Señor Fuego, garden caretaker and groundskeeper, Casa Na-Bolom Museum, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Señor Fuego makes kindling.

San Cristóbal de las Casas (and Instituto Jovel), Chiapas, Mexico

Early March, 2012 - During our bus ride through

the southern part of Chiapas we could easily

see why many people consider it to be the most

beautiful state in Mexico.  We soon discovered

that picturesque San Cristóbal de las Casas is its

crown jewel, a little colonial city right in the middle

of the state.  Mexicans call it the "most magic" of

their specially honored "magic towns" around the


Founded by the Spanish in 1528 (just 7 years

after Hernán Cortés barnstormed across Mexico)

and, for once, not built on top of an ancient city,

San Cristóbal is chock full of pretty churches and

antique architecture.  Several streets are paved in

patterned stone slabs and have been set aside for

pedestrians only.  From morning to night these

charming roads are filled with people.  Outdoor

bistros line the walking streets, and there are

countless perfect places for sitting back and

people watching.

San Cristóbal is a lot like Oaxaca, but it is much

smaller, and it sits right on the so-called Gringo

Trail that takes travelers through southern Mexico

and Central America.  After living on a boat on the

coast for so long, it was quite a dramatic change

for us to begin a period of extensive travel by bus

and hotel in the interior of Mexico.  We suddenly

realized we had left the floating retirement

community of west coast cruisers and were now in

the center of the youthful international

backpacking crowd.

Europeans were everywhere, and we listened to

snippets of conversation in German, French and

Italian.  The arrival point for these transatlantic

travelers was Cancún, and they were all making

their way by bus through the various colonial cities, stopping to

visit the ancient pyramid ruins, the waterfalls, lakes and volcanoes

that make this region famous.

Along with international

tourists there are lots of

international residents as

well.  This gives San

Cristóbal a rather

sophisticated feeling

compared to the sandy

coastal beach towns we had

been seeing in our cruising

travels.  Like other towns

that enjoy lively fun-filled

nights, this town is a late

riser.  Few places open until

after 8:00 a.m., and lots of

coffee shops don't even start

pouring until 8:30 or 9:00.

But once things get rolling,

the streets are lined with

people sipping tasty

beverages and enjoying the

ambiance.  We were delighted to find a terrific French bakery and

we gorged ourselves on flakey crusts and hot-out-of-the-oven

pastries.  Baking is not a Mexican specialty by any stretch of the

imagination, so finding a native French baker in any town is always

a big score.

We had stopped into a fancy chocolatier's shop on our first night and then

bumped into another one the next day a few blocks away.  Two wonderful

shops creating handmade chocolate just doors apart, how cool!  Inside this

second shop there was a beautiful photo of a bicyclist riding on a path

towards a windmill and another photo of a large castle -- unusual decor for a

chocolatier in Mexico.  The owner's father, a bent old man, came over to

explain to us in Spanish that he and his family had come from Bella Chiqué

in Europe and that their chocolate was not Mexican.  They had brought all

their recipes and techniques from the old country to San Cristóbal.

"Bella What?" I was very puzzled about where he was from and where this

delicious chocolate was made, but his accented Spanish and my untuned

ears couldn't get it together.  He repeated the name and explained it

was a tiny country on the north coast of Europe tucked between

France and Holland.  Very small.  Very lovely.  I scratched my head.

My knowledge of European geography is fair, but this one stumped

me.  I knew tiny places like Leichtenstein turn up at the Olympics to

dominate things like cross country skiing despite a quiet existence

wedged between larger European countries.  So it seemed this tiny

country was another one I'd somehow missed.  Mark and I laughed

about how little we really know about this big world of ours.

A while later the old man's daughter

came over to refill our coffee cups

and I joked with her that I would

have to look up Bella Chiqué on the internet and learn a little more about it, as it obviously was a

cool place I knew nothing about.  Her eyebrows shot up and she looked at me in utter surprise

and then said in very halting English, "You...never hear of...Belgium people?"  Oh my!  What a

funny blunder!  The Spanish word for Belgium is "Bélgica,"  pronounced something like

"Belheeka."  Better work on that Spanish!!

San Cristóbal turned out to be a perfect place

for taking intensive Spanish classes.  The small

Instituto Jovel is run by a German woman,

and the school teaches English, Spanish,

German, Italian, French and two indigenous

languages local to Chiapas: Tzotzil and Tzeltal.

