July 28, 2011

Xochiquetzal: Mexico's Goddess of Love

XochiquetzalEvery ancient culture has one - a goddess so beautiful and alluring that mortal men fall to their knees in awe of Her; and wars are fought to gain Her hand.

To the Greeks, She was Aphrodite; to the Romans, She was Venus; in the misty dawn of Britain, She was Gwenhwyfar; and to the Norse, She was Freya. She is the Goddess of Love and Fertility and, in Aztec Mexico, Her name was Xochiquetzal.

Xochiquetzal (pronounced shOw-chee-KET-sAl) was responsible for all that is beautiful in Mexico. The white sand beaches; the towering pyramids; the breath-taking canyons, gorges and waterfalls; the glorious dawns and sunsets; the lush greenery of the jungle; the grace of the cloudy mountains; the sweeping vistas of its deserts; the mystery of its deep caves and cenotes; and the warmth of the Mexican people, all come under Her domain. If it is beautiful and Mexican, then Xochiquetzal has cast her eye upon it.

Her name translates broadly as 'sacred flower' or 'flower feather'. Xochi is Nahuatl for 'flower'; while the second part, 'quetzel', references the strikingly colored birds that still live in the highlands of western Mexico. In Nahuatl, 'quetzelli' means 'brilliant tail feather', which describes these vibrant birds very well. The goddess wore those same feathers in Her head-dress; and She was followed everywhere by an entourage of birds and butterflies.

'Xochiquetzal' by Midnightstouch

Every eight years, the Aztecs held a festival in honor of their Goddess of Love. All those attending it would wear masks replendent with feathers. They represented those birds and butterflies that would trail Xochiquetzal. Each year, this deity was the guardian of the 20 days of Xochitl. During this period, beauty and truth reigned. People would take care over their appearance; and would share compliments, but only if they were truthful. It was a great time for an ego boost!

Her holy days were times of celebration and dancing, as well as the more carnal activities. There was no judgement here. Xochiquetzal is the patron of all who love; She is the guardian of prostitutes. Every time the wild dance causes lovers to catch each other's eye, then look for the presense of Xochiquetzal. She is human desire; She is the dance; She is the romantic meal and the whispered words.

But this Aztec goddess doesn't leave when the union is made. She was also there during pregnancy and childbirth. She was the patron of young mothers everywhere.

However, this was the Aztec people, so some aspects of Her worship appear horrific to the modern sensibilities.

As the Goddess of Beauty, Xochiquetzal claimed the artisians, sculptors, craftspeople and silversmiths amongst Her people. Every seven years, this sector of society would meet to select the most beautiful young woman they could find amongst the population. She would spend a year living in luxury, as the very personification of Xochiquetzal. People would confess their darkest secrets and deepest desires to her. Her every need would be attended to; and she would wear the most wonderful clothes and precious jewels.

Then after the year was up, she would be ritually sacrificed, during the festival of Xochiquetzal. It is believed that her skin would then be flayed from her dead body and stitched into an outfit. This was worn by the chief, male artisian, while he wove his own craft. This would bring the Goddess into the beauty of his weaving and bless their community for another eight years.


Amongst the pantheon of Aztec deities, Xochiquetzal has a twin brother: the flower prince, Xochipilli. She had many lovers and husbands. The first was Tlaloc, the Rain God, as rain and beauty make all of the wonderful vegetation in Mexico. She was also famously abducted by Tezcatlipoca, a central God in Aztec religion. He created the whole world, until a jealous quarrel with Xochiquetzal's son, Quetzalcoatl, led to the destruction of it all. Fortunately for us, Quetzalcoatl then recreated the Earth, thus we have the planet to live on!

(Incidentally, when the Spanish attempted to convert the Aztecs into Christianity, they found resistance. The Aztecs, ironically, found the notion of a crucified deity to be distasteful. Those evangelizing friars only made headway when they learned about Tezcatlipoca, the sacrificed God. They were able to link Him with Jesus Christ and Xochiquetzal with Mary, His mother. Hence the Aztecs were Christianized.)

Mexico is a truly beautiful country, with some of the most exquisite arts and crafts in the world. It is certainly a setting for romance and love. Xochiquetzal may now be merged entirely with Mary, Mother of God, but, as the Mother of Quetzalcoatl, She always was. Next time a magnificient Mexican landscape opens up before you, and you are hand in hand with your lover, nod towards the nearest bird or butterfly. Xochiquetzal has you blessed.

