ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO

MEXICO CITY | MEXICO

MERIDA | MEXICO

SEPTEMBER 2014

LIKE A COMMON FUGITIVE I FOUND MYSELF IN MEXICO CITY. THE MOVIES HAD LIED TO ME ABOUT A FEW THINGS. FIRSTLY MARIACHIS ARE NOT NEARLY AS COMMON AS I WAS LED TO BELIEVE, THE MAYANS DIDN’T DESTROY THE WORLD IN 2012, AND HORRIFIC GANG VIOLENCE DIDN’T PLAY OUT ON EVERY STREET CORNER. STILL MEXICO WOULD HAVE IT’S SHARE OF CHALLENGES, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU ARRIVE SMACK BANG IN THE MIDDLE OF INDEPENDENCE DAY.

“We are friends now!” the young lad smiled as I handed over a few pesos for a wrist bracelet. “Let’s be even better friends! Buy a fridge magnet!” Sorry kid but I have enough friends. Today was September 16th, “El Grito” Mexico’s Independence Day. The day Miguel Hidalgo sounded the cry of freedom which inspired the Mexican people to deliver the Spanish a good kick up el culo. Here outside the cathedral in the central square of Mexico city, the Zocalo, preparations were well underway for that nights party. A huge podium was being erected in the center, surrounded by performers dressed as Aztecs, skeletons and pretty much anything else imaginable.

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Viva Mexico!

That night I hit the town with some people from the hostel. It was surprisingly hard to find a beer around here. We were invited to several dodgy sounding parties which we probably should have gone to considering that by the end of the night we ended up in the most dangerous pub in the world. Located down a seedy alley we eased past the doorman who looked like Danny Trejo’s evil twin. Down the steps the bar was literally an enclosed red light district. Have you ever entered somewhere and immediately realised your mistake after committing to it? That’s what happened here. We nervously took our seats at some small tables in the side, trying to avoid the stares and smirks of the few dodgy looking characters there. One guy looked like someones grandad, only the thing he was doing with one of the waitresses would give any grandkid nightmares. We ordered some hideously overprices beer before deciding to get the hell outta Dodge. Maybe I haven’t used the word “dodgy” enough, all I remember is the relief that washed over us when we stepped back outside among the humans beings after having left the vampires in From Dusk Till Dawn behind.

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It’s pretty but I still rather they didn’t build it on top of my house

The day after the night before the army had disassembled the stage and bandstands in record time. At least through my post-independence day haze it certainly looked like they were moving with super human speed. Once everything was gone I could finally see the grandeur of the Zocalo. Behind me was the largest cathedral in the Americas and all around the grand government buildings of the Plaza de la Consitución. The Spanish built the modern day city of Mexico over the old Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. On the cathedral’s left stands the entrance to what remains of the old city. Much of it however lies buried under the streets, a bit like how I was feeling.

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The state of this one’s hat

Speaking of the Aztecs, an hour outside the city lies the awe inspiring ruins of Teotihuacan. This is actually a pre-aztec city. The aztec themselves stumbled upon it after it had been abandoned sometime in the 6th or 7th centuries. They called it Teotihuacán which means “the place where men became gods” presumably because that’s what they believed had happened to it’s original inhabitants. At it’s peak Teotihuacan was the largest city in Pre-Colombian America. It consists of a long road known as the Avenue of the Dead which leads to the enormous Pyramid of the Moon. Looking down on the avenue from the pyramid you can see the even larger Pyramid of the Sun off to the left. This pyramid is actually the 3rd largest in the world and, unlike the Moon Pyramid which is partially damaged, you can climb all the way to the top and enjoy the amazing views across the plain. At the bottom of the avenue lies the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. This edifice was modified by the Aztec to worhip their chief God “the feathered serpent”. The sides are carved with intricate images of Aztec gods and feathered snakes.

