Archive for May, 2013

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History Runs Deep in and Around Cuauhtinchán

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Cuauhtinchán may be the most important indigenous and religious site in Mexico you’ve never heard of.

Granted, the small agrarian town, located about 20 miles southeast of the Puebla capital, isn’t much to look at, particularly at the end of the dry season. Even its most remarkable building, the monolithic Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista, is strikingly staid: The two Tuscan columns that flank the main entrance provide its only notable detail, save for the left bell tower, which upon being hit by lightning some years ago partially collapsed into the courtyard. The resulting pile of rubble still sits where it fell.

Yet the former monastery — built between 1569 and 1593, with guidance from renown Spanish architect Francisco Becerra — offers an enduring and classic example of the sober Renaissance aesthetic brought to Mexico by Franciscan missionaries in the 16th century.

The Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista from a distance.The Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista.The Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista.








The complex’s interior is a sharp contrast to the stark exterior. Its almost-whimsical flourishes provide a glimpse of how the Franciscans worked to convert their predecessors to Christianity. For example, the archways of the central patio feature numerous “notable sayings” in Spanish that convey conventional or moral wisdom as the monks saw it. (The patio now houses the site’s small museum, which not only describes the arrival of Hernán Cortés, but also chronicles Cuauhtinchán’s pre-Hispanic and prehistoric past. A display case contains mastodon bones found in the area.)

The painted walls of the church, which were obscured by a coat of quicklime in the early 1800s and later uncovered, are surprisingly colorful, too. For us, the nave stands out as the real must-see here . . . unless you happen to get lucky, as we did, and get to climb the winding, multistory staircase of the right bell tower with the site’s devoted caretaker. Don Pedro typically rings the bells for Mass and for afternoon visitors, as he did for us at 3 p.m. on a recent Thursday, thanks to our friend Scott, who organized this trip. From the top, the views of the surrounding countryside are breathtaking; the chimes of the enormous bells, one of which bears the scars of Revolutionary bullets, are ear-splitting yet intoxicating.

Bell tower at ex-Convento de San Juan BautistaAAP-Cuauhtinchan6AAP-Cuauhtinchan4








Back down at ground level, the church’s layout and orientation connect “mystical aspects of indigenous and European cultures” and have “cosmic significance,” according to official signage. On the equinox, a ray of sunlight enters the lower choir and illuminates an image of the Immaculate Conception at the center of the massive altarpiece. This masterpiece, made of polychromed and gilded wood, is the oldest in Mexico and one of the best preserved in Latin America. Its imagery depicts many other Biblical scenes — the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Blessed Virgin, the Adoration of the Magi — and provides an “open book to the teaching of the Christian faith.”

AAP-Cuauhtinchan2Detail of restored paint jobAAP-cuautinchan








Christianity mixed with indigenous symbolism, that is, much like elsewhere in Mexico. Cuauhtinchán precedes the Spanish by more than two millennia. The earliest pre-Hispanic settlement here may date as far back as 1200 B.C., when small groups of warriors and farmers formed villages in the area. But an archaeological site on the edge of town, which is said to contain a 52-foot pyramid, other ceremonial structures, and living quarters, remains unexcavated (and largely unrecognizable to the uninitiated) puts the first settlement closer to 8 A.D. The recovery of various indigenous codices and maps of the area have allowed archaeologists and historians to piece together some of its history, which is predominantly Chichimeca.

The Chichimecas spoke Nahuatl. The name Cuauhtinchán — also spelled Cuautinchán and pronounced “kuhwow-teen-CHAN” — means “eagles’ nest.” It’s unclear when the majestic birds must have lived here, but artistic representations of eagles and nests can be found both at the ex-convento and elsewhere around town, such as the fountain in the main square. The same goes for jaguars, which are equally important in local iconography. That works for us. If we have to face down creatures with functional fangs and talons, we’d rather do it at nearby Africam than in the wild.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

The Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista is located on Calle Hidalgo (between Gonzalo Bautista and 2 Poniente) in Cuautinchán, Puebla. The best way get there is by car or taxi via the cities of Puebla or Tepeaca. Visitors are welcome most days between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.; try to avoid holidays and Mass, unless you wish to attend. Town officials recommend that you call ahead to schedule a tour: +52 (224) 271-7170.