July 27, 2011

The Beauty of Tulum and Xel-Ha


Wander in fascination through the remarkably preserved ruins of a Maya fort; then grab an authentic Mexican souvenir, at a sprawling, local market. Journey down onto one of the most sublime beaches upon that whole coastline, touching the very tip of a national biosphere nature reserve. Along the way, keep your eyes sharp for any number of international celebrities. This is a favourite place for the rich and famous to see and be seen. Then travel just slightly north, into the best open sea aquarium and water park on the Mexican Caribbean.

Two gems of the Riviera Maya lie close enough together for both to be visited in one day. They are Tulúm and Xel-há.



Tulúm is a pre-Columbian walled fort, built to protect the inhabitants and the local port against invaders from the Caribbean Sea. It stands 12m (39ft) atop a cliff commanding imposing views of the sea. A compact site, it nonetheless contains spectacular buildings, like the Temple of the Frescoes, which is decorated with niched figurines of deities; the Temple of the Diving God, with its eponymous god; the Temple of Paintings, where the paint is still discernable after 1000 years; and, of course, the Castillo. The bay below is breathtaking to survey. Tulúm is located 128km (80m) south of Cancún.

The fort at Tulúm was built around 1200 CE. It recycled some of the materials from local derelict buildings of the time. A stele, or decorated stone slab, dating from 564 CE sits proudly in a precinct created 15th centuries later. The fort was certainly an important trading center by 1518, when it was first noticed by the invading Spanish. However, it wasn't abandoned by the Mayans until the end of the 16th century.

During the interim, it would have exported gold, flint, ceramics and incense from all over the Yucatán peninsula, including copper from the Mexican highlands and exotic feathers from the inland regions. The density of Guatemalan obsidian artefacts discovered at the site provides a clue to one of its major imports, alongside salt and textiles.


As well as defence from the sea, the fort also warned of natural dangers. The Temple of Winds was built in such a way as to emit a loud wail, when the winds grew to a certain strength. This alerted the residents to the onset of a hurricane and allowed them to get to safety in time.

Tulúm overlooks the coralled reef biosphere reserve of Sian Ka'an. For many people, the turquoise shores here are more magnificent even than those in Cancún. Sitting above them, within the ruins, is a sublime experience; while many will instantly wish to hurry down and swim in those enchanting waters, before relaxing on the white sands.

Outside the ruins is a large market, where bargains may be picked up. See our blog, 'How to Haggle for Goods at the Mercado'.



Xel-há means 'where the waters are born' in the native Mayan. A settlement was formed around the waters in the 1st Century, which had become a coastal port by 800 CE. It is likely that it formed just one of a chain of such ports, which includes the neighbouring Tulúm, through which merchants could interchange goods. Trade would also have come via the picturesque Caribbean Sea.

Arguably the most dramatic moment in Xel-há's history came with the arrival of the Spanish in 1527. Conquistador Francisco de Montejo sought to turn Xel-há into the first Spanish settlement on the Yucatán peninsula. He changed its name to Salamanca de Xelhá and stationed his troops there. Unfortunately for his ambition, disease, deprivation and the resistance of the local Mayans soon reduced the number of his men. Montejo resorted to the desperate measure of scuttling his own ships, in order to stop any of the remaining Spanish from leaving.


They managed to stabilize their position in the settlement enough to attempt unsuccessful sorties into neighbouring areas, but over half of Montejo's men were killed in battle with the Mayan near the to the River Ake. Meanwhile, most of the 65 conquistadores, left behind to govern Salamanca de Xelhá were massacred by its residents. The whole expedition was in a sorry state by the time that another of Montejo's ships arrived with supplies from Santo Domingo. Eighteen months after arriving, Conquistador Francisco de Montejo abandoned all hope of subduing the eastern coast of the Yucatán peninsula and so left the port to its Mayan population.

Xel-há continued to be occupied until the 19th century, though most of its buildings date from three centuries before. These days, it is better known for its open sea aquarium, where snorkelling and sea treks allow visitors to get up close and personal with 70 different species of freshwater and seawater fish.


Visitors can jump off cliffs into crystalline waters; lounge on hammocks on white sand beaches; discover the jungle, on foot or on a hired bicycle; or vist the El Dorado cave, with its unique geological formations around a blue-green pool. The list is endless in this natural eco-park. A highlight is surely the chance to swim with the dolphins, though that is charged as extra.

Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Combine Maya history with natural beauty! Tour the Tulúm ruins, then swim in the Xel Ha natural aquarium.

Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Xel-Ha All Inclusive
An incredible natural aquatic theme park and Mayan archaelogical ruins.

