Monday, June 28, 2010

Zacatlán Odyssey Part 6: Weird rocks and fresh trout

"Felix the Cat", one of the strange formations of Valle de Piedras Encimadas. About 40 minutes outside Zacatlán is a fascinating park called Valle de Piedras Encimadas, literally "valley of piled rocks." Christopher, Mary Carmen, and I spent several hours there one morning wandering among an amazing array of weird rock formations. The 15 foot tall monolith shown above wearing a sly grin was nicknamed for a famous cartoon character.

Christopher and I perched upon El Pavo ("The Turkey") for this photo. The turkey's head forms my stool, while the tail spreads open behind Christopher. Valle de Piedras Encimadas is easy to find. We drove out Carretera Federal #119, the same "libre" (non-toll) road on which we had entered Zacatlán when we had originally arrived. About 20 minutes out of town, we came to a sign on the right directing us to Valle Piedras Encimadas. Another 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) down a 2-lane asphalt road brought us to the entrance of the park. For a map, click here. Photo by Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo

"The Kiss" shows a tender moment frozen for all time. Not surprisingly, there are many indigenous legends related to this strange and mystical place. In one such legend the rocks were originally giants who acted badly, and were transformed into stone by the gods as punishment for their misdeeds.

Christopher contemplates a formation silhouetted against the sky. The Valle de Piedras Encimadas covers an area about 4 kilometers square. Most of the Valle is open grassy meadow, dotted with rock formations, and surrounded by a pine forest. A small clear stream runs through the meadow. The formation shown above resembles a family, and even includes the family dog.

A small dinosaur, or a large Great Dane? This rock had the appearance of an inquisitive animal about to rise and investigate something that has piqued its interest. The rocks in the area belong to the Tertiary Era, about 65 million years ago. This was the era of mass extinctions when the dinosaurs disappeared. Perhaps some of them were transformed into Piedras Encimada's formations?

A giant stone snake rises from the meadow. This one appeared to be contemplating a lunch of fresh tourist. Geologists speculate that volcanic action produced chemicals in the atmosphere that, along with rain and humidity, gradually shaped these rocks into their current fantastic appearance. The process has taken millions of years, and continues to this day.

Mary Carmen passes through "The Keyhole." We found a number of formations that created narrow passages, barely wide enough for a small person to pass through. This passage had the appearance of a keyhole. Mary Carmen could squeeze through, but Christopher and I couldn't make it without doffing our packs.

Shark's fin cruises through the stoney waves. This rather ominous formation was atop a rolling mass of rock that could have been an ocean wave frozen into stony eternity. I pondered what this Great White Shark may have done to miff the gods.

Missing only the "oink!" El Puerco (the pig) was the moniker of this large stone. Its long, blunt snout and small pig-like ears gave it the name. The young Mexican atop the head was one of the lookouts at the bottom of the tirolesa, or zip-line.

Zip-lining is not for the faint of heart. In one of the side valleys, some local entrepreneurs had set up a zip-line. For the uninitiated, a zip-line is a long cable strung between two points, one considerably higher than the other. In this case the upper point is near the top of the rocks in the background of the photo. Mary Carmen and I climbed up some rickety stairs to a platform where we harnessed up, and then clipped to the cable. After a deep breath, I stepped off into open space and went whooshing down the line, finally landing on another rock about 90 meters (100 yards) away near El Puerco. Above, Mary Carmen clings to her hand-hold as she shoots down the cable toward me.

A reclining stone horse peers at me from an empty eye-socket. Some of the formations simply cried out for the participation of the onlooker. From the evident wear on the rock, many people had mounted this little steed for a picture.

The eternal and the ephemeral. Looking up, I happened to notice the symmetry between the 65 million year old rocks and the wispy and highly ephemeral clouds drifting overhead.

Christopher, the tree-hugger. Mary Carmen told us that, according to a local legend, if you hug one of the trees in the forest you gain energy from it. We each gave it a try, and did indeed gain a spring in our steps, at least for a bit.

