Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Photographs, The Great Adventure, Travel

The Last Mark of the Toltec Empire

Last time I went over a 9,000 foot mountain to reach the city of Tula de Allende. Now it’s time to rest and explore the city—and its ancient pyramids.

Approach to the pyramids at Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

Approach to the pyramids at Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

December 13-16 (Days 890-893 of the Great Adventure)—Tula Days

Tula still felt “different” from other cities in Mexico. I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was one of the nicest centros of any city I’d been to, with the main square surrounded entirely by walking malls. But that wasn’t it.

I pondered as I wandered around looking for a lunch spot. The city reminded me a lot of Thailand. But why? What gave me the same vibe in both places?

At the end of one walking mall was a torta shop (sandwich shop) that I knew I had to go into. It was on the second floor, with a tiny street level door and no advertising, yet the balcony had plenty of customers. Local secret? I squeezed in under their only sign: “Suba Ud.” Come upstairs, please.

Their Cuban sandwich didn’t disappoint, except that it was twice the size of my head and way too much to eat alone. The view from the balcony, once I managed to snag a table there, wasn’t bad either. And it was there that I realized what made Tula so different from other Mexican towns.

Everything was new.

I mean, not new new. It definitely had its share of run-down buildings. But none looked older than the 1960s, and many more recent than that. Concrete and steel buildings rose from wide, well paved streets with real sidewalks. They weren’t skyscrapers, and rarely even high rises, but they were markedly different from the colonial or plaster structures dominating most Mexico downtowns.

(And that was a big part of why it seemed so Chiang Mai-esque to me, along with the weather we were experiencing that week.)

View from the sandwich shop balcony. Photo by André.

View from the sandwich shop balcony. Photo by André.

Despite its size and modernity there was relatively little to do. I found two cafes worth visiting, one of without wifi and the other rarely open. Oddly, I could never pick up a Telcel signal in the centro proper, as if the whole area was jammed by the Soviets. As a result I had to work mainly at the hotel or, one afternoon, at a second story bar with dubstep music and its own wifi. In the evenings only a few sit-down restaurants were open. Maybe it was just the adjustment from San Miguel, where there was so much to do and I had friends to talk to, but I found myself feeling lonely and uncomfortable.

I went back to the Brazilian restaurant twice during my stay. Once to try out their breakfast menu, which was good, and once to experience the famed grilled meat parade. Ezra was excited for me to try it, and served me personally. He brought over sword after sword of flame-touched meats: salted beef, tender filet, succulent pork loin, chistorra, and a dozen others each more delicious than the last. Each of these is fire-roasted on the sword just seconds before serving and sliced paper-thin onto your plate. In between rounds he brought over skewers of roasted pineapple.

Ezra grilling meat on a sword. Photo by André.

Ezra grilling meat on a sword. Photo by André.

I’ve only experienced this kind of Brazilian grill once before, and I have to say Ezra’s was better. Maybe it was just that I knew how to pace myself better, or maybe it was that he didn’t try to fill me up on starters first. But at the end of the meal, instead of slow and heavy, I felt satisfied and mildly euphoric. Thanks, Ezra.

(Incidentally, the restaurant also served a great sopa Azteca. It’s a uniquely Mexican dish that involves a creamy red soup with bits of meat, ropes of melted white cheese, and freshly fried tortilla strips in it, plus fresh avocado. Ironically, this non-Aztec couple made the best Aztec soup I’ve ever had. I would go back for that alone.)

Meanwhile, the owner of the Hotel Cuellar, Roberto, also made my stay more memorable. He was really interested in my bike ride, even more so after I told him I’m a writer. I’ve become well versed at explaining in Spanish what Lúnasa Days is about, but I always apologize because it’s only available in English (yet). That didn’t phase him. His English is about as good as my Spanish, and he asked if I would autograph a copy if he ordered it. I agreed, although we both knew it wouldn’t arrive in time for me to do so.