July 25, 2011

Mexican Hammocks

Mexican hammock

The making of hammocks is a proud tradition in the Yucatán. Just about every Maya home has hooks on the wall for hanging their handmade hammock. To mass produce them in a factory would be unthinkable. Every one of these products, exported globally, has been created on a loom, within a family concern. It is often the women who take charge here, though men and children will happily take their turn.

The Maya have been using hammocks since the 1300s. They didn't invent them. The idea was imported from the Taíno people of Ayiti (modern day Haiti), discovered during trading trips. The word 'hammock' means 'fish net' in Arawakan, the language of the Taíno; which gives a huge clue as to what they were making them from. The Maya soon began to stamp their own personality and creativity upon the concept.

Mexican hammock artisan

Mexican hammocks are not made out of fish nets. They are woven out of up to a mile of pure cotton. A few test runs apparently taught them that lying on knots hinder relaxation, so the Maya hammocks do not contain any. The idea is to dye the cotton strands in advance, then keep going from a single yarn. The end result is probably the most comfortable hammock in the world.

Picture a hammock and you possibly have one for a solitary person, strung between two palm trees. With your head close to one tree, and your feet at the other, it cocoons you. If you're trying this with a Mexican hammock, you're doing it wrong.


These are designed to lie width-ways across it. That opens up the hammock and allows two or more people to relax side by side. It becomes firm, moulding to each body, as it gently sways. Some are huge, holding up to five people before another hammock is required. In Maya homes, they don't only serve as beds, but as chairs too. A common use is as a baby's cradle. They are very safe for this, so the little one can't roll out. In large families, hammocks can be very economical with space!

Mexican hammock artisan

Hammock weaving accounts for 60% of the industry of the Yucatán Maya. Ever since the Europeans arrived, in the 16th century, Mexico has been exporting brightly colored weaves. Often the colors will tell you something about the artisan who made it.

Young people are encouraged to experiment to find their own designs or the best hues to string together. They are also taught how to construct their own looms. Your own loom means that you're on your way to self-sufficiency; and can make a living in areas that are often mired in poverty.

Mexican hammock artisan

By adulthood, with centuries of traditional knowledge and an apprenticeship of personal experience behind them, they are ready to launch their choices into the international market. You can imagine the glee, when their creation out-sells everyone elses!

This accounts for the fact that no two Mexican hammocks are exactly the same, though they may appear so from a distance. After all, a winning formula is going to be reproduced! The hand-woven designs might have tassels, elaborate knots on the fringes or anything else that the imagination can throw up. Each person wants to put their all into this. It's a matter of honor, accomplishment, status and pride, so they want to stand out.

Mexican hammock artisan

The process of creating a Maya hammock is called sprang weaving. This interlocks the weave in a diamond shape, which has a practical function, as well as looking pretty. The crossing of threads is what makes it so durable. A single hammock should last its buyer a life-time, as they don't easily wear out.

(Caution should be taken, if you lie on them with buckles or other sharp objects on your person. Not only is this going to be uncomfortable, but you might snag the thread. That's about the only way you are going to destroy this hammock.)

Mexican hammock

So next time you're drifting off to sleep, in your Mexican hammock, throw out a quick thought for the individual who made it. Because they'd be thrilled to bits that you choose their hammock - with their design, which they personally wove for you, on a loom that they built themselves. Enjoy!

July 22, 2011

El Eden Mine: Under the Mountain in Zacatecas

For around 400 years, generations of people, some as young as 12, chipped at the mineral rich rock. Gold and silver was carted out of the richest, most productive mine in Mexico. But most of it was to sail away to Spain for the glory of the Old World. What remained were the history, the legends and a spectacular series of caverns and tunnels, adding up to an amazing tourist attraction today. There's even a night-club in the depths of Mina El Eden.

El Eden

The El Eden Mine may be found in Cerro del Grillo, Zacatecas. A tram brings visitors to the entrance, where they meet with a tour guide for a stroll, 2,000ft inside the mountain. For approximately a mile, through the tunnels and hanging galleries, the party will be regaled with the stories from this historical place. The huge caverns are truly something to behold. All carved by hand, yet vast, with stalactites forming and unmined crystals still embedded in the rock.

Along the way, statues and animated tableaus display a visual glimpse into what it must have been like to work here. Until 1960, this was very much a working mine. Then flooding in the lower levels, and the encroaching city making blasting dangerous, caused it to close down. It was rendered safe and turned into a site for tourism in 1975. The whole history is relayed, both in the tours themselves and in the small museum near to the exit. The mine, like much of the city center of Zacatecas, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

El Eden

El Eden Mine was founded in 1546. Its owners and overseers were all Spanish conquistadors, while the workers were Mexicans. These were a conquered people, at the lowest end of the new world order, and they were treated as expendable.

