Category Archives: Featured

The-Atlanteans-e1563890012296

Tula – Mysterious City of the Toltecs

Mexico is a country of endless highlights. Luckily for us, we have one of our travellers – Dale of The Maritime Explorer – to explain his experiences in Tula, the mysterious city of the Toltecs.


 

We continue on our amazing  Adventures Abroad journey through central Mexico with veteran guide Victor Romagnoli as our small group approaches the ruins of the ancient Toltec city of Tula. Our last stop was at Teotihuacan which more than lived up to its billing as one of the greatest pre-Columbian archaeological sites in the New World. Now we are about to explore a much less visited site that was once the capital city of the Toltec Empire which the Mexicas (aka Aztecs) greatly admired and claimed to emulate as much as possible. The only trouble is that there is very little actual solid evidence about just who the Toltecs were and their relationship to other contemporary cultures, particularly the Mayans of Chichén Itzá. What little evidence there remains of the Toltecs can be found at Tula so I hope you’ll join us for this visit.

History of the Toltecs and Tula

The Toltecs are perhaps the most mysterious and unknowable of the pre-Columbian civilizations that came and went long before Cortés set foot on Mexican soil. The reason for this is that what we know of them comes largely from Mexica writings and oral history which is a bit weird because the Toltecs had disappeared before the Mexicas rose to power in Tenochtitlan, modern day Mexico City. Despite not being contemporaries or even chronological successors, the Mexicas professed that the Toltecs had represented the epitome of civilization and that virtually everything they did was based on Toltec precedent. They ascribed the whole Queztalcoatl thing which was so essential to their myths and religion, to the Toltecs. They believed the last king of the Toltecs was named Queztalcoatl. The only problem with this is that the archaeological record does not support the idea that the Toltecs were some type of super race who did everything better than anyone before or after them. Quite the opposite is the case at Tula, the largest Toltec city was nowhere near as grand as either Teotihuacan which came before it and Tenochtitlan which came after.

That is not by any means to say that Tula is not worth visiting. It has some features that make it unique like the four giant basalt figures named the Atlanteans that stand atop the largest pyramid in Tula. Or the hundreds of square and round pillars that give it a marked similarity to the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá. The reality seems to be that after Teotihuacan was destroyed or abandoned around 500-550 CE there was a power vacuum in the central Mexican highlands and for a period of about six hundred years the Toltecs filled that gap.

Tula actually consists of two distinct cities, Tula Chico, literally little Tula and Tula Grande which is the site we are visiting. Tula Chico came on the scene around 600 CE and was abandoned between 850 and 900 CE at which time Tula Grande began to develop and lasted until about 1150 CE when it too was either voluntary abandoned or destroyed by internal strife. No one knows for sure which it was. Today, you can find Tula 75 kms.(47 miles) northwest of Mexico City in the state of Hidalgo.

Ordinarily your visit would start at the Museo Jorge R. Acosta named for the most prominent archaeologist who worked on excavating Tula. However, during our visit it was temporarily closed and this was all we got to see. However, I have confirmed that it will be reopened in time for the 2019 trip.

Museum of Tula
Tula Museum

After paying the small entrance fee there is a very enjoyable walk to the site that features a variety of wildflowers and cacti. Little would you guess that a city as large as 80,000 people once thrived here.

Path to Tula
Walking to Tula

This is an agave plant putting up the one bloom it will make in its long lifetime after which it will die. Often mistakenly called a century plant in the belief that they do not bloom for a hundred years, most agaves bloom after 30-40 years. If you think this stalk looks like a giant asparagus you would be right as the two plants are closely related.

Agave Plant at Tula
Agave Plant

This is a barrel cactus with one tiny bloom surrounded by vicious looking thorns. You sure wouldn’t want to sit on this by accident!

Barrel Cactus at Tula
Barrel Cactus

Lastly on this mini-horticultural tour heading to Tula we have this version of the poker plant, a member of the aloe family

Tula Poker Plant
Poker Plant

The one thing I was not expecting from Tula was to find one of the best preserved ball courts in Mexico, which is about the first thing you come upon at the site. The Meso American ball game dates back to at least 1400 B.C. and was played by every Mexican pre-Columbian civilization from that time up until the coming of the Europeans. The space in between the sides would have been much deeper before centuries of erosion filled the interior with silt.

Ball Court at Tula
Tula Ball Court

You often hear the expression, “It’s only a game.” when someone gets overheated after shanking a golf shot or having a dart bounce off the bullseye. You wouldn’t say that to any of the players or spectators at the ball game for it was a deadly serious business that sometimes saw the losers executed. It could literally be a game of life and death. Standing here today looking at this relatively benign scene it is hard to imagine the noise and hysteria that took place here over a thousand years ago.

Tula is not known for it grand pyramids like Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan, but it does have a few small ones like this that are pretty ant-climactic after you’ve visited the other two places.

