Pretty old stones

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Mexico has a wealth of ruins – be they Aztec, Maya, Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec or ‘eck! I’ve forgotten the others. Vital stop-offs on the backpacker tour, their current native population is generally made up of guys hawking masks and jewellery or kids hidden behind ancient palisades smoking spliffs. They all cost, for some inexplicable reason, 51.00 pesos to enter, and they’re scattered with little information points whose descriptions belie an absolute mastery of the art of saying nothing at all in lots of words. There’s usually a Spanish bit, an English bit and a local language bit, and they give us such insight as: ‘it appears that mound Q formed a central part in pre-hispanic ritual’ or ‘archaeologists have uncovered significant evidence that people lived here’. There’s a sense of real remove from these places, of a loss of knowledge.

But they still inspire. The hilltop city of Monte Albán, a Zapotec site perched high above the sprawl of Oaxaca, was founded over 2,000 years ago. Its mountain was levelled off by a people without metal tools. They built temples and palaces, observatories and an I-shaped ‘pelota’ field for playing ‘the ball game’. Today, the remains of these structures are scattered around a huge, grassy square where the clouds float enourmously overhead. It’s a world away from the buzz of the city, a majestic site to contemplate the brown hills to the south and the sky overhead. It feels like an in-between place on the ladder to another world. As can be seen at the site of Teotihuacan near Mexico City, here we have bases of wide stairways, with parts sloping and a parts straight, decorated with the recurring pattern of half-squares forming a snake-like motif around the edifice. These high steps, which call for a bit of a puff in each ascension often reach to empty bases, with weeds, where temples would have been. On some bases there are lines of huge half-pillars, which the European mind is apt to reconstruct in a classical pediment, though you doubt that was the case. One of the hardest thing to get your head round, especially in the atmosphere of peace, is that a lot of these places were covered top to bottom in red stucco. Some of this survives.

Monte Albán‘s symetery is interrupted quite dramatically by a tower of stone at the southern end of the square whose bow-like front points off at 45 degrees to the cloud forests. Positioned to watch the constellation of Orion in the night sky, apparently. Around the base of this observatory are deftly carved images of decorated warrior heads, upside-down: a shout of triumph for conquered cities.

It’s a magic place, and I reckon it’d be superb to do a stealth camp here and see the sun rise beside the South Platform.



Yesterday I went to see another Zapotec-Mixtec site from a lot later, about 200-300 years before the Spanish conquest (1519). Mitla is on the valley floor, built of lighter, sandier stone. It features some high-priests’ palaces and ceremonial plazas, decorated in beautiful bands of carved pattern representing the sky, the earth and the worshipped feathered serpent. These sharp walls of design sort of took me back to Southern Spain and the Islamic tiles of Al-Andaluz in their mystery. Well, Mitla would have been concurrent with the Alhambra and Al-Zahira but I don’t think any exchange took place!

Some of these sunken plazas are in a pretty sorry state and have been heavily ransacked. It’s amazing to see the domes of the towns’ Church of St Paul rising from in and around the palace rubble, above the crumbling mosiac and the almost-gone codex pictures in red, built of destruction. I went inside the church and felt a bit angry at the hanging Christ and the vast, empty white ceiling. A couple of boys were doing some work in a back corner. When I went over, they mumbled something about 20 pesos for  children against drugs and one pulled a grubby ID card out of his sweater. I gave them the money and they gave me a packet of biscuits, before stalking away round the back of the church. Outside, other boys were smoking among the cacti. More like the drug-fund, I thought.

On the front side of one of the best-preserved parts, the Patio of Mosiacs, is a carved stone warning against looting and graffiti, crimes against the nation, dating from 1902. It’s a message from a guy called Leopoldo Bartres who was the big archeological cheese of his time. I imagine him as a kind of French Indiana Jones though it appears he was actually Mexican (have to verify that). Either way, his name has a habit of popping up at these ruins. He seems to have been on pretty good terms with Porfirio Diaz, the ruthless moderniser who brought Mexico kicking and screaming (literally) into the 20th Century. This was the tyrant who brought the railway to Oaxaca and with it a new idea of time, a closeness to central government. It seems he was bit of a Francophile, introudcing Napoleonic-style military uniform. He actually died in exile in Paris in 1915. The Franco-Mexican links don’t end there: for some reason there’s a disproportionate amount of French travellers here; this week I have met some lovely people from Carcasonne, Reims, Bordeaux, Lyon. Aside from the above historical links and an ailing economy, I can’t quite work out what’s bringing them all here … Answers on a postcard please.




^ Mr General Porfiro Diaz: probably not a person you’d have wanted to have a coffee with


^ priestly patterns at Mitla



And some other sights from Oxaca last week:

^ afternoon on Calle Alcalá, a big tourist street with lots of craft shops


^ Restaurants called comedores inside the 20th November market


^ Buying local chocolate in the 20th November market


^ Fried crickets, anyone?: chapulines for sale in the central market


^ fruit seller outside the Mercado Central


^ Here I am sharing a collectivo taxi with a great family from Queretaro, over the bumpy track up to Hierve El Agua


^ the beautiful lines of a petrified waterfall at the remote town of Hierve El Agua, high in the valleys



I’m off eastwards to the Chiapas region, and San Cristóbal de las Casas on the 1st-class bus tonight (there wasn’t a 2nd-class option, otherwise I’d have been straight in there). I believe it’s a up in the mountains, on the edge of where the jungle starts. So expect some deep green pictures soon. And more stones.

* have added a couple of pics to the Central Valleys bit below.


