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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mexico's Aztec allure

From pyramids of Teotihuacan to exotic dining, the legacy lives on

Posted: 01/18/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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When I told people I was visiting Mexico City, the first thing they'd say was, "But aren't you afraid of ancient Aztecs?"

I thought about that as I stood atop the 66-metre adobe brick Pyramid of the Sun just northeast of Mexico City. A pleasant breeze ruffled my hair as I gazed over the ruins of Teotihuacan in an epic landscape dotted with prickly pear cacti and pepper trees.

There were no ancient Aztecs in sight.

Tourism officials often play down the issue, but I was initially a little spooked by reports indicating the Aztecs are behind a wave of human sacrifice, cannibalism and deadly ball games.

Pre-trip, I questioned myself: Would these militant Mesoamericans make me pray with peyote, slash myself with thorns to provide blood for the sun god Huitzilopochtli, or enlist in a "flower war" specifically staged for both armies to capture prisoners whose hearts would be cut out? Fortunately, the Aztecs' menace has apparently diminished since their empire's 16th-century peak.

I descended the pyramid's stone steps safely (although more railings would have been nice) instead of, say, having a black-cloaked priest pitch my twitching corpse down to the Avenue of the Dead. The only onslaught I faced was from sombrero-clad merchants hawking blankets, turtle and jaguar carvings, and replica Aztec masks.

Although Teotihuacan was built some 2,100 years ago by a pre-Aztec civilization, it was easy to see why the Aztecs venerated and continued to use the 83-square-kilometre city for rituals. "Religion was everything for this culture -- political, economic, social," explained my driver-guide.

Exquisite pink jaguar murals adorned walls near the Pyramid of the Moon. The remains of a sophisticated plumbing system, including a flushable toilet and a steam bath for the priests, could also be discerned.

In the courtyard outside the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, which is covered with grotesque and gaping heads, I marvelled at the engineered acoustics that made voices and handclaps echo so resonantly. Wandering amid the sacred platforms, hearing flutes and jaguar whistles, I imagined how Teotihuacan must have bustled at its peak of 200,000 inhabitants circa 600 AD.

We stopped off afterward at Casa Museo de las Piedras, an adjacent artisans' centre with hairless dogs loitering outside. I didn't buy any black obsidian knives or gaudy ceramic skulls. But tasting tequila, mescal and pulque (a fermented agave beverage) here further alleviated my Aztec concerns.

Returning to Mexico City, I discovered the traffic-clogged metropolis of 21 million both embraces and transcends its Aztec vibe. The overriding message? Live large but never forget about death.

Just off the sprawling Zocalo city square, I toured the Templo Mayor. The Aztecs' principal temple in their capital of Tenochtitlan stood here before Spanish conquistadors under Hernan Cortes destroyed it in 1521, and now the archeological site hosts an elegant, functional museum designed by architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez.

"We prefer to call them 'sacrificial individuals' instead of 'victims,' " a museum interpreter casually noted as I viewed a 2006-excavated monolith of the bloody-tongued earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli. That put a different spin on it.

I was still glad no sacrificial individuals were being offered up when I visited the enormous Museo Nacional de Antropologia. Its most iconic artifact is the Stone of the Sun, a gladiatorial sacrificial altar that depicts Xiutecuhtli, the god of fire, gripping a pair of human hearts. This sight evoked reminiscences for me, a Canadian hockey fan, of the Vancouver Canucks' recent hiring of coach John Tortorella.

It wasn't all stones and blood. At Mexico City's opera house, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, I spotted a mask representing Tlaloc, god of rain, over the interior theatre entrance. Upstairs, giant 1934 murals by Communist artist Diego Rivera and his rival Jose Clemente Orozco seemed to channel an updated version of the wild Aztec spirit with their surrealistic portrayals of social foment.

Inside the nearby Palacio Postal, the eclectically designed main post office with glistening bronze service windows, I found a museum that included a small statue of a naked Aztec warrior clutching a fish over his head.

Legend has it the emperor Montezuma would have seafood brought daily to his table from the Gulf of Mexico by relay runners. That tale sparked my appetite at the contemporary, blue-walled Azul Condesa Restaurant, where I dined on fresh fish served with tropical bananas, black bean sauce and fried tortilla strips.

Having learned about the role insects played in the Aztec diet, I even added a side dish of guacamole with a separate spicy seasoning that incorporated ground-up crickets -- and that could have passed for a delicious Jamaican jerk spice.

Tenochtitlan was built on a lake, from which the Aztecs procured mollusks as well. In that spirit, I happily lunched another day on snails in shells with chipotle sauce at La Opera. At this 1876 cantina with high ceilings and dark-wood booths, Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa is said to have once fired his gun into the ceiling to hush the noisy people at the next table.

Yes, the violence here was just the way I like it -- historical or vicarious.

When I took a glass elevator up the 67-metre Monumento ĂȘ la Revolucion, I didn't simply admire the downtown vista with greenery-laden Alameda Park (a former Aztec marketplace) and the Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City's fountain-and-statue-laden answer to the Champs-Elysees.

My eyes were also drawn to the huge human figures dedicated to the revolution's ideals of independence, agriculture, labour and reform, gracing the monument's corners. Their resemblance to the colossal Mesoamerican stone heads I'd seen at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia was palpable.

So, no fear of ancient Aztecs here. Despite the clouds hiding the Popocatepetl volcano from view, the future of Mexico City looks pretty bright.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 E4

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