Elliot Sydney

Joined March 2017Living in: London, United Kingdom
  • Day11

    A relatively late start of 8.00 by current standards saw us set off for our first meeting with the Maya, the last of the historical cultures that we were due to meet during this trip. This is because, from this point forwards, all of the archaeological sites we will visit will be Mayan. Actually, the Mayans are still very much in evidence in the modern world and live throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.

    A short drive from Palenque, the town, had us to the gate of Palenque, the ancient city state. I should perhaps explain. Each archaeological site we have visited was a state in its own right, with its own rulers, elite, workers and slaves. Although there were alliances with other states, they were more often in conflict with each other; particularly the differing Mayan cities.

    Palenque is one of the biggest of the Mayan sites and was ruled over in its prime by Pakal II, who we've met a couple of times already. The site is imposing and magnificent in its scale. The first three buildings you come across on entering are three pyramid-like building - The Temple of the Skulls, The Temple of The Red Queen and the Temple of The Inscriptions, although they're not technically pyramids. The Temple of the Skulls is named so due to the very detailed carvings of Skulls at the base of the columns supporting the roof. Unfortunately, this is closed off to the public so a zoom in on a camera is the only way to see them.

    The Red Queen's temple housed the tomb and sarcophagus of one of Pakal's wives. It is called this as the inside of the sarcophagus and the Queen's bones were painted red. It appears that Royalty were buried with their finery and then, at a much later date, they were removed, their bones painted red and reburied with everything replaced as it was originally found. The Queen's tomb was open for exploration and was suitably grand and eerie at the same time considering I was standing in the burial place of someone who lived almost 1500 years ago.

    This theory was further proved they found the intact tomb of Pakal deep within the Temple of The Inscriptions, as it was undisturbed since antiquity. The biggest of all the pyramidal structures in Palenque, it was given that name by the first western explorers to the site in the mid to late 1800s who saw the intricate Mayan glyphs inscribed at the top. It wasn't until 1952 that a Mexican archaeologist named Alberto Ruz discovered the hidden entrance and painstakingly excavated the site step by step until he reached the tomb secreted beneath the base of the structure itself. There he found the undisturbed tomb with all of the artefacts inside and Pakal' s red painted skeleton.

    It's interesting that if you've ever heard of rumours of Aztecs or Mayans being aliens or meeting aliens, it comes from the lid of Pakal's sarcophagus. Intricately carved, it depicts the ruler with the gods of the underworld beneath him. According to Mayan funeral rites, he would have had to pass the through the 9 levels of the underworld, each with its attendant god, before being able to be reborn. Then, from his abdomen grows the tree of life that signifies his rebirth. Viewed straight on, it is very clear that this is the depiction. However, viewed side on, you could interpret it that Pakal is piloting a strange shaped rocket sitting atop a motorbike!

    Unfortunately, again, we were not able to see the inscriptions or the tomb due to the fact that the structure is built of soft limestone that is subject to wear. A more disturbing reason is the carelessness of tourists who have touched and sometimes graffitied the place over the years. I don't really understand the actions of a mindless few who have no real regard for history and the preservation of treasures. I suppose It is the same mentality in selfie culture where people are more interested in having a picture of themselves in front of something rather than having any regard for the place itself, what it represents and what treasures, literally and metaphorically, lie inside. Nevertheless, it was still a wonderful site to behold as the numerous pictures I took from different angles and viewpoints will attest.

    The next complex we saw offered plenty of opportunity for clambering and exploration: The Royal Palace and Observatory - which is the tower in the picture. The palace contains detailed stelae and carvings, particularly one showing Pakal being 'crowned' and advised by his mother. He doesn't look too happy in it but they assume it meant to represent the seriousness and fortitude shown by the young man in becoming ruler. Another amazing set of carvings showed the capture of rival Mayans as slaves. Being an hierarchical society, high born captives would be prize possessions and would be kept as slaves as demonstrations of power and principle. It appears from all current research that once captured and held in another's state, the rival leader would submit without struggle to the will of the victor. This may have been a political move to save the lives of his retinue as the Mayans practiced human sacrifice but a lot of it is still guess work as they are still attempting to decipher and translate the glyphs.