The Profile. This formation resembled the profile of an aged indigenous man. Perhaps he was a shaman whose activities perturbed the gods, winning him an eternal place among this hillside grove of pines. In addition to the fun of wandering among the rocks of Piedras Encimadas, and riding the zip-line, there are horses for rent and areas for camping. Guides can be hired for those who desire them.

Mary Carmen enjoys a snack. At a large building in the middle of the meadow, we found a place to enjoy a rest and a snack. Mary Carmen is eating a treat called memelita. She persuaded us to try some pulque, the white drink in the plastic cup at her elbow. Pulque is a mildly alcoholic drink made from the heart of maguey plants. The milky and slightly tart drink used to be one of the most popular in Mexico until the large scale introduction of beer. Pulque is still popular among rural people and can often be found at roadside stands. In addition to edibles, we also found souvenirs and bottles of excellent liqueur in the large covered terrace of the building.

Restaurant el Manantial overlooks a trout farm. El Manantial means "the spring" and the name refers to a sparkling cold spring which emerges in a tiny valley and provides the water for trout farm. Not surprisingly, trout is the main course at the restaurant. Below the restaurant, you can see some large boulders which were being landscaped by the 7 brothers who owned and operated the restaurant and trout farm. The rock overhangs contained a surprise for the workers who dug the terraces seen above.

Christopher chows down on steamed trout. It was lunch time when we finished at Piedras Encimadas, and just outside the entrance we encountered the sign for Restaurant El Manantial, advertising fresh trout. This was too much to resist. We each enjoyed the steamed version, which came wrapped in aluminum foil with onions, peppers, and other good things. Christopher made trout tacos from the nopal tortillas provided by Martín Hernández Garrido, one of the brothers who acted as chef. Restaurant el Manantial was simple but immaculately clean and had a wonderful view down the small wooded valley. The 7 brothers had all worked in the US to raise the money with which they bought the property.

An archaeological find, right under our noses. After lunch, another brother named Fernando Hernández Garrido took us down to visit the trout farm that had provided our delicious lunches. On the way, we passed the rock formations seen in the previous photo, which are embedded in the hillside below the restaurant. The workers had just found a beautiful obsidian (volcanic glass) arrowhead. We joined the search under the broad rock overhangs where we found many more obsidian fragments. Much of the obsidian had clearly been shaped by human hands. Looking up, we saw that the ceiling of the overhang had been blackened by countless campfires over the centuries.

Clay pottery fragments littered the ground near the rock overhang. What the workers had stumbled upon appeared to be an ancient obsidian factory. This site may have been used for many thousands of years to shape arrow heads, axes, jewelry, and other items valued by the indigenous people of the area. The rock overhang would have provided a shelter from rain and sun, and the adjacent spring would have made for a perfect camp. Mary Carmen urged Fernando to save the artifacts and create a small archaeological display in their restaurant as an added tourist attraction. She never misses an opportunity to promote the local people's interests, one reason for her popularity.

The trout farm was a simple affair, but effective. From the spring on the side of the hill, the water is collected and directed downhill through a trough made from a split and hollowed out log into a series of cement tanks which contain the trout.

Ready to eat. These trout swam serenely in the circular tank at the bottom of the series. Fernando told me that when El Manantial is in full production, the tanks contain over 1000 trout.

A leap of faith. Some of the children of the 7 brothers frolicked around the rocky hillside as we toured the trout farm. One of their favorite games was to leap off the giant boulders, at a higher level each time. I watched with my heart in my throat, but their parents seemed more amused than concerned.

This completes Part 6 of my Zacatlán Odyssey series. In my next posting, we will visit a small village where a local artist is training a whole new generation of children to paint pictures of their world. The result is remarkable. I hope you have enjoyed Piedras Encimadas and El Manantial, and can visit them yourself sometime. If you'd like to leave a comment, you can do so either by using the Comments section below, or emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, June 21, 2010

Zacatlán Odyssey Part 5: Cuacuila and its Revolutionary general

Keeping an eye on things. This little girl, Idalia Lopez Diaz, couldn't resist peeping through the old wooden door to see what the newly arrived strangers were doing. Idalia was a sweetheart. When we visited Cuacuila, her tiny village in the remote northern mountains of Puebla State, she followed us everywhere, like a beautiful little elf. Mary Carmen, our guide when we visited the Zacatlán area (see Parts 1-4), has known Idalia since she was a tiny baby in her mother's arms.

