Tag Archives: archeology

Oaxaca’s Monte Alban Archeological Site Key to Zapotec Civilization

The UNESCO World Heritage archeological site of Monte Alban never ceases to capture and hold my attention. I go there every time I host visitors to Oaxaca and each time there is something new that I notice or an area that is recently restored. MonteAlban

The Spanish conquerors named Monte Alban, or white mountain, because the hill was in bloom with white flowering trees when they arrived.  This week, the sky was nearly flawless blue with outstanding big, white cloud formations. I don’t remember a more beautiful, breathtaking day here.

MonteAlban-8The best way to enter the site is to begin on the north platform, the highest place. After you go through the ticket turn-style make a right turn and continue up the hill.  The path isn’t well-marked, but the trail is well-traveled, so you will figure it out.  Even though it looks daunting, be sure to climb the pyramids.

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Otherwise, you will miss the most stunning views.  On the main level of the platform you will see carved stones depicting men captured in war. Called Los Danzantes, or dancers, these are replicas. The originals are in the museum on site and in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.

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Summer in Oaxaca is very temperate and GREEN.  Now,  the rainy season that brings torrents of water is almost over, and so we may get a late afternoon or evening shower, which is lovely, and tends to cools things off — a perfect temperature for sleeping.

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By the time we arrived at Monte Alban, it was almost ten-thirty in the morning, and the sun was already strong. Our guide extraordinaire, Rene Cabrera Arroyo, was prepared and had plenty of bottled water for us.

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It took about two hours to walk the site and get a complete explanation of Zapotec history, conquests, relationships with the Aztecs and Mixtecs, and the political and religious structure at the time they were at the height of their power.

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Of course, we had to stop to look at the clay replicas of the found objects in the Monte Alban tombs made by local craftsmen from Arrazola. The figures are all hand formed and the sellers — who are the artisans — are licensed by Monte Alban to create and sell their wares.  Prices are reasonable and there’s room for a little bargaining to make it more fun — if you must!  (Remember, the dollar to peso value is in favor of the visitor so don’t drive a hard bargain.)

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It’s Guelaguetza time and Monte Alban crawling with visitors who come to Oaxaca from throughout Mexico and many foreign countries. I am hearing a cacophony of languages: German, British English, Australian English, Dutch, French, Japanese and Chinese, as well as Spanish and American English.

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Oaxaca is a wonderful place to visit and bring the family for summer vacation. It’s safe, educational, fun and affordable. Entry fees are 59 pesos per person.  That translates to about $4.25 each. We’d love to see you here!

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After Monte Alban, we went off to Atzompa, the nearby village of potters who supplied the priests and nobles with utilitarian and ceremonial clay vessels.

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My advice: wear sturdy shoes for rock climbing, use a sun hat, sun screen, and pack a water bottle — as important as your camera! And, consider hiring a licensed guide who knows the in-depth history of the place.  It will enrich your visit.

 

Oaxaca Art + Archeology with Chiapas Add-On: Study Tour with Penland School of Crafts

Travel and learn with Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC in collaboration with Penland School of Crafts, one of the foremost centers for art and craft education in the United States. This is an unparalleled opportunity to study folk art, craft and contemporary art of Oaxaca, with an option to extend your time to explore San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas and surrounding Maya villages.  An in-depth indigenous Mexico educational experience.

Oaxaca, UNESCO World Heritage Site

February 12-19, 2015: 7 nights and 8 days of cultural immersion and discovery! Archeology, food, contemporary and folk art, wood carving, pottery, weaving and Carnival celebrations. The best of the best! Starting at $3,285 double occupancy, includes lodging, most meals and transportation, and a tax-deductible $500 gift to Penland School of Crafts.  Single occupancy option: $3,695.

Every minute of the trip has been a teaching in every aspect. Most valuable to me has been sharing with you and learning so much!! – Elizabeth Steinvorth

Add-on San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas

Depart Oaxaca on February 19, travel overnight from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de Las Casas on a luxury bus with reclining seats.  Arrive in Chiapas in time for breakfast,  textile talk and orientation walk!

