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.