Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Country Review: Mexico

Dates there: 2nd to 19th, 22nd to 29th September 2014: 26 days

Mexico's WondersTeotihuacan, Palenque, Chichen Itza

Also visitedMonte AlbanPuebla Cathedral, Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, Templo Mayor

On the Longlist: Uxmal, Great Pyramid of Cholula, Calakmul, Mayapan, Yaxchilan, Becan, 

Hernan Cortes... it's fair to say he changed Mexico a little. He arrived in what we now call Mexico in 1519, aged 34. Four-hundred-and-ninety-five years later, aged 35, I did the same. Happily I caused somewhat less of a ruckus than old Hernan, who brought about the near total collapse of not just one civilisation but many, all jostling for space on the continent. I just drank beers, ate tacos, and looked at some ruins. Hernan caused the ruins (well, some of them).

Danielle and I had been looking forward to Mexico, and for good reason: it's fantastic. Modern day Mexico can be traced to Cortes appearing on the scene, pretending to be a God and whipping up the locals in to a frenzy before killing them, converting them to Christianity, and forming New Spain (which later split into Mexico and parts of Central America and the Caribbean). As a result, the country is full of delightful colonial buildings - some decrepit, some colourful, most both - and awesomely imposing Spanish-style cathedrals. The people speak Spanish, worship a religion from the Middle East, and the nation largely resembles an alternative version of the Iberian Peninsula. Post-conquest Mexico is modern-day Mexico, the Mexico that you or I will participate in. But lest you mistake it as a mere offshoot of Spain, as New Zealand or Australia might be regarded as an offshoot of the UK, just scratch the surface. Because Mexico has history. Not just any old normal history, but truly epic history, packed full of great civilisations and empires, ambitious rulers, mighty cities and large-scale construction. And that is the stuff that Wonders are made from.

Teotihuacan is probably the most sublime example of all. Just a handful of miles from Mexico City, it rests majestically, a 2000-year-old city set to a grid plan, packed with an alien mystery and the vague sensation of something sinister. Retrospective names such as "the Avenue of the Dead," "the Pyramid of the Sun," and "the Pyramid of the Moon" added to this sense of awesome. At 5th on my list at the time of writing, this has a real chance at being one of my Wonders of the World.

Back in Mexico City, where we spent an enjoyable week. It's a bit of a mess to be honest, but a diverting mess. We stuck mostly to the city centre, where the grand stuff is. It's all falling to pieces, and many of the old buildings are subsiding and are worryingly wonky, but it's still a spectacle. Of all these, the cathedral is the grandest, and most obvious, centrepiece.

It happens to be near the Templo Mayor, once the main temple of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, but now a mere archaeological site. Incidentally, although I don't condone the erasing of entire cultures, I'm very relived Tenochtitlan is now called Mexico City, because who on earth knows how to pronounce Tenochtitlan?

From Mexico City to the much more petite Puebla. It's got it's own cathedral - the tallest in all of Mexico, apparently. Hmm, very nice, I suppose.

A treat was in store for us after that (or for me, as I'm the one who likes all these ruins): Monte Alban. Sitting atop a hill just next to the appealing city of Oaxaca, it is an impressive spectacle built by one of Mexico's best named civilisations: the Zapotecs.

Nearby Oaxaca is another major feat of construction, although this one I didn't have time to visit. It's the Great Pyramid of Cholula, and it just so happens to be the largest pyramid of all time. Oh wait, there's more: the largest single structure ever built by mankind. That's no mean boast. It's not the tallest, but in terms of overall volume, it's number one. If you put every building ever built on a scale, it would outweigh even the Great Pyramid of Giza. In that sense, therefore, it could call itself the Greatest Pyramid. Personally, I'd call it the Big Boy of Cholula, as I think that has a nice ring. Alas, for all its boasts about bulk, it doesn't appear to be a very visual spectacle, as it's almost entirely covered by vegetation these days. So much so that a church was built on top of it in the 16th Century, as the Spanish had no idea it was a pyramid. They thought it was a hill. Being mistaken for a hill is not, in my opinion, a ringing endorsement for a pyramid. It was only in the 19th Century that people figured out that it was man made, being built from the 3rd to the 9th Centuries, then slowly abandoned after that.

After a jaunt in San Cristobal de las Casas, an attractive colonial town high in the hills, it was time for some more ruins, and a heavyweight this time: Palenque. I was looking forward to Palenque and didn't disappoint. This is just one of many Classic Era Maya sites scattered all around southern Mexico and Central America, and contains temples, ballcourts, a palace complex, and the strangest sounding monkeys I've ever heard.

We left Mexico briefly, to pop into Guatemala to see some more Maya ruins in the form of Tikal, but soon returned to Mexico - for some more Maya ruins. Chichen Itza is definitely the most famous of all the Maya sites, and arguably one of the most famous ruins in the world. Its main temple, El Castillo, is the posterboy, and is a genuinely compelling construction. I'd been a little cautious about Chichen Itza before visiting, thinking it might be overhyped, especially after having visited Palenque and Tikal, but it didn't disappoint.

And then it was off to the holiday-skyscraper-hotel-hell of Cancun, and back home - a finish to our travels! Ah, but if only we'd had more time, if only... I could easily have spent a month or two more in Mexico, visiting all of the following, all courtesy of our Maya friends. And although we can't blame Cortes on the decline of the Maya - they'd petered out centuries before he arrived - I just wonder what else Mexico and its highly productive indigenous people might have built, and what other civilisations they might have formed had Europe not stormed in and changed everything.

The following are all Maya, but are really just the tip of a gigantic stone iceberg of lost cities and temples, Maya or otherwise.


Calakmul (check it out, looks amazing).



Honestly Spain, honestly Europe, you couldn't have been content with just trading with the Americans?

1 comment:

  1. If you haven't seen it already, try to track down the documentary "The Last Aztec" by novelist DBC Pierre. It's about Cortes and the Aztecs and, even though I saw it years ago, has really stuck in my mind.


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