Early Mexican tribes: The mysterious Toltecs built the monstrous pyramids of Teotihuacan just outside what is now Mexico City but did not conduct human sacrifices and enigmatically disappeared well before the Aztecs arrived in the area.
The Maya were a tribe in the south (now known as the Yucatan Peninsula/Guatemala) dominated by the Aztecs that believed (or perhaps agreed on penalty of death?) that human sacrifice was necessary.
The Maya built the clever, beautiful pyramids and other structures of Uxmal, Chichen-Itza and Tikal (Guatemala), while Aztec mismanagement and poor leadership resulted in the capture of the country by the far inferior forces of Cortes. Chichen Itza Video
Teotihuacan was built between 600BC and 200BC by the Toltecs (not to be confused with the Aztecs). Teotihuacan roughly translates as The Place where Gods Gathered. It is a bleak and blasted city of ghosts these days with most of its buildings (the mud and wooden ones) returned to dust, but the site is still awesome in its scale and the pyramids are unbelievable, in spite of the fact that - unlike their Egyptian counterparts - they are not solid stone but earth and rubble mounds dressed with stone.
Teotihuacan is roughly 50kms outside Mexico City so an absolute must-see for capital visitors.
Teotihuacan pyramid group near Mexico City
Aztecs: Mexico City was created by the Aztecs, a group of outcasts from a northern tribe who were banished for their belief in the efficacy of human sacrifice, unlike the builders of Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, who did not, and disappeared for no apparent reason long before the Aztecs slunk into town. The Maya people further south in what is now the Yucatan and Guatemala also thought it essential to take human life to placate or encourage various gods.
Human sacrifice as practiced by the Aztecs and Maya generally involved captured enemies and was a respectable, even honorable way to die, so when prisoners were in short supply or gods required someone specific local volunteers were used, sometimes drugged, sometimes not.
The favoured method of execution (aka The Flowery Death) was outside a dedicated temple on top of a pyramid, where the sacrifice was laid/held down on a large stone while the priest slashed across the ribs with a broad obsidian (sharpened stone) knife, quickly levering open two ribs with the knife enabling the priest to reach in and tear out the heart while the person was still alive.
The heart would than be mashed onto or into the mouth of the god's statue or an appropriate bowl for the god's consumption and the body would be thrown or kicked down the steps to the base where occasionally body parts would be eaten for ceremonial purposes or distributed to the poor.
On the dedication of the Great Pyramid in Tenochitlan (now Mexico City) in 1521 there were reputed to have been tens of thousands of sacrifices. The Great Pyramid was destroyed by the Spanish and is not Teotihuacan.
Montezuma II (known as 'Reverend Speaker' Moctezuma to the Aztec people) ruled from what is now Mexico City. He was a weak and indecisive leader who was mostly responsible for the fall of the Aztec empire to the courageous but low-ranking Spanish captain Cortes - who had no permission whatsoever to invade the country; he was actually sent to explore the coastline on behalf of the (Spanish) governor of Cuba.
The two other factors that aided the collapse of the Aztecs were alliances made by the invaders with two or three powerful but subservient rival tribes and the rampant diseases brought by the few hundred Spanish soldiers, who were initially made reasonably welcome in spite of their disgustingly dirty habits (the Aztecs bathed at least once a day, the Spanish once a year for some, once in a lifetime for many - at birth).
Montezuma gave Cortes literally tons of glorious and solid gold artifacts (which were immediately melted down for shipment to Spain) while Cortez and his merry men gave local people smallpox, the plague, measles, mumps and influenza, which killed off about one third of the entire population and severely weakened the rest. Still, Cortes was a brave and intelligent commander who took on an entire warrior world of hundreds of thousands with a force of barely two thousand - after reinforcements arrived.
Days of the Dead Festival:
of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos) is perhaps Mexico's most illuminating
festival, celebrating death and departed relatives with enormous gusto,
colour and fearless respect. It runs from Oct 31 - to Nov 2, unofficially
combining Halloween with All Saints Day (Nov 1) and All Souls Day (Nov
In key towns, such as Oaxaca, Mixquic (south of Mexico City) and Janitzio
island, Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán (west of Mexico City),
death oriented products such as sugar skulls, bread bones, dancing skeletons
and all manner of creepy costumes hit the streets days before the event.
During the Day of the Dead festivals - both days and nights - cheerful strolling musicians,
spooky costumed kids and sand artists encourage donations while homes
and churches display altars artistically loaded with fruit, flowers, candles
and favourite foods of the visiting souls. Nightfall sees family groups
heading for cemeteries with guitars and picnic hampers for a meet 'n'
greet 'n' party with the dead, a refreshing attitude to an irresistible
event that most westerners avoid even contemplating, let alone celebrating.
The Day of the Dead festival is for kids too!
Mexicans really like to party!
January, Fiesta de Enero, Chiapa de
Corzo (Chiapas). Bizarre dances, costumes, masks, parades, fireworks.
Feb/March Carnaval, date depends on
the year, Veracruz, Cozumel, Mazatlan and other cities. A wild party
time with dance, music, parades, costumes.
Itza (Yucatan) see the Kukulcan snake god appear, plus varied
entertainments. Couple of days before & after too.
Easter Week/Semana Santa, nationwide
but especially Chiapas state, processions, costumes, fireworks,
music, dance and some weird rituals.
Mid April - early May, Feria de San
Marcos, Aguascalientes. A huge and long established celebration
of Mexican music and machismo, with rodeos, bull fights, folk dancing,
parades, mariachi y mucho mas.
May, Cinco de Mayo, Puebla (just north
of Mexico City) is celebrated with the usual music, dance, parades
and mock battles in the 'living museum' of Puebla.
September, 3rd Saturday, Running of
the Bulls, aka Pamplonada or Sanmiguelada. Varied festivities apart
from the Pamplona imitation, including dancing and fireworks.
Oct 31- Nov 2, Days
of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos). Mainly in the states of Michoacan
(especially Lake Patzcuaro) and Oaxaca, a visually and intellectually
fascinating festival. e.g. partying with departed relatives in cemeteries
December 12, Feast of the Virgin of
Guadalupe, nationwide but especially in Guadalupe, north of Mexico
City, with dancing, processions, costumes, fireworks and so on.
Mexican towns embrace ancient central plazas, otherwise known as
zocalo, where locals have always gathered in the shady colonnades or under
the trees, and kids escape from their mothers; if there is a civic event
that's where it will probably start and consequently that's where any
savvy traveller should stay if affordable or head for the first evening
Veracruz's well-known zocalo, on the other hand, is generally more lively
and boisterous while Mexico City's Alameda is a fine retreat for families
and romantics in spite of its dark past when heretics were burnt there.
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