Tag: Pyramids



Okay. We lied: Palenque is not the Indiana Jones ruins. Tikal is. This is where you can harness your inner Indiana — though, unlike Palenque, they don’t sell fedoras at the entrance.

Calm Ruins

I’m sure Tikal gets overrun. We arrived on a Sunday. We expected throngs of tourbuses and tourists and trash and tiendas. General chaos. We expected to wait until Monday. What we got instead, was a handful of cars, a few buses, and two Ocellated Turkeys.

It was overcast and the Weather app said rain. We’d just polished off some fairly epic chicken paninis at the Jaguar Inn, where we were crashing (they allow overlanders to overnight in the parking lot). Given the weather, and our full bellies, naps seemed imminent. Or perhaps slices of key lime pie and then naps. Inertia for certain. But the more we looked around, the more we were reminded how few humans were around. It felt like having Disneyland to yourself. We couldn’t risk crowds on another day. We packed our raincoats and marched toward the entrance. Andrea grabbed a coffee.

Creature Sites and Sounds

When the Mayans left — reasons are uncertain, ranging from overpopulation to agrarian failures to meteorological drought — animals moved in. And mosquitos. Though I suspect both were there before the Mayans.

White-nosed coatis now roam the streets — a band of coatis passed right by us at one point, momentarily petrifying Everett and Paheli. Spider and Black Howler Monkeys leap through the trees. Red-lored Parrots, Masked Tityras, Lineated Woodpeckers, Keel-billed Toucans, and Montezuma Oropendolas fly overhead.

Tikal is a feast for the eyes and ears. Howler monkeys yell conversations between the trees. Spider monkeys drop fruit seeds from the canopy, which sounds like rain. Toucans croak. Woodpeckers hammer. Parrots squawk (they’re kind of annoying). And oropendolas make that bizarre, mechanical teapot sound heard here.

Sheer Size

Tikal is the largest excavated ruin in the Americas. It felt like it. It’s a twenty to thirty minute walk, down an ancient, crumbling Mayan causeway canopied by rainforest, to the first significant structures. Another twenty minutes to the next. I’m guessing we walked ten miles (at least). And we didn’t see everything.

We also hiked to both the top of the Lost World Pyramid and Temple IV, the tallest pyramid/temple in Tikal and pre-Columbian structure still erect in the New World. Our glutes were nice and taught. Temple IV was also where George Lucas filmed the scene where the Millennium Falcon flies over the Rebel Alliance base on Yavin 4 in Episode IV: A New Hope! We took the photo below from that exact location.

Tikal, with it’s bisecting causeways (named after the archeologists that discovered them), and grouped structures, felt more like a city than a site, unlike many of the other ruins we’ve visited, whose main structures were concentrated in a condensed area. Though Tikal (est. 90,000) never grew to the size of Teotihuacan (est. 250,000), it remained an important, some say the most important, Mayan site until its final collapse.

You could spend days, weeks, touring and absorbing Tikal. Many do. We only lasted an afternoon. It was, however, with the slight rain and slight tourists, just about the perfect afternoon to hike the tens of miles and thousands of steps to witness this archeological marvel. A world heritage site and one of seven wonders of the new world.

Mayan Ruins, Part Uno

Mayan Ruins, Part Uno

Well, we had our first mishap with the van, in route from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Palenque. The road was narrow, hilly, curvy, and infested with topes and semi-trucks. Semiremolques, as they state in Spanish on their rear doors. Slow going in other words. I must’ve passed dozens of, or at least a few, semiremloques — even some doble semiremloques — in route. Then came the one after a few.

The road straightened. Briefly. I saw my shot. And I took it, pushed the pedal to the carpet. Pushed it real good. The van accelerated with the gumption of a lawnmower. I had almost passed the semiremolque when, in my periphery, I saw an indigenous Mayan (presumably) mother grab the back of her son’s camisa, to prevent him from dashing in front of our van (presumably).

I flinched. Swiveled a meter. The steel bolts that jutted a few inches from the semiremolque’s wheel shredded our van’s rim and tire. It was like that famous chariot scene in Ben Hur. Except no one was injured or killed.

