Friday, July 6, 2018

Traditional Indigenous Dancers: Concheros and Danzantes Aztecas

In our early years living in Mexico City, we had frequently seen "Aztec dancers" dressed with elaborate feather headdresses and loin cloths, performing with their drums and rattles and burning incense in the Zócalo, Mexico City's central plaza. In the 21st century, they seemed to be an anomalous throwback to prehispanic times, more than five hundred years past. We assumed they were performing for the tourists, Mexican as well as foreign. We were wrong. Our biased perspective was that of a tourist.

Over the past two years, attending many fiestas in the originally indigenous pueblos and barrios now incorporated in the City, we have frequently encountered such Aztec dancers. We have learned that, while they present themselves in several variations of attire and play a variety of musical instruments and even call themselves names other than Aztec, they share an identification with Mexicans' indigenous roots. And their only audience, except for us, is el pueblo, the people of the neighborhood.

It became obvious that they take their dancing very seriously. It is not for entertainment. It is a very personal and communal ritual act, something that would have to be called religious and spiritual. We wanted to understand the complexity and history of what we were witnessing. So we began to explore their story, speaking with some dancers and researching online.

Aztec dancer at the patron saint fiesta of
Pueblo San Sebastián Axotla,
Delegación Álvaro Obregón

It turns out that, while these dancers may seem a nostalgic re-creation of a past that has disappeared, they actually have a long and continuous history going back to the early days after the Spanish Conquest (Wikipedia).

Origin of the Aztec-Conchero Dancers

The dances, now often called Azteca in Mexico City, originally arose in areas of South Central Mexico not too far from Mexico City. Different sources give varying accounts. Querétaro, a state to the northwest of Mexico City, is one. Tlaxcala, to the east, is another. The dancers were originally called concheros, after the lute-like stringed instruments they played.

According to one tradition, the birth of the Conchero Dance was in the city of Santiago de Querétaro (now the capital of the State of Querétero) on Tuesday, July 25, 1531. The tale is very Mexican; it centers on a miracle. (Coincidentally, the Virgin of Guadalupe is believed to have appeared to the Nahua Juan Diego in a series of visions the same year, between December 9 and 12, 1531). The story goes as follows:
After a long period of war with the Spanish after the fall of Tenochtitlan, the chichimecas (not a specific tribe, but the generic name applied by settled, agrarian indigenous, hence 'civilized' peoples to nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, considered to be "Barbarians") decided to open themselves to the possibility of a pact of peace with the Spaniards, sealed by a final, symbolic battle of honor.
The proposed day for the battle was July 25, a significant date for both parties. For the chichimecas, that day was when the constellation of Sagittarius was high on the horizon, which they saw as the "tree of life" (Tamoanchan). On the same day, the Spaniards celebrated the feast of Santiago (St. James), the patron saint of Spain.  
At dawn on that date, on the hill of Sangremal (Bad Blood), both groups began a fight without weapons, body to body. But spirits got overexcited and anything could happen. Then an eclipse of the sun occurred and a luminous cross appeared in the heavens, accompanied by the form of a person that the natives identified as Quetzalcoatl (god of creative acts) and the Spaniards as the Apostle Santiago. Everyone fell to their knees at the same time, as a loud voice was heard proclaiming "El es dios" | "He is God!"
The chichimecas raised a stone cross in the place (called the "Cross of Miracles") and executed their sacred dances to celebrate the event. Since then, this dance (called the Dance of the Conquest) has been danced in that place without interruption until the present. The expression "He is God!" has remained as an obligatory greeting among the Concheros. (Translated from Origin de las Danzas Religiosas, [Origin of the Religious Dances], link no longer available). 
The Franciscan friars, and friars of the other religous orders who subsequently arrived to convert the indigenous from their "pagan" beliefs and practices to Catholic ones (the so-called Spiritual Conquest, following the military one), banned indigenous dances using traditional drums and rattles as being "pagan" rites to gods who were "the Devil". However, following their strategy of allowing adaptation of indigenous rituals to Roman Catholic ones, the native people were taught to play European-style stringed instruments, such as the lute, and adapt their dances (mitote in Nahuatl) to Spanish Catholic symbolism. Thus modified, they could participate in church fiestas.

Following the Catholic structure of cofradías, confraternities, lay groups supporting church events, the people created formal dance groups. Maintaining indigenous tradition, membership was limited and handed down along family lines. The stringed concha instrumentts they play (Spanish concha means a shell), were made from native armadillo shells. Traditionally, they wore simple white tunics, possibly modeled after priests' robes.

Concheros in traditional dress.
(The origin of the use of ostrich feathers is another mystery.)

