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Posts Tagged ‘ruins’

(Late March 2009)

San Ignacio Miní is one of the best preserved Jesuit Missions of the Guaranís and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. At its apex in the 18th century San Ignacio was home to about 4,000 Guaraní natives.

I had boarded a bus in Buenos Aires the previous night and now, around 8 am, the bus came to stop and one of the drivers informed me that this was San Ignacio. From the side of the bus I was sitting on I couldn`t see a town but once it pulled away I saw the tourist office directly on the other side of the highway. I stored my backpacks at the office, got directions and headed into town in the direction of the ruins.

There is a small and informative museum at the entrance to the site. I’m here before any tours arrive and it’s quiet. I can hear many birds and see a few walking amid the grounds. I have another of those breathtaking moments as I encounter the red sandstone of the primary settlement and I marvel at how nature is reclaiming the housing ruins.

In the early 17th century the Jesuits began establishing missions, or “reductions“, and ran them for the next 150 years. They built 30 missions in Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. Each mission was run by at least two priests and included a church, hospital, school, craft workshops, housing and irrigated agricultural and pasture land. All the residents worked the communal land and children received educational training starting at the age of seven. A native language dictionary was created and the Guaraní became the first literate culture in South America. The Guaraní were trained in many crafts and became highly skilled musicians and artisans with a distinctive architectural and sculptural style referred to as Guaraní-Baroque. Art and music were used in their conversion; however, unlike other reductions, the Jesuits did not force the population to adopt European customs. The missions were autonomous, economically successful and provided protection from slave hunters. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled and the missions fell into ruin. San Ignacio was rediscovered in 1897.

I’m glad I made this stop and by early afternoon I`m standing by the side of highway again waiting for a bus to continue my journey on to Puerto Iguazú.

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(February 2009)

This region is the Inca heartland and has been on my travel list for twenty plus years! Cuzco, aka Gringo capital of Peru has a population of approximately 320,000, and you cannot walk or sit for more than a few minutes without someone trying to sell you something. Nonetheless, this remarkable city, the oldest continuously inhabited one in South America, makes a great base and I stayed in the area for about 10 days.

The city is a stunning blend of Spanish architecture, Inca stonework, grand and not so grand churches, museums and shops and, oh, so many steep streets. That first day curiosity pulled me into Qoricancha at Santo Domingo Cathedral. During the Inca reign the site housed the Gold Palace, Temple of the Sun, Solar Garden, and Temple of the Moon.

Over the next few days I checked out the Museo de Arte Precolombino and the Museo Inka and wandered around the city, sometimes purposely and other times aimlessly, before buying the 10-day tourist ticket. While walking around the city I came upon a few fiestas and observed the participants consume food and beer, dance to the accompanying bands and then, meal over, parade off to somewhere else. There seems to be some religious significance attached to the events.

One morning, a small girl decided to accompany me on my way to the Plaza de Armas. Once there, we sat down and she requested some change, which I gave her. The city really is dependent on tourism and, for better or worse, I guess this was her take on it.  When I met Gladys, a woman from Chinchero, it was raining. She was roaming around the tourist area with her two children trying to sell decorative carved gourds and woven belts. She was so persistent that I did buy a belt from her. Gladys spoke English quite well and in the following days we would chat each time we met.

Ready to visit the Sacred Valley, I headed off to Ollantaytambo after purchasing train tickets for Machu Picchu. The Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo were an astrologically-aligned strategic fortress and a temple. I hooked up with a few Spanish-speaking tourists and we purchased the services of a guide. 

I spent the rest of the day exploring the village. The old Inca streets are fascinating and the villagers are very friendly. I chatted with an American woman who was volunteering in a textile shop/education centre. In another establishment I read about health and social initiatives, one directed at the importance of learning Spanish as a way out of poverty for the Quechua-speaking children. I watched the locals socialize in the square and later party through the evening with the aid of the resourceful liquor seller and her trusty cart. It was a perfect excursion and my favourite day in Peru!

I woke very early the next morning and headed down the dark road to catch the 5:30 am train to Aguas Calientes. At first I was a little apprehensive about walking down a deserted road. Soon though, I was enjoying the walk and the moment and felt very content. About halfway to the station, I encountered other people and a couple bicycle taxis. As I neared the train station solitude and silence gave way to long ticket lines and vendors with hot coffee and food. Seems that I just made my way down the road a little later than others.

I arrived in Aguas Calientes, purchased a bus ticket and was on my way up to Machu Picchu. It was raining and the mountain was covered in a thick blanket of fog! However, the rain soon stopped and the fog slowly lifted enhancing the grandeur and mystery. Despite the tourism aspect of Machu Picchu, exploring the ruins of this precariously situated city is still humbling and inspiring.

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(December 2008)

I love Oaxaca! Unlike the highter altitude location of Guanajuato, it’s very hot here, sweltering actually. On the way here I was awed by my first ever sighting of a volcano and sensed the shift from North American to Central American Mexico. After a late night arrival I spent the first day walking and sitting and drinking (water) and walking and people-watching and walking some more. The Zocalo is quite large, lit for the season and filled with tourists, locals, and vendors. Oaxaca is reknowned for its food and crafts and neither disappoint.

The city has a population of approximately 200,000 and is a big tourist draw. Vendors, including children, actively try to sell their wares, even while you’re seated at one of the many outdoor patio restaurants. Beggars, mostly women with children, are stationed along the main streets. I’m still touched by the soft-spoken little boy who ran after me and asked for my almost empty bottle of water.

