The history of the south west of the USA is intertwined with the history of Mexico, so here is an opportunity to sneak over the border for a quick look at the US’s southern neighbour. The Yucatán Peninsula was discovered by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1517, but it is the defeat of the Aztecs by Hernán Cortés between 1519 and 1521 that secured Mexico for Spain. Mexico remained a colony for 300 years until an 11 year war led to independence in 1821. The independent Mexico did not remain intact for long with Texas splitting away in 1836 and the 1846-8 Mexican-American war resulted in the USA seizing control of California, Arizona and New Mexico.
Aztec sun disk, Anthropological Museum, Mexico City
While there are few signs of the Aztec city to be seen in Mexico City, plenty of Aztec artefacts can be found in museums. The Aztecs had a sophisticated double calendar which a solar year of 365 days and a ritual year of 260 days. Every 52 years the two calendars aligned and the Aztecs regarded this as the potential end of the world when the gods could destroy mankind and hence of great religious significance. The sun disk represents the ritual calendar showing 20 periods of 13 days that made up the 260 day cycle. The stone is over 3.6 metres (12 feet) in diameter and weighs nearly 25 tonnes. It was found in 1760 buried under Plaza de la Constitución.
Boats at Xochimilco, near Mexico City
A little bit of the canal system used by the Aztecs has survived at Xochimilco on the outskirts of Mexico City. While the Aztecs grew vegetables and flowers here on soil covered rafts for shipping to Tenochtitlán, modern day Mexicans and tourists sail up and down in brightly decorated gondolas. Passing punts and canoes serve food and gondolas with mariachi bands cruise up and down entertaining visitors (for a fee). At weekends the level of traffic on the canals can make the Mexico City rush hour look pretty tame.
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Storm brewing over Cancun waterfront
Mexico isn’t all about ancient ruins and colonial architecture, it also caters for the sun and sand brigade. Our experience of this was at Cancun. If you like to spend your day on the beach soaking up the sun then Cancun is ideal for you, but we couldn’t wait to get out of town. While Cancun can normally guarantee a warm sea and plenty of sunshine, it is worth remembering that this is hurricane territory. We were there at the tail end of the hurricane season, and while this storm was nowhere near to hurricane level it still got very wet and very windy
The Observatory, Chichén Itzá
The best known Mayan site has the misfortune to be within day trip range of the holiday resort of Cancun, and hence even though it is a large site the popular areas can be crowded. Chichén Itzá was occupied by two distinct cultures, the Mayans founded it in the 5th century and it grew into a major centre then in the 10th century it was taken over by tribes from the north. The El Castillo Pyramid is the most recognisable structure at Chichén Itzá, but we have chosen a much more unusual building to show here. The Caracol (or Observatory) is circular and the alignment of its windows indicate that it was indeed used for astronomical observations.
Santo Domingo Church, Oaxaca
Although the pre-hispanic era is well represented at nearby Monte Alban and Mitla, the city of Oaxaca’s great asset is its colonial architecture. Founded by the Spanish in 1521 the city was originally called Segura de la Frontera. After several name changes and elevation to royal city, the name eventually became the same as the state of which it is capital, Oaxaca. The Cathedral located on the Zócalo is a classic example of colonial architecture, but we decided to be different by showing the smaller but equally good example of Santo Domingo Church. Construction began in 1572 but it was over 200 years before the church was completed. The reason for this becomes apparent on entering the church - the internal decorations are magnificent.
Inscription Temple & El Palacio from Cruz Foliada, Palenque
Chichén Itzá is the best known of the Mayan ruins, but we found Palenque more interesting. Located in very hot and humid rain forest it is also more of a challenge - even staying in a hotel here is a bit of an adventure. The Mayan name for this city is unknown so it has been given the name of a nearby Mexican town. Mayan civilisation existed from around 100 BC to 800 AD and Palenque was at its peak between 600 and 700 AD. On the right is the Palace with its tower built by Mayan ruler Pacal and on the left the Inscription Temple (or Pyramid of Inscriptions) in which he is buried. There are many buildings yet to be reclaimed from the forest and it is worth a short trip to see how the buildings looked when they were found.
Thunderstorm brewing behind Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacán
The Aztecs were not the first to build cities in Mexico. Teotihuacán, in the mountains outside Mexico City, was settled as early as 300 BC and by 250 AD a ceremonial area had been built, complete with large pyramids dedicated to the Sun and Moon. By 400 AD this was the 6th largest city in the world yet by 700 AD it had been abandoned. The larger Pyramid of the Sun is now less than half the height of Cheops in Egypt and courtesy of early work by archeologists its original height can not be identified. This picture shows bad weather brewing behind the Pyramid of the Moon of which we were forewarned in the form of an electric shock when we touched while up the Pyramid of the Sun earlier on.
Plaza de la Constitución, Mexico City
The story of how Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán with an army of little over 400 men is well known. Apart from a few foundations there is little to be seen of the old Aztec city and its island setting in a lake. The lake was drained and Mexico City built there in Spanish style. The huge Plaza de la Constitución was built on the site of the Aztec’s Great Temple. It was not our day when we visited the plaza - the sky was overcast and the giant Mexican flag hung limply from its pole.