Pyramid at Tula
Small Tula Pyramid

But were not here to see pyramids, but rather to view the hundreds of columns that make Tula almost a sister city of Chichén Itzá which is a chronological contemporary with Tula. Chichén Itzá was the first pre-Columbiam city I visited in Mexico some years before coming on this trip. I was there to see the famous pyramid El Castillo and the observatory among other things, but what really surprised me was the presence of columns and pillars. After years of touring Greek, Roman and Egyptian archaeological sites (some with Victor) I just assumed that the use of columns and pillars to support a roof was a Western thing. Chichén Itzá opened my eyes to the fact that these building techniques existed independently in Meso America and are not the product of the ‘Western mind’.

So I give you the columns and pillars of Tula. Just to clarify one small point – columns are always meant to be weight bearing structures while pillars may or may not be, at least according to architectural sources I have consulted. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the emperor Trajan that his column in Rome is actually a pillar.

Pillars of Tula
Tula Pillars

We have seen nothing like this at any of the previous sites we have visited. They have a style and symmetry that is compelling. On inspection you can see that the pillars are not solid rock, but created from thousands of tiny flat stones cemented together and then covered in a limestone based plaster that I presume would have once been covered with painted designs.

Pillars of Tula
Tula Pillars

Like wise the circular columns which would have supported a wooden roof to what is believed to have been a former palace which was destroyed by fire near the end of Tula’s existence. In fact, this building is called the Burnt Palace.

Tula Round Pillars
Round Columns of Tula in the Burnt Palace

This is our group with our local guide surrounding the chacmool of Tula. As you can tell I’ve wandered off to the top of Pyramid B to get this shot.

Our Group at Tula

This is a closer look at the Tula chacmool which unfortunately has lost its head. Chacmools are found in central Mexico and the Yucatan and are associated with the rain god Tlaloc. Some kind of sacrifice would have been placed atop the ceremonial bowl the figure is holding. I’m not even going to guess what that might have been.

Chacmool of Tula
Tula Chacmool

The Atlanteans

Now we get to the star attraction of Tula – Pyramid B with the four Atlanteans on top of it. I had to use this picture from the web which would have been taken from the top of Pyramid C to give the reader an idea of the quite unique look of this pyramid. We have seen no others with anything like this on top of them.

Pyramid B, Tula

I also wanted to show how incredibly steep the stairs are that lead to the top. This is not a place for people with vertigo. Only about half our group went to the top and a few of them came down on their fannies because if you tripped it would be game over.

But what a sight once you make it to the top. Aside from getting a great look at the Burnt Palace from above you see the four Atlanteans standing solemnly and as mysterious a group of statues as you’ll find anywhere in the world.

The Atlanteans of Tula
The Atlanteans

The Atlanteans are named not for Atlantis or the city in Georgia, but rather after the titan Atlas who was responsible for holding up the earth – he literally had the weight of the world on his shoulders. These statues which are fifteen feet high once held up a roof of some sorts and so technically they are columns. There is no agreement as to their age which could be as early as 850 CE or as late as 1100 CE. They are the best known Atlantean figures in Mexico, but others have been found at, no surprise, Chichén Itzá and in various parts of the Mexica (Aztec) empire. Apparently these four statues had a tremendous influence on the Mexicas and are partly the reason the Mexicas believed the Toltecs to have been some sort of super race.

Let’s take a closer look at each Atlantean. As for as I can tell, they do not have individual names, but they are all  slightly different, each representing a Toltec warrior in full battle dress.

Atlantean 1, Tula
Atlantean 1
Atlantean 2, Tula
Atlantean 2
Atlantean 3, Tula
Atlantean 3
Atlantean 4, Tula
Atlantean 4

It is on their backsides that you see major differences. This is a Mayan calendar on the back of Atlantean 1 and confirms the close relationship between the Toltecs and the Mayans.

Mayan Calendar, Tula
Mayan Calendar

There are other more creepy practices associated with Tula such as this carving of serpents devouring skeletons.

Serpents of Tula

In reading the itinerary for this trip, one of things I most looked forward to was standing atop Pyramid B or more romantically, the House of the Morning Star, and seeing the Atlanteans gaze out over the high plains of central Mexico. Believe me, it was worth the somewhat scary climb to the top and the far more scarier descent and I have the photo to show we did it. You should get one too.

With the Atlanteans, Tula
With the Atlanteans at Tula

Next we venture to San Miguel Allende, a small colonial city considered to be among the most beautiful in Mexico and much favoured by Canadian expats and snowbirds.


 

Many thanks again to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for allowing us to share his wonderful insights.

 

Botswanan-Elephants

Chobe River Wildlife – Elephants Everywhere

For those that ever dreamed of Africa, here is a great insight from our traveller Dale of The Maritime Explorer about a recent trip to the Chobe River.