Members of la Corporación de Concheros Sociedades Unidas,
the Corporation of United Societies of Concheros,
which has existed in Mexico City since the 1920s.
Dancing at the Fiesta of the Holy Cross,

Comparsa (troupe) of Conchero dancers,

Throughout the Spanish Colonial era (1521-1823), concheros remained a phenomenon of las provincias, the predominantly rural and culturally more traditional areas outside Mexico City. [Under Spanish rule, these regions were officially provinces; the term is still used informally by residents of the capital to refer to what are now states of the federal union.] It was only in the late 19th century that people moving into Mexico City from the countryside brought conchero dancing to the capital.

Syncretism as the Path to Survival

For many decades, the Conchero Dance, with its adaptation of indigenous dance to Catholic beliefs and symbols, provided a means among Mexican indigenous groups in Central Mexico to maintain their communal identity. Their answer to the Spanish Conquest was to embrace Catholicism and make it into their own Mexican version, what is called popular—i.e. the people's—Catholicism. Two Catholic saints, in particular, were vehicles for this syncretic solution. (See our Santos Populares, Saints of the People)

The Virgin of Guadalupe, Mother of Mexico, Mother of the Union of Religions and Cultures

Central to Mexicans' adaptation of indigenous beliefs and culture to Roman Catholicism is the adoration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Virgin of Guadalupe reverberates with the powers of Tonantzin, one manifestation of the Earth Mother. Appearing to (now Saint) Juan Diego, an indigenous peasant, at a temple site of Tonantzin and speaking Nahuatl, la morena (the dark-skinned) Virgin is the quintessential embodiment of the union of the two cultures.

Actually, our first major encounter with Conchero/Azteca dancers in a religious context was an accidental one at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Visiting on a Sunday, the first November we were living in Mexico City, and a month before the Virgin's feast day on December 12, we were caught completely by surprise to find the huge plaza in front of the Basilica full of dozens of groups and hundreds of such dancers, all simultaneously engaged in their dances and rituals. The air was filled with the cacophony of their drums and the scent of their incense (copal). They carried banners indicating they were each from a different pueblo in or near Mexico City.

At the time, we were completely puzzled by what was clearly a major occasion for the groups. It ended with them entering the Basilica in their full indigenous panoply to participate in a Catholic Mass held especially for them. We did not pursue resolving the puzzle until our encounters with such dancers in the various pueblos finally motivated us to do so.

Aztec dancers at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
On the banner is the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

(See our spouse's blog post: 

The Crucified Christ and Indigenous Sacrifice

The other primary figure in the joining of indigenous beliefs with Catholic ones is Jesus the Christ. He has a parallel with Huitzilopochtli, chief god of the Mexica/Azteca. Huitzilopochtli was also the miraculously conceived son of a god, Tonatiuh, God of the Fifth Sun, and he, like Jesus the Christ, was born at the winter solstice. As the crucified Son of God, Jesus also echos the centrality of sacrifice in the indigenous religion.

Crucified Christ as "The Lord of Miracles",
next to Coatlicue, another version of the Mother Goddess.

Displayed by a conchero/Azteca dance group at a fiesta honoring the Lord of Miracles,
in Colonia Ajusco, Delegación Coyoacán

In front of both gods sits an
ofrenda of flowers in the shape of a cross.
The cross is at once the Christian symbol of Jesus Christ's self-sacrifice,
reconciling sinful humans to God,
and the indigenous symbol of the four cardinal directions
that organize and orient us within our world.
The four candles also mark the cardinal directions.

The circle in the center represents our bounded human world.
The central candle is the axis mundial, world axis,
the vertical connection with the gods in the heavens.
As such, this symbolic construction is likely one of the oldest and most archetypical
symbols in human culture, going back to pre-historic, hunter-gatherer times.

"Conformidad y Union": "The conquest of the flower"

For the conchero groups, the joining of indigenous symbols and traditions with those of Spanish Roman Catholicism is a matter of pride, a representation of what they call "Conformidad y Union", active acceptance of and joining together with the faith and culture brought from Europe. They call it "la conquista de la flor", "the conquest of the flower", i.e., of the heart. 
(Interestingly, the Mexicas fought so-called "flower wars" with some of their neighboring peoples specifically for the purpose of taking captives who would be sacrificed to their gods, with the removal of their hearts as the central act. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is also an important symbol in Catholicism. See our: Mexican Fiestas As Sacred Play - Part II: Fiestas as Creative Acts of Cultural Transformation and Continuity.) 

"Union, Conformidad y Conquista"
("Joining together, Agreement and Conquest")
Banner of an Azteca dance group 
from the Pueblo Santiago (St. James) Tlatelolco.
at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Thus, as we have encountered concheros in many of the originally indigenous pueblos within Mexico City, we have come to realize that the Conchero/Azteca dance tradition is one of the main vehicles for the syncretism of the religious and spiritual traditions of two otherwise alien cultures.

