This morning I sadly left Thomas in bed and walked around to the hotel where the rest of the tour group were staying. We had an early start (supposedly at 6.45am but the bus driver was very late) to drive to the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan. It was about a 45 minute drive through the rush hour traffic, luckily against the flow, to reach the site where we met with our local tour guide, Ricardo.
He took us around the ancient temples, telling us about the indigenous culture, demonstrating the natural acoustics that occur when clapping or speaking towards the pyramids (it is not an echo but the sound of the Guatemalan quetzal bird), explaining the significance of the carvings on the stone and the thirteen month year.
All the pyramids are solid inside and are built in accordance with the position of the sun and the moon at the equinoxes. The shape of the two main ones reflect the shape of the mountains behind them.
We climbed up the two main pyramids, the Pyramid of the Sun, which is apparently for men, and the Pyramid of the Moon, which strengthens the spiritual energy in women. The view was wonderful from the top, although we couldn’t climb the whole of the Pyramid of the Moon as it had been closed because of graffiti. Prior to 1968, the temples had been completely open to anybody, with the result that some of the carvings had been removed. Since then, they have been restored and protected. There were surprisingly few tourists at the site.
After this, we were taken down the road and were shown the uses of the agave plant, which, apart from being used to make alcohol, was also used for writing paper and for needle and thread. Obsidian objects were much in evidence as only the local indigenous people had the right to extract it.
We had a tasting of a variety of drinks, including tequila, mescal and pulque, made from the prickly pear, agave and cactus plants before driving to Ricardo’s home in San Sebastian for lunch. This was excellent with lamb, pork and chicken served with the usual sauces but including mole which apparently takes 3 days and 100 ingredients to make!
We were initially welcomed by Ricardo’s uncle and had to crawl into a very small igloo shaped building, through which a small hole in the roof allowed the sun to come through. It was a place of healing and re-building energy. The people here are extremely spiritual.
The village was currently celebrating the festival of San Sebastian and there were fire crackers going off throughout our visit, both to the ruins and during lunch.
After lunch, it was another 2 hour drive to Puebla, the City of Angels, where we checked into the hotel and immediately went out for the walk to the Zocolo (or main square). Most of us then decided to take the open top bus tour around the city, which lasted for about an hour and a half, by which time it was getting dark. The tour was, of course, in Spanish so I am none the wiser about the city’s history, but it certainly gave me a feel of the place. After a coffee, we had a wander around the now wonderfully lit square and, as we went into the cathedral for a quick look, were treated to some beautiful organ music.
Then it was back to the room. All the younger members of the group went into town so it was only the old ladies that stayed at the hotel!
After a ‘delectable’ breakfast of 2 slices of toast resembling fried bread and a cup of coffee, I went for a quick walk into Puebla before our 4 1/2 hour bus trip to Oaxaca (pronounced wha-ha-ka.)
We passed through some very variegated landscapes during the day. To start with, it was fairly flat with a reasonable amount of horticulture on land that had obviously been irrigated. There seemed to be a number of small holders still using horses or donkeys to plough, which surprised me as, in a lot of ways, Mexico is very advanced. There was also considerable haze over the countryside, as usual. This could be a result of stubble burning, of which there is plenty, or it could just be haze/pollution and it makes me realise how spoilt we are in N.Z. in that we still have such lovely clear days.
We then passed through some very dramatic scenery, high in the mountains with very dry soil and cactuses that are now of the very tall and straight variety. The cactuses do seem to change in different parts of the country. Once we were on the plateau, the terrain became very sandy and extremely dry looking. One wonders how people can live in such conditions.
There were a number of road works along the excellent roads and each time we stopped there was someone there selling some dubious looking snacks (definitely not the healthy and good varieties!) Lastly, as we approached Oaxaca, the landscape became softer and there were a lot of trees, many of which had autumn colours, although I thought it was winter here!
