A couple of weeks ago, Grandma joined us in Mexico City. We had a fun week exploring the city together, and we ate way too much! I think we wore her out with all the walking, but hopefully she enjoyed it as much as we did.
Grandma came armed with treats from home:
Treats from home
We had only been in Mexico City a few days before she arrived, but we had already identified a few favorite places. So the first thing we did was take her to a yummy fish taco joint. Grandma enjoyed the ceviche and shrimp tacos, but didn’t want her picture taken. The identities of the innocent are protected in this photo:
Enjoying fish tacos and ceviche
After a yummy lunch we hopped in an Uber and headed over to the Polanco neighborhood for dessert. Polanco is a well-to-do neighborhood in central Mexico City. As Wikipedia describes it:
Polanco is one of the most famous and most exclusive districts in Mexico City. The neighborhood is notable because of its cultural diversity and has been historically preferred by the descendants of Spanish, Ashkenazi Jewish, Lebanese, among others. Some of the wealthiest families in Mexico and Latin America have homes in Polanco, and a very long list of politicians, celebrities, artists and businessmen call the area home.
The neighborhood is also populated with expensive offices, restaurants, museums, luxurious stores and shopping malls. Its Avenida Presidente Masaryk is the highest-priced street and the one with the most upscale boutiques in Latin America. It is compared by some to Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive or New York City’s Fifth Avenue.
The climate of Mexico City is such that it is always nice outside, and like much of the city, Polanco is full of great restaurants and cafes with sidewalk seating. We started our tour of the neighborhood with dessert at Le Pain Quotidien. Yum.
Dessert at Le Pain Quotidien
After dessert, we bought some lychees at a local fruit stand, then walked around the neighborhood a bit.
Walking in Polanco
Typical upscale restaurant with sidewalk seating.
We took a stroll through Lincoln Park. It is a long, narrow park bordered by beautiful old buildings, many of which are now exclusive shops and restaurants. Polanco is very much about conspicuous consumption, and here you’ll see many Porsches, Mercedes, and Bentleys being valet parked.
A stroll through the park
One of the restaurants facing the park
Another restaurant facing the park
Honoring a couple of great authors.
At the corner of Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe we stopped to peek in the window of a shop that sells beautiful geodes, fossils, petrified wood, and other natural items as objects of home decor. Beautiful but expensive!
While we were there, a woman passed by. She was walking her fashionable chihuahua and wearing an outfit and jewelry that probably cost six figures. She was shadowed by a secret-service-like armed security guard.
I’m highlighting the wealth and luxury of the neighborhood and Mexico City in general because I think that many people who have never visited have the mistaken notion that Mexico City is a giant, chaotic slum. This is not at all true. It is a huge and diverse place.
First, let’s talk about size. With an estimated population of 22 million people , Mexico City is the largest city in the Western Hemisphere.
To help put that in perspective, that means that more people live in the Mexico City metro area than in Nevada, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, District of Columbia and Vermont combined!
In this giant city there are areas of great poverty, areas of great wealth, and a whole lot in between. One of the most striking things to us how quiet and relaxed the city is. For a city of this size it is almost shocking how many quiet tree-lined streets there are, how little traffic there is, and how calm and relaxed everything seems to be. For the most part, life on the streets seems to move at a relaxed pace.
So back to some of the highlights of Grandma’ visit…
We went to the Papalote Museo del Nino, a science museum for kids. We saw a couple of 3D IMAX films – one of the National Parks of the US, and another on our galaxy. We played with puzzles and mazes and had a generally good time (and some OK tacos for lunch).
Rubik’s Cube and maze
Where to go next…
When you are the first one in the theater you can do handstands!
Ready for IMAX launch!
Science lab on buoyancy
In a bubble
The next morning we walked a few blocks South and caught the Turibus – the big double-decker tourist bus – for a tour of the city.
Walking past Buna 42
Walking through the park
A mural in Roma Norte
On the Turibus – the weather was cool, but the sun was intense!
Snapping photos like tourists. Oh, wait, we are tourists!
We stopped at a little organic cafe and Jette had pancakes for lunch!
We also visited the Frida Kahlo Museum, which is the house/compound (known as Casa Azul) that she and her husband Diego Rivera lived in. Both Frida and Diego were artists, and like many of the “intellectuals” of the era, communists. They befriended and entertained the Marxist revolutionary, terrorist, and mass murderer Leon Trotsky during his exile in Mexico City. Their friendship ended when Trotsky was assassinated with an ice pick by a fellow communist of the Stalinist flavor. Nice folks.
The museum doesn’t allow photography (too bourgeois) so we can’t show you much of what we saw there.
Frida Kahlo Museum
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Wait, is that really them?!
After the museum, we walked over to a neighborhood market for a little local color and flavor…
The following day we relaxed in the park at the Plaza Rio de Janeiro where Jette enjoyed playing with the dogs. Dogs are very popular pets in Mexico City, and the Plaza Rio de Janeiro is a popular place for owners and professional dog walkers to bring them. One thing we’ve noticed is that the dogs here are very well trained. I think they are the best behaved dogs anywhere we’ve ever been. And people here love dogs. That’s for sure!
We also went to the San Angel Inn for lunch. The San Angel Inn is a popular and very posh restaurant housed in beautiful colonial building that dates back to the 17th century and was once a monastery.
