Thursday, November 27, 2008

Between the Mountains, a Pueblo Mágico

Early last week, I got another chance to break free from Mexico City's sprawling clutches, hopping a bus up and over the rocky ridges that rim the southern border of the Valley of Mexico. Destination: the pueblo mágico of Tepoztlán. It's a designation that fits.

A cobblestoned main street stretches through the village, each end touching one of the mountainous mounds of stone that frame this little hamlet. It passes the zócalo, a square bustling with snack vendors and school kids and brightened by the sunflower-yellow stucco of the buildings surrounding it.

Local sorbet chain Tepoznieves operates several shops on the main drag, selling flavor upon flavor of refreshment-in-a-cup to sweating tourists. Church steeples break the horizon in pairs here and there, and a dry, mildly hazy heat hangs from the sky, putting a premium on the odd patch of shade.

Behind the zócalo spreads the market, covered stalls linked together in an endless chain of retail, stocked with everything from pottery and fabric to wrestling figurines. And just behind the market lie the grounds of the Ex-Convento Domínico de la Natividad.

Constructed in the 1500s, the convent complex is now open to visitors, free of charge. On display are its intricately muraled hallways, a profoundly picturesque and peaceful atrium complete with fountain and orange trees, and a number of terraces that afford the nicest views of the village and its spectacular backdrop of mountains you can find. Given the fact that I basically stumbled upon this made it all the more magical.

But there was magic at Tepoztlán well before the arrival of Christianity. According to legend, the cliff faces to the north are the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered-serpent creator deity of the Aztecs. The pre-Columbian link is still strong; in fact, Nahuatl is taught in the schools here.

A more visible reminder of the past, though, is the Aztec pyramid temple of Tepozteco, perched high above town on the mountain that gives it its name. You can see it from the zócalo, a tiny but transfixing white speck set atop the dark rock. This is what brings most of the tourists; indeed, it brought me. The promise of a centuries-old ruin combined with a taxing hike jumped off the guidebook pages and pulled me in.

"Taxing" is an adequate description of the steep, rocky trail that winds 2km up through the folds in the vertical cliffs. The sweat started flowing early, stinging my eyes with sunscreen. I took it slow, stopping frequently to gaze back on the village through the canopy. And I wasn't alone. There was plenty of panting, perspiring company on this Tuesday morning as the path climbed ever higher.

As I finally neared the little plateau on which the pyramid temple rests, I began to hear rustling all around me. Something was moving through the dry leaves that covered the steep rock faces on either side of the path. Suddenly, I spotted one. And then another. And another. They were coatí, I learned later, a cross between a raccoon and an aardvark. The archaeological site is guarded (or overrun) by a pack of at least 30.

Once I made it past the coatí, I was free to explore the grounds. The temple stands at the highest point, looking down on descending rows of terraces that once housed Aztec priests, and then over the cliffs to the long drop to Tepoztlán in the hazy distance. There was just enough visibility to hint at the outline of further mountains beyond the town, ridge after ridge stretching into nothingness.

Happy Thanksgiving!

What am I thankful for? Find out here.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Dust and Stone

Finally, after 25 days in Mexico City, I managed to escape.

Not that there's anything wrong with life in the district--it's just, due to a combination of overarching buildings and tangible smog, my gaze never penetrates the boundaries of the D.F. An indistinct, hazed outline of a distant mountain now and again, nothing more.

So when the school where I've been taking Spanish classes for the past three weeks announced a trip to the ancient city of Teotihuacán, I was first in line.

Getting there was its own adventure. Despite the fleet of first-class buses available, we chose a real clunker, which in turn chose the back-road route. And apparently, Mexican backroads are sprinkled liberally with speed bumps. Every 100 meters or so, we passengers were treated to a symphony of point and counterpoint: squealing brakes, revving engine, over and over.

But there was also music of another sort, which made the ride worthwhile. At one of many intermittent stops, on jumped a norteño-style trio: accordion, guitar, and electric bass. Though off a bit instrumentally (it can't be easy to play an accordion standing in the aisle of a moving bus), their three-way vocal harmonies were fantastic.

As the transmission cracked and groaned, we were serenaded. Three quick songs and off they hopped again, a few pesos richer for their trouble.

At last, we crested the final speed bump, and the bus shuddered to a halt. Beyond the wide parking lot, we could already see Teotihuacán's glory: the Pyramid of the Sun, third-largest pyramid in the world.

Much about Teotihuacán remains a mystery: who built it, what was its precise influence on contemporary Mesoamerican cultures, and what caused its spontaneous decline? Yet archaeologists are certain that construction began before Christ and that, at its height hundreds of years later, Teotihuacán was likely one of the largest cities in the world, 150,000 residents strong.

Today, there's dust and stone. Most structures flank the kilometers-long Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead), with the Pyramid of the Moon, the smaller of the pair, marking its northern terminus. Foundations and wall fragments of residential complexes, marketplaces, temple buildings, and sacrificial altars fill out the site.

A number of strikingly well-preserved murals, dating back at least 1,500 years, are accessible to tourists. The bright greens and deep crimsons in which resplendent dieties and mythical animals are portrayed make it easy to imagine the awe the city must have struck in visitors and locals alike when every inch of stone was likewise covered in color.

