Valley farmlands between San Cristóbal and Palenque.
Lush mountains behind corn fields.
Palenque is closer to the Caribbean!
Pretty La Cañada neighborhood in
Back streets to Palenque town.
Hard little beaded plant, like
Palenque is a busy town that is surprisingly nonchalant about
Quickie on-the-fly tailoring
Temple de la Calavera
Temple XIII and Temple of the Inscriptions
Temple of the Sun
Temple of the Cross
The Ball Court
Vendors sell trinkets on shaded blankets before the Palace.
Temple of the Inscriptions
Burial place of Pacal the Great
Elephant ear leaves
A ruin yet to be excavated and studied.
The Palace, a building worthy of a great king.
The watchtower -- or celestial
Hallways with the characteristic almost-peaked roof
Bas-relief sculpture shows what the Mayans looked like.
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 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
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
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
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
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.
Virgin of Guadelupe Church
Pretty architecture abounds in
There are lots of places to take a stroll.
El Arco del Carmen
A less-visited back street.
Chocolatier "La Sonrisa del día" (the smile of
Real roof tile - what all those new Arizona
homes try to imitate.
A placement exam?!
What are we getting ourselves into?
Mark with one of his teachers, Jorge
Getting ready for class.
Got it? Good! Next topic...
My instructor Jorge taught me a lot
about life in Mexico.
Mayan women on a back street.
That's a lot of inventory for
a small girl.
Young travelers love San Cristóbal
Rotisserie grilled chicken - cheap and yummy.
A brass band suddenly starts playing.
The jingle of the propane truck provides the
soundtrack of San Cristóbal.
A group of mountain bike riders on a Sunday morning.
Jaguar graffiti. Jaguars have special meaning to the
local indigenous people.
Courtyard arches in Casa Na-
Dining room table at the Casa Na-Bolom Museum.
Outside we found lush gardens.
Ingenious hot water heater / tortilla cooker at the
back of the garden.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Quiet Marina Chiapas -- just Groovy and two sport fishing boats.
New thatch roofed palapa
restaurant under construction.
"Combi" or "Colectivo" van.
New train tracks will take cargo inland.
Puerto Madero market
Backwards tricycles take people around town.
We get a ride.
This little girl thought Mark's face was
worthy of a photo.
Sunrise in Marina Chiapas
Andrés catches a Sierra (Spanish Mackerel)
"Greyhound" type buses for inland travel.
Twisting mountain roads
We drove through countless busy little towns.
There were lots of military
In town, the streets are for strolling.
We had to get through this!
Swinging footbridges connected the towns on
both sides of the river.
Our road clings to the mountainsides.
Watermelon stalls fill one mountain peak.
Scenic views on our route.
A landscaped sidewalk connects many towns.
We share the road with
travelers of all kinds.
We pull alongside a horse and cart.
High school kids try to flag down the bus.
We stop dead in our tracks while a
transformer is replaced.
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, Guatemala. Groovy 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-
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
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.
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
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
bags off at the
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.
Santa María del Tule
Home of the "Tule Tree"
The "Tule Tree," 190' around!
The baby Tule Tree, just 1,000 years old.
What fantastic creatures lurk here?.
"Tuk-tuk" taxis zipped everywhere.
Zapotec weavings in Teotitlan
All these colors were obtained from flowers or bugs.
Our sea turtle rug.
Hierve el Agua is a unique,
A manmade pool to control the water flow a bit.
Kids play in the water.
A thin film of water leaves a
microscopic layer of minerals behind.
Waterfall frozen in time.
Petrified waterfall at Hierve el Agua.
Reminded us of Yellowstone but the water was cool..
Our charming tour companions.
Mitla is square and ornate, very different than Monte Alban.
Intricate patterns like this adorn every wall inside and out.
Precise mortarless stonework from 2,000 years ago.
Massive lintel over a short doorway.
One of the interior rooms.
Impressive dovetail corner joinery made
of precisely cut decorative stone.
No two patterns on the buildings are alike.
One of the underground tombs.
Mezcal makers!! The king of Matatlan.
There are hundreds of varieties of mezcal.
Young blue agave plants.
Pineapple-like core used to make mezcal.
First they are cooked over a fire.
Then they are crushed under a rotating wheel.
The duration of the fermentation makes all the
difference in the taste.
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
see all kinds
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
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
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
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
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
wasn't such a
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.
Carved stone figures at Monte Alban's museum.
A local school group is on a field trip.
The teacher asks which god he is pointing to.
Elaborate clay urn.
Monte Alban sits high on a hill overlooking the
A vendor shows us his
The vendors are everywhere.
Zapotec ball court.
Monte Alban pyramid.
Looking across the central plaza.
"You are here" in Zapotec.
"Los Danzantes" - Captured
rival leaders castrated &
ready for sacrifice.
School kids burn off energy out on the stairs.
Now they can sit still for a class picture.
Restored pyramid building.
Pyramid building unchanged since "discovery" in the early 1800's.
Painstaking work numbering all the stones and resetting
them in the walls.
Courtyard of the Oaxaca Cultural Center in the Santo
Ceiling art in the Cultural Center.
Grand double staircase in the Cultural Center.
Fine gold Mixtec handiwork.
Mixtec jewelry from Tomb #7
Clay sculpted urn.
God of old age and wisdom (note
the wrinkled skin).
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
thought to have
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
nearby. He said no, they
were just from a local
school and the kids
probably had mixed
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.
Cobblestone colonial walking streets of Oaxaca.
A band plays pops tunes.
Balloon vendor outside the
A marching band shows up out of nowhere.
Kids proudly show off brilliant
Not a hair out of place.
A street vendor strikes a deal on her fruit.
Schoolkids play McCartney's "Yesterday."
9-year-old Chiclet vendor
Julia has a priceless grin...
…but she has been taught it's
worth 50 pesos.
Etno-Bontanical Garden entrance.
Bird of Paradise.
"Sunburned Tourist" tree.
Organ Pipe Cactus.
"Marriage" has nasty thorns and poisonous fruit.
Valentine's hearts show up all
A wedding at the Santo Domingo
The gracious bride invited the
onlookers into the church.
This little Chiclet-selling girl was transfixed.
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
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
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.
Our bus to Oaxaca.
Snacks for sale at a bus stop.
Mountains on the way to Oaxaca.
Poinsettias and tall trees in
Outdoor eateries surround the Zócalo.
Santo Domingo Cathedral.
We walk down towards the historic district.
Oaxaca is loaded with charm.
One long cobbled street is set aside for pedestrians only.
Flowers adorn many
There are great places for a snack and a view
all over town.
Many buildings have a door-within-a-door out front.
This church has two doors in its
The front of the public library.
The courtyard inside the public library.
Fancy stairs from the courtyard to
the second story balcony in the
Self-explanatory in every
Clusters of strange sculptures of
people spill all over the sidewalks.
Sculptures of "migratorios" congregate by the cathedral.
Inside the cathedral - gold, gold and more gold!!
The overriding theme is gold.
A portion of the ceiling.
Street performers abound.
Uniformed schoolkids hang out by the cathedral after school.
Paintings for sale on the sidewalks of the art district.
Home of former president Benito Juarez.
Protesters cruise past us carrying signs.
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
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.
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
The streets are cobbled (one main artery is pedestrian
only) and the buildings are heavily embellished with
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
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.
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
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
Find Oaxaca on Mexico Maps.