April 18 2014

Out and About in… Palenque

Although only a few hours apart and constructed at around the same time, the  ruins of Palenque are very different from those at Tikal. Both sites are awesome in their own way. Both are huge. Both boast of  beautiful, mighty temples. Both are set in a lush jungle. But both served rather different functions. Whereas Tikal was one of the  most important urban Mayan centres, Palenque was a massive  cemetery, with most of the temples used as ceremonial burial  chambers.  Jose, the guide, escorted us through the main buildings including the:

Temple of the Skull: named after the stucco relief  of a skull, thought to be a rabbit skull, on the front of it.

Image result for temple of the skulls palenque

Temple  XIII: where in 1994 the remains of the Reina Roja (Red Queen) were found.  The bones are thought to have belonged to a 40-year-old woman, and had been  preserved in red cinnabar. Although the bones have now been removed [booo], we were  allowed to visit the sarcophagus in the inside the temple and could see the red  pigment still in it.

Temple of the Inscriptions: a 26 meter high  pyramid with 9 levels, so-named because of the inscriptions discovered inside  its walls. In the 1950s a Mexican archaeologist, Alberto Ruz Lhuiller, was exploring the deep bowels of the temple, removed a stone stab in the floor of a back  room and discovered a big old tomb.  It turned out to be that of King Pakal, one of the most important Mayan rulers. He ruled from 615AD- 683AD, and  lived to the ripe old age of 80, which was positively ancient in those times  when most people died by the age of 40.

Apparently he was really tall as  well, unlike most Maya who are super tiny [exhibit A–all of the pyramids they constructed…have you seen those steps?]. Some historians debated  whether he was actually Maya at all, or perhaps came from Europe or somewhere  like that, although most now agree that he was probably just big because he got  to eat all the best food. [It is good to be king]

He’s still in his  mausoleum in the temple, although unfortunately tourists aren’t allowed to go  inside the temple anymore as people have in the past taken it a bit too literally and graffiti-ed it. There is however a replica of the tomb in the site museum which we later visited, and were also shown a video with some  footage of the sarcophagus as Lhuiller discovered it – all covered in  centuries stalactites and stalagmites. Just seeing the pyramids from the  outside is awesome, it must have been absolutely mind-blowing to find all that  stuff inside.

Grand Palace: unlike the others, people weren’t  buried in this one. Instead it was an administrative and  residential block. It’s an intricate maze of courtyards and corridors leading  into rooms with some old beds and  some old Maya toilets. The tower on the top is thought to have been used  for astronomy, although the very top part of it was reconstructed in 1930  according to how a French archaeologist thought it would have looked, but now  they reckon it probably wouldn’t have looked like that after all, but just been  flat. Oops. [those French]

Aqueduct: the Maya controlled the  course of the Usumacinta river which flows through Palenque to prevent  floods and damage to the buildings. There are some pretty waterfalls around  there, too.

Cross group: made up of the Temple of the Cross, Temple  of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross, a set of tall narrow temples with elaborate carvings. One has a cross on  the top, although it’s not actually a cross, but supposed to represent the tree  of creation.  We also walked along a jungle trail where Jose pointed out  various different types of tree (cedar, mahogany, sapodilla, avocado, mango and  almond), we got to swing on vines Tarzan-style, and also saw several examples  of un-excavated ruins.  The city was so huge that they reckon only about 5% of the structures have  actually been uncovered. Jose pointed out a huge mound behind the Cross group of  temples that is in fact another temple, which must have dwarfed all the others.  There are no plans to uncover it at the moment though as the jungle it is buried under is so rich in wildlife that a lot of poor spider monkeys, howler  monkeys, pumas, jaguars, toucans, parrots and other birds would be made homeless  if they cut it down.  So we’ll just have to make do with the 5%, which is  plenty impressive as it is.

