© by Carol Miller

The giant that peeks over the far edge of the plain, smoke curling from his uneven lips, also raises his head above the twisted range that was formed when he, himself, came into being. He seems deceptively placid. He is a monster. He is vengeful and cruel, lying in wait until a belch sends columns of steam and ash two kilometers into the blue heavens, terrorizing the towns and villages all around. Yet he is also grand and giving, creator of a range both fertile and abundant. He is young. He is spirited and energetic. He is old. He is wise and tormented. He is Popocatepetl, affectionately known as "Don Goyo" ("Gregorio"), the man of the thousand faces.

"Popo", according to the Aztec myth a young prince placed under a spell by Mictlantecuhtli, god of the Underworld, is the second highest of Mexico's volcanoes, at 5452 meters, just under the 5700 meters of his rival in Veracruz, Citlaltepetl ("The Mountain With Its Head in the Stars") or Peak of Orizaba, the fourth-highest mountain in North America.

Popo and Citlaltepetl, together, along with Popo's companion, the Lady Ixtlaccihuatl ("The Sleeping Lady", counterpart to his enchantment), make up a unique trio that still maintain glaciers at their heights. Popo's ice covers a surface of over seven hundred thousand square meters, and reaches depths of up to thirty meters. When he kicks up, and his mouth is hot, it would seem the ice and snow have melted, but they are only covered with ash.

Eighteen historic eruptions have been credited to Popo, the most recent on December 15, 2000 and January 15, 2002, but ash regularly rains down on the nearby cities of Atlixco and Puebla just beyond his southern flanks, and often reach Mexico City to the north, sixty-five kilometers away. The most violent eruptions, however, were registered by the Spanish authorities of New Spain (Mexico) in 1519 and 1548 respectively. The "smoking mountain", a stratovolcano some 730,000 years old, moreover remains active in the present. This youngest, though most virulent, of the Sierra Nevada range, is a constant threat to the neighboring towns. The populations along the slopes nevertheless have no wish to move. They maintain their rambling "evacuation routes" through the steep canyons down to the plain, keep a wary eye on the smoke signals, build their houses, plant and harvest, produce children, build schools, and remain, at first glance, indifferent to the inherent dangers of their lush setting.

Popocatepetl, only twenty-five kilometers in diameter along its base, nonetheless represents an entire landscape, from Puebla to Cuernavaca and extending as far as Mexico City: the system includes literally thousands of cinder cones, lateral craters, tunnels, vents and shafts, sharp-edged defiles, and hot and cold springs that betray the intense and complex nature of a well-developed volcano. These in turn offer an insight into the mountain's tumultuous beginnings, when molten fire gushed from the earth and spread across the land. The eruptions continued when people finally populated the valleys: they knew what God looked like.

Towering above this landscape and dominating it with a ring of smoke, are the six hundred and fifty meters of the inclined elipse of the principal crater, on a northeast-southwest axis. The highest point, known as Pico Mayor, is practically inaccessible, but just opposite is the Devil's Shin, a formidable conglomerate of cracked and tortured rock, once liquid, now hardened, and during Popo's quieter days, before eruptions resumed, a goal of climbers.

The first inhabitants of the area, the early Chalcas and Xochimilcas, who venerated the spectacle, were invaded around 1500 B.C. by the Olmecs from the Gulf of Mexico, who were in the process of expanding their trade routes. The rites of the jaguar cult, fusions of natural beings into mythic transfigurations, the customs that propitiated the mystic quest for a union with God and the gods, were all Olmec traditions that persisted well into the period of the Toltecs, and carried over into the Aztec conquests of the fifteenth century. It was Aztec engineering skills, however, that dictated an urban plan and the structure of the community.

It was precisely this Aztec urbanism that provided a principal temple or teocalli, ruled by priests from an imposing raised platform. At the opposite end of the esplanade was the tecpan, or palace of the governor. The space today known as the zocalo or city square, was devoted to a tianquistl, a public market or bazaar. The four cardinal points led to the calpulli, or resident quarters, inhabited in turn by artisans, the military, tradesmen and academics. With the arrival of the Spaniards the format, considered both tactical and operational, was preserved.

In the year 1524 the first twelve Franciscan friars, confessors to Spain's Queen Isabella, came ashore in Veracruz, followed in 1526 by the Dominicans, and in 1533 by the Augustinians. The first monasteries were built along the southern slopes of Popocatépetl, and from there the mendicant orders spread out again, dividing the precincts in the interior of the country among themselves. The greater the density of pre-Columbian population, the more intense the campaign, to "save souls" and to "gratify the hunger of the natives for our culture."

While these early monasteries appear on today's map to be very close to each other, in the sixteenth century they were easily a day's journey apart, up and down canyons, across rivers and streams, through dense woodlands and fields of scattered rock. The existing teocalli almost invariably provided the location, as well as the essential building materials, for the zealous and highly competitive friars.

