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Closing the Ways

May 25, 2021

This part of Mexico has seen a lot of changes in recent years. It’s hard for me to point a finger at people who’ve come here recently, because I’m an outsider myself. When yet another house starts going up along the road into town, I might regret the loss of another cow pasture or cornfield, but I did the same thing myself a decade ago.

However, certain changes can be hard to swallow. This community, Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl, is one of two or three legendary birthplaces of the Plumed Serpent (Quetzalcoatl means ‘serpent with feathers’) in Mexico, and the one with the best-attested legend. Every weekend, hikers and pilgrims set out for the Posa, the baptismal pool where the one-time ruler of central Mexico (and later deified king) was given his name. One or two local guides will take visitors for a fee, though after I’d been twice, I knew how to find the way myself. You head to the south end of the village and go down a stony slope to the Sacred Tree, where you make an offering of tobacco or other suitable substance and ask for protection on the rough walk. Then, take the fork in the road to the right if you’re going the regular way, the one that crosses the stream in the bottom of the little valley, or stay left if you want to follow the longer route with prettier views.

The Sacred Tree, close to stones forming the bank of the new roadway. The Tree’s guardian spirit protects hikers on the trail.

I don’t go often, because the Posa is a special place. It has a small waterfall and is enclosed on three sides by cliffs with dramatic rock formations. When I tried on my first visit to take a photo, my camera jammed, and I never tried again. The place demands respect, and offers a direct and significant link to the preColumbian traditions.

Hiking buddy Ixchel and I set off for the prettier route this afternoon, when we found someone had made some major changes in the path. The track, which is so old it is inches below the rest of the land it crosses, had been blocked by a new barbed wire fence. A roadway had been gouged out of the west side of the small valley, and accessing the Sacred Tree by clambering down large, loose boulders was likely to produce a sprained ankle. A hundred yards on, the path was no longer obstructed, but somebody had clearly been asserting property rights, and had plans for the land.

We headed back after an hour or so when storm-clouds threatened, and tried to get around the fences. But the man who had put them in had blocked any route bar the new roadway, which was still unfinished. Either we had to scramble under the barbed wire and risk snagging our clothing, or go back around to the new route.

A double row of barbed wire fences blocks an old, alternative path going up and around the closed off zone.

He or one of his friends was doing some work behind the gate of one of the fences when we came by the Sacred Tree again, and we asked him what the plan was. He replied that he was going to grow corn, plant trees and maybe grow flowers. But given that a narrow valley with limited sunshine is a poor spot to grow anything for profit, this was hardly convincing. We had to conclude that something else was in the offing that promised better profits than a field of maize. 

No doubt we’ll see soon enough what his intentions are. One possibility is using the main access to the camino leading to the Posa to charge admission. If there were more guardians of the traditional ways still alive, it’s unlikely anyone would attempt this, but the keepers of the old knowledge are dying off. Don Julio, who took the second Posa hike I ever went on, and who could describe the medicinal properties of plants along the way, died a few months ago. And there have been unpleasant incidents in the past year or two with guides from the village demanding a fee from groups going to the sacred site. If I go alone, I go on a weekday, when the almost non-existent visitors offer no attraction to such extortion.

Another view of a fence cutting off the entrance to the old trail.

Possibly the fencing effort and the new roadway will have little effect on the rest of the walk, and we’ll adjust to what this owner has done. But as more houses go up around the village, and the community changes in character from what it was, there is the temptation for local people to maximise personal gains at the expense of the old traditions. They see how much cash the weekenders who come here bring in their pockets, and they want the same thing. 

The village is gradually losing its links with its past. And it’s unlikely anyone will try to stop it.

Birthplace of the Gods

October 6, 2019

Teotihuacan is one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico: four-million people a year go there, and I’m happy to be one of them. Less than 90 minutes from downtown Mexico City, it has frequent bus connections, a huge size that accommodates large crowds (still, don’t go on a weekend) and some of the most impressive structures in the Americas.

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Afternoon storm clouds gather behind the Pyramid of the Sun.

