Mexico City dominates the Valley of Mexico in the central region of the country, but numerous other intriguing sites are located within two hours’ drive of the megalopolis. The Valley is dotted with the archaeological remains of pre-Hispanic cities, as it was one of the constituent areas where Mesoamerican civilisations flourished. The Valley of Mexico became one of the most densely populated regions in the world two thousand years ago and has remained so ever since. From Mexico City, Nactus and I visited the extraordinary ruins of Teotihuacan and the colonial-era city of Puebla.
Tetihuacan was the greatest city of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, analogous particularly with ancient Rome. Teotihuacan was contemporaneous with the eternal city, although its apogee was truly reached in the centuries subsequent to the fall of Rome. Teotihuacan supported a remarkably large population at its zenith of up to 250,000, ranking it among the largest cities of the ancient world. It established a vast empire and dominated Mesoamerica politically and culturally. Teotihuacan civilisation mysteriously collapsed in the ninth century AD, which effectively ushered in a “dark age” in Central Mexico. Teotihuacan continued to influence Mesoamerica long after its downfall, as its religion, legacy and the ruins of its glorious edifices were venerated by societies such as the Aztecs. The layout of the city was defined by the Avenue of the Dead and a litany of religious structures, which are the remaining vestiges of Teotihuacan. The avenue cuts directly through the centre of the city and is flanked by ceremonial platforms of varying degrees in size along its entire length. The avenue is imposingly broad and sub-divided into large plazas. Teotihuacan boasts two of the largest pyramids in the world: the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. We were able to ascend to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and enjoy panoramic views of Teotihuacan and its hundreds of temple structures. The pyramids are not too dissimilar to the pyramids of Giza (which is quite extraordinary really), although the notable difference is the presence of steps. The pyramids were thus intended to be scaled, for religious purposes (presumably to be closer to the celestial beings?). Most of the other temples at Teotihuacan consist of multiple platforms that gradually become smaller, thus giving the structures pyramidal appearances. The most impressive of these temples was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, the rain god (I think…), as it still features huge sculptures of feathered serpents on its structure.
Although Puebla is Mexico’s fourth largest city with 1.5 million residents, it feels more like a provincial town in comparison to Mexico City. At one-fifteenth of the size, Puebla is to Mexico City what Geelong is to Melbourne. Puebla boasts one of Mexico’s most beautiful colonial-era historic cores and a proud culinary tradition. The layout of the historic core is a highly navigable grid with a huge Zocalo (main plaza) at its epicentre. The Zocalo is, in my esteemed opinion, the most impressive plaza in all of Mexico (and there are millions of them!). The Zocalo is heavily vegetated and features trees of broad and manicured canopies. This delivers a burst of greenery to the centre of town and therefore contrasts with the drabness and sterility of Mexico City’s Zocalo. Puebla’s imposing Renaissance –style cathedral dominates one side of the Zocalo. The facades, towers and lower walls are composed of grey stone, while the upper portions of the structure are painted strikingly in maroon. Nactus contemptuously opted to disregard the rule of no photographs inside the church, as if she was a VIP with special privileges. The other three sides of the plaza consist of splendid colonnades with expansive café terraced seating. Throughout the historic core, every colour imaginable is vividly exhibited by the colonial- era buildings. Puebla’s myriad of baroque churches most evocatively depicts this motif, as they are usually painted with two bold contrasting colours (one for the walls, the other for the trimmings). Quaint plazas of fountains, trees and old, characterful people seemingly exist around every bend. While Puebla lacks major attractions, it is an ideal city to wander around aimlessly for an afternoon or two.
