Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Pyramids of San Juan Teotihuacán

The lady who owns the Teotihuacán Trailer Park in San Juan Teotihuacan, where we were staying, made a couple of very interesting remarks. Gringos are Americans, not Canadians or any other white skinned people. It apparently originates from the 2nd World War when the Mexicans wanted the Americans to leave their country. As the American uniforms were green, the Mexicans said "Green Go" which later became Gringo! San Miguel de Allende is, according to the same lady, known as the Disneyland of Mexico… due to all the gringos living there. The things you can learn from an older Mexican lady! Her third observation was that Coca Cola was originally a medicine… a cough medicine. Go figure!

I was floored with a stomach bug that completely sidelined me. The only trips I made were between tent and toilet, day and night :-( The only medicine our Mexican host said would work for diarrhoea was Coca Cola and salt biscuits. The medicine for stomach bugs was double Vitamin C also known here as both Coca and Cola! The stomach bug hadn't cleared overnight, far from it, and even when I became somewhat mobile again at the end of the day and after copious amounts of Coca Cola mixed with Vitamin C and infection killers in pill form, I was as weak as a 99 year old.

In the mean time Mike and Jeanette explored the city by foot, visited a rock shop, walked towards the famous ruins site, thought they got lost until they walked 'around the corner' and saw the huge Sun pyramid at the end of the road. Hard to miss! As the plan was to visit the pyramids together, they went to the Casa Museo de las Piedras Teohti instead, where they replicate artefacts from the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. We went back there together the day after to check it out further. They present themselves as a museum, as far as I'm aware a museum normally houses original work of art. This one doesn't, everything you find here is a copy and everything is for sale. To me, that makes it a shop, not a museum.

They make beautiful artefacts out of glass, porcelain, silver and a combination of all three, but most of the prices are somewhat heavily on the steep side to even consider them as souvenirs.They have a license to do so and if you buy one of their items you get a certificate of origin with it. A certificate of origin for a copy, amusing! While looking around I found no evidence whatsoever that they could manufacture even half of what they claimed. My feeling that something fishy was going on here reinforced further when they told us that 'some' of the artefacts are made by the artists at home… The only artefacts being made here that we saw evidence from are rough cement like statues, which were carved using angle grinders and 'fine-tuned' with die-grinders. They also sell a kind of Tequila derivative but both said politely no to a sample when they noticed moving worm at the bottom of the bottle (which was supposedly there to improve the taste?)

The day after I was somewhat mobile again, hadn't eaten anything for 48 hrs and yet still wasn't hungry. Maybe this bug is the Mexican way to loose weight. I had enough of being in bed all the time and was adamant to visit the pyramids and have a look in San Juan Teotihuacán.

What we found is hard to describe. A few months ago I described Guerrero Negro, on the west coast of Baja, as a grubby little town. San Juan Teotihuacán is harder to describe because I can honestly say that it's the dirtiest, filthiest and most disgusting place I've ever been to in my life, yet at the same time the pyramids are so worthwhile to visit… while visiting the pyramids was marred by events that spoiled part of that as well. Having been in Mexico for 4 months now and having seen quite a bit of it, nothing had quite prepared me for what we were about to find in San Juan Teotihuacán… 

We have seen a lot of the Mexican way of life during our travels through this beautiful country. Most of it's good, some take a bit of getting used to but are explainable, but finding two rotting corpses of dogs by the side of the road while entering town wasn't something I had seen before. Not that we hadn't seen dead dogs by the side of the road, but this was in town and they had been rotting there for a while too. The smell was terrible just riding past them and yet no-one seemed too bothered about it. It was unfortunately just a preview of what was to come… If you only want to read positive stories then maybe it's best you skip to the subheading of the pyramids of San Juan Teotihuacán on this page as the next couple of paragraphs are not going to be pretty!