Enjoying some soup at the San Angel Inn.
We took a stroll through the Chapultepec Park (Bosque de Chapultepec), and made the long walk up to the Chapultepec Castle on top of the hill (It is a long walk – you’re a trooper Grandma!).
Strolling through the park
Feeding the squirrels
In the shady forest of the park.
El Sargento a 500 year old tree that was killed in 1979, presumably by pollution and lack of water.
Park transportation. Regrettably not going our way!
The long, long march to the castle.
Here’s how Wikipedia describes the Chapultepec Castle:
The name Chapultepec stems from the Nahuatl word chapoltepēc which means “at the grasshopper’s hill”. It is located in the middle of Chapultepec Park in Mexico City at a height of 2,325 meters (7,628 ft) above sea level. The site of the hill was a sacred place for Aztecs, and the buildings atop it have served several purposes during its history, including that of Military Academy, Imperial residence, Presidential home, observatory, and presently, the National Museum of History.
Stairs and murals
Murals in the castle/museum
Detail of mural
When everyone was looking the other way, we snuck in a cartwheel.
The sneaky cartwheel
The museum highlights the history of Mexico, beginning with the early Mesoamerican peoples who first populated what is now Mexico.
Skulls of sacrificial victims.
Complete with holes for convenient display on tzompantli (wooden skull racks). The early Mesoamericans had quite a sense for interior decorating. “OMG! You should totally see my new Pottery Barn rug! It’s just darling and goes so well with my tzompantli!”
There was a section of the museum that covered the Secession of Texas and the subsequent Mexican-American War.
A canon similar to that from the Battle of Gonzales. Jette’s great-great-great-great grandfather John Moore led the Texans in this first battle of the Texas Revolution.
The museum’s explanation of the Secession of Texas.
As you might expect, the museum gives a slightly different version of history. Here is a rough translation of the text i the photo above. Note that although the Title is Texas Secession 1836, the text describe details from both the Texas Revolution and the subsequent Mexican-American War:
Perhaps the most unfortunate in the first years of independent Mexico event was the loss of Texas. Several players participated in this drama: Mexicans born in Texas; settlers, who had received legal concession in Texas and accepted in part the Mexican law; Texans rebels, many of them newcomers to the region, eager to separate Texas de Coahuila and Mexico, and foreign volunteers, mercenaries from 22 states of the American Union, hooked by agents of the rebels in canteens and New York establishments, Tennessee, Kentucky or New Orleans. It were the “Gray Volunteers”, whose flag was taken at El Alamo.
1853 had accumulated about 80 US claims against Mexico whose payment reached millions of dollars. Pressured by the north country, Mexico had to yield 76.845 km in La Mesilla so Americans could build projected to unite the east and west of the country railway. La Mesilla was the only territory being sold to the United States, as the others were transferred in 1848 as war booty.
While that is no doubt that American expansionism had the U.S. and Mexico on a collision course, this exhibit grossly oversimplified and misrepresented the factors that led to the Texas Revolution. There is no mention of the fact that Santa Anna had recently seized power in Mexico, dismantled the government, trashed the Constitution, and established himself as an all-powerful dictator. The Texas settlers had taken an oath to Spain and later to independent Mexico. They were Mexican citizens. They had taken that oath based on the promises of government, promises which were now being broken. Their call to revolution was to defend their Constitution – THE MEXICAN CONSTITUTION and to fight tyranny.
In the text above Texans are characterized as scofflaws and mercenaries. Remember that the anglo settlers were there at the invitation of Spain and Mexico and were intended to solve the Comanche problem by creating a human buffer between the Comanches, who swept in from the North, and the more settle areas of Mexico to the South. For hundreds of years, the expansion of Spanish missions into Texas had failed. Most of the region was a sparsely settled “no man’s land.” Comanche war bands would regularly swoop down from the plains and attack, stealing horses and decimating the few settlements that existed. The Spanish and Mexicans had proven totally ineffective at fighting the Comanches, and in 1821 General Arredondo approved the idea of creating a buffer of loyalist anglo settlers, and a charter was granted to Moses Austin, Stephen F. Austin’s father. Moses died almost immediately but Stephen brought in the first group of settlers, who swore oaths to Spain and became Spanish/Mexican citizens.
Here is how T.R. Fehrenbach, one of the preeminent scholars of Texas history, describes some of the key events that lead to the Texas Revolution:
Then, in April 1834, Santa Anna took over the government at the capital. Gómez Farías was ousted for the last time. But this was a new Santa Anna, who now thought he knew the heart of Mexico. He repudiated liberalism publicly and dissolved the republican Congress. He dismissed all cabinet ministers but one, and by decree, abolished all local legislatures and ayuntamientos in the nation. The laws confining the clergy were declared void. This was a new Napoleon, indeed. Lorenzo de Zavala fled to Texas. A new and subservient Congress one by one legalized all Santa Anna’s acts. Finally, in October 1835, the Constitution of 1824 was officially voided. Something identical to the old Spanish system of government replaced it. Mexico was declared a centralist state, in which the President and the national Congress held absolute powers. But this was only official recognition of what had already taken place, in 1834— Santa Anna already appointed every governor and official in the land. He was king, and more than a king, since he owed responsibility neither to the people nor God.