Nobody knows what the original inhabitants called it, nor what they called themselves.  The modern name is Nahuatl and is often translated as “Place where the gods (or, the Sun) were (was) born.” We don’t know the names of those gods or the rulers, though we do think there was a major goddess and also a rain god. They also built the earliest major temple to the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcoatl. The city seems to be oriented towards the point of Equinoctial sunset, and there might have been a cult around the perceived motions of the planet Venus.

After that, it’s largely suppositions and guesswork. If you enjoy a mystery, Teotihuacan’s your place.

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Original carved images of the Plumed Serpent at the temple of Quetzalcoatl, with what has been interpreted as a sacred headdress.

The city began some centuries before the Common Era as a small community. A popular theory is that the devastating eruption of the Xitle volcano south of Mexico City, made the residents of Cuicuilco head out, and that their skills in producing large earthen constructions (Cuicuilco still has a large elliptical ‘pyramid’ on its site today) fed into the scheme to build the big pyramid at Teotihuacan.

But most aspects of Teotihuacan’s story remain obscure. Anyone who visits today is struck not by lists of dates and kings (no writing has been found) by how harmonised it is with its physical situation, and how the main pyramids seem to echo the contours of the hills surrounding the city. Add in the celestial orientations, and you begin to sense that the city, even in its ruined state, is midway between heaven and earth, but well connected to both.

The site covers about eight square miles, and was home to 125,000 people, maybe more, who came from across what we now call Mexico; two thousand years ago, it was one of the half-dozen largest cities on earth. Today, that largest pyramid, named (possibly wrongly) the Pyramid of the Sun, is the dominant feature, and it’s hard not to be impressed by its massiveness. I don’t try – I’ve climbed it, climbed around it (where it’s permitted), and have gazed from the top of it a bunch of times. It still never exhausts my sense of wonder.            Courtyard.jpg

A courtyard in what was probably priests’ quarters near the Temple of the Moon. The red pigment is largely original, as are parts of the relief carvings of Quetzal birds and owls on the pillars.

Much of what we see today was restored by a man called Leopoldo Batres in the early 1900s. He was the dominant official in Mexican archeology in his day, explored scores of sites across Mexico, and messed up a couple of them with over-enthusiastic ‘restorations.’ His biggest blooper at Teotihuacan was trying to restore the five levels of the Pyramid of the Sun when in fact it only had four originally. I have to appreciate his enthusiasm and desire to celebrate Mexico’s past glories even if, like so many early archeologists, he didn’t know when to leave well alone. He lived large, and his story is one I’ll write about in another post.

The site is threatened by development, including the sight of electricity pylons marching across neighbouring farmland, as well as a WalMart built in one of its outlying areas a few years ago. At least the store was ordered to keep its signage modest and unilluminated.

Yet Teotihuacan survives all this. The millions of us visitors exert fresh wear and tear, but key parts of the site are kept sealed off, including (sadly) a recently discovered underground mountain landscape, with mercury for lakes and crystals, such as iron pyrites, to simulate a starry sky. The place is just too unsafe and fragile to admit tourists.

On any given day, you might notice one or more archeological groups working there: on one visit a few years ago, I found four of them, from different universities and organisations, all exploring different parts of the site, looking for clues, hints, secrets, tunnels, tombs … and anything that explains a little more of what produced the immense economic and political vitality of this city of mysteries.

And even if they find little to answer those questions, the peace and majesty of the site are still worth the visit. Not everyone responds to it that way – I have friends who find it oppressive – but I personally always feel refreshed and encouraged by a visit. It survived internal upheavals (religious structures were burned late in its original period), appropriation by Aztec emperors who were inspired to make an equally grand city in what is now Mexico City, wilful destruction by Spanish Conquistadors, and erosion by rain, earth tremors and the passage of time. And it is still a place that inspires superlatives.

You say the names as:
Cuicuilco – Kwee-KWIL-co
Nahuatl – NAH-whot (the final ‘l’ is almost silent).
Quetzalcoatl – KET-sal-CO-at (again, a near-silent final ‘l’)
Teotihuacan – Teh-OH-tee-wah-KHAN
Xitle – SHEET-leh