We stopped once along the way, beside a toll booth and had tamales for lunch. I was quite ready for this as it seemed a long time since the tasty toast we had had at breakfast. We have travelled along a lot of toll roads throughout the trip and the highways are usually very fast. The speed limit is supposed to be 110 kph but I don’t think that the drivers adhere to this restriction and have a tendency to race along. There are also a lot of police in evidence, some of whom wear balaclavas to hide their faces. These apparently are the drug police.
Once we arrived in Oaxaca, we left our bags at the hotel and went out to sample things. First stop was the market and a taste of fried grasshoppers (not as bad as you might think), cheese (a bit like mozzarella and quite salty), pure mole (chocolate, chilli and sugar) and a huge number of different mescals, the first of which was taken in the traditional way, i.e. sculled and then followed by sucking on an orange coated in worm salt (and no, we weren’t told what this was before we ate it – quite disgusting!), and all sorts of cream based mescal that in the end made me feel quite sick. Our last stop was at a chocolate factory, where we sampled cocoa bean paste without sugar (yuck), with sugar (much better), chocolate and milk shake. And all this at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I had to come back to the hotel for rest and recuperation before dinner after that!
Dinner was across the road in a restaurant that was a bit like a covered courtyard. Cocktails were 2 for 50 pesos so more than one margaritas were consumed. I then joined some of the younger members of the group at a bar around the corner where we were entertained by one of the boys, who was very merry, chatting up a Mexican lady on the next table and a band who played the trumpets at a decibel or two on the high side. A good time was had by all!
I had a good breakfast at a cafe around the corner – revueltos eggs (which is not revolting, but scrambled) and refried beans, which were a lot more palatable than some I have tried. We then all went in a minibus with our guide, Suzanne, to Mount Alban, which is a Zapotec site dating back to 500 BC or thereabouts. It is situated on a hill about 15 minutes drive from Oaxaca in a very strategic position overlooking the town of Oaxaca and the Y shaped valley below.
There are a number of pyramids around the main plaza. These are all flat topped and would have had a temple above them. (There weren’t actually pyramid shape.) The Zapotecs were similar to the Aztecs and Mayans in that they also built over other edifices, with the effect that there were buildings within buildings.
Everything would have been covered in stucco and painted red and other bright colours. (Very little evidence of this remains.) There were also tunnels within some of the temples so that people could go between them unseen.
When the site was discovered, it was completely overgrown. Some of the early archaeologists used dynamite to break into the pyramid in their search for the treasures that they expected to find within. However, no treasures were discovered and one or two of the original temples were completely destroyed by the dynamite.
There is not very much known about the Zapotecs and their way of life. There are differing interpretations of the hieroglyphics and it is thought that they would have made human sacrifices. As it was considered to be an honour to be a sacrifice to the sun, those sacrificed could possibly have been the winners of the ball game. This game involved a leather ball weighing 5 – 8 kg, which they hit back and forth with various parts of their bodies. There must have been quite a few bruises at the end of the game!
The site is on 3 levels and it depended on where in the social hierarchy you were placed as to where you were allowed to venture. The general populace were permitted in the central square, the lords and ladies on the next level and the top level was the preserve of the king and his family.
We had to make a bit of a diversion on the way back to town, as there was a fairly major traffic jam, possibly because of the teachers’ protest in the Zocolo, (apparently the teachers are always striking) so we didn’t get back to the hotel until about 1pm. We then had a free afternoon, prior to catching the overnight but to San Cristobal which left at 8pm.
I wandered around on my own and had a look at the Basilica in the Zocolo and the church of Santa Domingo, the latter being very ornate and far more like the Catholic churches I have seen in Europe.
I also had yet another mystery lunch after going into a restaurant where there was no menu. The waitress rattled off a list of things and I just said “I’ll have that”. It turned out to be a plate of rice followed by a green soup, which may have been spinach, that also had a large meat bone in the middle of the dish, some sort of marrow and green beans. It was all very tasty and at last, I had some vegetables today!
I did a bit of people watching in the Zocolo and got a torta in the market before wandering back to the hotel. We all had to meet at 6.45pm and be ready to get in to taxis for the trip to the bus station. Once there, it was just like an airline and after we had checked in our bags, we sat in the VIP room and watched Spanish TV.
