Caryl and Brian's World Bike Tour

Laredo, TX to Palenque, Chis Mexico

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Van Tales Chapter 50 - Jan 25 to Feb 27 1998

Laredo, TX to Palenque, Chis Mexico

Head along the Rio Grande about 150 miles north west of Brownsville you'll come to the busy, bustling border town of Laredo. There's nothing fancyabout Laredo, nothing to draw a tourist's attention. It's just a rapidlygrowing working town. The North American Free Trade Agreement, AKA NAFTA,has had perhaps its most profound impact on this particular city. Trucksfrom both sides of the border converge at this one location, some passingthrough the border, others coming to exchange trailers and return to theirstarting point. We heard that with a 25% per year growth, Laredo is thesecond fastest growing city in the U.S., second only to Las Vegas would youbelieve. Unfortunately the road system in and around town is just barelymanaging to keep up, as evidenced with all the road construction projectsfound around town. The major highway, I35, leads directly to a huge bordercrossing where semis line up every day waiting to pass customs andcontinue. Semi tractors are found everywhere throughout town. They gatherin every major parking lot, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, H.E.B grocery store, etc, where they wait for their next load. Many stores had to resort to puttingthose low metal bars across the entrance just to keep the trucks at bay.Doesn't always work, though.

Building construction is everywhere and all the stores look brand new. Yet for a town past 250K people and growing I was surprised at the stores thatdid not have a presence. There's an Office Max, yet no Office Depot. Nomajor computer store and none of the big book stores either. McCallen, amuch smaller town just 100 miles or so down the road has all these andmore. Seems Laredo has some catching up to do.

Casa Blanca state park became our home for the several days we made our preparations for Mexico. In the middle of rebuilding their campground, itwas a very strange place to stay in its current condition. There is noreal campground or campsites. You just find some spot in the parking lotto set up. Big RVs that couldn't survive without electricity and waterhookups were extending cords all the way to the picnic ground bathrooms, Iguess with the permission of the park officials. With so much room in theparking lot we had loads of space to get everything straightened out andready to go.

Taking a vehicle into Mexico is far more complicated than taking a bike.With a bike you just need to get yourself one of those 6 month touristcards, readily available at the border, some AAA offices, or the MexicanConsulate. But with a car, first you need to get some sort of insuranceand, as we discovered, only certain companies will sell collision and theftinsurance for cars older than 10 years. It took us about 1 full dayrunning around checking prices in both Nuevo Laredo and Laredo before weconcluded that prices didn't vary and wound up going with AAA. Then thereare certain papers you need to have to bring a car into Mexico temporarily. Mainly it's a promise to bring the car back. You actually have to eithergive them a credit card imprint or a bond that makes sure you will bring itback. Credit card is easier as you can then bring the car out anywhere. With a bond you must exit through the same border in order to get your cashback. It seems almost like NAFTA applies to the major trucking industries,but not you and me personally.

Along with picking up a few supplies we knew we couldn't find in Mexico,such as caffeine free diet colas, one other item demanded my attention, thecomputer. There were two issues to straighten out. First, I'd upgraded toWindows CE 2.0, a free chip upgrade I got from HP. Not having a PC throughwhich I could translate all my databases I had to literally type mycontacts, inbox, and calendar files by hand. A several hour project butnot impossible. Other problems started immediately. Every time thecomputer suspended operation due to sitting idle, it would do a reboot. Areal pain as this caused all programs to stop and all data got lost. Hereis where HP came through with flying colors. After explaining to them mysituation, I was headed into Mexico for 2 months and really needed a fullyfunctioning computer to keep in contact, they made arrangements to get awhole new HP 360LX sent, via overnight mail. Problem solved thanks so muchto the great help from HP.

Another problem involved Sprynet. I was having no luck getting connected.A problem I thought was due to something I did or did not do in creatingthe new remote network connection. Try as I might I simply could not getany help from Sprynet. Not that they gave me wrong or bad answers, theyjust seemed to ignore me. The way things work the only 800 number you cancall goes to their setup people, the ones who can get an account set up andthat's it. They know absolutely nothing about Windows 95 or CE whatsoeverand they have no way to get you in touch with the real technical support.Technical support requires a toll call, sitting on the phone for a long,long time to get through to a real person, impossible to do on a prepaidcalling card. I got a fax number to which I sent an urgent plea forassistance, no reply. Around and around I went not able to get any help.Eventually I tried a connection with the new HP 360 and much to my delightdiscovered that it worked. It was a hardware problem after all, not software. Yeah. But, as far as Sprynet support is concerned, I'm lessthan excited.

When we finally got all this stuff done it was across the border, turn inthe paperwork for the car and we were off. First stop, Monterrey. There'snot much to see in the city of Monterrey itself as it is a fairly new townwith modern stores and other facilities. We made one stop at Mexico'slargest brewery, also home to Mexico's baseball hall of fame, and headedon. Getting as far as the tiny town of Lineras, about 100 miles south ofMonterrey, we ran into a heap load of trouble. From the back of the vancame an odd grumbling noise. At first, only when stepping on theaccelerator. It quickly grew into a loud, frightening screech. We pulledover in town. Running to the back we found steam billowing out fromunderneath, water pouring on the ground. We could drive, about a half block at a time, and managed to make our way to a Chevrolet dealer whopointed us toward a VW dealer. Could they fix it, yes if they had theright part, a new water pump. Now, there are thousands and thousands of VWvans throughout Mexico. One big problem, they're all those air breathingbuses, not water guzzling Vanagons. So after removing the water pump theVW dealer handed it to us and took us over to the bus station where wemounted a bus back to Laredo to get a new part. One thing we have learnedis life is never, never dull with this old VW. What could possibly be next?

We arrived back in Laredo early Sunday afternoon and promptly started the search for a new "bomba de aqua". Now VW vans are not exactly the mostpopular car you can find in Texas. In fact they're about as rare as those white rhinos the San Diego zoo has been trying to breed for years. So wefigured we'd have about as much chances of finding a new water pump asyou'd have finding water in that desert in Peru where rain has never beenrecorded,. We started by calling Pep Boys. Sure, they could have oneshipped out for arrival on Tuesday. Could we get something sooner. Hi/Lo,same Tuesday delivery. Car Quest, nope don't carry it. Auto Zone, nope.NAPA, couldn't even get through to the parts department. Many more shopswere closed. Finally we tried Gonzolas Auto Parts. "Sure, we have one.""What!" Exclaimed Brian, "Are you sure. A 1985 VW vanagon?" "Yes" he keptassuring us. "Hold that part, we'll be right over." Brian pipes out, abig grin on his face. "Don't get your hopes up," he admonishes as wepractically run the 20 blocks to the store, "It might not be the right one. I'll believe it when I see it." We arrived, pulled out our old pump, andcompared it to the picture in the parts catalogue. Uh, oh. One hole thatattaches to the half containing the thermostat and temperature sensor isshown as round, not the odd shape in ours. "Let's just have a look, justin case the picture is wrong." Brian asks. Pulling the part out of thebox, anxiously expecting to see the wrong hole, we all breathed a sigh. Itwas identical to ours. We were in luck. We'd managed to find the one andonly spare water pump for a 1985 VW vanagon in all of Laredo, perhaps inall of Texas. We have no idea why they happened to have one and didn'tcare. It was ours now and we were on our way back to Lineras, out ofLaredo for good this time. And we did hear it may have rained in that Perudesert this year as well.