There is much evidence that the mass of the population, although they did not approve of every whim of the General, breathed easier under the old system than under a federal republic no one could make work, and which only a few imported intellectuals understood. The people of Zacatecas, a state where liberalism had a strong hold, revolted when the regional militias were reduced in favor of the standing army. Santa Anna’s regulars defeated and destroyed a Zacatecan force of 5,000. Then, as he had learned in his days with Arredondo, Santa Anna disdained to be burdened with prisoners and permitted his troops to rape and plunder the state capital. Word of these events reached Texas, but very little of what was happening was understood. Santa Anna still had a good reputation. Much progress had been made during 1833– 34, and the compromising party was now ascendant. The hint of trouble crossed the Rio Grande only in April 1835, when Santa Anna sent an army to reduce Coahuila.
The first bloodshed came for the same reason the shots heard ’round the world were fired at Lexington. Mexican policy was now to seize arms and military stores in Texan hands before real trouble started, and in doing so among a population of this kind, they started it. When Cós took ship from the Rio Bravo to sail to the Texas coast, and from there to march to Béxar, Colonel Ugartechea at San Antonio sent a file of cavalrymen riding south to Gonzales. Green DeWitt’s colony had been issued a small brass cannon, a six-pounder, for defense against Indians some years before.
Andrew Ponton, the Gonzales alcalde, received the order for the surrender of the gun, signed by the political chief at San Antonio. Ponton stalled for time, supported by the citizens. He demanded an order from the political chief of the Department of the Brazos before releasing it. The noncommissioned officer in charge of the Mexican cavalry left his men camped at Gonzales and rode back to Béxar for further instructions. Meanwhile, Ponton buried the cannon, and sent runners to the surrounding area for armed assistance. Messengers reached Bastrop and the plantation of J. H. Moore [Jette’s great-great-great-great grandfather], on the Colorado.
Now, the eighteen men in Gonzales able and willing to fight organized, removed all boats from the Guadalupe River, and hid the ferry in a bayou north of town. The next step was to capture the handful of Mexican soldiers waiting near the town. This was done— but one man got away, and rode hallooing back to Béxar.
On October 1, 1835, Captain Francisco Castañeda arrived from San Antonio with something less than two hundred men. Ugartechea intended a show of force. Casteñeda, blocked by the Guadalupe, demanded the ferry be restored, and the cannon handed over. There was some parleying, a demonstration by the Mexican cavalry near the town, and considerable yelling and taunting by the Texans, who were now steadily being reinforced by a swarm of armed men filtering from the backwoods into town. During this Mexican stand-off, Castañeda’s troopers took no action except to strip a watermelon patch.
Now, John Moore, the big man of the neighborhood, arrived and was elected colonel. Moore decided to attack the Mexicans at daylight. The buried cannon was unearthed and mounted on a wagon. A blacksmith shop busily forged some ammunition— iron scraps and lengths of chain. Some inspired soul made a flag: two yards of white cloth, painted with a cannon and the words come and take it.
Before the dawn, in the morning fog of October 2, Moore’s militia went out to find the Mexicans. They blundered into the Mexican pickets, but in the dark and fog there could be no war. Everyone drew back and waited until daybreak.
Daylight showed both forces drawn up on an open prairie. The Gonzales cannon fired, without doing any damage, and Castañeda immediately requested a parley. He asked why he was being attacked.
Colonel Moore explained that the Captain had demanded a cannon given to the Texans for “the defense of themselves and the constitution and the laws of the country,” while he, Castañeda, “was acting under the orders of the tyrant Santa Anna, who had broken and trampled underfoot all the state and federal constitutions of Mexico, except that of Texas,” which last the Texans were prepared to defend.
Castañeda answered that “he was himself a republican, as were two-thirds of the Mexican nation, but he was a professional officer of the government,” and while that government had indeed undergone certain surprising changes, it was the government, and the people of Texas were bound to submit to it. Castañeda further stated that he was not here to cause a war; if he was refused the cannon, his orders were simply to take up a position nearby and await further instruction.
Moore then suggested to the Captain, if he was a republican, he should join the revolution against tyranny by surrendering his command, which might then fight in the common cause. Captain Castañeda replied stiffly that he would obey his orders. At this, Moore returned to his own lines and ordered the Texans to open fire. There was a brief skirmish, and the Mexican force immediately abandoned the field and rode toward San Antonio. There is no question who fired first in the Texas Revolution.
By now, the word was out that there was shooting at Gonzales; hundreds of men from the Colorado and beyond were pouring in. Calls for a stand went out signed by prominent planters, such as Bryant, Archer, and McNeel. At Brazoria, William H. Wharton distributed a broadside, which began:
Freemen of Texas
TO ARMS!!! TO ARMS!!!
Now’s the day, and now’s the hour!
Communication after communication went out. Most were inflammatory, some repeated gaudy rumors, but all took up the constitutional question. A number were printed in Spanish, for the Mexican population, which was traditionally Republican in Texas. Three hundred men gathered at San Felipe, then went on to Gonzales.