The bus left promptly at 8pm and we were all handed bags with water and ear phones (for the TV) as we got on. I found that it conveniently fitted my ipad so was able to listen to music for a while before trying to sleep.
A very gentle day today after taking the overnight bus last night. We arrived at about 7am in San Cristobal, having had a bit of sleep on the bus. Luckily, we were able to get straight into our hotel room, which was quite a bonus. It is a lovely, very quaint place with rooms situated round a central courtyard or two. (It is a bit of a rabbit warren!)
We went straight out for a short orientation tour and then had breakfast all together. It was a very gloomy day when we arrived and quite cold but it soon warmed up. There are two churches at opposite ends of the town. You can walk up to see both the churches and the views. I did one after breakfast and the other this afternoon. The sum total of my effort for the day! After the walk, I went back to the room, had a shower and off loaded my clothes at the laundry to be picked up at 5.30 pm.
I pottered around for a while and then went out again with another group member and walked up to the other church. We had a coffee and wandered round the town before coming back to the room and sitting outside on the verandah in the sun, reading and using the internet. The only remaining “chore’ was to pick up the laundry and then have dinner. It is such a hard life!
San Cristobal is a delightful town of the colonial era and we are here for three nights so there is plenty of time to wander and have a bit of rest and relaxation. A lot of the buildings are painted in bright colours, and cafes and ‘artisan’ shops abound. It is famous, apparently, for its amber, jade and silver. ‘Hippies’ are also much in evidence here. I thought this was a bygone era!
Becky (the tour leader) led us to a restaurant that did very good tostados. We rounded off the day at a cafe in the main street where most of us had hot chocolate, whilst we listened to a guitarist singing in English (although he couldn’t speak the language), and decided which of the street kids was going to be given a custard tart that Becky had purchased for the purpose. (A hard decision that had specific criteria attached!)
We woke up to a beautiful morning and I went for an early walk up to the church on the hill with my two current room mates, Becky and Barbara.
On the way back, we stopped for breakfast at a cafe that specialised in coffee, although we didn’t realise how specialised it was until we sat down. The menu was full of coffees we had never heard of and Becky had one called Dancing Cappuchino, which turned out to be cold coffee with hot milk on the top, and mine was a French something or other which required a major performance at the table to make! The scrambled eggs were good as well so all in all, it was a very successful and unexpected start to the day.
We went back to the hotel and then Becky and I went off to the market and had a wonderful time wandering around as I encouraged her to shop.
She was very obliging and came back with lots of stuff. I, however, was extremely restrained and just bought a couple of pieces of jade jewellery and a table cloth (as if I really need another one of those!) We had fun bargaining though. (Actually, Becky did the bargaining, as I am hopeless.)
After this, we went to the Plaza to go to one of the banks as Becky had some notes that had small rips in them and the shop keepers won’t take them in that condition. However, there were queues a mile long at all the banks, not only for the ATMs but also the bank itself, so we gave up on that. She will have to do an early morning visit to avoid the queues. Queuing at banks, shops and cafes seem to be quite common here as I have noticed this a number of times before. There must be very limited space in the buildings or something. As an alternative, we sat in the Plaza and people watched for a while before returning to the hotel to rest our legs temporarily.
Then it was out for a bit more wandering, this time with Barbara and two other group members. We aimed for the ‘sweet’ market, which had a few stalls selling cakes, biscuits and other sweets. I managed to force down a pastry ‘horn’ filled with egg custard (delicious) and then Helen and I carried on wandering whilst the others went back to the hotel. I bought a bottle of Chilean wine, the first I have had on the trip so far, and we enjoyed this in the room before going out to dinner.
Dinner was at a steak restaurant that had an ‘all you can eat’ salad bar, amongst other things. I made the mistake of deciding to have the meat and salad option rather than choosing off the menu. This included 5 steaks (yes, 5, and, no, I couldn’t eat them all so the starving dogs outside benefited). This was the first time we had really had food that wasn’t Mexican, which goes against the grain, but those vegetables were so delicious….!