The historic centre and ruins at Monte Albán have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Monte Albán is situated in the mountains and the setting is spectacular! It’s an ancient Zapotec captital and during its peak, around 500 BC, it had a population of around 25,000.  Eventually, it was overtaken by the Mixtecs. According to our guide, it was destroyed by nature. Apparently, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs were frequently at war. The Aztecs expanded into the Oaxaca region but this was short-lived and ended with the Spanish conquest.

I spent the following day in town and wandered through the cultural museum. I was impressed by the Day of the Dead artwork on display. The artist’s graphic skill and the subject mattter were striking. Mexico has produced many highly talented artists. 

New Year’s Eve, I ventured out on yet another tour. This time it was to the Mitla ruins. Mitla is a small Zapotec site with a unique and intricate stone mosiac fretwork. It is not as old as Monte Alban; however, the town has been continuously inhabited. Apparently, the Spanish had the site destroyed due to its religious and political significance.

The tour also included a visit to the Tule tree, a small tequila factory and a Zapotec weaving community. The Tule tree is a Montezuma Cypress. It’s the widest tree in the world but not the oldest – there are older trees in California, Africa, and Japan (7,000 years old). The weaving village is a successful Zapotec project where members of the community help each other with building their homes and getting established.

New Year’s day caught me off-guard – unlike Christmas, most businesses were closed! Perhaps I shouldn’t put things off. I was looking forward to indulging in a hot chocolate at one of the specialty cafes I had spotted on my first day of wandering. Guess it will have to wait for a return visit. Maybe, then, I’ll be adventurous enough to try the grasshoppers!

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(December 2008)

I awake early on the morning of December 4th. The subway isn’t operating yet and it’s dark and cold as I get into the cab. It’s a quiet, peaceful drive to Kipling station where I catch the express bus to the airport. I am running a little behind schedule and when I see that there isn’t anyone in line at the check-in counter I’m not sure whether to be worried or not. It’s alright, I still have time, but, I drop my documents all over the floor. Relief, I have time for a coffee in the lounge. It’s the start of a whirlwind day.

Huge, vibrant, pulsating and slightly overwhelming! My month in Mexico begins here right in the heart of D.F. one of the world’s most populous metropolitans with an estimated 22 million inhabitants. From the moment I slipped into the authorized cab I was in awe. It was early afternoon, the sun was beating through the smog, and I was amazed by the shear volume of traffic, impressed with the somewhat organic nature of its flow, and stunned by the vendors incredulously selling snacks, refreshments and miscellaneous wares right there, in the lanes, in that mass of cars, trucks and buses.

I checked into a beautiful hostel in Centro Historico and climbed the four flights of stairs to my second floor dormitory. After chatting with a dorm-mate I ventured out for a stroll. Guidebooks and Alvaro, a very helpful resident who I had previously corresponded with on CouchSurfing, provided plenty of suggestions of what to see. I do enjoy visiting cultural and historical attractions but I also like the sense of place I get by walking around and people-watching. The Zocalo is the world’s second largest public square and the ideal place to start.

It is the holiday season and Mexico City’s Zocalo is a focal point for the season. Despite the warm weather there is a large skating rink and many short-sleeved residents are enjoying the challenge of being on ice-skates. Others are experiencing the thrill of the snow-tubing slides and checking out the igloos. As I walk around taking in the people, amusements, architecture, and space, I stumble upon Templo Mayor and purchase a ticket to get a closer look at the excavation.

Gone is the noise and frenzy of the main square. My mind is contemplative as I wander through the site. The temple of Tenochtitlan was once home to a powerful Aztec culture. It’s impressive. Actually, I’m fascinated by the layers of culture and history – sculpted symbolism and architectural remnants of an ancient state, a beautiful Spanish colonial historic district, and a blend of contemporary cultures with striking contrasts between the haves and have-nots – all here in this spectacular, polluted, earthquake-prone, sinking city centre.

I went back to the square later that evening. I had read warnings that this city is dangerous, i.e., 60 kidnappings a day, but I felt safe. The Zocalo and nearby streets were overflowing with people – families, friends, lovers, performers, artisans, tourists, and police. A magnificent Christmas tree, lighting displays, and the vitality of the crowd were all so enticing. I was glad I had decided to stay in this part of the city. However, after a refreshing pineapple and orange juice earlier in the afternoon I now felt I was doing a disservice to myself and the culture with my 7-11 dinner of a hot-dog and coffee.

Day two found me on the Touribus. It’s an excellent service – 21 stops and you can get on and off all day! I did not get off though – not my intended plan – the city is so large, and I decided it would serve as an orientation and overview. Back on foot, I explored more of the historical district. Architecture, sculpture, mesmerizing murals, the Almeda, Spanish conversation with a couple schoolgirls, a tortilla and cerveza at an outdoor cafe made all the more pleasant by a talented classical musician, and another evening strolling about the Zocalo happening upon various groups performing ritualistic dances.

The third day I went to the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacan.  The site is awesome, the sun is hotter, and it’s full of tourists! I stood on top of the Temple of the Moon and tried to imagine life in the former society. While anthropology sheds much light, the reality is that time presents an impenetrable barrier. I didn’t make it to the top of the Temple of the Sun – I was worried about how I would get down. I wondered if the Aztecs, too, experienced vertigo.

Later that night, while I was sitting in the hostel entrance, a young man entered and very politely explained that he was a craftsperson from the north but hadn’t sold enough today to pay for his room. He was now trying to earn the money by selling lollipops for a peso a piece. One peso is worth so very, very little.

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