We returned to Lineras late Monday evening, our treasured water pump plusnew belts firmly grasped in our hands. We figured with the engine halftorn apart already we might as well change the belts and save some moneylater. The next morning, after a short walk, we reappeared at ourhandy-dandy VW dealer/shop to spend the entire day waiting. They werebusy, at least the repair shop was. But they had given us priority onSaturday and gave us another priority slot on Tuesday afternoon. Ourmechanic worked long and hard, having to make a few educated guesses alongthe way as he'd never seen any engine quite like this one before. Butafter about 4 hours he had the pump, belts, hoses, and all other miscellaneous pieces back on, coolant and water back in. we were ready topay the bill and head on our way. Get this, when the bill finally wastallied up it was for 6 1/2 hours, a total cost of $290 pesos or $35dollars U.S. Trying not to show our utter amazement and elation at howinexpensive this unexpected repair proved we tipped the mechanic an extra10 pesos for being so patient with a difficult vehicle. Just imaginetrying to get anything done to a car in the U.S. for $35. No way.

Early next morning we headed cross country, up over the first row of thetwo parallel mountain ranges that define most of Mexico toward the town ofMatehuala. Climbing up a narrow road with hairpin curves winding upthrough canyons and over cliffs we arrived at the top of the high valleybetween the mountains. A left turn down Rt 61 took us on a superbly quietback road through some pine studded forests, several goat and cattleranches, across desert landscape, and through several tiny towns. Havingto stop while herds of cattle or goats crossed the roads was not uncommon.It was one of the nicest drives we've taken through Mexico so far and I'dsay this would make an excellent, but rigorous biking route.

As we approached Matehuala the trash started to appear. At one point there was an entire field covered with hundreds, perhaps thousands of thoseplastic shopping bags, ripped, shredded, and faded in the oppressive desertsun. They lay on the ground, blew in the wind, clung tenaciously to brown,brittle branches. It's views like these that make me wish the plastic baghad never been invented. Matehuala, as a town has little to offer otherthan a night's stay. There was no descent places to shop for groceries, nocolonial architecture, no museums, nothing of great interest to tourists.It's simply a working town that seems to be becoming a way station for themany trucks coming out of Monterrey.

However, just a couple hour drive north west from Matehuala is a real interesting mountain community called Real de Catorce. The most excitingpart of this particular town is getting to it. Leaving the main 2 lanepaved country road, you head across the desert planes on what could well beone of the longest cobble stone roads in North America, if not the world.It goes for 31 km right into the mountains, climbing gradually at first andthen it winds into a steep switchback climb as it approaches the next partof the adventure, a tunnel. It's a rough drive and your shocks are sure toget a good workout by the time you return. The tunnel, about 2 miles long,is in actuality a former mine tunnel for this formerly mining town. Peckedand chiseled out of solid rock through the shear force of manual labortortuously extracted from the Indios, it is remarkably wide, level, andstraight. Although it's far from perfectly straight. There are a fewspots where the walls seem to encroach on one side and there's a full 90degree turn near the end. Bare light bulbs spaced about every 100 ft and your own headlights is all the illumination there is. Needless to say,traffic flows in one direction only which is regulated by tunnel keepers oneither end using a telephone. The tunnel has been there for hundreds ofyears. Yet one can't help but feel a bit nervous as you look up at whatappears to be very old timbers precariously holding large boulders in placeright over your head. I wonder how often one slips.

The town is very nearly a ghost town. Crumbled ruins of many buildingsscale the steep walls of the valley. Some have been rebuilt and are nowoccupied, easily identified by the enclosed roofs holding the TV satellitedish and large black plastic water tank on top. The cobble stone streetsare steep, narrow, and very uneven. They'd be horrendously slippery in therain. After negotiating to park the car for $5 pesos and have skinny, darkhaired and skinned Raymundo watch the van for another $4 pesos we headedtoward the central plaza and the cathedral. Catorce is one of these sitesthat gained spiritual significance somewhere along the line. So now thereis a continual stream of Mexican pilgrims coming into the town. Weunderstand there can be major group pilgrimages during certain religiousperiods that can fill the tiny town and valley with over 100,000 people.On this day there were perhaps only a few hundred visitors. The narrowroad leading to the cathedral is lined with tarpaulin covered souvenir stalls selling mostly the very colorful and gaudy religious artifacts soloved by the Mexican devotees and, of course, candles to be burned in thecathedral.

The large cathedral sits perched on this very steep hillside in front of an irregular shaped and very small plaza containing one large, not workingfountain. It has the usual two tall towers on either side of a domed roofand a not overly adorned facade. Inside, however, is fantasticallydecorated with small and large gold painted alters and fabulous frescos onthe ceiling. Comparing the works around the ceiling dome to those of thewalls and alters it's easy to see that the skill of the ceiling painter wasfar better than those of the wall painters. The art seemed to be a mix ofnative simplicity with flowers and vines painted on the walls combined withEuropean sophistication shown in the figures of saints on the ceiling.

Continuing to wander outside you can see a lot of the remains of buildings showing the onetime wealth the silver mines brought to this area. The Casade Moneda, mint, lies directly across from the cathedral and has 3 tallstories surrounding a central courtyard. The elegant carvings of thesupport structures and the woods used in construction speak of money longgone. It now lies nearly empty, housing only a small artisan studio in oneof the run down rooms. Yet some of the buildings have been repaired andnow house some very fine restaurants and motels. Toward the back of thevillage, in the area that seems to be more occupied today, you find anotherold church whose interior looks much like the mission churches of Texas,white plastered walls painted with vines, flowers, geometrical, andreligious figures in brilliant red, green, yellow, and blues, a largecemetery overrunning the small plot of land around the church, the circular wall of a partially reconstructed bull ring, and fabulous views of thevalley some 3000 ft below. Gringo tourism has just barely impacted thisvillage as it is mostly a stop for the Mexican visitor. This makes it aspecial place as it has as yet to suffer the obnoxious greed and pushyselling tendencies found in much more gringo packed place.

The road to Zacatecas was one of those long, straight, undulating roads through uninteresting brown desert shrubbery we so often see in the desertsouth west. It isn't until just before Zacatecas that the strange hillsthat define this city can be seen. Zacatecas and the surrounding area isat the heart of the silver mining district that made up essentially theentire economy of New Spain from the late 1500s to the 1800s. Silver andsome gold was discovered and the mine opened in 1596. Yet the impact ofthese vast riches proved to be a disaster not only to New Spain but also toSpain itself. Unlike the English and French colonists who came to the newworld to create a new world and economy, the Spanish conquistadors came tothe new world with the sole purpose of finding riches and obtaining land.This desire comes from a long Spanish tradition whereby a man, any man nomatter his character, wealth, or integrity could gain prestige simply byowning land, becoming a sen~or. Working the land or making it in any wayproductive was completely against his principals and considered to be theevil traits of the Jews or Moors, people he despised and tried to removefrom Spain during the inquisition. It was beneath any Spanish emigrant toeven think of tilling the soil, work in finance, make plans for improvingthe land, or do anything with the idea of future productivity in mind.