    We climbed, entered and explored every monument in the site that we could, including another ball game court that again proved the importance of this sport/ritual across North and Central America during a period of almost 1000 years.

    An appetite and thirst duly worked up, we stopped off for lunch and a drink before heading off to our chance to swim in a waterfall. However, our lunch was disturbed by an awfully loud squawking from outside. On further investigation, 3 beautifully coloured red Parrots were having a right old time in the trees outside the restaurant. I would have posted a picture of them but my phone camera doesn't do them any justice so I'm hoping that Nigel's spiffy DLSR has captured their beauty.

    Clambering back aboard our trusty bus, we took the short drive to the Misol Ha waterfall. Having got all hot and sweaty from the morning's explorations, I was itching to get into the clear water. However, I couldn't believe that only Nigel wanted to join me in the pool. This is because Anna, our guide, had convinced everyone else that it was cold. Nothing was further from the truth! It was cooling on this hot sunny day but I'm guessing it was warmer than your average swimming pool back home. Truth be told, on seeing Nigel and I enjoying ourselves in the water, another of our party Sue, a game old lady of around 70, decided to join us for a swim. She actually thanked us later as she was so glad that she hadn't missed out on the experience because she wouldn't have gone in without us! I actually had envisaged swimming under the drop of the waterfall but as I swam near, I could feel the force of the water and its undertow so I skirted its full force but caught the periphery of its spray.

    Suitably refreshed, we headed back to our hotel where the pull of more time in the water, this time in the hotel pool, proved irresistible as did the nice cold beer. Another trip to last night's restaurant beckoned as it was a 2 minute walk from the hotel. I feasted on Pork in Adobo Sauce, more beer & tequila and a version of Crepes Suzette that was prepared theatrically at the table side by a skilled water and which was pimped up by the addition of nutella and home made ice cream. I am hoping that this proves to be the sustenance needed for another early start tomorrow morning as we head off to the last place we'll visit in Mexico and a stay in a riverside lodge. Night all. Hic!
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  • Day10

    To be honest, there's very little I can say about today as it involved a 9 hour drive from San Cristóbal De Las Casas to Palenque. A couple of highlights were the shrimp farms dotted along one of the rivers and some of the more interesting topography of Chiapas state.

    We stopped for a fairly miserable lunch at a Mexican chain restaurant called VIPS. You know it's miserable when you wished you had the foresight to use the pedestrian bridge and cross the road to visit either the McDonald's or the KFC located on the other side!

    After leaving at 8:00, we reached our hotel in Palenque around 17:00 and, I have to say, it proved a pleasant surprise. A 4* hotel with comfortable rooms, all mod cons and a well stocked bar, we forewent a splash in the pool for a quick rest before dinner.

    A group meal followed at a well rated local restaurant, where I had a local specialty called Arrecherazo - grilled steak with bacon, onions, peppers and cheese. It was pretty tasty, especially with the contents wrapped up in a corn tortilla with a freshly roasted spicy habanero sauce.

    Suitably satiated and reinforced by a Margarita and a beer, I retired to bed happy, full but tired ready for our day's exploration of the Mayan site of Palenque tomorrow. Think I'll sleep well tonight.
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  • Day9

    Our free day started with a hearty breakfast Mexican-style for me - Chili Relleno (stuffed chilli), Frijoles y Salsicha (Black bean and sausage stew) and Tamales con Pollo en Mole (steamed corn meal parcels stuffed with Chicken in a Mole sauce). Filling and just what I needed for our day's exploring.

    With no set agenda, we walked through the town. We visited the Jade Museum, where the history of Jade use in Mexican culture and ceremony was explained. We were also told of how it is obtained, the different colours and how it is used in antiquity and in modern jewellery. Within were an impressive set of replicas of important artefacts, particularly the death mask of the Mayan ruler, Pakal II, lord of the large city state at Palenque, which we will be visiting in a couple of days. Purchasing opportunities were offered but politely declined.

