Published: December 14th 2009December 6th 2009
Mexico: 11th - 18th November 2009
Our round the world trip was briefly back in session as we took a week to visit the Yucatan peninsula. I was there back in '77 when Dad took me to see Mayan ruins. Unfortunately (for me), I was too young to even remotely fathom their significance, and focused my energies on influencing Dad to maximize my time at the hotel's pool. Anyway, who cares about a bunch of old buildings. We've got old buildings back in Houston: just look at Downtown, my school....I'd seen old buildings. It's a good thing seven year olds don't write travel books.
Well, needless to say, I'm appreciating old buildings a little more (and swimming pools perhaps less so). Rayma and I had originally planned to pass through Merida on our way back to the US from South America. When our plans changed, we changed everything else except our plans to head to the Yucatan.
Rayma's mother, Anita, joined us for this part of the trip, and we stayed in a recently renovated colonial house in the middle of Merida (which was beautiful - Google “Casa Pepem” if you're ever looking for a place there).
This humble little building is perfectly aligned to allow the sun to shine through during the equinoxes, thus allowing the Maya to keep an accurate calendar
Then, we'd make day trips to Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Progresso, and numerous other sites and towns.
The one thing that hit me was that the Yucatan is much different than I remember it. There's not enough garbage or potholes on the roads, I didn't see any kids dressed as Tarzan, it's not hectic enough, the air is too clean, the sites are managed too well, the people are too friendly, we didn't come across any police looking for thank you money, and security was very visible.
I fully realize that the Yucatan is probably kept a little nicer than other areas of Mexico, given the large number of tourists. We got the sense that the state and federal government goes to great lengths (especially in terms of security) to ensure that this cash cow stays happy. As a result, it seemed very....normal. The only hiccups were when we got our rental car (and it took an hour because the staff couldn't get out of their own way) and our flight home (better check with the airlines whether they'll check your bags all the way back to your final destination if you need to change planes along the way).
Arch at Kabah
Eat your heart out Paris! Arches abound at the entrances to cities.
Everything else was smooth.
Also, another perk is that, while the US dollar has been sliding against the Euro, the Pound, the Yen, and nearly every other currency, it has strangely appreciated against the Peso.
Most importantly, one of the wonderful things about the Yucatan is that, like Incas in Peru, archaeologists' knowledge of the Maya has grown steadily with wonderful discoveries in the immediate past. It's amazing to think that the Taliban, er....conquistadors came so very close to erasing the Mayan past, perhaps within a hair's breadth. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were only 4 codices (Mayan bark paper books) remaining out of thousands that had been burned, and two copies of their holy book, the Popoh Vuh. Happily, there were pyramids and sites that had been buried or lost that contained additional fragments which, with a lot of work by very dedicated people, have been deciphered and thus the Maya historical record, the names of kings, etc., are better understood.
One of the most recent and impressive new discoveries is the tomb of a king at Ek'balam, which was hidden by an exterior wall of a pyramid. Camouflaged thus, nobody thought to
look for anything there. But, in 1999, archaeologists did look, and then (in what must have been an Indiana Jones moment) discovered the tomb along with the amazing and detailed stucco sculptures adorning it giving the visitor a small but scintillating hint of the extent to which temples and pyramids would have been decorated beyond the bare stones that we see today. In a way, I wish they'd put the wall back to protect against future marauders and calamities.
Another important aspect of the Maya that is better understood is their “ball game”, which is not a game, but rather seems to be a ritual relating to the struggle of good vs. evil, and also has relevance to the Maya's understanding of the movement of heavenly bodies. The ball courts in various cities are ubiquitous. But how did they play the game? Actually, if you go onto YouTube, there are a number of videos showing how the ball game might have been played. I liked the one below because it's short, sweet, and to the point. Mayan Ball Game
The video doesn't explain how the ball got into the very high hoops that we saw in Chichen
Stakes are high: winning coach gets to be sacrificed.
Itza. Our guide explained that there was a player underneath the hoop with a stick (it seemed to me like a Lacrosse stick) so he could shoot the ball when he got it. And then the winning coach would be sacrificed. Yay!
We made various other side trips to historic towns. It's amazing that just south of the US there are colonial towns that could easily have been plucked from southern Europe with their pastel colored colonial houses, cobble-stoned streets, and massive cathedrals (of course!). Campeche is perhaps the most beautiful (though it's got a lot of competition). The city was ringed with a wall to protect against pirates. Some of it is still there, and it reminded me of the stout walled towns along the Adriatic coast in Croatia.
Finally, there's the food. Anyone who follows our blog knows we're foodies. Sad but true. Well, I'm pleased to report that the taste and quality are outstanding. But also, the settings are nice as well. For example, having lunch on the beach in Progresso made me feel like I was in a beer commercial. Anita was likewise kind enough to ensure that meals at home were equally fabulous.
Now where's that guy with the weed wacker?
Many pyramids are still claimed by the forest.
No doubt, my waistline paid the price!
The Yucatan was safe, cheap, and amazing. You cannot go wrong.
There are more photos below