Chichen Itza

Day 8

On the final full day of our Caravan tour, we headed out to another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the second most visited archaeological site in Mexico, Chichén Itzá.  On July 7, 2007 (7/7/07) this site was named one of the 7 man-made wonders of the world.   Since 1923 restoration has been taking place at this great ceremonial site and is far from complete.

Chichén Itzá, whose name means “mouth of the well of the Itza (native people)”, was inhabited, it is believed, from 800 – 1200AD.  As there were no above-ground rivers in this area, the Mayans relied on the underground lakes and rivers for their survival. Cenotes (sinkholes) within the city, created by the collapsing of the limestone roofs of some of these underground waters, took on great import for the Mayans and historians believe became sacrificial sites as a form of worship to the rain god Chac.  The most significant of the cenotes in this area, Cenote Segrado, meaning “Sacred Well” or “Well of Sacrifice”, was dredged by Edward Herbert Thompson from 1904 – 1910. Artifacts of jade, pottery, gold, and human remains were discovered.  Studies of the human remains found wounds that were consistent with that of human sacrifice.

Cenote Segrado (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The pyramid of El Castillo, also known as the Pyramid of Kukulcan, a Maya snake deity, is the centerpiece of this archaeological site.  Standing 98 feet tall and 181 feet across, it was originally discovered in 1523 and was built in 9 platforms, corresponding with the Mayan belief of a 9-stage underworld.  91 steps on each of the four staircases and one additional step to the temple makes for a total of 365 steps, the number of days in a year. This was no accident, as the Maya were astronomers, mathematicians and architects.

El Castillo

The serpent Kukulcan frames each of the staircases.


Each March 20th (Spring Equinox), as the sun strikes the stepped corners of the 9 platforms, a shadow is cast on the sides of the staircases that slope at a 45° angle, from the temple down to the heads of Kukulcan at the bottom.  The serpent’s shadow appears to slither its way down the side of the pyramid.

Archaeologists are currently digging around the base of this grand pyramid.  The grass surface on which the pyramid sits actually covers another platform that extends from the base of El Castillo.

Ongoing Excavation of El Castillo

Archaeologists, digging from the top, found another temple buried below the current one. Inside was a Chac Mool statue and a throne in the shape of a jaguar, with inlaid jade and painted red.  No one knows the significance of this statue.  It now resides in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Another structure of great importance at Chichén Itzá is El Juego de Pelota, the Ball Court.  The ball court here is purported to be the largest in Mesoamerica, measuring 120 feet across and 480 feet wide.  Historians believe that priests played in these “high stakes” games.  The object of the game was to propel a hard, very heavy, rubber ball through a stone ring, located on each of the opposite walls.  This game was played somewhat like soccer, in that one could not use their hands.  The ball could not be kicked either, but must be moved by way of the forearms, waist, or legs.  When the ball was projected through the hoop, it is believed that the priest responsible for this was offered up to the rain god Chac, which was alleged to be quite an honor.

Wall Depicting Stone Ring at the Ball Court

There are many carvings of priests and human offerings on the walls surrounding the ball court.  The elite were allowed to view these games and entered the court through the rear of the Temple of the Jaguar.

High Priest's Throne

This is believed to be the throne used by a high priest when viewing games taking place in the Ball Court.  It sits in the entryway to the Temple of the Jaguar.

Another chilling platform is that of the Tzompantli (The Wall of Skulls).  It is an Aztec name and a Toltec structure where the heads of sacrificial victims were placed.  Some believe that those sacrificed at the Ball Court, winners or losers, however one chooses to look at it, found their skulls among those displayed here.  This platform was used exclusively for this purpose.

The platform walls illustrate the skull rack, as well as scenes of human sacrifice.

Skull Rack at Tzompantli

The Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars is a powerful platform that was believed to be used for military purposes by the combination of Maya and Toltec who ruled Chichén Itzá collectively.  There was not one single ruler in this city, as there were in many other cities of this time period.  Carvings on the platform walls depict jaguars (Maya) and eagles (Toltec) consuming human hearts.

