Yacatan Mayan sites
24.03.2006 - 31.03.2006 -17 °C
We got going reasonably early on Saturday morning to get to Chichen Itza before the heat and the crowds. It’s just a two kilometre walk form our posada and we stopped for breakfast on the way. Steve had a ham and cheese omelette and I had quesadillas -, which came with chicken. We’d decide not to eat poultry here because of the conditions the birds are kept in (alive and dead) and the risk of bird flu (I reckon a disease like that is probably around for 6-12 months before anyone catches it or it gets reported). However it looks nearly impossible to get a meal without meat in here and even the lime soup turns out to have chicken in it. Well I ate the quesadilla – and delicious it was too. We got to Chichen Itza at 8.30 and ended up renting a guide – Felipe – who was excellent although turned out to be rather expensive – I was thinking it was under $10 and a bargain and Steve was surprised that I was accepting $26!! Oops. However I was really pleased with our ‘bargain’ and we learned lots of stuff about Mayan and Toltec culture and history. We would never have seen half the stuff he showed us if we were on our own – like the details of the scenes on the ball court murals. You can see both teams of 7 and their dress being different for left and right arm and leg. The head of t he winning captain has been cut off but the losing captain and he is sacrificed to Chac – the rain god. You can see the blood spurting from his neck and turning into flowers & leaves & serpents. The Maya merged with the Toltec & also took on their god who was the feathered serpent & every equinox at sunset the light creeps down El Castillo from the serpents tail to his head at the bottom & symbolises him going down into the underworld, becoming the jaguar, & then returning up as the sun god or eagle. The feathered serpent is everywhere – the sides of the stairs of El Castillo (which is also a calendar) & supporting roofs and pillars. The acoustics in the whole place are amazing & if you clap your hands (in Spanish apparently because we couldn’t get it quite right) the sound bounces around the different buildings. The acoustics were particularly useful for the priests conveying messages to the masses & added to the effect of miracles (like the sun serpent). We went to the sacred cenote, which is a common feature of Yucatanean limestone landscape & the only source of water since it is completely flat land. They are basically limestone sinkholes & this one was only used for ritual and not for water – Chac is supposed to live at the bottom. Then we went along to the older – pure Mayan – part of the city, which had a lot of images of Chac & no feathered serpents. We could also go in some of the structures there & I was really surprised they had pointed ceilings. I guess in the UK all ancient ceilings are corbelled or arched & it surprised me every time I saw a pointed ceiling. There was also a nice example of how the used to build one temple over an older temple where one stupid archaeologist had used gunpowder to get in!! Apparently the city was abandoned every 52 years because the Maya believed the world might end then & if it didn’t they came back, built another temple & had security for another 52 years. We strolled around for a while after Felipe left us then went home for lunch (tortillas with refried beans & chilli & avocado) on our patio & a siesta. Then we walked back again & I did a painting of Chac & we looked for the sun serpent at sunset because we were only a few days after equinox. We got the tiniest glimpse but mostly the sun hid in the clouds. After dinner back at the posada we returned again for the sound & light show which was pretty lighting but not exactly stunning & the commentary was not as good as Felipe. Having walked 10km in, to & from already & since it was dark we got a taxi home to bed.
Sunday was a nice lazy day. We had a long lie then caught a bus (which was over an hour late) to Cenote Ik Kil. It was really beautiful & lovely clear water with fish in it. From ground level to the water was about 80 feet and there was a wee staircase tunnel down with viewpoints along the way. It got more beautiful the further down we went. There are vines & roots hanging down from the top right into the water & some of them make almost a curtain. There’s a huge rock overhang so the mouth of the cenote at the top is about half the size of the pool & when we arrived there were lots of birds flying around under the rock. They obviously nest there in the limestone crevices among the stalactites but they all disappeared when all the tourist buses arrived. We had to share the whole pool with about 5 other people to start with, then a bus arrived so we got out of the water & rested for the 15-20 mins they were there. It was glorious swimming in the cool clear water with waterfalls coming down from the sky – well from holes in the overhanging rock edge. Floating on our backs in the sunshine looking up at the hole and all the beautiful greenery, vines, waterfalls & birds was just glorious. It felt deep in the jungle for a few minutes despite the luxury resort built all around it back up at ground level. You could jump in from various heights up a small flight of stairs & Steve jumped from about 20ft, which was as high as you could go. We met a woman from Oregon call Susan who was staying across the road & we met her back at her hotel then got a taxi back into town for lunch with her. We had a great lunch at a nice restaurant for $6.50 each. I had spiced port sausages with rice & beans & the others had Yucatanean pork. It was all delicious & although I usually wouldn’t eat pork at least its now a better option than chicken. Vegetarian here doesn’t exist – especially with as little Spanish as we have. We showed Susan where we were staying then had a stroll down the town, which is pretty small & mostly closed for Sunday. Then we just chilled out back at the posada for the rest of the afternoon & chatted to our neighbours who were from Munich.