    After a bit of souvenir/present shopping, we stopped off at a really lovely cafe where they blend and roast their own coffee. Such was its quality, we had to buy some from their shop to bring home.

    We then headed to the local craft market to have a gander. There was an array of native clothing, jewellery in amber and jade, wooden souvenirs and other tchotchkes to be purchased. We didn't, as I really couldn't find anything I really felt like bringing home.

    This brought on more thirst, both for drink and knowledge, so we headed to Kakaw, the Chocolate Museum. Once again, we learnt of the history of chocolate, its use throughout Mexican prehistory up to the current day, how it is grown, produced and made into the food we recognise. This time we did decide to sample the product and I had traditional Xocolatl - hot chocolate made with water, 70% cocoa chocolate and a touch of sugar. It took a while to get used to the thin consistency and lack of fat and binders that are usually in hot chocolate but it was a delicious, thirst quenching and deeply satisfying drink.

    After consulting our guidebook and with a nod given to our tour guide who suggested visiting the local food market used by the inhabitants of San Cristòbal, we traversed the town once again and found the Mercado Municupal. An Aladdin's cave of culinary treasures, homewares, clothes and bikes to name just a few, I managed to secure my 3rd purchase of dried chillies, Chile Ancho, to add to the Chipotles and Guajillos that I bought in Oaxaca Market. The array of fresh produce, both familiar and unfamiliar, was astounding and the pride in which they were displayed was almost humbling.

    During our explorations of this labyrinthine place, we stumbled across the covered part of the market where they sold the meat, poultry and fish. What was remarkable about the place was the lack of smell. Nothing was malodorous, rotten or putrid. Everything was spankingly fresh. The fish were still stiff, the meat & sausages were clean and appetizing, and the poultry, I suspect, was freshly prepared. I understand that this may be some people's idea of the 7th circle of hell but to a devout foodie like me, I couldn't help but be mightily impressed and wish that there were affordable, high quality markets with Class A produce like this in the UK. Maybe we'd understand more about food, its value and provenance if we had to shop like this.

    Weary and walked out, we headed back to the hotel. After a short rest, we met up with some of our group to go to a restaurant serving traditional Mexican cuisine called, La Lupe. It has been my aim during this holiday so far to try and eat only proper Mexican food and keep it as local and tradition as possible. This restaurant didn't disappoint with fresh flavours, classic dishes, properly spicy sauces and a fantastic Margherita cocktail.

    We had planned to go to the Revolution bar for a couple of drinks and to listen to some live Latin music but the food, alcohol, walking and travelling finally took their toll and we retired early, ready for another long drive to Palenque tomorrow.
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  • Day8

    Well, we left Chiapa Do Corzo this morning much as we found it i.e. totally untouched and unexplored, It literally was an overnight stop, although we did learn why the state is called Chiapas. It means the 'Place where Chia Grows.' So those of you who have the trendy chia seeds on their breakfasts and in their smoothies, this is the place they come from. Nevertheless, it did serve one purpose in that it is the gateway town to our first stop and adventure of the day - the Sumidero Canyon

    Originally a wide canyon with the Rio Grijalva, a raging torrent of a river carving its way through it, since the building of a dam further upriver in 1981 it has calmed down and is perfectly suited to being explored by speedboat. So this is what we did.

    A natural haven to local fauna and flora, our expert captain guided us up to the Gate of the Canyon (the three cliffs in the first picure that have now become the emblem of Chiapas State). Once these had been broached, we entered the Canyon properly and the native wildlife introduced themselves to us. Firstly was vulture beach where the small Black Vultures go to rest and dry off. We were told that they are essential to the area as they deal with all the carrion in the Canyon and keep it clean.

    We were venturing further downstream when we suddenly veered off as our eagle eyed captain spotted another inhabitant of the river - a crocodile. It was a big one and knew it was being watched a filmed. It hung around for about a minute, long enough for pictures to be taken and then with a flick of its tail, glided off into the depths of the river.