When silver was found the Spanish overlords took most the remaining Indios, whose population had rapidly declined from over 20 million at the time of Cortes's conquest to about 1 million by 1620, and forced them into slavelabor in the mines. The small milpas that produced maiz, the food uponwhich the Indios were so dependent were entirely neglected, while mentrudged back and forth some 100 miles further north of the furthestenslaved Indio settlement. The men were expected to make the journey onfoot, on their own, providing for their own food. Yet, because the fieldswere abandoned, the Indios had no food. Hundreds of thousands starved asthe Spanish grew richer and richer from the takings of the mine. It was asad time in New Spain. Back in the old world, Spain suddenly found itselfheading for vast bankruptcy. The attitude toward not working or becoming alaborer had deep seeded roots in Spanish history. Consequently there werefew industries at a time when the rest of Europe was starting to developvast industries. The influx of silver to the crown created rampantinflation completely outpricing those few Spanish goods that were soldthroughout Europe. Even though one fifth of all intake from the mines wentto the crown, the totally incompetent king Felipe II, spent virtuallyeverything coming in on religious wars to the north and on an extremelylavish lifestyle. He needed more and more money to continue to finance hisexcesses. He passed laws requiring New Spain to import only from Spain,New Spain could not produce anything in competition with Spain, taxes werelevied on all working people while land holders, nobles, and otherofficials were exempted, positions could be purchased from the crown forthe right price, even the mercury used to extract the silver wasmonopolized by the crown. It was a time when the entire productive effortof New Spain was wasted on producing more and more silver in an effort tobail out a floundering Spanish economy. A few Criollos of mixed, butmostly SpanisOne lasting and beautiful outcome of this time of terror, torture, andexcess were the incredible colonial style communities built to support themines. Zacatecas is among one of the most notable. The center of thevillage with its spotless narrow streets lined with very European lookingthree story buildings is squeezed between two mountains each of whichhoused some of the largest mines in the country. Upon one mountain one ofthe old mines, "La Edna" , is open to the public. For a small fee a littletrain takes you some 500 ft into the middle of the mountain. You're givena few minutes to look at the very nice craft items for sale and then a very knowledgeable student take you on a tour, in Spanish of course. From himwe learned that we were located in the middle level, level 4. The threelevels below went another few hundred feet deep and all three were flooded. There were an additional 3 or 4 levels above in the 800 meters of rockover our heads. The mine was opened in 1596 and continued operation untilthe 1950s. It was first mined by private interests, then some friars, thenthe government following the revolution, and in its final days acorporation. In 1976 the 4th level was drained and everything made secureand clear for tourist traffic. Early production consisted primarily ofgold and silver. Later other metals such as aluminum were mined. Workerswere primarily Indio slaves at first, paid employees later as the skilledIndio slaves disappeared due to depopulation. It was hard, hard hand laborperformed with just a sledge hammer and a big iron ramming bar under thepale flickering light of a couple candle flames. As with mining operationsthroughout the world at this time, it was a dangerous, unhealthy, lowpaying job. Children started working in the mines as early as age 12carrying water to the workers. They spend their lives working underground reaching the age of only about 35 to 40 before dying from accident or oneof the many diseases rampant in mining camps. Generation aftDropping a few pesos into the hand of our great tour guide, most of theirincome comes from tips, we are escorted onto an elevator that takes us upthe the top level where we can walk out the second mine entrance. Another500 meters to the left along the slopes of the mountain brings you to oneof the end stations of the teleferico, a cable car. Manufactured in, youguessed it Switzerland, it was dedicated in 1979 by what was possibly oneof the most corrupt presidents in Mexico's history, but that's anotherstory for another time. Taking about 7 1/2 minutes each way to reach theother mountain it gives you a bird's eye view over the city's streets, beautiful cathedral, and surroundings. There was a long line, as it wasthe weekend, but well worth the wait. On the opposite end on top of thestrange looking mountain called La Bufa, there are tombs for several ofMexico's more famous generals, three equestrian statues to Mexican heroesincluding the infamous, in the U.S. at least, Pancho Villa, and an alterplaced on the hill in dedication to the battle fought here and won by therevolutionaries. Our main interest was in the fabulous view the mountainpeak afforded.

We thoroughly enjoyed Zacatecas. Although the surrounding outskirts showthe normal, dusty, half built, littered residential communities so commonin Mexico, the center of town is wonderful. It's clean, reeks of wealthwhose money comes from the local mine that is still in operation, hasbeautiful architecture, and, most importantly is not overrun with gringotourists. As a result the locals simply ignore you, with the exception tothe very persistent window washers who just will not take "No" for ananswer. If it weren't for the fact that it is an expensive city to stayin, it would be a very nice place to spend more time visiting.

Southwest of Zacatecas are Las Ruinas La Quemada, some of the most northern ruins considered to belong within the Mesoamerican culture. The landsfurther north were occupied by a nomadic, desert dwelling peoples calledthe Chicimecas whose continual infiltration into the more southern valleysof Mexico influenced much of the Mexica culture found by Cortes in 1521.This particular city appears to have been occupied by three differentcultures during it's 500 years or so of occupation, unfortunately right nowI can't recall all the names. The site is situated at the top of a smallmountain giving it a great defensive position. It consists of a ballcourt, a few small temples, a palace on top of the hill that was called thecitadel by early explorers, an interesting building originally having aroof supported by 12 columns, several terraces that held residential houses, and most remarkable a large defensive wall. Its position on top ofthe mountain gives it much the appearance of a medieval fortress. Theruins today consist only of piled up rocks. There are no external carvingssuch as you find in the more southern ruins. Originally they would havebeen covered with a white limestone plaster that was very likely painted inbright colors of red and green. None of this external mortar hassurvived.. Some artifacts, stone knives, scrapers, drillers, and ceramicbowls are housed in a small but well done museum adjacent to the site. Italso presents a 3D diorama of the site, a replica of what they believe oneof the wooden alters on the temples would have looked like, and a displayof the layering approach used by archeologists to determine age and culture.

The heyday of La Quemada occurred during the classic period at the sametime Teotihuacan was at it peak, around 500 to 900 AD, when it was home tosome 500 people. It was the major religious center for several hundredmuch smaller towns and individual houses throughout the valley. In fact,from the top of the mountain you can still see traces of the old, straightroads that went off to the other towns. Based on excavations,archeologists have been able to determine that this was a fairly majorcenter of commerce as artifacts ranging from both coasts, Teotihuacan, andeven as far north as New Mexico have been found. As the year 1000approached the town was faced with more and more violence as evidenced bythe large defensive wall that was built during the later years ofoccupation. It is not known what caused it's final collapse, as it isstill not known what caused Teotihuacan to meet its final fate at about thesame time. It is known that a great drought did occur late in themillennia causing the entire civilization throughout MesoAmerica to gothrough a massive shift. Barbarians from the north moved south,dislocating entire civilizations. People packed up and left the majorreligious centers when they felt their leaders were no longer favored bythe rain gods. The area was never really resettled with a true civilization, until the Spanish founded their mining towns that is, becausethe upper valley continued to move into a more and more desert climate.Only the nomadic Chichimeca tribes persisted.

