January 31, 2011

The Virtual Chichén Itzá

For many people, Chichén Itzá is Mexico. The ancient Maya pyramid frequently illustrates those books, blogs and editorial, which tell the discerning tourist 100 places they should visit in their lives. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Chichén Itzá

It has been on the vacation trail since 1843 and, on any given day, thousands flock to the area to gaze at these famous ruins. That figure is about to leap into the millions, but the visitors will be virtual (and maybe even intergalactic).

Saturday saw the launch of a brand new initiative between Google Earth and Mexico's National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH). The launch event, at Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City, highlighted an unprecedented collaboration between the two institutions. Mexico is opening up 180 museums and sites of historical importance to Google's cameras. Amongst them is the legendary Chichén Itzá.

Filming is yet to take place, but when it does, individuals will be able to sit at their home computers and still visit these sites. The Google Earth application allows web-users to navigate their own pathway through many of the world's streets and wilderness terrain. When this extra feature is installed, they will be able to walk through the Maya ruins and browse the exhibitions in Mexico's national museums. No substitute for the real thing, but as close as we can get in the electronic world.

View Larger Map

Currently, the above map is as close as Google users have been able to zoom into the Maya ruins. The new application will eventually see them right in its heart. Google's executivess are naturally ecstatic at their cool new feature. Google Latin America's marketing manager, Miguel Angel Alva, viewed it as 'a unique effort in the Latin American region and its first such project at an international level.'

But what's in it for Mexico? Hopefully, a huge boost to the economy. The endeavour is advertizing. It's marketing. It's showcasing all that Mexico has to offer and doing so on a grand scale. Google Earth has been downloaded 400 million times, so its users are likely to be double or triple that number. It's been translated into 37 languages. All of those people will now have the opportunity to explore Mexico's treasures in cyberspace. How many of them will then wish that they were doing it for real?

Alfonso de Maria y Campos, the director of INAH, explained, "Cultural tourism brings in twice the cash that sun, sea and sand tourism does, which tells us that this tourist segment travels more, has a better image of the country and above all leaves more money in non-traditional places."

Meanwhile, another Google subsidary, You Tube, has been abuzz this week with yet another aerial sighting over Chichén Itzá. Uploaded on January 24th, 2011, and filmed sometime in the preceding weeks, a tourist filmed a purported UFO over the Maya pyramid. Aliens, Google Earth starting its imaging or a weather balloon. You decide!

Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá
Various tours, to suit every wallet or time-frame, to the most famous of all the Maya ruins.

January 29, 2011

UFOs Over Mexico

We could not discuss the solar system, in this blog, without touching upon the subject of UFOs. Mexico, as with every other country, has its sightings. Some are easily dismissed, as natural phenomena, aircraft or weather balloons. The first picture ever taken of a UFO, over Mexico, was in 1885. Upon analysis, it turned out to be high flying geese. However, some sightings have been harder to explain away or have received a lot of coverage over the years.

On July 11th, 1991, the world witnessed a solar eclipse. The view of this was particularly spectacular in Mexico. Thousands of people were filming the sky, waiting for a shadow to pass over the sun. Millions more were simply looking upwards. They were ready to see something awesome, but what many also saw took their breath away.

UFO in Mexico

Did so many people, from Mexico City to Puebla, really see a spacecraft that day? The UFO was described as metallic and undulating. It had a haze behind it, like an energy haze, as it moved in the sky. A bright reflection came from it, as if shining in the sun, while a darker strip underneath seemed suggestive of a shadow. Moreover, it didn't just turn up once. It was seen annually, from 1991-1993, at the Mexico City Airshow, every September 16th.

Sceptics have supplied an explanation. The object certainly did originate from outer space, but it wasn't from an alien world. It was an alien world. The most prevalent explanation is that this particular UFO was the planet Venus.

Venus, as viewed from the Earth

Venus or UFO. You decide.

Our next story is one that was acknowledged by the Mexican Department of Defense. On March 5th, 2004, an air force Air Force Merlín C26A Bimotor 'plane, belonging to the 501 Aerial Squadron, was flying over Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche. They were searching for the unauthorized aircraft of smugglers. As a result, the crew were recording in both normal and infrared mode, while operating powerful sensors. It was a routine manoeuvre, but what happened next was anything but routine.

Mexican Airforce
Crew of the Merlín C26A

The 'plane was under the command of navigation officer, Mayor Magdaleno Jasso Núñez. When, at 3.400 meters (10,500 feet), an unknown aircraft was picked up on their sensors, Núñez gave the order to investigate it. As they took off in pursuit, their information was being reported to ground control. It was also being recorded, in real time, by FLIR operator, Lt. Mario Adrián Vázquez, and RADAR operator, Lt. German Ramirez.

As they approached the position, their sensors showed that their target had conducted a 'surprising' feat of aerodynamics and then sped off extraordinarily fast. They had reached an altitude of 3,500 meters (11,480 feet). They should also have had visual contact by now, but the skies remained clear to the naked eye. The FLIR and RADAR screens were telling a different story. The readings all confirmed that there was now not just one, but 11 ojects in the sky. Yet outside the window, there was nothing but clouds.

Núñez radioed back to base, requesting instructions, as this was something far beyond the experience of anyone on board. As he did so, the sensors showed that the unseen, unknown objects had encircled their 'plane. The trained military crew on board kept calm, recording every detail and remaining in radio contact with the ground. Meanwhile, fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the objects and, possibly, rescue their colleagues in the Merlin C26A.