March 28 2014

San Cristobal de las Casas

The first thing I noticed when stepping off the bus at the San Cristobal bus station was just how cold it was. As in see your breath cold. And having just come from the jungle in Palenque is was quite a shock to the system.  The city, located in the state of Chiapas, borders Guatemala, and is nestled in pine forest in the Jovel mountain valley at 2100m [about 6500ft] above sea level is considerably cooler than most other places in southern Mexico. Additionally San Cristobal is not a city usually visited by tourists, or at least not foreign tourists.  It doesn’t have any well known ruins, but the state of Chiapas has a lot going for it nature-wise, and  it is a jumping off point for crossing the border into Guatemala by land, which is how I found myself passing a few more days than planned in the authentically quaint town of San Cristobal.

On my first night in town I stumbled into a pro-Zapatista rally.  Now not being one for political events, I meandered on by, but not before getting an earful on why the Zapatistas are the best political party in the country [political propaganda at its best].  The air was getting brisk so I bought one of those ubiquitous colorful woven sweatshirt.  I thought about buying a blanket too, but then practicality won out as it would be several weeks before I would be headed back to Campeche. So sweatshirt it was.

San Cristobal takes its name from first bishop of Chiapas,  St Christopher [patron saint of travelers] and Bartolomé de Las Casas, who defended the rights of indigenous Chiapanecos.  Chiapas has Mexico’s second-largest indigenous population, and has a history rich in ancient Maya culture, many traditions of which are kept very much alive even today in the several Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages surrounding San Cristobal.  It also has a legacy of Spanish colonization, which is apparent in the beautiful buildings and churches all around the place, as well as the not so beautiful plight of the impoverished and  historically mistreated indigenous communities who continue to struggle for land and equality today. San Cristobal was one of the main cities taken by the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) in the 1994 uprising, and although the violence has quelled since ’94,  the Zapatistas are still very active in their campaign for justice – I  saw [more than one]  huge demonstration against the Zapatists in the zocalo while there, and one rally for them. Go figure.

San Cristobal wasn’t entirely what I were expecting, especially when you consider the climate, and there were definitely a couple of unexpected low points to this leg of the journey; but these things happen, it’s what makes travel interesting. Aside from that, the food was amazing, and the scenery beautiful.

Whilst in San Cristobal I have  also:

saw a pro-Zapitista rally at the church  [this is the church, but I didn’t dare break out the camera during the rally]

wandered the colourful cobbled streets

admired the colorful VWs scattered all over town.[I’m not sure about the story behind the VWs, but there were several older model of colors in various places in the city]

browsed through the colorful craft markets where indigenas sell beautifully woven goods and Zapatista-related souvenirs [which somehow seems wrong to me]

climbed up the Cerrito San Cristobal to the Templo del Cerrito

climbed up another small hill to the Templo de Guadalupe (which has a very scary looking white porcelain Jesus in a bright purple robe, and a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe adorned with flashing fairy lights)

and finally, enjoyed a night of Mexican folk music, tacos al pastor, and some honest-to God Tequila at a local restaurant/bar

 

March 14 2014

Chiapas and Zapatistas

I have always kept a record of my travels.  It used to be with a pen and paper and 35 mm film.  Now it’s all digital. On Flashback Fridays I reflect back on some of my past travels and travel mishaps before I started this blog.

The next few Flashback Fridays focus on Mexico, Guatemala, and other Mayan sites that I visited during my study abroad/independent study on Mayan Art and Architecture.

I have been avoiding Chiapas since I decided to stay in Campeche. [Yes,  I do realize that Palenque is in Chiapas,]  I have been avoiding it due to the Zapatistas that seems to thrive in the area.  Maybe I was overreacting; maybe not, but the Zapatistas scare me.  Chiapas is a poor state, and their grass-roots attempts at reform generally appeal to poorer people.  Who knows?  They may want to kidnap an American as part of their protest of NAFTA.  I’m attempting to not appear American.  I have my People in Espanol magazine, my Luis Miguel, Cristian Castro, and Thalia CDs.  I am more than willing to pass for the Spaniard that everyone seems to think I am.