Each monastery was erected by a different friar, with a different topography, decorative elements and building materials, therefore was visibly different, yet they all shared certain characteristics, and had in common their basic construction: at least one bell tower; a covered church facing west with an uncommonly high ceiling above its great nave; next to it a vault open on one side and known as an "Indian chapel" or "open chapel", reached by a "processional way"; a cloister of one or two levels; gardens, orchards, the buildings corresponding to the community of friars; and between the church and the city square, a great walled atrium, ideal for the assembly or processions of large numbers of people. At the four corners of a the atrium were chapels known as capillas posas, since the Christ figure "posed" there during Corpus Christi processions. The complex was enclosed within monumental stone walls.

The monastery was generally elevated, having been erected over the pre-Hispanic platform that preceded it, so was reached by a number of steps that rose from the zocalo, and which led to a grand stone portal, arched, and embraced by trees and shrubs. Between the portal and the entrance to the church stood a delicately carved stone atrial cross, raised on a pedestal.

In addition to their purely religious functions, in the manner of a Buddhist temple or an Islamic mosque, the monasteries combined the services of a school, hospital, travelers' lodgings, water reserve and guidepost along the roads that joined the network. They were conceived as instruments for conversion, but they also developed a new architectural concept - the balance between the groups of buildings and the open spaces-which made them palpably different from their European prototypes. These are Mexican monasteries, decorated by native artisans, incorporating native motifs and expressing native questions, doubts and responses.

There are fourteen monasteries in total along the slopes of the volcano. Some of them, like Cuernavaca, Tepoztlán or Oaxtepec, are located in the state of Morelos and are easily accessible. Huexotzingo and Calpan are in the state of Puebla, also easy to reach. The rest are nestled in the frills of lava rock that cascade down the southern side of the mountain. A number of them are remote, seemingly still rooted in the sixteenth century. Many are deteriorated, others are undergoing restoration. In 1994 all were declared, jointly, a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

The point, however, is to visit them individually. The logical route begins in the one-time sugarcane town of Cuautla, with its own fort and monastery, its venerable railroad station, and his history of the battles of the wars of Independence (from Spain) and Zapata's 1910 Revolution. Here lodgings are available; and from the nearby Dominican monastery in Oaxtepec, a short distance away, the route circles around to Tlayacapan, Totolapan and Atlatlauhcan, all Augustinian, each with elaborate columns, corridors and high-ceilinged rooms, monuments to architectural daring, a singular vision of space, and deft handling of the rough volcanic stone.

From there a turn-off heads into Yecapixtla, also Augustinian, the first stop on the well-paved but circuitous road through the mountains, and probably one of the most spectacular, architecturally, of all the monasteries. Considered a fine example of Spanish Renaissance, the church, with elaborate Gothic veins to adorn the ceiling, includes a lacy stone rosette over the door. On Thursday, market day, the atrium and church are crowded with visitors, and motor traffic is banned from the surrounding streets.

A short distance away lies Ocuituco, "Where Rabbits Inhabit the Pines", the first Augustinian monastery raised in the Americas, founded by Fray Juan de Zumárraga in 1534 - though construction continued until 1544, and includes a famous fountain, decorated with stone lions and fish, intricately carved. The rabbits, however, a unique species native to the area of the volcano, are nearly extinct.

The Dominican monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tetela del Volcan, just down the road, was built over nearly twenty years, from 1563 to 158l, and includes seven historic chapels; and is so close to the volcano it seems one can catch smoke from the crater in the outstretched hand. Here the construction borders the edge of a canyon and the atrium walls actually contain the west side of the courtyard. Though the façade is rather plain the cloister still guards its faded polychrome murals, in their day the natives' didactic narrative describing the saints and heroes of Christian myth.

Hueyapan, "the Old Place", down the road and deeper into the mountains, was founded in 1539, and never finished. Construction is simple, though the church is distinguished by a wooden niche, forming a unique altar, carved from a single massive piece of wood. A na´ve mural is painted on the atrium's retaining wall, facing the plaza, with legend in Nahuatl. The scene describes an outsized volcano, smoke belching from its crater, and a sierra of pine woods separating the mountain from the town.

From Hueyapan a road leads down the hills into Zacuapan de Amilpas, on the lower slopes, to which we will return later --definitely my favorite of all the monasteries-- but according to our map another road winds along the same mountain track to Tochimilco. It had seemed reasonable, in fact, to originally head to Tochimilco, being the most distant of the mountain monasteries, in order to head back from there, to be close to our hotel in Cuautla when night fell. So we went the longer but faster way around, by taking the Izúcar superhighway, the Atlixco cut-off, and the various sideroads through the villages, until our way was suddenly halted by road construction on a town street. We try going up a side street in order to cross over, in effect, to go around the block, but there is no block. The street heads straight up the hill. There are no deviations. There are also no visible signposts. "What town is this, anyway?" we ask a man, who sits cross-legged on the sidewalk.