    Off we set again so that the captain could introduce us to the Canyon's celebrities, two Spider Monkeys called Panchito and Alondra. Pictured is Panchito, the male, having a relax in a tree and taking it all in his own time. They both know they're famous and turn out time and again to entertain the tourists.

    We also spotted grey herons, white herons and even a night heron. We were also hoping to see pelicans but they proved elusive.

    After a good couple of hours speeding up and down the river, we stopped for a quick and early lunch, and then boarded our trusty bus for the journey to San Juan Chamula. This was a very strange and mysterious place. Firstly, on arrival, there is a huge sign outlining what you can and cannot do in the village, the main one being that you can't take photographs particularly of the inhabitants as they believe it steals their souls. The main reason for visiting, however, was to see the Templo San Juan dedicated to St John the Baptist who the locals revere above old Jesus himself. And this is where it get interesting. They have rejected traditional Catholicism and have come up with their own mix of Christianity, mysticism and indigenous Shamanism. They do allow photos of the outside but the inside is fiercely protected, so the white building is the Templo.

    On entering, the first thing to notice is that the floor is tiled and covered with dried pine needles. This means it is as slippery as anything to start with before you get used to it. The walls are festooned with cabinets featuring creepy (in my opinion) models of all the important saints but Jesus was only to be found in a couple on the right hand side of the building. There is no priest and no real main cross laden altar. The worshippers come in, find a space near the saint they want to pray to and clear a space on the floor. They then add to the space a number of thin candles, both tall and short, which they then light and start chanting. The chant is possibly in the local language or possibly speaking in tongues and, apparently it can go on for hours although while we were there it seemed that when the candles go out, the time is up.

    As we were leaving, men dressed in white headscarves, wearing a sleeveless jerkin made of white wool, white shirts, 3/4 length white trousers and special ceremonial sandals entered followed by women dressed in black shawls carrying large open cauldrons/censers burning a heavily scented local wood called Copal. Our guide informed us that the men were the local village police force and that it was a special ceremony. They party advanced a bit, stopped, chanted for a bit and then moved on. This was repeated twice more before we left, so we guessed they had a very important prayer as they were edging towards the sort of altar at the back wall.
    It was all very strange but hugely atmospheric and absolutely fascinating if a little bonkers.

    Our last stop for the day was San Cristóbal De Las Casas, where our hotel was and where we'll be staying for 2 nights. Our orientation walk revealed to us a lovely town, slightly akin to Oaxaca City, but unlike OC it felt both touristy and local at the same time. Unfortunately, we can't see inside any of the notable buildings as there had been a strong earthquake in the region in September 2017, and they are currently being repaired and restored after some extensive damage.

    We had a group dinner in a local restaurant where I got a touch of the Pox... Fear not, no illness here, but Pox (pronounced Posh) is a local sugar cane based spirit brewed locally. I can't say it tasted of much but at around 60% alcohol, you certainly had a warm feeling as it headed down. Dinner was another local dish of a mixed meat platter called Parradilla - a generous mix of beef, chicken, pork, chorizo, pineapple and potato, all grilled and served on a hot plate. We shared it amongst 4 of us but only needed to order a two person portion, such was the size of it.

    After dinner, the a group of us headed to a local bar where we consumed a couple of buckets full of a bottled oscura (dark) beer and listened to the latest R&B and dance hits in both English and Spanish. We all rolled back to the hotel happy, full and merry,, looking forward to our free day in the town where we can explore and shop to our hearts delight. Happy days!
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  • Day7

    Today was just a touch brutal, metaphorically speaking. We were up at 4.00 to leave at 5.00 to cover the large distance between Oaxaca City and our next destination, Chiapa Do Corzo in Chiapas State.

    50 minutes after leaving, we pulled up at our first stop of the day - El Árbol de Tule. This is the largest tree in the world with a trunk measuring some 14m in diameter. It's not as tall as the Sherman sequoia in the US bit it's huge. At least, I think it was as it was hard to see in the pitch black with only a few street lights to illuminate the spectacle! I think the picture gives some idea of its scale but there you go.

