Mex­ico’s Aztec al­lure

From pyra­mids of Teoti­hua­can to ex­otic din­ing, the legacy lives on

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - TRAVEL -

WHEN I told peo­ple I was vis­it­ing Mex­ico City, the first thing they’d say was, “But aren’t you afraid of an­cient Aztecs?”

I thought about that as I stood atop the 66-me­tre adobe brick Pyra­mid of the Sun just north­east of Mex­ico City. A pleas­ant breeze ruf­fled my hair as I gazed over the ru­ins of Teoti­hua­can in an epic land­scape dot­ted with prickly pear cacti and pep­per trees. There were no an­cient Aztecs in sight. Tourism of­fi­cials of­ten play down the is­sue, but I was ini­tially a lit­tle spooked by re­ports in­di­cat­ing the Aztecs are be­hind a wave of hu­man sac­ri­fice, can­ni­bal­ism and deadly ball games.

Pre-trip, I ques­tioned my­self: Would th­ese mil­i­tant Me­soamer­i­cans make me pray with peyote, slash my­self with thorns to pro­vide blood for the sun god Huitzilopochtli, or en­list in a “flower war” specif­i­cally staged for both ar­mies to cap­ture pris­on­ers whose hearts would be cut out? For­tu­nately, the Aztecs’ men­ace has ap­par­ently di­min­ished since their em­pire’s 16th-cen­tury peak.

I de­scended the pyra­mid’s stone steps safely (al­though more rail­ings would have been nice) in­stead of, say, hav­ing a black-cloaked pri­est pitch my twitch­ing corpse down to the Av­enue of the Dead. The only on­slaught I faced was from som­brero-clad mer­chants hawk­ing blan­kets, turtle and jaguar carv­ings, and replica Aztec masks.

Al­though Teoti­hua­can was built some 2,100 years ago by a pre-Aztec civ­i­liza­tion, it was easy to see why the Aztecs ven­er­ated and con­tin­ued to use the 83-square-kilo­me­tre city for rit­u­als. “Re­li­gion was ev­ery­thing for this cul­ture — po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, so­cial,” ex­plained my driver-guide.

Ex­quis­ite pink jaguar mu­rals adorned walls near the Pyra­mid of the Moon. The re­mains of a so­phis­ti­cated plumb­ing sys­tem, in­clud­ing a flush­able toi­let and a steam bath for the pri­ests, could also be dis­cerned.

In the court­yard out­side the Pyra­mid of the Feath­ered Ser­pent, which is cov­ered with grotesque and gap­ing heads, I mar­velled at the en­gi­neered acous­tics that made voices and hand­claps echo so res­o­nantly. Wan­der­ing amid the sa­cred plat­forms, hear­ing flutes and jaguar whis­tles, I imag­ined how Teoti­hua­can must have bus­tled at its peak of 200,000 in­hab­i­tants circa 600 AD.

We stopped off af­ter­ward at Casa Museo de las Piedras, an ad­ja­cent ar­ti­sans’ cen­tre with hair­less dogs loi­ter­ing out­side. I didn’t buy any black ob­sid­ian knives or gaudy ce­ramic skulls. But tast­ing tequila, mescal and pulque (a fer­mented agave bev­er­age) here fur­ther al­le­vi­ated my Aztec con­cerns.

Re­turn­ing to Mex­ico City, I dis­cov­ered the traf­fic-clogged me­trop­o­lis of 21 mil­lion both em­braces and tran­scends its Aztec vibe. The over­rid­ing mes­sage? Live large but never for­get about death.

Just off the sprawl­ing Zocalo city square, I toured the Tem­plo Mayor. The Aztecs’ prin­ci­pal tem­ple in their cap­i­tal of Tenochti­t­lan stood here be­fore Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors un­der Her­nan Cortes de­stroyed it in 1521, and now the arche­o­log­i­cal site hosts an el­e­gant, func­tional mu­seum de­signed by ar­chi­tect Pe­dro Ramirez Vazquez.