Maya Belle

We arrived a few hours and one cuss word later (Andrea said it was only the second time she’s heard me cuss; I wonder what the first time was…). Not to the ruins but to the campground. Maya Belle. A welcome reprieve after a fairly stressful van ride. A jungle oasis replete with a pool, blended drinks, tezmecal (sort of a Mayan sauna), and tropical birds and animals. Tent campers, van dwellers, and cabana crashers all share the facilities, which sowed seamlessly into the surrounding jungle canopy. My favorite campsite to date. One of my favorite locales overall.

Lizards and Toucans and Monkeys, Oh My!

We’d played a few YouTubes of howler monkeys before we arrived. We didn’t want our kids — especially Everett, who is going through a bit of a “everything in the world is out to kill me” phase — to be scared. Or at least not frightened. I don’t mind scared. But I’m also not winning any Father Of The Year awards.

Howler monkeys project one of, if not the (depends on what scientist you ask), loudest vocalizations of any animal on the planet. And unlike, say, a lion, which roars infrequently, howler monkeys howl frequently. Like they’re just yelling their conversations at each other. Normal stuff. Like how to eat that bug or where to toss that poop and what not. It’s loud. Louder than the video below. And it’s frightening, err, fun to hear the volume crescendo as the troop nears — they can be heard up to three miles away.

We also saw a handful of scarlet macaws, dozens of lizards and iguanas, and one keel-billed toucan during our visit. I followed the toucan, which looks like a flying banana from the ground, from tree to tree, but unfortunately, as I learned, it will not lead you to the fruity taste that shows….

Indiana Jones

Palenque will summon your inner Indiana. Thick, like baseball bat thick, vines gnarl down from the cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla treetops to the moss- and fern-covered floor. Loud (sound-wise) monkeys and loud (color-wise) macaws fly between the vines and trees. Iguanas roam the grounds. Candles glow from skulls. Arrows shoot from walls! Evil cult warriors chase you through the jungle to steal back that emerald statue you stole (which they stole from the nearby village first)! You will have those fantasies while here. You just hope they don’t distract you from learning about the site.

Palenque rose to power between 600 and 800 AD, becoming one of the most prominent Mayan cities, alongside Calakmul, Tikal, Chichen Itza (where we visited a couple days later). It’s glory didn’t last long, however. It, like the Mayan civilization in general, declined in the late 800s and early 900s. The jungle reclaimed the territory shortly thereafter. The Spanish conquistadors never discovered it. It was rediscovered in the late 1700s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1900s when Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) began vast excavations.

Archeologists have restored a lot here — included Pakal’s tomb, one of the most significant archeological finds of the 20th century, the American equivalent of King Tut’s tomb — yet they estimate only 25% has been uncovered (some say as little as 10%). The jungle has engulfed the rest. Thus, there’s still treasure to be found, still time to summon your inner Indiana! You can even buy fedoras (but no whips) at the entrance.

Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca, Mexico

We went, because they told us to go. They. The other tourists. Of course, we’re capable of making our own decisions. I think. We’re adults. Occasionally. Yet, the fervor, the conviction bespoken about Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-Ha-Ka) was convincing at the least. Darn necessitating at the best. We had to go. We’d miss the best food scene the in Mexico if we didn’t.


Adulting is, occasionally, more difficult in a van on the road. Our kids are never more than a few feet away. Four stinky kid feet. And we don’t have sitters. That young-ish chica that we met at the trailer park the other day? Perhaps. But probably not. Thus, while we did dine at a couple of excellent cafes in Oaxaca — mainly for the view, not for the food — we did not indulge the food scene. Harness our inner foodie. That would’ve required sitters. And a space larger than a van. So I can’t speak to the food quality, the food inventiveness. But I can speak to this: this trip has forced us to get better at adulting. And I’m stoked about that. Though I wish I could’ve tried that agave-infused, fire-roasted tlayudas we’d heard so much about….