For modern visitors, the majority of color originates from the wares of trinket vendors: stone masks, plumed arrows, wooden flutes, intricately woven blankets, embroidered sombreros. Armies of uniformed field trippers--baby blue, navy, and brown--march here and there, kicking up the grey dust that covers all and gasping for giggling breaths as they ascend the 264 stairs of the Sun Pyramid.

As late afternoon sinks in, things quiet down. The stepped stones, framed by spiky nopal and maguey, are bathed in the golden light of sunset.

Our faces raw and red from sun, wind, and dust, we cast a final look over our shoulders before boarding the bus home, just in time to see first the pyramids, then the entire city itself, fall into shadow.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Behind the Masks

"¡Cervezas! ¡Refrescos!" call the men in the Corona-branded dress shirts, plying the aisles, pushing beverages, trinkets, and bizarre snacks I'm sure I'll never learn the names of. "¡Cervezas!"

The calls are drowned out by a sudden roar from the crowd. In the center of Arena México, a man has just jumped up on the ropes lining the small square ring. Spotlights glare. Sweat glistens on the bloated muscles of his chest. His arms are thrown out towards the crowd in a gesture of incitement, and his face is a patchwork of color extremes, glaring eyes, triangular nose, and three-inch fangs protruding wickedly from a black gape of a mouth.

Standing on the seats next to mine, a little old lady and her granddaughter are waving their fists and hurling every Spanish insult I've ever heard, and many I haven't, at the man on the ropes. Heavy metal blasts from speakers high up in the ceiling, and a half-naked model hip-walks down a runway parading a placard that reads "Primera Caída."

This is lucha libre.

The Mexican version of WWE, literally "free fight," or "fight without rules," is unarguably more entertaining than its American relative, despite being just as scripted. Luchadores are half wrestler, half acrobat. They sling their bodies around one another in intricate series of technical moves, fly from the ropes in impressive back flips and somersaults, and often dive (literally) from the ring to tackle an opponent who has retreated into the crowd.

But most significantly, the majority of luchadores are masked.

The tradition of the máscara dates back to the earliest era of lucha libre, in the opening decades of the twentieth century. A unique identity is bestowed upon the wearer, and great shame comes to a luchador who is unmasked. Evolving from simple color schemes, today's masks can be complex, containing various depictions--animals, mythological figures, indigenous symbols, even popular themes from other genres, like Spiderman--which speak to the character of the luchador.

And that character is important. Most bouts, whether between individuals, duos, trios, or foursomes, pit the good guys (técnicos) against the bad guys (rudos). The honorable, rule-abiding técnicos face an uphill battle against the double-crossing, underhanded rudos, but usually prevail in the end. Both sides have their fans, although the average spectator will probably be cheering for the técnicos, investing him or herself emotionally in this symbolic triumph of good over evil.

Which brings me back to the little old lady and her granddaughter. Lucha libre is, extraordinarily, a family event. Mexicans of all ages crowd the arena. Toddlers, set atop their parents' shoulders, line the runway leading to the ring, hoping for a kiss on the cheek or a pat on the head from their luchador heroes, and giving a wave of the fist to the villains. In the confines of Arena México, it is apparently acceptable to let the heat of the event envelop you, to cast modesty aside and let the obscenities fly.

Outside, after the fifth and final lucha has concluded, stall after stall hangs strands of masks, rows of masks, all colors, all designs, an almost irresistible purchase after the excitement of the fights. Fans, decked out in the masks of their favorite luchadores, rehash the matches over plates of tacos, guide their masked children through the late-night crowds, and hail cabs for the trip home.

Místico has defeated Mephisto tonight. But next week, the arena will be packed once more to see these two masked archetypes wage yet another epic battle in the ring. Tickets are yours for 30 pesos.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


Saturdays bring the Bazar Sábado to the neighborhood of San Ángel, situated in the southwest of the D.F. Local artists set up rows of canvases throughout Plaza Carmen, craft vendors take over the streets and pathways surrounding Plazas San Jacinto and Tenanitla, and upscale jewelry and ceramics make for a visual feast inside the bazar building fronting the plaza on Calle Juárez. It's a shopper's paradise.

But exercising your credit card isn't the only reason to make a trip to San Ángel. Once you reach the Iglesia San Jacinto on the western side of the plaza, set behind a maze of pastel-hued walls and flanked by an oasis of garden calm, the calls of the vendors and car horns of busy Avendia Revolución dematerialize. Before you even realize it, you're transported to another era.

Colonially elegant mansions, blooming bougainvillea cascading over their brightly painted walls, line narrow streets of cobblestone. Far away are the hubcap shops, the jugo y licuado stands, the corner lavanderías, the exhaust perfume of Mexico City proper. In fact, aside from the occasional Mercedes quietly rumbling over the rugged stones, little exists here to persuade you that this secluded village has changed at all from time it was founded by the Dominicans in the 16th century.

Throw in a meal at Crêperie du Soleil and a half hour browsing around the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, where Rivera's festively decorated studio is on display, and a visit to San Ángel is the ideal Saturday getaway from the megametropolis.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Death in Style

Bright colors, sweet pastries, skeletons in suits--death never looked so good. Mexico's Dia de los Muertos is a one-of-a-kind event, with a history stretching back well beyond the arrival of Cortes.

Here's a quick sample of what was on offer for the holiday in Mexico City:

For more reflections on this year's Dia de los Muertos, check out my Matador blog.