However, before they could arrive, the objects simply disappeared off RADAR and FLIR. The crew returned to base, where they shakily admitted to having been a little perturbed up there. Regardless of personal feelings, their meticulous professional had provided a wealth of data about the incident. General Clemente Vega Garcia, the Secretary of Defense, ordered a thorough investigation.

In an unprecedented move, the footage was also made public. Capt. Alejandro Franz pointed out that the Cantarell Oil Refinery was in the vicinity. The lights could well have been flares reflecting off the clouds. Another explanation was that they were car headlights, driving along the Yucatan headland.

Oil flares, headlights or UFO. You decide.

January 27, 2011

February 26th 2011: The Night of Stars

Night of Stars

Festivites will be held throughout Mexico to raise awareness and enjoyment of astronomy. On February 26th, 2011, the Night of Stars will see organized events occurring simultaneously, across 30 locations dotted around the country. 200 institutions are involved, including the French Embassy and the Alliance Française network. The Night of Stars will be linking up with France, to render this a truly international galactical occasion.

Night of Stars

The Night of Stars has been scheduled to coincide with both Jupiter and Saturn being visible to the naked eye. In the clear Mexican skies, Jupiter will be seen from 8pm, while Saturn will rise over the horizon from 9.30pm. This will also be a great opportunity to peer at the nebula, just below Orion's belt, where new stars are being formed.

Throughout the country, hundreds of professional and amateur astronomers will be on hand to guide newcomers with their star-gazing. There will be telescopes for people to peer through; as well as constellations pointed out, that can be seen without equipment.

Night of Stars

Events also include lectures, workshops and exhibitions, all designed to introduce astronomy and educate attendees on their place in the cosmos. Of course, this wouldn't be Mexico, if there wasn't also a party going on. Cultural and artistic displays are also on the programme, though obviously nothing that will cause light pollution!

To learn more about the Night of the Stars, and to see what is happening in your location, then please visit the Noche de las Estrallas 2011 website. The English language version may be consulted with a little help from Google Translate: Night of the Stars 2011. All are welcome!

International Year of Chemistry
These festivities are part of Mexico's involvement in the International Year of Chemistry. As such, many of the workshops will concentrate on the chemical make-up of the universe.

Several other events will be held in Mexico, during 2011, to celebrate humanities achievements in chemistry. Please consult the official website for news on all that is happening.

January 26, 2011

Rodolfo Neri Vela: A Mexican in Space

Prof Rodolfo Neri VelaOver the years, there have been several astronauts of Mexican descent involved in the international space program. NASA have nine Mexican-American astronauts, while another three have played key roles on the ground.

However, there has only ever been one born and bred Mexican in space: Prof Rodolfo Neri Vela. After years of campaigning for it, he is thrilled that Mexico is finally getting its own space agency.

It was on November 26, 1985, that Neri Vela joined his crew on the STS-61-B Atlantis Space Shuttle. They launched from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, USA, under the command of NASA. Their mission was to deploy three communications satellites, as well as conducting several experiments. These were to inform later missions and to advance our technology to further explore the solar system.

Neri Vela flew as a Payload Specialist. He had worked for the Mexican Ministry of Communications and Transportation, as its Head of the Department of Planning and Engineering of the Morelos Satellite Program. The MORELOS-B was one of the communications satellites that was deployed by this mission, hence Neri Vela getting his moment amongst the stars.

By the time he returned, on December 3, 1985, Neri Vela had orbited the Earth 108 times and clocked up 165 hours in space. He had travelled 2.4 million miles (3.8 million km) . Though not an astronaut, he had ungone rigorous training and had to pass a clearance program by NASA. The mission was declared a complete success.

Dr Rodolfo Neri Vela

Neri Vela was born, on February 19, 1952, in the city of Zumpango del Río, in Guerrero. He received his Bachelor's degree, in Mechanical and Electronic Engineering, University of Mexico. In 1975, he travelled to England, in order to complete his Masters, Doctoral and Postgraduate degrees, at the universities of Essex, then Birmingham. Several high profile jobs ensued, all in Mexico, before he was picked for the NASA mission.

"From space I see myself as one more person among the millions and millions who loved, live, and will live on Earth. Inevitably, this makes one think about our existence and the way in which we should live to enjoy, to share, our short lives as fully as possible."

Neri Vela's work didn't end with him landing back on Earth. In 1989, he moved briefly to Holland, where he took up a position within the European Space Agency. Here he was responsible for planning part of the International Space Station. A year later, his contract completed, he returned to Mexico to join the radio communications research group, at the Institute of Electrical Research. He was also inaugurated into the International Space Hall of Fame. Neri Vela is currently a Professor, in the Faculty of Engineering, at the University of Mexico.

Dr Rodolfo Neri Vela

Over the years, Neri Vela has campaigned tirelessly for Mexico to have its own space agency. Now that this is becoming a reality, he is right there at the forefront, having reviewed the draft proposal on behalf of the Mexican government.

January 25, 2011

Watching the Stars at San Pedro Mártir

Observatorio Astronómico Nacional

Mexico's National Astronomical Observatory (Observatorio Astronómico Nacional (OAN)) nestles high in Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, Baja California. Three large telescopes scan the stars, feeding back vital information. Scientists, researchers and the occasional interested tourist book their times to view the solar system.

The dark skies above are protected, in law, from light pollution. The high altitude, low humidity, little radio wave interference and low atmospheric pollution render this the perfect place from which to stare at the wonders of our universe.

The OAN moved several times, before finding its present home. It was officially opened on May 5th, 1878, from its base in Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City. Back then, there was a fixed telescope, 18ft (5.5 meters) in length, and an Ertel's meridian circle. The launch event saw observers using these telescopes to focus upon two stars in the constellation, Bootes.