Add-on Chiapas–February 20-25, 2015: 5 nights and 5 full days to explore the land of the Maya — archeology, textiles, traditional medicine, precious stones and jewelry making traditions.  We are based in San Cristobal de Las Casas at the crossroads of the Maya world, an international mountain town of outstanding beauty. Our host is luxurious boutique LaJoya Hotel. We offer single or double occupancy in king bed Gold-level luxe, $2,395. For single or double occupancy in one or two beds, we offer Bronze-level semi-luxe, $1,845 at a nearby hotel.

Contact Norma Hawthorne by email to receive your registration form or get your questions answered.

Penland School of Crafts is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and was founded on the principles and values of preserving and promulgating the rich folk art traditions of the local culture. In keeping with these roots, we offer you a week-long study tour to explore the indigenous world of Oaxaca, Mexico, with a six-day add-on option to Chiapas, Mexico. Here art and craft have flourished for centuries.

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Oaxaca and Chiapas mountains are scattered with remote indigenous villages where amazing art is created in the tradition of the ancestors. Every piece has a back-story and is a testimony to the creativity and beauty that is Mexico today. We invite you to become a part of this exciting, personalized program.

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I have greater respect for the people and their talent and family values. Incredibly beautiful art work. – Lee Ellis

I know now that I can be comfortable and enjoy traveling where I do not speak the language. Some of my preconceived ideas about Mexico were incorrect. – Edna McKee

During our week together in Oaxaca, you will

  • discover or better know the 16th century Spanish colonial city of Oaxaca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • meet ceramic, textile, and wood-carving artists and artisans
  • meet contemporary artists in their studios and discover a vibrant international art scene
  • visit a Zapotec village where pre-Lenten Carnivale is celebrated with extravagant costumes and energetic revelry
  • spend the day in Ocotlan to better know the art of Rodolfo Morales
  • explore famed Zapotec archeological sites with an expert English-speaking guide
  • sample local cuisine during a cooking class with one of Oaxaca’s best known teachers
  • dine at some of Oaxaca’s greatest restaurants and meet the chefs
  • see Oaxaca like an insider through the eyes of Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator

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Oaxaca, Mexico Itinerary — February 12-19

Day 1: Thursday, February 12. Participants will travel independently from their home city and arrive at the Oaxaca, Mexico, international airport. If you come directly from Houston, you will clear customs and immigration in Oaxaca. If you connect through Mexico City, you will clear customs and immigration there before boarding your connecting flight to Oaxaca. We will send you a complete travel guide one month before the program date. When you give us your flight arrival information, we will arrange private transportation to meet you at the airport and bring you a short distance to our Oaxaca city B&B. If you arrive in time, meet us in the lobby at 8:00 p.m. for a light supper, if you wish. Dinner on your own. Overnight in Oaxaca.

Day 2: Friday, February 13. After breakfast, we will be transported along the Ocotlan Folk Art and Crafts Route to visit the home and museum of famed Oaxaca artist Rofolfo Morales, the lively weekly market where locals shop, and see the exquisite work of embroiderers, potters and sculptors.  A gala welcome dinner ends our day. (B, L, D)

Day 3: Saturday, February 14. The contemporary art scene in Oaxaca is considered by experts to be among the best in Mexico. We have arranged a day of meeting painters and lithographers in their studios to discuss and see their work, and learn more about Oaxaca’s rich art culture. In late afternoon, we depart for the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle. Overnight at a family-owned guest house for a taste of the more humble village life. (B, D)

Day 4: Sunday, February 15. After a hearty, homemade breakfast, we go to the outstanding archeological sites of Mitla and Yagul, then visit the home studio of a master weaver who will demonstrate tapestry weaving on the two-harness pedal loom. You will see a natural dye demonstration and make your own cochineal-dyed silk scarf.  Then, we will visit a family who cultivates their own silkworms, hand-spins and dyes the silk, and then weaves it into stunning clothing. Overnight in Teotitlan del Valle. (B, L, D)

