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Exploring ancient Mexico.

Climbing the pyramids of Mexico can give you a dizzying sense of history. Far from being lost, the civilization that built these monuments still speak to us, influencing modern culture--from our fine arts to the food on our kitchen tables.

Our guide can help you to distinguish those cultures--from Aztec to Zapotec--and decide which sites you'd like to explore. On the next two pages, we map 15 sites selected for their archeological importance, impressive settings, and accessibility by paved roads.

At some ruins, you may see ongoing excavation or restoration. Several lie only an hour's drive from cities or resort areas with attractions of their own. Even at more remote ones, there's often civilized lodging nearby. Villa Arqueologica hotels operated by Club Med are within walking distance of five sites. You'll want to consult a travel agent to help you plan your itinerary and make reservations. Several operators offer group tours that include guided visits to various sites (see page 106). Domestic air faces between the gateways of Mexico City, Merida, and Oaxaca are surprisingly cheap in U.S. dollars.

To be sure, Mexico's economy is struggling, and the peso's value is fluctuating ($1 U.S. netted 380 pesos at our press time), but American visitors are as welcome as ever. In response to reports that raised concern about tourist safety, the government has taken steps to improve security. During recent visits, we felt safe at airports and at the protected archeological sites.

Now, during the dry season, you should see temperate weather around Mexico City. In the mountains, fog and drizzle are possible. Along the Gulf of Mexico, stiff north winds called nortes may blow for a day or so. Pack a warm jacket and rainwear. If you're bound for Yucatan or Palenque, take light clothing suited to the tropics.

We focus on Mesoamerican Mexico. Most authorities now agree that Mesoamerica's first inhabitants were of Asian ancestry--the descendants of migrants who crossed the Bering Strait land bridge between Asia and Alaska during glacial epochs 10,000 to 50,000 years ago. In Mexico, the first villages appeared about 3000 B.C.; the first crude pottery, around 2300 B.C. Here's a regional overview of Mexico's early cultures and where you'll see the best examples of them.

The best base for day trips to Teotihuacan and Tula, the Toltec capital, is Mexico City.

Allow several hours to tour the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Chapultepec Park. Superb artifacts fill halls devoted to all of Mexico's ancient cultures. Exhibits are labeled in Spanish, but you can buy English guidebooks at the museum (closed Mondays), as well as fine copies of small ceramic pieces.

Teotihuacan: glorious rise and sudden fall

While the Roman Empire was falling, Mesoamerica's first metropolis was rising at Teotihuacan. By A.D. 500, the city covered 9 square miles, and the population may have reached 200,000. Computer-assisted mapping has helped archeologists identify 2,200 apartment compounds where many lived.

The wonder of Teotihuacan is not in its size alone, but also in the symmetry and unity of its design and architecture. This was a planned city, laid out along a central north-south axis, the Street of the Dead. Along that street, your eyes are led from temple to temple by the talud-tablero motif. The talud, a sloping base, meets the tablero, a vertical panel--an architectural style adapted throughout Mesoamerica.

Disaster truck around A.D. 600: the city was deliberately wrecked and burned. Some researchers theorize that a combination of factors, including deforestation and overuse of soil, may have weakened the society, making it vulnerable to invading peoples from northern Mexico. The collapse caused a cultural vacuum in central Mexico that wasn't filled for 350 years.

Toltec: bellicose two-century empire

From about A.D. 950 to 1150, the militaristic Toltecs controlled the Valley of Mexico. At Tula, you'll see 15-foot-tall colossi (atlantes) of warriors, which may have served as roof support columns for the Temple of Quetzalcoatl.

In the mid-1100s, the Toltec Empire fell apart, perhaps under attack by nomadic tribes, and Tula was abandoned.

Aztec: sanguinary culture crushed by conquistadors

Between 1325 and 1345, the Aztecs founded their capital of Tenochtitlan on an island in Leke Texcoco (largely drained to build Mexico City). You can see pre-conquest remains of their Great Temple in an hour or two, then take a taxi to the Plaza of the Three Cultures, where the temples of Tlateloco, Tenochtitan's sister city, contrast with a colonial church and high-rises.

A Nahuatl-speaking people, the Aztecs called themselves Mexica (Me-shee-kah). They cultivated chinampas, or swamp gardens, raising beans, squash, and other crops. (Some of these "floating" gardens survive at Xochimilco.) The lake yielded fish and waterfowl. Besides wild game, they are domesticated turkeys adn dogs. Guacamole was a popular side dish, chocolate a luxury beverage.

The Aztecs believed they lived in an age called the Fifth Sun and that it would collapse "when the seed of the earth has ended." To appease the gods and forestasll that end, they conducted perpetual war and sacrifice, offering human blood and hearts to their deities. How many thousands were sacrificed annually remains a subject for debate, as does Aztec cannibalism (human flesh was ritually eaten in a stew).

