Santuario de la Virgen de los Remedios
The tourist poster says it all: Ancient pyramid, surmounted by a colourful church, blue skies and a gigantic snow-capped volcano dominating the horizon. This is the picture of Cholula, in central Mexico, that is used to sell the country to British tourists and adorns the cover of the latest Edition of the Eyewitness travel guide.
Near the colonial city of Puebla, and just 2 hours outside Mexico City, this sleepy town claims the largest pyramid in the world in total volume (it’s squat but with a base of 450x450m) and the longest portales (row of arches) in Latin America. Founded in 500 BC, the local guide also claims that it is “the oldest living city in America”.
Astonishingly, the pyramid is not listed as a world heritage site, but this may contribute to the site’s charm and the fact that it is not overrun by tourists – despite the poster! What they don’t tell you in the local guides to Cholula is that a trip to the pyramid involves around fifteen minutes in a narrow tunnel that is only six feet tall and scarcely wide enough for one person; so if you are tall or obese, this is definitely a health and safety hazard. Apparently, since the 1930s around five miles (8 km) of tunnels have been excavated beneath the pyramid by archaeologists in order to ascertain the various stages of building (it’s believed that the pyramid’s construction was undertaken in four stages beginning around 200 BC).
God knows, how many kilometres we traversed – it felt like forever. I couldn’t help but think of those poor unfortunate souls forced to work in the depths of the pyramids. But my compassionate thoughts were soon forgotten when claustrophobia took a firm hold. We were stuck behind a small tour group who stopped every couple of minutes to gaze at a dusty alcove whilst the guide whittered on and the rest of us sweated it out; I resisted the impulse to throw myself writhing to the ground — there probably wasn’t enough space to squirm. When daylight finally greeted us I ran towards the opening. It really was as though we were being met by divine light at the end of the tunnel.
Emerging from night into day, the first sight of the pyramid – through which we had been travelling – comes as a shock. It resembles nothing more than a grassy hillock; its incline carpeted with wild flowers, with a pretty church, basking in sunlight at the top. At this moment, the suggestion that this might be a pre-Columbian sacred site seems preposterous. The domed church, painted sunset orange, is known as the Santuario de la Virgen de los Remedios (Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Remedies) and was built by the Spanish following a swift takeover of the city. Unnerved by the fervour of the Aztec rituals, involving cannibalism, the dismemberment of sacrificial victims, and the proffering of human hearts as tribute to their gods, the Spanish wasted no time in tearing down whatever they could. As quickly as they tore down the sacred sites and temple, they erected churches on top of the remains. The people of Cholula were evidently keen on sacrificial ritual as the town is famous for the sheer number of churches in use today. Apparently it once boasted 350!
Cholula was one of Mexico’s largest cities, but following the terrible massacre by the conquistadores never regained its former splendour. Interestingly, by the time the Spanish arrived, this particular temple had fallen into ruin and was already overgrown.
When we begin the climb, the remains of the final pyramid finally take shape. Steps once covered all four sides allowing the summit to be approached from any direction, but we decided to follow the natural curve rather than attempting an aggressive incline. Unfortunately we don’t get the poster’s stunning view from the top; clouds obscure the legendary El Popocatépetl volcano that separates the valley from Mexico City.
Voladores de la Papantla
On the way down, next to a small crafts market, a strange sight awaits us. Four men in colourful costumes are swinging upside down, round and round a tall pole. It looks like some strange inversion of maypole dancing. But this, Jaime informs me grandly, is Voladores de Papantla. I watch with my mouth agape. What on earth possesses these men to indulge in an apparently nonsensical and uncomfortable ritual. Jaime shrugs, “what’s the point of any sport!” He’s right. It’s not so different from our own Maypole dancing. I think back to my English childhood spent at country fairs watching brightly attired figures with bells on their shoes, holding onto a coloured ribbon, and skipping around a pole.
This rather more daring ritualistic dance from Veracruz, east of Cholula, is believed to be the last vestige of a pre-Hispanic volador ritual common in western Mexico. Later, I read-up and find out that the five dancers (one sits atop the pole) are meant to represent the five elements of the indigenous world. It looks unearthly and proves strangely mesmerising to watch.
Cholula town reminds me of something out of a Spaghetti Western. Maybe it is the impressive row of arches (portales) in the main square (Zocalo) protecting the various cafés and restaurants. I expect saloon doors to swing open at any moment (there were none) and reveal a raucous cantina full of drunken Mexicans in sombreros (I saw none). The cafes are all busy, and after our hike to the church, it is relaxing to sit back and enjoy a coffee before it is time to return to Puebla.