Somewhere between Tuxtla Gutierrez and San Cristobal the bus was stopped.  Scary dudes with big  guns boarded the bus.  Two people were ‘escorted’ off.  I say they were kidnapped, but what do I know.  Maybe they wanted to go with the men  in black suits with the big guns. The bus left.  They were not on it.  Why?  Who knows, but that’s exactly what I am afraid of… Scary men with big guns taking me off the bus to who knows where.

No need to remind me; I know I am in Zapatista territory.

See, I am in Zapatista territory…. I am probably going to die here… At least I am not in possession of any of the ‘forbidden’  items: Armas [oh the irony], seeds [for planting drugs or I don’t know maybe corn], or alcoholic beverages.  And I am not planning to sell wood illegally or destroy nature.  Maybe they will leave me alone after all.  Hopefully San Cristobal will be a pleasant city to pass a few days in.

January 3 2014

Flashback Friday: Loving nature in Chiapas

Hello, all. For 2014 and beyond, I am staring a new feature called Flashback Friday featuring previous travels and pit stops.  It will be on the first Friday of each month, and hopefully enjoyable for all, including me since I see my travel days being limited the next few years while I am headed back to the classroom.  First up, my adventures in Mexico, where I lived during my last sojourn as a student.

I have always kept a record of my travels.  It used to be with a pen and paper and 35 mm film.  Now it’s all digital. On Flashback Fridays I reflect back on some of my past travels and travel mishaps before I started this blog.

In 1999, 2000, and 2004, I spent a large chunk of time traveling in Mexico.  Visiting Chiapas was one of these chunks of time.  I was here in 1999 and 2000.

Chiapas is not one of my favorite places in the world. It is one of only a handful of places in the world that I did not feel welcome or safe thanks to the Zapatistas who live in the area yet not only did I go, I went twice.

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In case you were confused as to where you were.

I was also there with my dad– who stood out negatively in every way…speaking English too loudly, making inappropriate eye contact, wearing socks with sandals, you name the infraction, he probably committed it. Needless to say, my stress level was at an all time high, with the constant boarding of the policia searching for who know what, and my dad saying, much too loudly I might add, ‘why do you think the police took those tourist off the bus?’ Not for a guided tour, I can bet you that…now will you just pretend to read the magazine and SHUT UP.  I was at my wits ends, and really wanted to ship him back to Cancun, but he really wanted to spend time with me, and I thought it best that we be out in nature rather than try to explain intricacies of Mayan history to him.  And let’s be honest, for anyone not overly fascinated in art and architecture, what I do on a daily basis, it boring…especially when it comes to writing my thesis–who wants to watch someone do that?

Misol-Ha

Misol-Ha is a spectacular 115 foot waterfall right smack in the middle of the jungle…nature at its best.  At its base is a huge plunge pool surrounded by lush vegetation; it’s perfect for swimming. [Movie note:  It’s the waterfall in the Predator movie, or so I’m told.  I’ve never actually seen the movie].

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A wet, slippery path leads behind the falls to a cave.  You can pay 10 or so pesos to explore it or wow the gatekeepers with your knowledge that 1. you are an American who happens to speak Mayan and 2. have blonde hair and speak damn-near perfect Spanish in a Castillo accent [at least according to the Mexican I encounter on a daily basis.]   Either way, I kept my pesos.  At one time, a plank of wood was balanced precariously over the cliff edge.  It looks like it could be a diving board or a lookout spot from which to view the falls, but it’s neither.  It’s just an unsafe piece of wood hanging out over a cliff. If someone hasn’t already toppled off the edge, they will one day. Don’t be that person.

Cascadas de Agua Azul

About 40 or so miles from Palenque, the Cascadas de Agua Azul – exist. They originate in the municipality of Tumbalá, where the Shmulia, Otulun and Tulia rivers meet. And boy are they beautiful.
Agua Azul

The turquoise water gathers in cool natural pools that are perfect for a refreshing dip on a hot day. Some areas are cordoned off and can only be admired from man-made boardwalks and viewing platforms. The swimming areas are clearly marked and easily located thanks to the shrieks of people flinging themselves from rope swings. Only swim in the designated areas and don’t get out of your depth as the currents can be strong and people have drowned.  Don’t be one of those people. Just enjoy their beauty.