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Coping With the Volcano: Popocatépetl Safety Tips

Sunday, May 12th, 2013

AAP-Popocatepetl2-wmrkPopocatépetl has been blowing a lot of smoke lately. The active volcano sent so much ash, steam, and glowing bits of lava into the air — sometimes more than a mile above its crater — this past week that it looked like it had snowed in the Puebla capital. Wayward ashes were reported as far away as Guatemala, and flights were suspended at the city’s airport Wednesday until the cleanup crew could sweep up the mess on the runway.

The increased activity led the National Center for Disaster Prevention in Mexico to raise its alert level for the volcano. An official report [PDF] released Sunday morning explained:

“The increase in the general activity of Popocatepetl volcano during the last weeks and especially the acceleration of the seismic activity registered yesterday, today at 1:40 a.m., the Interior Ministry raised the Volcanic Alert Level to Yellow Phase 3. During the period in which the volcanic traffic light remains in this level, two bulletins will be issued daily: the first at 10 a.m., with a summary of the activity of the last 24 hours and the second at 7 p.m., featuring updating the data reported in the first. If necessary, the updates will be reported more frequently. … The volcanic alert level is in YELLOW Phase 3.”

This is the third-highest warning on the center’s seven-step scale [PDF], and it essentially means that the experts who keep an eye on Don Goyo think his activity level may continue to increase.

“In past years, the type of activity reported was associated to the ascent of magmatic material and the growth of the lava dome. This activity leads to the following likely scenarios: intermediate to high-scale explosive activity, dome growth, and possible lava emission; explosions of growing intensity; occurrence of pyroclastic flows [a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock]; and ash fall on the closer villages and in lesser amounts in the more remote places, depending on the wind direction.

“The Popocatepetl volcano is monitored continuously 24 hours a day. Any significant change in the activity of the volcano will be [reported] promptly.” For the latest update in English, click here.

Volcano Health & Safety Tips

There’s currently no reason to panic or to cancel your trip to Puebla. But if you live here or are traveling in the area, it’s in your best interest to stay abreast of the situation. Pay attention to local news reports for updates. (We’ll do our best to share any new information, as it becomes available, through our Twitter and Facebook accounts, too.)

In general, this is not a good time to visit El Paso de Cortés, the mountain pass between Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. The road is permanently closed to through traffic (to Mexico City), but it provides access to the national park, where there’s an observation point and hiking and climbing are permitted on Iztaccíhuatl.

The reason to stay away: Communities near the volcano will be among the first evacuated in the event that the alert level gets raised again. As a preventative measure, Puebla state officials on May 12 put El Plan Operativo Popocatépetl in place. The plan provides for the evacuation and shelter of residents in high-risk areas; the city of Puebla, situated 28 miles east of the crater, is outside this radius.

“This is a prevention phase,” the state governor told local media. “There is no immediate danger and people are calm, but we must be on constant alert.”

Foreign residents and travelers should contact their embassies for instructions in the event of a major emergency. The local equivalent of 911 is 066.

Ashes from the volcano — essentially a very fine gray dust — can cause or aggravate respiratory issues and allergies, including itchy eyes. The city’s civil protection agency recommends that you refrain from outdoor activities, keep doors and windows closed, and cover your eyes and mouth with protective wear (particularly if you use contact lenses). If your eyes or throat become irritated, rinse them with purified water. Avoid al fresco dining, from restaurants to street food. Keep your pets inside. Protect household water sources, including tanks and cisterns.

In addition, authorities note, ashes make surfaces slippery. To clean them up, it’s best to use a broom or a dry cloth to remove them from surfaces. Getting ashes wet first will turn them into cement-like mud. Collect and use this new soil (which is rich in minerals) to fertilize your yard or garden.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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