The Other Stuff

It’s not that Oaxaca doesn’t have it’s charm. A tree-canopied zocalo. Gratis performances. Fuscia jacarandas and verdigrisy agave. Cobblestone streets. Neon-painted, baroque houses. Extravagant, Spanish churches. Check. It checks most the boxes for cool colonial cities. Yet, it seemed to be missing something. An intimacy. A quirk. Disorganized, small streets. Something. We couldn’t put our feet on it, as we strolled the gorgeous streets near the historical center of town, but Oaxaca did not captivate us like other colonial cities, namely Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. But perhaps that’s just ’cause we’re bitter about missing out on the craft tlayudas.

Monte Alban

A hilltop ruin reminiscent of Machu Picchu. We arrived at the butt-end of dry season. Winter. Grasses were dead. Trees hadn’t even begun to reveal the buds of their blossom. Yet, you can imagine, after a month of rain, how green and lush and hermoso this alter, this holiest of locales, would look (and in case you can’t, the poster near the ticket booth will put that picture in your head). Nearly as scenic, though less well-known, as Machu Picchu (from what we can gather; if you haven’t heard it, we’ll reveal our Machu Picchu story at a later post). As you walk the grounds, climb the steep steps to the temple tops, you’ll find yourself indulging what life was like here as a high priest. Swanky. Heavenly. Lack of oxygen-y. Then you might imagine, if you have a macabre mind like me, the priest just rolling all those sacrificed bodies down the mountains….

Hierve El Agua

On our way out of Oaxaca, we stopped here, mostly to say “we’ve been there”. It’s one of two calcified waterfalls in the world, the other being in Turkey. It also has some, in case this is your thing, some dirty natural pools to bathe in. Like, if you like swimming amongst toilet paper, this is your place! Of course, that didn’t stop our kids from dipping. Or us from permitting a dip — we’re still perfecting adulting…. Nevertheless, you should be warned, in exchange for seeing this rare site, a site that does have a pleasing, panoramic view of the valley below, you may need to update your Hepatitis shots.

In Conclusion

In hindsight, that fun word of retroactive reconsideration, we would’ve skipped this stop. The next stops, which I hope to write about here soon, were much cooler, more unique. However, don’t take our word for it. Plenty of other folks, all those other tourists referenced above, loved Oaxaca. Loved. But perhaps they’re just high on mezcal (a very popular liquor made in region)….

Distrito Cholula de Rivadavia

Distrito Cholula de Rivadavia

A church on a hill? The world’s largest pyramid?

If you answered (D), all of the above, you are correct. That bumblebee yellow church, Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, is sitting on the largest (and possibly the most unearthed) pyramid by volume in the known world. Its base is four times the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza (it’s not as tall as Giza, however).


Cortes didn’t notice the pyramid (or at least the full size of the pyramid). He was too busy massacring the city — he bragged that his men killed three thousand locals, mostly nobles and leaders, and burned the city to the ground in three hours. Onlookers said the kill count was as high as thirty thousand. Cortes then ordered the destruction of all of Cholula’s temples — it had at least one temple for every day of the week — and bragged that he’d replace them all with churches. Only fifty churches replaced the temples. And most of them were built in the place and with the stones of the old temples. Cortes did miss the granddaddy, however, the one that been overgrown by vegetation for centuries and looked like a hill.


Good luck pronouncing that one. It means “made-by-hand mountain” and is the native name for the Great Pyramid of Cholula. Pyramids really. A succession of seven pyramids, all constructed around and atop each other. Prehispanic civilizations morphed the size and configuration to meet their cultural and religious needs. Then some civilization abandoned it. By the 12th century, when the Toltec-Chichimecas took over the city, the pyramid was already overgrown.

Over the last century, archeologists have excavated much of the site — including five miles of underground tunnels (see picture below) — though much remains unearthed. An incredible, well-designed museum — which we thought rivaled the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City in terms of displays and artifacts — now hugs the hill, err, pyramid. The museum also features a 30-minute, vibrantly artistic, 360-degree movie of Mexico’s famed sites. A must stop when you’re in this area.


