A coati atop the Pyramid of El Tepoztec. Photo by Zachary Senn
High up in the mountains of Morelos, a two-hour bus ride from Mexico City, lies an ancient pyramid at the end of a spectacular hike through the Mexican cloud forest.
Dedicated to Tepoztecatl, the Aztec god of Pulque, the shrine attracted pilgrims from as far away as Guatemala in its day.
Today, the pyramid overlooks the quaint mountain town of Tepoztlan, known throughout Mexico for its supposed mysticism, far flung community of European and American expats, and production of Mezcal.
The pyramid has two rooms inside, one opening out onto the monumental stairs and the other a smaller chamber in the interior.
Photo: Coatis are raccoon like animals with sharp teeth. Whilst females can be the size of a large house cat, it’s not uncommon for males to grow to twice their size. They are indigenous to the Americas.
The hike from the town up to the archeological site is filled with spectacular waterfalls, dense rainforest canopy, rock formations that would make Dr. Seuss jealous, and playful coatis.
The path leading up to the mountaintop temple tracks along beautiful ancient stairs before devolving into a trail of rough boulders. The final stretch before reaching the pyramid cuts right through a thin rock canyon that frames the edifice.
The gorgeous rainforest hike makes it easy to see why the devoted would travel from other countries just to worship at El Tepozteco.
Gaping Gill is the largest underground cave chamber in Britain.
It’s often said, without exaggeration, that this dramatic chamber is big enough to fit a cathedral.
It is so big that there has been an attempt to fly a hot air balloon inside the cave. The vertical main shaft from the surface to the floor of the chamber is about 98m deep and normally contains a substantial waterfall, the route by which the surface stream, Fell Beck, finds its way to the chamber floor.
The chamber and the extensive cave system it is a part of are usually only accessible to experienced and properly equipped cave explorers.
But for two separate weeks of the year (around the August and late May public holidays) two local caving clubs provide a winch to allow members of the public to be lowered down the shaft on a boatswain’s chair, and later winched out again.
Once inside you can just explore the chamber, or the slightly more adventurous can enter some of the easier and closer passages of the 16.6km cave system.
It’s a good idea to wear waterproof clothing as the winch passes you through the spray from the towering waterfall.
Sark is about three miles long and one mile wide, with a population of 600.
Prior to the constitutional reforms of 2008, Sark was governed by the Chief Pleas – the feudal parliament – comprising of 40 unelected island landowners and headed by the “Seigneur”.
Since 1565, when Elizabeth I granted the island to the nobleman Hellier de Carteret in return for his protection against pirates, the Seigneurs have ruled this rock.
The Seigneurs paid the British Crown a mere £1.79 annually to keep the island, and in return held the privilege of granting landowners the permission to buy and sell their houses, but only if they swear allegiance to the Crown and pay the Seigneurs one-13th of the property’s purchase price
Many of the laws, particularly those related to inheritance and the rule of the Seigneur, had changed little since they were enacted in 1565 under Queen Elizabeth I.
For instance, the Seigneur retained the sole right on the island to keep pigeons and, until 2008, the only person allowed to keep an unspayed dog. He also owns all the debris washed up between the high and low tides.
Seigneur’s ancient feudal powers came under threat when in 1993, the billionaire Barclay brothers, Sir David and Sir Frederick, owners of The Ritz hotel and Telegraph newspapers, bought Sark’s tiny offshore island of Brecqhou.
In accordance with Sark’s feudal laws, the Barclays were forced to pay a property tax of £179,230 that went straight into Beaumont’s pocket instead of going to the state.
Of further irritation to the Barclays was the law of primogeniture, meaning that property must pass whole and undivided into the hands of the eldest male heir.
They challenged this law in court, won and got the law changed. Still not contented, the Barclays began to insist on democratic reforms on Sark, and in doing so, sowed the seeds of a civil unrest among the residents of the sleepy Crown protectorate.
The Home of the Seigneurs.
Finally in 2008, the island’s adult population democratically elected a 28-members strong parliament, ending the 443 years of feudal rule.
The Seigneurs property tax was scrapped, and in its place Sark’s 22nd Seigneur – Michael Beaumont – would receive an annual £28,000, a perk that he can pass on through his heirs in perpetuity.
Political issues aside, Sark is an idyllic spot for a vacation. To reach Sark, tourists have to take a plane to Guernsey and then get on a ferry for a 45-minute ride to the island.
Cars are illegal on Sark. The only vehicles allowed are horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, tractors, and battery-powered buggies or motorised bicycles for elderly or disabled people.
Even the ambulance and the fire truck are not allowed engines and have to be towed to emergencies by farm tractor. Getting around the island, however, isn’t much of a problem as it’s only around two square miles in size and can be explored on foot.
With no airstrip, no motor cars or tarmac roads, life on Sark remains visibly unaffected by modern life.
The island has two churches, two pubs, a village hall, one school, one volunteer policeman and a two-cell jail that mostly remains empty. A resident doctor provides healthcare on Sark. Fire and rescue services are provided by volunteers.
There are a couple of hotels and guest houses to stay.