"Tochimilco!" was his reply. "But you have to double back to the secondary road, and go around, in order to get into the center of town." I am translating. The original instructions were much more elaborate.

The "secondary road" was in fact an unpaved track through the woods, turning off at the "secondary" school. It was not secondary at all. I misunderstood. It is primary. The people here still speak a version of their hereditary Nahuatl, which dates from the Aztec conquest, thus construct their phrases according to the dictates of that language, and remain, for us, an enigma - wordy, garrulous in fact, rambling, often incomprehensible.

The winding road through the woods, rutted from truck traffic, dank and dense, is also magically beautiful, with the whirring of birds and the flight of white butterflies past our car windows, the sighing of falling leaves, and the dappled light from the bright sun. Flowers bloom in profusion and beyond the trees are carefully planted crops. In time we emerge on a lopsided cobbled street that leads into the town.

A neat row of whitewashed arches indicates we have arrived at the town square. Behind the arches rise the adobe blocks of what was once an enormous wall. The stucco facing has largely fallen away. Trees, that mount a slope, grow behind it.

An octagonal Moorish fountain decorates the center of the square. The extravagantly decorated pillar in its center is adorned with heraldic emblems and lions' heads. We are about to ask a passerby for the monastery. "We don't need to," I tell Tomás, my husband. "There it is." It rises, a hulk, a ghost, a stone monster reinforced by jutting buttresses, from the top of the slope behind the plaza, framed by the stone arches of a sixteenth century aqueduct.

Water was a matter of prime concern in these hills. Aqueducts, fed by the melting ice from the glaciers, in turn fed cisterns and fountains, and these were maintained the year round, in order to supply the friars and their villagers with the water for their daily lives.

The somber church, its unfaced stone a solid mass soaring to the solitary bell tower, dominates the atrial enclosure of the former Franciscan monastery to the Assumption of Our Lady, founded by the Friar Diego de Olarte and built during the decade of the 1560's, almost at the very foot of the volcano's crater. Instead of capillas posas, the inner walls of the atrium offer niches for the stations of the Vía Crucis. A small lateral church occupies a part of the courtyard, opposite the "Indian chapel". Why do the "Indian chapels" or "open chapels" exist? Because the natives, still deficient in their Christian instruction and not yet baptized, were deemed inferior: they had, it was said, "no soul", therefore were barred from the interior of the church proper.

The church, meantime, though sacked over the years, still contains altars from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, adorned with paintings, ragged, bruised and faded, that date from the Colonial period. The enormous height of the nave is crowned by Gothic veins. Painted medallions are still visible over the squat columns of the lower cloister. The buildings are in good condition and have obviously been restored. A recent addition includes a concrete fountain, painted yellow, with blue birds perched on its three levels, inside a pool, also painted blue.

The Highway Atlas clearly shows a good paved road between Tochimilco and Hueyapan, through the mountains, so we head out of town up, and up, climbing the slopes of the Sierra, following the dubious instructions of every passer-by. One truck driver tells us there is no way through but another claims the road is passable, "beyond San Miguel, which is just ahead a bit". He launches into a very intricate explanation. "And after that you pass Santa Cruz. But then you should reach Hueyapan."

There is no San Miguel on the map but perhaps it is a bare village, of no consequence. Nor is there a Santa Cruz. We stop to ask directions and a schoolboy points the way. Even the children know, what the map ignores.

Part of the road has fallen away. It has collapsed into a canyon, but around the downside curve it resumes again. We stop again to ask directions of a woman, who tugs at her skirts and pulls the hand of the little boy at her side, while she replies. "Follow the road," she says. She is laconic, compared to the others.

A man, straight as a rod on the back of his horse, motions silently, then adds that we should "go on through". He smiles, but his dog growls at us as we roll the car window back up. The road is nearly blocked by the banks of yellow flowers growing across the pavement. Then the pavement ends. Rough and stony, the road continues, its dust tamped down by the passing of bare country feet, or boots or sandals. Is it dust, or volcanic ash?

We see more people on the road, with their carts, or bundles, or plastic bags swinging by their sides, their dogs trotting resolutely behind them. "I think the town is nearby," I muse, and sure enough, an adobe house appears beside us, then another, then the road becomes a street lined with houses. We roll down the window again. "What town is this?" I ask.

"San Miguel, here," replies a shy girl with a red face.

"And how do we get to Santa Cruz?"

"Follow the road," she begins, before launching into an elaborate description of the turns ahead.

"It's all right," I tell her. "We'll find it."