On the afternoon we arrived, everyone was exercising. That night, everyone was exercising. The next morning, everyone was exercising! Cholula is one fit city. We thought, perhaps, it was just the neighborhood we were staying in — it was flush with sneakers and yoga pants — but then we confirmed, through another overlander from Belgium, that the entire city is exercising. All hours. Everywhere. It’s captivating to watch, I thought with a Modela Negra in one hand and a plate of dorilocos in the other. Everyone is also dressed, whether in workout or work clothing, to the nines. To the elevens really. It was one of the first times on this trip that Andrea and I glanced at each other, wearing function over form clothing lathered with three-day’s worth of grime and perspiration and spicy karate nut dust, and knew that we looked like the van dwellers we are.

The Town

Cortes supposedly said that the Cholula area was the most beautiful he’d seen outside of Europe. You can sense, though you can’t often see, why he would say that. The volcanoes and mountains surrounding the valley are usually clouded by smog — we did catch a glimpse or two of Popocatépetl (see picture below), an eternally smoking volcano that’s also the second highest peak in Mexico, while we were there.

The town itself is charming and colorful with an eclectic juxtaposition of ancient, stone cathedrals and modern, stylish restaurants. It’s a great city for ambling. You can meander from the zocolo through cobblestone streets to the church on the pyramid in a matter of minutes. There, you’re rewarded with a panoramic view of the valley, which extends to the now larger Puebla, the fourth largest city in Mexico (you an see the towers of Puebla in the photo below; also, can you spot our van?!). Fortunately for future generations, Cortes never figured out what was beneath this view.

Teotihuacán Did the humans from Battlestar Galactica build this place?

Teotihuacán Did the humans from Battlestar Galactica build this place?

Battlestar Galactica

After returning from India a few years ago, I suffered through a six-week bout with giardia. It mostly won. During the bout, I sustained myself on a strict diet of Cap’n Crunch and Netflix. The nutritional deficiency created by the former caused me not to remember much of the latter. However, I was able to recall snippets of one show I binged, Battlestar Galactica, as I strolled the grounds at Teotihuacán.

From what I can remember, Battlestar Galactica, or BSG as the cool geeks call it, is about students overtaking their masters. Though in BSG’s case, it’s clones and robots killing their masters. The humans in BSG also polluted their planets to the point of uninhabitable and thus were forced to retreat to space to find other inhabitable planets, all while trying to avoid getting wiped off the face of space by their former pets.

Only 40,000 humans make it. They eventual find Earth, give up all their technology (so they can’t be detected), and start farming. The show eludes that this involuntary devolution is just part of the human existence. We evolve, build robots that kill us, and then must devolve back to subsistence farming. We dumb humans have been doing this for millenniums and millenniums evidentially.


Anthropologists and archeologists aren’t certain where Teotihuacán got its influences — they are certain that Teotihuacán influenced other great mesoamercian civilizations, like the Mayas and Aztecs. Hypotheses and theories are as numerous as the temples in the complex. And I’d like to add one to the mix: The humans from BSG spread about Earth and devolved. Eventually, as they began to re-evolve, they formed the great ancient civilizations. Then they began to build temples to worship their gods, and somewhere, deep in their DNA, they remembered the architectural-stylings of their interplanetary ancestors.

Teotihuacan feels alien, more so than the other ruins I’ve visited in my life. It feels as if the Avenue Of The Dead (the Main Street in the picture above) was subconsciously built as a runway for future, evolved humans to get the heck out of Earth after we’ve polluted the planet and invented the machines that murder us. Now, of course, that’s just my conspiracy-riddled cranium. I’d imagine most of you would appreciate the ingenuity and artistry of Teotihuacán. You’d picture the extravagant temples adorned with untold treasures, or the intelligent and coherent layout of the city, or the hundreds of thousands of beautiful people that lived there over hundreds of years. Or perhaps not. Perhaps, like me, after visiting Teotihuacán, you’d begin questioning the motives of your microwave….

Teotihuacan certainly, regardless of how it was influenced (or not), leaves you feeling that someone, whether via skill (likely) or sci-fi (less likely), built something, that even in this modern era, feels extraterrestrial.


(The view from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun toward the Pyramid of the Moon)