My second evening there he told me that I was getting free breakfast the next day. I was a bit wowed and thanked him warmly. After the exchange, though, I wondered if I’d understood correctly. Maybe I was getting too cocky in my Spanish skills? But sure enough, the next morning at the hotel cafe the doña who runs the kitchen came out and showed me the menu for their “desayuno ejecutivo” (executive breakfast) and told me there’d be no charge.

The third day was pyramid day. It’s funny… I’ve gone to such great lengths to see all these ancient sites. Yet on that day all I really wanted to do was hang out in the hotel room and read. Just get some R&R. I would’ve been perfectly to miss out on one of the most stunning archaeological sites in the Americas, the former capital of the Toltec empire.

But what kind of Adventure would that be? I set down the book and hopped on the Giant. You can take a city bus to the pyramids, but I liked the idea of cycling across town. The Tula Archaeological Site is located just a few kilometers from the current city center, surrounded by neighborhoods on two sides. After confirming directions I set off.

The route crossed the river and immediately went up a giant hill, the opposite side of the gorge I’d descended a few days before. Barely able to breathe at the top, I made a mental note not to try pedaling up it when the Giant was fully loaded with gear.

After that the ride was easy. 10 minutes later I coasted into the Tula National Park, home of the Archaeological Site. It had a landscaped entry and vast parking areas, all almost empty. Maybe it was because it was a Monday, but Mexico’s archaeological museums always seem drastically under-attended to me.

As I wondered where to chain up the bike, a security guard suggested I walk it right up to the front door of the museum and lock it to a tree. That done, I paid my entrance and spotted a sign near the entrance. It kindly informed me that I could report any complaints “or insults” by phone, mail, email or in person. I wondered how many insults I should expect.

Toltec or pre-Toltec pottery in the museum. Photo by André.

Toltec or pre-Toltec pottery in the museum. Photo by André.

The Tula archaeological site consists of three main areas: first the indoor museum, with replicas of many of the artifacts and the usual informational panels. Then a long outdoor walk from the museum to the pyramids themselves. (I suppose they couldn’t break ground for the museum building too close to the archaeological site). Finally, the remains of ancient Tula’s downtown, which have been painstakingly unearthed by archaeologists.

I wasn’t too interested in the museum, not because I dislike them (I love them) but because I was eager to see the real deal. But I’m glad I walked through. I got a lot of interesting background information on the culture and the art that I’d see. And the three dimensional model of the site would help me orient myself once I got out there.

The walk out was surreal. Sometime I think Mexican museums have self esteem issues. I’m not sure they believe people will really come just to see pyramids and amazing artifacts. There’s always some kind of side attraction, a sort of “AND you get to see…” to sweeten the deal. In Tula’s case it’s this desert version of a hedge maze. White rocks and cacti sprawl along winding, tangled pathways. I stuck to the outside, skirting past the labyrinth and heading for the Toltec ruins.

Part of the labyrinth side show. Not quite David Bowie material.

Part of the labyrinth side show. Not quite David Bowie material.

I wasn’t there yet, though. The path is a zig-zag, making right angle turns that nearly double your walking time. This has two effects: you can’t directly see the pyramids until you turn the final corner (kind of cool), and you’re forced to walk through repeated encampments of vendors hawking their wares (moan). I assured row after row of peddlers that I needed neither a jaguar statue, nor a traditional flute, nor even a handmade rosary. Ironically, if any of them had just offered me a bottle of ice cold water I would’ve thrown pesos at them.

(I actually had water with me—I have learned a couple of tricks on this Adventure—but this is a hike through a shadeless desert. I mean come on.)

Finally I reached the pyramids themselves. My first view was from the end of the trail, with the main pyramid framed perfectly by a lone shade tree and a little bench at the trail head (image at top). Fluffy clouds filtered the desert sun and the whole place looked serene and magical. I was happy I’d come.

To one side was the remains of the ball court. I think we all know about the Mesoamerican soccer-like game where the losing team was sacrificed, so I won’t go into that. What struck me was how profoundly practical the structure was. It wasn’t that different from a stadium today, and was optimized for handling a giant amount of people. I could picture a family tripping up the stairs with kids in tow, trying to pull the niños away from vendors at the entrance (probably selling jaguar statues). The fact that lives hung in the balance was as prosaic as an NFL player pulling a hamstring.