Razed by Hernan Cortes and his conquistadores in the 1520s, then raided for colonial building blocks, Tenochtitlan disappeared. Now excavated, the Great Temple--with its twin sanctuaries of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli, the gods of water and war--was "a place of glory for the Mexicas and a place of suffering for those under their power," says Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, coordinator of the dig. Walkways through the ruins give you a close-up look.

Nearby outposts of civilization

With the demise of Teotihuacan, the cultural torch passed to Cholula and Xochicalco. Each can be a day-long outing from Mexico City, but both are near state capitals where you can spend an enjoyable night.

Cholula is about a 2-hour drive from Mexico City. Seen from a distance, the site appears to be another hill rising from a church-studded valley. Seen up close, it reveals the layers of its 2,000-year past as neatly as a sliced onion.

Tunnels dug by archeologists in the 1930s lead you right through the Great Pyramid, revealing earlier structures superimposed one atop another. Outside, you'll see architectural styles from Teotihuacan to Aztec.

The town of Cholula is worth investigating, especially for its churches (at least 32 of them. You could spend the night within sight of the pyramid at the Villa Arqueologica, where the restaurant serves French food.

Xochicalco makes a good day outing from Mexico City or a short side trip on the drive from Cuernavaca to Taxco, the silver-crafting town. The site offers a commanding view of the Morelos Valley and silence broken only by the occasional clinking of cowbells. An important ceremonial and trading center from A.D. 700 to 1000, it was a crossroads for travelers from Teotihuacan and the Mayan realms.

Walk around the Temple of the Feathered Serpent: on its sloping talud, carved relief figures almost jump out at you. Eight images of toothy serpents undulate around priests wearing headdresses of quetzal bird feathers.

Down the hill from the temple lies what many believe is Mesoamerica's only underground astronomical observatory. From 11 to 1 daily, you can walk into a cave to reach a chamber where a 2-foot-wide hexagonal shaft runs 20 feet up to daylight. Around the summer solstice, the sun beams straight down the shaft, creating an image on the cave floor.

In Yucatain, meet the mysterious Maya

Based on Merida, Yucatan's colonial capital, or Cancun on the Caribbean coast, you could arrange to vsit at least two sites in as many days. You might spend a night at Chichen Itza, Uxmal, or Coba. After dark at Chichen and Uxmal, recorded sound-and-light shows offer unabashed Mayan-Hollywood melodrama, as well as a chance to see the ruins at night.

One surprise of traveling on the Yucatan Peninsula is seeing living faces that resemble the stone faces on temples (the Maya remain a broad-headed--branchycephalic--people). Their culture flowered from about A.D. 300 until the 800s. Mayadom stretched across Yucatan and south into Honduras.

The first fully literate native Americans, the Maya developed hieroglyphic writing that is still being deciphered, and the Yucatec Mayan-dialect is still spoken. Thir scholars pursued astronomy and mathetmatics, developing a sophisticated calendar and numbering system.

But the Maya are best known for their monumental architecture; two hallmarks are the roof comb and the corbeled arch (see drawings on page 101).

Religion dominated all facets of Mayan life, from solving maize to waging war. At the top of the social pyramid was an elite of nobles. At its base was a common man--in part-time warrior, temple, builder, and farmer.

In the ninth century, the culture began to disintegrate. Possible reasons include revolt, disease, and crop failure, but they're only theories. New finds in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, as well as radiocarbon dating, are providing some answers.

Oaxaca, homeland of the cloud People:

the Zapotecs and Mixtecs

Outings to Monte Alban and Mitla are easily combined on a journey to Oaxaca in Mexico's southern highlands--an hour's flight from Mexico City. Visits to museums and craft shopping can round out a three-day stay; you may want to linger.

Monte Alban seems to float at cloud level on a mountaintop high above the Valley of Oaxaca. This was the ceremonial center for the Zapotec culture. Here you'll find mystifying bas-relief carvings of danzantes everywhere. These nude figures, often in poses that recall dancing or swimming, adorn wall, freestanding stone slabs, even steps.

Bring a flashlight for a look into the underground tombs, first used to inter the Zapotec elite, then reused by the Mixtec culture in the Postclassic Period.

Mitla is an ancient necropolic surrounded by a lively town. The cruciform tombs and palaces are adorned inside and out with stone fretwork in an eye-popping array of geometric designs. Nearby, local Indian women beguile you to buy their yarn dolls and hand-knit garments. Both Zapotec- and Mixtec-speaking peoples continue to enrich the social tapestry of the region.