From Concheros to Aztecas: From Merger of Cultures to Indigenous Identity

During the 20th century, reflecting both their long tradition and the events of 20th century Mexican history, the concheros evolved into the various versions that we have encountered in our ambles.

Historically, the Catholic Church, as a virtual arm of the Spanish crown, had great wealth and wielded much power in Nueva España. Much of its power continued after Mexico won its independence (1823), even after efforts by the Reform government of Benito Juárez in the mid-19th centry to diminish it.

For that reason, in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), the post-revolutionary government became increasingly anti-church. It repressed public religious displays, including fiestas and processions in the streets. The practice of Catholicism was restricted to the interior of churches and private homes. The government also attempted to forge a shared national identity, in part by glorifying the indigenous past, particularly the "Aztec Empire" and the Mayan civilization.

In this context, the conchero groups were faced with a crisis. Some groups—affiliated with the church and holding to the Catholic faith—continued to dance in secret. However, others adopted a secular form called Dance Mesas (Tables, i.e., organized commissions) and separated themselves from Catholic symbolism and rituals. They made their explicit purpose the preservation and transmission of the indigenous dances of Central Mexico's original peoples, and thereby, their traditions and identity.

In one of those very Mexican paradoxes arising from the syncretism of the two cultures, the attire these groups adopted is modeled on that portrayed in the codices compiled nearly five hundred years ago by Spanish monks, in collaboration with indigenous informants. The codices were created with the specific aim of preserving knowledge of the indigenous culture and finding commonalities with Catholic belief and practices that could be used as bridges to move the "pagans" from their beliefs to Catholicism. Thus, the codices were an explicit instrument in the strategy and tactics of the Spiritual Conquest.

Conchero in Aztec or Mexica dress,
Festival of the Virgin of Sorrows, Xaltocán
Delegación Xochimilco

Some of these groups eliminated the use of conchero instruments, as they were of European origin, and use only indigenous percussion instruments (drums, rattles, ankle bracelets made of dried seeds) and, sometimes, small wooden flutes. These groups adopted the name Azteca to make their indigenous roots explicit. As the name Aztec is one that was applied by foreign anthropologists to indigenous Nahuatl speakers in Central Mexico, other groups proudly declare that they are Mexica (Meh-SHE-kah), the original name of the residents of Tenochtitlan.


Over time, some groups broke their exclusive, hereditary membership and began to initiate members from the middle class. With this opening, the conchero dance ceased to be a more or less marginal phenomenon of the working class and became a medium for indigenous-based cultural and spiritual expression for broader sectors of Mexican society. (Wikipedia)

Contemporary mezcla, mixture

Gradually, through the mid to late 20th century, the government retreated from its suppression of the Catholic Church and its prohibition of public religious acts. Fiestas and their processions of saints through the streets of pueblos and barrios could be celebrated once again. The conchero groups that maintained their allegiance to the Catholic faith and its rituals were able to return to a public presence. During recent decades, differentiations between these traditional concheros, in their white tunics, and Azteca or Mexica dancers, in their indigenous dress, has been blurred.

In our visits to the original pueblos of Mexico City, we have encountered several variations of the conchero/Azteca/Mexica dancers. There are groups that wear variations of the destinctive, original white tunics. There are also concheros, playing the traditional lute instrument, but garbed in indigenous dress. Then, there are groups in indigenous dress and using only indigenous instruments, but still participating in Catholic fiestas. There are also groups who reject any connection with the Catholic Church and hold their ritual dances in parks and plazas around Mexico City.

Passing on a Living Tradition

In our encounters with each of the variations on Conchero/Azteca/Mexica dance groups, we are always amazed by the multi-generational composition of the participants. There are many adultos mayores, seniors, dancing with vigor. There are also many middle-aged and younger adults fully involved.

Moreover, it is very clear that the members are very invested in passing on their traditions to the next generations. Teenagers and younger children are very much included. One traditional, white-tunicked conchero we talked with proudly stated that he is the fifth generation in his family to belong to his group. He added that both his son and now a grandson are participants, making it seven generations!



So, what we initially thought was an anachronistic performance for tourists in the Zócalo, we have discovered is a five-hundred-year-old tradition, a syncretistic solution to the confrontation between indigenous and Spanish Catholic cultures, expressed by the motto, "Union, Conformidad y Conquista". Over the years, particularly in the 20th century, it has been modified by political changes, shifts in the centrality of Catholicism to Mexican culture and the emergence of explicit movements to restore a presence and pride to indigenous identity. 