Our path took us further south, into the heartland of Mexico called theBajia, into the center of some of the most colonial region, into center ofwhere the "Mexican Revolution" began. The cities that probably everyMexican school child can immediately recall when asked about the birth ofMexico are Dolores Hidalgo (originally just Dolores), San Miguel de Allende(originally just San Miguel) and Guanahuato (originally just plainGuanahuato). Back before the revolution the Mexican society had becomerigidly split into 4 social classes or castes. At the top were theSpaniards. These were quite literally men from Spain who had come toMexico to fill high government posts and top church positions, gain land,get rich, and then go back to Spain. Called gachupines, these were thepeople with a good chunk of the money and all the rights. Next down werethe criollos, men who were either entirely or mostly of Spanish blood butwho happened to have the misfortune of being born in Mexico. Most of themen of this class were quite wealthy land owners, however they had norights or say in the activities of government or business. They could fillsome of the roles in military, usually positions purchased from the king orMexican viceroy Apart from owning land and slaves, they could do nothing.A bit further down the ladder were the mestizos, those of more highly mixedblood. These folks usually filled the working class ranks and werenormally illiterate and poor. They did not own land and had few rights.Finally at the bottom were the indios who were essentially slaves to thewealthy criollos and gachupines. This social stratification wasessentially brought into the new world from Spain and was based on the oldfeudal system of government that was rapidly being replaced by enterprisebusiness systems in most countries except Spain.

Tensions had grown for decades as this about 300 year old system slowlyrotted from within. But the entire structure came crashing down within ashort 10 year period from 1811 to 1821. It was all promulgated by France'sNapoleon. Through trickery and deceit and with the betrayal of KingFerdnand's advisor, he moved against Spain, imprisoned the king, and tookover rule. This caused complete unrest in not only Spain but also in theentire Spanish empire in the new world. In Spain, France was able to ruleonly in those areas where troops physically stood. The outlying townsremained loyal to the crown. They created their own interim governmentsand then started bickering among themselves as to who was actually theleader. With all this turmoil Mexico was virtually ignored.

This was seen as an opportunity for the very disgruntled criollos to oustthe gachupines and snatch government control for themselves, all stillunder the name of king Ferdenand. The mestizos thought this was anopportunity to right the civil injustice that had reigned for so long. Theindios were just trying to survive. A group of intellectual criollos underthe organization of General Ignacio Allende started meeting with theobjective of overthrowing the government. Their true plan was toinfiltrate the lower echelons of the military, posts that were mainly heldby criollos, peacefully overthrow the government, send all gachupines backto Spain, then return to the status quo only now with the criollos incharge. The group was joined by one rather unorthodox and very low on thetotem pole priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo. He was unusual becausehe drank, gambled, took whores yet at the same time was deeply concernedwith the fate of the very poor indios and mestizos. Unfortunately for Allende, Hidalgo was a very good orator and had entirely different ideasfor a revolution.

As plans for their overthrow progressed they were discovered by the viceroy who immediately sent out an armed force to arrest and hang the group fortreason. A messenger with a warning was rushed to Allende who then joinedHidalgo in Dolores. At 5AM on September 16 Hidalgo rang the church bellsto call the congregation to church early. There he gave a forceful speechthat lead to the "grito de Hidalgo", the cry of hidalgo, Live America, Livethe king, Death to bad government. The throng proceeded to take allgachupines prisoner and release all prisoners in the jail. With Doloressecured they marched on to San Miguel, Allende's birthplace, and promptlydid the same thing. Then on to Guanahuato where they met their firstresistance. The local militia had gathered all gachupines together in thehuge granary, a building that looks more like a prison, mounted cannon onthe walls and barricaded the door. The ragged mob with not much more thana few pitch forks turned on the fort. The only strength they had was theirmassive numbers, several thousand, and the capabilities of the militia thatGeneral Allende had been able to subvert. The group within the granarymight have held out except that one farmer, carrying a large stone on his back for protection, stormed the front gate and set it afire. The rabblestormed in through the choking smoke and the granary fell. All inside werekilled.

Allende and Hidalgo's forces, if you can call it that, had one successafter another taking much of the middle sections of Mexico with theexception of the capital. Unfortunately this early success was followed bymany failures as the initial enthusiasm wore off. The rabble he'd gatheredwere not trained soldiers and when events turned against the rebellion theyquit. Hidalgo and Allende were eventually tracked down and hanged astraitors, Allende and his generals immediately, Hidalgo some 4 months laterafter the church had its due with him. The heads of the mainconspirators, Hidalgo, Allende, Almande, and Jose Mariano Jimenez were hungin iron cages from the walls of that very Guanahuato granary they overranseveral months earlier. The immediate rebellion had been smashed. However, it ignited a smoldering flame that was to continue kindling for 10more long years before the Spanish occupation was at long last finished.Only then did the rotting heads get removed and given a proper burial.

San Miguel de Allende is a small, very colonial town located among somepretty rolling and relatively green hills for Mexico. It's got it's shareof baroque and churriguesque (stone carving gone totally nuts) churches,the normal closely spaced colonial buildings, a medium sized central plazaor jardin as they call it, and a large population of gringos, especiallyretired, wandering around. San Miguel has become a favorite gringoretirement area. Facing its plaza is one of the most unusual churches inall Mexico. It's made of pink local stone, has soaring steeples in frontand very vertical lines filled with almost a gingerbread style carving.The whole appearance looks much like a giant pink frosted birthday cake.It is said the architect was a native indio who had little or no training.He showed the builders what to do by scratching designs out in the sand.Also facing the plaza is Allende's birthplace home. Once an elegant homewith 2 stories, the usual interior courtyard surrounded by patios, it nowhas been turned into a small museum housing some prehistoric artifacts, afew odds and ends from the revolution, and a brief history of San Miguel.

San Miguel with its two campgrounds makes for a perfect base from which the surrounding towns can be explored via bus transportation. We chose to concentrate on seeing Guanahuato as this, along with Zacatecas, wassupposed to be one of the most spectacular and best preserved colonialtowns in the Bajia region. From the minute we climbed off the urban bus atthe Jardin de la Union we fell in love with it. One of the most uniquecharacteristics of the town is its underground road system. Originally theentire town straddled a large river. Old stone bridges were built to crossthe water, tall buildings lined the banks having balconies hanging out overthe water. In 1905 the city flooded. The town had had enough of waterproblems and they decided to divert the river leaving the former river bedbare. As traffic in the city grew the riverbed was paved with stones andtraffic was now diverted under the former river bridges. It's a twisty,turning maze of underground passages with occasional off ramps to select sections of town. It feels somewhat like driving through the catacombs.