La Puebla de los Angeles (Town of the Angels) also has many claims to fame; its colonial architecture; handpainted tiles and Talavera pottery; the Mole Poblano which is a spicy Mexican sauce cooked with chocolate to give it a bitter-sweet flavour; and the Cinco de Mayo (5 May) festivity commemorating the 1862 defeat of the French army. We stayed near the Zocalo, its historic heart. Browsing the local stores we met Giovanni Rangel, a local silversmith. He showed us the silver smelting process from rock to precious metal.
A real artisan, he fashions silver into stunningly creative designs. He also makes earrings, pendants, cufflinks and necklaces using tiny slivers of Talavera pottery. I bought an exquisite pendant made from fossilised rock which he had polished and set in silver.
I also manage to sample a vegetarian version of the infamous Mole Poblan0 during an unexpected brunch – they substituted scrambled egg for the meat. The sauce is extraordinarily complex; a good Mole will include a variety of chillies, (roasted and then ground with other spices) and is slow cooked – as long as it takes. It is usually served with turkey or chicken and now makes an appearance at most Mexican holidays or weddings. Chicken or Turkey mole is traditionally cooked to tempt the dead to join the living during the long nights of 1 and 2 November. It has the consistency and kick of a Satay sauce with the same spicy sweetness that I love in Malaysian and Thai cooking.
Despite its many pleasures, Puebla has a darker side that I cannot ignore. I have written many times about the writer Lydia Cacho. In 2005 she published a book (Demons of Eden: the power behind pornography), exposing a Mexican child pornography ring in the popular resort of Cancún. A businessman, José Kamel Nacif Borge, known as the King of Denim, because of his jeans factories in Puebla, accused Cacho of libel. He is cited in the book as having ties with Jean Succar Kuri, the owner of a hotel in Cancún. Kuri was already detained at the time, charged with heading the child pornography and prostitution network. Kamel Nacif did not deny knowing him but claimed that his reputation had suffered as a result of Cacho’s book.
On 16 December 2005, Cacho was arrested at gunpoint by Puebla state officials. She endured a twenty-hour car journey from her home in Cancún to Puebla, where she was physically threatened. Upon arrival she was charged with ‘defamation’ and calumny and faced up to four years in prison if found guilty. The governor who ordered her arrest was one Mario Marín.
In February 2006, taped telephone conversations beween Kamel Nacif and the governor de Puebla Mario Marín, were released to the local media. They revealed the extent to which Marín had been involved in Cacho’s arrest and detention. Kamel Nacif’s fawning tone with the governor caused laughter as well as outrage and was later the basis for a rap song and tv skits widely circulated on YouTube.
Far more chilling was the offer of “two beautiful bottles of cognac” as a token of appreciation for the Governor’s part in the arrest of Cacho. After the tapes came to light, Cacho filed a countersuit for corruption and violation of her human rights. Following a year-long battle, during which she suffered repeated death threats, the defamation charges were dismissed. However, her acquittal was only the result of her case being transferred to another state where defamation is no longer considered a criminal offence. Despite the Mexican Supreme Court’s ruling that there had been ‘no serious violation’ of Cacho’s rights when she was arrested on Marín’s orders, last April the special office set up to investigate crimes against journalists in Mexico ordered the arrest of five public employees for the illegal detention of Cacho. These reportedly included the former attorney general, a government minister, a police commander and various criminal justice system officials, who allegedly falsified paperwork in order to facilitate her arrest. Disappointingly, in June the court in Cacho’s home state of Quintana Roo ruled that although there was evidence of arbitrary detention and torture it could not accept her case for jurisdictional reasons and recommended that she take the case to Puebla.
Cacho claims that it is impossible to get justice in Puebla, particularly given the role of the state authorities in her ordeal. She is now forced to submit her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but continues to receive threats to her life for her writing and her work.
With all the too-ing and fro-ing and legalise surrounding the case, I didn’t think to research what had happened to the Governor. I just presumed that when the tapes came to light Marín would have been stripped of office. Not so. I nearly fell off my chair when Jaime told me – in Puebla. Not only will Marín serve his obligatory 6-year term, today he is as popular as ever.
Mexico! This country that I love to hate and hate to love. The levels of crime and corruption are breathtaking. But the landscape is just phenomenal, its ancient civilisation still exerts a magnetism that is palpable and, despite the poverty, Mexicans exude a warmth and generosity that it’s hard to match anywhere in the world.