Cuacuila lies along a narrow ridge, high in the rugged mountains outside Zacatlán. In the photo above, the pueblo sits in a saddle created by the pointed peak in the upper center and the ridge to its right. Caucuila (pronounced "kwa-kwi-la") can only be reached by traveling for several hours on narrow, bumpy, dirt roads. Even these roads are a relatively new addition, having been built in the 1920s, after the Mexican Revolution. Prior to then, movement from place to place was only by ancient footpaths. Note the cleared fields on the steep sides of the mountains. Level land is scarce and the indigenous people use every arable inch to grow maize or pasture their animals.

View from the Cuacuila plaza. The ridge along which the pueblo is built is only about 60 meters (200 feet) wide, dropping off steeply on both sides into deep canyons below. Even the humblest dwellings have "million dollar views." As you can see, the mountains roll away into the distance, ridge after rugged ridge. It occurred to me during our visit that country like this might produce an isolation that could help indigenous people preserve and protect their culture from outside influences.

Looking down into Cuacuila's plaza. We arrived at mid-day and the town was almost empty. Most of the adults were in their fields, but Idalia and an older woman met us in the narrow, flagstone-paved street. Behind the woman and child are the open plaza, the white-steepled church, and the public offices under the arched portales on the left. Idalia's companion carried a basket that drew our curiosity.

Doing it the old-fashioned way. The basket held a spinning device and cotton for making thread. While visiting these remote villages, I often found people using truly ancient technologies in their day-to-day lives. By keeping these old technologies not only alive but in regular use, they lessen their dependence on factory-made products and processes. This, in turn, means less dependence on the money economy. While these people might be technically "poor" because of their limited funds, they do not live in poverty. They can extract from the country around them many natural products, some of them growing wild. Using ancient technologies, they transform these products into clothing, food, tools, personal decoration, and even toys. Not only the spinning tool, but the woman's skirt, blouse, rebozo, and basket were probably all hand-made. All of this produces a sense of proud independence.

Turkey taking a stroll through town. Everywhere we went, we encountered turkeys roaming about. This one appears to be wearing a hobble between its legs, perhaps to discourage it from wandering too far. The turkeys provide an excellent source of protein, and seem to pretty much fend for themselves. They also seem to have achieved peaceful coexistence with the pueblo's dogs. Turkeys were domesticated by indigenous Mexicans about 800 BC.

In her element. Mary Carmen has become widely known throughout the pueblos through her efforts to promote the ancient culture and traditions. During our visit, we happened upon a large group of people who had gathered to repair Cuacuila's church, typical of the many communal efforts found among indigenous people. People immediately flocked around to greet Mary Carmen and listen to what she might have to say. In the photo above, she is talking to a woman about a burn the woman had suffered on her wrist. While their main focus was on Mary Carmen, I could tell that Christopher and I were under the villager's discreet observation. Gringos are rare enough in the city of Zacatlán. In a pueblo like Cuacuila, gringos are probably almost as rare as visiting penguins.

Sr. Alejandro Cortés asks a favor. Sr. Alejandro, a local campesino, or farmer, grows corn and beans on his land just outside of Cuacuila. While Christopher and I waited for Mary Carmen to rejoin us, Sr. Alejandro approached us to ask if we would take his picture, offering to pay us for the privilege. We assured him that we would be glad to oblige with no payment necessary, but we were baffled about how to get it to him. Mary Carmen immediately offered to act as intermediary, although this would involve a long return trip on bad roads sometime in the future. However, that is typical of Mary Carmen. The children in the photo may be his nietos (grandchildren) but I have not been able to confirm it.