Above this underground world lies a city that precariously climbs up thesteep sides of the former river's canyon. Foundations of upper buildingsare sometimes literally built on the roof of those lying below. Narrowwalkways suitable for only pedestrians climb their way up the steep slopesbetween the buildings. One alley is so narrow there are 2 balconies soclose there are legends of 2 lovers, not permitted to see each other, whostole furtive kisses across the alley. Now called "Callejon de Beso",alley of the kiss, it's a must stopping point for lovers to get their phototaken stealing a kiss on the appropriate step, which we missed by one.

There are the usual 5 or 6 churches tucked into the valley, an amazingtheater with life-size statues on its roof, huge front columns andfantastic gold guilded exterior decorations, a cozy central jardin allpacked into an area comprising no more than 4 or 5 city blocks. There areseveral very unique museums. The first is one dedicated to the fictionalcharacter Don Quixote de la Mancha and his side kick Sancho Panza. Thereare no less than 6 rooms filled with all sorts of art forms representingone or both of these characters sometimes with horse and donkey, sometimeswithout. There are statues ranging from greater than life-size to onesthat fit in the palm of your hand, full wall and ceiling murals, paintingsno larger than a postage stamp, souvenir type junk to real artwork, there'seven an original Dali that looks like not much more than a few pale brush strokes on canvas and a serigraph Dali that looks more substantial. Thisis even where the original and very famous representation of Quijote andSancho is housed. Always shown in just 2 colors it's almost a shadowrepresentation of the 2 with a bold sun complete with outstretched rays inthe upper left. The original is done with gold for the figures, black forthe background. Its likeness appears on cards, T-shirts, posters, andother stuff through the world.

Since long before the Spanish conquest, Mexicans as a culture have had a fascination with death. It stems from their very early history when theyfirst changed from a hunter/gather society to agrarian. They learned howto shape and manage their world through planting, however they were stillat the mercy of nature's effects, rain, drought, life, and death. ThePopul Vu legend of the hero twins, Hanapu and Xbalnque, who went to theunderworld to successfully defeat Lord Deaths 1 and 7 and then werereincarnated is a prime example of the very deep rooted belief the Mexicanshave in the ability of magic to defeat death. Today this death phobiamanifests itself in such celebrations as the Day of the Dead, a day inwhich all Mexicans prepare great feasts and offerings to be heaped on thegraves of their beloved ancestors, and in some other rather macabre customs. One real curious and, from a Norte Americano perspective totally appalling, display is the Museo de las Momias in Guanahuato. Some 25 or 30years ago the cemetery was getting quite full. So to make room, familieswho could no longer afford to pay the perpetuation fees to keep theirancestors interred lost their burial plots to make room for more. In theprocess of exhuming the bodies to be cremated or disposed of in some othermanner they discovered not just the decayed or skeletal remains, but whole,dried mummified bodies. Evidently the combination of the dry environmentand the minerals in what water there is caused the bodies to be pickled andprocessed just as the mummies of Egypt. So the Mexican, being trulyMexican, started putting the ones in the best condition into a museum thatis now quite a popular tourist attraction. I had to satisfy my morbidcuriosity to see just what they would find so fascinating.

Inside the museum, enclosed within glass cases, are the mummified remainsof over 70 bodies, most women and some small children. They're a putridshade of brown much like dried pork rind. Their shrunken bellies pressupon rigidly outlined ribs, faces are contorted into expressions of horroras the dead jaw muscles dried and allowed the mouth to drop into a frozenOH position, some sported pieces of tattered clothing, people who were oncefat are now surrounded in deflated billows of once rotund skin nowflattened with the release of water from the fat cells. One fat woman evenshifted positions during the curing process into an almost operatic singingposition. The small babies looked more like the shrunken bodies of littlemonkeys rather than human children. To be honest, it was all really gross,but it is part of the Mexican culture and to try to understand why Mexicansare Mexican one should see some of their less Disneyland side.

One other museum, not so gruesome, is now housed in that very granarybuilding old Hidalgo and his rag-tag mob took over back in the revolutiondays. The building itself is worth the $14 peso entrance. Inside is thetypical rectangular courtyard surrounded by two story patios. All was madefrom stones having hues ranging from green, to gray, pink, and blue. Itlooks like a pretty fancy building to have just housed the granary. Withinthe many rooms both upstairs and down are housed exhibits of somepreconquest artifacts, a general history of the revolution, a history ofGuanahuato, 5 large gold faces of the 5 revolutionary heroes, the 4 whoseheads hung from the granary for 10 years and the 5th of Morelos, the manwho actually finally achieved the liberation, and finally a display of someGuanahuato crafts, sombreros, leather goods, blankets, tin and copperworks. I particularly enjoyed the display of the preconquest stones carvedfor use as an ink stamp. Some were flat with floral, geometric, or deitycarvings on one side. Others were cylinders that were rolled along toprint their designs. They're not really sure what the stamps were usedfor, some say for printing cloth, others for face decoration or perhapsputting all the painted decorations on the buildings. I tend to believeall uses.

Leaving San Miguel de Allende to head south and east back toward the blue waters and hot steamy coast of the Golf, we first climbed up and over theeastern mountain ridge to an altitude of over 10,000 ft. Climbing higherand higher out of the old mining town of Pachuca, we rapidly left the dry,brown, dusty middle valley, called meseta, behind and entered a greenverdant forest filled with tall pines, ferns, and an occasional misplaceddesert plant. Despite the many mountain crests that exist in Mexico, muchof the original treed landscape has been completely denuded by thousands ofyears of dense habitation leaving only the brown, dry, desert typevegetation behind. But there are a few spots where green forests have beenpreserved as national parks, such as Parque national del Chico. We spentthe night in the Parque National del Chico, named in honor of the smallformerly mining town Mineral del Chico located smack in the middle of thepark. It was an odd National park campground, at least compared to whatwe're used to. It was more of a club for which you paid a membership fee.But it was quiet and so pleasant to be up in the cool crisp air for thenight. The morning gave us the opportunity to attempt to get lost amongthe maze of unmarked trails that crisscross the hills. Most eventuallywound up back at the road.

>From an altitude of 10,000 ft we dropped and dropped along a narrow 2 lanetwisting and turning yet very, very busy road to the Golf coast. Within a few hours we went from pine forests into banana and palm treed jungles.The differences in environment between the desert, pine mountains, andtropical jungles all within such a short distance are absolutely amazing.I know of few places on earth where such a dramatic change can exist. Theroad we followed is the only road going from the busy oil town of Poza RIcato the city of Mexico DF. Naturally this means a lot of truck trafficfollows this road that is far too small for semis of any kind. But they'reall on this road. Some towns along the way have become basically supportlocations for truck traffic, and they are some of the dirtiest, filthiest,ugliest towns we've ever seen. They exist of just a two rows of shackstyle restaurants made from little more than some sticks built into a shakycover, a couple tables and chairs, and some sort of cooking contraptionlining both sides of the highway one after another after the other. Boysbusily scrub the semi rigs parked while the drivers eat dinner. And thereis trash everywhere. Most towns in Mexico have street cleaners who comeout each night to sweep up the remnants of the previous day's activities.In the morning, shop keepers sweep and wash their sidewalks. And theplazas are always kept spotless. But, not in these truck stop towns.Clearly the trash has sat for days, weeks, maybe even months as it'sstinking and rotting. Even the plazas of these places are not clean.These towns, fortunately not the norm, are not even worth a stop much lessa second look.