We had planned to get the 8:15 bus on Monday morning but were ready by 7:20 so thought we’d try for the 7:30. I think we actually caught the 7:00 (running late) just as we came out our road & everything went very smoothly. From Merida we got on a bus to Celestun on the Gulf of Mexico & on the border between Yucatan & Campeche states. We were in Celestun about the time we expected to be in Merida waiting for a bus – 12:30. Celestun is much more what I expected of Mexico – just a wee fishing village on a pretty beach. It happens to also have a national reserve lagoon & thousands of flamingos every summer so is reasonably touristy. In reality that just means it’s tidier than most towns & has hotels & restaurants – some of which even have the menus in English as well as Spanish. We got ourselves a room for $15, which is adequate & no more but 2 seconds from the beach. Of course the main reason for being here was the flamingos & after a bit of negotiating about numbers we got on a tour. The tour went from the beach20m along from our hotel & started by going a few kilometres along the beach then up the lagoon. Along the way we stopped to see a huge flock of pelicans, have a walk in a petrified forest & some herons & frigate birds. There were not a lot of flamingos – only a couple of hundred but you could see them from a long way off because they’re so bright. We didn’t get particularly close because if the birds get frightened they take off & some get killed in the panic. On the way back we saw quite a few osprey fishing, went through a pretty mangrove channel (which was lovely to do in daylight after doing it in Puerto Rico at night in kayaks) & then stopped at a freshwater spring in the mangroves. It was very beautiful & the water suddenly became very clear. We had a wee swim & the water was very salty other than right in the middle where it was ‘springing’. The final ride back along the shore was fairly bumpy but the driver read the waves like a book & it was good fun. We had a shower & changed & went to dinner 20m along the beach. We sat & watched the sun set into the ocean in a way it rarely does (at least that we see), through the coconut trees while we ate delicious seafood. We shared a shrimp cocktail (of the shrimp we saw them catching in the lagoon), a mixed ceviche with crab, shrimp, conch & octopus & a lovely crab dish. All were excellent & then we retired rather tired.
Tuesday was a nice relaxed start with a long lie, then a walk along the beach before breakfast. The fishermen were just bringing in their nets from the mornings work & we watched a couple. They have huge nets far out into the water with ropes at both ends to the beach. It takes 4 guys on each end to pull the net in & as it gets closer & makes a tight loop the pelicans start to gather & the tiny fish start to jump. There’s a pelican feeding frenzy for a while until the loop in the net is too small. By this time the men & the pelicans are working the same bit of water with the men flicking the tiny fish out of the netting & pelicans feeding on what they can or watching while they digest their feast. Then the boat comes along & the fish are bucketed into the boat. It was stunning – bright blue water, colourful boat, brown men in all manner of attire including jeans & co-existing really well with the pelicans & other birds. A real ‘National Geographic’ moment. And guess who didn’t have a camera! We caught the 9.30 bus back to Merida, which again was an interesting journey. Outside the bigger towns most people live in thatched huts & the landscape is very dry. I thought I saw mistletoe in the trees but that’s ridiculous. However the more I looked the more it looked like mistletoe so I’ll have to find out what it is. We got to Merida & checked into our hotel just off the grande plaza by 1pm & went out for a walk. But it was far too hot & crowded & noisy for me so I went back for a siesta while Steve had a look around & did some shopping. I ventured out with him once it cooled down a bit. Although the grande plaza is very nice & the buildings around it are stunning there wasn’t a lot to see away from that. There is some great architecture but mostly its just tired busy streets so we mostly stayed near the plaza & sat & people watched for a while. There was a Mayan drum group making a fascinating sound. The architecture of the cathedral & buildings around the plaza is very pretty & a peculiar mix of Mexican and European. We watched the sun set behind the buildings, then went back to our room for our dinner of tortillas & beans, this time with corn & salsa & corn chips. We went back out after dark for a brief stroll to see how pretty the plaza was lit up at night, which was quite lovely. I’m struggling with the culture because I can’t communicate & am not managing to learn Spanish at all. I can read a bit and understand a bit but just can’t remember more than a few words to speak.