Serpent Heads

A pair of serpent heads adorn the staircases on each end of this platform, another symbol of the power associated with this structure.

The Templo de Los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors) is a complex consisting of a large stepped platform and bordered by rows of columns with illustrations of warriors.

Templo de Los Guerreros

This large complex, like many other structures within Chichén Itzá, glorify warriors and were involved in human sacrifice.

Kukulcan Atop the Temple of the Warriors

At the top of a grand staircase sits a pair of serpents baring their fangs, portraying Kukulcan, also known as Quezalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent.  On top of the serpent heads stand Toltec warriors.

On the south end of the Temple of the Warriors is the Court of a Thousand Columns, which was believed to be where the market area once stood.  Although there are not a thousand columns, this area does contain several hundred, which made for a substantial market area.  Historians believe that merchants from as far away as Tikal in Guatemala came here to sell their wares.  The roof system has long ago collapsed.

Court of a Thousand Columns

Columns of both round and square construction are displayed here.  Those that are round are believed to be Mayan and those that are square of Toltec design.

Toltec Warrior Carving

Note the Toltec warrior carving in full headdress on this column outside the Temple of the Warriors.

While heading to the south end of the city, we discovered the Ossuary (High Priest’s Grave).

Although not near as grand as El Castillo, it too has 9 levels that correspond to the 9 levels of the Maya underworld.  The temple that once resided on the top no longer exists.

This is a photo of the High Priest’s Grave prior to its restoration.

The next structure that we came upon was El Caracol, nicknamed “The Snail” because of its stone spiral staircase inside.  Built in 906 AD, historians believe this building was a Mayan observatory, built to study celestial bodies.

El Caracol

Many of the openings in the upper cylindrical portion of this observatory align with the sun, Venus, and other celestial objects.  Mayans were great astronomers and studied the stars for both practical purposes (when to plant crops) and mystical reasons.

In the oldest part of the city sits Las Monjas (The Nunnery Complex), named this by the Spaniards as it reminded them of the convents that existed in Spain.  The architecture style of this complex is Puuc, signified by the latticework upper section, very popular with the Puuc-style.  This complex has undergone 7 construction cycles since its inception.

La Iglesia

This structure that is part of the Nunnery Complex was named La Iglesia, the Church.  No one knows for certain why the Spaniards named it this, as it was actually a governmental palace.  Note the rain god Chac carvings on the upper section cornices, with the trunk-like nose.

This is just a small portion of the structures that have been excavated at Chichén Itzá. We could have spent an entire day or two studying all the structures that were available to us.

After leaving Chichén Itzá we stopped to have lunch at Hacienda Chichen, a stunning old hacienda with beautiful grounds, archways and chapel.  Some of the structures were constructed with stone taken from Chichén Itzá.

Hacienda Chichen
Beautiful Stone Archway in the Gardens of Hacienda Chichen
Chapel on Grounds of Hacienda Chichen

Many in our group felt that the best part of Hacienda Chichen was the dessert that was served after lunch, homemade coconut ice cream – yum!

This concluded our trip with Caravan Tours.  The next day we headed to Cancun to drop some off at hotels and some at the airport.  We had an amazing 8 days, visiting 10 of the 31 states in Mexico, traveling 1400 miles, and meeting some very interesting people.  We would recommend this tour to anyone wanting to learn more about ancient and present-day Mexico.


Day 6

Day 6 of our Caravan tour took us on a bus ride from Palenque to the Yucatan peninsula, stopping for a shrimp lunch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.  The waters here were a light jade in color and the weather was balmy.

When we arrived in the city of Campeche it was late afternoon, so we all rushed out for some photo opportunities while the light was still with us.

Campeche is the capital of the state of Campeche and is a Spanish colonial city of 275,000 inhabitants, founded in 1540.  In 1999 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the architecture of the downtown buildings and forts.  Forts and seawalls were constructed from 1685 – 17904,  fortifying the city against others attempting to take advantage of their economic development.