Some of the stories from this mine are horrific. An average of six people died every day, usually due to working conditions which have modern sensibilities shuddering. The majority of people didn't see their mid-30s; and they spent their short lives working, from childhood, through 14 hour shifts in punishing labour.

As the centuries passed, conditions obviously improved with legisation, modern machinery and better techniques. But it's easy to imagine, especially with the statues laid on to guide you, what it was like back in the early days. The whole mine becomes as fascinating in the atmosphere, as it is beautiful in the aesthetics.

El Eden

Two things to note here, to avoid disappointment or confusion:

* The entrance and exit are not in the same place. The latter is a twenty minute walk up the mountain. For the majority of people this is fine, as they use the exit as their starting point to explore the terrain up there. As well as the hiking trails, with panoramic views of the city, there is a gift shop, selling crystals mined in El Eden. There is a cable car to return to the lower level.

Others simply retrace their steps within the mine. It's a perfectly deligned, well-marked path and the return, done without a tour guide, can sometimes surpass the initial journey. After all, it's walked at your own pace, with ample time to inspect the awesome caverns along the way.

* The guides conduct their tours in Spanish. While this has an obvious benefit for Spanish speakers, it doesn't mean that there is nothing there for those without the language. The visual displays are there partially to enable everyone to glean the history, regardless of their ability to hear/understand the spoken word. Besides you won't need a tour guide to tell you that your surroundings are spectacular.

Benjamin Simpson is amongst those who have blogged about this attraction. 'Mina el Eden' contains a lot of pictures taken there, as well as a commentary on the experiences of a non-Spanish speaker on the tour.

El Eden

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, there is a unique party to be had here. In the very depths of the El Eden Mine is a nightclub. It opens at 10pm, until 3am, and it is truly a great night out. Those caves were made to have disco lights shone on them!

July 21, 2011

Malarrimo Beach: Treasure Trove of the Pacific

It is a beach-comber's paradise, this J-shaped cove. Upon its shores, the ocean currents conspire to deliver a large portion of the Pacific's flotsam. Anything and everything has been found here. Throw something into the water, off the coast of Japan, and the chances are it will wash up here: Malarrimo Beach, Mexico.

Malarrimo Beach

People come from miles around, most of them Mexican, though a fair few on road-trips from the USA or beyond, to sift through the ocean's offerings. After a good storm, where high waves have crashed heavily upon the coast, the volume of treasure-hunters rises considerably. Much of what is found here is trash, but there is also a strong likelihood of discovering something quite remarkable.

The tides are powerful out there. Before a storm, in the 1970s, buried it with sand, there was a huge shipwreck lodged on this beach. The ship hadn't floundered here. It had been carried the distance from the depths of ocean. Whole engines have washed up on this beach, dislodged from wrecks out in the wide Pacific basin.

The list of what else has ended up here is seemingly infinite. It includes: large timbers from sunken galleons; sea-bleached trees; the carcasses of sometimes large, sometimes rare, marine creatures; antiques of all varieties, though with an emphasis on those found in seacraft; torpedos and other items from the two World Wars, as well as those from earlier battles; and electrical appliances (in a camp on the beach, made entirely from salvage and driftwood, there is a rusting refridgerator. It too came from the sea). They are all well washed. The beach does not smell like a junkyard.

Malarrimo Beach

There are plenty of stories of people taking the adventure trip to Malarrimo. Most, it appears, are young men, turning the journey into a rite of passage. A quick search of the internet will uncover many of them. The below is from the stories of Mike Humfreville, who travelled there, with friends in the 1960s:

We walked east along the sand with cliffs on our right and the sea on our left. Gradually the cliffs lessened and quit; they were replaced by wave-like rows of flotsam and jetsam, ten feet tall. High tide lines from stormy weather, one behind the other, running parallel to the beach. Ocean currents during storms piled the objects in deep collections for miles, as far as we could see, looking eastward.

The most striking items were also the largest: whale ribs and vertebrae. The ribs were up to ten or twelve feet long. Vertebrae were up to two feet thick. Tony sat on one and his feet barely touched the ground. The larger spinal discs, used to separate two vertebrae, were two feet in diameter and two inches thick. Like huge tortillas.

We each wandered throughout the collections of floatables: light bulbs, bottles, plastic trash, sea weed, lava, bones, large hollow glass balls the Japanese use to support their fishing nets, piles of driftwood and formed lumber, wooden implements of unfathomable origin and utility, dead fish, sea lions and whales. We looked through the debris for the better part of the morning. It would provide a junk dealer with a career, picking through the rubble before the next storm struck and rearranged his showroom.