Nevertheless, a powerful cultural and spiritual force, legendarily released on a July day in 1531, on a mountain top in Querétero, is very much alive and well in Mexico City nearly five hundred years later. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Encountering Mexico City's Many Volcanoes, Part I: Giants on All Sides

Giants of Nature Reveal Themselves: Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl

When we were signing our first lease on our apartment in Delegación Coyoacán, in late July 2008the owner of the condominium surprised us when she told us, "You know, on clear days you can see the volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl from the living room."

We had been in the fifth floor apartment, in Colonia Parque San Andrés, two or three times to meet the real estate agent, view it and sign an intention to rent it. Among its features we loved was the huge, floor to ceiling, nine-foot wide window in the main room, with a balcony for plants outside, lots of trees across the street and no tall buildings to block the morning sun.

We had once lived in an apartment in Manhattan that faced north. While it was a great apartment, there was no sun, ever, so light in a city apartment was one of our concerns in moving to Mexico City. However, through the huge window, we had never seen a sign of any volcanoes (summer is the rainy season, marked by large cumulus clouds forming in the East in the afternoon).

We moved into the apartment in early August, but because of clouds, we still saw no volcanoes. Then, one afternoon, about 5:00 pm, we were sitting in our living room, having a glass of wine and watching the towering cumulus clouds building dramatically to the East. They boiled higher and higher, growing darker and darker. Lightening began to discharge from them. A strong wind began to blow from the East. We could see the rain arriving over a small hill a few miles away. Soon, we were enveloped in a torrential tropical downpour.

Towering cumulus clouds (cumulus congestus) build to the East in the Valley of Mexico
on a summer afternoon, during the rainy season.

After twenty minutes or so, the storm was over and the clouds began to clear. We were stunned by what was revealed before our very eyes!

Snow-covered Volcán Iztaccíhuatl began to reveal itself.
(This and all following pictures are telephoto shots from our apartment in Delegación Coyoacán)

Iztaccíhuatl, "The White Woman" in Nahuatl, 
called La Mujer Dormida, the Sleeping Woman, in Spanish, 
is actually a massif of volcanoes.
Her "head" volcano is to the left. The tallest volcano forms El Pecho, her "breasts".
Her "legs", other volcanoes, descend to the right (south).
She is familiarly called just 

El Pecho is 5,230 meters (17,160 ft) in height,
making the mountain the third highest in Mexico
and the eighth highest in North America.

Then, to the south, Popocatépetl began to appear.

Popocatépetl, "Smoking Mountain".
 5,426 meters (17,802 ft), it is the second highest mountain in Mexico
and the fifth highest in North America.

Popo regularly emits a column of steam of various volumes,
hence his name, Smoking Mountain.

Occasionally, "Popo" 
(or Don Goyo, as he is also familiarly called by those who live with him) 
blows his top.
In Spring 2012 and again in 2018, he became very active,
with eruptions of ash and some rocks and lava.

Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl
seen on a clear winter day from our apartment.

They are part of the mountain range called la Sierra de Río Frío.

El Paso de Cortés, Cortes Pass, through which Hernán Cortés and his troops 
entered the Valley of Anahuac in 1519, lies just to left of three-pronged evergreen.
Cortés had some of his soldiers climb Popo at the time.

Legend of the Sleeping Princess and Her Warrior Lover

The Sleeping Princess and the Smoking Mountain have their own version of a creation story or legend. There are several versions of the legend, but all center around a kind of archetypal Romeo and Juliet plot in which a princess, daughter of the ruler of the Valley, and a warrior fall in love but are prevented from marrying because the warrior is sent off to war, either with the ruler's intent that he die (think David and Bathsheeba) or because his rivals for the princess' hand report him killed in battle. 

The princess, hearing her beloved is dead, dies of grief. The warrior returns and, upon finding his beloved dead, carries her body to the mountains and lays her on a bier. Weeping in the cold air, his tears turn to ice. The gods take pity on such true love and turn both into mountains. Popocatépetl continues to spew smoke and, on occasion, lava and rocks out of his ongoing rage, while his princess sleeps. 

Although Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl are forty to fifty miles southeast of Mexico City, they are very important to the identity of chilangos, Mexico City residents. This has been so for centuries.

Central plaza of Mexico City, now known as the Zócalo, in the 18th Century,
looking East. 
The National Palace is at the far side.

Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl are positioned directly behind the Palace,
whereas they are actually well to the southeast. 

Between the Palace and the large volcanoes, the small volcanic chain
of la Sierra Santa Catarina is depicted. It, too, is actually to the southeast,
but within the city limits, forming the border between Delegaciones Iztapalapa and Tláhuac.

The Metropolitan Cathedral is on the left of the plaza.
El Parián market, in the center, was built in 1703,
the first covered 
market in Mexico City.
The Royal Canal, coming from Lake Xochimilco, ends at the right.
Painting in the Museum of Mexico City.