Just outside Poza Rica is a very large grouping of early mesoAmericanruins called El Tajin. These are ruins possibly occupied by the Totonecpeoples at around the same time Teotihuacan just north of Mexico DF wasoccupied. This time is called the classic period of mesoAmericanpopulation and spans the period of around 600 to 900 BC. The ruins arequite large, composing some 10 square miles, and many of the main buildingshave been uncovered and reconstructed. The setting is almost park like,with neatly clipped grass, trees with the usual white painted lower trunksand these beautiful pyramid buildings scattered around the lawn. Mostbuildings were the typical square base shape with multiple levels slopingever up to a smaller size at the top. El Tajin doesn't have the best carving, the tallest or largest pyramids, or the most grandiose structures. However, just for a view of a different region and style it is quiteinteresting. One particular style this group seemed to favor were smallrectangular niches lined along the walls of the pyramids at each and everylevel. When in use the pyramids were covered in white stucco and theniches were painted red and blue. One pyramid has so many niches it nowlooks a bit like a beehive. It must have been quite a large mural of reds,whites, and blues back in its heyday.

In front of the park once or twice a day a group of indios perform arendition of the famous pole dance. Five men dressed in white pants andshirts adorned with multi colored trimmings climb up this 50 ft tall pole.Four men sit at the corners of a rather fragile looking square frame whilethe fifth stands on this tiny platform in the middle. The middle mandances and plays a flute for about 20 minutes or so all while he is juststanding on this little platform. Suddenly he stops playing and the fourmen on the corners topple over backwards towards the ground. They're heldby ropes that have been wound around the pole a total of 13 times.Upside-down with their arms spread wide they slowly spiral to the ground inwhat appears like a slow motion flight. Four men going around 13 times gives a total of 52 revolutions, 52 being the number of years needed tohave the Mayan calendar make one complete cycle. The dance's origins arereligious in nature but now it is mostly performed for the tourist trade atmany of the ruin sites. Instead of farming the dancers now earn a livingon the tourist trade.

South of Poza Rica is an area called the Esmeralde coast, perhaps some ofthe prettiest beach area along the entire golf coast. It's a strip ofcoastal property that is only about 30 miles long, having a gray coloredfine sand dotted with coconut bearing palm trees. Hotels and RV parks linethe beach. Yet, most sit virtually vacant this time of year as Mexicansdon't do much traveling in February and, amazingly, the retired gringosdon't come this far or go this way. In fact most retirees are so afraid ofentering Mexico, much less going any more than a few miles beyond theborder, they'd rather pile up in hot overcrowded RV parks in Texas,spending winters staring down their neighbors within a mere 10 feet thanhead further south to quiet, roomy, beach front property at less than halfthe cost. Hey, if they want to pack up at the border and leave the bestfor those of us who are more "daring", fine. It's their loss and our gain. A day of walking the sandy beach, dipping in the pool, and cracking open ripe coconuts just lying on the ground free for the taking was exactly thebreak we'd been needing.

We were heading further south along the coast to reach our maindestinations, the lands of the Olmec and Maya where we intended to see someof the ruins we missed the first time through. One grouping just north ofVeracruz is called Zempoala. This was the site of a very small religiouscenter that was inhabited at the time Cortes came and was to become a siteof a battle between the different Spanish factions that the native Indiosgot caught in and suffered the most from. You see, Cortes was actually arenegade and the fight was between him and Navareaz, the man sent to draghim back for trial.

Before the Spaniards decided to tackle the mainland Americas they had, for quite some time, completely taken over the Caribbean islands. Stillthinking they were on the eastern coast of the rich spice lands of India,they had been quite disappointed not to find cities of gold or the richesof spices the seafarers who traveled around the tip of Africa were finding. However, they did bring stalks of sugar cane to the islands and eachadventurer soon had their own plot of land sprouting up sugar cane to besent back to Spain. Naturally all the work was done by enslaved nativeIndios. Unfortunately, the number of natives available to do the work wasrapidly shrinking due to both the diseases brought by the Spaniards andtheir complete inability to adjust to this brutal form of enslavement. Itdidn't take too long before the entire island native population wascompletely wiped out and the Spanish started importing Africans to fill the ranks.

In an effort to find more labor, ships started exploring the mainlandcoasts. Normally the currents and trade winds would take the ships muchfurther north where they found no civilizations and few people. But, onone occasion one explorer got blown south in a storm. He spotted thesparkling white stucco cities along the coast yet did nothing but return toCuba to report his findings. The Governor of Cuba was excited. Againthinking he was still on the coast of India he began to think he'd at lastfound the riches he'd been seeking. Upon receiving permission from thecrown to further his explorations he began to outfit an expedition. Nowthis character wasn't exactly one of your brave explorers. He preferred tosend someone else to do the dirty work while he gleaned all the profit andcredit. Also, he wasn't exactly pleased with the behavior of his firstcaptain whom he thought should have shown more initiative by going ashoreto have a better look. So he selected Cortes to lead the next expedition.

Well, Cortes was an opportunistic fellow who had knowledge of military ways and of the Spanish law. He decided to go far beyond what he'd beenoriginally assigned. It's important to keep in mind that explorationexpeditions were not typically funded by the crown. They were, in fact,usually privately funded. So all the equipment Cortes was obtaining camefrom the Cuba governor's personal supplies. He had given Cortes a specificallotment, but Cortes quickly started grabbing far more. When the governormoved to stop Cortes and remove him from the expedition, Cortes quicklypacked everything up and headed out to sea where he continued to smugglesupplies aboard ship. Under Spanish law the governor could only controlpeople within his jurisdiction and the seas surrounding Cuba were notwithin that jurisdiction. He would have to send back to Spain to get theappropriate permissions to pursue. This, of course, gave Cortes plenty of time to pursue his own land grabbing dreams.

By the time the governor had gotten permission and a new group together togo after the renegade Cortes, Cortes had already made his way to the valleyof Mexico where he was planning his attack upon the Mexicas, AKA Aztecas.In the meantime their pursuers under a Captain Navareaz had made it to themainland to the Indio city now known as Zempoala, where he made camp.Hearing this Cortes quickly came down from the mountains with the intentionof stopping Navareaz before he got anywhere. It didn't take him long. Bythis time he'd already seen what riches could potentially be had from theconquest of the Mexica empire and, having quite a convincing personality,he quickly talked most of his opposing forces to switch sides. He, hisoriginal group, and his new found accomplices easily defeated Navareaz. Hedestroyed and burned the wooden structures at Zempoala in the process.Cortes put Navareaz in custody in Veracruz and he headed back up to thehigh valley to continue his conquest. Meanwhile, the Zempoala Indios sawtheir numbers reduced from several thousand to no more than 8 families asthe effects of disease, slavery, and the battle loss took their tolls.

