Archive for November, 2010

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Finding Archaeological Treasure in Cantona

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

One of the volcanic-rock pyramids at Cantona.Cantona is one of the largest urban settlements ever discovered in Mesoamerica, sprawling across nearly five square miles of remote, arid land in northeastern Puebla. Yet the remarkable ruins are rarely visited, despite being described by people who have been there as well-preserved, mysterious, beautiful, and relatively easy to get to by car from the capital. In fact, on the afternoon that our small group toured the site, we were the only ones there (aside from a few workers). This meant we had the grounds — and the breathtaking views — to ourselves, which is not something most travelers would complain about.

Cantona was once an active commercial center in central Mexico. Experts believe that the fortified metropolis, perhaps founded by the Olmecs or the Chichimecs around A.D. 50, thrived between the 7th and 10th centuries. At its peak, some 80,000 people lived there. “Its prosperity depended to a great extent on the mining and trade of obsidian extracted from the Oyameles and Zaragoza deposits, located only [three miles] from the city,” Mexican archaeologists noted in their application to have Cantona designated as an official UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 2001. “In this sense, it was competing with Teotihuacan, which mined and traded obsidian extracted from the Sierra de las Navajas, in the state of Hidalgo.” (Obsidian was used to produce arrowheads, knife blades, and other tools throughout central Mexico.)

French explorer Henri de Saussure claimed to have discovered Cantona in 1855, but the site was a secret only to outsiders; locals had known of its existence for centuries. Indeed, the name Cantona may be derived from the Nahuatl word caltonal, or “sun house,” which seems to make sense, given the site’s location on a desert-like plain near the Puebla-Veracruz border. Nonetheless, formal excavation didn’t begin until the 1990s and remains far from complete today.

“It’s difficult to decide which aspect of this old city is the most amazing: the intricate network of streets and avenues lined with sidewalls, the ingenious way it takes advantage of the topography … or the combination of volcanic rock with yucca or pine for construction.” —Mexico Desconocido

Cantona is a maze of patios, pyramids, and ball courts connected by walkways.Cantona comprises many small pyramids built from volcanic rock and features at least two dozen ball courts, the most ever recorded in ancient Mexico. Nearly half a million ceramic vessels have been found to date. The site also contains more than 100 civic and religious plazas, 2,000 patios (living spaces), and 20 different known gateways or points of access.

“Cantona possesses an extensive and complex network of communication routes, from large avenues to small alleys,” Jimena Acevedo wrote recently in the national travel magazine Mexico Desconocido. “There are around 500 streets that perfectly connect all of the points in the city and lead to its highest part, where the important structures, like temples, ball courts, and rulers’ houses stood. Some of the avenues are actually more than a kilometer long and others connect this old city with diverse towns nearby.”

The Cantona site today is located between the towns of Tepeyahualco and Coyoaco. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; admission is less than 50 pesos. To get there by car from the city of Puebla, take Highway 150 east to the Amozoc toll booth, then Highway 129 north (toward Teziutlán). When you get to Oriental, take the local road toward Tepeyahualco and then follow signs to Cantona. Public transportation is not a great option of reaching this isolated area. Hint: You’ll need take buses as far as you can, and then hire a taxi to go the distance. The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) appears to be offering some expert-led tours in English; inquire ahead.

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Every Day Is Christmas in Chignahuapan

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

Blown-glass ornaments in Chignahuapan, Puebla.A 19th-century Mudejar kiosk sits at the center of an otherwise traditional town square. One Catholic church celebrates a petrified mushroom that bears a sacred image of the Crucifixion, while another is anchored by an enormous plaster virgin. And the main drag — well, it looks as if someone threw up Christmas all over it. Welcome to Chignahuapan, an enigmatic little city about a 90-minute drive from the capital in Puebla’s northern mountains.

First inhabited by Chichimecs and later the Aztecs, Chignahuapan (pronounced “chig-na-WA-pon”) officially became a municipality in 1874, when Spanish missionaries began to settle in the area and built its first church, says a local tourism and commerce website. Since then, residents have erected more places of worship and earned a reputation for making artisanal goods (red earthenware pots, bovine-wool blankets, hand-carved wood) and mutton dishes, from pit-roasted barbacoa to mixiote bundles wrapped in maguey leaves. Their talents, coupled with the proximity of Lake Almoloya and thermal baths, have turned Chignahuapan into a popular day trip or weekend escape for urban dwellers from Puebla and Mexico City.

Between August and December, visitors flock to Chignahuapan to buy locally produced blown glass. Each year, more than 200 workshops turn out some 70 million Christmas-tree ornaments in every shape, size, and color imaginable. The lion’s share of these esferas navideñas are packed, distributed, and sold throughout Mexico, but the best selection and prices can be found by visiting the stores on Romero Vargas Street (also called 2 Sur behind the municipal building), just a block from the zócalo. Need a set of spiral ornaments in rainbow hues, a decorative centerpiece for the dinner table, or a pair of dainty snowman earrings to match that holiday sweater? No problem!

La Feria del Árbol y La Esfera

For the past 16 years, Chignahuapan has celebrated its seasonal craft with an annual tree and ornament festival. The 2011 event continues this week with all sorts of events, including: a fishing tournament (Oct. 30, 7 a.m., at Lake Chignahuapan), fireworks (Oct. 30, 10 p.m., at the Explanada Municipal), mariachis (Oct. 31, 8:30 p.m., Teatro del Pueblo), and a festival of light and life for Day of the Dead (Nov. 1, 6 p.m., at the Teatro de la Laguna). For the complete program, click here and then on “Programa” and the different ornaments.

Art and Architecture, Relgious Symbols, a Waterfall, and More

A 19th-century Mudejar kiosk is the centerpiece of the town square.Shopping aside, Chignahuapan offers a few other sites well worth seeing. A short walk to the main square rewards visitors with a wonderfully diverse mix of art and architecture. to The municipal building features a beautiful (and brand-new) mural depicting the area’s heritage and history in its entryway. Next door, the Parish of St. James the Apostle boasts a gorgeous facade, which blends Baroque and indigenous styles of the late 16th century. Across the street, an open, elevated Mudejar kiosk, built in 1871 to house public performances, demands attention with a Muslim-Spanish design that’s reminiscent of old-world bull-fighting rings in Madrid and Barcelona.

El Sanctuario del Sr. Honguito is dedicated to a petrified mushroom bearing an image of Christ on the cross.Back on the main drag, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a rather nondescript building on the outside, houses a towering virgin on its main altar inside. When Mass isn’t being celebrated, visitors are welcome climb a small set of stairs and lay their hands at her feet for a blessing; a small donation is requested. Just a short drive away, following the street signs toward the thermal baths, the Sanctuary of Our Lord of the Fungus pays homage to a petrified mushroom that, according to local lore, was miraculously found in 1880 and contains various images, including Christ on the cross. Señor Honguito is preserved under glass in the church’s nave for public viewing, except during Mass (Sundays at 9:30am).

Lovers of the outdoors may also want to visit the waterfall at Quetzalapan. The falls used to generate power for much of the region — in fact, according to the eco-park’s website, Chignahuapan was the first city in the area to have electricity, because people in the area built their own hydroelectric plant in 1930. It stayed in business until 1980, when it succumbed to competition. The site now operates as a recreational area, offering picnic areas with barbecue pits, secure camping facilities, and activities such as zip lines and archery.

Original post updated on Oct. 29, 2011.

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