Sierra del Ajusco - Chichinauhtzin

After being awed by the presence of "Popo" and "Iztac" beyond our living room window, we subsequently learned that if we nos asomamos (leaned our head out) our west-facing bedroom window, we had a view of another impressive, and much closer, volcano.

Volcán Ajusco
leaning out our bedroom window, looking south from Coyoacán
about 12 miles, across Delegación Tlalpan.

At 3,930 meters or 12,894 feet in altitude,
Ajusco is the highest mountain within Mexico City,
rising more than a mile above the Valley of Mexico.

Ajusco, like Iztaccíhuatl, is another massif of volcanoes. It lies at the juncture of an east-west volcanic chain, the Sierra del Ajusco-Chichinauhtzin (or just Sierra Chichinautzin), and a northward running chain  called Sierra de la Cruces (the Crosses) along the West side of Mexico City. 

Relief map: Outline of sixteen delegaciones (boroughs) of Mexico City is overlaid 
on terrain of the cuenca, basin, of the Valley of Mexico.

The Chichinautzin Volcanic Range bounds the South. 
La Sierra de las Cruces (Crosses) bounds the West.
Ajusco is the dark orange peak 
at the edge of the West side of Mexico City's largest delegacion, Tlalpan (lower left).

Volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl bound the East side of the Valley (off the map)
They are part of the mountain range called la Sierra de Río Frío.
The tan area was formerly lakes and lake-shore land. 

From: la Encyclopedia de los Municípios y Delegaciones de México: Distrito Federal (Mexico City)

Sierra de las Cruces
Ajusco is at the far left.

The Valley of Mexico
and Mexico City 
are surrounded by the Chichinautzin Volcanic Range on the South,
la Sierra de Río Frío, with its Volcanos of Popcatepetl and Iztaccihuatl on the East,
and la Sierra de las Cruces (Crosses) to the West.

Ajusco is left-center. 
(For full screen view, click on the photo.)

All the volcanoes around the Valley of Mexico and Mexico City are part of what is called the Eje Volcánico, the Volcanic Axis, or Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, a line of volcanic mountains that crosses lower Mexico, from near Puerto Vallarta, in the State of Jalisco on the Pacific Ocean, to Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. 

It is one of the largest volcanic fields in the world, containing well over three thousand volcanoes of various types: tall conical stratovolcanoes (like Popo, Iztac and Orizaba, which is east of the Valley of Mexico); lava domes (like Iztac's "head"); shield volcanoes (flatter because they exude lava slowly), and innumerable small cinder cones (more about these last in Part II, on the small volcanoes within Mexico City).

Volcanic Axis (red) cinches Mexico's midsection;
It contains over 3,000 volcanoes.
Black triangles mark four of the tallest ones: (West to East)
Colima (active);
Popocatépetl (active), linked by a mountain ridge to Iztaccíhuatl (dormant);
La Malinche (dormant 3,100 years); and
Pico de Orizaba 
(active, indigenous name is Citlaltépetl), 
 At 18,406ft.,
 is the tallest mountain in Mexico 
and the third tallest mountain in North America.

Portion of Ajusco-Chichinautzin Volcanic Range within Mexico City.
Ajusco lies at upper, far-left. 
In addition to the large, named volcanoes, note the many small cinder cone craters 
peppering the landscape. 

Tláloc Volcano
at sunset
It actually has two craters, to the left and right.
Height is 3,690 meters or 12,106 ft.
It lies near the Southeast corner of Delegación Milpa Alta,
in Southeastern Mexico City.

"Frozen" lava flow from shield volcano Cuautzin.
(looking South)
Cuautzin is between Ajusco and Tláloc.
Delegación Milpa Alta is to the left,
Delegacion Xochimilco is lower center,
Delegación Tlalpan is to the right.
Volcán Cuahtzin
A shield volcano, low and flat because its eruptions were slow discharges of lava. 

Living in the Midst of Giants

It is difficult to put into words what one experiences encountering these gaints of nature. We are awed every time Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl appear before our eyes from beyond our living room window. Ajusco, smaller but much closer, also triggers feelings of awe, of wonder. These are the primal human feelings that engendered the belief that these mountains were gods, both protecting and threatening the people of the Valley. When Popo explodes, one feels the world, at least one's immediate one, might be coming to an end. 

It is easy to forget the presence of these colossi when going about one's daily life, surrounded at ground level by the built City. But they are always there, even when hidden by clouds (or, yes, pollution), and every so often, one comes into sight of them, particularly when in the southern delegaciones (boroughs) of Tlalpan, Xochimilco, Tláhuac and Milpa Alta. One may also see them when taking a bus out of the city and the Valley, over the mountains, to Cuernavaca to the south, Puebla to the east or Toluca to the west, or flying into or out of the Mexico City International Airport.  

How to See, and Even Meet, the Giants.