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The Avenue of the Dead with the Pyramid of the Sun on the left

These days the Avenue of the Dead has now become the Avenue of the Cheap. It’s lined with people selling all kinds of cool crap from mayan calendars to aztec masks to jaguar whistles. This is something that when you blow it sounds like the call of a jaguar. Everywhere you go in Teotihuacan there is a guy blowing a jaguar whistle in your face. A dangerous practise if you ask me. If you become desensitised to jaguar sounds how are you gonna react when you hear a real one? Those guys have blood on their hands if you ask me.

Ancient Aztec carvings, vibrant meso-american murals and ringed by thorny cactus Teotihuacan is a large but amazing site, and very easy to reach from Mexico City’s north bus station.

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Getting excited about cactus in Mexico is like getting excited about pubs in Ireland

Mexico City is a vibrant place to walk around. Obviously the celebrations hadn’t die down, almost every street corner had dancers, performers and even a blues band. After lamenting the fact that “today’s music ain’t got the same soul” I headed into the torture musuem. Housed inside a building once used by the Spanish Inquisition (the Palacio de Inquisition was only a few blocks away from my hostel) it contained the ideal selection of gifts for that special CIA agent in your life. Tired of the same old waterboard? Why not lower that unpatriotic asshole onto a spike, or place them in a neck brace ringed by spikes that you can twist into their flesh? So many creative uses for pointy bits of iron so few heathens to try them on. Stay classy catholicism.

Naturally the Torture Museum had made me hungry so I headed across the street for a fajita. I ended up with half a supermarket cart full of food. Half the challenge was cramming it all into wraps, the other half was deciding between salsa and guacamole. I adopted the Mick Jagger with Hookers approach – when you’ve already paid for it why not both?

I crossed the road by the Opera house to get to the square. On the way back two young Mexican guys on a rusty old bike almost knocked me down while crossing the road. “Ai ya yi El Gringo!” they yelled as they swerved to avoid me. I nearly pissed myself laughing. Not only was it the first time I’d been called El Gringo here, but it was delivered in a fantastically panicked Speedy Gonzalez accent. I don’t usually buy into racial stereotypes but it was a hilarious only-in-Mexico moment.

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A genuine Mexican couple welcome you to their home. You can tell he is a real Mexican because he is wearing a sombrero

Short on time I flew to Merida instead of taking the 24 hour bus. The old town of Merida is situated in the Yucatan Penninsula, in the middle of humidity that makes Mexico City seem like a fresh mountain village. Many consider Merida the oldest continously settled city in the Americas. The conquistador Francisco de Montejo built the spanish city here over the ruins of a Mayan city. His gaff, the House of Montejo still stands at the main town square and looks like a building Zorro would spend much of his time swinging from the roof of. The interior of these old buildings are amazing. Another one is the Palacio de Gobierno on the opposite side of the square. It was the seat of government for the Yucatan and inside features historic paintings depicting the interactions of the Spanish and the Maya.

A stroll around the old town here reveals lots of colonial spanish buildings, many in garish shades of yellow, pink and green. That’s what I like about Mexico and Merida in particular. It’s colourful. Once past the cathedral it’s host to a number of extraordinarily beautiful little churches and missions. One was a weird red / purple colour with white stripes and others were draped in yellows, whites, blues and reds. I think here in Europe we take religion far too seriously. If I was religious I’d find it hard to believe that a God who created coral reefs and rainbows wants to live in a drab grey stone building that looks like a depressed troll.

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See now this is a church

It’s a weird kind of city in other ways too. Outside of the main square the old town is arranged in blocks, each road kinda looks the same and every building is the same height giving you a feeling akin to rat trapped in a maze. It’s very easy to get lost here if you’re not keeping your wits about you. 60% of the population here are still indigenous Maya. Two hours away by bus is the infamous Mayan city of Chichen Itza, now one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

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The courtyard of the Palacio de Gobierno. Cue Zorro on the rooftop in 3..2…1…

I boarded the bus early that morning and soon was arriving at the former Mayan capital. Most people have probably heard of the Maya after being convinced the world was gonna end in 2012. After all wacky predictions seem so much more plausible when it’s backed up by ancient mystical wisdom instead of science. The mayans didn’t predict the end of the world in 2012, that’s just when their current calendar ran out. According to my local gas station the end of the world will occur on Jan 31st 2017. Can’t argue with that logic.