In San Antonio, Colonel Ugartechea received the report of Captain Castañeda grimly. Cós was now at Goliad, having landed earlier at Cópano Bay, and Ugartechea knew he would soon be reinforced by the Commandant General’s army. But he made an attempt to stop the fighting before it got worse. He sent a letter to Stephen F. Austin, appealing to this influential citizen to avoid an irreparable break.
Ugartechea asked for peace, but on the already stated terms: surrender of the cannon, and the proscribed citizens. He also promised something he patently could not deliver: there would be no garrisoning of troops if the colonists subsided. He professed friendship for Austin and the Texans, and asserted he would behave towards them as a gentleman, even though they had not behaved well toward Mexicans. But if the colonists did not submit, he would act militarily, and the dignity of the Mexican nation would be upheld.
This letter was significant, because it showed clearly the attitude of the vast majority of Mexican officials toward the Anglo-Americans, and especially those, like Ugartechea, who were genuinely friendly. Ugartechea himself, and almost every Mexican officer, in recent years had at some time or another taken up arms against one or another Mexican regime, in the name of some constitution. But this was a pastime reserved for ethnic Mexicans. Any attempt at resistance by Anglo-Texans, even though they were full-fledged citizens under the law, was instinctively regarded as a North American plot or an insult to the nation. This of course was an attitude toward alien immigrants peculiar neither to Mexicans nor to that time and place, but it infuriated even the peace party in Texas.
Source: Fehrenbach, T. R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.
OK, so enough about Texas history. Since it is part of our family history it is too easy to get carried away!
The museum and its grounds are beautiful, and the site on the top of the hill affords excellent views of the city.
Beautiful facade and grounds.
Here’s the photo Mila snapped above
The Three Stooges
Looking across the park to the city beyond.
What is it with kids on leashes?! We see a lot of this around here.
After the museum we took a long walk down the hill, and caught an Uber to nearby Polanco for an early dinner.
Back in Polanco
The next day we went to Teotihuacan – a MASSIVE pyramid complex just outside Mexico City. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:
The city is thought to have been established around 100 BC, with major monuments continuously under construction until about 250 AD. The city may have lasted until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries AD, but its major monuments were sacked and systematically burned around 550 AD.
Teotihuacan began as a new religious center in the Mexican Highlands around the first century AD. This city came to be the largest and most populated center in the New World. Teotihuacan was even home to multi-floor apartment compounds built to accommodate this large population. The term Teotihuacan (or Teotihuacano) is also used for the whole civilization and cultural complex associated with the site.
Although it is a subject of debate whether Teotihuacan was the center of a state empire, its influence throughout Mesoamerica is well documented; evidence of Teotihuacano presence can be seen at numerous sites in Veracruz and the Maya region. The later Aztecs saw these magnificent ruins and claimed a common ancestry with the Teotihuacanos, modifying and adopting aspects of their culture. The ethnicity of the inhabitants of Teotihuacan is also a subject of debate. Possible candidates are the Nahua, Otomi, or Totonac ethnic groups. Scholars have also suggested that Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic state.
The Teotihuacan complex was too big for Grandma to navigate. The distance from the entrance to the Temple of the Sun was 2km! So, she found a bench and waited for us while we did some quick exploration. The sheer scale of the place was amazing and it was interesting to see a type of construction that was very, very different than the structures we had seen in Peru. Even though it was once the largest city in the Americas, there is still very little understood about the pyramids and the culture that built them.
Walking down the Avenue of the Dead.
Look at these plants!
At the bus station, on our way back.
Enjoying Mexico City with Grandma.
The week with Grandma went by so quickly. We must have been having fun.
On June 3rd. we flew from Bogota to Mexico City. We’ll be spending our last month of Field Trip X here in Mexico City (a.k.a. CDMX). We can’t believe that it is almost over. These eleven months have flown by so quickly. We’ve definitely been having fun!
The flight from Bogota to Mexico City is a short one, just under five hours, so it should have been an easy trip. It ended up being an expensive overnight adventure…
Our flight was scheduled to depart at 5:30 PM, so we got to the airport in Bogota at about 3:00 PM. We made our way to the Interjet check in desks and found them completely unstaffed. There were no passengers lined up to check in, just empty desks and an empty waiting area. Not good. We looked around and saw a sign for an Interjet office. We walked over to the office and asked about checking in for the 5:30 flight to Mexico City. The woman behind the desk looked very confused and asked, “Which flight?” Uh-oh. I pulled out my phone and started searching my email for the confirmation with the flight number and time. I found it almost immediately and realized that the flight time was 15:30 NOT 5:30!!
In a year of travelling, we had just missed our first flight. Estupido! For days we had been planning our departure and talking about what time to check our of our apartment, what time to get to the airport. We had misread the time and never double checked it. We had planned and executed everything flawlessly – at the wrong time!
We asked the nice lady behind the desk what our options were. She looked at us blankly and essentially said, “You missed the flight.” I opened Google Translate on my phone and typed in a sentence asking if we could use our tickets on another flight. “Nope.” I typed another sentence asking about a credit or a partial credit. “Nope.”
OK. so, $657 down the drain. Poor reading comprehension can be very expensive.
We enquired as to our options on other flights and we could fly out on the 15:30 flight the next day for $657 or the 0:45 (12:45 AM) flight that night for $800. Ugh. Poor reading comprehension can be very, very expensive. I asked her if she had room for all three of us at her house and if she would sponsor us for a visa, since it looked like we would be staying in Colombia. She smiled and laughed, but said, “No.”