The remains of the ancient Zempoala religious center are actually a verysmall site. It was a very well organized site that covered perhaps only 10acres or so. The entire area was originally surrounded by a defensive wallhaving two wide, wide staircases on the east and west sides allowing accessfor the many traders who likely passed. Several things are unique aboutthis site. First, the walls of the various structures are often toppedwith these odd tooth shaped structures. Supposedly they were part of thedefensive mechanism, although I can't see exactly how they wold havehelped. Next, several of the buildings were round rather than square.There are very few round structures in ancient mesoAmerica. Finally, thesebuildings were constructed by covering the inner dirt mounds with roundedboulders taken directly from the nearby river beds. There was essentiallyno attempt to cut or carve the rocks. All was stuccoed over to make thesurfaces smooth and then painted. It was a simple, coarse method ofconstruction clearly showing how far the society had slipped from the apexof construction in the classic period.

There wasn't too much to see and the visit would have taken little time. However, we found ourselves making a whole bunch of little friends. Aschool group was also visiting and once they saw us they naturally cameover to introduce themselves. Within minutes we were surrounded by a swarmof 4 ft tall, dark haired, white shirt and navy blue shorts clad kids.Each and every one pushed and shoved their way to the front of the linejust to give us their names and shake our hands. We met Karin, Buala,Manual, Eric, Thomas, Catrine to name a few. And, of course their niceprofessora, Elvira del Rosario Che Escamilla who patiently put up with bothour antics and those of her excited charges. We took photos, exchangedaddresses and said farewell to our new found friends leaving promises tosend a copy of the photo en dos meses, mas o menos.

There were two anthropological museums to visit before we got to Palenque,the main Mayan ruins we missed last year. The first was in Jalapa,Vercaruz and the other in Villahermosa, Tabasco. Both museums containedvery similar works covering the indigenous peoples from the preclassicperiod of the earliest Olmec civilization, through the great classic Mayantime and on into the Mexica or Aztec times. Apart from the normalselection of gourd shaped pottery, small clay figurines, carved stoneeffigies, and other items similar to what we'd seen so often before, therewere also the highly unique and remarkable Olmec heads. These heads,probably realistic representations of leaders or priests, are a good 6 to 8feet tall carved from solid rock. Many appear to have helmets looking muchlike 1950s style football players. Most have a flat and polished surfacein back. In all a total of 17 of these colossal heads have been found insuch ancient sites as La Venta, San Lorenzo, and Tres Zapotes. Of theseabout 9 or 10 now rest in the museum in Jalapa including the most famousone, the one we so often see in post cards. There are also these reallybizarre looking figurines, ranging from a few inches to perhaps a foot inheight. They have the facial and body features of small babies, their armsspread wide, and the strangest looking smiles plastered across their facesgiving rise to the name smiling figures. So many of these odd figurineshave been found along with many others having baby like features thatanthropologists suppose that the Olmecs themselves may have been similarlydeformed.

The Jalapa museum in and of itself is worth a visit. The building,designed by the same architect who designed the Lincoln Center inWashington DC is a work of art. As you enter you are immediately facingthe first of the Olmec heads, on a lower level, with green plants and afountain shown off behind it beyond the window. Turn left, and anotherhead stares at you from down a long wide hall with slightly subdued lightdesigned to highlight the statue. As you turn down this hall and thenturn right your breath is taken away by the shear beauty and tranquility ofthe hall. It has a cross section that is perhaps 2 times wider than talland it extends out and gradually down seemingly off into eternity. Judiciously spaced in a pleasing array are pedestals holding some of thebest pieces. Everything, floor, walls, ceiling, and pedestals are white,mostly white marble. Along the right wall, out of site initially, arelarge rooms alternated with lush green gardens each having a few statuesset among the plants. The entire effect was so stunning and carefullyplanned I'd have to say this was perhaps one of the best museum buildingswe've ever seen.

It wasn't much further beyond Villahermosa, through the green verdantjungles of the flat Yucatan plain before we arrived at our most southerndestination for this winter, Palenque. There is the modern village ofPalenque, which one Mexican told me should be called the ruins, and thefabulous Mayan ruins just barely up in the hills, the "city" to that sameMexican. Just outside is one of those campgrounds that depending on who isthere and your own outlook, could be either heaven or hell. The entranceis shrouded among the green jungle vines such that only the front end ofthe large thatch roofed open air restaurant can be seen. In the back largegrassy sites are tucked among clusters of huge bamboo. There are places tohang your hammock, pitch your tent, or park your rig. There are a fewsmall, rustic rooms and even what has to be described as a tree house youcan rent. In the back a stream has been dammed creating a concrete linedswimming pool having warm tropical waters, all surrounded by that everpresent jungle. At night howler monkeys can be heard from off in the trees surprisingly sounding more like someone with a terribly bad snoring problem rather than the catlike yeowl I had expected. So it all sounds likeparadise, right? Well, the people who inhabit this campground come in sucha wide range that, for the less flexible of mind, they could potentially bequite intimidating. They range from young folks trying to recapture the60's "hippie" days wearing their hair in the odd, slept in, mangled mound hairdo called dread rags, sporting beads, baggy flower covered pants, andpierced earrings scattered through out their bodies, to white hairedretirees wearing pastel colored shorts and Hawaiian shirts driving their 30ft long houses. Before arriving we'd heard rumors of drug and alcohol useand had visions of nightly bar room brawls or people lying around in statesof drug induced stupor. But, not so. The majority of the clientele werejust like us, people traveling in a less expensive manneMayabel was a campground to meet interesting people. There was Roberto,that Mexican who thinks the town is the ruins, who lives in Michoacan. Hewas down in the Yucatan for business. He told me that Mexico, formerly aland of many wild animals, now has almost none. The deer in his own statehave been essentially hunted to extinction. He wondered about the bears in Alaska, "are they dangerous?" as well as the many dogs in the camp ground"are they dangerous?" When asked what he thought about NAFTA he said it isgood. "For example, Michoacan grows the best avocados in the world.Before NAFTA the US wouldn't permit imports of avocados without high tariffs. Now, avocados are being shipped north regularly." Amazingly I managed to talk with him for over an hour, in Spanish no less. All thisstudying is finally paying off.

Next there was Bill who was traveling in an old Ford van carrying a redcanoe on top. For well over 12 year he's been traveling all over Centraland South America via auto, bus, or other means. He's been up the Amazonon boat, cross the Daring Gap on foot and by boat, spend time on Columbia,Peru, Chili, and virtually every South American country. His comments onsafety were particularly interesting. He says you'd have to look prettyhard to find trouble unless you happen to be one of the unlucky ones to bein the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet, your chances of getting hurt orrobbed are less likely than many places in the U.S. The exception,however, is Peru. He told us he knows of no one whose spent time in Peruand got away without being robbed at least once. His recommendation, don'teven think of taking your bikes there. In Columbia you might find yourselfhassled by military "boys", essentially, who need to find a way to justifytheir existence. But just behave yourself and show whatever papers theydesire and you should be fine. Also, staying away from bars at night wouldhelp.