    Clambering aboard our bus in the cool dawn air, we set off for our next archaeological site, the Zapotec centre of Mitla. Much like Monte Alban, this was built on a hill and was a place of Royal life and ceremony, including human sacrifice and the offering of human hearts to the gods. However, it was much more compact and intact than the previous site. This was due to it being reinhabited by the Mixtecs and their allegiance with the Spanish. Furthermore, this was the first site where they found tombs, which we duly explored although they were small.

    The most remarkable thing about Mitla were the wall frieses that are all original and over 2000 years old. The geometric patterns represent various gods and also the Zapotec belief in the circle of life, death and rebirth.

    It took about an hour all told to explore the entirety of the site and so at about 10:00, we boarded the bus and there we stayed, barring comfort breaks, until we reached Chiapa Do Corzo at 20:00!! That's right, 15 hours since we left Oaxaca City!

    The journey was pretty tortuous. The bus wound its way up and down mountain roads for the vast majority of the journey with only the last 3 or 4 hours on a straight road known as 'La Ventosa' or the windy one. Chiapas State, due to its positioning in the country, is buffeted by winds and, therefore, the Mexicans have taken advantage of this and built wind farms all along this stretch of the terrain. To be honest, I lost track of time on the coach so we could have been on La Ventosa 30 minutes, 4 hours or 5 years for all I knew! To compound the misery of 15 hours on the bus, I chose to sit on the wrong side meaning that the sun beat down on me for most of the journey. I didn't realise this due to the A.C. on the coach but now i know why I was feeling so ill at ease! I got pretty fed up with listening to music too so there was little relief from the monotony because I'm totally incapable of reading on a bus without projectile vomiting everywhere after about 10 minutes!

    As you can imagine, I was tired and emotional by the end of the journey. A limp tuna salad and a beer at the hotel did little to alleviate my ennui, so I will retire to bed hoping for better things tomorrow!
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  • Day6

    Our next meeting with indigenous cultures was at Monte Alban, just outside and above Oaxaca City. It was built high above to city to give it as much protection as possible as Monte Alban was a royal palace and sacred site of the Zapotec people who inhabited the place from about 500 B.C to about 700 A.D. when their civilisation fell or moved on. It fell into ruin for 200 years or so until another people, the Mixtecs moved in around 950 A.D. and there they remained until the arrival of the Spanish in 1521. The Mixtecs added nothing to the structures but did reuse some of the tombs for their own burials and this is some of the treasure that has been found. Unlike other native cultures, the Mixtec civilisation was allowed to continue as they allied themselves with the Spanish to help defeat other indigenous cultures, particularly the Mexicas of Mexico Tenochtitlan.

    The Place is on a fantastic scale. Unlike Teotihuacán, it doesn't have pyramids rather large platforms for the elite to look out over the site. It was a place of ceremony, conquest, sacrifice and royal life. It contains the ruins of a royal palace, a large public court to hold the dignitaries and officials, and a building they believe to be an observatory due to its east/west positioning.

    In the far right corner is a section that is now called the Gallery of the Dancers and Swimmers. The archaeologists who originally found the stones and frieses thought the figures carved on them were dancing or swimming. However, if you take more than a passing glance at them, you'll see what is actually happening. These are conquered warriors who have been ritually castrated before being sacrificed or left to die. The dancers are the castrated warriors and the swimmers are the dying ones. I know I'd be hopping around if I'd been castrated. Poor souls.

    We also saw a Royal ball court where the forerunner to football was played. As I mentioned in a previous post, this was less of a game and more a ceremonial rite of passage to decide who had the honour of being offered to the gods. Played with a 4kg solid rubber ball covered in leather, it was hit with the elbows, hips and feet to play the game. The rules are not known and there are variations of the shape, size and function of the court. Some have rings and targets, some not.