For visitors to the City (and for chilangos, City residents), it is quite easy to see, if not encounter, the giants surrounding the city. One only has to have the luck of encountering one of the (unfortunately) rather rare crystal clear days that mountain air can provide. Then, carpe diem, seize the day, and go to the Torre Latinoamericana, at the corner of Calle Madero and the Eje Central (Central Axis, aka Ave. Lázaro Cárdenas) in Centro Histórico, pay some pesos and take the elevator to the observation deck at the top of this Empire State Building look-a-like.

From the decks—the lower one enclosed by large windows; the upper one open to the air—on a clear day, the entire Valley of Mexico opens in front of one's eyes. Seemingly not so far away to the south is Ajusco, and to the southeast, la Sierra Chichinautzin. To the southeast, farther away, but still awesome in their majesty, rise Popocatépetl and his beloved Iztaccíhuatl

For the more adventuresome, it is possible to go to the Parque Nacional Cumbres de Ajusco, the Ajusco Peaks National Park in Delegación Tlalpan. There, one can drive a circular road around the top, hike or bike on trails and even camp overnight.  

For the even more adventurous, it is possible to go to the Parque Nacional Iztaccihuatl-Popocatepetl and climb, at least up Iztac and the Paso de Cortés. Popo is often off-limits because of his unpredicatble activity. 
One can also encounter volcanoes up close, but now mostly covered by dense and beautiful evergreen forests, in the western, mountainous delegaciones of Álvaro Obregón, Magdalena Contreras and Cuajimalpa. All these delegaciones are, in greater or lesser parts, in la Sierra de la Cruces, which contains eight stratovolcanoes reaching up to 12,700 ft. (3,870 meters). 
El Desierto de los Leones, the Wilderness of the Lions, is a national park in las Cruces, with hiking trails, picnic tables and restaurantes campestres, outdoor restaruants. It is only accessible via car. 
Aside from a wonderful (and full of wonder) visit to El Desierto and its former Carmelite convent (monastery), we have not yet managed to get to these western delegaciones in our Ambles. We can, nevertheless, see parts of them from our bedroom window.
See also: Encountering Mexico City's Many Volcanoes, Part II: Little Volcanoes With Big Histories 

Encountering Mexico City's Many Volcanoes, Part II: Little Volcanoes With Big Histories

The huge volcanoes of Popocatéptl, Iztaccíhuatl and Ajusco, and the other volcanoes of the Cordillera de Chichinautzin dominate the Valley and the interest of residents and visitors. We wrote about them in our first post on the many volcanoes of the Valley of Mexico, Giants on All Sides.

There are, however, other volcanoes within the current city limits. They are small ash cone volcanoes, but despite their diminutive size, at least four of them have played prominent roles in the development of human settlements in the Valley and in the history of Mexico City.

Xitle, a small volcano that buried a city

Cuicuilco, now an archeological site in the south of Delegación Tlalpan, just south of the modern campus of the University City of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), was established around 1200 BCE. By the year 800 BCE, Cuilcuilco was a prosperous civic-ceremonial center, the first such urban center in the Valley of Mexico.

But sometime around 150-200 CE, Xitle, a small ash cone volcano near the slopes of Ajusco, erupted, and Cuicuilco was completely buried by the resulting flow of ash and lava. (See our spouse's post: Cuicuilco, Volcanoes and the Fragility of Life in Mesoamerica.)

Xitle is the now innocent appearing, forested hill to the left, below Ajusco.

Xitle, with some of its lava flow.
The City of Mexico invades, building on the Pedregal, "stony ground" of lava.
Ajusco rises in the background.

Circular 'pyramid' of Cuicuilco.
Note the depth of the surrounding excavation trench below the current ground level;
It is all lava that buried the city when Xitle erupted

Cerro de la Estrella , Hill of the Star: Sacred and Strategic Center in Indigenous History

From our balcony in Colonia Parque San Andrés, in Delegación Coyoacán, we can see a wooded hill, a little less than four miles away to the East. This hill, over which easterly summer storms arrive, is an extinct ash cone volcano called Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Star. It sits in what is now Delegación Iztapalapa.

If you look carefully, with the help of binoculars or a telephoto lens, at the north end (to the left) of the fairly flat summit, you can see a large white cross and a flat structure behind it. Both have stories to tell.

Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Star
It was called Huizachtecatl (Náhuatl) by the Mexicas
Telephoto from the roof of our apartment building.

The cross obviously has to do with a Christian narrative. (See: Iztapalapa's Holy Week Passion Play). The flat structure is a temple. The temple, in its final form, was built by the Mexicas (Aztecs) of Tenochtitlán, after they took over the surrounding area in 1430 BCE.