Over the following century, the telescopes were dismantled and relocated further and further out into the Mexican countryside. Mexico City's growth had led to too much light pollution for the OAN to be usefully based there. The telescopes were updated, as technology moved on.

In 1967, it finally found its permanent headquarters, in the mountains of San Pedro Mártir. Brand new telescopes were built to serve its expanding needs and to secure its place in the advancement of science. The astronomical community have been making the pilgrimage ever since!

San Pedro Mártir

However, its general remoteness can make basic facilities a little challenging.

The same things which make this observatory an incredible place to stargaze also make it a fun challenge for Baja adventurers to reach. Although scientists and locals work hard to maintain it, the dirt road which leads to it from the Transpeninsular Highway can be difficult to traverse - especially in winter due to snow and rain. Four wheel drive vehicles are highly recommended. Travelers and campers are also strongly encouraged to bring their own food, gasoline, water and car repair tools. The OAN provides shelter only to their professional visitors; others must fend for themselves, largely because the OAN generates their own electricity at the observatory site, hauls in their fuel from Ensenada and pumps all water from a well 5 miles away from living quarters. They have very little to spare!
Sierra San Pedro de Mártir Observatory

The observatory is part of the Institute of Astronomy. For those wishing to adventure up there, then there are travel tips given, in English, on this site.

January 24, 2011

Mexico in the Space Age

solar system
Photo: MPL 3D

Puerto Vallarta was, this weekend, revealed to be the location of the fourth forum for the creation of Mexico's Space Agency. Delegates will meet there, on January 28-29th, to discuss human resources. The technological requirements, for the agency's proposed projects, will be examined to determine the skills of future employees. All is going according to plan and Mexico is well and truly back in the Space Age.

A launch pad in the Yucatan, capable of sending rockets into space, might sound like the stuff of science fiction. But it is happening.

The Mexican Space Agency (Agencia Espacial Mexicana (AEXA)) was given the legal go ahead to form, last April, when the Senate okayed its foundation. The provision called for a series of conferences to iron out the administrative, scientific, technological and industrial fine detail. Those grand meetings have progressed right on schedule.

AEXA is the brainchild of José Luis Garcia and Fernando de la Peña. But the inspiration apparently came from a US astronaut, José Hernández. Five years ago, De la Peña created space-compatible borescope (device used to examine inaccessible objects), which was welcomed by NASA. He was installing it there, when he met Hernández.

José Hernández
José Hernández

Hernández was born and raised in Stockton, California, USA, though his ancestry is Mexican. He first went into space in 2009, when he was part of the crew delivering supplies to the International Space Station. During his ten years working for NASA, Hernández has also liaised between the US Congress and Senate on astronomical matters. He was President Barack Obama's frontman, standing before Congress to present a vision of commercial space travel and missions to Mars. Hernández is a highly respected NASA engineer and astronaut; and it was he who suggested to De la Peña that Mexico should develop its own space agency.

When De la Peña took him at his word, Hernández's support didn't end there. He has been instrumental in presenting the idea to the Mexican Congress and Senate, as well as sharing his vast expertise in creating a workable draft proposal. Garcia and De la Peña might have done all of the hard work, but Hernandez lent credibility to the cause.

AEXA's Board of Governors at the launch conference

AEXA is now a reality. Its Board of Governors were appointed, on September 7th, 2010. Their role has been to oversee a series of fora, designed to create the infrastructure of the space agency. This month's Puerto Vallarta Forum is the penultimate one, before AEXA can take their plan back to the Senate for a mandate to form as a legal entity. Letters of support from other space agencies, across the globe, have been flooding in.

The study of the solar system isn't a new idea in Mexico. The Maya were once famously knowledgable about astronomy. However, AEXA intend to bring this learning right into the 21st century. The agency will create jobs, which will also serve to stem the tide of brain drain out of the country. It will be the center for technological advances, which will not only help the country, but also the international space community. It will stimulate the economy and, hopefully, open up new frontiers. Education and research are key to its proposed program. Yet it will also endeavour to became self-funding.

Lofty ambitions indeed, but right now, the stars are quite literally the limit.

Read more about the goals of AEXA on their website.

January 21, 2011

Jaguar: Mexico's Iconic Big Cat

It is a creature that has become iconic in film, art, literature, legend and national identity. The mighty jaguar, whose fur bedecked ancient Aztec warriors and whose aspect fuelled images of their Gods. Once ranging throughout the North and South Americas, it's been pushed further and further south until it is no longer seen in Canada, while it's nearly gone from the USA. But its dwindling numbers, near threatened with extinction, still roam the dense jungle reserves of Mexico.

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the only panther native to the Americas or, indeed, to the western hemisphere. For many, the stereotypical jaguar is black. Such notions are fuelled by appearances like that in 'Apocalypto'. However, most jaguars look more like their cousins, the leopards.

Jaguar, as it's commonly seen

There are some distinct differences between jaguars and leopards though. The jaguar is heavier and stockier, weighing in at 124–211lbs (8s 9lbs-15s; 56–96kg). It is also longer, from head to the base of the tail, measuring 1.62–1.83 metres (5.3–6 ft). Finally, the markings on the body, known as rosettes, are thicker, blacker and less numerous than on the leopard.

This isn't to say that black jaguars don't turn up naturally from time to time. Melanism, a condition causing an excess of black pigmentation, can occur, but only roughly 6% of the jaguar population exhibit this. Even then, direct sunlight will illuminate the markings blending into the fur. Incidentally, there are no black panthers as a separate species of big cat. They are all melanistic jaguars, leopards, tigers or lions.