    The site also has a very instructive museum made even more interesting by our guide, Anna. This shows the customs and histories of the Zapotec people. What was even more interesting is that both the Zapotec and Mixtec languages are still spoken today and not just by a minority.

    On our return, we were given a free afternoon and urged to go then Museum of Oaxacan Cultures housed in the former monastery next to the Basilica of Santo Domingo we visited yesterday. Being that it was a former monastery, it was a warren of small rooms or cells that documented the area's people, formation and growth from prehistory to the current day. It had a lot of information on the Zapotecs as well as artefacts. Unfortunately, there were no descriptions in English so I had to do my best with my rudimentary Spanish. Nevertheless, I was particularly taken with the representation of a rat god in one of the showcases. Once the exhibit moved on to the post Hispanic period, they got very Christ-y and my interest waned. I'd still recommend a visit as it is a haven of quiet and relative cool from the bustle of the city.

    It also has an impressive botanical gardens surrounding it containing a huge variety of cacti, local plants and agave. It was closed to the public today but you did get a great view from many of the openings and courts of the museum.

    We then finished our day with the most wonderful meal at a restaurant called Los Danzantes. I won't go into any detail here as I've posted it on Instagram and FB but I thought I'd just post the picture just in case.

    We head off from Oaxaca tomorrow to reach a town calle Chiapa Do Corzo in a completely different state. We've been told to expect a long journey so we're not going to make it a late one.
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  • Day5

    After having a traditional Mexican breakfast of Huevos Rancheros, we boarded our coach for the long journey to Oaxaca City. The drive would take us through the Central Mexican Sierra Madre but there was no treasure or bandits to be found.

    Our first stop en route gave us a view of two of Mexico's volcanos- the famous Popocatépetl and its sister, Iztaccíhuatl. In the picture, the mountain with the snow covered peak is Iztaccíhuatl and to its left is Popocatépetl. Iztaccíhuatl is inactive, hence the snow but Popo was sending a regular stream of smoke into the sky as it is very active at present.

    Pictures duly taken, we set off up, down and along winding roads that gave fabulous views of mountains, canyons and valleys peppered with a variety of different cacti and native Oaxacan agave plants used to make Mezcal.

    On finally reaching Oaxaca City, we thought our travels for the day were over but it took over an hour more to get to our hotel due to an impromptu road blockade caused by a spur of the moment political demonstration. Apparently, it happens quite frequently in this part of the world. Thanks to the skill of our driver, Alfredo, and some very close shaves with lampposts, we decamped in our rather lovely hotel and went on a tour of the town.

    Walking through the zocalo first, we then came upon the Templo de Santo Domingo, a most impressive building and ornately decorated inside. Once the home of Dominican monks, they are particularly venerated in Oaxaca as they tried to protect the indigenous population from the excesses of the Spanish Conquistadors. Nevertheless, the wealth inside is in stark contrast with the poverty outside the town but I'll get off my soapbox. Actually, it is rarely used with the dowdy and unwelcoming Cathedral on the zocalo the main church of the city.

    We then headed to the main market, Mercado Juarez, stopping off for a quick snack of Chapulines Picantes : Spicy Grasshoppers. I would have posted pictures of them but I subjected you all to my insect eating exploits in Cambodia so I thought I'd spare you this time. The market is the main destination for all sorts of things- food, clothes, Oaxacan specialties and even pets. A couple of presents duly purchased, we headed to our restaurant, the Casa de Abuela - Grandma's House. Nigel and I tasted our first tequila of the holiday and feasted on a traditional meal of Chicken Empanada with Mole Amarillo and a mixed Tlayuda. The Tlayuda is a large thin tortilla that is made crisp by toasting it on a hotplate called a comal. It was then covered in refried beans, pork fat, salad, avocado and thin slices of spiced beef. Part tortilla, part poppadom and part pizza, it was delicious and filling.