Source: Baja with Mike.

The whole story is worth reading. It covers several days and miles and reads like the ultimate boy's own adventure novel.

Malarrimo Beach

The flotsam collections work like this because the confluence of currents, which propel the tides of the Pacific, sit side by side here. Caught between the Kuroshio Current and the California Current, Malarrimo Beach acts like the end of a conveyor belt. Anything falling into the water eventually ends up there.

The beach is in Guerrero Negro, in Baja California, though right on the border with Baja California Sur. It is one of the most Westernly shores of Mexico; in fact entering Guerrero Negro requires your watch to be put back an hour, as a timezone latitude line is crossed.

Getting to Malarrimo Beach isn't so easy though. The highway, north-west from the town of Vizcaino, passes through the desert for long miles, before the turning to the beach is sign-posted at San Jose de Castro. The access road has been trampled down by generations of feet and, latterly, the passage of four wheel drives. It's a real wilderness passage, without tarmac nor the levelling of a digger. Those attempting to drive along it without four wheel drive risk getting stuck in the sand. (See a map here. Malarrimo Beach is at the center of it.)

July 20, 2011

The Culture and Controversy of Cuicuilco

Mexico City is built on the remains of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Before Tenochtitlán, there was another ancient city, the oldest in the entire valley. Cuicuilco was Mexico's Pompeii; a thriving, important place, with pyramids pre-dating Chichén Itzá and Teotihuacan, and a population of 20,000 people. Then the Xitle volcano erupted.


Parts of Cuicuilco are still visible now, but most is under the lava; and Mexico City is creeping on top of the remains.

In Aztec times, the lava plains were a wilderness. Miscreants were banished there, to die of exposure or to be bitten by the rattle snakes, which lived in the area then. Today, this is El Pedregal de San Ángel, or simply El Pedregal, an upper class residential district of Mexico City. Mansions cling to the mountainside, overlooking the major northern boulevards of the capital; hemmed in, to the east, by the University.

In the 1940s, this entire developement was designed and built by Luis Barragán. His vision was to create modernist houses in harmony with the landscape. Outcrops of volcanic rock, frozen in time since its post-eruption cooling, became garden walls; smoother plains became walkways and roads.

El Pedregal

He called this the Gardens of El Pedregal. Experts have called it 'a turning point in Mexican modern architecture'. The complex was accessed through the Plaza de las Fuentes (Plaza of the Fountains), with fountains that intermittantly cast water high into the air. Prominent artists were brought in to add their talent to the aesthetics of the place. Chucho Reyes advised on colors; Mathias Goeritz created sculptures; Xavier Guerrero allowed the use of his specially formulated, rust-free paint. But the houses themselves were pure Barragán.

El Pedregal

This is where the great and the good of the Mexican upper classes lived and still live. The years have lost much of the original architecture, under layers of expansion and home extensions. Mansions got larger and even the iconic Plaza de las Fuentes is now just a side-street, edged with sprawling housing plots.

However, those interested in how it once was can visit Mexico City's Museo Nacional de Arquitectura (National Museum of Architecture), in the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, on Avenida Juárez and Eje Central, in Lázaro Cárdenas. There is a permanent exhibition of Barragán's El Pedregal.

The Gardens of El Pedregal isn't the only modern development crowding in and on top of Cuicuilco. In 1997, Mexico made legal history, when members of the public sued the president and other dignitaries, over the construction of a shopping center and entertainment complex there. (Cuicuilco: Public Protection of Mexican Cultural Patrimony in an Archaeological Zone.) Building ultimately went ahead, but it left safeguards in law against future destruction of the site.

El Pedregal

So what is all of the fuss about? Cuicuilco was certainly the oldest human settlement in the Valley of Mexico; it is possibly one of the most ancient in the entire country. The foundations of the city were laid around 700 BCE. It is believed that, at the time, it was the most important civic-religious center in the Mexican Highlands. Beneath the lava there are pyramids, which could well dwarf those on the surface. Some have theorized that they might have been the largest man-made pyramids in the world.


Little is known about the people who built Cuicuilco, though the exchange of trade goods shows that they interacted with the Olmec. Archaeology has pointed towards a hierarchical society, with chiefs at the top and slaves at the bottom. These were a deeply religious people, who buried their dead with ceramic grave goods. Skulls have been found, with teeth filed into sharp spikes. These were a people fearsome to behold.

The artwork from Cuicuilco was exquisite. A new era of ceramics was born here, starting around 600 BCE. Their pottery was unique to the age and highly prized in distant cities, amongst other tribes. This wasn't merely bowls and cups. They were idols made in the image of deities, demonstrating remarkable craftsmanship.