The lair of a general of the Revolution. The ranch house above sits at the edge of the pueblo with stunning views on both sides of the ridge. During and after the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution, it belonged to General Gabriel Barrios Cabrera. He was one of four brothers who grew up in Cuacuila. His father, José Maria, may have come from Sonora and is known to have fought against the French invasion of the 1860s. His mother was Nahua, and the boys grew up with Nahuatl as their first language. Two of the brothers were killed in the Revolution, but General Barrios and his brother Demetrio survived and became caciques (important political bosses) in the aftermath. Their influence grew out of their military success in leading the 46th Battalion, which was made up of Nahuatl-speaking people from the area. The aftermath of the Revolution was chaotic, and national presidents needed the support of locally powerful military figures like the Barrios Cabrera brothers in order to maintain power and implement their policies.

Behind Gen. Barrios' ranch house, a beautiful stepped garden. Maintained by the people of the pueblo, the garden had a lovely staircase leading from level to level. The Sierra Puebla area surrounding Cuacuila may be remote, but it is strategically important, lying as it does within a day's horse ride from the vital corridor between Mexico City and the port of Vera Cruz. Historically it has been the refuge of political activists fleeing persecution, while also providing a source of military recruitment. Indigenous soldiers from the area fought in Mexico's many internal struggles and in wars against foreign invaders such as the French and the US, who often followed the Vera Cruz to Mexico City corridor. Using their battalion of experienced, locally-recruited soldiers, the Barrios Cabrera brothers could control the Sierra Norte de Puebla from Cuacuila, and wield immense influence in the area, enabling them to bring in roads, schools, telephone lines, irrigation channels, and more. These were the sorts of things that faraway Mexico City politicians often promised but all to often failed to deliver.

Idalia offers a gift. Mary Carmen and the little girl walked hand in hand to the top of the garden stairs. Idalia disappeared for a moment and then came back with a bouquet of roses which she shyly offered to Mary Carmen. I couldn't have asked for a better photographic opportunity. Idalia was almost magical in her sweet simplicity.

A temporary sanctuary for an antique statue. While examining the dusty and jumbled interior of Gen. Barrios' house, we found a small chapel set up by the community for use while the church was undergoing repairs. The statue, dating from approximately 1895, is of San José (St. Joseph), known in the Nahuatl language as Xanto Hueycatzintli. The Barrios Cabrera brothers maintained their influence as long as the post-Revolutionary chaos continued. When things settled down in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the need for a battalion of soldiers in the area came into question, and when the battalion was disbanded, the influence of the brothers waned.

Sra. Ortencia Ortega Barrios invited us up to see more traces of Gen. Barrios' history. She is seen standing on a ramshackle balcony leading into a crumbling stone building on the edge of the plaza. Gen. Barrios owned and lived in the large two-story building during the Revolution, before he moved to the ranch house. While Mary Carmen was Tourism Director, she wanted to turn the old building into a museum, but lacked the resources.

Evidence of a taste for good music. Gen. Barrios brought this old piano up to Cuacuila at a time when there were still no proper roads. To get it over the mountains, he used burros on the narrow paths. Unfortunately, the piano arrived badly out of tune. The general sent for Mary Carmen's grandfather, Sr. Alberto Olvera Hernández (founder of the family clock business--see Part 1). Sr. Alberto, apparently a man of many skills beyond clock-making, tuned the piano to the general's satisfaction, and received a drum as compensation.

More musical remains. Hanging from the rafters in another room were the remains of many different instruments, including what appear to be a tuba and french horns. Gen. Barrios assembled the instruments in an attempt to form a full orchestra, but apparently the local people did not appreciate his musical tastes. After the general died, the instruments were thrown in the barranca (deep canyon) at the edge of town, giving them their present, rather battered appearance. About 5 years ago, Sra. Ortencia persuaded local officials to help her rescue the instruments and they now hang from the ceiling creating a rather forlorn sense of thwarted musical ambition. In addition to the instruments, the old house contains a turn-of-the 19th Century telephone, an ancient typewriter, and many other dusty artifacts of a bygone era.

Another kind of ambition. After examining Gen. Barrios' ranch house, we met a group of workers including Sr. Mario López Cabrera, pictured above. It turned out that they were rebuilding Sr. Mario's house, the small wooden structure upon which he is leaning.