    Bed now beckons so we can restart our archealogical adventures tomorrow. Loving it so much.
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  • Day4

    Today's explorations started with a trip to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadelupe. Without going into too much detail, this was an apparition of the Virgin Mary who appeared to a Mexican country worker called Juan Diego. The Virgin took 4 attempts, the last being a miracle, for Juan Diego to convince the local cardinal of the veracity of the encounter. As a result, there has been a church on this site since the 1500s. To be honest, I was fed up with the 'Catholic' side of this trip already but I have included a picture of the latest Cathedral, built in 1976, just due to the scale of the architecture.

    Thankfully, the church visit was relatively short and we could make our way to the site of Teotihuacán, which translates as 'The Place Where Men Become Gods'

    The Teotihuacán civilisation existed from around 400 B.C. to 700 A.D. approximately and the scale of the site was immense. There are two main pyramids in the complex, the smaller, steeper Pyramid of The Moon and the larger Pyramid of the Sun. They know this as the site was built from North to South but the Sun Pyramid faces East to West.

    The Moon Pyramid was constructed for the royal class to venerate the two main gods in their pantheon - Quetzalcoatl: the god of creation and Tlaloc: the rain god. 'And how did they do this?', you may ask. By the aforementioned human sacrifice, discussed yesterday. The chosen one would have considered it a huge honour to offer himself to the gods. He then would have a serpent applied to his body so that its venom would act as pain relief and the priests (for want of a better word), themselves high on ayahuasca, peyoté or similar to render themselves insensate to the enormity of what they were doing, would remove the offering's heart from under his ribcage and offer it bleeding to the gods by placing it in a special receptacle. The size of the receptacle dictated how many hearts were needed to fill it and therefore satisfy the gods.

    Apart from the Pyramids, there were also living quarters for the elite and there were still some original decorative steleae with their natural colouring intact.

    Of course, being as there were pyramids and thatwe were still allowed to climb them, we both did that, with the Moon Pyramid being around 400m tall and the Sun Pyramid 600m tall. The smaller one afforded great views of the ceremonial courtyard and the walkway known as The Avenue of The Dead. This long path was believed by the first people who visited the site after it was abandoned by the Teotihuacans, likely to have been the Mexicas some 600 years later, as the place where men would turn into gods and ascend to their celestial home - hence the name of the city.

    The Sun Pyramid offered breathtaking views of the whole site and the plateau on which it sits. It was pretty breathless as well as there were an awful lot of steep stair to ascend to its summit. The 26°C midday sun didn't help much either but I'm not complainingbeing as it's snowing in London. It was a fantastic proper introduction to an early pre-classic period, pre-hispanic civilisation.

    We returned to Mexico City for a free afternoon, where we took in some of the sites we hadn't seen including the inside of the Grand Opera House, a sculpture garden based on the art of Salvador Dali and a ride up to the viewing platform of the Torre Latinoamericano, which is just under 600ft tall. I would have posted pictures of the views but they weren't that great as the weather had closed in on the valley that holds Mexico City and you couldn't see very far!

    Tomorrow holds an 8 hour coach journey from Mexico City to Oaxaca City, so an early night beckons.
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  • Day3

    Mexicas not Aztecs!

    February 25 in Mexico

    Today was the first day proper of our tour and learnt two very important things straight of the bay. Firstly, the original name of Mexico City was Mexico Tenochtitlan in the Nauhatl language (pronounced Mesheeco Tenochticlan). It is built on a lake and was founded there by the indigenous Mexica people when they saw an eagle standing on a cactus with a serpent in its mouth. They took this as a sign from their head god Quetzalcoatl that this was where it should be. I say Mexica people not Aztecs as they no longer use the term Aztec. It was coined as previously they believed that the indigenous people came from Aztlán in the North West of the country but this has since been disproved. Therefore, Mexicas not Aztecs from now on.

    After a short walk through the local district, we arrived at the Centro Historico and the centre of that, the Zocalo or main square. The first and most important thing to note that this square was the centre of Mexico Tenochtitlan and everything built upon it now is on the ruins of the original city, which was destroyed following the conclusion of the Spanish Conquest in 1521.

    The first building we came across was the Metropolitan Cathedral. An impressive looking building built in two main sections from 1573 to 1813, it was built on the ruins of the first Church erected soon after the destruction of the Mexica city.