The temple had existed there, however, since the end of the first millennium of the Common Era. It was built by the Toltec residents of the town of Culhuacán (also spelled Colhuacán, "place of the Culhua"—"the ancient or venerable ones"). Coming from the Toltec city of Tula, north of the Valley of Mexico, they settled on the south side of the hill around 600 CE.

Temple on the summit of Cerro de la Estrella

The first settlements around the base of the extinct volcano date from 500 BCE. At some time around 150 CE, an influx of people arrived fleeing the Xitle eruptions on the southwest side of Lake Texcoco that buried Cuicuilco.

When the Mexicas of Tenochtitlán took the peninsula, they rebuilt the temple on the summit of what they called Huizachtecatl and made it the site of one of their most important rituals, xiuhmolpilli (sheeoo-mol-PEEL-yee), the Binding of the Years. In Spanish it is called Nuevo Fuego, the New Fire. (See our post: Cerro de la Estrella and the Origins of Culhuacán and Iztapalapa.)

La Sierra de Santa Catarina

Southeast of la Estrella is a chain of ash cone volcanoes called la Sierra de Santa Catarina. Although they are now totally surrounded by the urban development of Delegaciones Iztapalapa, to the north, and Tláhuac, to the south, they have been emblematic over the centuries in images of the Valley of Mexico.

Sierra de Santa Catarina
runs southeast of Cerro de la Estrella 

Tecuauhtzin and Guadalupe,
the two volcanoes at the east end of la Sierra Santa Catarina
that forms the boundary between Delegaciones Iztapalapa  and Tlahuac.

The Valley of Mexico
by José María Velasco 

In front of snow-capped Iztac and Popo lies the Sierra de Santa Catarina

Mexico City and Its Many Volcanoes.
Mexico City's boundaries and sixteen component delegaciones are outlined in white.)

The "stepping stone-like row of islands" across what was once lake bed (taupe) are:
Cerro de la Estrella (alone, in dead-center of the map) and
la Sierra de Santa Catarina (the middle "island", right-center).

Actually, they were on the Iztapalapa peninsula
separating Lake Texcoco to the north
from Lake Xochimilco to the south.

The biggest "stepping stone," to the east, outside City limits
is Volcán Pino, the Pine, in the State of Mexico.

Hill of Tepeyac

Mexico City is shaped rather like a lumpy pear (see map above). At its wide bottom are the largest delegaciones of Tlalpan and Milpa Alta, which contain the large volcanoes of la Sierra de Chichinautzin. In the pear's narrow neck sits the City's Centro Histórico, now in Delegación Cuauhtémoc. At the top is the "stem", which is the northern end of Delegacion Gustavo Madero. This "stem" is so narrow because it is bounded by another set of hills, la Sierra de Guadalupe. 

La Sierra de Guadalupe.
The tallest, and most northern hill is Zacateco (2,475 meters, 8,120 ft.)
(white line shows the boundary between Mexico City and the State of Mexico.)

The group of small hills to the south are called Los Gachupines
(a derogatory word used by natives in Colonial New Spain for the Spanish).
At the southern end of these is the Hill of Tepeyac,
at the base of which sits the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Like la Sierra de Santa Catarina, la Sierra de Guadalupe is composed of a chain of cinder cone volcanoes that originally extended south as a peninsula into Lake Texcoco. At the tip of that peninsula was a hill known as Tepeyac

The Hill of Tepeyac is one of the most famous of hills in all of Christendom, certainly in the Roman Catholic world. It is here that, according to legend, in December of 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared several times to the indigenous peasant, now saint, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. She told him that she was personally adopting the people of Nueva España as her own and directed him to go to the bishop of Mexico City to request that a chapel be built for her on the site, previously the site of an indigenous temple to the mother goddess, Tonantzin. From this sacred place, the Virgin promised that she would look after her pueblo (people). 

The first, temporary chapel built for her was replaced a number of times over the centuries by larger churches. The last two were given the status of basilicas (churches of special importance) by the Pope. Over time, a complex of additional churches was built around the base of Tepeyac and on its summit. The Basilica is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, and one of the world's most-visited sacred sites of any religion. (Wikipedia. See our post: Tepeyac and the Virgin of Guadalupe)

Hill of Tepeyac
Chapel of the Hill is at the top.

Chapúltepec Hill, Hill of the Grasshopper

Chapúltepec Hill, Hill of the Grasshopper, is a small cinder cone volcano that originally sat near the West shore of Lake Texcoco. Freshwater springs arose from its base, making it valuable for human settlements. It was a sacred site for the indigenous peoples who lived in the area before the arrival of the Mexicas in the Valley of Anahuac in 1225.

Two hundred years later, after the Mexicas defeated the Tepanecas of Azcapotzalco, located just north of Chapúltepec, they made Chapúltepec into a private reserve for royalty. They built baths and an aqueduct to carry spring water to their island city of Tenochtitlán. When the Spanish defeated the Mexicas, they rebuilt the aqueduct and continued its use as a preserve for the ruling class. 