As has been true of the other cities we have visited in Mexico, the main square is surrounded by lovely shops and anchored by the cathedral.

Campeche Cathedral with Twin Steeples

The stunning architecture that earned the city the World Heritage Site designation housed many interesting shops, along with the Paleontology Museum in this building that resembled an old church.

Paleontology Museum

Remnants of the bastions and sea walls surrounded the downtown area.  Note the cannon placement in the top of the wall in the photo below.

Baluarte de San Carlos

One of the most interesting buildings that we saw in the short time spent in Campeche was that of the Palacio de Gobierno (Governor’s Palace) with its tiled mural front.

Palacio de Gobierno

The Puerta del Mar is one of the four sea gates to the city and was used to receive and dismiss travelers and their products.  It now stands as a great doorway to the picturesque downtown area.

Puerta del Mar

We had time for a quick stroll along the waterfront before heading back for dinner.  Then it was “early to bed and early to rise” as we were headed to the mysterious Uxmal ruins the next morning.


Day 3

Although Puebla is no longer a part of this Caravan tour, given the delay with our bus getting the “boot”, our tour director Manuel presented us with a little treat, in the way of a short stop in Puebla.

Puebla is the capital of the state of Puebla and is one of the five most important colonial cities in Mexico, being a main route between Mexico City and the port city of Veracruz.  It was founded in 1531 and due to its rich history and architectural styles, ranging from Renaissance and Mexican Baroque, Puebla was named a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Puebla is the only city in Mexico where the Indians were not displaced.  It is the seat of the best textiles and tiles in all of Mexico and is the 4th largest city, with a population of approximately 1.5 million.

The university in Puebla, University of the Americas, is internationally recognized for the fields of medicine and archeology.

As we entered the city there are a number of life-size trumpeting angels that can be seen guarding the city.

Trumpeting Angels Guarding Puebla

It is an understatement to say that Puebla has some of the most striking churches that we have seen to date and is definitely still on our “bucket list” to visit in more depth.

Tiled-Fronted Church Dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe

The Templo de Santo Domingo was probably one of the most striking churches in the city, both in color and facade, as well as the chapel inside housing the Virgin of the Rosary.

Beautiful Facade of the Templo de Santo Domingo

The interior of Templo de Santo Domingo is difficult to capture, with its many arches and gold leaf lined ceiling, but the chapel dedicated to the Virgin of the Rosary has to be seen to be believed.

The elaborate murals and the massive amount of gold leaf in the chapel left me with such a feeling of awe.  This is an ornate chapel of unbelievable proportions.

Although the Cathedral below may not look as interesting as some churches from the outside, the inside revealed quite a few gems, although we were not able to photograph them due to a mass being held at the time we were there.  The walls surrounding the chapel were beautiful, bedecked with angels on every pedestal.

The zocalo (plaza) is the focal point of this city, with the Cathedral, the residence of the Bishop of Mexico, and several shops and cafes bordering it.

From here we headed to Veracruz, where Carnaval was still in full swing.

Tequila ~ Day 1

No visit to Jalisco, Mexico is complete without a trip to Tequila.  We found it to be a very clean, quite charming city of 35,000, and chock full of history, as one might expect.

The city was established in about 1656 and has been named a World Heritage Site. Tequila’s origin lie with the Aztec peoples of Mexico, who made a beverage from the agave plant long before the Spaniards arrived in the village that was then called Techinchan.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1530, having run out of all spirits they had brought with them from Spain, they fermented agave juice.  The first tequila factory, however, would not be established for another 70 years, at the hacienda of Don Pedro Sanches de Tagle.

The first order of business for us when arriving in Tequila was to secure a room for the night. We looked for the main plaza in the city, knowing that there would be an interesting church to visit as well.  We were very surprised to find such a lovely hotel bordering the plaza so we quickly booked two rooms, got settled, then headed off to explore the city.

Hotel Plaza del Jardin
Interior View of Hotel Staircase off the Foyer
Plaza Shot Taken from the Mirador of our Hotel

And yet another history-laden beautiful church, right off the plaza.