After scaling the Pyramid of the Sun and entering the Great Pyramids of Giza, one might be forgiven for thinking they had “ticked off” the world’s largest pyramids. But such an assumption would be grossly inaccurate. The largest pyramid ever constructed is actually located in a nondescript satellite town of Puebla, so we were obviously compelled to visit. The volume of the Great Pyramid of Cholula is almost twice that of the Great Pyramid of Giza with dimensions of 400m by 400m by 55m, which also makes it the largest monument of any formation ever constructed. And yet, diabolically, a Catholic church resides upon its apex. The presence of this colonial era church has stunted excavation works at Cholula, and thus little is exposed or known about the site. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like a pyramid at all. Instead, it appears to be an abnormally positioned but entirely average hill covered in grass. If the pyramid was properly excavated and its glory restored in a similar manner to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the structural integrity of the heritage listed church would be compromised. The church is essentially a wart on one of the world’s most extraordinary edifices, so the patently obvious solution to this quagmire is to simply blow the church up. There’s no reasonable justification for not obliterating the church, since there’s dozens of virtually identical churches within walking distance of the pyramid. The Catholic Church ought to be punished for its practice of building churches on pre-Hispanic religious sites, so the Vatican should be charged the demolition and excavation bill. The few discernible vestiges of a pre-Hispanic culture at Cholula include 800m of tunnels that visitors can wander through (interesting, but lacking the spooky ambiance of passages through Egyptian pyramids) and terraced steps on one side of the hill.
The Australian obsession with Holden Commodores and Ford Falcons pale in comparison with the Mexican love affair with the greatest auto invention in history: the humble buggy. Other than cacti, the buggy is perhaps the only thing more ubiquitous and characteristic of Mexico than Catholic churches, mariachi bands and totally random fiestas (Mexican stereotypes are quite accurate- stayed tuned for further entries on that matter!). Rarely does more than two minutes pass between spotting buggies on Mexican roads. Of course, many readers would be aware of my phenomenal buggy spotting abilities and have been victims of my talent in the “punch buggy [insert colour]” game. While Nactus has enthusiastically embraced the game (there is a Danish version), she is really quite pathetic at spotting a buggy and quickly delivering the corresponding punch. To Mexanise the game, we are required to call out the buggy colour in Spanish, which has increased my Spanish vocabulary tenfold.
Puebla is one of the culinary epicentres of Mexican cuisine and the birthplace of the country’s most celebrated single dish, mole poblano. Moles are sauces composed of a huge number of ingredients (which can sometimes exceed 100) and are usually served over meats. While numerous varieties and colours of mole exist, they all generally consist of chillies, spices, thickeners (nuts and tortillas), sweet ingredients (dried fruits and sugar) and sour ingredients (tomatillos). The ingredients are combined, roasted and grounded into a fine paste, which takes at least a day to accomplish by hand. The paste is then simmered in water until it is very thick. It is then served over meat, which is essentially the secondary component of a mole dish. Mole poblano is individually famous because of its distinctive dark brown colour, which is attributed to the addition of dried ancho chillies and, most prominently, chocolate. By sheer luck, our visit to Puebla coincided with the city’s annual festival celebrating mole poblano. A huge street market had materialised for the occasion, with thousands of patrons enjoying the countless regional specialties served by the vendors. Nactus, a self-described “market fanatic”, was almost maniacal in her enthusiasm for the event and contended that the mole poblano festival was the busiest and best market she had ever attended. Personally I’m not one for superlatives or comparisons, so I refrained from premature judgements. We ordered a tortilla dish to whet our appetite, the name of which has been lost to memory. Half a dozen small tortillas were fried in lard and topped with stringy cheese and either green (tomatillo) or red (tomato) sauce. The tortillas were then stacked to create a sloppy, calorific and ultimately delectable snack. Nactus and I then sampled two moles at the market, which were served over rolled tortillas. One of them was obviously mole poblano. I found the mole to be very rich and quite unusual with the flavours of fruit, nuts and chocolate. We also tried a creamy and supposedly spicy mole, but found the sauce to be on the bland side. Surprisingly, Mexicans are rather weak when it comes to chillies: they make a concerted effort in warning tourists about even the subtlest hints of spice. Another of Puebla’s classic dishes is actually a fusion of Mexican and Middle Eastern influences. Taco arabes were created by Lebanese migrants in the early twentieth century, with spit-roasted pork (al pastor) served in pita bread (which I much preferred to corn tortillas).
Overall, Nactus and I spent a week in the Valley of Mexico (including Mexico City), although we certainly skipped a number of sites of notoriety. However, we departed content in the knowledge that we experienced the region’s biggest draw-cards: Teotihuacan, the Templo Mayor in Mexico City and mole poblano.
That’s all for now,