Cobblestone streets are charming but not after you’ve been walking on them all day.

Cobblestones-my footWhile walking around, I do seem to look down a lot. Cuernavaca is built on hills and ravines, and the streets and sidewalks twist and turn, rise and fall. Which wrong footstep will cause my 900th ankle sprain, I ask myself? Never the left, always the right. The only time I injured myself on stage was spraining that stupid right ankle in the finale of a Joe Duell ballet, the one whose name I can’t remember but the one that’s set to the Gottschalk Cakewalk music. Anyone remember what it’s called? (Peter wins: the name is Jubilee)

Teotihuacan-cobblestones 2So, while I was looking down, avoiding the dogs and dog doo (no pooper scooper law here!) I started to wonder why we romanticize cobblestone streets. “And the streets, why – they were cobblestone! So pretty! I wish we had cobblestone streets in Seattle.” The brick ones on Capitol Hill don’t count. Sorry. They are brick – not cobble.

Just what is a cobble stone? It’s “a small stone rounded by the flow of water; essentially, a large pebble.“ (thanks, Wikipedia). Know anyone named Cassie? Bet you didn’t know that a “cassie” is an area paved by cobblestones. I didn’t either.

Hormiguero-pathWhat I’m guessing is that a long time ago someone noticed that the shady lane they walked on everyday got just a wee bit muddy during the rainy season, as this pathway might as it threads its way through the jungle to the Mayan ruin of Hormiguero in Campeche state that I visited in February.

Tepozteco-rodent-Tejon in spanish copyOr maybe they just didn’t want to step on cute little animals, like this Tejon, a marsupial that I saw a couple of weeks ago begging for peanuts at the Temple of Tepozteco above Tepoztlan.

PreAztec stone pathway to Temple copyWhatever the reason, the 12th century Tlahuica engineer/priests devised this pathway up much of the 1,600 foot long trek up to the temple of Tepozteco. These aren’t technically cobblestones but I assure you that having them there made my climb the tiniest bit easier.

Calakmul-terrainAnd in the Late Classic Maya city of Calakmul, gravel paths alternate with these cuboid stone steps leading from one residential area to another, another use of the same terraces they built to increase their farming capabilities on hillsides.

Ox Wadz-Manuel clears road wProbably people got really tired of jungle pathways, just as I imagine my guide Manuel was when he had to use his machete to cut apart this tree that had fallen across the rutted road to Ox Huadz. I was there in December 2007. You can see we took the old pickup, the one with no shock absorbers left.

Dzibilchaltun-GN @ house of 7 dollsThe Maya built white roads called sakbe, that connected cities up to 300 miles apart. Here’s a picture of me in December 2007 standing on one at the ruins of Dzibilchaltun, near Merida, Yucatan. That’s the House of the Seven Dolls in the background. Why’s it called that? Because the archeologists found seven dolls there. Pretty logical. Must have been German archeologists. Sehr logisch.

“All sacbeob apparently had ritual or religious significance as well. Some local Maya people in Yucatán still said a short ritual prayer when crossing a sacbe in the early 1840s, even though they had been overgrown with jungle for centuries at the time.” (Wikipedia)

Campeche City-fort cobblestonesCobblestones, such as these at the entrance to the Spanish fort in Campeche, are designed for horses to get a good grip, but you didn’t see them in Mexico until the 16th century. North and South America didn’t have horses, and the Spanish used horses to scare the hell out of people.

“Hernan De Soto rode his horse right into the Inca Emperor’s throne room. Eyewitnesses later recalled: ‘The captain advanced so close that the horse’s nostrils stirred the fringe on the Inca’s forehead.’ ” (PBS)

Teotihuacan-CobblestonesCobblestones-Calle Acacias

I believe that it’s human nature to want to surround ourselves with things of beauty, because they make us feel good. After we mastered paving streets, we found them boring, so we started to use our inherent creativity to make roads that were practical AND beautiful.

Taxco-cobble stone streetTaxco-cobblestone flower

As streets led to indoor floors we started painting and coloring them to remind us of the beauty of nature. We mixed marble chips and powder to make terrazzo, or cut stones into intricate shapes and arranged them in eye-pleasing patterns. The polished floors you see below are all in Campeche City, on the southern Gulf coast of Mexico. The one on the left is under the arcade that faces the Zocalo, or main square. The other two were in my hotel.

Campeche city-hotel room floorCampeche City-arcade floor
Campeche-hotel stair

Mostly what I think about cobblestones is that they make my feet very, very tired. Each step on them is like that physical therapy exercise I used to do for my weak right ankle. Standing on one foot on a half rubber ball, weeble-wobbling back and forth, strengthening those tiny balance muscles.

But, I have noticed that by looking down so much I am seeing a lot of little things that most people miss. Those people who walk with their glazed gazes focused resolutely ahead, beating the next yellow light, striving always to get ahead of the next guy.

Cobblestone streets aren’t so bad, I guess. They are charming but not after you’ve been walking on them all day.

Xochicalco-museum landscape architecture copy


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