This was no slip-shod project. The carefully laid-out foundation seen above impressed me. Although the tools and materials were very low-tech, the work seemed to be proceeding very skillfully. Sr. Mario explained that the new house would be built around the existing house, which would then be removed when they got to the interior work. It seemed to me a novel approach, but they appeared to know what they were doing.

A very old method of construction. Above, adobe bricks dry in a shed. Adobe is made from clay, pebbles, straw, and water. It is one of the oldest building materials known to man, and has been used for thousands of years throughout the world. After the clay has been mixed with water and pebbles, straw is often added as a binder. The mixture is poured into the simple wooden mold shown in the lower right of the picture. The drying process can take weeks, but the materials are virtually free, except for the labor. While one might think they are less durable than more modern materials, some adobe structures still exist after thousands of years. Modern architects can only dream of results as good.

Another local building technique. This wooden cottage was built right over edge of the barranca. Lacking any other solid place to anchor the corner of the cantilevered structure, the builder simply carved a notch in this tree, and set the corner there. I'm not sure what the builder intends to happen when the tree eventually falls down into the ravine.

A Mona Lisa smile. One of the workers asked us if we would like to meet his grandmother. Sra. Dolores Vázquez turned out to be a feisty 106 years old. I hope to look as good and have such a twinkle in my eye if I manage achieve her age. Throughout our visit, we were treated with great courtesy and friendliness by the residents of Cuacuila. I have no doubt that Mary Carmen's presence was the key to this wonderful reception. Photo by Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo

This concludes Part 5 of my Zacatlán Odyssey. In the next part, we'll visit a valley with fantastically shaped rock formations, and check out an unusual trout farm operated by 7 brothers. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Zacatlán Odyssey Part 4: A journey into the mountains

Rugged mountain slopes show signs of cultivation. Mary Carmen, our hostess and guide during out stay in Zacatlán, wanted to show us the rugged mountain country outside her small bustling city. In northern Puebla State, where Zacatlán is located, the mountains are nearly vertical, with sharp ridges that drop off into deep canyons. Throughout the mountains, tiny villages nestle in secluded valleys, and others perch along narrow ridges. The land is cultivated where ever it is possible, including some places I would have bet were impossible.

Zacatlán, in the distance. Behind us, as we wound around the hairpin turns of the rough, dirt roads, we could see Zacatlán in the distance. In the upper part of the photo above, the city stretches out along the lip of the deep Jilguero Gorge. The lower part of the photo, you can see the road we traveled as it snakes up the mountainside. The roads deteriorated in quality as soon as we left the main highway out of Zacatlán. We didn't see asphalt again for many hours.

Out for a stroll. In the mountains, only the lucky few have motor vehicles, or even horses. We passed many people trudging patiently along the roads, bound for some distant destination. This fellow came walking up the road while we were photographing what turned out to be his house. You can just make it out by following the line of the light colored land up to the right from the brim of his hat. We were astonished that the little cottage managed to cling to such a steep hillside, and even more astonished to almost immediately meet its owner. Our presence and appearance must have been pretty puzzling to him ("what are these crazy Gringos up to?") but he maintained a calm, unruffled demeanor. Asked how long it had taken him to cover all the distance from his cottage to here, he quietly replied "about 3 minutes." He must have had wings hidden under that shirt.

The cottage that defies gravity. Below the cottage, you an see a footpath leading toward the lower right corner of the photo. Paths like this can be found throughout these mountains. In many cases, they must predate our rough road by many hundreds, or even thousands of years. Most of the roads in the mountains were not built until after the Revolution of 1910-1921. The difficulty of transportation has inhibited economic development of the Sierra Puebla, but it has also helped insulate the indigenous cultures from the more corrosive influences of what we are pleased to call civilization.