As a side note:  the nature in Chiapas is raw and beautiful.  I noticed that I used the phrase ‘don’t be that person’ twice.  It’s a place where nature is so beautiful, so wild, you just want to touch everything, be as close as possible, but seriously, be careful.

July 28 2013

Palenque–not exactly what I was expecting

As Mayan ruins go – and there are many in Mexico, and I’ve visited more than the average bear– Palenque is one of the best.
palenque 1

This ancient city is quite older than some and it dates back as far as 226 BC . While Palenque seems quite small in comparison with some other ruins such as Tikal and Chichen Itza, it is thought that the majority of the city remains undiscovered behind dense jungle.  What is there is incredibly well preserved for a city of more than 2000 years old.

Palenque carvings

Palenque stand out in my mind for several reasons one of which is this is the only ruin I visited where I had family with me.  My dad, who has since passed away, met me in Guatemala City on a complete whim [what can I say, spontaneity runs in the family].  We traveled together on a rickety old school bus to the Mexican border, stayed in quite possibly the worst hotel [and I use that word cautiously] I’ve ever been in [and that’s saying a lot], nearly froze to death in San Cristobal de las Casas, and once of us [hint:  not me]  angered the travel gods and suffered Montezuma’s Revenge. By the time we reached Palenque, one of us was very nearly dead and the other wanted to finish the job.

The heat and humidity of Palenque is no joke.  Having come straight from the mountainous San Cristobal [where I suffered from fever of unknown etiology and was quite weak], it was next to impossible to adjust to the heat and humidity of Palenque.  I did what I rarely ever do:  I rested.   I woke up with the howler monkey screeches at 5 am, siesta-ed in the hottest middle part of the day, and prowled around like an ocelot at night.  [Ocelots and howler monkeys do live in the jungle, but I never saw either of them].  On the third day, we tackled Palenque.

Palenque

The entrance to Palenque is a giant parking lot filled with people selling everything from refreshments to hats and souvenirs. Many of the paths within the gates are also lined with vendors. At the entrance to the site, official guides vie for your attention. They may mean well, but you can get almost as much information from plaques dotted around the site, and it’s much more enjoyable to explore the ruins at your own pace [even if you have to leave your dad sitting on the steps with the jaguar]

Palenque 3

Who even knows where my dad is at this point; Mayan architecture was not all that exciting for him.

July 21 2013

Uxmal and la ruta PUUC

Back when I was 21…

Once upon a time I had crazy dreams of being a cultural anthropologist or historical preservationist or something that would allow me to travel and be the #historynerd that I truly am. But then the reality of these jobs set in. 1. They are few and far between 2. Most require a masters to even get started, and even finding a program that’s available and affordable is not so easy. 3 most are funded on the whim of a government and therefore pay is low and sometimes not at all. In spite of all that, I chose to do my senior thesis/project on Mayan Art and Architecture which 1. required a thoroughly researched and well written thesis [in Spanish] and 2. on-site visits to some of the sites. This was back in the Dark Ages when the internet was a baby, digital camera quality was awful, and blogging was a journal and scrapbook [of which I have both]. So with my SLR… that’s right, there’s no D if front of that SLR and copious quantities of film that I carried in a separate bag and polite instruction to ‘inspeccione por mano, por favor’.  Thankfully they did and my 50+ rolls of film, both black and white and color, in different ISOs, made it safely through airport security and allowed me to photograph all the little quirks of Mayan architecture to my little heart’s content.

A little history of Uxmal

Chichen Itza is the most well know of the ancient Mayan site, but Uxmal should give Chichen Itza a run for its money –at least in terms of its vastness.  It’s not super well known and isn’t directly on a bus route the way Chichen Itza is, but it is relatively well preserved.  If the access was easier, my guess is that it would be more popular than Chichen Itza.