Next I went to the main pyramid, dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. The trail approached from the rear. On the far side was the central plaza of ancient Tula, surrounded by the remains of dozens of public buildings. There was nothing I wanted to do more than run up to the top of that pyramid, but I took my time, wandering around the back first and looking at the carvings in the reconstructed perimeter wall. I was glad I did—these are things I wouldn’t have taken the time for after I’d already been to the top, and they were stunning.

Finally I made my way around front. Hundreds of white columns rose from the ruins of an old palace to my right, but I focused on the pyramid. A few other groups of visitors milled about, some on top, some around the bottom and one pair coming down. I sized up the steps and began the ascent.

Ruins of the Palace. Photo by André.

Ruins of the Palace. Photo by André.

I remember that when I climbed the steps of Chichén Itzá I was terribly winded. But I was in worse shape back then, and I took this pyramid with ease. Even so, coming up eye level with the top was a powerful experience, one that made you feel as if suddenly you couldn’t go on.

I found myself looking up at the Atlantes, the 12-foot tall stone warriors that hold watch over the temple’s top. I placed my hand over my heard in a discreet salute and stepped up.

The Atlantes. Photo by André

The Atlantes. Photo by André

It’s hard to write about standing atop the pyramid. It’s like this is where I’m supposed to say something deep, because I’m looking for the gods, right? But I feel like I said everything I had to say in the video log I sent my supporters. The truth is I felt conflicted. It’s this spiritual place, but it’s also a museum. I was surrounded by other tourists each having their own experiences. The top of the pyramid seemed to be a concrete slab, which made me wonder how it had been reconstructed and whether the Atlantes were even in the right places. I think the most profound spiritual experiences happen in places of solitude; and this temple is now a place of learning and selfies, not so much a place of prayer.

But there was an undeniable majesty looking out over the old city forum, vaster than some towns itself and now completely empty; the palaces and temples and the other pyramid, in worse condition, not far off from this one. All of it haunted by the specter of the sacrifices that once took place there. How can you look down from that spot, picture the city as it once was, and not imagine the knife coming down?

The other pyramid. Photo by André.

The other pyramid. Photo by André.

(If you want to see this place for yourself, supporters get full access to the video log I made.)

As I stood contemplating this a young Colombian couple asked if I’d take their picture. We conversed in Spanish (I’m on a roll!) but they seemed eager to be off. I watched them make their descent on the giant stone steps.

The sound of a flute drifted over the site, played by an enterprising vendor who’d eschewed the merch stalls to wander with his wares. It was right to hear that plaintive trill over this empty place. And it was time to make my offering.

I accepted that other tourists would watch me do this, including a group led by someone with the air of an anthropologist. But they kept a respectful distance, and the incense lit easily. I  tucked it into a crack at the top of the steps, in view of the Atlantes.

Oh, Quetzalcoatl, I prayed:

This incense comes not from me, but from my friend Sky and from Guadalupe, whom you know by another name. Today is her holy day, and she sent this for you. I hope the scent will please you.

The smoke curled up to the sky and the flute broke the silence. Does Quetzalcoatl miss the taste of human sacrifice? Or was it something he never wanted in the first place?

I descended. On the way out I took off-road footpaths used by the vendors (they sure weren’t walking at right angles after a long shift). This saved time and evaded most of the sales pitches. After the final jaunt across the labyrinth it was back to the museum, the Giant, and the road home.

When I got there the hotel owner had another present for me. “Are you staying another day tomorrow?” he asked.

“I dunno,” I admitted. I didn’t really feel like moving on just yet, but this was my last planned day in Tula. “I was thinking of leaving in the morning.”

He nodded. “Well if you decide to stay, I’d like to give you a night for free.”

That took me back. This time I confirmed that I’d understood correctly. It seemed like too much: a free breakfast is one thing, but comping me $500 pesos (really $600) is big. I wondered what the catch could be. But in a situation like this, all I have to go on is my sense of people, and my sense of Roberto is that he’s a friendly, kind person. I felt humbled by the offer and gratefully accepted.