An artist's impression of Cuicuilco in its heyday

Their city must have been spectacular. Terraces, plazas and many residences have been uncovered. They had engineering knowledge - irrigation ditches fed their fields and brought water from the lake into the city; canals ran like arteries through their streets. There is evidence of warfare or attack. Fortifications surrounded them.

But mostly what would have been seen, from a vantage point on the highlands, were the oval and conical shapes of the farmer's cottages. For miles around the ceremonial center, there were the fields. Corn, maize, beans, squash and tomatoes were amongst the crops cultivated here. Smaller temples, some with up to five altars, dotted the landscape between the massed agriculture.

Cuicuilco sprawled, the mega-city of its day, much like its modern counterpart, Mexico City. Thousands of people were attracted into its midst, generations of them adding and building and expanding. Their gods grew and changed in prominence. By the end, the fire deities had presidence; but that didn't stop the volcano erupting.

Eruption of Xitle by Gonzales Camarena

Xitle blew twice, once in 50 BCE and once in 400 CE. This cinder cone volcano still stands above Mexico City, in the Ajusco range to the south-east. The pyroclastic flow of lava, from both major eruptions, covered substantial parts of the city of Cuicuilco. The final one led to its abandonment. From hereon, the culture of the population can be seen spread out across Mexico; while the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán was founded further down in the valley, beside and upon the lake.

For those campaigning against further modern development of the area, the importance of the history is at the forefront. This was one of the most prominent early cultural centers in Meso-America; yet too few digs have been untaken by archaeologists.

However, there is a small, but very vocal group who want work to stop because it's disturbing and obscuring the lava plains. They have pointed out that examining the extent of the previous eruptions might be of vital consideration for future crisis management. After all, if Xitle blows again now, Mexico's capital city is now right in its path. The homes of many of Mexico's richest residents, including the President, is on top of the area buried before.

There are also some who say that the Cuicuilco people never quite went away. There are pervasive stories of the ghosts of priests and sacrificial victims, in the homes of those living atop the lava plains. Perhaps they have an urgent message, from personal experience, for those intent on ignoring the huge swathes of volcanic rock. Or maybe they are just stories.


Cuicuilco is open to the public, as both an archaeological site of historical importance and a nature reserve. As well as the interest in the site itself, its heights afford a stunning view over Mexico City. Tourists and locals alike are often found strolling across it, climbing onto the summit of its remaining pyramid.

During the spring equinox (around March 21st), there is a sudden boom in visitors. The area becomes once again a place of religious pilgrimage, as people gather to greet the dawn. The sun's rays, on that morning, from the top of the pyramid is believed to refresh the spirit and bring blessings upon their lives in the following year.


Whatever your beliefs, Cuicuilco is a beautiful place to meander upon. It is recommended to anyone visiting Mexico City.

July 19, 2011

The Zone of Silence

Everyone enjoys a good mystery and the natural world, despite the best efforts of scientists, still manages to provide a startling number of them. The Bermuda Triangle; the Dragon Triangle; the Brown Mountain lights; the list goes on. Here, in Mexico, there is another, deep within the scorching Chihuahua Desert. The academics call it Mar de Tetys (Sea of Thetys), but the rest of the world know it by another moniker: the Zone of Silence.

The Zone of Silence

Thetys is a Greek goddess, who was seen as the embodiment of water. She was the sister and wife of Oceanus and the mother of the world's rivers. She may seem a bizarre choice to lend her name to a place of punishing heat and arid dryness, such as this part of the Chihuahua desert. However, in antiquity, there was a sea here. It covered most of modern day Mexico and the USA; and its legacy is the millions of fossilized marine creatures, which litter the desert today.

The Zone of Silence

To say that the area has some unusual phenomena is to understate the situation. There are more UFO sightings, strange lights, alien encounters, ghostly figures and spontaneously burning bushes in this isolated part of the desert, than there are in the entire rest of the country. There is also some unusual flora and fauna, including a purple cactus and a sub-species of desert turtle, which aren't found anywhere else on the planet.

Back in the 19th century, local farmers were telling visitors about the 'hot pebbles' that habitually fell upon the wilderness. Modern scientists are still seeing them, but they are calling them tiny meteorites or guijolas.

Studies of the soil have shown high levels of magnetite. As the name suggests, this is the most magnetic of all of the Earth's minerals. This might give you a clue as to what happens to iron in the area.