We stopped by and signed up for "classes" at

the school, but after taking placement exams

we were each put in a class of one, as there

were no other students at our levels at the time.  $100 for

a week of tutorial instruction - sweet!

The ten or twelve tiny classrooms in this school can hold

anywhere from 1 to 10 students each, and they are built around

a charming little garden.  The upstairs classrooms have a view

over the garden and across the rooftops to the mountains in the

distance.  It was an ideal place for us to take a breather from

traveling, tune our ears a bit more to the local lingo and loosen

our tongues to get that Spanish flowing.

We were each given two different Mexican tutors who had

certificates in teaching Spanish.  Every morning we each spent

an hour and a half in tutorial with one teacher, took a five minute

break and then spent another hour and a half with the other teacher.

This was a wonderful system, as switching teachers mid-morning meant

we never got bored, and each teacher had a slightly different approach.

Any more than three hours a day of such intensive

instruction and our eyes would have glazed over

and our ears would have closed.

How much Spanish can you learn in a week?  A

whole heckuvalot!  Before Mark started, he knew

lots of Spanish nouns and adjectives but no verbs.

It's hard to construct sentences without those!

Raised in that era of American public education

when the teaching of English grammar was quietly

eliminated from the grammar school curriculum,

Mark was a little shaky with what, exactly, a verb

was when he walked into his first class.

"Who is the first person?" his teacher Gabriel asked,

leaning back in his chair.  Mark fidgeted and looked

around uncertainly, and then said.  "Dios mio!" (my god!).  Gabriel burst out

laughing, "No - It's you!"  With that, Mark was off and running.  By the end of the

week he had covered most of a semester's worth of material.  Suddenly he

started translating newspaper headlines and street signs and ads for me as we

walked around town.

My teachers did an intensive review of everything I had learned and forgotten in

the classes I took before our travels.  Conversing exclusively in Spanish, we

practiced grammatical concepts while learning about each other's lives and

countries.  We were very curious about each other, and we shared stories and

thoughts about life in the US and life in Mexico.  We had some great laughs as

we uncovered our similarities and differences.

Mark and I spent the afternoons huddled over homework.  Fortunately, the

weather had turned nasty and it drizzled for a few days, sending the

temperatures plummeting into the mid-fifties.  We had absolutely no incentive to go

sightseeing in the afternoons, which was perfect.

By the time our week of classes ended, our heads were

spinning and our notebooks and pens had become

permanent fixtures in our hands.  We stumbled out into the

streets of San Cristóbal and talked to anyone and everyone

who would listen

Little Mayan women in dark skirts

with infants strapped to their

backs wandered up and down the

streets selling their woven goods.

Their well trained children made

the rounds as well.

Modern day hippies meandered

through the streets too,

instruments strapped to their

backs.  Sometimes they stopped

spontaneously to play a little street music.

The young international travelers like this town

because there are good cheap hostels and good cheap

eats.  One of the best restaurants we found was a place that did rotisserie style grilled

chicken, vegetables and rice.  Two big plates and two large cokes came to $5.75.  No

wonder the under-25 crowd hung out here.

One day we were drawn into the street by the loud noise of a band trumpeting away.

Right there, under the shade of a large tree, a group of men were playing brass and

percussion.  It sounded like a parade.  People appeared in windows and emerged from

doorways to listen.  Then someone started shooting off bottle rockets.  Fsssssst-BAM!  It

was like our own private 4th of July band concert!  What a fun town.

The real sounds of San Cristobal

-- the ones that punctuated our

everyday lives -- were the jingling

of the propane truck and the

loudspeaker announcements of

the water truck.  These two trucks

drove up and down the hilly streets all day long

every day, selling propane and water to homes

and businesses.  You could hear them from half a

mile away as they moved around the city.

The propane truck got its jingle by dragging a

metal chain behind it on which were strung a

handful of metal rings.  These rings clinked and

clanked on the cobblestone streets and against

each other as the tall propane bottles jiggled and

bounced around in the back of the truck.  You

could definitely hear it coming.  The water truck had a

different sound.  A loudspeaker was mounted to its

roof and it would yell, "Agua Agua!!" followed by some

twiddly musical notes.

This was a town that managed to court the tourists while the residents lived

real lives.  One Sunday morning we watched a group of mountain bikers

pedal past.