 


 

 

This is my second post on the Chobe River area that stretches along the Caprivi Strip which separates Namibia from Botswana. The first post featured the Chobe Savanna Lodge which, in my opinion, is quite simply one of the most wonderful places anyone could ever want to stay. This second post will feature the wildlife that one can expect to see on a visit to the Chobe River and why it is so different from any other African safari that I have ever experienced. Hope you’ll come along for the ride – on a boat and not a Land Cruiser.

I guess that’s the first thing that’s different about wildlife viewing on the Chobe River, you do it by boat and not by land.  Although on the Botswana side there are roads and we did see people in Land Cruisers looking to find wildlife along the riverbanks, the reality is, in this area, you will see more from the boat than from inside a safari vehicle.

Chobe River Elephants

Elephants near the Chobe River
Chobe River Elephants

Here’s a simple fact. The Chobe River area has the largest concentration of African elephants in the world. Up to 150,000 of these largest of land animals live in relative peace on both sides of the river, crossing from one side to another at their pleasure. Regretfully we did not witness such a crossing, but as large as they are, they just seemed to appear out of nowhere right in front of the lodge.

This is a herd of about twenty on the Namibian side with more plus a whack of giraffes on the Botswana side with four safari vehicles in pursuit.

Chobe Savanna Lodge View
View from the Dining Room

Elephants love water and we saw more than a few enjoying the cooling effects of the Chobe River while, in this case, trying to convince a very reluctant youngster that this was the place to be.

Chobe River Elephants
Elephants in the Chobe River

Can you tell how many elephants are in this photo? One more than it appears at first blush. Twins are quite rare in the elephant world, but we were fortunate to see such a duo and they both seemed to be thriving.

Chobe River Elephant and Child
Elephant Mother & Children

Elephants, with the exception of crabby old males, mix very well with other species including the notoriously bad tempered hippos. Presumably their sheer bulk precludes the hippos from acting up around them.

Elephants % Hippos on the Chobe River
Chobe River Elephants & Hippos

Speaking of hippos, isn’t this the most cuddly little critter you’ve ever seen? Not. Talk about a face only a mother could love!

Chobe River Baby Hippo
Baby Hippo

One final elephant photo and we’ll move on. This is a herd on the Botswana side of the Chobe River. The bottom line is, if you want to see elephants in the wild and in huge numbers, you must come to the Chobe River. I don’t believe you can see anything like this anywhere else in the world.

Botswana Elephants

Chobe River Fishing Trip

The late, great Tony Bourdain’s TV shows often included, usually to his derision, a fishing segment, so I will emulate him and include one in this post, with the same results Tony usually got. On our arrival at Chobe Savanna Lodge I discovered that fishing on the Chobe River was possible and so asked our guide Felix Sitengu if we could take a stab at catching one of the most notorious freshwater predators in the piscatory world, the tigerfish. With a set of teeth that would make a barracuda envious, the tigerfish is one of the most sought after species in Africa and they live in the Chobe River.

Tigerfish

Felix told us that the best time of day to fish on the Chobe was at the break of dawn and sure enough he was rapping at our camp door while the sun was just thinking about rising.

Sunrise on the Chobe River
Chobe River Sunrise

We used a small boat with only about a five horse power outboard and commenced to troll very slowly up and down the river. And we trolled and we trolled. Not a bite, but it was still great being out here, turning to avoid curious hippos that could easily have overturned the boat, while watching the herds of elephants along the riverbanks.

Felix Setting the Line

Then, while I was almost convinced that I was going to have the same success rate as Tony usually did, there was a strike and a fish was on the line. Funny, I thought tigerfish were supposed to be really great fighters while whatever was on the end of this line seemed rather lethargic in its efforts to escape. We did land the fish and in the interests of total transparency I will include a picture of this magnificent catch, the majestic African tigerfish – all ten inches of him. Felix looks too embarrassed to even look.

Chobe River Tigerfish
My First Tiger Fish

We released the little fellow in hopes that he would turn into a river monster one day. This was our only catch, but to paraphrase an old saying “Twas better to have fished and caught a minnow than not to have fished at all”.

Chobe River Reptiles

Besides being bitten by a tigerfish, there are other creatures lurking in and around the banks of the Chobe River that can be deadly. I refer of course to the Nile crocodiles that reach their largest size not on the Nile River, but rather throughout southern Africa. They sit on the riverbank basking with their mouths open in a smiley way that suggests, “Why don’t you come a little closer”.

Crocodile on the Chobe River
Smiley Croc

I’m not sure how long this guy was, but he was big.

Nile Crocodile on the Chobe River
Nile Crocodile

Occasionally you get to hear one roar which will scare the bejesus out of you if you are this close.