The Zone of Silence

Amongst the stories is that of a ranch, close to the Zone of Silence, which is regularly visited by two blond man and a blonde woman. To all intents and purposes, they are human and they speak perfect Spanish. What makes them so strange is that they only ever ask for water and, when asked where they come from, they simply answer, 'from above'. They are also wearing raincoats, which isn't common attire in a blazing hot desert.

The family on the ranch aren't alone in meeting them. A scientific researcher became separated from his party and was lost in the Zone. He was just starting to panic, when he spotted three blond haired people, wearing 'raincoats and ball caps'. They directed him back to civilization.

The Zone of Silence

This is similiar to the experience of Josefina and Ernesto Diaz, a couple of fossil hunters, who got stuck after a rainstorm induced flash flood. This was on October 13, 1975, when their truck ended up in a hole, from which they could not simply drive out. As they surveyed the problem, they were approached by tall, blond men, in yellow raincoats, who suggested that the couple get back into their vehicle.

They did so and felt the truck being lifted and pushed back onto solid ground. Thankful and thrilled, the couple left their truck to shake the hands of the men. But they were now alone. The desert stretched for miles in each direction without a sign of their assistants. There were no footprints in the sodden sand.

The Zone of Silence

A TV reporter also spotted them. Luis Ramirez Reyes was travelling with a photographer, in November 1978, with a view to investigating the area for a possible feature in a programme. As the two drove along, he saw three blond men, with raincoats, at the side of the road, watching them. The photographer was driving and, to the reporter's surprise, didn't stop the car.

As Reyes pressed him for a reason why, the photographer replied with incredulity that he hadn't seen then. This alone was enough to spook Reyes, but as they continued driving into a totally different part of the desert, he saw the same three men again, standing watching. As before, the photographer couldn't see them.

Travellers through the area often encounter the ghostly figure of a blond man, who just drifts across the road or is glimpsed walking across the landscape.

The Zone of Silence

However, none of this is explaining why it's called the Zone of Silence. This is because no communication devise works there. Radio waves are randomly deadened. Cellphones have no signal; walkie-talkies just transmit white noise; televisions and transistors receive nothing but static; even compasses can't find north, but spin around on the spot.

This would be a harmless curiosity, but for the fact that it also destroys the equipment of anything flying above it. In fact, publicity for this place first leaked out after a pilot, Francisco Sarabia, crash-landed in the zone during the 1930s. He claimed that his 'plane's radio had stopped working, as he flew across.

The Zone of Silence

Even more dramatic was what happened in 1970, when a US Athena missile left Utah bound on a test flight to New Mexico. However, the missile overshot its landing spot. NASA observers reported that it was as if the missile was suddenly pulled off course. It continued into Mexico and crashed into pieces in the Zone of Silence.

With the permission of the Mexican government, a team of US scientists and military crossed the border to the crash site. They discovered that not even satellite signals worked there. Short waves, radio waves, television waves, you name it, it was silenced.

These are just a few of the strange stories attached to the Zone of Silence. Many theories have been proffered to explain the strangeness of the area. They range from the spectacular to the prosaic, but none have definitely solved the mystery.

July 18, 2011

Shakira in Mérida: Free Concert for 150,000 People

"Good evening, Mérida! Tonight is yours!" was the greeting, as award-winning, Colombian singer Shakira appeared on the stage. The answering cheer, from the amassed crowd of 150,000 people, could surely have been heard back in Cancún.

None of them had paid a single peso to be here. The performance was a gift from the city authorities. The mayor's office had organized it; a consortium of business people had paid for it. Now Shakira was here and the people of Mérida were having the time of their lives.

Shakira in Merida

Shakira entertained the city for two hours, playing all of her greatest hits, including 'Pies Descalzos', 'Hips Don’t Lie', 'Te Dejo Madrid', 'La Tortura', 'Loba' and 'Antes de las Seis'. A surprise addition to the set-list was a cover of the US band, Metallica's 'Nothing Else Matters', which was received very well by the exuberant masses.

Her encore, of course, was 'Waka, Waka (This Time for Africa)', which was the official song of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Watching from the wings was her own favourite international footballer. Boyfriend Gerard Piqué, centre back for Barcelona FC, and one of the key players for the Spanish team that won the World Cup last year, accompanied Shakira to Mérida.

Tickets were handed out at special 'one-stop shops' around the city, in the days leading up to the event. The majority of people stood, but there was preferential seating for the disabled and for youngsters who had demonstrated outstanding academic or sporting prowess. Teachers and coaches were previously invited to nominate students for the treat, with organizers choosing who to honor based on their records and stories.

Land around a former railway station, La Plancha, was cleared and developed, in order to hold this free concert on Saturday night. It had previously been derelict and overgrown, but now promises to be a venue for future events in Mérida.