Possibly the biggest tourist attraction in town is the Casa Na-

Bolom Museum (Tzotzil for "House of the Jaguar").  This

unique property was once the residence of Frans and

Gertrude Blom, an explorer and a photographer who met and

fell in love while on independent expeditions into the nearby

rainforest in the 1930's.  Their focus was the indigenous

Lancandon people, a very small group that lived so deep in

the rainforest that the Spanish never found them.  When

Frans first met the Lancandones in the 1920's they were still

living much as they had for centuries.

The goal of the Bloms' work was to gather and make available as

much information as they could about the Lancondones.  They wanted

to create a center for studying indigenous people, and host visiting

researchers who came to the area.  Lovely bedrooms surrounded a

courtyard, and there was a big dining room and expansive research

library in the home.  Since their respective deaths in the 1960's and the

1990's, their gracious property has become a museum as well as a

hotel and restaurant.

What we really loved in this museum were the gardens.  Lush plants

surround the house in a wonderfully wild and rather chaotic landscape.

Overturned flower pots were mounted on light poles to create clever

landscape lighting, and the paths were bordered with upside down wine

bottles dug into the ground.  There was a quirky sense of whimsy to this

place.  Mark was soon lost among the flowers with his camera.

While wandering the pretty paths he came across the

garden's caretaker, an old man who appeared to live in a

ramshackle hut at one end of the garden.  His nickname at

the museum was Señor Fuego (Mr. Fire), because he

always had his fire pit going.  He had built the most

ingenious system for heating up water by rigging up a

tank, pipes and a valve.  He ran the water through pipes

over his fire pit.  This way he not only had hot water but he

had a place to cook tortillas as well.

He looked utterly

at peace in his

little corner, and

we watched him

tend his fire and

move about his

garden, weeding

and trimming.  At

long last I said to him, "Tiene una buena vida." ("You

have a good life.")  He smiled the happiest smile and

said, "Estoy muy contento" ("I'm very content").  If only

we all could find such joy and peace in such simplicity.

Our ten days in San Cristóbal finally came to an end,

and we hoofed it down to the bus station for another

twisting, winding bus ride up and over more mountain

ranges, heading north until we were slightly closer to

the Caribbean than the Pacific.  Then we descended

into the exotic jungles of Palenque.

Find San Cristóbal on Mexico Maps.























































































































Chiapas by Bus – A Day of Adventure

This page describes our exhilarating bus ride through the mountains of the state of Chiapas in Mexico.  Vivid color, vibrant people, beautiful scenery.  Read on!

¡Vive México!

Marina Chiapas, Puerto Chiapas / Puerto Madero, Chiapas, Mexico

Quiet Marina Chiapas -- just Groovy and two sport fishing boats.

Marina Chiapas, Puerto Chiapas / Puerto Madero, Chiapas, Mexico

New thatch roofed palapa

restaurant under construction.

Combi / Colectivo van in Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

"Combi" or "Colectivo" van.

Puerto Chiapas train tracks

New train tracks will take cargo inland.

Shrimping industry in Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

Shrimping fleet.

Puerto Madero market, Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

Puerto Madero market

Puerto Madero / Puerto Chiapas tricycles, Mexico

Backwards tricycles take people around town.

Puerto Madero / Puerto Chiapas tricycles, Mexico

They're everywhere.

Puerto Madero / Puerto Chiapas tricycles, Mexico

We get a ride.

Combi van, Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

This little girl thought Mark's face was

worthy of a photo.

Marimba players, Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

Marimba players

Sunrise in Marina Chiapas, Mexico

Sunrise in Marina Chiapas

Fishing in Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

Andrés catches a Sierra (Spanish Mackerel)

OCC bus to San Cristobal

"Greyhound" type buses for inland travel.

Twisty mountain roads from Tapachula to San Cristobal

Twisting mountain roads

Little towns crowd the road from Tapachula to San Cristobal

We drove through countless busy little towns.

Plenty of military checkpoints between Tapachula and San Cristobal

There were lots of military


Chiapas, Mexico

In town, the streets are for strolling.

Chiapas, Mexico

We had to get through this!

Chiapas, Mexico

Swinging footbridges connected the towns on

both sides of the river.

Mountain roads, Chiapas, Mexico

Our road clings to the mountainsides.

Watermellon, Chiapas, Mexico

Watermelon stalls fill one mountain peak.

Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico

Scenic views on our route.

Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico

A landscaped sidewalk connects many towns.

Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico

We share the road with

travelers of all kinds.

Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico

We pull alongside a horse and cart.

High school kids try to flag down the bus.

Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico

We stop dead in our tracks while a

transformer is replaced.

Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

We discover San Cristóbal is full of life…and nightlife.

Puerto Chiapas to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico

March, 2012 - We were very happy to return to Mexico after

visiting Antigua, GuatemalaGroovy was waiting patiently for us

in the brand new Marina Chiapas, and the construction around

the marina was still on-going.

A new palapa building that will soon house a marina bar and

restaurant was getting its final rafters, and Groovy was one of just

three boats that had taken up residence at the still-not-officially-

open marina.

One day we took a crowded combi van to the big

nearby city of Tapachula and made the half-hour

trip scrunched up against a young family with a

toddler.  The husband excitedly told us all about

the improvements coming to this small seaside

community of Puerto Chiapas.  Besides the new

tourist marina, which is the pet project of ten of

Tapachula's captains of industry, the waterfront

is rapidly metamorphosing.

Once home only to a large shrimping fleet,

Puerto Chiapas has cleaned up the filthy shrimping process and now

has a cruise ship dock, a growing malecón, and plans to become a

major cargo shipping port with new train tracks that head to the inland

industrial hubs.  This young dad was so thrilled by the prospects for his

small town that he nearly jumped out of the seat of the van as he

described the growth and what it would mean to his community.  He

was most excited that the endless construction all around us was

supported by Mexico's President Calderón and the political power base

in Mexico City.  His feelings of hope and anticipation for his hometown

and his young family were palpable.

That same joy filled the air in Puerto Madero, the small

town that fronts the harbor of Puerto Chiapas around

the corner from the new marina.  This is a gritty small

town that bustles with color and noise, pungent smells

and spontaneous street music.  It isn't a pretty town --

dust fills the air and, at first glance, it is dirty, decrepit

and run down -- but it hums with an inner vitality.

Smiles were abundant and all the streets were filled with crazy three-

wheeled backward tricycles that shuttled people from place to place.

Some of these trikes are made from the back half of a bicycle and

others are made from the back half of a motorbike, but all have a

skinny seat up front that is shaded by a flopping awning.

Passengers hop into the front seat and get a bumpy ride.

Mark couldn't resist trying one of these carnival

rides, and all of a sudden I was squeezing in next

to him and asking the driver to take us around

town.  "Where?" he asked.  "Oh, just up and down

the streets so we can look around!"

He was more than happy to oblige, and for 15 minutes or so he drove us up and

down all the narrow streets, waving to his friends while we giggled like little kids in

the front street.  What fun!

Whole families would pile into these things, mom, dad and three kids hanging on;

old ladies would settle their shopping bags on the seat next to them; and

businessmen would spread out, relax, and fill the whole seat.  In back, the driver

would pedal or roll on the throttle, and the little jalopy would jiggle and rattle

through town.

This is a tourist town for locals from Tapachula, the big city of half a million people

about 15 miles away, but it is far from an international destination.  All the tourists

are weekenders and day-trippers looking for a few hours on the waterfront in a

small seaside village.  Gringos are a rarity.  So we got a great laugh when a little

girl pointed her camera at Mark -- from the safety of her seat next to her mom in

a combi van -- and took Mark's picture.  We definitely stood out in this crowd.

Music played everywhere, mostly from

stereo speakers, but we rounded one

corner to see three men playing a

xylophone.  They were totally in sync with

each other as each took one section of the

xylophone, and the music was lighthearted and fun.  I later discovered that this long

legged xylophone was called a Marimba, an instrument that is prized and beloved

throughout the state of Chiapas.  This one on the streets of Puerto Madero turned out to

be one of the first of many that we would see both here and further inland in the state in

the coming weeks.

Meanwhile the

Tehuantepeckers continued

to blow hard out in the gulf,

preventing other cruising

boats from crossing to

Marina Chiapas from

Huatulco, although many

boats were waiting on the

other side to make the jump.  This meant life was very quiet for us

at night, as the two of us and Andrés, the captain on the sport

fishing boat parked a few slips away from us, were the only three

people actually living in the marina.

There was still no power or water at the marina, and soon we had

to make water to refill Groovy's water tanks.  We invited Andrés to

accompany us on our excursion into the bay, and he grabbed his fishing pole and happily came along.  There's no equivalent

Spanish expression for "A bad day spent fishing is better than a good day at work," but he knew exactly what we meant.  He had

already finished his boat work for the day, so off we went.