Church of Santiago Apostol
Interior of Santiago Apostol Church
Angel Guarding the Church

Terry snapped the photo below of two beautiful little girls playing on the grounds of the church.  At closer inspection, it appeared they were playing with cellulose insulation, of all things!

While Rosie and I set off to check out the market, the “boys”, awaiting lunch, planned out the activities for the afternoon, certainly excited about what lie ahead in the tasting rooms.

I had not the first idea of how tequila was distilled from the agave plant so I was excited when a local tour guide approached us and offered to take us on a tour.  As an added bonus, she spoke perfect English.

Our first stop on the tour was to view the Jesus Reyes distillery, a small factory that continues to produce tequila in the ways that were done before many of the more modern technologies were developed.  It has been in operation since 1840 and only distills small amounts of tequila for select stores.

Ex Hacienda El Martineno ~ Jesus Reyes Distillery

The hearts of the agave, once harvested, are placed in ovens to steam for most of a day, under high temperatures.  Once this process has been completed, the hearts (pina) are transferred to distillation tanks.  The remaining juices are steamed under very high temperatures to produce tequila.

Distillation Tanks

These copper stills, during the distillation process, create what can technically be called tequila, although at a much higher proof than is allowed by law for consumption.  We were told that of approximately 1000 liters of agave juice, only 10% becomes tequila after the process is completed.  It is the condensation itself that becomes the tequila.  The fiber that remains behind has many uses, one of which is compost for the next planting of the agave fields.

The above bubbling mass is the contents of a fermentation vat, where the tequila is transferred after the distillation process.  Since bacteria is needed for the fermentation process, these vats are left open, where small bugs drop into them.  We were assured that the end product is strained many times and the alcohol content must surely kill off anything bad, right?! Actually, many decades ago the bacteria that was used for this fermentation came from the bodies of the workers in the agave fields, as the picture below depicts.

White Oak Barrels, Aging the Tequila

Some tequilas are aged in white oak barrels, while others go immediately to bottling.

The end result in the tasting room, where we were given a quick lesson on how to imbue our senses, both taste and smell, with the heady liquid.  Good tequila is not drunk with salt and lime, as we are accustomed to NOB, but rather sipped, as any other good spirit. Given that this distillery produces few bottles and does not sell much beyond their factory walls, a bottle or two just had to find its way home with us.

From here we opted to visit a mid-size distillery, to view the differences with some modern technology thrown in.  La Cofradia (a religious order) is a 20-year old factory that creates their own bottles and pottery on site as well.  A lovely boutique hotel sits on the grounds, along with a duck pond, which completed the restful setting.

Off to the factory to see how the distillation process differs from that of Jesus Reyes.

Pinas after Steaming in the Ovens

Once these pinas were cooled, we were allowed to taste.  We found the agave heart to be very sweet, with the heat having concentrated the sugars.

The equipment was definitely more modern but the process explained at this factory was the same.

Stainless Steel Distillation Tanks
Modern Fermentation Vat
White Oak Barrels ~ Aging of Tequila

Tequilas carry different classifications, dependent upon the amount of time aged:

Blanco:  clear; unaged; bottled immediately after distilling

Reposado:  aged between 2 months and one year; somewhat amber in color

Anejo:  aged 1-3 years; darker amber, taking on more of the flavor of the barrel

Extra Anejo:  aged greater than 3 years

A tour of the ceramics factory was next on our list.  We toured several rooms displaying various stages of bottles to be fired, along with beautiful pottery pieces.

Worker Intricately Painting the Bottle Prior to Firing

And some of the finished products:

Last stop ~ tasting room!

On the way back to the plaza, we discovered that our trolley driver loved his music, cranked up so that everyone in town, and I mean everyone, could hear us coming.  He seemed to know the entire town, as people waved and spoke as we went by.  There was no sneaking back into town for us!

The remainder of the day was spent wandering the city blocks around the plaza.  As luck would have it, a security guard allowed us to enter the Sauza gardens, the largest of the distilleries in the city, having been established in 1873. These were some of the loveliest gardens we had seen yet in Mexico, as evidenced below.

