If you ever go across the sea... to Mayaland (part 1)

| June 25, 2018

For the second year in succession, we found ourselves emerging from a plane just as our body clocks were reaching bedtime. Fortunately we had flown west and instead of being greeted by the dim light of dawn, it was early evening. We only needed to stay awake a few more hours’ to link up with local time, a feat achieved with the assistance of food and a strong drink! The following morning, we were refreshed and raring to go when we set out on our tour of Mexico City.


Normally the mere mention of a museum fills us with dread. However, the National Museum of Anthropology’s Aztec room proved fascinating, informative and a useful background to our visit. I think I can safely conclude that the basic principle of Aztec society was: “When in doubt, sacrifice something.” Here we saw the Ocelotl-Cuauhxicalli – a metre-high jaguar-eagle sculpture – whose sole purpose was to hold the hearts of human sacrificial victims. We saw sculptures of goddesses, ceramics, jewellery, sacred objects, clothing and ancient musical instruments. There was also a temple complex model and the impressive 3.5-metre diameter, 24 ton Sun Stone – sometimes erroneously referred to as the Aztec calendar – whose carvings describe the beginning of the Aztec world and foretell its demise.

Ocelotl-Cuauhxicalli and the Sun Stone

Ocelotl-Cuauhxicalli and the Sun Stone

Built on the site of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma’s palace is the Palacio Nacional – the national palace and now a government building. Here you can see Diego Rivera’s amazing murals of Mexican history. They depict the Aztec empire before the arrival of the Spaniards, the bloody battles of the conquest, independence in 1821 and the revolution in 1910. Rivera was firmly left-wing and unlike other muralists of the time, he spent much of the revolution in Europe. We finished our tour with a visit to the cathedral, a pause to watch indigenous street dancing and a visit to the main square of the city, the zócalo.

Rivera's murals

Rivera's murals

Having thoroughly researched the restaurants before arriving, we booked an evening meal at Pujol, rumoured to be the finest restaurant in Mexico. We were presented with a tasting menu with two compulsory courses and four that we could choose. We made our choices without undue kerfuffle and delegated responsibility for alcohol to the sommelier. All went swimmingly until the compulsory fifth course, at which point things went slightly south. Mole madre, mole nuevo is Chef Enrique Olvera’s signature dish (feel free to make jokes about eating those cuddly creatures who leave piles of earth on our manicured lawns). Pronounced mo-lay, it is basically sophisticated gloop! The dish comprises a circle of freshly made red mole, surrounded by a ring of considerably older mole. In our case, it had been aged for 1,517 days and was extremely tasty. The sommelier’s suggestion was a glass of mescal. If you haven’t tasted it, it’s a combination of poteen, firewater and moonshine, with a kick of all three put together. Eyeballs water and attempt to escape the sockets, whilst the top of the skull tries to contain the volcano raging within! Our joy was compounded when we were given a glass of tequila to accompany dessert…

A Mesoamerican city until 650AD, Teotihuacán was destroyed and abandoned by its estimated 125,000 inhabitants. The site is extensive and arid with the high street ‘Avenue of the Dead’ stretching nearly 2km. There are three main pyramid structures: the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun, which is the third largest pyramid in the world. Inside the Palace of Quetzalpapálotl ­you can see amazing ancient carvings and murals of birds, creatures and deity, including the jaguar god praying to the rain god Tláloc. Given the heat of the day, our guide thoughtfully chauffeured us from one end to the other. Like all major tourist attractions, it had its fair share of budding entrepreneurs flogging souvenirs.

Temple of the Sun

Temple of the Moon

We finished our day with a visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the most visited Catholic church in the Americas. According to legend, a Virgin Mary – named after the Virgin of Guadalupe in Extremadura in Spain – appeared to a Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in 1531 and reportedly appeared a further three times since then. The site includes the Baroque ancient basilica, a modern church and two chapels. The older buildings show their age, no thanks to the city being built on a former lake and that earthquakes aren’t uncommon.

Arriving in Oaxaca, our afternoon was spent on a walking tour of the city. Built in a low-rise, Spanish colonial style, it is well laid out in a grid system and has a rich blend of cultures. We spent some time in the regional museum, whose claim to fame is that it houses the treasures found in Tomb 7 at Monte Albán – Mexico’s answer to Tutankhamun’s tomb. We saw the Santo Domingo church and the cathedral before finishing in the main square. A vibrant hub with vendors, colourfully dressed villagers and plenty of cafes where you can watch the world go by. In the evenings, traditional Mexican mariachi bands play in cafes.

Santo Domingo church

Oaxaca cathedral

The next day we set off for Monte Albán, whose architectural style has been influenced by Teotihuacán and was inhabited by a succession of Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs. Losing its political pre-eminence, it fell into decline and was abandoned by 800AD. Its top was levelled to create a ceremonial site. We wandered the various mounds, platforms and palaces, pausing to examine the carvings known as Los Danzantes ­– the dancers – depicting figures in distorted poses. We saw the outside of Tomb 7, which externally is less than fully prepossessing. Its importance lies in the treasure it held but the public can’t go inside.

Monte Albán

Monte Albán

Next we flew to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the state of Chiapas. We took a boat trip along the Sumidero Canyon; a spectacular place with towering cliffs, waterfalls, caves and unusual plants as well as wildlife. We saw monkeys, crocodiles, herons and turkey buzzards circling overhead. Legend has it that in the 16th century, local Indians hurled themselves from cliffs after a last stand, rather than submit themselves to the invading Spanish forces. 


A spider monkey

Our next destination was the colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas, another town built in Spanish colonial style. The streets are narrow and were designed without the horseless carriage in mind, so a walking tour was the only viable option. We wandered the streets inspecting the architecture and various squares before visiting the village of San Juan Chamula. The village has a high indigenous population who have fascinating ancient rituals and beliefs that are combined with Catholicism. The Church of San Sebastian had the appearance of a normal church but inside all was not as it seems: there was an absence of pews; Catholic saints represented Maya gods; and the floor was covered in pine boughs. Here, the medicine men diagnose medical, psychological or ‘evil eye’ afflictions, prescribing remedies made from flowers, specific coloured and sized candles and even sacrifice live chickens for very serious matters. On our walk around we saw one family doing just that: the bird is kept to feed the family, fulfilling a dual purpose. We then moved on to the village of Zinacantán to see local arts and crafts.

San Juan Chamula

The Church of San Sebastian, San Juan Chamula

You can read part two of Mike and Chris Simm's blog here.

Cox & Kings can organise a tailor-made holiday including Mexico City, Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas, find out more here.

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