We retreated to the airport lobby to talk about what to do. First we checked online for other ticket options. Interjet was still the cheapest. Ugh. Our apartment in Mexico City was already booked and paid for, so changing destinations didn’t make sense. We were at the airport, so an Uber or a taxi back into town to find a hotel for one night, a couple of meals, and then a taxi back to the airport the next day didn’t make much sense either. It would be cheaper than the midnight-forty-five flight, but not by much. So, we spent nine hours at the airport, caught the red-eye, and landed in Mexico City at about 5:30 the next morning.
On the midnight-forty-five red eye to Mexico City.
Good morning sleepy!
The flight attendants on our flight didn’t give us the entry forms required by Mexico, so when we disembarked and entered the Immigration area we were empty handed. At the entrance to the Immigration area there were big tables and pens for filling out the forms, but there were no forms. Bienvenidos a Mexico!
From Immigration, we headed to baggage claim. We had our suitcase, our duffel bag, and a cardboard box. The box was sealed with packing tape and completely wrapped in plastic. Emphasis on was. The box had been cut open and not resealed. All of our stuff in the duffel was packed neatly in zippered packing cubes. Again, emphasis on was. The packing cubes had been opened and all our belongings dumped out, rifled through, then crammed loose back into the duffel bag. Bienvenidos a Mexico!
I think the Mexico City airport is the only airport in the world that doesn’t allow the use of luggage carts. Actually that’s not true, they do have luggage carts at the baggage claim and you can put you bags on them and wheel them to the Customs area 30 meters away. But that’s all. When you exit Customs you must leave the carts there. In the airport terminal there are NO CARTS ALLOWED! You must carry your luggage the 12 km through the terminal to the airport exit! We figured it was a rule designed to create business for the luggage porters. But there were NO luggage porters. Not a single one. Bienvenidos a Mexico!
On our way out of the terminal I bought a local SIM card for my phone, so that we could have phone and internet service. I won’t describe the hilariously challenging activation process other than to say that activating the connection required that I already have a connection. Bienvenidos a Mexico!
Not exactly the smoothest leg of our journey, but this stuff can’t cramp our style! 😉
We caught an Uber from the airport to the apartment we rented in the Roma Norte neighborhood of Mexico City.
Our apartment building in Roma Norte, Mexico City. We’re on the left side, 8th floor.
Then we headed out to explore the neighborhood and find some breakfast. Roma Norte is a trendy neighborhood full of cafes, boutiques, parks, markets and leafy, tree-lined streets. We found breakfast just a block or so away at a cafe called Buna 42.
Breakfast on the sidewalk at Buna 42
Scrambled eggs and beans
We spent the afternoon and the following couple days exploring the neighborhoods of Roma Norte, Roma Sur, Polanco, and beyond. The food has been great (I think I’ve gained ten pounds!), the people friendly, the weather fantastic, and the city fun to explore.
Here are some snapshots to give you a peek at our first few days in CDMX:
Delicious fish tacos at El Lugarcito
Yum, yum, yum…
Japanese grocery store
Vinyl wall art shop
CDMX bike share bicycles.
Statue in Plaza Rio de Janeiro Park.
Cacti in the park.
Typical corner in the hood
Panaderia Rosetta is a yummy breakfast spot.
Chorizo con queso sandwich.
A fun vintage shop.
Hanging out at the record store.
Taco stand from the other side of the street.
This looks like a nice sidewalk cafe. Let’s stop and do some work.
Sampling dad’s green juice
Pardon me, but do you happen to have any Gray Poupon?
Grand old buildings and lots of graffiti.
More modest but colorful.
An old sign with character.
There are lots of pretty parks and many of them have exercise equipment that is very well used. People here seem to be fitness crazy. Jette loves working out on the equipment in the parks.
We’re here to pump you up!
Bench press, not so much…
OK maybe she can do it
Walking along Ave. Amsterdam.
A local bakery.
Pink and blue
Old and new.
A pretty sidewalk patio
The scene across the street.
I scream, you scream, we all scream for helado!
The front door of our apartment faces an interior courtyard.
We settled in quickly and after just a couple of days we were starting to feel like locals. Good thing, because on Tuesday Jette’s grandma flew down to visit us for a week!
Meeting Grandma at the airport.
Since her arrival we’ve been having fun…but that’s the next blog post!
The day after we visited Machu Picchu was Sunday, May 1st. Chincheros, a nearby town has a famous Sunday market, so we hired a car and driver and decided to hit the market and see some other nearby sights.
Our car and driver for the day
On the drive to Chincheros we enjoyed spectacular scenery. Chincheros is between Ollantaytambo and Cusco, so we passed through the same agricultural highlands that we had seen just a few days before. The rolling fields surrounded by snowcapped mountains were just as beautiful the second time. We didn’t stop for photos, but we snapped a couple shots with our phones and we drove. The roads were fantastic.The paved roads were surfaced well and the dirt roads were smooth with no “washboarding.”
Looking down on a town
The entrance to the Chincheros Market
The Chincheros sunday market is not as big as some of the other markets in the region, but is said to be more authentic and less touristy. As far as we’re concerned, that’s a good combination. At the entrance to the market, there were a couple of ladies selling corn on the cob.
