Tag Archives: archeology

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.




Study in Sepia Photography at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

We arrived at Monte Alban in the chill of an early summer morning still overcast with filtered light that bathed this monumental Zapotec archeological site.  Our photography workshop assignment this day was to capture texture and pattern, and to use both the sepia and black and white settings on our digital cameras.


Monte Alban is featured in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History as one of the most important civilizations of Mesoamerica.

Stone was quarried and cut without the use of metal tools.  Horses were introduced by the Spaniards during the conquest, so these steep temples were all built by hand.  A foreman supervises the reconstruction of the observatory at the site.

Beads, clay reproductions of excavated figurines, rattles and drums are sold by local vendors who are licensed by the government to sell their wares.


In the museum, artefacts from archeological digs are on display including ancient pottery, remains of burial sites, and the original stone carvings depicting wars and warriors.

Under a tree at Monte Alban looking upward at a blue sky punctuated with puffy white clouds.  The hilltop landscape is dotted with agave and cactus.  Looking down into the Oaxaca valley one can understand the vantage point the Zapotec rulers had — a complete 360 degree view below.



We Are in Tlaxcala Now: Archeology, Volcanoes, Great Food

Who could ask for more?  We are in Tlaxcala (Tuh-las-cah-lah), the first city Cortes came to after landing in Veracruz.  The oldest churches in the New World are here.  The compact zocalo is ringed with 16th century buildings decorated with frilly stucco and carved stone. The town of 73,000, tucked into a hillside, is one hour from Puebla and about three hours from Mexico City.   It is elegant, prosperous and refined with excellent restaurants and pedestrian ambience.


After eating a noteworthy late breakfast/early lunch of conejo con huitlacoche (rabbit and corn fungus) and enchiladas de Tlaxcalteco con flor de calabasas (squash blossoms) at Fonda de Exconvento on Plaza Xicotencatl, we decided on the spot to visit the archeological sites of Cacaxtla (Cah-cas-tlah) and Xochitecatl (So-chee-teh-cachl).  The manager at Fonda de Exconvento was extremely helpful.  After I asked her what we should pay a taxi to drive us to the ruins, she made a call, got us a secure driver and negotiated a price of 350 pesos for the afternoon (four hours).  We were thrilled!  Muy facile.  Thank you for visiting our country, she said.

Cacaxtla and sister site, Xochitecatl, were inhabited by the Olmec-Xicalancas, who wielded political and economic control over the central, southern, and western parts of the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley.  They occupied a strategic position on the trade route between the Central Highlands of Mexico and the Gulf Coast.  Cacaxtla reached its zenith between 650 and 900 AD following the decline of Teotihuacan, at the same time that other cities, such as El Tajin in Veracruz and Xochicalco in Morelos, consolidated their power.

The mural paintings here are distinctive for blending Teotithuacan and Maya elements into its own unique style.  The murals, many in pristine condition and painted with natural pigments, were discovered in the 1970′s.  They depict a battle, a bird man, a jaguar man, and sea and land creatures.   The site is less than an hour from Tlaxcala and incredible.


Templo de Venus: These figures, above, are female (left) and male (right) figures wearing skirts with the Venus symbol.  The presence of Venus on the garments allude to some astronomical phenomenon or calendrical date associated with the planet, which at that time was related to warfare and sacrifice.

Go during mid-week, as we did, to enjoy the solitude, the power of the wind, and the stunning views of Mexico’s volcanoes: Popocatepetl, La Malinche, Iztaccíhuatl, and Pico de Orizaba.


Xochitecatl is distinguished by four pyramids and when you reach the top of the plateau where they are located, you are treated with a panoramic, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the valley.  This is the lesser of the two sites in terms of archeological restoration.  There are about a dozen Olmec carved figures on display in an outside garden.

Great Dining Experience:  Vinos y Piedra on the Zocalo.  Try the Cafecita, a filet mignon topped with a carmelized coffee sauce.  This is cowboy country with large haciendas and cattle ranches.  The beef here is tender and juicy!

Travel Tip: Go to the Tourism Office first to get a map.  They are very helpful there and speak English. Bullfight season is November through the first weekend in March.  We just missed it!

Our route to Tlaxcala:  In Cuetzalan, we bought a one-way bus ticket (116 pesos each) to Huamantla on the Texcoco bus line (first class with TV and toilet).  This was a 3-1/2 hour trip.  In Huamantla, we walked two blocks towing our rolling luggage and backpacks to a collectivo bus stop, where, within minutes, a commuter van picked us up for the 45-minute trip to Tlaxcala (about 25 pesos each).  It dropped us off at the central market, where we walked around a corner and hopped a taxi (30 pesos) to our Hotel Mision San Francisco on the zocalo.