It turned out to be a fantastic day fishing.  After tooling around in the bay for just

a little while, Andrés caught a beautiful dinner-sized Sierra (Spanish Mackerel).

Back at the dock he cleaned it expertly and I made us all a dinner from it.  We

had lots of fun chatting away in broken Spanish and broken English over a

gringo style meal, comparing notes on some of the crazy expressions that fill

both languages.  Where we'll call a nice person a peach, Mexicans call a loved

one a mango, and where we sing "Happy birthday to you" they'll use the same

music and sing "You're a green toad."  Seems funny, but it fits the music

perfectly, far better than the long words for "happy birthday:" "feliz cumpleaños."

In the afternoons of these

pleasant days at the

marina, the cabin of the

boat was hitting 90

degrees, no matter how

we shaded the deck or

cockpit.  So we decided it

was time to head inland

into the cool mountains

once again.

We caught a combi van to Tapachula, and from

there took a large Greyhound style bus 200

miles inland to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a

quaint colonial town perched high up in the


What a ride that turned out to be.  We had

front row seats to an incredible show.

If an interstate existed, the trip would be just

a few hours.  But not so on this route.  The

tiny, twisting, single lane mountain road

crosses two mountain ranges.  "Topes," or

speed bumps, are planted along these roads

every few miles and traffic slows to a crawl as

each vehicle spares its shocks and creeps

over the steep bump.  Every ten miles or so a

town crowds the road into a chaotic traffic jam.

And in between all this mayhem, the military bring the whole road to a

halt at strategically placed military checkpoints.  At several of these

checkpoints we were all herded off the bus to oversee the inspection of

our luggage in the baggage compartment.

I counted seven bus

stops, seven military

checkpoints, and an

infinite number of

"topes."  All this

would have made us absolutely crazy with

impatience, but the spectacular scenery

and lively towns we passed through made

it all worthwhile, despite averaging 22

mph for the entire trip.

For many miles we paralleled a river that

had communities living on both banks.

Little swinging footbridges connected the

towns on either side.

At the summit of one mountain we saw endless watermelon stalls, and for many miles

every town was connected by a bright red brick sidewalk trimmed with large, brightly

colored flowering bushes that flanked the highway.

This highway is traveled by vehicles of all kinds, from our huge bus to

cars and trucks to horseback riders to walkers pushing carts.  Uniformed

high school kids stood in the middle of the road trying to raise funds by

waving cars down.  The bus driver hung out the window and bantered

with them as we drove by.

When we pulled into one

town the bus had to

negotiate some very tight

turns.  We were just

commenting to each about

how hard it must be to drive

a huge bus on these tiny city

streets when the bus turned

a corner and suddenly faced

a complete roadblock.  Some electrical workers were replacing a transformer

on a power pole, and their truck blocked the entire road.  Oh well!  Our bus

parked in the middle of the road, and we all piled out onto the street yet again.

This time rather than watching men with machine guns rummage through our

luggage, we all descended on the local convenience store to get snacks and

drinks.  What a hoot!  We hung around in the street munching chips and

getting to know each other while we waited for the workers to complete the

transformer installation.  At long last they came down off the power pole,

moved their truck out of the way, and we continued on.

We enjoyed this drive a lot.  The last two

towns, Comitán and Teopisca, looked so

appealing we were tempted to hop out

and stay a while.  But San Cristóbal was

our destination, and at last, after nine

hours of climbing and descending, we

finally pulled into the charming city set at

7,500' altitude.

Dropping our

bags off at the

hotel and

dashing out into

the night we

found little kids

and parents, teens, tourists,

lovers and old folks all filling

the streets.  The air was brisk

and everyone was in jackets.

A chocolatier lured us into his

shop with the most delicious

fresh chocolate treats, and a

few doors down the mellow

tones of saxophone blues drew

us into the middle of a photographer's opening exhibition at an art gallery.

The wine flowed, the hot tamales were passed around, and the crowd spilled out of the gallery

and down the block.  We shivered in the bitter mountain air, but the spirit of this town was warm

and inviting.  It was easy to settle into San Cristóbal, and we ended up staying for 10 days.

Find Puerto Chiapas and San Cristóbal on Mexico Maps.

























































































































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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.



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


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


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


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.


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


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


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


buildings and

others may

have been


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


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


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


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


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"


"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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.