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El Castillo (life size)

Chichen Itza was a place of ceremony and sacrifice. It was one of the largest pre-colombian cities in the Americas but underwent a mysterious decline in the 13th century. By the time the conquistadors arrived in the 1500’s the maya lived elsewhere and the city lay in ruins consumed by the jungle.

I had arrived a few minutes early. When I got off the bus and grabbed my ticket I joined a handful of people waiting for the gate to open before we could access the site. There is a short path through some trees before the view expanded into a clearing. On the right rose the iconic grand pyramid of Chichen Itza, the legendary El Castillo and – it seemed a little small. I had heard that Chichen Itza actually contained two pyramids so I assumed this was the smaller one. Eventually it dawned on me that -yes – this was El Castillo. I think my visit to the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan had spoiled me. While smaller, El Castillo is much more ornate than Teotihuacan and has a more pleasing style to the eye. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a small structure, I was just under the impression it would be a bit bigger than it was. Never meet your heroes eh?

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La Iglesia – the church. Chichen Itza

As one of the largest mayan cities Chichen Itza is quite a complex. Nearby is the Great Ball Court – the largest of it’s kind. Here the maya would be a ball game kinda like a cross between handball and basketball. The object of the game would be to use your elbow to flick a ball through a small wall mounted hoop. Either the losing team or the winning team ( no one is really sure which) would be sacrificed to the God’s afterwards. You’d think with stakes that high you would make sure everyone was aware of this beforehand?

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Chac Mool, back then the Walk of Shame was a lot more shameful

Other impressive structures included the Temple of the Warriors where the human sacrifice took place. There is a small stone altar here in the shape of a man. His name is Chac Mool and you do not want to meet him. The lucky chosen were held over the altar and their hearts ripped out, their blood collecting on the steps below. I’m gonna move on before I give Donald Trump anymore ideas.

Probably my favourite part of  Chichen Itza is known as “the Nunnery” and “the Church”, it’s a quiet, leafy part of the city away from the throngs gathering around the pyramid. Here are two small buildings nestled together, but what makes them so cool are their decorations. Each house is covered in detailed Mayan carvings resembling priestesses and masks with long noses. I fail to see the connection but they looked awesome. On the way there you pass by another clearing containing the smaller Osario pyramid and “the Observatory” which looks, funnily enough, like an observatory.

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Beautiful and detailed Mayan stonework

The ancient Mayan may be long gone but the site is still home to loads of huge iguana-like lizards. They just lay about in the sun not giving a rat’s ass. Not even the sound of fake jaguar whistles disturbs them, unlike me. Maybe it’s the fact that ,unlike Teotihuacan, the jungle encroaches right to the edge of Chichen Itza. It’s easy to imagine a real jaguar stalking the perimeter waiting for a fat tourist to stumble over a vine. And it’s not like they’d need to be quiet about it either.

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Feathered serpent gods seem to be a theme among meso-american cultures

Back in Merida it was time to make preparations for the long trip down to Guatemala. Flights there are outrageously expensive – even from Mexico. It came to my attention that ADO run buses from Merida and Cancun down to Belize city. From there it should be a shorter five or six hour bus ride into the Guatemalan city of Flores. What initially seemed a bit daunting now appeared to be pretty straight forward. I departed that night on the ADO bus bound for Belize City and after a fairly standard border crossing into Belize I was soon on my way to the capital of my first central american country.

I never saw one mariachi the whole time. Up yours Hollywood. Ok that’s not strictly true. Once my little trip down to Guatemala was over I saw some at Cancun airport. But they didn’t play for very long and none of them had guns in their guitar cases.

Next time : A strange (drunk) man reveals my future, a jaguar pisses up against a tree, and I see a spider the size of my head.

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