Thursday, 11 September 2014

Days 518 to 521: Puebla and Oaxaca.

Our visit to Puebla was just overnight, and so pretty fleeting. A couple of hours south of Mexico City, it was a whole world away from the capital's intensity. With the nation's tallest cathedral at the heart, the city of Puebla had a small town feel, and the streets were lined with quaint colourful buildings.

We could easily have spent another day in Puebla, and I quite fancied visiting nearby Cholula, which has, by some claims, the largest pyramid in the world, at a respectable 55 metres high and an enormous 400 metres by 400 metres wide at the base. It was built by various different societies from as early as 200 BC, with Teotihuacan suspected as having an early role. Every time someone took over the area, they'd build over the pyramid, and it got bigger and bigger. The final owners were the Aztecs, who called it Tlachihualtepetl... yeah, thanks guy. But after the Spanish took over, it was all forgotten about, and apparently today it's not much to look at - it's so overgrown it looks like a hill, and has a 16th Century church built on top. It seems that excavating and restoring the largest pyramid in the world isn't a priority for anyone. I think it has a bunch of tunnels, but the Lonely Planet said they're closed for visitors right now. Anyway, none of this matters as we didn't visit. Five days in Vegas and just one in Puebla - doesn't really feel right.

Oaxaca followed, for two days and nights. Two days and nights in which I never figured out how on earth to pronounce it. Forget about the "x", apparently it's o-a-wa-ca. Well, that's just confusing, isn't it?

In the mould of Puebla, Oaxaca is a thoroughly charming colonial-style small city with a large cathedral in the middle. The central square is a colourful mish-mash of stalls and vendors, covered with plastic canopies to protect against the frequent showers, and entire paths filled with tents where, I guess, the vendors rest and possibly even sleep overnight. Running from it to our hostel was a pedestrianised street, lined with coffeeshops, bookshops, and bars: there was an affluent streak to the city.

Our first afternoon and evening was spent contentedly exploring these areas. The next day it was something a little different - ruins. Mexico is a little like Peru, in that it is stuffed full of ancient ruins from long-dead civilisations. They're scattered all around the country, in various states of excavation and preservation. Oaxaca's star attraction, a World Heritage site since 1987, is a gift from the Zapotecs, now called Monte Alban (named after Damon's uncle). Imagine Machu Picchu crossed with Teotihuacan, micro version, and you've got Monte Alban. An impressive collection of mountaintop ruins, with pyramids, platforms, and temples mostly gathered round a central courtyard area, it was the capital city of the Zapotecs, and anything up to 25,000 people might have once lived in the surrounding hillsides. It was founded around 500 BC but the monumental stuff mostly dates from around 300 to 700 AD. Like most Mexican civilisations, it started to fall apart after around 700 AD for reasons still not fully explained (alien attack seems the only sound theory), and was abandoned by the 10th Century. It's pretty spectacular. After seeing the ruins of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, and nearby Teotihuacan, and knowing what the upcoming Maya stuff will look like, there is a very definite ancient Mexican style, much in the way we can see how Greek architecture informed the Romans, which informed Renaissance and many other European styles today.

Is this guy doing what I think he is?

I'd barely heard of the Zapotecs before, but it seems that they really got stuck in all these years ago. They've also got one of the best names of the ancient Mexicans. Maya sounds a bit soft, Teotihuacan is unnecessarily difficult to pronounce, only Aztec sounds as cool. Civilisations should bear this in mind when naming themselves: you don't want the people of the future to regard you as pansies.

It rained very, very heavily just as we got on the bus to return to Oaxaca, turning the steep streets of the city outskirts into gushing rivers. By now, we're kind of taking this in our stride: every single day we've been in Mexico so far has seen furious rainstorms, although we've been lucky enough to avoid the worst. Danielle seems more peeved about it all than I am - her vision of Mexico was hot and dry, and everywhere we've been has been chilly and wet. The rainy season is partly responsible, as is the high altitude of everywhere we've been, around the 2000 metre mark. The benefit of it all is that it acclimatises us to our return to Scotland in just a couple of weeks. Danielle does not see it this way - she wants to return with a tan.

For our final day, we took a tour. I've long been wary of tours, as I don't like being at the whim of the bus and the guide. At the same time, they can be a much more convenient way of seeing a bunch of things. This tour was of three things: a big tree, a carpet maker, and the ancient Zapotec ruins of Mitla. I think you can guess which part of the tour appealed to me. It turned out to be a reasonably intense experience. Danielle and I were the only two people on the tour, and so we had the full attentions of the guide, a lady in her mid-to-late 50s, local, but with a peculiar Germanic accent (Danielle says her Spanish also had a Germanic twang), and some wild tales. These mostly seemed to focus on her adventures as a teenager in Britain, in the 1970s I guess, and touring about the country in an illegally driven car and stowing away on boats, including peeling potatoes in a boat destined for Dublin (the boat was turned back because it was full of illegal immigrants, and I guess rather a lot of peeled potatoes). It didn't help at all that most of this was regaled while in the minibus along bumpy roads, and so I could barely hear what she was saying. By the end of it all, Danielle turned to me and said "Do you think any of that was true?" I simply have no idea.

When not talking about her youthful adventures, as a guide she was merely average. Too often, she went onto automatic mode, as if the "play" button had been pressed on her latest block of heavily-accented words. This means I didn't learn a lot except that this:

is a very big tree, maybe the biggest in the world, and is about 1500 years old. And this:

is how they make mescal, with a bunch of cacti and traditional techniques. Mescal is pretty nice, it's kind of the Mexican whisky, and while the unaged stuff is pretty toxic, the aged stuff is good. I bought a bottle of the 8-year-old for further investigation.

We went to some place where the make carpets with traditional techniques. The carpet maker took over and for the first time in my life, I actually found it slightly interesting. I'm afraid that carpet weaving just isn't my thing, and traditional techniques don't oil my boat either, but for a brief moment during the explanation I thought to myself, "This isn't too bad." Perhaps it was because our guide had disappeared.

Finally, the reason I'd gone on the tour - Mitla.

From what I could gather from the guide: Zapotec, the Spanish took over it and reused most of the stone to build a church and generally tricked and robbed the Zapotecs, one part of the complex was kept intact because a Spanish guy lived there, and she used to play there as a child. I didn't understand the rest. From Wikipedia, I gather that Mitla was the religious centre of the Zapotecs (Monte Alban was the political centre). There would have been a small city surrounding the surviving ruins, and it long-outlived Monte Alban, and was going strong right up until 1521, when the Spanish rolled in and decided it was time for all Mexican civilisation to end. They took down a lot of Mitla to build the small church you can see above. Overall, the site is interesting rather than spectacular, and the intricate stonework - unique in Mexican civilisation - is the main selling point for tourists.

That night we were in for a treat: the overnight bus from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas. But not just any overnight bus, it was our last overnight bus. After overnight buses in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay-to-Brazil, Greece-to-Turkey, America and Canada, this was to be our last one. Danielle insists her last one ever. Even before I got on, I started getting nostalgic for all our overnight buses, and wondering too if my days on overnight buses are also over. But then I remembered that I also hate overnight buses, and that I will be delighted never to have to get on another overnight bus as long as I live.

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