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Uxmal rising out of the jungle

The area around Uxmal was occupied as early as 800 BC, but the major building period took place when it was the capital of a Late Classic Mayan state around 850-925 AD.  Somewhere around or after the year 1000, when Toltec invaders took over the Yucatán peninsula [establishing their capital at Chichen Itza], all major construction ceased at Uxmal. However, it continued to be occupied and participated in the political League of Mayapán.  Uxmal later came under the control of the Xiú princes. The site was abandoned around 1450, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

Mayan legend claims that a dwarf magician, born from a egg, built the city of Uxmal in a single night. In reality, archaeological excavations reveal that the Pyramid of the Magician itself was erected in a series of five successive builds upon existing, lesser pyramids. This was a common Mayan building practice, thought to capture and amplify the power of the underlying structure.

Uxmal_Ruinas_Pelota

Kabah is situated slightly further along the road from Uxmal, and is famed for the Temple to Chaac, the Rain God of the Maya. The structure is filled with the masks of Chaac. Across the road, there is also a Maya Arch, part of a Maya Road system that used to span the entire Yucatan region.

Sayil has a beautiful multi level palace

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Sayil-Choc-Side-view

At Labna, you can clearly see an example of a Maya Road system, as well as a well-preserved decorative Maya Arch. The palace is also very beautiful.

labna arch
Labna Arch

OK enough with the technical stuff…

The area where Uxmal, Sayil, and Kabah is collectively known as the Ruta Puuc, and it is for lack of better terms, deserted. There are plenty of small temples to see as well as small villages [<50 inhabitants almost all of Mayan descent and who speak only Mayan and are ecstatic to talk to you, you know if you can actually communicate. In honesty, most do speak some Spanish, but if English is your only language, you may be out of luck.  Luckily, everyone I met was really nice], and deserted roads almost covered in vegetation.

The main road down the Ruta Puuc. I saw very, very few cars and lots and lots of lush, green vegetation.  It is easy to see how the area could be reclaimed by Mother Nature.

 A small Mayan town more or less in the middle of nowhere in the Yucatán peninsula.
 Poc chuc, a very traditional Mayan meal. Essentially it’s seasoned pork with peppers, onions, and lime juice, to be wrapped up in tortillas and eaten like tacos. Tomatoes, avocados, and cucumbers on the side.

Labna, and when you are the only one there, it’s both awesome, and a little bit creepy.  Yes, I realize I could have been bitten by a snake or some wild animal, and no one would have ever seen or heard from me again.

Some beautiful ruins at Kabah.

Hundreds of masks representing the gods along the front wall, often with long, protruding noses.

 If you look very closely, you can see all of the masks etched in this wall.

 One last view of Kabah.

Salbutes. It’s a very common meal in the area, and while not my favorite, it is amazingly fresh, so I had this for a couple of my meals.

July 14 2013

Chichen Itza

I have always kept a record of my travels.  It used to be with a pen and paper and 35 mm film.  Now it’s all digital. Occasionally I reflect back on some of my past travels and travel mishaps before I started this blog.

Chichen Itza is located in the Yucatan region of Mexico not too far from the Gulf.  It was a major economic and political power from 600 to 1000 A.D. Chichen  Itza is a mix of many of Maya and (Central Mexican) Toltec styles; who influenced whom? so much of pre-Columbian history is still being debated.  But I’ll do my best to summarize.

The Castillo (or castle in English) is the monument that most people think of when they think of Chichén Itzá. It is mostly Toltec construction, and it probably dates to the period of the first combination of cultures in the 9th century AD at Chichén. El Castillo is centrally located on the south edge of the Great Plaza. The pyramid is 30 meters high and 55 meters on a side, and it was built with nine succeeding platforms with four staircases. The staircases have balustrades with carved feathered serpents, the open-jawed head at the foot and the rattle held high at the top. The last remodel of this monument included one of the fanciest jaguar thrones known from such sites, with red paint and jade insets for eyes and spots on the coat, and flaked chert fangs. The principal stairway and entrance is on the north side, and the central sanctuary is surrounded by a gallery with the main portico.