Day 5: Monday, February 16. Following breakfast, we take a cooking class with one of Oaxaca’s outstanding cooking teachers. She will take us on a walking tour of the  market where we will shop for fresh ingredients, then work together with her guidance to prepare a delicious traditional repast that includes, of course, one of Oaxaca’s famous mole dishes and a mezcal tasting. After lunch, we return to Oaxaca by private van. (B, L)

Day 6: Tuesday, February 17.  It’s Fat Tuesday and Carnival Time in Oaxaca. The Mardi Gras costumed parade in the village of San Martin Tilcajete rivals pre-Lenten festivities around the world.  Join the locals who know what revelry is all about as we follow the king and queen of Carnival through village streets, dancing all the way. We will enjoy a delicious lunch together at a locally-owned restaurant before we return to Oaxaca. (B, L)

Day 7: Wednesday, February 18.  Archeology and artisanry is our focus as we visit famed master craftsmen in Atzompa, the pottery-making village, and Arrazola, the alebrije-making village where wood carvers and painters create fanciful mythical animals and replicate scenes of village life. You will see demonstrations and meet the grand masters of Oaxaca Folk Art.  Just outside of Oaxaca city lays the stunning and important Zapotec archeological site of Monte Alban. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago considers this to be the finest example of social and government organization in Meso-america. Sturdy walking shoes and walking sticks encouraged! (B, L)

Day 8:  Thursday, February 19.  Some of you will depart Oaxaca and return to your homes.  Others will stay on with us to take the overnight luxury bus to Chiapas for the next leg of our adventure. (B)

Norma is not only knowledgeable, she is part of the local community. Her deep connection to the people made for a rich experience. – Jane Crowe

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$3,285 per person double occupancy. $3,685 for a single supplement. Includes $500 per person tax-deductible gift to Penland School of Crafts.

Register Today. Contact us to receive a registration form. Have Questions? Ask Norma Hawthorne at normahawthorne@mac.com

Chiapas, Mexico Itinerary — February 19-25

Day 1: Thursday, February 19.  Luxury overnight bus from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de Las Casas (B) or travel independently to Chiapas and arrive in San Cristobal de Las Casas on your own.

Day 2: Friday, February 20. Check in to our San Cristobal de Las Casas Hotel. At breakfast, we will meet a local expert who will talk about Maya textiles and Chiapas textile traditions. Then we’ll take a walking cultural orientation tour of the compact, pedestrian-friendly city.  After a group lunch, you will have time to recharge before we visit folk-healer Sergio Castro and his private museum. Overnight SCDLC. (B, L, D)

Day 3: Saturday, February 21: During breakfast, we will introduce you to the history of ancient Maya jewelry design and adornment, visit the Jade and Textile museums, and enjoy a Market Meander after lunch. There is nothing so tantalizing as the outdoor crafts market in San Cristobal de Las Casas, where vintage and new textiles, clothing, home goods, clay sculpture, beadwork and lots more capture your senses. Overnight SCDLC. (B, L)

Day 4: Sunday, February 22: The magical indigenous church in San Juan Chamula blends Spanish Catholicism with local folk beliefs. After breakfast and a discussion about Maya mysticism, we will visit the church and local market, then stop at Zinacantan where colorful flowers grow in greenhouses and are the theme of intricately embroidered cloth that are sewn into skirts (faldas) and shawls (chals).  (B, L)

Day 5: Monday, February 23: Today, we study Chiapas archeology and documentary photography through the eyes of husband-wife explorers Frans Blom and Gertrude Duby-Blom, who worked with Maya Lacandon people starting in the 1920’s.  Their home museum, Na Bolom, the jaguar house, tells the story of early archeological work in Mexico. After an optional lunch at the museum cafe, you will have time to explore San Cristobal de Las Casas on your own. (B)

