Saturday, August 27, 2011

Wanderings: My Secret Pyramid

Somewhere in Mexico -- There are thousands of these places all over the country. No road signs point the way and there are no gates, guards or visitor centers. No maintenance crew keeps things neat and trimmed. Few tourists ever find them. And in most cases, these places remain much the same as they have been for centuries.

I have a secret pyramid. When I visit, it's all mine. I will tell you about it, but I am not going to say just where it is.

Of course it's not really a secret. It's located close to a highway and people live nearby. They drive cattle past it every day, and work in their milpas, cornfields, which dot the surrounding area. However few who live here give the pyramid much thought. It has always been there. Just like the sky and hills, the rocks and the trees, it's part of the landscape.

The government knows about it, and apparently official archaeologists once came out and took a look. But in a country with limited funding for such things and countless ancient sites scattered over tens of thousands of square miles, this one has probably never been thoroughly surveyed, and is unlikely ever to be excavated, restored and developed as a public park. To be truthful it's small, not awe-inspiring when compared to other well-known Mexican pyramids, and represents a lost and little-understood culture.

When I visit this pyramid, I normally have the place completely to myself. I always feel that I am the only one who cares about it as much as I do. I guess that's one reason why I like it so much.

I first came out here about a dozen years ago, and since I pass through the area from time to time, have visited the pyramid six or eight times since.

On my very first visit I went with a couple of locals who offered to show me around. The pyramid is actually one of several pre-Colombian structures in the complex, but the others are in such ruinous contition that it is hard to make out what they were. That day I enjoyed the hike. I climbed to the top, admired the view, and took a few pictures. Then afterward I found myself thinking about the place and felt the need to go back and spend more time there.

So I went back by myself. From where I normally stay when in the area, it is about an hour's hike through a pueblo, down into a small canyon full of pillar-like rock formations, jumping the stream at the bottom, and up the other side into another small pueblo. As I walk I occasionally pass traditionally-dressed indigenous women, often accompanied by children, carrying bundled firewood or tending small herds of animals. It's hard to get lost on these trails; foot traffic over many hundreds of years has worn deep grooves into the rock.

Passing through the pueblo only takes a couple of minutes. On the far side, an expanse of corn fields on both sides of the road opens a vista of the hills and valleys in all directions. Soon you climb a rise. As you come over the top, a hill comes into view. It is covered in shrubs and small trees, and at first looks like just another hill. Then you notice a level row of stonework near the top, and the design of the structure becomes apparent.

Sometimes, local children come out of their houses or materialize from the brush to shyly peer at me. The braver ones may approach and try to sell me artifacts they have found in their fields. I politely look at what they have to offer, shards of pottery, blades and points of translucent obsidian, and small objects of clay or stone. I then explain to the children that although they are very nice, it's illegal for me to possess artifacts like these, so I can't buy. The children speak Spanish poorly, having grown up speaking an indigenous dialect, so I am not sure that they understand exactly why I won't purchase their treasures. They are disappointed. They are reluctant to have their picture taken. After this exchange, the kids wander off and leave me to myself.

A local child displays obsidian points found near the pyramid.

From this point I am left alone, free to feel the wind, sun and rain, and enjoy animals, plants and the scenery. No one comes near as I wander, kicking at pottery and obsidian fragments scattered in the dust, the abundant litter of an ancient civilization. No one accompanies me as I eventually climb the ruins and sit on the top of this former spiritual center of a long-forgotten culture.

Nothing much happens at the pyramid. Sometimes I take pictures, write or sketch there. Mostly I just sit and watch my surroundings. It's a beautiful and quiet place with a solidity about it that few others in my experience possess. That's what it has to offer and that, it seems to me, is its great value.

The secret pyramid is a touchstone, a pilgrimage for me. It has become one of a small number of very special places in the geography of my life, places where I feel connected, content, and at peace. I suspect I will keep returning to it, from time to time, as long as I am able to do so.