Wednesday was a fairly early start again & we hopped on a bus at 8am to do the Ruta Puuc, which is 4 Mayan sites. It was a cheapie tour where the bus just took us to all the places – no guide & pay your own site entry, but $23 each cheaper than the next alternative I was really impressed by the bus – as with all the Mexican busses so far. If you want to get there in good comfort or on time then you’re in the wrong country but the drivers are excellent drivers, very helpful & they stop wherever you like. We stopped at Uxmal to let folk off & the driver counted up the remainder, rolled his eyes & went off in search of the stupid one who failed to follow instructions – later known as ‘Man with stick who was late every time’. Our first visit was to Labna, which had a palace with a few nice Chaac masks, an archway, which was beautifully decorated, & a raised white ceremonial road. Next stop was Sayil, which has a palace like the Minoan palace in Crete (lonely planet description but accurate) & some nice Puuc architecture. Then it was Kabah, which at first look was stunning. The palace of masks was lovely & made a spectacular site. It also had 2 atlases – male figures supporting columns – which are unusual in Maya architecture. The rest of the site was not as spectacular but had a nice palace, an arch (also rare in Maya architecture) that connects by a ceremonial road with another arch to Uxmal, and an unexcavated grand pyramid – i.e. a HUGE pile of rubble. We had been surprised at Chichen Itza how these places could remain undiscovered for so long but here they still have jungle around & we failed to see an excavated structure the size of a 3 storey apartment block until it was just a few meters in front of us. Uxmal itself was fabulous. It’s in slightly hilly & they used hills to advantage so there are a lot of very tall structures. Also a lot of Mayan stairs, which are beastly things because they’re so steep & narrow. We were allowed to climb the grande pyramid this time & coming down was a case of go sideways & keep telling yourself not to look down. The Magicians house was another stunning pyramid-like structure & the ‘nunnery’ (so called because when the Spanish discovered it they thought it looked like a nunnery) had amazing detail in the carvings of its façade. There was a temple of turtles with tiny turtle carvings around the top, the governor’s palace with more amazing detail & a disappointing ball court. The preservation of the detail of the carvings is far superior to Chichen Itza. We chatted with some Aussie girls on the bus & shared trip notes & tips & then when the bus got back to Merida we went straight back to our room & had tortillas with beans, corn & chilli for dinner. We just stayed in for the evening because it had been a very hot day & we were exhausted.
We had another long lie on Thursday morning and caught the bus at 10:00 to Chetumal. It was a first class bus & probably the nicest bus we’ve been on anywhere & the driver spoke good English & looked after us. We didn’t go through many small towns so it was less interesting & the down side of first class buses is they play action or horror movies very loudly on the TV & they are nearly impossible to ignore. At least they’re in Spanish so I didn’t understand the full horror. We got into Chetumal at 3:30 & got a taxi to the Ucum hotel in the centre of town & got a room for $20. It’s the first room we’ve had with a toilet seat & the hotel also has a pool, but the room was right on the road (2nd floor) & the mattress & pillows lousy. We went to the Maya Culture Museum for the rest of the afternoon, which was excellent. It is arranged on 3 levels reflecting the Maya belief of underworld, earth & heavens. The underworld had stuff about gods & beliefs, the earth section on everyday life & architecture & the heavens section about higher learning, calendar, counting & communication with the gods. It was very interesting. Then we had a dip in the pool for a while & had tortilla & beans for our dinner. I only had a few nightmares from the movies on the bus but it was a fairly hot & uncomfortable night.