It already started with the campground. It's the only one in town. We hadn't expected a 5-star resort and are quite used to things in Mexico being broken in one form or another. It's a part of life and usually not a problem. This was at a different scale though. Here nothing worked. No hot water in the showers, toilets that hadn't been cleaned for a long time, and of course no toilet paper, no shower doors, no locks on the toilet doors and no privacy at all in the women's toilets. Still, it was only going to be for two nights. What we didn't know at the time was the sewerage smell… and when we did it was too late as due to my stomach bug I was by then in no state to move anywhere else anymore.

Sleeping was out of the question too as the owners have 3 dogs that roam around all night and chase anything that moves… all night, every night. Of course the dogs crap all over the place too, try to break into the tents and bark more than they breathe. The owners call it security, we call it a pest.

Walking to and from the pyramids made me wonder if this is the filthiest town in Mexico. I certainly hope so. The sewerage smell that made us nauseous turned out to be town-wide, not just on the campground. The rivers and streams flowing through San Juan Teotihuacán are just open sewers, distinctly brown coloured with a dark yellowish foam on the surface. Where most of the smaller Mexican towns we had visited, have this great smell of food, spices and all sorts of cooking in general, here it's like being in an open sewerage tank. Just one street away from the tourist part there was garbage everywhere you looked. Not just thrown away bottles, but rotting heaps of food scraps with maggots crawling out of it. The other thing we noticed is that most of the dogs were badly limping and seemed little, if at all, cared for. Scruffy looking dogs with big open wounds and almost debilitating abscesses were unfortunately more the norm than exception. 

San Juan Teotihuacán is also the first town where we bought Coca Cola bottles that had been refilled with something that at a first glance looked like Coca Cola, but had nothing to do with it. I should have known I suppose, but somehow I never imagined I had to check if the 'new' bottle I just bought had an unbroken seal… It certainly didn't hiss when opened. But as we were both thirsty, we simply opened the bottle and took a big gallop of it… before realising it tasted awful. By then it was too late. Only 5 minutes later my stomach, which had only just recovered from the stomach bug, went into horrible cramps like I had just eaten a bowl of razor blades… another 24 hrs on the toilet followed a little later. Looking at the bottles again we could see they weren't as dark as Coca Cola normally is, they had most likely been filled with a mixture of cheap cola and water. Where the water came from is anybody's guess but it sure put me on diarrhoea! Mike felt quite sick too but luckily recovered quicker, Jeanette had bought something else. When we left, we saw another rotting dog, just 200 metres from the campground in the middle of town…

San Juan Teotihuacán is certainly a town I will never visit again. Some things are explainable by lack of money, but rotting dogs by the side of the road? Rotting food with maggots in an area where children are playing? Open sewers? There is no need nor any justification for that.
The pyramids of San Juan Teotihuacán and a crafts shop we found there. By all means visit both, but stay somewhere else! San Juan Teotihuacán is the first place I've been where farting actually improves the air quality, it still smells like shit bit at least it's fresh!

The pyramids of San Juan Teotihuacán
Rated as the third highest in the world, the pyramids of San Juan Teotihuacán didn't disappoint. Far from it. I was quite surprised about the preservation being done, the way in which everything was accessible and the clear explanation given on the signs. Very well done indeed. The pyramids are impressive, especially when you imagine the tools they had back then to make them. 

Who actually built the pyramids is somewhat of a mystery. For a long time it was assumed they were Aztec, now there is evidence they are in fact much older and that the Aztecs simply used them and gave it the name San Juan Teotihuacán. For a long time San Juan Teotihuacán was the biggest city in the Americas. The central avenue called 'Calzada de los Muertos' which translates into 'Avenue of the dead', (presumably because that's where the captured warriors were offered to the gods in Aztec times) is a huge and surprisingly wide avenue that was flanked by temples, upper-class homes and workshops.

