Monday, October 07, 2013


At Chetumal, on the Mexican side of the border with Belize, I was met by my parents. Although I had seen my father a year ago I hadn't seen my mother in two and a half years ... and well, family is family. So my parents had decided to come out and travel with me for a while, see me and use my services as a tour guide in Mexico. They had already driven down from Mexico City and together we were to drive back up, catching some sights along the way. Of course with a hired car and staying in hotels this was not the sort of travelling I was used to, but I was determined not to let the softness get to me and tried to gently nudge them a little bit towards the edges of their comfort zone.

An advantage of travelling with my parents is that I get to eat far better than I usually do. Here we stopped at a lovely little seafood restaurant on the Caribbean coast in Veracruz.
One advantage of travelling with my parents was the mobility that a hire car gave us, allowing us to visit places that would have taken me significantly longer under my own steam, most notably the magical Mayan ruins of Calakmul. In Mexico Palenque and Chichen Itza are the big Mayan draws, but their ease of accessibility draws throngs of visitors every day of the week regardless of the season. Calakmul, on the other hand, lies close to the Guatemalan border slap bang in the middle of a giant biosphere reserve, reached solely via a 60km, bumpy, potholed access road. You have to want to get there. But if you do, you are royally rewarded with temples, steles and towering pyramids lifting you up above the canopy affording views not just of the treetops, but the spider monkeys swinging through them, the odd flitting jungle birds, and, even more importantly, the bloody mosquitoes don't fly that high. The tranquility from this man-made perch overlooking a vast, unbroken expanse of nature is the ideal place to wax philosophical. The Mayans reached a high degree of technological sophistication, cleared the jungle for miles for agriculture, leading to a population boom, which in turn further necessitated more farmland for the additional people, which ultimately led to a catastrophic change in the climate (jungles are far better at creating rain than fields are) that wiped out the ancient Mayan civilisation. Thank god that we humans learn from our past mistakes...

One of Calakmul's giant pyramids (about 50m tall) peeking through the high jungle canopy.

We hugged the gulf coast curving ever more northwards through the state of Veracruz, where the main road balances along thin spits separating inland lagoons from the Caribbean. My parents had been unlucky with the weather (though not as unlucky as the residents of Acapulco) when they first arrived in Mexico City and had to stay for a few days longer waiting for the tropical storms to abate before they could head south. On this return leg it was impossible to tell that the country had experienced some of its worst storms in living memory, with blue skies, and only the occasional shower, accompanying us along the way.By the time we reached the intriguing ruins of El Tajin though I had had my fill of coastal heat and humidity and was hankering for something more civilised. So our route then took us up to the central plateau, past the giant volcanoes of Orizaba, Itza and Popo(catepetl), the latter still smoking dangerously. Here, in the geographical heart of Mexico, is where most of the population live, where the high altitude provides a more temperate and pleasant climate, not dissimilar to southern Europe. Gone are the humid jungles and sugar-cane plantations of the lowlands, to be replaced by gently rolling fields of maize and pastureland, ringed by the twin branches of the Sierra Madre. This is not only where the Aztecs reigned, but also where the Spaniards preferred to set up shop when they came conquistadoring through. This is where you'll find the jewels of Mexican colonial history.

Mexico's cultural wealth resides not just in archaeological ruins and colonial towns, but in a unique and vibrant folk heritage that has blended Spanish and indigenous flavours to create its own signature dish.

Puebla is Mexico's fourth-largest city. Founded in 1531 in a wide plain it exhibits the classic colonial urban grid pattern, and its historic core is the most extensive in the country. From its majestic cathedral occupying an entire city block, to rows of neat, two-storey colonial buildings, either with brick-tile facades or painted in vivid pastel colours: blue, crimson, yellow. The architectural heritage runs all the way from renaissance, through to baroque and beyond. The many squares and plazas are meeting places for friends, families and lovers, whilst the evening cool brings out mariachi bands like urban crickets. It is here that you find the archetype of Mexican-ness (Mexicanity?). Of course nothing is this idyllic, and many colonial towns are built upon dark historical foundations.

I wish our churches in Europe were this colourful.

The nearby town of Cholula has been engulfed by Puebla's urban sprawl, yet the centre retains its own, distinctive character. Cholula is famous for its abundance of churches, which partly represents the religious fervour of the early Spanish settlers, but also the cultural cataclysm that came with their arrival. Cholula is built upon a once-prosperous pre-Hispanic city of the same name. It was amongst the largest of the Aztec empire and an important religious centre. In an effort to cow the Aztecs of the capital (Mexico City was built on top of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan) Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors slaughtered some 6000 nobles and men of the city. They then set about building a church for every temple they destroyed (there are about 50 in the small town today), including one on a prominent hill in the centre of town. Ironically what the Spaniards, and even possibly the local inhabitants of that time, failed to realise was that it was an overgrown pyramid from a previous civilisation. It wasn't until the late 19th century that archaeologists finally figured out that it was, in fact, a man-made structure. In fact the Cholula pyramid is the second-largest in the world (by volume), only a little behind the Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt. It just goes to show that you never know what you will find when you scratch a little below the surface.

The overgrown Great Pyramid of Cholula with its church plonked on top dominates the town's skyline and can be easily seen from miles around.

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