Melanistic jaguar, aka black panther

The opposite can also occur, with albino jaguars showing up as white panthers. These are less common in Mexico, as they are further south in Paraguay.

Jaguars are carnivores. Their diet consists of a large variety of animals, which they hunt with powerful efficiency. Like all big cats, they are adapt at biting deeply into the throats of their prey, effectively suffocating them. However, there is something special about jaguars, which makes them unique amongst felines. They have a second method of slaughter.

Jaguar bringing down a tapir

They bite down between their prey's ears, crushing the temporal bones at the base of the skull. In this way, the jaguar's canine teeth can penetrate the brain and instantly kill their victim. It's believed that this adaption was learned 11,000 years ago, when the late Pleistocene extinctions left them with little to eat but armoured reptiles, like turtles.

It may be reassuring to know, therefore, that human beings are not the jaguar's natural prey. (The situation is more often reversed, hence the fact that jaguars are heading towards extinction, due to deforestation and human hunters.) This isn't to say that jaguars won't attack humans, if they are provoked. They have no fear of us and, in an unarmed fight, the jaguar will win. However, they are elusive and will go out of their way to avoid humans. They will only attack if sick, injured or feel that their cubs are being threatened.

Jaguars don't come into the cities and resorts, so you are most likely to only see one if you visit somewhere like Xcaret. This video was filmed there.

Tours into the Yucatán jungle, one of the few remaining natural habitats of the jaguar, tend to be with experienced guides. Mauled tourists are bad for business, so you would be thoroughly protected, on the off-chance that you encountered one. However, should you find yourself in the unlikely situation of being stranded there alone, with a jaguar staring at you, then there are things that you can do.

First you can rejoice in the fact that you are experiencing an extremely rare encounter.

Secondly, do not run. That might be against all instinct, but running people look like prey. You'll be doing nothing but triggering the hunter in your new friend.

JaguarThirdly, don't stare at it. Watch it, by all means, but do not look straight into its eyes. That's the feline equivalent of saying, 'would you like a fight?' You don't. It's bigger than you. Instead, face it, but look past it, or at the ground in front of it, or to the side of it. Not the eyes.

Fourthly, back away slowly. The jaguar is a hide and ambush kind of hunter, just like any cat. If it's in full view, watching you, then it's not actually hunting you. You're just the current entertainment, while it evaluates you to see if you're a threat to it. Backing away slowly is your way of saying, 'I'm no threat. I'm really lovely. Bye.'

By now, all should be well. The jaguar will have either stayed where it is or gone away, bored by the strange human. In the utterly bizarre circumstance that it decides to attack, then raise your arms in the air, wave them around and start shouting. This makes you look bigger and more dangerous than you actually are and might deter it. Above all, don't start running, even at this point, because it can speed along at 35 miles per hour and you probably can't.


Jaguar inspired art and tours can be found all over Mexico, though its actual habitat has mostly been pushed back to very narrow strips of reservations. Hopes that this magnificant cat can survive were given a boost, in 2009, when one was spotted in central Mexico, for the first time in a century.

January 19, 2011

'Pink Meanie': New Species of Jellyfish Discovered In Gulf of Mexico

The scientific world is abuzz with the news. A brand new species of jellyfish has been identified in Mexican waters. This extremely rare creature has been nicknamed 'Pink Meanie', in part because it feeds on other jellyfish. Its discovery also means registering a new family, unique amongst any studied before.

Drymonema larsoni
Photo: Mary Elizabeth Miller, 2011

Drymonema larsoni has been measured at 3ft (0.9 meters) across, weighing in at 50lbs (3.6 stone; 22.7kg). Its tentacles can reach 70ft (21.3 meters) and are capable of ensnaring dozens of prey at once. (One in the Gulf of Mexico was spotted snacking on 34 smaller jellyfish at the same time.) It is the founding species of the Family Drymonematidae. This designation will cover jellyfish which specifically eat its own kind.

The species was photographed, in November 2000, off the coast of Dauphin Island, Alabama, USA. At the time, no-one realised the significance. It was assumed that the giant, pink creature was a stray, washed across the Atlantic from the Mediterranean Sea. A similar jellyfish lives there. Marine biologists nicknamed it the 'pink meanie'.

Drymonema larsoni
Photographed by Ben Raines, 2000

It was only when an American graduate student, Keith Bayha, went on vacation to Turkey, that questions began to be asked about the 'pink meanie'. He spotted one of the supposed species off the coast there and captured it. Asking around, he learned that this jellyfish hadn't been seen in decades in the region. It also had marked differences to the 'pink meanie' photographed back home.

Thus began ten years of research for Keith Bayha, who is now a Dauphin Island Sea Lab scientist. He teamed up with Dr Michael Dawson (University of California Merced Campus), who is an expert in the field, as well as an author of books on the subject. Bayha studied classifications of jellyfish from all over the world, as well as investigating 'pink meanies'. Their range covered the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the US Atlantic. Finally, DNA testing confirmed what his other data had already concluded. This jellyfish was something entirely new. In fact, it is unique.

Bayha explains, "It's rare that something like this could escape the notice of scientific research for so long. That it did is partially due to Drymonema’s extreme rarity almost everywhere in the world."

Keith Bayha
Keith Bayha and wallaby friend

When the classification was made, Bayha named it 'larsoni' after a personal hero, Ronald Larson. He was a US Fish & Wildlife scientist, who had contributed significantly to the jellyfish collection at the Smithsonian Museum. Bayha also believes that Larson was the first to document the 'pink meanie'. Bayha added, "I felt like he hadn’t really been recognized for all he had done. So this was my way of giving him some recognition."

