Mexico: Stories from its ruins

Mexico is a country that takes pride in preserving its ruins, because they tell so much about its history. The nation of Mexico was built overtime at the crossroads where various civilisations lived, grew, met, fought – and ultimately, were taken over by the Hispanics. But there is so much evidence of the lives of its various people in pre-colonial times, from the Zapotecs through the Mayans to the Aztecs.

I loved learning some of their stories as I visited some of the most important historic sites in Mexico.

Monte Albán

Monte Albán, a historical site near Oaxaca, is important for two main reasons: it’s one of the earliest cities in pre-colonial Central America; and it was the epicentre of the Zapotec civilisation for around a millenium, starting from 500 BC.

What impressed me most there (and, to be honest, in all sites I visited) is the sheer scale of those cities. They were built thousands of years ago, long before we had cranes, calculators, architectural firms and conservation policies – and yet the sites are huge, precisely designed, and show marks of skilful planning and advanced societies. For example, archeologists found some walls at Monte Albán that seem to indicate there was a separation between different social classes, with the ability for more prominent citizens to spy on the lower classes from above.

Teotihuacán

The ancient city of Teotihuacán is one of the most famous – and most visited – sites in Mexico. And it’s also one of the most confusing. No one seems very sure who built it; all that’s sure is that it was occupied by various indigenous civilisations along the years (and centuries), and that it was one of the most important cities in the region at its peak (around 300-450 AD), both by its size and influence.

What I found most interesting about Teotihuacán was the layout of the city. It’s got one massive main street, the Avenue of the Dead, with the Citadel at one end and the Pyramid of the Moon at the other end. The former is home to a temple to the Feathered Serpent, a site where archeologists found remains of many human sacrifices, which designates it as a religious and political centre (as religion was so prevalent in those days that religious leaders would also have the political power). Along the Avenue is the biggest pyramid onsite, the Pyramid of the Sun. The precise use of this one and the Moon isn’t known though.

View of the Avenue of the Dead from the Pyramid of the Moon

One thing we know is that people would have lived in building complexes across and around the city, with signs of different neighbourhoods for different ethnic groups. Walking along the Avenue, I could just imagine life there: people strolling by, popping into shops, visiting temples to give offerings, attending political gatherings. It felt almost like… us.

To add to the mystery, we don’t know what the city was called at its apogee; it only gained the name Teotihuacán after its fall. The Aztecs named it ‘the place where the gods were created’ in the middle of the first millenium AD, as they believe that’s where the gods made the universe.

Palenque

The ruins of Palenque, in the south-eastern state of Chiapas, are the smallest archeological site I visited in Mexico. And yet, it was the most beautiful – its architecture is sophisticated, and its sculptures and carvings stunning, with the lush surroundings of the jungle an additional advantage (although the vegetation did take over the ruins for years, making restoration a difficult job).

The site is decidedly Mayan, and owes a great lot to its most important leader, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (nope I can’t pronounce it either, luckily he also goes by Pakal the Great). He ruled for most of the seventh century, during which he rebuilt most of Palenque, an entreprise that his successors continued. Amongst other things, their work helped trace a lineage of Mayan rulers and record history – the most important building in Palenque is the Temple of Inscriptions, named after the high number of hieroglyphic tablets it contains, which tell stories of Maya civilisation.

It’s also the tomb of Pakal the Great – he had it built during the last years of his reign, with his son having to finish it off after he died.

The Temple of Inscriptions

Chichén Itzá

If you’ve ever seen a photo of a Mexican pyramid… No doubt it was of El Castillo, the towering peak of Chichén Itzá. Found in the Yucatán Peninsula, it’s one of the greatest Mayan archeological sites, as well as being a fantastic example of mixed-style architecture: while first a Mayan settlement in the second half of the first millenium, Chichén Itzá was conquered by the Toltec people around 1000 AD, and today displays a fusion of their styles.

I’m still no expert on the differences between the two, but what I can tell you is that El Castillo is the most breathtaking example on site. It’s more than just a pretty building, though. It’s also a temple to Quetzalcoatl (yes, like in Teotihuacán). And there’s more! See, the Maya were incredibly skilled mathematicians, and this is basically a calendar.