Corn on the cob. Huge, light colored kernels, more starchy than sweet. It almost tasted like potato. Note the little slab of salty farmer’s cheese. Yum.
I munched on corn as we wandered through the colorful market. There were woven goods, produce, meats, food, chica, and more…
Browsing at the Chinchero Sunday market
One of the locals.
Checking out the goods
We stopped at a cobbler’s stall to get Jette’s sneakers fixed. Near the ball of her foot the uppers were beginning to separate from the soles. The cobbler first glued, then stitched them. Cost, about a dollar.
The cobbler, hard at work.
With Jette’s shoes fixed, I went back for another corn on the cob while Mila and Jette did some more shopping. At an altitude of more than 12,000 feet the sun was absolutely brutal. I opened my umbrella for some shade and muched on corn and cheese. Before too long, Mila and Jette appeared with their purchases.
A new bag
From Chincheros, we headed to the salt evaporation ponds near the town of Mara (a.k.a. Salineras de Mara). Once again the views on the way were spectacular.
Beautiful fields and mountains
We stopped to snap some photos at a scenic overlook.
Making friends with a local pooch.
Near Maras the landscape really began to look like high desert. Reminded me a bit of the landscape near Big Bend, Texas.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at the salineras. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the Salineras de Mara:
Since pre-Inca times, salt has been obtained in Maras by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream. The highly salty water emerges at a spring, a natural outlet of the underground stream. The flow is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto the several hundred ancient terraced ponds. Almost all the ponds are less than four meters square in area, and none exceeds thirty centimeters in depth. All are necessarily shaped into polygons with the flow of water carefully controlled and monitored by the workers. The altitude of the ponds slowly decreases, so that the water may flow through the myriad branches of the water-supply channels and be introduced slowly through a notch in one sidewall of each pond. The proper maintenance of the adjacent feeder channel, the side walls and the water-entry notch, the pond’s bottom surface, the quantity of water, and the removal of accumulated salt deposits requires close cooperation among the community of users. It is agreed among local residents and pond workers that the cooperative system was established during the time of the Incas, if not earlier. As water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the water becomes supersaturated and salt precipitates as various size crystals onto the inner surfaces of a pond’s earthen walls and on the pond’s earthen floor. The pond’s keeper then closes the water-feeder notch and allows the pond to go dry. Within a few days the keeper carefully scrapes the dry salt from the sides and bottom, puts it into a suitable vessel, reopens the water-supply notch, and carries away the salt. Color of the salt varies from white to a light reddish or brownish tan, depending on the skill of an individual worker. Some salt is sold at a gift store nearby.
The salt mines traditionally have been available to any person wishing to harvest salt. The owners of the salt ponds must be members of the community, and families that are new to the community wishing to propitiate a salt pond get the one farthest from the community. The size of the salt pond assigned to a family depends on the family’s size. Usually there are many unused salt pools available to be farmed. Any prospective salt farmer need only locate an empty currently unmaintained pond, consult with the local informal cooperative, learn how to keep a pond properly within the accepted communal system, and start working.
The massive terraced ponds cut into the hillside.
The buildings on the left give a sense of scale.
The salt ponds.
Balance beam between the salt ponds
A salty trio
It is amazing to think that locals have been extracting salt from this same underground stream for hundreds, possible thousands of years. The terraced ponds are so simple and yet effective. As with the thousands of agricultural terraces we’ve seen in Peru, it is sobering to think about the amount of hard, physical labor that went into building these massive structures with simple hand tools. That said, they have stood the test of time and still serve people today.
From Mara we jumped back in the car and headed to Moray. Again it was a scenic drive with beautiful views. Our cellphone snapshots just don’t do it justice.
On the road to Moray
I think this is quinoa
Coming round the mountain
Moray is an interesting place and a bit of an enigma. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:
Moray or Muray (Quechua)is an archaeological site in Peru approximately 50 km (31 mi) northwest of Cuzco on a high plateau at about 3,500 m (11,500 ft) and just west of the village of Maras. The site contains unusual Inca ruins, mostly consisting of several enormous terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is approximately 30 m (98 ft) deep. As with many other Inca sites, it also has a sophisticated irrigation system.
The purpose of these depressions is uncertain, but their depth, design, and orientation with respect to wind and sun creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C (27 °F) between the top and the bottom. It is possible that this large temperature difference was used by the Inca to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops. Speculation about the site has led to discussion about Moray as an Inca agricultural experiment station. Its microclimatic conditions and other significant characteristics led to the use of the site as a center for the ancient study of domestication, acclimatization, and hybridization of wild vegetable species that were modified or adapted for human consumption.
Moray agricultural testing area
Mila and Jette at Moray
Mila and Waco at Moray
It is difficult to get a sense of the scale of these structures in our snapshots. Here are a couple of photos I found online that might give a better sense of scale:
Here’s what it looks like from the satellite view in Google Earth. Note the buildings for scale, and imagine creating this with Inca bronze-age technology. No wheels! No wheelbarrows, no carts, no trucks. Just a LOT of hard work:
It was getting late, so from Moray, we drove back to Ollantaytambo.