Drymonema larsoni
Current cover of 'The Biological Bulletin'. A 'pink meanie' preys on the moon jellyfish Aurelia

Swimmers and divers suddenly feeling very nervous about taking a dip in the Mexican oceans should take note. The jellyfish have always been there. The only thing that has changed is that we now know about them. The distinct lack of headlines, from people attacked by them, is testimony to the fact that human beings are not on the menu. However, if you are an Aurelia jellyfish, beware!

January 18, 2011

Montezuma's Headdress Could Be Coming Home

Montezuma's Headdress
Original headdress (Museum of Ethnology, Vienna)

It has taken three years of long negotiation, on top of decades of lobbying and centuries of wishful thinking. Now that is drawing to a conclusion: the headdress, believed to have belonged to the last Aztec king, might be returning to Mexico. So many of these treasures were taken from the country, during the Spanish conquest, that only reproductions remain. Now Mexicans may finally get the chance to see the original.

The headdress was removed from the country, during the 16th century, by Spanish conquistadors. Curios from the New World were big business then, as connoisseurs scrambled to see and understand what was being discovered so far overseas. Artifacts could be used in politics and religion, justifying the taking of land from apparently barbaric, Pagan people. Priests could hold up siezed icons to illustrate cautionary sermons about sympathizing with Satan. Alternatively, items could be bought by collectors, to be displayed as novelties.

Montezuma's Headdress
Reproduction headdress (Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City)

This particular Aztec headdress had found its way, by 1575, into the private collection of Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria. Ferdinand was the son of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor, and the younger brother of Maximilian II. He controlled substantial territories of his own, but even the vast revenue from those couldn't match his appetite for purchasing art. He died leaving huge debts, but also a famous collection in Castle Ambras, Tyrol, Austria. Amongst them was a horde of priceless Mexican antiquities.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the treasures of Castle Ambras were deposited in the Museum of Ethnology, in Vienna, Austria. European experts rushed in to examine the artifacts, finding particular fascination in the headdress. However, all of them believed that it was a mantle. It was left to a visiting US anthropologist, Zelia Nuttall, to explain its real function. She also identified it as being from Quetzalapanecayotl Palace.

Montezuma's Headdress
Artist's impression of Montezuma wearing the headdress

Whether the headdress had been attributed as belonging to Montezuma before is debatable, but it certainly was afterwards. Montezuma (aka Moctezuma II) was the most famous of Aztec rulers. He lived in the city that later became Mexico City; and did so at the time of the Spanish conquest. There is no actual proof that the headdress ever belonged to him. But it could well have. The headdress was taken from the right place, at the right time. Anyway, its designation, as Montezuma's headdress, added a layer of intrigue that brought in the European crowds to view its exhibition. In Mexico, it is also commonly called Penacho de Moctezuma.

quetzalquémitlMexican historians have an different interpretation. They believe that it may have been worn by a priest. It's been suggested that it may have been a mantle all along. Called a quetzalquémitl (feather cape), it would have transformed the priest into a living embodiment of the God, Quetzalcoátl. It is to examine it more closely, so that these questions may be addressed, which is the main impetus for asking for its return.

The Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have been locked in talks, for the past three years, with their counterparts in the Austrian government and Kunsthistorisches Museum officials. The Museum of Ethnology, where the headdress is currently on display, is under the jurisdiction the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Mexico's President Felipe Calderon has been personally involved in the negotiations.

Carriage of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico

As a gesture of good-will, the headdress will be exchanged for a golden stagecoach used by Mexican Emperor Maximilian. He was a member of the Austrian royal family. However, the Austrians have made it quite clear that the exchange is a temporary loan. Sabine Haag, director of Kunsthistorisches Museum, told an Austrian radio show that the headdress belongs in Austria.

We understand of course that the Penacho has a deep symbolic and spiritual meaning for Mexico's native population, and we are therefore in the process of coming up with conservation measures in order to store and exhibit it as part of Austria's and Mexico's cultural heritage.
Sabine Haag, on Radio Oe1

The final stretch of the talks are centring on how to transport both the headdress and the stagecoach, with due regard to legalities of both countries. Then experts need only to address the practicalities of sending such historically precious treasures halfway across the world.

January 17, 2011

The British Are Coming!

Mexico is quickly becoming the favourite holiday destination of British tourists, according to a report just released. Travel agents, Hayes & Jarvis, based in England's West Sussex, have just created their first ever Mexican brochure. This is to cater for a sudden leap of 270%, in British tourists choosing Mexico, during the past few weeks.

Kate Beckinsale and Len Wiseman

Mexico is also a firm favourite with British celebrities. Actress Kate Beckinsale and her husband, Len Wiseman, are here right now. They were snapped by photographers from Splash.com enjoying the facilities at a Mexican resort yesterday. Kate has dyed her hair blonde for the occasion.

The couple met on the set of 'Underworld', which was directed by Len and starred Kate. They have been married for seven years. Their daughter, Lily, is also with them in Mexico.

The rise in popularity for Mexico, amongst the British, has been facilitated by British Airways. The major airline has added Cancun to its list of flight destinations. Previouly British holidaymakers had to fly to Miami or another American airport, then catch a connecting 'plane south.

(NB We do know that some of the links in older blog entries are down. Please bear with us as we transfer our website into a new, jazzy and wonderful server.)