  1. Awesome story and photos Marc. Thanks for taking us there.

  2. The last photo is spectacular. It took my breath away.

  3. Debbie and Barb: It's interesting, but I think Mexico has more special places like this than anywhere else I've ever been. Having grown up in Alaska, I treasure a number of wonderful special places there. And, I've traveled a bit and found other "secret" spots around the world, but Mexico tops the list for the number and quality of these kinds of places. It must have to do with the geography, history and cultures here. There is always something new to discover.

  4. Fantastic post, Marc. i have some favorite unknown pyramids also. The last picture makes me think you were in Queretaro somewhere along the river between San Juan and Teqisquiapan.

    Early in my traveling life I met a woman in South America who had been all over the world. When I asked her what her favorite country was, she answered Mexico as it had more spectacular scenery, history and culture than anywhere else. A lifetime later, I must agree with her.

  5. Paul, as you know, secrets can be hard to keep, and a secret may be sweeter if others know you have it. It's fun to hint about secrets. However I have secrets I will not divulge: a favorite secluded beach for one (which is a secret you and I share), and this pyramid.

    I absolutely agree with your South American acquaintance, as I wrote in another comment above, that Mexico has more wonders to offer than any place I know of.

  6. It appears that I am going to have to consider bribing, cajoling, or some other means of persuasion to get you to at least consider giving me a hint as to where the secluded beach is located. I SWEAR, I will not tell another single soul. Maybe next time I'm in Mérida and we meet and I buy you lunch every day for a week, or do your laundry, or scrub the sidewalk in front of your casa?? If you stand firm in your resolve not to divulge this secret, I'll then move on to Paul.

  7. Love:

    "No one comes near as I wander, kicking at pottery and obsidian fragments scattered in the dust, the abundant litter of an ancient civilization. No one accompanies me as I eventually climb the ruins and sit on the top of this former spiritual center of a long-forgotten culture."

    I have a place like that in New Mexico. The sense of history ~ and of being a part of history, a tiny speck on the continuum of time ~ is enormous. I have only been there a few times, but it is a place I think of often. I won't get all new agey here, but being in one of those places where the sense of past lives lived well comes through, is wonderful.

    I'm glad you've got your spot. I won't even try to find out where. I think we each must find our own spot, our own "touchstone," and the effort is part of the process.

  8. Fine post, Marc.

    I took an art history course when I was 18 and majoring in draft deferment. Later, having been drafted anyhow, I was stationed in Spain. One of the high points of that stay was finding a rarely visited cave with what certainly seemed to me to be very ancient cave art. (Of course, I had no radio-carbon dating equipment in my camera bag.) There was an iron gate on the opening; I paid a farmer 25 pesetas to view the art. It was truly a holy experience to behold these figures on the walls of Cueva de la pileta (cave of the cistern) near Rhonda. That was 1968. I understand that tour buses go there now.

    I was reminded of that visit recently when I viewed CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS by Werner Herzog. A Stunning documentary! (even while ignoring Herzog's bombast, which wasn't too hard too do.)

    Thanks for revivifying that filmic experience for me.


  9. John/Alan, well my house is a mess, so your offer is tempting. However I promised the friends who were with me when we "discovered" the beach that it would remain a secret. I doubt Paul will budge, but you can always try. The good thing is that there are lots of places like it out there. You just need to start wandering around. And there's something nice about finding your own special place.

    Lynette, thanks for your comments. You've pegged it exactly. The special places speak to us from the past, and put our own lives and concerns in perspective. It's comforting.

    ~eric: Of course it's sad when the places change, and eventually the tourist hordes change them. I'll have to check out this film; usually the things you recommend impress me. I'll take a look.

  10. I'm curious why it is illegal to buy the artifacts from the children?

    1. Julia, I wrote that I couldn't buy because it's illegal for me to possess artifacts, not because it is necessarily illegal to buy them from the children in this case.

      Mexico has strict laws that prohibit the taking and sale of artifacts to protect historical and archaeological sites from being dug up and ruined by pot-hunters. Most countries have such laws. I don't know the ins and outs of the Mexican law, so I prefer to avoid possible problems. I do know that friends of mine who put fragments of artifacts in their pockets have had them confiscated by Mexican authorities when passing through airport security.


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