Friday, July 3, 2009


June 9th 2009

With rubber legs we wobble an erratic course out of Oaxaca.

A month off the bikes and an overdose of Spanish lessons has killed off the brain cells used to store coordination skills. It's like "giving a backy" to an elephant and I wonder at just how comfortable I used to feel riding with all my wordly goods strapped to a push bike.

A few miles later, however, muscle memory returns and car drivers around us begin to settle down and look a little less worried. We ride straight!

And the land is surprisingly straight as well. Unusual for Mexico, we ride along a flat valley and, mercifully it gives us time to get the legs turning once more. East of Oaxaca lies the Central Valley - a rich and fertile land that is one of the primary reasons the Zapotecs settled this area around Monte Alban so successfully. Allegedly they grow maize, tomato, squashes and pumpkins as well as pineapples, avocados and of course chili peppers here. Allegedly because all we seem to see are Maguay, the agave plants used to make the local firewater - Mezcal. After the rains they sprout triffid like flowers reaching 10 or 12 feet into the skies....

It's an easy 50kms to San Pablo Villa de Mitla a small town largely built on top of Zapotec ruins, though some of the ancient buildings still remain. Whilst both Zapotec cities, Mitla is very different to Monte Alban. Where Monte Alban was all about huge imposing displays of power and the majesty of it's commanding hilltop location, Mitla is on a much smaller scale and a just bit more cuddly.

El grupo de las columnas houses a huge antechamber that would have been rooved and leads in to the palace....

The palace is a small complex of buildings around a central courtyard. Mitla is distinctive for it's geometrically decorated walls which would have been much more vivid for the bright red plaster backgrounds that have now almost totally faded. The pattern's style is reminiscent of the more modern Greek grecas. Some have speculated that it represents an abstract of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl common to some MesoAmerican religions.

The word Mitla derives from a nahuatl word meaning "place of the dead". It is believed that animal and human sacrifices were carried out here, amongst other religious rites.

The thought of torchlight processions and human sacrifice taking place amongst all those wall decorations as the shadows danced in the flickering light....

The openings from this inner chamber lead to tombs and Mitla was probably a buriel place reserved for special members of the upper classes. Underneath the large courtyard outside, there are tunnels to further tombs laid out in the shape of a cross and again decorated with grecas. All were empty when discovered.

Mitla was settled around 500BC, but most of the buildings date from around 200BC. Maybe they used tents for the first 300 years? Later Mixtecs, a rival tribe took a liking to the place and moved in. Quite different from the grand pyramids of Monte Alban, buildings are low level....

What at first looks like wall carvings, turn out on closer inspection to be made up from thousands and thousands of individually shaped blocks....

Which makes looking around at the scale of work even more impressive....

In keeping with the city's violent past, it was again taken over; this time by the Aztecs in 1494 who held it for a short time before the Spanish sacked the place. Unable to save the local heathens from eternal damnation by converting them to catholicism, they took a more pragmatic approach and built churches on the foundations of the temples. After they had razed them to the ground of course. A Spanish colonial church rises from the rubble....

At it's height, an estimated 10,000 Zapotecs lived here - it must have been an impressive sight....


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