Kukulkan, or feathered serpent, is the name of a Maya snake deity that also serves to designate historical persons. The cult of Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl was the first Mesoamerican religion to transcend the old Classic Period linguistic and ethnic divisions and facilitated communication and peaceful trade among peoples of many different social and ethnic backgrounds. Although the cult was originally centered in the ancient city of Chichén Itzá, it spread as far as the Guatemalan highlands so you’ll see this guy as far south as Tikal.

The Mayans loved sport and were quite serious about the games played. They built huge ball courts to contest these matches. It’s often said that the captain of the losing team would offer his head as payment for losing while the captain of the winning team would be allowed to ascend directly into heaven. The Great Ball court of Chichen Itza is 225 feet wide and 545 feet long overall. It has no top, no discontinuity between the walls and is totally open to the blue sky. Each end has a raised to the temple area.
One of the mysteries of Chichen Itza, is the acoustic dynamics of the great ball court. A whisper from end can be heard clearly enough at the other end 500 feet far away and through the length and breath of the court. The sound waves are unaffected by wind direction or time of day and also night. To this day, no one has been able to figure why or how the Mayans achieved this feat.

The goal was to get a ball through this ring. The rings are about 25 feet off of the ground.

The particular sport is not like any one sport being contested today. It has elements of soccer, but the ball used is much more like a weighted basketball. Of the hundreds of images of the game, very few show that the ball was touched with the hands, so archaeologists have deduced that the ball could not be caught. The ball itself was a little larger than a basketball and was made of solid rubber, so it was quite heavy. Players wore protective padding around their hips and were richly dressed and decorated during play.  Personally I think JK Rowling saw images of the ball court and had this in mind when she developed Quidditch.

Information about the solar, Toltec, and Maya calendars is carefully built into el Castillo. Each stairway has exactly 91 steps, times four is 364 plus the top platform equals 365, the days in the solar calendar. The pyramid has 52 panels in the nine terraces; 52 is the number of years in the Toltec cycle. Each of the nine terraced steps are divided in two: 18 for the months in the yearly Maya calendar. Most impressively, though, is not the numbers game, but the fact that on the autumnal and vernal equinoxes, the sun shining on the platform edges forms shadows on the balustrades of the north face that look like a writhing rattle snake.

But Chichen Itza is more, a whole lot more.  Some plazas have thousands of columns. Some have observatories. There are several temples at each site, each serving a different purpose.

June 30 2013

Tulum

Archaeology has always fascinated me. Stories of mysterious ancient  civilizations and their fascinating architecture has always made me want to grab  my pick and machete and go exploring.  What could be more thrilling to this Archaeologist Wannabe, a lover of art history, than an ancient city  nestled in the Mayan jungle on top of a limestone cliff, with a magnificent view  of the blues and greens of the Caribbean.

Ah, Tulúm!  “Walled City” in Mayan, it was built on a natural platform of  cliffs that rise 40 feet above the Caribbean, with the north, south and west  sides of the city protected by stone walls five meters high and three meters  thick.  It was originally called “Zama”, or “City/Place of Dawn”, and once  you see the breathtaking east view of the Caribbean from there, you can  certainly imagine how fitting that must be. The Spaniards, on their first trip  along the shores here, wrote about this city with the highest tower they had yet  seen, describing it as a colorful city compared to Seville, with many Indians calling to them.  In some buildings, you can still see traces of  paint.  I can only imagine what it must have been like for the Spaniards!

The walled city of Tulum

Amongst bits of relentless jungle, there are about sixty structures within  the ancient city walls; the oldest dating to 433 BC, the youngest, 1200 AD, and I wander and wonder amongst them for a bit.  Tulum is such a magical place–especially if one is lucky enough to stay in the cabanas just south of the ruins. Walking along the beach you can approach Tulum just as the Spaniards did–you can also get there a few hours before the masses from Cancun descend on the site.  There in its unpopulated glory, Tulum shines.

The actual ruins are small compared to some of the other Mayan sites, but the beach and the scenery make up for the lack of things to do and I could easily spend weeks living in my thatched-roof cabana escaping from life and existing without a care in the world.