The two main pyramids to see are the moon and the sun pyramid or 'Pirámide de la Luna' and 'Pirámide del Sol', but don't omit any of the other sites as there are beautiful things to see just about everywhere and often in the most unexpected places. The view from the sun pyramid, the highest point of the site is amazing. The climb up is pretty stiff, especially when you're not feeling very well… but worth it as it gives a good overview of the layout.
As the steps to the top are steep and a lot of visitors climb up and down, they have separated the up and down going 'traffic' with a simple handrail. Of course everyone understands the meaning… apart from a busload of French! They didn't care and used the whole width of the steps, sat down on them when they got tired and blocked everybody else, deliberately too. The French tour guide went with them to the top as well, clearly aware that their behaviour was annoying everyone. Later we heard him walking around the top as well, as he was continuously on the phone. He didn't care that people where trying to take a photo and that he was in the way, nor that he was annoying the crap out of everyone by yelling to his mobile all the time. It's one of those moments where you hope for an act of God… any God! Especially in a sacred place like this. People can be so rude and so inconsiderate. Like I wrote earlier, the pyramids are well worth a visit though. The site is huge and takes a full day and lots of walking to see it all. The best way to start is from entrance 3 as it's mostly downhill from there. Take a lot of water with you and don't forget sunscreen and a hat!

Despite being a full day walking and climbing to see it all, the most tiring part of a the visit to the pyramids of San Juan Teotihuacán were the hundreds of salesmen and women continuously harassing us into buying, buying and more buying. I know it's typical Mexican to see people selling all kinds of goods everywhere and we are quite used to it by now. But at the pyramids of San Juan Teotihuacán they are an absolutely pest. Normally a polite 'no gracias' is enough. Not here. They put it in your face, block your way, chase you down and will not take no for an answer. You can't stop for a second to take a photo or they'll swarm to you like ants, trying to push their wares into your hands. This sort of pestering behaviour goes on continuously and gets very tiring after a couple of hours. I have no problem with people trying to sell their wares, but this is just pestering, there are hundreds of them and they all sell the same stuff too.

One of the many sellers was an elderly lady, selling bows and arrows, axes and the like. Jeanette suggested to by a bow and arrow to chase all the other sellers away...

The pyramid to visit was the Piramide de la Serpienta Emplumada, a small pyramid but beautifully decorated with heads of the sacred animals carved in stone. According to the leaflet this was the bloodiest sacrifice site of them all, a special and perhaps fitting end to the 4 kilometre walk from the Pyramid the la Luna.

After night number 3 in San Juan Teotihuacán we couldn't take it anymore. The nauseating sewerage smell, dogs that literally drove us barking mad, the filthiness, cars hooning around all night… we'd had enough and left. 
The road out of San Juan Teotihuacán was the worst one we had seen so far and for the first time in Mexico we were glad to ride onto a toll road towards Puebla. Trailer Park Las Americas at at Cholula, near Puebla wasn't much but not bad either. The old lady that seemed to run the place came up with 180 pesos per person for an unpowered tent site…(!)… then it was 180 pesos per tent… still way too much… then after some more 'how do we get the most out of us' thinking it became 250 pesos for two and 120 for Mike… or 370 in total… and then I had enough! The other option would have been a motel, but the Holiday Inn that Mike had contacted never replied back when we asked what the special deal was they would make for us. Jeanette felt pretty her stomach by now too, probably because of the glass of water she drank at the restaurant last night, that tasted funny and an ear infection and sore throat didn't help either… We thus decided to stay after all and did some more bargaining… in the end we paid 250 pesos in total. Still too much for what it was but lots better than what we started with.

The showers were promised to be hot, but weren't as the water heater wasn't working. The old lady didn't know what the problem was and said we could shower in a unit that seemed to be under renovation (at least we hope it was under renovation…) The shower head was so clogged up that we had hardly any water at all, but at least we could have a shower which is more than what could be said about the campground in San Juan Teotihuacán! 

Reading the tourist brochure that night I was somewhat surprised to find that there is a larger pyramid here than the ones at San Juan Teotihuacán… Known as the Great Pyramid of Cholula, it is in fact the largest in the world according to the Guiness Book of Records. It's overgrown and therefor looks like a man-made hill now, but isn't. It's a proper pyramid and has a temple on top of it too. The size of it all makes it visible from a considerable distance, but a visit has to remain for next time…