Bridge in Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

Bridge in Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

That extra day allowed me to work ahead on client projects and explore the town some more. Discoveries included rope bridges crossing the river in the center of town (not decorative or for play—these were functional rope bridges used as pedestrian thoroughfares). They anchored to a cute neighborhood on one side and a sort of mini park on the other, and helped connect the two halves of town. Unfortunately, the river smelled like an open sewer and I didn’t spend much time in the park.

Tula marked a turning point in my Adventure. It was the first time ever that I’ve had good enough Spanish to make friends and be social without the “in” of a local acquaintance or a language school. Even though I’d felt lonely and isolated when I showed up, I managed to experience moments of warmth with people I’d never met before and will likely never see again. For that, I’m grateful.

Cool old car in Tula that made me think of my Dad.

Cool old car in Tula that made me think of my Dad.

Next time, I leave Tula and get back on the highway—but I have to crash a gate to do it. Until then, check out my other road logs.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, Spanish, The Great Adventure, Travel

Bringing Gifts for Guadalupe

Last time I got cozy with my Mexican host family and received some amazing kindness in San Miguel de Allende (plus picked up a nasty cough). This time I leave the shelter of the Expat City and get back on the road.

Nativity scene at the Tula parish church. Photo by André.

Nativity scene at the Tula parish church. I adore that it’s a hangar made of old tarps. Photo by André.

Thursday, December 11 (Day 888 of the Great Adventure)—to San Juan del Río

My departure from San Miguel de Allende began with cobble streets so steep I had to get off and walk the bike. I had become settled in San Miguel, with its many cafes and conveniences, and yet unsettled at the same time. I didn’t feel at home with the colonization vibe of my fellow Anglo-Americans—or how they reflected on me. And yet I knew there was a good chance I’d be back; renting a room from Fay for a month or two sounds appealing, and the Spanish language school was just that good.

Eventually I made it up to the high road out of town. The first section of highway wasn’t as steep as I expected, but it ran through lesser mountain ranges that were anything but small.

I started to suffer pretty badly. In San Miguel I had thought seriously about getting rid of some of my equipment—it’s too much weight on the bike. I hadn’t camped once yet on the Mexico trip, and losing that gear would be a blessing. It would also involve the dubious process of trying to mail it somewhere, an endeavor that all my friends, local and ex-pat alike, warn me is a gamble. Packages have a habit of disappearing in the Mexican post office, particularly things that look valuable.

Ultimately I kept the gear, more for the assurance of being able to camp than out of fear of mail sorters. I had been lucky finding hotels so far, but some nights had been close calls and I liked the security of being able to sleep anywhere.

But that extra weight really added up in the mountains out of San Miguel. I could feel the strain in my knees now, and with my lingering chest cold sometimes had coughing fits on the uphills. It was a rough day.

So when I finally reached San Juan del Río, my destination for the night, I was more than ready to quit. The town is build along a river. That means that entering town is a downhill, but going across town is uphill again–going down one river bank and up the other. I didn’t even try to bike in; as soon as I got off the highway I spotted a corporate looking hotel and got a room. It was a bit pricier than I was used to, but nice.

After a shower it was almost sunset. I was hungry, and I generally avoid hotel restaurants. I saddled up the Giant once again, this time without all his heavy gear on him, and rode into town.

The way couldn’t have been flatter. After crossing an old stone bridge I was on a main road toward the Centro. I quickly ran into a variety of roadblocks: backed up traffic, a traffic cop turning away cars, and then balloons, crowds of children and families.

It was December 11, the eve of the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. I knew this holiday would be a big deal but didn’t realize there’d be a parade the night before.

I biked floats and bands getting ready for the march, as far as the Parroquia (parish church), the parade’s destination. I spotted two eateries along the route, one directly across from the other, and decided to check them out.

The first one had a convenient wrought iron fence around the patio tables, the perfect place to lock my bike. But inside it turned out to be more a bar than a restaurant. A too-friendly drunk greeted me warmly and went for an abrazo that I deftly dodged. Stumbling between English and Spanish, he told me he was buying me a drink.