In 1775, the Spanish Viceroy, Bernardo de Gálvez, ordered the construction of a stately home for himself on top of Chapúltepec Hill. Construction began the same year. However, in November 1786, the viceroy died suddenly, and the Spanish Crown ordered the building to be auctioned. For twenty years there were no buyers. In 1806, the building was finally bought by Mexico City's municipal government. However, it remained empty throughout the War for Independence (1810-21) and the early years of Mexico's new government.

Sometime between 1833 and 1840 (different sources give different dates), the Military Academy, founded in 1823, was moved to the Castle. This move set the stage for the Castle's major role in Mexican history.

Chapúltepec Castle
sits on Chapúltepec (Grasshopper) Hill
above the Monument to the Niños Héroes, the Boy Heroes,
military cadets who fought to their deaths against U.S. forces
taking Mexico City in the Mexican-American War in 1847.

In  May 1846, the United States declared war against Mexico, based on an armed conflict it had provoked along the Rio Grande River. The river was the disputed border with Mexico after the secession of Texas from Mexico in 1836 and its entrance into the Union as a state in 1845. President James Polk, who took office in March 1845, wanted Mexican territory west of what had been the Louisiana Purchase, all the way to California, to gain U.S. access to the Pacific Ocean. He offered to buy it from Mexico. When Mexico refused to sell it, Polk sent troops into the disputed territory along the Rio Grande. When Mexican forces attacked those troops, Polk obtained a declaration of war from Congress.

As part of a three-pronged strategy, U.S. troops invaded Mexico from Texas, went west into Nueva México and Alta California, and, in March 1847, undertook an amphibious attack on the port of Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico. Led by Gen. Winfred Scott, U.S. marines and army seized the port city and marched inland toward Mexico City.

After a series of battles, U.S. troops arrived at the doorstep of the capital in August. On Sept. 12, 1847, the final battle was fought at Chapúltepec Castle. There, young Mexican Army cadets fought to the last man. Five of them, los Niños Heroes, the Boy Heroes, are honored for their sacrifice by a large monument at the base of Chapúltepec Hill.

Encountering the Small but Mighty Volcanoes

While they lack the geologic awesomeness of the big volcanoes ringing the Valley of Mexico, the small volcanoes within the city make up for their size via their impact on human history in the Valley. They are also relatively easy to visit. 

Xitle and Cuicuilco

Xitle now lies within El parque ecológico de la ciudad de México, The Ecological Park of the City of Mexico, in Delegación Tlalpan. Cuicuilco, the city buried by Xitle, is an archeological park, also in Tlalpan. Both are reachable only by car.

Cerro de la Estrella

Cerro de la Estrella is within a park in Delegacion Iztapalapa. You can take Metro line 8 (green line) to the Iztapalapa station and get a taxi from there or take a taxi from other parts of the City. Part way up the hill is the Museo del Nuevo Fuego, Museum of the New Fire. It is small but with excellent exhibits explaining the ritual of the Binding of the Years and its significance. From there, you can walk up a roadway, through the park to the base of the summit. There you climb stairs to the temple at the top. On a clear day, you have a view of the entire Valley of Mexico, including the big volcanoes of Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl and Ajusco. You also get a good view of the nearby Sierra de Santa Catarina

Hill of Tepeyac

The Hill of Tepeyac is easy to visit. La Villa Basílica is a station on Line 6 (red) of the Metro. Depending on where you start, you will have to make some changes between Metro lines. The hill is, of course, within the Villa Guadalupe, the complex of churches associated with the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Delegación Gustavo Madero. The Hill, itself, has been transformed into a beautiful garden with flowering trees, roses and a waterfall. At the top is the Chapel of the Hill.

Chapúltepec Hill

Chapúltepec Hill is near the main entrance to Chapúltepec Woods, down the Paseo de la Reforma from Centro Histórico. The main walkway from the Chapúltepec Metro Station on Line 1 (pink) leads directly to the Monument to the Boy Heroes. From there, you can walk up a wide roadway or take a tram to the top of the hill. 

The Castle now contains the National Museum of Mexican History. Exhibits include original portraits of many of the Spanish viceroys, rooms as they were decorated by Emperor Maximillian I, and the dramatically contrasting carriages of Maximillian (ornate) and President Bentio Juárez (simple), who defeated him. There are also stunning murals by David Siqueiros portraying aspects of the Mexican Revolution. We think they are the best work by Siqueiros in the City. There is also a wonderful roof garden and a large porch where, on clear days, visitors can get a great view of Paseo de la Reforma and Mexico City.

See also: Encountering Mexico City's Many Volcanoes, Part I: Giants on All Sides