Roaring Croc

Crocodiles aren’t the only reptiles inhabiting the Chobe River. Water monitors are very common and act as controls on the croc population as their favourite food is the eggs of other reptiles, although they’ll eat anything they can catch. I guess they don’t need to worry about their cholesterol levels.

Chobe River Water Monitor
Water Monitor

The crocs do get the last laugh as they will happily chow down on a water monitor if one comes too close.

Lunch on Board

In the previous post I noted that we were the only guests at the Chobe Savannah Lodge and that we were treated like royalty during our stay. Nowhere was that more apparent than at lunch on our second day there. Felix told us we would eat on the boat and when we showed up this was the set up.

Chobe River Lunch
Ready for Lunch on the Chobe River

We enjoyed a great leisurely meal while gently cruising the waters of the Chobe River with scenes like these.

This is two juvenile impalas practising the techniques which they will need when they grow older if they are ever to have a harem of their own and pass their genes on to the next generation. In a year or so they’ll be doing this for real.

Playful Impalas
Impalas Practicing Their Fencing Skills

Wherever you find impalas along the Chobe River you will also find chacma baboons with whom they have a symbiotic relationship, both using their eyes and ears  to guard against marauding leopards, lions, hyenas and eagles. They are endlessly entertaining to watch, especially if you are sipping a glass of fine wine on a boat only ten feet from shore. These three don’t seem to mind that they are sitting on a pile of fresh elephant dung.

Baboons on the Chobe River
Chacma Baboons

It was during this luncheon cruise that we ran into our five other Adventures Abroad mates from whom we had been separated at the Botswana border. They looked like they were having a good time, but certainly they didn’t have their own floating restaurant.

Our Compatriots

Avifauna of the Area

While most people go on safari to see the big five and other large mammals, Alison and I have always enjoyed the birds of Africa as much as any wildlife we see on these trips. The Chobe River was no exception, in fact, I would rate the birding here as good as any in Africa. Here’s why.

Let’s start with one of the most impressive of all the large predatory birds of Africa, the fish eagle. These birds have a passing resemblance to the bald eagle, but that is about all they have in common. Whereas the bald eagle is primarily a scavenger (something that Ben Franklin thought should rule them out as America’s national bird), the fish eagles of Africa are voracious and not only catch fish, but water birds, small crocs and even baboons. They are the national bird of Namibia.

They mate for life and we saw many pairs like this sitting high above the river ready to swoop down on whatever might come their way. Felix told us that if he caught a fish that was too badly injured to be released the fish eagles would gladly oblige him by taking it almost literally off his hands.

Fish Eagles on the Chobe River
Chobe River Fish Eagles

There’s something about a lone fish eagle sitting in the branches of a dead tree that brings out the best in any amateur photographer.

Fish Eagle & Dead Tree

Or a live tree for that matter.

Fish Eagle

The most unusual bird in the Chobe River area is undoubtedly the black heron. From this photo you would not guess why – it just looks like another of the many species of herons and egrets in southern Africa.

Chobe River Black Heron
Black Heron

But when you see the black heron fold its wings over its head to create shade which attracts tiny fish to their doom, you know why it is also called the umbrella bird.

Black Heron as Umbrella Bird, Chobe River
Black Heron as Umbrella Bird

This is one the prettiest of the many shore birds you’ll see along the Chobe River – the blacksmith lapwing.

Blacksmith Lapwing, Chobe River
Blacksmith Lapwing

The aptly named Goliath heron is the largest of the African herons and quite majestic as it slowly takes flight, the B-52 of birds.

Goliath Heron, Chobe River
Goliath Heron

And then there are the kingfishers, one of my favourite birds because of their hard work ethic. They might take ten or more attempts to catch a fish, but they never give up. This is the colourful woodland kingfisher.

Woodland Kingfisher, Chobe River
Woodland Kingfisher

And the wonderful black and white pied kingfisher.

Pied Kingfisher, Chobe River
Pied Kingfisher

I could go on and on with photos of dozens more species, but will conclude with a couple of very colourful birds. This is a pair of white-fronted bee eaters that hung around the dock and whipped out to pick off insects on the fly.

White-Fronted Bee Eater Pair, Chobe River
White-Fronted Bee Eater Pair

And their cousins, the European bee eater.

European Bee Eater Pair

Alas, we must leave the Chobe River and head for the Okavango delta, but not before saying goodbye to our great guide Felix. It was two days of absolute heaven on earth.

With Felix Sitengu

 


 

 

Many thanks again to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for allowing us to share his photos and words.

Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan in Mexico

Teotihuacan – Mexico’s Great Pre-Columbian City

We love a country that has cultural depth, and Mexico is a fine example of such a country. Many thanks to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for capturing a sense of some of the greatness of Mexico with this wonderful post about Teotihuacan. Many thanks to Dale for also allowing us to share his words and photos with you.

Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan in Mexico

Continue reading