Sunday, August 17, 2008


On Saturday we went to some thousand-year-old ruins about an hour south of Cuernavaca called Xochicalco. Xochicalco is not a Spanish word but comes from the indigenous language of Nahuatl; in Nahuatl it means “the place of the house of the flowers.”

Despite the name, there are not any flowers here, unless you count the flowery feathers growing out of the carved dragons that encircle the base of Xochicalco’s crown jewel piramide. This stone snake is Quetzacoatl, the Plumed Serpent, chiseled into rock over and over and once, many years ago, painted in bright colors of blood red and sun yellow and sky blue and sea green.

(Above: The Plumed Serpent.)

Legend had it that Quetzacoatl had left his people and had promised to return, and as he left he transformed into gleaming white (sound familiar?). Many years later this legend would rear its head again, as Cortes’ arrival sparked rumors that the arriving Europeans might just be the second coming of the long-lost serpent king. The rumors led to a devastating foreign policy in which Moctezuma welcomed Cortes with open arms. He met his demise soon after.

The legend of the Plumed Serpent haunts this place, to be sure, but it is overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape that surrounds Xochimilco.

(Above: The Xochimilco ballcourt. The winners of the game won the right to be sacrificed to the gods (or so the legend goes). Little known-fact: The Xochimilcoans were big University of Illinois fans - look at the picture-perfect "I" in that ballcourt.)

Mexico is full of pyramids – Egypt is only a lightweight contender in comparison. The pyramids at Chichen Itza, only hours from Cancun and recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, are hidden deep in the jungles of the Mayan Yucatan. The great temples of the Sun and the Moon at Teotihuacan, a mere hour from Mexico City, were already ruins when the Aztecs found them crumbling in the desert.

But Xochimilco’s ancient ruins have a special place in the collection of pyramids that are scattered throughout Mexico. Xochicalco’s ruined city lies on a cropped hilltop amid misty green mountains, with a blue lagoon at its feet. When we arrived at the visitor’s center, located a small valley away from the pyramids, the thick morning mist seemed to give the grey ruins in the distance an otherworldly quality.

Our visit, much like the lifetime of Xochicalco, was short. I would have liked to have spent all day clambering over the pyramids or straining my eyes to take in as much of the landscape as the staggering mountain view allowed. Alas, it was not to be so. We walked through the ruins at a brisk pace, climbing one or two of the stone structures, walking through two ballcourts, and spending a few minutes inside a cave with a single light shaft that once served as an observatory for ancient astronomers.

On our way out we found a six-foot long strip of white scaly skin left behind by a molting rattlesnake. At least, we think it was a rattlesnake. White skin? Serpent shape?

It was definitely time to go.

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