Day 6: Tuesday, February 24: The Maya archeological site of Tonina is not as well-traveled as nearby Palenque, but many say it is equally as stunning and outstanding treasures have been excavated there. This all-day adventure will take us from the mountain highlands to semi-tropical lowlands to explore this extraordinary site whose pyramids are the most vertical in the Maya world. And, yes, you can climb them! After a picnic lunch, we make our way back to SCDLC with a stop at the back-strap loom weaving village of Oxchuc where textiles are embellished in shimmering metallic threads.  Our study tour ends with a grand farewell dinner and many memories to share.  (B, L, D)

Day 7: Wednesday, February 25:  After breakfast, transfer from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Tuxtla Gutierrez to board your flights back to your home country.

Ready to Register? Contact Norma Hawthorne.

The entire time was so interesting and full of fun. So much we got to experience would never had happened if we had come on our own. Norma made all the difference with her knowledge and sensitivity of the culture, and all her local friends, who obviously adore her!!! – Lynn Nichols

About Norma Hawthorne. Norma started Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC in 2006 and began offering weaving and natural dyeing workshops in the Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, where she now lives part of the year. Soon after, she expanded program offerings to include women’s creating writing, yoga, photography, and other forms of textile and fiber arts workshops. In 2011, she retired from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she raised $23 million for the School of Nursing, and directed the School’s marketing and communications. Before that, she had a 25-year career in higher education continuing education and marketing at Indiana University, The University of Virginia, and The George Washington University. Norma holds the B.A. in history from California State University at Northridge and the M.S. from The University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. A lover of indigenous textiles, Norma started weaving with naturally dyed wool in San Francisco, collected Amish Folk Art textiles which she recently donated to the Indiana State Museum, owned and operated a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school, and fell in love with Oaxaca arts and artisans when she first visited there in 2005. See Norma’s resume.

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This trip illustrates the value of having a local contact who has a passionate, personal interest and extensive knowledge abut a place, a subject and contacts with people. That’s what made the trip unique, dynamic, rich and transformative. It would not have been possible to have had this experience without Norma – and her energy, generosity and great spirit. Thank you so much! — Barbara Benisch

ReynaAmarilloMetate2 ReynaSaladIngredLodging/Accommodations. In Oaxaca, we have selected highly rated, elegant, upscale accommodations for you where we will spend five nights at Casa Las Bugambilias B&B.  We will also spend two nights at family-owned and operated guest house in Teotitlan del Valle to give you a flavor of humble village life.

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Oaxaca Study Tour Cost: The basic cost for the trip is $3,285. USD. This includes seven nights lodging shared occupancy with private bath, six breakfasts, four lunches, three dinners, transportation to/from airport and activities as noted in the itinerary, site entry fees, all instruction, and a $500 tax-deductible contribution to Penland School of Crafts.

  • OAX 1: Shared double room with private bath; $3,285.
  • OAX 2: Single Supplement, private room with private bath; $3,685.

Chiapas Study Tour Cost:  Three options available. Choose your comfort level. In Chiapas our luxury boutique La Joya Hotel, will host there. Here there are five single suites with king-size bed accommodations for Platinum and Gold-level travelers.  Double, shared rooms are in a nearby upscale colonial-style hotel.

  • CO2: $2,395, Gold-level luxe King room, single or double with special amenities
  • CO3: $1,845, Bronze-level semi-luxe double occupancy share in with your choice of one queen or two double beds

The cost does NOT include airfare and related taxes, tips/gratuities, travel insurance, liquor/alcoholic beverages, and some meals as specified in the itinerary.

Please make your check payable to Norma Hawthorne, OCN-LLC and mail to Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC, 9316 Perry Road, Graham, NC 27253. Your $500 tax-deductible contribution (per person, applicable only for the Oaxaca portion of the trip) will be made and mailed directly to Penland School of Crafts, Attention: Joan Glynn, Director of Development.

Dolores with Shadows Doug_03.2 DSC_0081.JPGReservations and Cancellations. Please understand that we make lodging and transportation arrangements months in advance of the program. Our hosts often require deposits or payments in full to guarantee reservations. If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email. After November 15, 2014, no refunds are possible and payment in full is required. We will make every possible effort to fill your reserved space or you may send a substitute. If you cancel on or before November 15, we will refund 50% of your deposit.

