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Mayan exploration in the Yucatan February 2009

This is my fifth trip to Mexico. The last one was just a couple quick visits to Juarez while working a two day contract in El Paso. This time around I have 11 days which still isn't much compared to a year in South America or a half year in Europe. Although I had been thinking about many of the places I'll visit for many years, this trip is a whim. I was minding my own business when I noticed ticket prices from Denver to Cancun were shockingly low. $287 later I had round trip tickets for the following month and an order in at Amazon for some guidebooks.

28 Feb 2009: Chichen Itza and Balankanche Cave

Chichen Itza: El Castillo

Chichen Itza is the most famous Mayan site due to it's size and proximity to Cancun. Being on the main highway to Merida (the original road *bisected* the ruins) made it as especially convenient stop for me although I was caught in a 2nd class bus service hell that dragged out my arrival and departure. But that's another story.

Anyway... The reason for staying two nights in Pisté was two fold. First I'd be nearby so that I could get to the ruins before the tour buses arrive from Cancun and Merida and second that I would have plenty of time to see the place and nearby Balankanche Cave.

The plan went off without a hitch. I stayed ahead of the tour groups and the hottest weather. while I certainly didn't have the place to myself, but it wasn't a mob scene and even the souvenir hawkers were still setting up and not going for the hard sell.

After seeing my fill of Chichen Itza and getting a bit of red neck, I hiked back into town and tried some traditional Yucatecan fair, pavo en relleno negro, which is turkey in a black sauce. I'm not exactly sure what comprises the black sauce but it sure is good. Of course there were a number of beers, cerveza Superior, to wash it down. I highly recommend Las Mestizas restaurant if you are in the area.

After lunch I took a taxi to a nearby cave called Balankanche. In the 50s a local guide discovered a sealed passage within and after gaining access discovered a secret religious offering site. I was disappointed to see that the offerings didn't appear to be in their original locations but still it was interesting and a nice quick little side trip to something most people pass over.

1 March 2009:

Merida's Sunday Party

I've heard good things about Merida. Certainly my first day was a good one. I arrived in the early afternoon and decided to walk to the hostel. When I reached the main square the meaning of Merida en domingo became evident. There was lots of music and dancing and vendors. I got distracted and wandered around for a bit.

The city has always been the most important in the Yucatan but doesn't really have much architecture to show for it. At least the centro is the most bland I've seen in a while. I probably won't take many photos of the city although it really does seem nice.

I eventually made it to Hostal Nomadas which is really nice. It's close to everything a traveler needs and it's very helpful in what it provides people on check in: neighborhood map with laundromat, groceries, bus stops, museums, etc, and hammock buying advice, a bus timetable to all sorts of places, and a page of sights around Merida to visit with costs, time, and bus info all listed. That makes things really easy.

That night I went out on a quest to try a bunch of local food and drinks in the plaza - and succeeded.

2 March 2009: Dzibilchaltún

Dzibilchaltún: Temple of the Seven Dolls

Some things work out even when they don't work out.

I visited Dzibilchaltún today and that went great except for the onsite museum being closed. Bummer. It's supposed to be good but at least I was able to walk through the outdoor Mayan tablets and sculptures. This site was first settled in 1000 BC and has over 8000 mapped structures. That's impressive but unfortunately the road between Progresso and Merida needed paving stones so what remains isn't much. The deconstruction of the site lasted until the 1950s although American teams started trying to conserve the site a decade earlier only to be interrupted by WWII.

The place is sort of a mess. There are heaps of stones everywhere so it's hard to tell what is a ruined structure and what is a pile of stones cleared off another structure to reveal it. The best and most photographed temple is actually an earlier structure that was built over. The newer structure was a complete ruin and mostly cleared away to expose the very cool Templo de las Siete Muñecas named for the seven clay figurines with deformities that later residents buried within.

The part that didn't work out was the rest of the mini trip. I had planned to continue to Progreso on the coast and points beyond. The word I got from the guys at the gate scrapped that plan though. While it is technically on the way the best thing to do is go back to Merida and get a direct bus to Progreso. Problem was I knew that it would be like two hours before a local bus came by to take me back. So I started walking back to the highway with my thumb out. I didn't get any love until on the main road with the highway in sight when a univerisity student picked me up. Very cool of him. We had a good talk on the short ride back to Merida.

So that's how things can work out even when they don't work out.

And the lesson is: pick up hitchhikers because they just might be me.

3 March 2009: Chicxulub & Progreso

Chicxulub

This one goes out to all the astronomy or paleo nerds out there. I visited Chicxulub today. Of course that is the name of the crater from the asteroid impact 65 million years ago at the K-T extinction boundary. Info on the Chicxulub strike.

There isn't anything to see there of course and no reason to go but I figured I'd go anyway and get some seafood. There are actually two Chicxulubs, Pueblo and Puerto. The first means town and the second means port. I went to Chicxulub Puerto since ground zero is offshore so it's closer although maps usually put a dot on the inland Chicxulub Pueblo.

Getting there was surprisingly easy and fast. Very. There is a good bus connection to Progreso on the coast since it is a big local beach resort. Once there combis (minivans or VW buses) leave from the same block to cover the 5 km or so to Chicxulub. The place was even in my guidebook and they recommended a restaurant and that's where I headed. They had some really good seafood. They brought out some ceviche pescado (raw whitefish marinated in lime juice) with my first beer. When that was done I ordered the conch with garlic and worked on planning the next few days of this trip.