Shakira in Merida

However, not everyone was happy. Some protesters boycotted the concert, whilst campaigning against the use of public money for it. They argued that, though Shakira's fee had been paid by local business people, preparing the land came from the treasury. This was money, they maintained, whilst would have been better spent on education or health. They were also concerned by the lack of transparency surrounding costs, through which it became impossible to know precisely how much tax-payers had contributed.

Angelica Araujo Lara, the municipal president of the city, had held a series of public meetings, outlining how the concert would bring tourism to the area. The city's hotels, shops, restaurants and bars would all benefit as attendees were drawn from outside Mérida; while the global coverage of the event would be a great showcase for the city. In short, any money put in by the public purse would be recouped by this boost to the local economy.


With an eye to the incoming tourists, attracted by the presense of Shakira, this concert didn't happen in isolation. In the week leading up to it, several public events were staged, including a huge exhibition of Mérida handicrafts; a folk ballet; a musical review, featuring children and teenagers from the city; and a concert by local bands and the city's orchestra. All of these were free to attend and took place in Mérida's main parks and plazas.

A selection of fan-made videos, filmed at the Mérida concert, can be found at Yazmín MK's 'My Shaki Blog'.

Shakira in Merida

July 15, 2011

The Legendary Home of Luis Barragán

Luis Barragán was a legend amongst architects. Frequently referred to as Mexico's most influential designer of the 20th century, he received the Pritzker Prize for his work.

(For the uninitiated, that's the architect equivalent of being awarded a Nobel prize.)

His public buildings have inspired awe and wonder for decades; sometimes without people realising that they were looking at one of his creations.

The Torri Satélite is one of his. It is a group of towers designed to be seen from a moving car, in the middle of a Mexico City highway. It's a landmark viewed by thousands every day. The aim was to provide something interesting to survey from a traffic jam, which Mexico City unfortunately excels in providing. As the drivers sit there, awaiting their turn to move forward a few feet, their stress levels are reduced by this monumental art. It works.

Torri Satélite

However Barragán remained an intensely private man until his death in 1988. Then the world finally got the answer to the burning question, 'if his commissioned work is this good, then how amazing could his home, refined over the years, be?' The answer? It is stunning.

Luis Barragán's House and Studio was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006. This means that a United Nations panel, comprising of 21 countries, considered it important enough to be protected as a building of 'special cultural or physical significance'. This puts it on a par with places like the Pyramids of Giza, the Statue of Liberty, the Persepolis or Uluru (Ayer's Rock). This isn't just a pretty house.

Luis Barragán's House and Studio

From the outside, it's not even particularly that. Those strolling along Calle Ramírez, in Mexico City, would be forgiven for walking right on by, unknowing of the wonders behind the bland exterior wall. Barragán built his house to blend into the existing surroundings. His building appears like any other in the street. It's unprepossessing, grey concrete. Yet stand on tip-toe, from the front of the house, on the opposite side of the road, and colors start to emerge within.

Luis Barragán's House and Studio

It is only as you step through the front door that the artistry becomes apparent. Every corridor and room is individually designed, with vivid colors and masterful use of light. The whole house is his canvas, from the positioning of the walls, through to the shape of the rooms, and their aspects. The artist plays with perspective. It is difficult to judge exactly how large or small any area is, because his design seeks to play tricks with the eye.

The house is filled with secret places. Rooms within rooms; or staircases, which afford unlikely views into spots of intense beauty, art or the garden. It was built to be an emotional experience, which can only be tapped into by actually being there. As such, at one time photography was prohibited, on account of the camera never being able to capture the mood. It's not a building to see, but to feel.

"In alarming proportions the following words have disappeared from architectural publications: beauty, inspiration, magic, sorcery, enchantment, and also serenity, mystery, silence, privacy, astonishment. All of these have found a loving home in my soul."
Luis Barragán, accepting the Pritzker Prize for Architecture

Photography is allowed in the property now, though only on the roof terrace. Some observers maintain even that misses the point.

Luis Barragán's House and Studio

Luis Barragán's House and Studio

Luis Barragán's House and Studio

The architect's fascination with light and shade was built into his home's design. By closing a shutter or switching on a light, then a whole room can be transformed. As such, knowledge of its secrets means that it can be displayed in very different ways. A visitor might not see the same house twice.

Casa Luis Barragán, is on General Francisco Ramírez 12-14, Colonia Ampliación Daniel Garza, México city. Tours are by appointment only, but can be arranged by calling (52) 55 5515-4908 or e-mailing casaluisbarragan@gmail.com.
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