We require that you take out trip cancellation, baggage, and $50,000 mimimum emergency medical evacuation insurance before you begin your trip, since unforeseen circumstances are possible.

Ready to Register? Tell Norma at normahawthorne@mac.com Have Questions? Ask Norma at normahawthorne@mac.com.

All the workshops were terrific, talented, committed, skilled and well-prepared, thoughtful and easy to work with, generous and passionate…I am inspired to go home and do more work. – Barbara Benisch

This program is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC in cooperation with Penland School of Crafts. We reserve the right to alter the itinerary and make substitutions as necessary.

A Word About How to Get There Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC, based in North Carolina, U.S.A., has offered arts workshops and cultural immersion experiences in Oaxaca, Mexico, since 2006. Many participants often travel independently to reach Oaxaca on a direct flight from the gateway city of Houston, Texas, on United Airlines. Other major U.S. airlines connect to AeroMexico in Mexico City, which offers several flights a day to Oaxaca (OAX). Delta operates a Code Share with AeroMexico. The international airport at Oaxaca is new, safe and clean, as is the Mexico City airport. Our trusted Oaxaca airport pick-up service will personally greet you as you depart from baggage claim.

For travel directly to San Cristobal de Las Casas, the town is served by Aeromexico flying into/out of Tuxtla Gutierrez (TGZ), or you can take an overnight bus from Oaxaca.

Airport pick-ups and returns are included in your registration fee.

Note: Tips may be given to your local guides, instructors, and service providers throughout the trip. The recommended tip is 50 pesos per day for each provider per person. Be sure to collect your belongings from your room and check the Safety Deposit Box. Have your Passport, Mexico Exit Visa, and Plane Tickets ready!  You must have at least six months remaining on a valid U.S. passport to enter Mexico.

Please Note: This is a working itinerary, is subject to change and may be modified as we confirm final details for the trip. Be assured that any changes made will only enhance the program and add to your total experience. Thank you for your understanding!

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Extraordinary: Yanhuitlan, Oaxaca and Ceramic Artist Manuel Reyes

Off the beaten path and definitely a must-see, Santo Domingo Yanhuitlan is a small Mixtec pueblo located about an hour-and-a-half north of Oaxaca city, off the Carretera Nacional toll road to Mexico City.

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It is the home of an extraordinary Dominican Church whose massive stone architecture is reminiscent of the finest European churches, complete with flying buttresses and elegant arched ceilings. Six thousand indigenous people constructed it beginning in the mid-16th century.

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Ceramic artist, sculptor and painter Manuel Reyes lives here, too, with his wife Marisela, also an accomplished artist, and their two children. They are what draw us to this place since their work is not sold in Oaxaca city. They have been exhibited in galleries throughout the United States and recognized in numerous contemporary art journals and books.

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Manuel understudied with potters from throughout Oaxaca state and has been working with clay for fifteen years.  He uses a gas kiln and fires his work at 900-1,200 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, unusual for the region where most clay work is low fire, cooked in a shallow wood-fire kiln.  Manuel gets his red clay from pits in San Jeronimo Silacayoapilla, not far from his home in Tlaxiaco.  He says the clay from here is the strongest, the best.

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Yanhuitlan is Marisela’s home.  This is where they have created their life and work together.  The children are also collaborating, making small clay figures and painting on canvas.

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The clay is painted with natural mineral pigments that Manuel gets from the local region.  Some of his work is primitive.  Other pieces are highly polished polychrome with three or four colors.

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Pre-Hispanic designs on clay come from pottery shards that Manuel finds in the region.

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Marisela and Manuel invite us to join them for lunch.  It is a homemade red mole with rice, black beans, fresh tortillas, and another type of tortilla, rougher, denser, made with wheat flour by Marisela’s mother.  I pass on the mezcal because I’m driving!  The head sculpture is a napkin holder.  Magnifico.