January 14, 2011

Chevé: The Caving Equivalent of Climbing Mount Everest

There is an extreme race going on, with human beings pushing the borders of the known world, and the limits of their own endurance. It involves training akin, in intensity and danger, as preparing astronauts to go into space. The participants have to be self-sufficient and able to save their own lives, because if they get into trouble, no emergency service will be able to reach them. The goal is to find the deepest pit; the greatest vertical supercaves. This is a real life journey to the center of the Earth. In the vanguard, currently, are Mexico and Georgia.

Chevé Cave

Chevé Cave (pron Chay-vay), pictured above, is Mexico's best hope. It's L-shaped system has so far been navigated to a depth of 4,869ft (1,484 meters). American supercaver, Bill Stone, and his team then arrived at huge boulders, which they couldn't squeeze through. But water was passing beneath. They dropped dye into the subterranean river, then discovered where that emerged on the surface. They know that the cave is deeper still, they just need to work out how to explore it.

Chevé Cave begins with a 1,247ft (380 meters) sheer descent. The shaft then kinks to the west, sloping downwards for the remaining known 3622ft (1,104 meters). At this point, cavers encounter a terminal sump. That is a section that is completely flooded. Short sumps may be explored with cavers holding their breath, as they swim through it. But this one is too big. It will require cavers to lug proper diving equipment down there. An intimidating prospect considering the obstacles that have to be traversed before they even reach the waters.

Chevé's biggest rival is Krubera Cave, in Abkhazia, Republic of Georgia. A Ukrainian supercaver has finally charted its depths at 7,188ft (2,191 meters). Krubera Cave currently holds the title as the world's deepest pit. However, its extent is known. Chevé's is not. Yet finding out how deep it is requires amazing feats of human endurance.

Chevé Cave
Image froma 2004 expedition into Chevé

It is said that there are over 50 ways to die in a supercave. Falling is only the most obvious. Hypothermia, electrocution and sheer panic have all taken their victims. These cavers are underground for up to a month, as it takes a week to even get to the area where exploration can take place. During this time, they are usually in pitch darkness. They encounter pockets of poison gas, vast lakes and flooded chambers. Water levels can rise suddenly, if a flash storm occurs on the surface. There is no way to warn those below that this has happened.

Temperatures can plummet or soar, often quite quickly. One of the biggest dangers of Krubera is freezing to death. Sounds echo in the vast systems. Bill Stone described a 150ft (46 meters) waterfall, in Mexico's secondest deepest cave, Huaulta. He said that the noise was like standing next to a jetliner's engine, for days on end, without being able to get away. Moreover the mind can play tricks on you down there.

Chevé Cave

There is a phenomenom known as 'the Rapture'. It is not pleasant to experience. Supercave exploration taught us that every human being has a limit. It differs from person to person, but there is only so much darkness and depth that each of us can take. When that points is reached, a switch clicks in the brain and that individual is gripped by 'the Rapture'. It manifests as the biggest panic attack ever. They need to get out; and they need to get out NOW. No time for safety precautions. No consideration for the lives of your colleagues. It's fight and flight in overdrive. It's uncontrollable and they have to leave NOW!

This, naturally, is a bit of a problem, when you are a week's arduous journey from the surface and there's no way back without a lot of skill and self-control.

Chevé Cave

Sleeping takes place in camps, wherever the cavers can find a relatively broad ledge or underground beach to set one up. If they can't, then they tack a hammock between two boulders or onto the sheer face of a cliff. They dangle there to re-energize themselves with a little shut-eye. They carry with them food to sustain them. With any luck, they might even find a slab big up to rest their cooking gear onto it.

Sheer stamina and a high level of fitness has to keep them going. Some passages are so tight that only Yoga techniques can contort their lithe bodies enough to see them through. Often they are supporting their whole body weight with just a hand or strategically placed foot.

James M Tabor's book 'Blind Descent' tells the story of the supercavers, as they explore Chevé and Krubera.

Blind Descent

Three miles on a level path–or even a mountain route–in daylight is one thing. Three miles immersed in absolute darkness, drenched by freezing waterfalls, wading neck-deep through frigid lakes, spidering up and down vertical pitches, scrambling over wobbling boulders, and belly-crawling through squeezes so tight you must exhale to escape them, is quite another…Imagine climbing the stairs of two Empire State Buildings in daylight, dry and unburdened. To get out, Vesely and Farr would have to do it in the dark, soaking, heavily loaded, on rope the diameter of a man’s index finger.

There is another, longer excerpt from this book on NPR's website. It compellingly describes a climb into Chevé Cave that ends in a fatality. There is also an interview with the author, which explains more about the conditions into which cavers descend, when exploring a supercave. That can be heard here.

January 13, 2011

Peña de Bernal: A Mystical Giant Rock

In mass, La Peña de Bernal is beaten only by Ayer's Rock, in Australia. In height, it is the fourth tallest monolith in the world. One of Mexico's geological treasures, it rises 2,000ft (610 meters) from the ground, creating a beautiful backdrop to the 'Magical Town' beneath. Myths and legends about it abound.

Peña de Bernal

Peña de Bernal is a natural phenomenon created from the remains of an ancient volcano, in an otherwise relatively flat landscape. It has been 100 million years ago since this was an active volcano. At that time, it would have been three times bigger than it is now. It blew itself up in the Jurassic period, when the only creatures likely to have been concerned about this were the passing dinosaurs. Unfortunately, no stegosaurus left an eye-witness account, much less photographs, so we will have to use our imagination to picture how this:

Peña de Bernal

once looked like this:


These days the monolith has a much more benign reputation.

The picturesque town of San Sebastián de Bernal (commonly called Bernal) nestles at the base of the monolith. Amongst the tourists and rock-climbers, flooding into the town each year, there are the New Agers. Bernal is Mexico's Glastonbury or Sedona.

