Saturday, November 21, 2009

Exploring Ancient Acapulco, Mexico

With its curving bay ringed with ritzy hotels and thumping nightclubs, Acapulco looks and sounds like a city that lives entirely for the moment. But this hedonistic Mexican resort is full of surprises. One of the biggest revelations for many visitors is that Acapulco has roots that go back thousands of years.

Little is known about the indigenous peoples who settled in what is now Acapulco, but they left behind a remarkable series of petroglyphs (rock carvings) on the slopes of a hill overlooking Acapulco Bay. These treasures have been preserved in the Palma Sola Archaeological Site in El Veladero Ecological Park about four miles north of downtown.

To begin exploring ancient Acapulco, all you need do is hail a taxi and ask the driver to take you to Palma Sola. After a dizzying climb through steep, circuitous streets, you’ll arrive in a quiet neighborhood with simple houses, vegetable gardens, and roaming pigs and chickens. The taxi driver will let you off in front of a visitors' center. From here, a set of natural stone steps leads through scrubby vegetation to the rock carvings. Eighteen boulders etched with carvings dating back to 750-800 B.C. are scattered throughout the 3.8 hectare (about 9.5 acres) site.

Shade is scare, and at 400 meters (about 1200 feet) above sea level the air is hot and dry, so it's a good idea to walk slowly and drink plenty of bottled water. Chances are that you will have the entire site to yourself as you follow the well-maintained paths that wind from boulder to boulder. Interpretive signs in both Spanish and English explain the significance of each set of petroglyphs and provide background information about the area's first inhabitants. Panoramic views of sprawling Acapulco and of the blue Pacific Ocean unfold along the way.

Acapulco’s early inhabitants considered this hillside a sacred place and used it for religious and agricultural ceremonies, as well as for making astronomical observations. Several of the petroglyphs – which have been outlined in white to make them easier to see – show shamans and other participants involved in religious rites. Some of the figures are childlike, consisting of little more than circles and squiggly lines, while others are more sophisticated, revealing facial expressions and incorporating simple geometric designs. Archaeologists believe that these carvings describe significant events in the history, mythology and culture of Acapulco’s ancient citizens.

At the end of the trail, you will find Palma Sola’s most important sculpture nestled inside a shallow cave. Petroglyphs covering this oblong boulder depict what is thought to be an ancestral creation myth. A man and a woman, reminiscent of Adam and Eve, stand beside a crowd of human-like figures and animals. While the exact meaning of this scene is unclear, the carvings exude a magical aura, especially when the cave walls turn golden in the rays of the late afternoon sun.

Not as ancient as Palma Sola but well-worth visiting is Fuerte de Santiago (Santiago Fort) perched atop a hill in the old part of Acapulco. Here you can get an idea of the role Acapulco played during Mexico's colonial days. Hernan Cortes, the Spaniard who led the conquest of Mexico in 1519, chose Acapulco to be his shipbuilding headquarters, and numerous expeditions to the South Seas set sail from Acapulco during the 16th century.

Spanish Conquistadors built Santiago Fort in 1616 to protect their galleons from marauding English and Dutch pirates. Ships from Manila in the Philippines regularly docked at Acapulco, making it the most important Spanish port on Mexico's Pacific coast. Well into the 19th century, Acapulco hosted a flourishing trade fair, where goods from Mexico, Peru, and Spain were exchanged for products from the Far East.

An earthquake destroyed much of Santiago Fort in 1776, but it was rebuilt several years later. Shaped like a five-pointed star and surrounded by a dry moat, the fortress has been completely restored and now houses the Museo Historico de Acapulco, a museum chronicling Acapulco's history.

You can wander through converted military quarters containing weapons, seafaring paraphernalia, along with Chinese porcelain, elegant furniture, textiles and other artifacts from Asia. There are also interactive videos (in both Spanish and English) highlighting various aspects of Acapulco's history, plus a colonial-era chapel and a kitchen with traditional fixtures and utensils. On the fort's upper level, you’ll find rows of rusty cannon still keeping watch over Acapulco Bay.

GETTING THERE: The easiest way to visit Palma Sola is by taxi, but you can also get there by public bus. The archaeological site is open daily from 9 am until 5 pm. Admission is about US$2.00. El Fuerte de San Diego (Fort San Diego) overlooks Avenida Costera Miguel Aleman a few blocks east of the Zocalo in old Acapulco. Opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 until 6:30 pm. Admission is about US$4.00.

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Acapulco - Images by John Mitchell

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