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The church is one of the most important colonial sites in Mexico. Why was it constructed in this tiny town that seems to  have little or no importance today?  Yanhuitlan was on a major pre-Hispanic trade route and the Mixtec temple there was a very important indigenous religious site.

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The Spanish imported the European silk worm and Yanhuitlan became the center of silk cultivation for export.  Silk, along with cochineal, made Yanhuitlan an important economic center.  Hence, this imposing church — extraordinary and definitely worth the visit in its own right.  Note the Mixtec carving embedded into the church wall.  A practice for attracting and converting locals.

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Couple the stop with a visit to the home studio of ceramic artist and sculptors Manuel and Marisela Reyes and you have a very satisfying day-long excursion to explore the art and creativity that is Oaxaca.

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How to get there:  Go north from Oaxaca on the Cuota–toll-road–to Mexico City.  Exit at Nochixtlan.  Turn left and go over the toll road bridge.  Continue northwest. Follow the road signs to Yanhuitlan.  The church can be seen from several miles away.  To find Marisela and Manuel Reyes, go to Aldama Street which faces the side entrance of the church.  Drive until the end.  Their house is across from the Calvario church (metal dome), which is part of the original convent.  coloresdeoaxaca@yahoo.com.mx or call 951-562-7008 for an appointment.

Special thanks to Francine, Jo Ann and Tom for guiding me there!

Tonina, Chiapas: Atop the Mayan World

The Mayan archeological site of Tonina is breathtaking.  The Moon Handbook on Chiapas says it is one of the best sites that no one seems to know about.  In fact, there were only about ten people there when we visited.  About midway between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, and a few miles off a side road from Ocosingo, Tonina is in the heart of Zapatista E.Z.L.N. country.

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Tonina boasts the highest pyramid in Mesoamerica.  May I boast that I managed to climb to the summit?  Ojala.  The Acropolis has more vertical gain than any other known Mayan structure.  It is really steep.

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Our taxista Ricardo drove me, Fay, Gayle and Dennis to Tonina from San Cristobal de las Casas on a two-and-a-half hour, winding ride on an S-curve mountain road lined with pine forests and valley vistas.  We went through Zapatista country and dropped down into the semi-tropical Ocosingo valley where ripe fruit hang from banana trees and cowboys ride the fence line that corral herds of cattle.  They say the best cheese comes from Ocosingo.

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By the time we arrived it was almost noon.  I could feel the altitude although we had dropped almost 2,000 feet from San Cristobal’s altitude of nearly 7,000 feet.  It was a dry, very hot day.  Bromeliads hung from the trees and wild begonias grew between the ancient stones where Mayan aqueducts once held water.

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Fortunately, we were wise enough to share in the cost of a wonderful local Spanish-speaking guide who lived in the nearby village of Nuevo Jersalen and participated in the archeological excavations.  He was both knowledgeable and patient as we carefully made our way higher and higher up the seven levels of the site.

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Between the four of us, we were able to help each other out with translations and got most of what he explained to us.  While he said the guided visit would be two hours long, in fact we were there with him for three hours.  Without his helping hand, it would have been impossible for me to climb to the top!

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I climbed the last, very steep part almost hand-over-hand, never looking down, going across the face of the stones from left to right.  Slowly.  Slowly.  And, then suddenly I was at the top where the vistas are extraordinary.

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Once, many years ago when I had first visited Chichen Itza and Uxmal, my dream was to go to all the major Mayan sites in Mesoamerica.  I’ve almost completed that dream and have added Tikal, Palenque, Bonampak and Yaxchilan to the list.  I never imagined that Tonina would be on par with those other more famous sites, but I was surprised to discover that it is a worthy equal.

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After getting down from the top we spent some time in the wonderful museum where the original stone carvings, glyphs, funerary masks, stelae, and clay vessels that had been excavated are on display.

