Mexico: The Yucatan Peninsula

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August 21st 2016
Published: August 21st 2016
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Cenote Samula
Dear All

Greetings from the Mexican Caribbean coast! Cancun to be exact. I have made it to the last destination on my summer travels 2016, and plan to spend the next 24 hours holed up in my extremely comfortable, air-conditioned Ibis hotel room, resting up on my journey and in preparation for my flight home tomorrow evening. It has been a wonderful trip, though I shall have time to reflect more in my final missive which I plan to upload upon arrival back home in Croydonia. This one intends to relate my travels of the last few days, since my last update which I believe I wrote in a similar situation from Merida: holed up taking a duvet day, at the Ibis hotel in Merida – actually, the room is pretty much exactly the same, exactly the same furniture and the same size – but that’s what I love about Ibis hotels – dependable quality. The view is somewhat different, and actually quite spectacular. Whilst I’m based here in central Cancun, as opposed to the touristy hotel strip along the stunning spit and stretch of land between the Caribbean Sea and the Nichupte Lagoon, my top floor hotel room affords
El CastilloEl CastilloEl Castillo

Chichen Itza
an amazing view across the lagoon, towards the high-rise hotel strip which is Cancun to most visitors, and the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea beyond. This is the life!

So since I last wrote, I took another very comfortable air-conditioned ADO first class bus eastwards, stopping off at a beautiful little colonial gem of a town called Valladolid. It was tricky again to find a hotel suitable to my tastes, as whilst the Lonely Planet is so useful for its maps and general travel information on a country, as usual its selection of places to stay was quite limited, this time only three hotels figured in one of the region’s most popular tourist sites. It’s true what they say, the Lonely Planet really isn’t what it used to be – it used to be aimed at the independent free-spirited traveller like myself, now no-one seems really sure who it’s aimed at. Anyway, I was able to find on TripAdvisor the most perfect hotel for my tastes – the Departamentos Avila. Located right on the outskirts of town, it was a very peaceful spot, although it did seem to be a popular truck stop for small vans, around six of them pulled in to the car park both evenings, and left early the next morning. Apart from the truck stoppers, I think I was the only guest there, and it was superbly tranquil and quiet. The room was huge, very tastefully decorated, with even a kitchen and dining area, and a lovely terrace overlooking the verdant jungle at the back of the property, home to a variety of chirping cicada-type creatures at night, and singing birds in the morning. I felt I seriously hit a good hotel, located far enough away from the tourist centre of the town, but with a nice affordable restaurant just opposite, and a supermarket right around the corner. It was a most comfortable two nights.

After downing my bags at the Avila, I spent a wonderful afternoon at two nearby “cenotes”. The amazing thing about the Yucatan Peninsula is that the region has no surface rivers – all of its waterways run underground, through the vast network of tunnels created out of the region’s limestone topography. Similarly, the area is also dotted with numerous “cenotes”, commonly translated as “sinkholes” in English, but I don’t think they are quite the same thing – cenotes

Cancun Beach
are curious subterranean caverns holding circular pools, which must be connected by some form of underground waterway. Some of the cenotes are extremely swimmable, stunningly located either open to the air, or underground with a small hole above letting in the daylight via a beautiful ray of light, often with tree roots coming down from the cavern roof and touching the water below. Whilst geologists believe these cenotes are created as the limestone caverns' roofs collapse due to underground water erosion, I’m not so sure. I read somewhere about quite a credible theory, based on the fact that many of these cenotes lie along a semi-circular curve with its centre just north of the northern Yucatan coast, that a meteorite hitting the earth thousands of years ago could have sent rocks in all directions, blasting out these craters and sinkholes in a circle around its impact site. This actually conforms to the theory of a giant meteorite said to have hit the earth, around 33km north of Merida, around 65 million years ago, at a place called Chicxulub, which is believed to have brought about the end of the dinosaur age. I find this fascinating, as nowhere else in the world are so many cenotes found, and in such a seemingly strange semi-circular pattern.

Whatever the cause of such “sinkholes”, I thoroughly enjoyed swimming around in the two beautiful cenotes located at a place called Dzitnup, 6km west of Valladolid: Cenote Xkeken and Cenote Samula. Both of them were located around 20 metres underground, each with a small gap at the top allowing rays of daylight to come through and touch the water. Both had fish swimming in them, and both were refreshingly cooling during the tropical heat of the day. The former also had the tree roots reaching down to drink from the water, a huge stalactite formation, and even bats flying around beneath the cavern’s roof. I also met two friendly English brothers at the latter, travelling through Mexico in a rental car, who were able to give me a lift back to Valladolid afterwards – very kind!

The rest of the day I spent a happy hour or so wandering the beautiful colonial streets and pastel-shaded houses of little Valladolid. Especially attractive was a street called Calzada de los Frailes, which led to the equally attractive Templo de San Bernardino y Convento de Sisal, a 16th century combined church and fort located to the south-west of the town’s centre. This was finished off with a lovely evening spent in the amazing Departamentos Avila – probably the nicest hotel I’ve stayed in on this trip.