I did walk out to the beach and again when I went back through Progreso. The weather was better for kites than swimming and not many people were out. I got back to Merida around dark.

4 March 2009: Campeche

Campeche's Main Square

Campeche is what I expected Merida to be. It is a really nice colonial city with brightly painted buildings reminding me a lot of Cartegena. I immediately wished I had more time to spend here. Unlike Merida I immediately found many things to photograph and little museums that I wanted to see. A few kilometers out of town are two forts that I'd like to visit too.

Campeche was a walled town although it took the Spanish long enough to finish the fortifications. Campeche has the distinction of being the most pirate-ravaged city of the New World. Although the wall has mostly been replace by a ring-road the bulwarks and a couple wall sections remain. Now the bulwarks contain museums and I visited two after checking into Hostel Monkey. The hostel has the perfect location in the Old Town right on the main square. Really it couldn't be more perfect.

For dinner I enjoyed a local speciality of layered tortillas and shredded shark and finished the night with some octopus ceviche - raw with a lime and cilantro marinade. All good stuff.

5 March 2009: Edzna

Edzna: Gran Acropolis

Edzna Edzna is a really great set of Mayan ruins not far from Campeche. It's amazing that it isn't more popular with visitors. As you can see from the picture the central acropolis with the Building of Five Stories is impressive. I booked transport through a tour agency on the next block. Two hours was enough to see everything.

On the way back I had the driver drop me off where I could pick up a local bus to Fort San Miguel 4 km from the city center. It was finished in 1801 as protection against pirates and filibusteros, pirates specializing in sacking towns. I had to look that word up. The fort is surprisingly small but has a great little museum with 6 jade death masks that are worth the trip. I walked back into town along the coast.

6 March 2009: Ruta Puuc

Chac masks at Kabáh

The Ruta Puuc is something that the tourist board dreamed up. Puuc is a particular subculture or style of Maya. There is a highway south of Merida that cuts through a Puuc area and makes visiting some of the Puuc sites not so much of a hassle. In fact there is a bus service that runs a Puuc route that I took advantage of to visit the five main sites: Labná, Xlapak, Sayil, Kabáh, Uxmal. That's the order we visited too. Minus the locals that were just going from point A to point B there were probably 15 of us ruin hopping. Uxmal was the last stop and I almost missed the bus while I was buying a shirt. That site would have been easy to return from at least. The others not so much.

It was a good if a little rushed trip. Hot and tiring but very worth it. Visiting Uxmal was one of the primary goals of this whole escapade so I was happy to finally see it for myself.

7 March 2009: Gruta de Loltun

Gruta de Loltun

This was a nice trip even if it was a bit out of the way. Gruta de Loltún, or Loltún Cave, is fairly substantial and has some large rooms. In keeping with the theme for my trip it has a Mayan connection. There are a number of carvings and paintings including some reverse handprints in black. We were told that the black handprints are only found underground. On the surface any handprints are done in red. Predating the Maya were some mammoth, saber tooth tiger, etc remains found deeper in the cave but we didn't go to that area. There were two tours leaving together and I choose the Spanish one since there were less people on it. I got along well enough. I forgot my spanish dictionary and didn't really have trouble without it so I guess my general day-to-day traveler Spanish is okay.

It was a bit out of the way though. I had to take a second class bus to the little Mayan village of Oxkutzcab then a taxi to the entrance. Afterward I stuck out my thumb and was lucky enough that the first vehicle pulled over. It was an old pickup with field workers and the pick of the day, tiny green pumpkins and nastly looking beans, stacked in back. As I held on to the metal frame attached to the bed I couldn't help thinking back to some advice a friend of mine gave me. He encouraged me to see things on my own. When I told him that I always travel independently, which has the specific meaning of unassisted travel, he agreed wholeheartedly and proceeded to regale me with a tale of how as part of a guided tour from Cancun to Chichen Itza he had left the group to walk around the ruins by himself - until it was time for the charter bus to leave. He made sure to return to that and get whisked back to the English-speaking resort in airconditioned comfort. There's a lesson there but not the one he intended.

I hoofed it to the bus station to catch the next bus with just a few minutes to spare. Total luck! The ride back to Merida went without a hitch and I grabbed a bus to Valladolid with enough time to spare to have a quick meal in one of the local places near the terminal. I got to Valladolid after 7 pm I think and found a little hole-in-the-wall to bunk down in for the night.

8 March 2009: Valladolid & Cancun

There isn't much to do in Valladolid. I discovered that much last night. I visited the cenote, natural well, just a few blocks from the center of town. Other than picking up a couple souvenirs for my sister there really wasn't anything else to do. Before long I found myself on a bus to Cancun.

I wasn't too interested in hitting the Hotel Zone on the beach and it isn't close to "real" Cancun's downtown anyway so after I got a room near the bus station I poked around the neighborhood. There is actually kind of a cool couple of blocks near the bus station with relatively cheap places to stay and good places to eat and drink. It's even got some activity at night.

That's it for this trip. In the morning I'll take the bus to the airport and fly back to Colorado. My next trip to this area will probably have me heading south from Cancun to Tulum and from there into Belize, Guatemala, and maybe Honduras too.


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