The streets were so clean and the flags and buildings so colorful, with abundant statues and murals.

Tequila Street View
Turquoise Building off the Plaza
Spectacular Mural in Municipal Building

A great first day!

Guanajuato ~ Part 2

Guanajuato means (in the Tarasco native language) “place surrounded by frog formed hills”.  While hiking in the hills, supposedly two locals found many large rock formations shaped like frogs, hence the name given to this city.  It is a colonial, silver mining city and, both culturally and historically, is one of the most important cities in all of Mexico. Built between the years 1548 and 1554, UNESCO declared it a “World Heritage Site” in 1988.

One focal point of the city is that of the Basilica of our Lady of Guanajuato, built between 1671 and 1696.  Beautiful marble floors and crystal chandeliers reflect the grandness of this church.  The altar is constructed of an impressive 40 kilograms of silver.

Basilica (1)
Basilica (2)
Basilica (3)

Being the typical tourists, we decided on Day 2 to take a tour of the city with one of the local guides, Agustin, to better understand the history of this vibrant city.  We met him at the city’s center, in the Jardin de la Union.

Jardin de la Union

We donned hard hats and took a 20-minute tour of a former silver and quartz mine, Mina El Nopal, then headed off to explore the Templo de San Cayetano, one of the most impressive churches, both inside and out, which was built on behalf of the local miners. Construction was begun in 1765 and completed in 1788 and has 3 altars of carved wood, covered with plaster to protect against termites, and given a finish of gold leaf.  The organ is from Germany and the pulpit from China.

Templo de Cayetano de Valenciana
Templo de Cayetano de Valenciana (2)

Two huge paintings adorn the walls of the church, created by a San Miguel de Allende artist, Luis Monroy, in 1885.  He had a unique ability to embed a figure in his paintings that seemed to present from the same angle, no matter where one stood.  The embedded figure in the painting below is that of the dove.

The next stop on our tour was most unusual, a museum entitled Hacienda Del Cochero, which featured instruments of torture.  The tour was given by a young tour guide dressed as a Franciscan monk, with the peaceful sounds of Gregorian chants in the background. Below are just a couple of the ghoulish sights housed within this museum.

The Rack
Is My Head Screwed on Straight?!

The gardens, however, were just lovely and gave no indication of the horrors that lay within its walls.

The statue of El Pipila was the next stop, where terrific views of the city can be had and where history abounds.

This monument is a memorial to Jose de los Reyes Martinez, whose heroic actions allowed the rebels to enter the Royal Forces fortress, which was housed in the Alhondiga, originally built as a granary for the city and where Mexico’s first battle for independence took place.  The Royal Forces used this building as a fortress due to its high vantage point overlooking the city.

El Pipila, a courageous miner, supposedly carried a lit torch, with a heavy stone slab balanced on his back to protect him from enemy fire, and set the entrance door to the Alhondiga on fire, allowing the rebels led by Miguel Hidalgo to defeat the enemy forces.

The four rebel commanders, Hidalgo, Aldama, Allende, and Jimenez, did not live to see Mexico win her independence from Spain.  When they were captured by enemy forces, they were decapitated and their heads were displayed on the four corners of the Alhondiga for the next 10 years as a reminder to the Mexican citizens not to think about uprising again.  Even this did not deter these courageous people in their fight for freedom.

Terry and I found ourselves going back to El Pipila later that same day; however, this time on foot up a very steep staircase.  There is no lack of exercise opportunities in this city, right outside very door.

Staircase to El Pipila
View from the Top
Me at El Pipila

Our tour concluded with a visit to the Museo de las Momias, Museum of the Mummies. Photos are no longer allowed in this museum and many of the mummies were currently on loan to museums in Mexico City, Michigan and Los Angeles.

Here are just a couple of photos of the tunnels used by vehicles and pedestrians that run underneath the entire city, which is built into the hillsides.

A fruitful second day in Guanajuato!