“We pre­fer to call them ‘sac­ri­fi­cial in­di­vid­u­als’ in­stead of ‘vic­tims,’ ” a mu­seum in­ter­preter ca­su­ally noted as I viewed a 2006-ex­ca­vated mono­lith of the bloody-tongued earth god­dess Tlal­te­cuhtli. That put a dif­fer­ent spin on it.

I was still glad no sac­ri­fi­cial in­di­vid­u­als were be­ing of­fered up when I vis­ited the enor­mous Museo Na­cional de An­tropolo­gia. Its most iconic ar­ti­fact is the Stone of the Sun, a glad­i­a­to­rial sac­ri­fi­cial al­tar that de­picts Xi­ute­cuhtli, the god of fire, grip­ping a pair of hu­man hearts. This sight evoked rem­i­nis­cences for me, a Cana­dian hockey fan, of the Van­cou­ver Canucks’ re­cent hir­ing of coach John Tor­torella.

It wasn’t all stones and blood. At Mex­ico City’s opera house, the Pala­cio de Bel­las Artes, I spot­ted a mask rep­re­sent­ing Tlaloc, god of rain, over the in­te­rior the­atre en­trance. Up­stairs, gi­ant 1934 mu­rals by Com­mu­nist artist Diego Rivera and his ri­val Jose Cle­mente Orozco seemed to chan­nel an up­dated ver­sion of the wild Aztec spirit with their sur­re­al­is­tic por­tray­als of so­cial fo­ment.

In­side the nearby Pala­cio Postal, the eclec­ti­cally de­signed main post of­fice with glis­ten­ing bronze ser­vice win­dows, I found a mu­seum that in­cluded a small statue of a naked Aztec war­rior clutch­ing a fish over his head.

Leg­end has it the em­peror Mon­tezuma would have seafood brought daily to his ta­ble from the Gulf of Mex­ico by re­lay run­ners. That tale sparked my ap­petite at the con­tem­po­rary, blue-walled Azul Con­desa Restau­rant, where I dined on fresh fish served with trop­i­cal bananas, black bean sauce and fried tor­tilla strips.

Hav­ing learned about the role in­sects played in the Aztec diet, I even added a side dish of gua­camole with a sep­a­rate spicy sea­son­ing that in­cor­po­rated ground-up crick­ets — and that could have passed for a de­li­cious Ja­maican jerk spice.

Tenochti­t­lan was built on a lake, from which the Aztecs pro­cured mol­lusks as well. In that spirit, I hap­pily lunched another day on snails in shells with chipo­tle sauce at La Opera. At this 1876 cantina with high ceil­ings and dark-wood booths, Mex­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ary gen­eral Pan­cho Villa is said to have once fired his gun into the ceil­ing to hush the noisy peo­ple at the next ta­ble.

Yes, the vi­o­lence here was just the way I like it — his­tor­i­cal or vi­car­i­ous.

When I took a glass el­e­va­tor up the 67-me­tre Mon­u­mento Ð la Revolu­cion, I didn’t sim­ply ad­mire the down­town vista with green­ery-laden Alameda Park (a for­mer Aztec mar­ket­place) and the Paseo de la Re­forma, Mex­ico City’s foun­tain-and-stat­ue­laden an­swer to the Champs-El­y­sees.

My eyes were also drawn to the huge hu­man fig­ures ded­i­cated to the rev­o­lu­tion’s ideals of in­de­pen­dence, agri­cul­ture, labour and re­form, grac­ing the mon­u­ment’s cor­ners. Their re­sem­blance to the colos­sal Me­soamer­i­can stone heads I’d seen at the Museo Na­cional de An­tropolo­gia was pal­pa­ble.

So, no fear of an­cient Aztecs here. De­spite the clouds hiding the Popocate­petl vol­cano from view, the fu­ture of Mex­ico City looks pretty bright.

PHO­TOS BY LU­CAS AYKROYD / POST­MEDIA NET­WORK INC.

Men­ac­ing stone carv­ings adorn the out­side of the Pyra­mid of the Feath­ered Ser­pent at Teo

ti­hua­can near Mex­ico City.

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