El Castillo

Each side of the pyramid has 91 steps. Adding to that the top step, that’s 365 in total, just like the number of days in a year. And twice a year, on the two equinoxes, the days when the night and day are the same length, the sun casts the shadow of a snake that seems to move down the pyramid.

Meanwhile, I still need to use my phone to calculate a 20% tip.

An inventive way to represent the Feathered Serpent: serpent head sculpture, with carved feathery-snakey body

Hope you enjoyed learning a bit more Mexican history, to complement my post on its urban stories. I tried my hardest to verify all these stories (thank you National Geographic and UNESCO), but may have gotten it wrong – feel free to correct me in the comments if so!

Mexico: Urban stories

My first impression of Mexico City was 100% pure backpacker material.

I’d just spent a few days in Lima, lying by the beach and recharging my normal-human batteries with fancy restaurants and big supermarkets. Then I got to Mexico City and decided to walk from the airport to the nearest underground station. Cue a confusing walk that led me down a hugely busy street, full of the sounds of cars and people chatting away, assembling around little food stands, balancing on small plastic stools as they ate from plates charged with tacos.

Smells, colours, noise, the tiredness of a flight and the confusion of a new city… Boom. Back into the thick of it.

That bold feeling of a city really, brightly alive followed me through my two weeks in Mexico. Everywhere I went, even in smaller towns, there was a sort of street culture – people walking, talking, selling. Most of all, people eating. There’s no doubt eating food on the street is a huge part of Mexican culture and oh boy, you have not tasted tacos until you’ve had them in Mexico City.

And so my trip started in the capital, alternating between taking in a silly amount of al pastor tacos, and the city’s rich history. First, because that’s where the country itself finds its beginnings. It is said that the Aztecs were told by their main god that their new city would be founded where they would find an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. And so they created Tenochtitlan, which would later become Mexico City – named after the Mexicas, the Aztec people that founded the nation and its capital.

The 16th century saw the beginning of the Spanish rule in Mexico, following Cortés’ conquest of the country, and much of the splendour of the capital lies in the buildings built in that time by the Spaniards. I got to see the cathedral, the Palacio Nacional, the Museo del Arte, as well as some of the many palaces; huge, impressive buildings that show the importance of Mexico City in the world then and now.

Inside the Post Office

I went next to Puebla, where I also felt that colonial influence, but sprinkled with more colours, and signs of slower life – its El Parian art market, especially, made that link for me. A space of trade growing thanks to tourism, but created and decorated with traditional patterns and colours; and the huge cross in the middle, to remind of the importance of religion in the country.

Streets of Oaxaca

Museo de las Culturas, Oaxaca

Oaxaca, where I went next, felt very different. Its cobbled streets and coloured facades felt more like the ‘traditional’ image of Mexico I’d had in mind – and still with the huge markets and street food stalls. But it also showed us the other side of Mexico that we see less. The troubles. In the state of Oaxaca, teachers’ unions have been fighting educational reforms from the government for a decade, leading to often bloody clashes. The unions argue the reforms would be detrimental to Mexico’s cultural diversity, and endanger indigenous practices – in a state where almost half of the population is of indigenous origin. And even though riots didn’t happen while I was there, they were made to be remembered… Tourism was less welcome there.

‘Tourist, go home – there’s a social war going on here’. One of many graffiti of the sort in Oaxaca

Meanwhile, at Playa del Carmen, tourism was more than welcome. It was needed. The whole city just runs on it; it feels like it exists just for it. Hotel after hotel, bar after bar after restaurant, and if you’re lucky like me and visit just at the right time, crowds of drunken spring breakers exorcising their drunken mistakes by burning up on the beach. Playa del Carmen, as you can tell, did not impress me. As proof, this is the only photo I have from it… from a night in a club in town:

But it’d be naive to overlook the importance of tourism for the Mexican economy, so I think it helped give me a near whole experience of Mexican urban life.

Now, in the next post… We’ll check out Mexican history by way of its ruins!