February 2018 - August 2021
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  • Day1

    1st Leg of Journey Complete

    February 23, 2018 in the United States ⋅ 🌧 3 °C

    Arrived safely and remarkably early at Newark on Noo Joisey. Three hour layover awaits and then another 4.5 hour flight to Mexico City. The joys of being an international jetsetter. So to pass the time, Nigel and I are nursing a beer each; part refreshment, part anaesthesia! I am time bamboozled but happy and excited.Read more

  • Day2

    A meeting with Frida and Diego

    February 24, 2018 in Mexico ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    Fully satiated with breakfast and with the guide book already consulted, we ventured onto Mexico City's public transport network to visit the Casa Azul - Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera's home, now a museum to both of them and a place we weren't going to be visiting as part of our tour.

    Despite the usual mishaps of almost mistaking the Metrobus for the Metro (which, truth be told is reminiscent of the NY subway in that it's efficient but a bit grotty and not somewhere you'd want to be late at night) and getting slighty lost on the way there, we arrived to find a huge queue. Normally we would have turned around and left but as this is in the Top 5 of the city's attractions, we bore out the 90 minute wait to get inside.

    Once though the turnstile, we entered into Frida and Diego's world. This was the house where she was born, lived and died, although it had been altered when she took full control on the death of her parents. The grounds were an oasis of tropical plants, sculptures and fountains. However, it was on entering the two exhibitions, one permanent and one seasonal, that we discovered Frida as person and artist. I had been aware of her and the style of her work but it was a passing acquaintance.

    The temporary exhibit was a display of her clothes, medical corsets and prostheses. I didn't know that her right leg had been withered by polio at the age of 6 and that she had suffered serious injuries in a bus accident at 18 years old that had required her to have 22 operations in her life. Rather than be bowed or cowed by her disabilities, she turned them into strengths often turning her corsets into works of art. She also adopted indiginous style dress called Tehuana - her mother was half Zapotec. These dresses involved a highly decorative and embroidered top half and a dark, long and flowing skirt. For Frida this dress drew attention away from her disabilities, allowing her to accentuate her positive features and appear taller. She eventually had her leg amputated in 1953 after which she coined her most famous phrase, 'Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly!'

    Frida, the artist, was equally as interesting. She painted in both surreal and magical realist styles that highlighted the real and the absurd in life; the magical and the political. She was a follower of communist theory and actually gave refuge to Trotsky and his wife for two years following his exile from the Soviet Union. There are 3 examples of her work in the photos, ones which I found particularly notable. She also engaged in photography and made commentary of issues important to her by cutting portions of the photos out, sometimes leaving the spaces blank and sometimes transposing bits.

    All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience although I would say go early if you were going or attempt to prebook tickets that, in theory, allow you to jump the queue. That being said, the website seemed to be as abstract as her paintings and those who were queuing in the prebooked line were not moving much faster than us!
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  • Day2

    Local colour in the Place of Coyotes

    February 24, 2018 in Mexico ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    Why the Place of Coyotes, you might ask? Well, the area of the city where the Casa Azul is located is called Coyoacán, which is Aztec for... The Place of Coyotes!

    So on leaving the Kahlo Museum, which incidentally was on London Street, on the advice of a very helpful tourist office guide, we decided to take a stroll down to the Jardin Hidalgo - the local square in the area. The streets are bordered by beautifully preserved neo-colonial buildings, which leant the region a laid back air, and the main street called Allende was thronged with all manner of shops, a market and a panoply of food vendors selling Mexican staples that were being snapped up with alacrity. It seems to me that the Mexicans are always grazing and I felt I should join in. I chose esquites - white corn boiled in stock with herbs and served with mayonnaise, cheese, lime and chilli. Sounds strange and not at all photogenic but absolutely delicious.

    We reached the main square which was teeming with people and families out for their Saturday constitutional and the place felt alive. It seemed that we'd started to discover the real Mexico City. The largest edifice was the basilica dedicated to John The Baptist, which proved the maxim that the Church have all the best buildings and keep the money to themselves. It was richly decorated in places with some fine stained glass but the lack of light and increasingly heavy air lent the place a sombreness that I found oppressive and I was pleased to be out of there.

    The other notable feature of the area, apart from the many bars and restaurants that were well frequented by the locals, was the Coyote fountain, firmly locating the name Coyoacán in the memory.

    A much easier stroll back to the Metro saw the end to our first days adventuring and a well deserved meal of tacos, huaraches, tortas and beer. All in all a fantastic first day in this alluring city.
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  • Day2

    Buenas Dias e Bienvenidos a Mexico City

    February 24, 2018 in Mexico ⋅ ☁️ 19 °C

    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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  • Day3

    Mexicas not Aztecs!

    February 25, 2018 in Mexico ⋅ ☀️ 16 °C

    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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  • Day4

    Teotihuacán - a place of pyramids

    February 26, 2018 in Mexico ⋅ ☀️ 18 °C

    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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  • Day5

    A long drive: Mexico City to Oaxaca City

    February 27, 2018 in Mexico ⋅ ☀️ 15 °C

    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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  • Day6

    Discovering the Zapotecs at Monte Alban

    February 28, 2018 in Mexico ⋅ ☀️ 15 °C

    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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  • Day7

    And we thought the other drive was long!

    March 1, 2018 in Mexico ⋅ 🌙 30 °C

    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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