Another pretty view
Crossing the Urubamba River
Back in Ollantaytambo, we had dinner at one of the restaurants on the main square. The menu was a little bit scary…
“Puncture you and income” Sounds like we are about to get mugged at knifepoint!
There was a big mountain bike event in town that evening and there was a big stage set up in the main square.
Mountain bike event
We wandered back to Casa de Wow through the narrow stone streets of Ollantaytambo and tucked ourselves into bed and dreamt of Incan ingenuity.
Under the streetlights
The ride in the collectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo was just shy of two hours. As you might expect, the views were fantastic. We were driving across a high plateau of rolling hills, tucked in among the snowcapped peaks of the Andes. It is agricultural land, so there were endless fields of wheat, potatoes, quinoa, and other crops.
The high farmlands
A dusty existence
The road to Ollantaytambo
Peeking down on one of the towns along the way
The van ride had Mila miserable with motion sickness; I know she was greatly relieved when we rolled into the main square of Ollantaytambo and piled out of the van.
Unloading in the main square
The main square in Ollantaytambo
Jette in the main square
A good portion of the town is made of of stone buildings connected by a network of narrow cobblestone streets too narrow for cars. The town and many of the buildings in it date back to Inca times. Over the years, much of it has been reconstructed and reconfigured, but there are many elements that are original. Here’s how wikipedia describes the layout of the town:
The main settlement at Ollantaytambo has an orthogonal layout with four longitudinal streets crossed by seven parallel streets. At the center of this grid, the Incas built a large plaza that may have been up to four blocks large; it was open to the east and surrounded by halls and other town blocks on its other three sides. All blocks on the southern half of the town were built to the same design; each comprised two kancha, walled compounds with four one-room buildings around a central courtyard. Buildings in the northern half are more varied in design; however, most are in such a bad condition that their original plan is hard to establish.
Ollantaytambo dates from the late 15th century and has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America. Its layout and buildings have been altered to different degrees by later constructions, for instance, on the southern edge of the town an Inca esplanade with the original entrance to the town was rebuilt as a Plaza de Armas surrounded by colonial and republican buildings. The plaza at the center of the town also disappeared as several buildings were built over it in colonial times.
Typical buildings and street in Ollantaytambo
The street leading to our guesthouse
From the main square, we started the short walk uphill along the cobblestone streets with our luggage. Mila was moving slowly, a bit wobbly from the residual motion sickness, which a nice local man happened to notice. He offered to carry one of our bags for us, declining to accept payment, but we insisted and he finally accepted a nice tip.
Casa de Wow
View from the kitchen window
The guesthouse was on the edge of the old Inca settlement and faced the Inca terraces and structures carved into the adjacent mountainside. The views were fantastic.
The view from in front of our guesthouse
Mila decided to stay at the hostel to recuperate, while Jette and I went out to find some food.
A nice lunch of soup
One of the really cool things in Ollantaytambo is the elaborate and robust water system that runs through both the town and the ruins on the mountainside above. Even after hundreds of years it is still functional.
You can see much more about the history of Ollantaytambo here. One cool thing that we didn’t know about at the time, and therefore didn’t notice while we were there, is the giant face carved into the mountainside above town:
Mila tried to take it easy by resting and going to bed early. Thankfully, she woke up early the next morning feeling like herself. We were all up early as this was the day we were headed to Machu Picchu.
Boarding the morning train to Aguas Calientes
Most visitors to Machu Picchu take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes there are busses that shuttle people up and down the mountain. The train trip from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes is a very short 24 miles. The shuttle busses up the mountain to the entrance of Machu Picchu take about a 35 minutes on slow, winding roads. The transportation is monopolized and very expensive. The short train ride, the shuttle bus, and admission to Machu Picchu cost more than $600 USD for the three of us! Visiting Machu Picchu was by far the most expensive one-day sight we’ve seen in our months of travels.
Many people go to Aguas Calientes the day before they visit Machu Picchu so that they can be at Machu Picchu for sunrise. We opted not to do this for two reasons. First, we figured most people would do this and that morning would be the most crowded time to be there. Second, the mornings had been foggy and we assumed our day at Machu Picchu would be no exception. No point in being there for sunrise if you can’t see anything! Our plan was to leave Ollantaytambo early in the morning, spend the day at Machu Picchu and return to Ollantaytambo that same evening. That’s what we did and it worked out very well.
Morning fog and clouds as we arrive in Aguas Calientes
Statue of Pachacutec in Aguas Calientes
We walked from the train station to the shuttle bus stop
Aguas Calientes is a tourist dive. It is just a bunch of simple hotels, restaurants and shops catering to the 2,500 tourists that visit Machu Picchu each day. We’re really glad we just passed quickly through and didn’t spend the night. From the train station we walked to the shuttle bus stop and got in line. Before long, one of the shuttle busses took us up the mountain and into the clouds.
Foggy, rainy entrance to Machu Picchu
Everything was shrouded in foggy clouds and a misty rain was falling. We entered Machu Picchu and made our way up the foggy paths to the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is thought to have been the main entrance to Machu Picchu in Inca times and would have served as a gate and checkpoint. It is a good bit above the main Machu Picchu complex and though some guides suggest that the hike up and back takes 3-4 hours, we did it comfortably in about two.