Hiking in the Central Valleys


Just got back to the hostel in Oaxaca after my trek through the Pueblos Mancommunados and their vast reaches of high-altitude forest. With dense groves of pine, oak, aile (eagle-wood?) and madroño almost seeming to froth over the nebulous hills, it’s about as far from a sterotypical Mexican landscape of pronged cacti and scrub as you might get. In fact, as I camped out at a remote little pine-fringed clearing on my first night, it felt like being back by the American Pacific – perhaps in some little misty wood cabin town of fisherman and pick-up trucks. For the afternoon, I had the company of a couple of local trout-farmers who busied around a wooden shack and a few fenced-off ponds as I dozed. Jesus brought me a barbecued fish, enchipotlada, with lime and tomatoes as an early dinner. A delicious meal out there in the crisp air – though he then tried to charge me 80 pesos for said fish! As a gringo going about my crazy walking around the hills for the fun of it, and as part of a pretty steady stream of visitors to the area through the Expediciones de Sierra Norte ecotourism project, I was definitely fair game for a con or two. Jesus giggled, then slung his bag over his shoulder and set off for the village, leaving me alone with a scraggly dog with a bleeding neck and the last of the afternoon’s sun, there in that woodcutter’s idyll. Soon enough a total dark came on, and imaginary pumas lurking on the edges of the field. Good old Lonely Planet had informed me that all seven of Mexico’s recognised wildcats called the Sierra Norte home. Great! I managed to get a fire going after a bit of effort, by heaping huge amounts of pine needles onto some half-dry twigs.

Walking from the town of Cuajimoloyas via Benito Juarez and La Neveria to the lower, northerly villages of Latuvi and Amatlan I was able to see the enormous harvest of the area.  Everywhere there were maize fields cut out of the woodlands, in the valley depths and sliding around the hills in squares and triangles. Most were just flocks of brown stalks, drooping like burnt paper, the husks having recently been picked to make tortillas, tamales, elote. At least for the first day, the trail was framed by maguey plants, whose spiky fins are used in the making of tequila and its sister, mezcal. The strange sillhouettes of quiote trees with their curved branches and bright-red bulbs of fruit waited next to the more familiar shapes of pine. At La Neveria, there were large beds of watercress (berro) sitting in flooded paddies; that night I had some for dinner in my tortitas.  At the lower and warmer reaches, more fruit. Huge watermelon-like spheres called chilacoyota hung from tree branches. Oranges, apples, peaches and avocados were growing around Latuvi and Amatlan. Beans, too, I established – talking to my succession of local guides. Black beans certainly featured heavily at  the village comedores where I got some meals.

I was required to have a guide for each stage of the walk, something carefully enforced by the office in Oxaca and each of the prim-looking tourism offices in the villages. Their faux-log facades and newly tiled terraces certainly stood out from most of the other buildings of breeze block and corrigated iron – as did the tourist cabañas. Ferried from one enclave to the next with a succession of different people and their walkie-talkies, I did come to feel a strange sensation of being a kind of  prisoner to ecotourism. That, or jealously-guarded gringo gold. My second guide, Giovanni, said he was twenty years old, which I doubted.  He skipped up and down the trail occasionaly taking a sip of Coke from a bottle in his backpack, telling me about the Benito Juarez basketball team. Basket and bandas, I made out, were the hobbies of the Sierra Norte mountain youth.

Other guides recited little bits about the trees, the birds or the stone walls we passed. Alfredo was the oldest and my favourite. He was a mine of information about all the forest flowers and the tangle of shrubbery. He pointed out the madroño with it’s shedding, deep-red bark like the outer layer of a peanut. He showed me some of the distinctive features of these pine-oak forests, like the bromelias hanging in the trees and the musgo, a kind of lichen which dangled and swayed all over the place, like angel hair on christmas trees, ghostly curtains reaching almost to the ground which spoke of some tropical passage.

Alvino huffed and puffed, he’d certainly had his fair share of tortillas. He told me about other mountains – seeing the snow-capped Rockies in ’92, when he was working in a Chinese restaurant in Montana. Getting into the USA used to be much easier, twenty years ago. Now you have to pay a coyote thousands of dollars just to arrange a very tricky hike across the desert. More money to cross at a more populous point. Why would anyone want to leave these peaceful, plentiful hills, I thought.

The town of Santa Martha Latuvi was perched high above a lush river valley where buzzards sailed noiselessly, turning left and right with little flicks, showing the black and white diagonals on their bellys. Small, hand-painted boards stood at the edges of the gravel tracks, informing things in scrawled imperatives. Plan a family. A smaller family works better. Recycle- divide your rubbish into organic and non-organic. Make sure you’re up to date with your vaccinations . go to a health centre. Don’t tolerate violence against women.

I had a great breakfast at a little comedor in Cuajimoloyas on my first morning – servings of black beans, a soft local cheese in tomato sauce, chopped green beans with egg, and some meaty paste called picadillo. Served with a big, warm maize tortilla and a helping of bread – an offering for the tourists, I think. Washed down with bowls of watery, sugary coffee which was just great after a night in a cold tent. Walking around town, I saw numerous rounds of that local cheese strung up in the tiendas (shops, but really more like houses with a Pepsi poster on an outside wall). I asked Alvino, “what is the name of this cheese?”. “Cheese” he replied, with a blank look.



^ about to set off for Latuvi with Alfredo


^ street in the village of  Latuvi


^ hilltop cemetary, Latuvi


^ view south from near the Yaa Cuetzi lookout, Cuajimoloyas