I exchanged looks with the bartender and said I needed to eat before I could drink. I didn’t exactly promise to come back after, but the drunkard took it that way and stopped protesting. I checked out.

Across the street was a taquería that smelled divine. They didn’t have a bar, thankfully, but they had a giant grill and a big selection of alambres. I sat down and ordered some ludicrous combination of grilled meats and veggies. My table was positioned at the open end of the restaurant, directly facing the parade route (and my bike).

Scene from the parade prep. Photo by André.

Scene from the parade prep. Photo by André.

Mexican parades come in many shapes and flavors, but they have some common elements. There’s always people chasing other people with bull-whips, and cracking the whips loudly on the ground. There’s a contingent of dancers in full Aztec regalia (or other indigenous style). There are religious floats put together from colored paper in careful and incredible detail. And there people in what seem like totally random costumes: a devil, a Bart Simpson, a Batman.

All of this and more was present in Guadalupe’s parade. I have to admit that the marching phalanxes of kids were pretty cool, and some of them had great music going. I caught some of the Aztec dancers on video, which you can see by becoming a supporter. (Also in the videos: I catch the taco stand waiter dancing like an Egyptian.)

The parade ended not long after dark. I retrieved my bike without running into my drunk friend and crossed the bridge back to the hotel—a bit hairier of a run in the dark with post-parade traffic. The hotel offered wi-fi only in the lobby, not in the rooms, so I took a seat on a couch to work on my computer and ordered a chocolate malt. It’s good for the concentration. 63.7 miles.

Map.

Note: The route leaving San Miguel de Allende isn’t quite right due to one-ways. I knocked 0.1 miles off the listed mileage to compensate.

Tula's centro. Photo by André.

Tula’s centro. Photo by André.

Friday, December 12 (Day 889 of the Great Adventure)—to Tula de Allende

Morning came all too soon. I ordered breakfast from the hotel room service, wanting to get on the road with minimal delay. What arrived was a heaping dish of soggy, lukewarm chilaquiles. I’d feel vaguely queasy for much of the day.

The route was difficult. I headed back toward the same stone bridge as before but, instead of crossing it, turned onto a cross street toward the highway out of town. That highway was nothing but miles and miles of endless uphill, so steep I kept stopping just to breathe. Add in a headwind and sections of freeway with no shoulder and it was an inauspicious start to the day.

It was also slow going. It took about two hours just to get out of the San Juan metro area, simply from the conditions. Once free the scenery got better but the road didn’t change much. The next 35 miles of my ride were all uphill, crossing a mountain range and ascending to a height of 9,000 feet. That’s nine thousand.

To be fair, I wasn’t starting out from a height of zero. More like 5,000 feet. But climbing to 9k is still a ton and this was the highest elevation I’d ever achieved by bike. To put it in perspective, I announced I was starting this 35 mile section on Twitter at 11:15 am and tweeted from the top at 4:24 pm. That’s an average of seven grueling miles per hour with, as I recall, no real breaks.

I was wrong about the 24 miles.

I was wrong about the 24 miles.

At the summit and I took a brief pause for water, panting and admiring the view below. As I started to roll downhill, I saw a sign:

NO BICYCLES

Covered with sweat and hardly able to breathe, I raised my hand and gave the sign a one-finger salute. I couldn’t get a picture of this, obviously, but I sure hope a few Mexicans in passing cars saw the gesture and got a good laugh.

Soon the wind was rushing past my face and I needed both hands on the steed. A plummeting bicycle is an amazing piece of equipment. A twitch of the hips is enough to change direction; at speed you’re just the fin on the missile.

Those downhill miles went by quickly but, alas, it wouldn’t be all bullet time. To reach Tula de Allende I needed to turn off onto a cuota, a toll road. That road ran through a series of miniature mountains, effectively the foothills of the range I’d just crossed, and my progress ground to a crawl once again. By this time the sun was setting and I felt pretty done for the day, with miles still to go.

I crossed a series of three yawning gorges, each seemingly a mile deep below me. My eyes flickered between the road ahead, the traffic behind me and the view under my feet.

