Wanting to take a break from the unceasing rain and cold of Northern California, I travel to Mexico for a week to enjoy some warmth and its history, culture, food, and art.
I join a small group in the historic district of Mexico City. What a huge and bustling city! The streets are crowded with people at all hours of the day and night. The Zocalo is the third largest central square in the world (after Tiananmen and Red Squares), and is surrounded by the cathedral and government offices with Aztec ruins just around the corner.
I hope to visit Casa Azul, museum of Frida Kahlo’s work, and am sorely disappointed not to be able to get a ticket. I do see the enormous mural that made Diego Rivera famous, called Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, that reflects the history of Mexico from the Spanish invasion in 1519 to the 1911 Mexican revolution. Below is one third of the mural. Note Frida Kahlo next to the skeleton, and Diego Rivera beneath her.
Next, we travel to Teotihuacan, the largest urban center of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica between 200 bc and 650 ad. At 26 km square, the settlement was believed to have had a population of 250,000 at its zenith, but its origin is uncertain and preceded the Aztecs who arrived in the year 1300. It was then abandoned in 1650, but inhabited by others thereafter. Built by slaves, there are two giant pyramids, temples of the sun and moon, as well as many smaller pyramids in between.
Teotihuacan was known to exist in 1730, yet excavation did not begin until 1890. To date, only 5% has been excavated. Much is unknown as no written history has been discovered. The people who built this city were pioneers who developed aqueducts for storing water and a canal system for irrigation of their crops. It continues as a spiritual center for the Mexican people today.
Near the city of Puebla, we visit Cholula, another partially excavated settlement, the oldest continuously occupied place on the continent beginning in 800 bc. Located at the foot of the still-active Popocatepetl volcano, a pyramid with the largest known base was constructed. Archeologists have determined that the layers of the pyramid are 60 meters below the current surface. A beautiful church built in the 1600’s by the Spanish sits atop what remains of the pyramid.
Our group has a private tour of one of the nine certified Talavera tile makers in Mexico, where we are shown the entire process that begins with a pile of clay and ends with the exquisite finished products for sale. We watch in awe as one of the artists paints several plates using brushes made from the beards of goats and the tails of horses.
We visit a candle-maker, Viviana, who tells her remarkable story, all the while dipping molds into hot pots of wax at her feet, creating flowers for wedding bouquets. Learning from her ancestors, she started doing this work at the age of 10. Now 76, in the last year she has taught classes highlighting her skills in Ohio, Canada, and Iraq.
The Tule tree of Santa Maria, 70 meters wide at its base, is the largest tree width-wise in the world. It is believed to be over 2,000 years old. As you can see, it is colossal and quite a sight to behold (and I thought the Giant Sequoias had the greatest girth!).
And there’s more. In addition to all of these memorable experiences, we visit a weaver and and then a Mezcal distillery, where we are introduced to the 28 different varieties of Agave plants from which the drink is derived.
On the final day, I take a guided tour of the botanical gardens and learn about the thousands of cactus species and other unique flora native to Oaxaca, as well as the garden’s model environmental stewardship.
I would be remiss not to mention the joy I observed in the Zocalo and on the streets of Oaxaca: bands playing Latin salsa and jazz, couples dancing, parades with giant balloons and brass bands. That just might be what sticks with me most from my week of Mexican travel!