    Next was the Palacio Nacional, the home but not residence of the Mexican President. After negotiating the tight security due to the his huge unpopularity, we entered. A grand building yes but relatively unremarkable apart from one thing - the 10 Diego River Murals painted on the 1st Floor of its inner court. The plan was for Rivera to cover the walls with murals but he only completed the 10 due to other work commitments and his failing health. Nevertheless, the work is outstanding showing scenes from indigenous Mexican life whilst taking broad potshots at the rich, the clergy and the Conquistadors. The most remarkable is the biggestslam, which covers the whole wall of the staircase and is titled, 'Mexico Through The Ages.' It depicts major figures and events from Mexican history with an almost satirical eye and a Marxist viewpoint, as Rivera was an avowed communist. Our guide, Anna, said it would take almost a day to describe all the people and events depicted on it, such is its scale, but she did a fine job in 20 mins.

    Apart from a brief viewing of the Cathedral, where I was of the opinion that you've seen one church, you've seen most of them, our final place to visit in the Zocalo was the Templo Mayor, the ruined remains of the first Mexica pyramid and square, which survived Cortes' destruction. This was a place used for veneration of the gods, particularly Quetzalcoatl, and where human sacrifices were made to their honour. We didn't have time to view the whole site and museum but the impressive architecture was all there to see and the spent statues (in the 3rd picture) still had some of their original colouration.

    The reason for the lack of time was that we had a date at Mexico City's number 1 tourist attraction, the National Museum of Anthropolgy. Following an amusing ride on the city's public transport system, both bus and metro, we reached the hall detailing the pre-historic (not as in dinosaurs) and classic proofs of Mexican history. There we learnt about all the archealogical sites, the range of people living at them (which included Mexicas, Zapotecs, Toltecs, Teotihuacans and Mayans) and their customs. The vast majority of them practiced human sacrifice and it was considered the highest honour to be sacrificed and your heart offered to the gods. One way of deciding this was a ball game played on a specially designed court where it was the winners not losers who would be the offering - suffice to say Arsenal have no worries about losing their hearts!

    We also witnessed a very famous ancient stone that was once known as the Aztec Calendar and was used very recently by some nutso group to predict the apocalypse was going to happen in 2012. In fact, it was nothing of the sort and has been given its proper name now, The Stone of the Sun. It tells the story of how our current sun is the 5th one to have existed, how sacrifice should be made to it and other references to gods. It does have calendar elements but that was not it's main function. It's an impressive piece of work and I felt very privileged to have seen the original.

    Our tour ended there and we headed back to the centre for a meal back at the tacqueria we had visited the day before, as it is Anna's favourite. As we had such a good meal the night before, Nigel and I certainly weren't complaining.

    Full, tired, replete with our first encounters with Mexican history but happy, we retired early so we could face our trip to the Pyramids of Teotihuacán tomorrow with gusto.
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  • Day2

    Having arrived at our hotel at 23:30 local time, which equates to 05:30 UK time meaning we had been awake for 24 hours, I was far too tired to update the final leg of our journey on here last night. So we start today!

    A strangely good night's sleep followed and thus we woke fresh and hungry both for food and to start exploring the city on our free day. After consulting the internet, we decided to have our first meal at a Mexico City institution, Restaurante Él Cardenal, which is famed for its weekend brunches.

    Striding tentatively out onto the streets, the first most surprising thing was how quiet the it all was considering it is the largest and most populous city in the world. The restaurant disproved this notion. It was heaving with all of the great, good and those inbetween (i.e. us!) However, it was worth the wait and the food was fantastic. A cup of coffee or chocolate with a sweet bread is the traditional way to start the meal and who were we to buck tradition?! There then followed an omelette with local beef sausage for Nigel and Enchilladas Michocoanas for me - a regional speciality of corn tortillas stuffed with chicken, topped with a guajillo chilli sauce and topped with sweet onion, lettuce, radishes and cheese. Delicioso!
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