After dinner, we went to a bar where half the group tried a Mayan Sacrifice. This was about 5 shots of varying liqueurs and tequila, to which cinnamon was added and then it was set on fire. For some reason, the waiter than had to shake the drinker’s head from side to side (made the drink go down better or something!). No, I didn’t try one (in case you were wondering.)
We went out for breakfast up the road before we went out on our trip today. The breakfasts have always been very good in the cafes, although, I have to say, the hotels have been a bit disappointing. There are always eggs of one sort or another and today I had an excellent omelette and fresh fruit.
We all met down in the Zocola and went for a trip out to two Chiapan villages, called Chamula and Zinacanton. Our guide, Cesar, was very good at explaining the different approaches to the culture that both villages had, although he definitely took an anti-religious and very political stance.
The first one we went to was Chamula, which maintains its independence from the Mexican Government, as well as the Vatican, so is totally self governing and not amenable to any interference in their community life from outside. Our introduction to the village was a very aggressive old lady who didn’t think we had given her enough money for taking her photo. This rather set the tone for the visit to that particular village.
We started off at the cemetery, where all the graves had pine branches on them. These are apparently changed in October/November. They certainly looked very dead today. The crosses were of different colours, according to whether they were adults or children.
Following on from this, we walked into the village and went to the church. This was nothing like I had ever seen before. There were pine branches on the floor and candles burning everywhere ( a veritable fire hazard!). The culture is descended from the Mayans and the current beliefs are a mix of Mayan and Christianity.
The Priest comes to baptise children, which is the only Sacrament that is permitted. Otherwise, Shamans heal people using chickens (which are sacrificed in the church) and eggs to determine what is ailing the person. They believe that the soul leaves the body when a trauma or accident occurs and it needs to be reunited with the body. Once the Shaman has determined the cause of the illness, the ritual with the chicken is performed and the person then stays in their room for 9 days (if it is a serious trauma), after which the bones of the now dead and eaten chicken are buried at the site of the trauma.
Apart from the religious aspect, they also practice their own jurisdiction. If a man has committed rape or murder, the neighbours beat and kill him. Any other misdemeanour is punished by a day or two in the prison followed by community service. There are police men around, wearing sheepskin uniforms (black in the winter and white in the summer) so they are easy to spot.
The next stop was at the house of one of the Shamans. They apparently move from place to place, staying a year in each one. We had to pass through an archway of leaves to go into the house where we were shown various items that were used in the healing rituals performed by these people. Apparently, Shamans are born, not chosen, and various signs, such as having 6 fingers or 6 toes, depict whether you are a Shaman.
We had time to wander around and look at the handicrafts and town before going on to the next village. In Chamula, wool was primarily used for handicrafts and clothing and many of the women were wearing heavy black woollen skirts. I felt quite uncomfortable whilst we were there and was quite pleased to move on to Zinacantan.
This village also had a combination of Mayan and Christian beliefs but the church was far more conventional. There were flowers on all the altars as if there had been a festival. There was also dancing (if you can call it that – more of a shuffle) going on outside the church. Interestingly, it was only the men that seemed to be involved with the celebrations. The band was quite loud and they also added firecrackers (home made) to the mix. We visited a family home where they wove handicrafts, predominantly from cotton in this village. Needless to say they were for sale! We were then invited into the kitchen where the lady of the house cooked tortillas for us over an open fire and which we had with ground pumpkin seeds.
Back at the hotel we sat talking on the veranda for a while before going out for a walk. Becky and I had dinner at a small cafe, served by a most delightful older lady, who I presume was the cook. She asked us which piece of the chicken we wanted by pointing to her breast, thigh and leg! It was delicious when it came with basil sauce and mashed potato. I had a creme caramel flan to follow and Becky had chocolate mousse. A very successful venture – with very little Spanish/English!
After that, we went back to the hotel with a bottle of wine, having stopped at a jewellery shop or two where I encouraged Becky to spend a bit more!