Between gorges and curves I saw the lights of Tula in the distance. Or so I thought. It was actually the city’s massive oil refinery: a glittering forest of tower lights reminiscent of the Emerald City.

At dusk I reached the toll road turn-off. It looked totally deserted. I made my assault on the gate, hoping to swerve right around it, but a uniformed man ran out and waved his arms. Weary, I braked.

“Buenas tardes,” I called. I figured he was going to hassle me about biking on the cuota, or tell me I couldn’t go through. But he was in a good mood—in fact he seemed excited to see a cyclist. He warmly offered for me to swerve around the gate (as I was going to do anyway). I appreciated his attitude, but was so tired I kind of wished he just stayed in the booth—I gave up all my speed to talk to him.

Entering town involved an incredibly steep descent into a gorge. I thought I was going to pitch right over my handlebars. At the bottom I crossed two bridges and rolled into the Centro.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but Tula immediately felt different from other Mexican towns. At the moment I was too beat to figure out why. I aimed for one of the hotels I saw on Google, the Hotel Cuellar. It was right across from the parroquia in the heart of the Centro. It was already dark when I rolled into its long, narrow entrance.

Though weary I had to go through the formalities. This includes finding out the price, looking at the room, checking for bed bugs and making sure there’s wi-fi. In this case, the process stopped at the price.

“How much is a habitation for one person?” I asked.

“$600,” replied the owner.

I raised my eyebrows. “$600?”

That’s about US $50, more than I usually pay ($350 is a common rate). I didn’t really want to go somewhere else—but I also had a budget. And I knew there were three more hotels within a few blocks.

The owner looked me up and down. He had seen me come in on the bike. “For you,” he said. “I can offer $500.”

Deal. I thanked him, checked the room and quickly concluded our transaction. He asked me about my travels. To my surprise, I found I could follow the conversation and give good answers. The Spanish classes appeared to be working.

Soon I was upstairs and showering, but without my bike. Usually I take the Giant into my hotel room with me, but here there were a lot of stairs. I chained up the bike outside—to a palm tree.

This wasn’t quite the end of the day’s adventure, however. I still had two objectives:

  • Offer incense to Guadalupe. It was her day, after all.
  • Eat eat eat eat eat

First to the church. The parroquia, a former monastery, occupied high ground in the middle of town and was surrounded with a fortified stone wall. I ascended through its portcullis expecting a giant Guadalupe shrine. There wasn’t one; just a nativity scene, food vendors, and a jam packed church. I decided to keep exploring.

Waking around downtown yielded no shrines but plenty of restaurants. Twice I walked past a sign pointing down an alley:

Espadas de Brasil 

“Swords of Brazil.” I wasn’t in the mood for a meat-heavy dinner at the moment, but I got a good feeling about the place. I turned down the alley…

…and was blown away. The restaurant had two parts: a cozy inside dining room with a bar, and a large outside courtyard with soft music playing. It was chilly so I chose the inside. And the menu offered much more than just grilled meats. Soon I had a huge platter in front of me.

When I finished eating I caught up on some reading on my iPhone, as one does. The owner approached me. We started to chit-chat in Spanish, which is always hell. I just get lost so easily or don’t know enough words and…

…and this time it was different.

As the conversation went on I relaxed. I understood almost everything he said. Occasionally he threw out some words in English to help me, but we basically stuck to Spanish. For ten minutes. Fifteen. Twenty. It became the longest Spanish conversation I’d had with someone who wasn’t paid to help me.

And I liked him. Ezra was from Brasil and running this restaurant was his dream. Previously he had been a chef at Fogo de Chão, a Brazilian chain famous enough that I knew of it (but had never eaten at one). He also introduced his wife, Kayla. She didn’t speak much Spanish so she would shyly murmur in Portuguese and he translated. All told we talked a half hour or more.

Kayla, Ezra and me.

Kayla, Ezra and me.

He asked me the purpose of my bicycle trip. I smiled. “It’s sort of a spiritual quest,” I said, using the English phrase spiritual quest. Then in Spanish: “I hope to meet the gods.”