Finally there was Linda, poor, poor Linda. This woman with curly blondhair and a bit overweight apple shaped figure looked remarkably young forone in her 60s. She hails from Toronto and came to Mexico on a lark afterspending 4 months living in the deserts of Arizona. The basic problem shehad was exactly the same one we had when we first entered Mexico, she has a1995 VW Eurovan and cannot get parts for it in Mexico. Her fuel pumpstarted acting up after she had driven all the way to the Yucatan.Circumstances were not kind to her. Going from one VW dealer to anotherthey all turned her away without even looking to see what the problem mightbe. They simply did not want to deal with this strange foreign contraption. After weeks searching she wound up at Palenque where she hadheard of a fabulous mechanic, who spoke English, at the Goodyear store. Hediagnosed the problem as a failing fuel pump. Now Linda's problems reallybegan. She needed to get a new pump shipped from Canada. Unfortunately ofall the possible methods to get a part shipped into Mexico she happened topick possibly the worst possible approach. She got a dealer in Canada toattempt to send it via UPS while she attempted to deal with Mexicancustoms. First the Mexican customs official demanded that she deposit $400Canadian dollars in some unknown bank account to pay for import duties on apart valued at $500 even though, theoretically you're not supposed to haveto pay duty for any part you need to get your car running again. Afterpaying this and getting the VW dealer to send the part she waited andwaited. In the meantime the mechanic, in one of those typical Mexicanmechanical miracles, took the pump apart, cleaned it, and put it back in.It worked fine. So poor Linda was waiting forever having spent exorbitantamounts of money for a part she didn't need. After a week the part finally arrived and Linda climbed in her van for a long 5 day journey backnorth. She says, "I just want to get this vehicle out of here. NeThere are certain of the Mayan ruins that, for one reason or another, willleave an indelible mark upon our memories. Chichen Itsa for its size,Tikal for it's beauty, tall temples, and remote location, Copan for itshigh prices, Uxmal and Kabah for their amazing high relief carvings, andTeotihuacan for all those junk sellers. Palenque is one of those places.Its location is perhaps the most prominent memory. It's located justbarely within the foot hills of those incredible Mexican mountains thatrise from sea level to 8000 ft in just 100 miles from the coast. Perchedon the sides of the mountains, the views from the tops of each of thetemples are stupendous. You can overlook the flat Yucatan plains that areall covered with that dense, dark green jungle, a view not found in manyplaces of Mexico. Next, Palenque was one of the most important Mayan sitesof the classic period. As a consequence the carvings and other relics discovered at the site are fabulous. As with all Mayan city states, thepeople of Palenque left traces of their history written in their combinedhieroglyphic and pictograph writings. In this case, the Palenque peoplechose to carve their images into the thick layers of stucco they plasteredover the rough rock substructure of their buildings. Despite the ravagesof time, looters, and outright bandits, many of these beautiful carvingsremain.

Most of the carvings date from the reign of the two most important andnearly last of Palenque's great rulers, Pacal the great, known as Pacal II,and his son Chan Bahlam which occurred in the late 600s AD. Thetraditional transfer of leadership in a Mayan society was from father toson traced all the way back to the original founder of the clan. Anydeviation from the norm could result in some other family branch that couldalso trace its origin back that far laying claim to the throne as well.Naturally the current leaders would like to avoid this as much as possible. It happened that there were 2 occasions in which leadership did not passfrom father to son, but from father to daughter. The first was Pacal'sgreat grand mother and the second was his mother, Zak Kuk. Evidence of anypolitical ramifications of the first deviation have not been uncovered.This is likely due to the fact that much of the construction at the sitewas completed during the years of Pacal and Chan Bahlam who did not seem to be quite so concerned with the earlier break in lineage. On the otherhand, virtually all the remaining carvings deal exclusively with thissecond transgression. In one form or another the composition of each isintended to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Pacal and subsequentlyhis son, Chan Bahlam, have an unassailable right to the throne. There isthe scene showing Pacal falling into the underworld at his death, a carvingupon the lid of his sarcophagus made famous in the movie, In Search ofAncient Astronauts. Surrounding his sarcophagus are pictures of each ofhis ancestors going back to the originator of the clan with his greatgrandmother repeated for emphasis. On top of the pyramid that houses thetomb are pillars each with a scene showing Pacal presenting Chan Bahlam asthe rightful heir. Chan is given some characteristics of an important god,in particular a leg that turns into the tail of a serpent, which is meantto indicate he is made of godly stuff.

At the three temples known as the group of the cross are three separatemural series showing different aspects of Chan Bahlam's accession to thethrone. The ritual started on June 10, 690 and ended 10 days later. Ontop of each pyramid is what could be described as a small house within alarger house, the small house called a pib na. On the inside back wall ofeach pib na is a mural that depicts Chan Bahlam meeting his dead father,Pacal, in the underworld, Xilbalba, where he receives items that convey thepower to rule such as a small model of the Jester God, named because itwears a headdress that looks like a jester's hat, and the royal personifiedperforator, the knife he'll use to cut himself during rituals. Two of themurals have the world tree which is essentially a stylized trunk with abranch on either side looking much like a Christian cross, hence the namefor the group. On the front outside wall of each pib na are scenes of ChanBahlam as he would appear at the end of the 10 day ritual along with othergods called forth during the ritual. Chan Bahlam usually appears in fullwarrior uniform. Many of these outer murals have either eroded away with time or have been outright stolen so that only the remains found in bookscan bee seen today. One other mural on a small temple off to one side ofthe cross group shows Chan Bahlam meeting his dead grandmother, again inXilbalba, where he is receiving a small jester god. Again intended to showhe is the rightful heir to the throne through his grandmother.

One more large group easily overlooked from the top of Pacal's restingplace is a huge rectangular maze of corridors, tunnels, small buildings,and towers all mounted on a platform about 20 ft high. This was the palacegroup, the home of the rulers, the seat of government. At one time largepillared patios would have surrounded the outside of the building, eachhaving a different scene of some royal person, usually Chan Bahlam. Withinthe walls are separate small rooms surrounding several small centralcourtyards. In the middle of all is a large tower from which astronomicalobservations may have been made. Incredibly the entire building justreeked government office. Without even so much as a hint I could haveguessed that this was the seat of government. Just picture some high lordfrom a neighboring vassal community, having previously made an appointment with Chan Bahlam's personal secretary, rushing up the white washed stuccosteps glinting in the morning sun. The talons from his jaguar foot coversclicked against the steps while his grand array of colorful cloth,feathers, and beaks swirled and bobbled around him, all indications of hishigh rank in society. He barely notices the wild array of colored figuresof his lord staring down from each pillar. After all these were intendedto impress and awe the peasants and enemies. As a member of the nobilityhe is beyond such mundane matters and, besides his urgent business pressedhim forward. Within the courtyard is a plethora of carefully exercisedactivity as people of all sorts rushed about trying to accomplished theday's many tasks. Priests who never bath, are dressed in their filthywhite robes and matted dirty hair all covered with the dried blood of manypreviously sacrificed victims. They climb up and down the steep steps tothe observatory, rushing pieces of birch bark paper containing sightings tothe higher priests of the order who advise Chan Bahlam. Lowly scribes and servants carry messages, water, food, and other necessities to


Copyright 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.



We'd like to thank my father, Charles Johnson, whose diligent mail forwarding and other logistical support make this journey far easier than it could be otherwise.


Wendy Strutin Riedy for archiving the newsletters on her WWW site,

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