A typical mountain farm. In the foreground, spiky maguey grows as a boundary to the field. Maguey has been used for thousands of years by indigenous people. The fibres from its leaves can be used to make cord, weave baskets, and is sometimes used to embroider leather in a technique called piteado. The juice of its heart can be fermented to produce pulque, a mildly alcoholic drink popular throughout rural Mexico. Pulque is very ancient in Mesoamerica. At one time its use was considered sacred, and was restricted to the elite. Behind the screen of maguey plants grow rows of newly planted corn, another plant with Mesoamerican roots going back at least 7000 years. In the distance, the campesino's cottage is shaded by what appear to be fruit trees. We saw no farm machinery, so the fields were probably plowed using horses. This farmer was lucky enough to possess a relatively level piece of property. Many cultivated patches extended up hills so steep that, even as a regular mountain hiker, I could barely imagine climbing them. Yet, I saw men and women with hoes cultivating them by hand.

Torch lily looks like it could easily live up to its name. The scientific name of this brilliantly lovely plant is Kniphofia uvaria. It is also called Red Hot Poker. Kniphofia originated in South Africa, but has spread to many other areas of the world. I was amazed to find it along this remote mountain road in northern Puebla State.

Black vultures suddenly appeared ahead of us on the road. They were huge animals, and seemed unimpressed by our approaching car as they strolled across the road on foot. Mary Carmen urged me to honk the horn to make them take off, and she got this nice shot when they did. The Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) has a very wide range, from southeastern US to Chile. It not only feeds on carrion, but will eat eggs and kill small animals. The Black Vulture appears in the ancient Maya Codices. Photo by Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo

Another small farm house nestles at the base of a mountain. The house appears to be of adobe, with a clay tile roof. This design, introduced from Spain in the 1600s was already ancient then. Adobe is the most widely used building material in the world, and one of the oldest. The indigenous people of Mesoamerica were using adobe thousands of years before the Spanish, but the Spanish introduced the concept of making it into bricks. The campesino farm owner is fortunate enough to also own a mare, with a new foal nuzzling for some milk. Scenes like this left me feeling like I was traveling through another century. In examining the photos for this posting, I was also struck by the tidiness of the farms and villages. There were no junked cars on blocks, piles of trash, or other litter around the property such as I have seen in all too many rural areas in the US. The people here may be poor, in purely economic terms, but there is no culture of poverty. There is pride, and a sense of culture and community thousands of years deep.

A mountain valley opens up into the distance. The serene vista reminded me of photos I have seen of Switzerland. I grew curious about the tiny white rectangle located almost in the center of the photo.

The wonders of telephoto lenses. My lens reached out and picked out this scene from the previous photograph. I was still a bit puzzled until I realized that I was looking at a community panteon, or cemetery.

Another small cottage lit up by the glow of the afternoon sun. Driving through these mountains, I was surprised at the number of people living in this remote area. They have managed to resist the magnetic--almost hypnotic--pull of city life with all its conveniences, resolutely keeping up their traditional culture and language. Mary Carmen has encouraged them to exhibit the ancient dances and rituals at the Ilhuitl Cuaxochitl (Festival of the Crown of Flowers) which she started in Zacatlán several years ago (see Part 2 of this series).

Otatlán lies at the bottom of a small valley surrounded by steep mountains. For a map showing Otatlán in relation to Zacatlán, click here. Official population figures show that almost 7400 people who live in or around Otatlán. Even in its deep valley, the little pueblo sits at 7709 feet.

The welcoming party. If there are 7400 people living here, we never saw them. Almost the only resident we encountered was this brown dog. He trotted out to challenge us as we drove up to a rather dilapidated cottage, which seemed to have been overwhelmed by the flowering plants around it. After a perfunctory bark or two, the pooch settled back down to its afternoon nap, its job completed.

The church at Otatlán, deserted as the rest of town. The steeple of this church is the same one which can be seen two photos back in the telephoto shot from above. The churchyard is as quiet and empty as the rest of the town. Perhaps the people are out working their fields, or enjoying an siesta like the canine one we interrupted when we arrived.

This completes Part 4 of my Zacatlán Odyssey series. During this mountain journey, we stopped at Cuacuila, a picturesque village built along a knife-edge ridge at the end of a precipitous mountain road. In my next post, I'll show you the village and some of its Nahuatl-speaking inhabitants, and tell you about its famous general from the Mexican Revolution. If you'd like to leave a comment, you can do so by using the Comments section below, or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email so that I can answer.

Hasta luego, Jim