He pointed at his heart.

“The gods within?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know if the gods are inside us only, or if they are also in the world. I want to find out.”

He seemed to understand. After a bit more conversation, he mentioned that there was an old Aztec statue in his courtyard.

“It’s a goddess,” he said. He tilted his head. “What’s the English word for goddess?”

I told him. He nodded, and went on.

“It’s very old. This building is ancient and old the statue has been here for hundreds of years. Do you want to see?”

I agreed and the three of us walked into the courtyard. At the far end was a statue of a goddess I’d seen before. If my knowledge of Mexican mythology is accurate, she’s the exact one that Guadalupe is believed to be based on. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Ezra,” I said. “I’d like to make an offering to her for you. is that alright?”

He agreed.

I took out the incense. In my heart, Guadalupe told me to offer only one stick, not two as I’d planned; save the other one for the pyramid. I lit the incense and placed it in the earth before the goddess, praying over it.

Ezra and Kayla had a movie projector set up in the courtyard. It was past closing time and they were getting ready for a movie night together. We said farewell and I promised I would come back during my next few days in Tula.

I wandered a bit more then made my way back to the Cuellar for some sleep. 59.6 miles. 

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 123.3

Total traveled since Day 1: 3784.4 miles

Next time you’ll get to see Tula’s famous pyramids—and we’ll fine out why this town feels so different. Until then, more road logs are available here.

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Adventure, Mexico, Photographs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Photo Friday: The Mastur-Bar and the Toltec Empire

The first photo this week is not actually a great picture, but I absolutely love it:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Yes, that sign says it’s a MASTUR-BAR. But not just any mastur-bar! This one has ambiente familiar—in other words, a family environment.

I don’t know what kind of family goes to a mastur-bar together, but I support this concept and I’m glad it exists. Who among us hasn’t ever gone into a bar and just wished we could rub one out? Preferably with siblings and cousins in attendance? I literally made a U-turn when I saw this sign to make sure I got a picture.

The only explanation I can come up with is that this is a bit of Spanglish. Businesses in Mexico often use English words to seem hip, and they don’t always nail the spelling. Maybe this is supposed to the the Master-Bar, which sounds somewhat more appealing and a whole lot cleaner.

The best part is it’s just as bad in Spanish. The word for “to masturbate” is masturbarse. So this has to look just as ridiculous to every Mexican driving past as it does to me. That makes me wonder what kind of clientele they get, and how family-friendly it really is.

Okay, let’s clean it up guys. On to something a bit more spiritual:

Photo by André

Photo by André

That’s the view of one pyramid from on top of another pyramid at the Tula de Allende Archaeological Site. (Tula is the same town with the mastur-bar, by the way.) This is one of the more stunning pyramid sites in Mexico. It’s not as famous as the great pyramids of Chichén-Itzá, which I’ll bike past toward the end of my journey. But the two sites are very similar, so much so that archaeologists suspect the Toltecs from Tula influenced the Mayans who built Chichén-Itzá.

The most famous part of Tula’s pyramids is the Atlantes, however:

Photo by André

Photo by André

The Atlantes are giant warrior statues atop the more important of the two pyramids—the one I took the first picture from. This pyramid is believed to be dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, one of the most important Toltec deities who went on to be worshiped by the Aztecs (and the Mayans, under a different name).

You can see what the Atlantes look like without silhouette here.

Although most people come for the Atlantes, I was taken with a different part of the pyramid. The wall around it is decorated with carvings, and they’re pretty incredible:

Photo by André

Photo by André

In case you can’t tell, those are skeletons being devoured by rattlesnakes. There’s a similar motif on the walls at Chichén-Itzá, but they’re not nearly as well preserved. Besides being incredibly badass, the carvings represent the ritual of human sacrifice, which was a Big Deal to the Toltecs.

Fortunately, I’m not Toltec. I offered plain ol’ incense to Quetzalcoatl. As the smoke rose up to the heavens, the trill of a traditional flute pierced the air. The source? A peddler hoping to sell me a traditional flute.

Some things are the same the world over.

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