The street, after a turn or two, becomes the road again, and leads across an open field, nearly a valley, before it enters another canyon, and becomes barely a track. We are heading down a hill, and suddenly reach a junction of two roads. An oncoming car, rather battered and mud-spattered, stops to ask us where we are going.

"Santa Cruz," I call to the driver. "I'm sure Santa Cruz is very near now," I tell Tomás, "and after that it will be very close to Hueyapan."

"Turn up the hill and keep going," the driver calls back, adjusting his cap.

We are now passing a series of amaranth fields. The red seeds glint in the noonday sun. A peasant farmer, just down the road, signals to us, his sickle in hand as he approaches the car. Is he planning to cut us into small pieces? "You will have trouble down the road," he begins. He smiles and gestures.

"But isn't Hueyapan just beyond Santa Cruz?"

I no sooner finish my phrase than I notice the heavy machinery ahead. Our way is blocked.

"How far to Santa Cruz?" I ask the Caterpillar driver.

"Go back," he says, as he explains the road construction in progress. "You must turn back." He looks at us pointedly. "You can avoid retracing your steps, if you like. There's a turn-off before you go back into San Miguel and it will take you down the mountain, along the Evacuation Route to Santiago Tochimizolco. That's the way you want to go. You can return to the superhighway from there."

"I would go that way if I could pronounce it," I tell him, and he laughs. He explains again, slowly, and we turn the car around.

A group of schoolboys stops us in front of the imposing, but dilapidated, church of Santiago (St. James Apostle), in Tochimizolco. "Where are you going?" they ask. "Which way do you want?" Since I have no idea I tell them we want the superhighway. "This is the wrong way," one of them replies. "You want the road to Hueyapan?"

"That's the road I've been looking for."

"Well, it's blocked. You can't pass that way. Better return to the highway."

I just look at them blankly. They guffaw, a boys' laugh, while they double over, kick at pebbles, shake each other's school bags.

"Turn toward the highway when you get to San Francisco Huilango, down the mountain," says a woman, from her perch on the steps of a hut. "You will recognize it easily. The churchyard is still full of marigolds and candles from the Day of the Dead celebration, two weeks ago. They're going to let it sit there until next November." She is enthralled with her own irony. Her dog gets up, yawns, turns around, and lays back down. "Just straight ahead." She offers no further directions, instructions or explanations.

When we finally see the highway in the distance we still have to retrace our way through the villages, to find the tollgate, which is the access, then head back the way we came in the morning, to the Izucar road. A man has told us to turn right at Amayucan, into the road to Zacualpan, but even asking along the way, Zacualpan eludes us. We pass a number of towns before we realize we have gone too far. "Could it have been where we saw the giant laurel tree, I wonder?" There had been no sign at all, except for a medallion painted on a wall, announcing an intriguing, rather holistic "New Age" hotel, called "The Treethouse".

We are told to turn back. "But how far back?"

"To the big tree."

The Augustinian monastery to the Immaculate Conception was right on the plaza, otherwise deserted except for two small boys shooting baskets at a court set back near the entrance to a school.

Like a great fortress, the façade of the monastery, known in Mexico as an "ex-convent", looms large, and has two belltowers instead of one; and attached to the north side of the church we can see the cupola of what turns out to be the enchanting Chapel of the Virgin of the Rosary. Such an addendum is a rarity. Its floors, pulpit, altars and doors are extravagant, still of their original wood, lavishly polished or carved and gilded.

The Indian, or "open" chapel, facing the atrium, still has elaborately painted designs on its vaulted ceiling and part of its walls. The baptismal font, just inside the door to the cloister, is astonishing in its richly detailed carving - a baroque treasure-and the columns of the cloister itself, though wrapped by conservators with metal reinforcing bands, are still decorated with the painted figures of Augustinian friars, one portrait on each column. Below the figure is a painted legend, barely legible, describing the history of each man, for example: "…native of Mexico, brother to San Felipe de Jesus, traveled to Great China where he preached the faith…", and so on.

The town of Zacualpan, stone walls lining narrow, cobbled streets, is deserted, and except for a grocery store opposite the entrance to the church atrium, all the shops are closed. Not even a bakery to supply the bread for the evening supper. The walls surrounding the grocery store, however, are painted with giant agaves, in blue and turquoise, and though chipped and peeling are still intact, a modern contribution to an ancient heritage.

Night falls as we return to Cuautla. The congestion of trucks and buses blocks the highway into town, and after that streets branch off in every direction. We have to apply rules of logic in order to find our hotel. Somehow we are still in the mountains, in the quiet courtyard of a monastery, abandoned by time. We are lost on a nonexistent road. We are leaning out the car window studying the faces that reply as we ask directions. A man on horseback leads the way, his dogs following close behind. Half a millennium has fallen away.