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Tonina survived for 200 years after the fall of Palenque.  As the Mayan world was crumbling around them, the leaders focused more and more on death, sacrifice, and doom.  At the museum, I talked with students from Moscow University who speak fluent Spanish and are involved in translating the glyphs from Tonina as part of their thesis.

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More archeological digs are happening at Tonina.  As recently as four years ago, a new tomb was discovered.  This is a site you do not want to miss!

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On the way back, we made a stop at Oxchuc where cloth woven on back strap looms are embroidered and worn by indigenous women from the region.  It was a great day!

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Last Battle of the Aztecs and Homage to the Martyrs: Tlatelolco, Mexico City

Tlatelolco is about ten minutes from the historic center of Mexico City and centuries apart.  Discovered in 1948, it is the largest archeological site within Mexico City and a must stop if you want to know more about the birth of Mexico, her history and traditions.  It was our first stop on an all-day small group excursion I took with Amigos Tours (which was excellent).  Our ultimate destination was Teotihuacan, with a stop on the way at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  I’ll write more about that, but for now, a very brief, big brush stroke of Aztec history and the Spanish conquest as told by our knowledgeable guide Alejandro.

The site has been populated since 2,500 B.C.  The Aztecs settled Tlatelolco in 1325, coming down from the north (some anthropologists believe they originated in what is now California, Nevada or New Mexico).  According to prophecy, they wandered in search of a sacred site to establish a great empire.  They would know it when they saw an eagle in flight with a snake in it’s mouth.  The prophecy was realized and the symbol later became Mexico’s identity (along with the Virgin of Guadalupe!)

Here, they built a major city on a floating island surrounded by lakes.  The island was connected by wide causeways oriented to the four cardinal points.  Today, Xochimilco is the city’s only remains of island agriculture.  (The decision was made to start draining the lakes in the 17th century.  Modern Mexico City sits atop this landfill, prone to flooding, poor drainage and mosquitos.)   Temples were built on this holy ground, one on top of another every 52 years to mark a political transition, forming a pyramid. The city’s major market was here, too.

When the Spanish arrived soon after landing in Veracruz in 1521, they marveled at the engineering, the magnificent structures, and wrote back to Spain that this was a city that rivaled Venice.  The Spanish set out to conquer the Aztecs, but lost the first battles, outnumbered 1,000 to 50,000.  Victory was only possible by forming alliances with the indigenous enemies of the Aztecs.

The monument at Tlatelolco speaks to the last heroic defense by Cuahtemoc against Hernan Cortes in 1523.  To justify the conquest in the name of the new religion, Cortes ordered the destruction of the temples and used the volcanic rocks to build the first church in Mexico City here, Santiago de Tlatelolco.  It is a haunting space, reminiscent to me of the interior of Rome’s Pantheon, austere, dark, mysterious, cavernous, raw, unadorned.

It also speaks to the painful birth of the Mestizo people that is Mexico today.  Mestizo refers to that blend of Spanish, Native American, Asian and African heritage shared by most Mexicans today.  (I recently finished reading  Charles Mann’s 1493 and highly recommend it as an insight to global economics post-Cristobal Colon.)

The term Mestizo does not include Mexico’s 15% indigenous peoples who still are struggling to attain the rights of the majority:  access to quality education and health care, and economic opportunity.  About 64 indigenous languages are still spoken in Mexico today, making it one of the richest and and most varied cultures in the world.

 The site is infamous for the Tlatlalco Massacre. In 1968, just before the start of the Olympic Games, peaceful demonstrators gathered here to protest as students were protesting around the world.  The government sent in police and snipers in order to preserve an image to the world of an orderly city ready to host the Olympics.  At the end of the day on October 2, the official count was 44 dead.  However, about 700 people were missing and still have not been accounted for.  A monument at the site pays tribute to their memory and the horror that happened here.  Permanent graffiti on the church door reminds us that the church failed to provide sanctuary with a lockout.

When I settled on making Oaxaca my home seven years ago, I also realized that to know and love Oaxaca is to also know and love Mexico.  That is why I write about this, too.