Thursday, February 3, 2011

End of Week 26 - Journey to Cantona, Ancient ruins near Puebla

It was 8:30am on a Sunday morning and we were on a bus headed to Oriental, a forgotten, windswept town on the central "llanos", or plains, of Puebla. We approached the town by crossing through endless, golden wheat fields, overgrazed cattle ranches, and crumbling haciendas whose lands had been redistributed long ago after the Mexican Revolution.

Pico de Orizaba from the south.
Oriental was once an important halfway stop on the railroad that connected the port of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico to Mexico City. Aside from the massive, snow-capped volcano that looms large in the distance, called Pico de Orizaba, Oriental resembles a small, faded, Midwestern town whose railroad was diverted to a larger city and was then bypassed by a superhighway.

Like most visitors, we weren't planning on staying long; we were headed to Cantona, a little known but incredibly important archaeological site in central Mexico. Cantona is believed to be the largest pre-Columbian urban center in Mesoamerica that once stretched over twelve square kilometers of rocky hilltops. It was inhabited by the Olmec-xicalanca for about 400 years until 1,000 A.D., at which time the city was deserted and left to crumble. It is unique for its size, its intact ball-courts, and its massive network of raised roads, all constructed from volcanic rocks without mortar.

The pattern of expansive ruins can be seen from the air. (Source: Google Earth)

When we stepped off of the bus in Oriental, we were immediately singled out as tourists and ushered into an awaiting van headed to Cantona. The van was actually a beat-up 1970s pickup truck with a cab barely tall enough for me to sit up straight on a bench the back. The door locked from the outside, making the uncomfortable ride without windows a little more nerve-racking. We passed through several smaller communities along dirt roads, picking up and dropping off cowboys on their way home from fields and their families who used the van service as their only means of public transportation.

Yucca growing from the walls.
When we arrived to Cantona, about three hours after we left Puebla, we weren't disappointed. The landscape was strange; cacti and yucca dotted with the occasional stands of tall pine trees. The same vegetation grew out from the ruins, with large trees standing atop pyramids or anchored to stone walls.

A tree atop a small pyramid.

 First, we passed through a series of ancient residential complexes, today only pits in the ground and platforms where buildings once stood. We then walked through several ball courts, or long flat areas lined by angled walls that resemble bleachers in a modern stadium. I don't know what kind of game they played. Did the losers get to play the following week or were they sent down to the minors for a ritual human sacrifice?

Ball Courts

As we walked further uphill we were surprised when we came to a large complex of pyramids and courtyards. We didn’t expect such massive structures, more impressive than any we had seen since arriving to Mexico. As we would go up one pyramid, thinking we had finally made it the top, we would be shocked to see another taller pyramid just a little further away. From the top of the pyramid platforms we could see large mounds of rocks in the distance, presumably other unexcavated pyramids. In fact, only one percent of Cantona has been unearthed; the rest still lies in ruins, buried by layers of volcanic ash, dirt, and shrubs. From the looks of the adjacent mounds - crumbling piles of rocks barely visible amongst the cactus - we wondered if the intact pyramids that awed us were really pyramids at all, or were just an elaborate hoax, built in the last decade by the Mexican government to attract tourists.

The largest pyramid in Cantona.

Finally, amid the blazing afternoon sun, we reached the last pyramid in the line. From the ceremonial platform on top we could see ruins stretching for miles in all directions. Beyond the ruins, the llanos reached to distant mountain ranges, some covered in deep green tropical vegetation, others cloaked by clouds. Large dust tornados raged across the dry plains. And Oriental was only a smudge on the landscape, one of many that we could see but would probably never know.

A distant mountain beyond the ruins and the llanos.

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