Farther afield in Mesoamerica

Olmec, the mother culture. Around 1200 B.C. in the humid lowlands along the gulf Coast, the Olmec culture began to emerge. It was not until the 1940s, however, that archeologists began to acknowledged that the Olmec--not the Maya--was the parent civilization of Mexico.

Olmec earth-mound pyramids were the prototypes for ceremonial centers throughout Mesoamerica. And Olmecs, having mastered the art of stone sculpture, carved and then buried colossal heads that continue to puzzle: some appear to have Negroid features, others seem Oriental.

The most famous Olmec site, La Venta, flourished from about 900 to 400 B.C. Today, its eroding mounds are hemmed by homes of oil-field workers, and access is limited; all sculptures have been removed for display elsewhere.

You can see many of them at La Venta Park and Museum in Villahermosa, where 30 sculptures are displayed outdoors in a lush garden. Villahermosa is also a convenient gateway to the spectacular Maya site of Palenque. Nonstop flights go from Mexico City, Merida, and Oaxaca to Villahermosa, where you can rent a car for the 2-hour drive to Palenque.

El Tajin, near Papantla, is off the beaten tourist track but worth the trip. Here, in the steamy coastal foothills, you can empathize with the sweat it took to build the many multiniched structures. Study the exquisite carved panels on the south ball court walls; a detail is shown in a map drawing on page 100.

One strategy is to fly from Mexico City to Veracruz, rent a car there, stop by the Totonac-Aztec ruins at Zempoala en route, then spend the night in Papantla or the rustic resort town of Tecolutla on the Gulf of Mexico.

Going on site

The government's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) charges a modest admission--less than a quarter--to archeological zones. Major sites are fenced and guarded; more remote ones have a resident caretaker. They're open daily, usually 9 to 5 or sunset. If you can, visit early in the morning of late afternoon--best times for photography.

Wear comfortable shoes and a hat, and carry water (bring a canteen). At major sites, you can hire a licensed, English-speaking guide for a small fee. Stay on main trails, and watch where you step and sit; we barely avoided fire ants at Teotihuacan. Do not leave any valuables unattended. And remember: all artifacts are national treasures protected by law.

For a more enriching trip, be prepared with good guidebooks. English-language versions of INAH guides are available at many major sites and at the National Museum. Here's a brief list of titles we've found useful:

The Art and Architecture of Ancient America, by George Kubler (Penguin Books, New York, 1984; $20). Comprehensive, profusely illustrated overview.

The Complete Visitor's Guide to Mesoamerican Ruins, by Joyce Kelly (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1982; $39.50). A good reference, this 527-page book describes and illustrates all of Mexico's major ruins and dozens of lesser ones. Ruins in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are also included.

A Guide to Ancient Mexican Ruins, by C. Bruce Hunter (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1984; $9.95). Major non-Maya ruins are described and illustrated. (Also see the author's A Guide to Ancient Maya Ruins; same publisher, 1984; $9.95.)

Specialized guided tours

Aficionados might want to join a guided group tour led by experts in Mexican archeology or anthropology. These tours allow you to see a number of ruins in a short time. Occasionally, trips are sponsored by Western universities (check with extension divisions) and major museums. These operators have scheduled trips; write or call for brochures:

Discovery Tours, American Museum of Natural History, Central Park W. at 79th St., New York 10024; (212) 873-1440. Archeology Tour to Mexico, January 6 to 30, 1986, visits 13 of the 15 sites listed on pages 100 and 101 (exceptions are Coba and Tulum), plus others. Cost of $2,480 per person (subject to change) includes transport in Mexico, lodging, all meals.

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Membership Office, 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles 90007; (213) 749-3583. Mexico South: Land of the Maya and the Zapotecs, March 10 through 23, 1986. Visits sites in Yucatan, Palenque, and Oaxaca. Cost of $2,159 includes air fare, lodging, most meals.

Nature Expeditions International, Box 11496, Eugene, Ore. 97440; (503) 484-6529. Ancient Mexico Expedition: 16 days, with departures on December 20, 1985, and January 11, February 8, and March 8, 1986. Visits sites around ,Mexico City, Oaxaca, Palenque, and Yucatan. Cost ($1,590 each for 11 to 16 persons, $1,690 for 6 to 10) includes land transport, lodging, most meals.

Smithsonian Associates Travel Program, Capital Gallery, Room 455, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560; (202) 287-3362.

Three 1986 study trips: Valley of Mexico and El Tajin, January 17 through 29, visits ruins around Mexico City, plus Xochicalco and Zempoala. Yucatan Adventure, February 13 through 25, covers all Maya sites named in our report. Zapotec and Maya Mexico, February 27 through March 11, visits Oaxaca, La Venta Park, Palenque, and Uxmal. Each trip costs $1,620 per person (subject to change), including land tranasport, lodging, most meals.
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