A foggy path
Cloudy with a chance of llamaballs
Up the Sun Gate trail
Exploring some nooks and crannies along the trail
Pretty flowers at the trail’s edge
At a bend in the trail
At the Sun Gate
Sun Gate – note the classic Inca building techniques of small stones stacked with mortar.
Sun Gate handstand
Clouds obscure Machu Picchu
When we got to the Sun Gate, clouds still obscured everything below and the Machu Picchu complex was not visible. The clouds were moving quickly though, and after only a few minutes there was a brief moment when the clouds broke and we had a good view of the main Machu Picchu complex. The wide angle camera on my phone didn’t capture much. To the eye, we could see the main complex peeking out of the clouds below.
The clouds part long enough for a quick photo
We relaxed at the top for a bit, then headed back down the trail to the main complex. It was a pretty quick hike down the trail, and as we descended, the clouds really began to clear.
Terraces along the trail
As we got down close to the main complex, the fog and clouds had cleared and visibility was good.
Approaching the main complex – again note the classic Inca construction technique of walls built with small stones and filled with mortar.
While there were a only a handful of people who had hiked up to the Sun Gate, the main complex area was full of tourists. As we got closer, we got the classic view of Machu Picchu that gives a sense of how, amazingly, it is perched on a mountain top. To me,this placement is the thing that makes it so incredible.
Carved out of a mountain top
A llama lover at Machu Picchu
Tourists snapping photos with Machu Picchu in the background
Another view as we get closer
A nice man took three photos of us, all of them with his finger over the lens. Maybe we need a selfie-stick!
Making our way down into the main complex
Machu Picchu inspired Jette to do the splits
Must be the thin mountain air
Integrating a massive stone outcropping. Note the mortar filled walls.
Mila and Jette with terraces in the background
Standing in front of the amazing terraces
Jette and me at Machu Picchu
The whole area is full of rock and boulders – lots of building material
As we explored Machu Picchu, one of the most striking things was the different building techniques used. The most common technique used small stones stacked into walls using mortar. Often these walls appear to have been built hollow, and filled with mortar too. A second technique used large stones, roughly cut, and stacked dry, without mortar. Smaller stones were used to fill in gaps, as in the photo above. The most impressive technique used large or very large stones, precisely shaped, and stacked with great precision, using no mortar, as in the photo below.
Look at the size of these stones and the precision of assembly.
Huge, precisely shaped stones, perfectly joined without mortar.
Even the edges are beveled.
Only a few of the structures in Machu Picchu use this technique and show this level of precision. Most of the structures are built with small, roughly shaped stones and mortar:
Typical structures at Machu Picchu, using small stones set with mortar.
The difference in building techniques is striking and incongruent. It seems difficult to imagine that all of these structures were built by the same people, at the same time. As we mentioned in a previous post, one alternative theory is that the large, precise structures were built by an unknown culture long before the Inca arrived on the scene, and that, years later, the Inca discovered these and built around them. I don’t know enough to accept or reject this hypothesis, but I can see how common sense might lead to this conclusion. The construction techniques and craftsmanship are strikingly different, and suggest the use of very different technologies.
Consider the fact that the Inca had only Bronze-Age technology. They had no wheeled vehicles, and had only stone, wood, copper and bronze tools, all of which are softer than the stone used in construction. How in the world could they have quarried these huge stones, moved them to the building sites, cut them so precisely, and lifted them into place? There seems to be much speculation, disagreement, and debate about this.
Above and below. Were these built by the same people at the same time?
Another example of contrasting building techniques.
Here’s a video that gives you a view of the central buildings built with the large, precisely cut and placed stones, as well as the more common buildings built with the small stones and mortar.
National Geographic has a great photo gallery showing Machu Picchu as it looked when Bingham found it and after excavation: Pictures: Machu Picchu, Before and After Excavation. For example:
In 1997 after excavation
Some of the most amazing structures at Machu Picchu are almost invisible. Apparently, the Inca engineered excellent foundations and drainage systems, which are hidden below the ground. NOVA has an interview with an engineer who investigated this.
As in Ollantaytambo, they also had a well engineered system of fresh water delivery that still functions today!
Jette the animal lover had lots of fun with the llamas and alpacas at the site. Most of them were pretty tame and if you held up a tuft of grass, they would eat from your hand. Towards the end of the day we took a break on the porch of one of the reconstructed structures while Jette joined the llama herd.
Llamas (and alpacas?) grazing on the terraces
Hanging out with new friends
After 7 or 8 hours of exploring Machu Picchu, we took the shuttle bus back down to Aguas Calientes. We were hungry, and we had some time to kill before the train back to Ollantaytambo, so we had dinner at one of the many tourist dives in town.
Back in Aguas Calientes
OMG! I love roodles! They’re totally my favorite!
Some interesting choices
I was really tempted by “Guinea Pig the furnace” but in the end settled for some chips and guacamole.
We often try to avoid really touristy places and given the costs and hassles associated with Machu Picchu, we seriously considered skipping it. In the end we were glad that we went. The setting in the mountains is truly spectacular. The ruins are too, but if they were plopped down in the middle of a big, flat field somewhere they would be much less so. As they are, it is a magical place.
06/05/2106 EDIT – Just found these photos and wanted to share them:
Fun with the llamas
Inca style handstand at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu hug