Its label, as a 'Magical Town', has a dual meaning here. The official title of 'Pueblo Mágico' was awarded by the Mexican Tourism Department. It's one of 37 so designated, since the program began in 2001. It is awarded to those towns and villages with a special significance, in terms of historical events, outstanding natural beauty or a rich cultural heritage on display. It's a marker for tourists to know where are the best places to visit. Bernal is on the list because of La Peña de Bernal.


For many though, the magic is more than just a stunning view. Energy is said to radiate out from the core of the monolith. Obsidian, amethyst and quartz are the main crystals within it. Even walking the streets of Bernal will render you soaked in this energizing, powerful and theraputic essense. It has not been lost on anyone that the average life expectancy of Bernal residents is 94 years old. The properties of the rock are believed to force relaxation and peace onto troubled minds. A sublime silence awaits those who make the pilgrimage up its very slopes. A keen perception and clarity of thought are the gifts to take away.

Bernal CapillaThis thinking appears to pre-date the coming of Christianity to Mexico. Nevertheless, local missionaries were quick to capitalize on the sheer number of people wishing to climb the rock; and, perhaps, wishing a bit of shade along the way.

A capilla (chapel) was built halfway up, to ensure that any worship and meditation going on involved God. It is a tiny capilla, only big enough for one person to enter at a time. Each does so on their knees, before a small altar festooned in the candles and flowers of the faithful.

The energy of the monolith is viewed as particularly strong during Spring Equinox (usually around March 21st). This is the time of year when Bernal heaves with New Agers and spiritual questers. Thousands aim to surround the base of the rock, shoulder to shoulder, soaking up its mystical properties with the dawn. At this event, white dress, with red kerchiefs, is often de rigor amongst those gathering.

For the Christians, the whole town is transformed in a five day festival, in May. The Santa Cruz (Saintly Cross) is celebrated with a lot of fine food, dancing and music, all with a religious theme. Pilgrims pause in their festivities to shuffle forward, on their knees and under the full glare of the sun, into the Santa Cruz church. The celebrations reach their climax on the final day. This is when especially selected residents of the town pass a heavy cross from hand to hand, then anchor it on the summit of the rock.


Legends about La Peña de Bernal are plentiful. Despite geological evidence to the contrary, stories are told about how the monolith is a giant meteor, which fell from the skies and was planted in the ground.

A perennial story is that, in the right light, the shadows on the monolith form a giant arrow pointing towards a cave. Inside the cave is said to be a vast array of treasure, which is, unfortunately, guarded by a giant snake. The treasure isn't worldly. It's the knowledge of the origin and destiny of the human race; but to get to it, you first must slay the snake. It is a tale enjoyed by children, while the adults see past the literal sense to meditate upon the metaphors.

Then there is the mystical origins of a church in the town. Ghosts have often been wandering an area between Bernal and La Peña. Sometimes they are merely candle-like lights seen floating over the landscape. One day a merchant was being pursued by robbers, intent on taking his earnings. He arrived in this space and saw some bushes. He hid in the bushes, hoping that the lost souls would distract the robbers away from him. They did. In gratitude, the merchant founded a chapel on the site. Capilla de las Animas (Chapel of the Lost Souls of Purgatory) sits now right at the base of the rock.

Capilla de las Animas

It should also be noted that Peña de Bernal is a hotbed of UFO sightings.

For the less mystically minded, there is still a host of things to see and do in Bernal. Rappaleurs and rock-climbers disdain the hiking path to traverse the sheer sides of the monolith. Those interested in culture might enjoy the town's museum of traditional masks, while shoppers enjoy the quiet charms of Bernal's wares. Though a distinctly tourist town, its customers are more likely to be Mexican than international visitors (give or take a few extra-terrestials). Therefore the items on sale are usually more practical and 'real', than similar offerings in the resorts.

Entertainment does occur in the restaurants, bars and hotels, but an unmissable free display occurs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday (plus holidays) in the town. At 8pm, a dancing fountain is lit up, with music playing. Its colors illuminate the monolith beyond. It only lasts for half an hour, but it is charming and well worth sticking around to see.

Bernal's Dancing Fountain

A couple more blogs on this town and monolith:

Regions, states and towns are known for their food specialties. Bernal happens to be known for its nopales en penca and gorditas... After we were "gorditos" from eating gorditas we headed out happy and content to have spent the day in one of Mexico's treasure towns. Bernal is definitely a must see for anyone traveling this area of Mexico.
La Peña De Bernal by Abrhil Arvizu

As the evening light dwindled I looked up at the massive rock and gave a start; a glow seemed to emanate from within, outlining the jagged edges in gold... An hour later I departed, filled with the most incredible sense of well-being. I don’t know about extraterrestrials or giant Amethyst crystals, but I can say with certainty that something special is going on in Bernal.
Magical, Mystical Bernal de la Peña, Mexico by Barbara Weibel

January 12, 2011

Lacandón: The Last Uncontacted People in North America

Through the ages of exploration and empire building, into the age of communication, it can sometimes feel like humanity knows every inch of its own planet. This seems especially true in the modern world. If someone sneezes, in a far away land, then a dozen Tweets can tell you about it, in real time. Satellites scour the skies, feeding back images from desolate places. Aeroplanes cross-criss above us, allowing passengers and crew alike to constantly peer down upon the landscape below. Adventurers, pioneers and profiteers still trudge off into the wilderness, just seeking out whatever it there to find.

Lacandona Jungle

Yet, despite all of this, uncontacted communities of people still turn up from time to time. These are tribes who have survived the millennia in perfect isolation from the rest of humanity. Those with a separate destiny, untouched by globalisation, the world's major religion, technology and international politics. They have no foreign policy, because they didn't know that there were any foreigners.

It is the stuff of fiction. Lost cities and lost tribes, sometimes living just a few miles into the undergrowth, only to emerge wide-eyed at the unexpected meeting. Arthur Conan Doyle famously covered this ground, in his 1912 novel, 'The Lost World'. There have been countless books and movies, on the same theme, in the interim. 'End of the Spear' (2006) is the most recent. This docudrama recounts the true life story of five American missionaries making contact with the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador. Their proselytizing eventually resulted in all five being speared to death.

Lacandona Jungle

In reality, there are a surprising number of uncontacted tribes, which are known about in the world today. Some have been spotted from afar, while others are reputed to exist, as intermediary tribes have reported that they are there. Brazil holds the record. It's believed that there are 67 uncontacted tribes within its borders. Many in extreme danger from logging concerns, wherein their forest homelands are shrinking. Previous disastrous meetings, between tribes and loggers, have been known to end in massacres, either through violence or contact with Western diseases, for which these people have no immunity. Organisations, like Survival, continue to work on their behalf.

By the 20th century, it was believed that all indigenious people in North America had been in contact with the worldly people around them. It was, therefore, a bit of a surprise, in August 1911, when a Yahi Indian named Ishi, emerged from the foothills near Oroville, California, USA. Ishi was the last of his tribe and he died five years later from tuberculosis. It was even more of a shock when, in 1924, the Lacandón tribe of Southern Mexico made contact. As far as can be known, they really were the last uncontacted people in North America.

Lacandón people
Lacandón people, 1933-34

At first, it was believed that the Lacandón were an undiscovered Maya tribe, living in the lush, dense Lacandona jungle, away from the influence of the Spanish conquistadors. This was true, as far as it went, but it transpired that the Lacandón knew all about the Mexicans. Some especially selected people had even traded with Mexican ranchers, over the centuries, though none had suspected how many lived out there nor even that those individuals were part of an unknown tribe.

The Lacandón began as a composite people, made up originally of survivors from Maya villages.Lacandón child Their ancestors might have been women and children, hidden away, as the Spanish appeared on the horizon; or men limping away from the horrors of an uneven battle. Or there could have been other reasons for their personal tragedies.

As the conquistadors brought foreign diseases, like smallpox, huge numbers of Maya died. In some cases, this left just handfuls or even sole individuals, out of once populous settlements. The remnants of these clashes and communities congregated at the ruined Maya towns and cities. They were rescued by other survivors and taken into the jungle.

The original people were all Maya, all speaking a similar language, but with various cultural and linguistic differences. Imagine taking a couple of Americans, a few Canadians, a lone Australian, two Afrikaners, a family of New Zealanders, two British children and an Irish elder. Throw in a German and a dozen Dutch people for good measure. Now isolate them and return a generation later to see what that did to the English language and cultural norms.

Would water enter a sink through a faucet or a tap? Would we wrap a baby's bottom in diapers or a nappy? Would the traditional turkey meal happen at the end of November or the end of December or both? These were the sort of issues that confronted the traumatized survivors of various Maya cultures; and it resulted in a new, patchwork Mayan language.

Lacandón people
Lacandón people, 1956

By the 18th century, the fusion of all these different Maya influences had resulted in distinct Lacandón traditions and language. It was firmly rooted in Maya, but had become something different. They still practiced the Maya religions, including pilgrimages to the Maya holy places, dotted around Mexico. These sites were only given up when there was evidence that the conquistadors had discovered them. The Lacandón wrote those pyramids, cenotes and other spots off as desecrated. In short, they avoided all Mexicans, in order to remain undiscovered. Their own history told them that contact with the outside world was too dangerous to contemplate.

Temples of Yaxchilan
Temples of Yaxchilan, deep in the Lacandón jungle; unknown to outsiders, until the Lacandón took them there.

The 20th century brought with it more Mexican loggers and farmsteaders. They had been slowly encroaching on Lacandón land throughout the previous century. The tribe had simply moved deeper and deeper into the jungle, until it became obvious that they were running out of sustainable land in which to retreat. In 1924, ambassadors from the tribe invited the Mexicans in. Anthropologists immediately descended upon the area, eager to document these people, before the rest of the world influenced them too much.

The contact, of course, did bring about the feared decimation of the Lacandón. By 1943, it was feared that the people would become extinct. Conflicts with loggers and disease were again the major contributions to their deaths. However, the Lacandón not only pulled through, but their population now numbers around 500 people.

Lacandón person

Their survival has come at a great cost to their culture though. Almost as soon as they were discovered, the Roman Catholic church was sending missionaries and building churches in the Lacandón heartland. Initially there was great resistance to the evangelism, but Christianity has steadily taken hold. Later Protestant missionaries learnt from the lessons of their Catholic predecessors and tried a new approach. It was highly successful. It is now believed that the last southern Lacandón priest has died, without finding anyone to whom he could pass on his sacred secrets. Christianity has yet to take hold in the northern Lacandón highlands.

Increased contact with scholars, loggers, farmsteaders, traders and, more recently, tourists, saw the younger Lacandón, in particular, start to embrace Western ideas. One writer, John McGee (2002), stated 'that within four years of the introduction of television, traditional ritual practices among the highland Lacandón has been reduced to just two families and one individual'. However, in the northern village of Najá, the whole community continues to tell Lacandón tales and resist the pressures of modernization as best they can. Read more about the modern Lacandón on a website maintained on their behalf: Lacandón Maya.

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