The next day was also a good ‘un, and enabled me to tick off one of the “New Wonders of the World” – I hadn’t realised it, but in fact I had already ticked off five of the so-called new wonders chosen in 2007 as a Millennium project based in Zurich: the Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Rome’s Colisseum and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio. By visiting the stunning Chichen Itza in Mexico on Friday of this week, I have now ticked off six of the seven! It is Petra in Jordan which remains now, perhaps this may influence a future journey at some point soon…!

But indeed, Friday morning I visited the amazing site of Chichen Itza. Whilst my two previous ruins on this trip, Tikal in Guatemala and Lamanai in Belize, were both Maya, Chichen Itza is interesting as it was built by the Mayans during the late Classic period, but was
Street WindowStreet WindowStreet Window

subsequently abandoned after the Mayan collapse around the 9th century. It was then taken over by the Toltecs around the 11th century. Not much is known about the Toltecs, but the subsequent Aztecs claimed their heritage from them, and much of the Aztec culture, including the adoption of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, as their main deity, as well as the obsession with war and human sacrifice, is said to have derived from Toltec culture. Indeed, as the Toltecs took over the city, it became a site of increasing human sacrifice, many of its carvings displaying its gruesome practice. Today the site has been greatly restored, and its central pyramid, the stunningly beautiful “El Castillo”, I believe looks much like it might have done during the city’s ancient occupation. Whilst today the pyramid is beautiful, and is the cover image for the large site of Chichen Itza as a whole, it is easy to forget that it was once the site of hundreds if not thousands of human sacrifices, of the heart-ripping and decapitating variety. Upon the nearby “Plataforma de los Craneos” (Platform of Skulls), the heads of the sacrificial victims were displayed. Not a particularly beautiful place when one thinks of it in this way. Whilst to the modern-day perspective, such pre-Colombian practices can rightly be viewed as barbaric, and in a sense an ancient and wholly gruesome form of religious extremism, it is equally surprising to learn that to be a human sacrifice was very much an aim of many a pre-Colombian individual. Whilst the Mayans sacrificed the chiefs of neighbouring conquered chiefdoms, as a way of recognising the conquering chief’s obligation to return the conquered chief to his heavenly abode, as that was what the gods had willed in allowing the victor to win, human sacrifice for the Toltecs, and later the Aztecs, formed much more a part of their culture and religious beliefs. Humans were offered to both Chac, the Mayan rain god, presumably to allow the rain to come and water their crops, but increasingly more humans were sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec hummingbird god, who allowed the sun to rise each morning – the Aztecs seemingly became more and more obsessed with the desire to placate this god, and thus allow the sun to keep rising, by offering more and more humans as sacrifices. But in fact, many humans also desired to be sacrificed, as dying in this way, along with dying in battle, allowed you a short-cut in the afterlife to dwell in the heavenly realm of the deities – those dying a natural death had a more difficult journey in the afterlife to make it to this realm, some souls on this journey apparently were vanquished altogether. Religious extremism to the extreme, and I guess this made the Toltec and Aztec warriors fearless in battle, which probably contributed to their success in conquering and subduing much of the central parts of modern-day Mexico. When war and conflict was slow, the Aztecs even staged what are referred to as “Flower Wars”, staged battles in an open arena with spectators, in which losing sides would be sacrificed. Sometimes, as in the Ball Games common throughout the Mesoamerican world, and whose Ball Courts exist across most Mesoamerican sites including a huge one at Chichen Itza, the winning team would be sacrificed. Teams would compete for the honour of actually being themselves a human sacrifice, and thus earning their place in the heavenly realm. Gosh, very interesting, but very strange, and actually an extremely morbid part of the Toltec/Aztec culture as a whole.

Anyway, digression aside, I spent a happy few hours on Friday morning exploring the sights of Chichen Itza, including “El Castillo” pyramid, the Nunnery (so-called as the Spanish conquistadors noted the similarities between this structure and a convent back home), the Observatory and the Sacred Cenote. Unfortunately, though as anticipated, I didn’t have the place to myself, as tourist coaches were arriving from Cancun and the Maya Riviera by the dozen. This, combined with the tropical heat of day and the seemingly infinite number of souvenir stands lining each of the routes through the complex, made for a busy place, which I was glad to leave around midday, and spend the rest of the day in showered, air-conditioned bliss back at the Departamentos Avila.

And finally, both for this blog entry as well as this journey overall, I caught my final bus even further eastwards, taking me to my last destination on this trip, the famed, international tourist resort of Cancun. As mentioned, I’m staying in the central part of town away from the tourist hubbub of the coast, which is really nice, and makes for a much calmer ambience. Did some final souvenir shopping yesterday, including the acquisition of a beautiful handmade glass tequila set from the only gentleman in the souvenir market who didn’t call for my attention, didn’t tell me he’s going to make a good price just for me, and didn’t call out “amigo” or “special price for you buddy” (these people should realise they are going to attract more people if they just relax a little!). This morning I took a bus to the tourist centre of Cancun, the “Zona Hotelera”, just to see what it was like. I took some really nice photos, the beach is admittedly really beautiful and photogenic, with its white sand and azure waters, but two hours there was enough – I’m not really a beach fan to be honest, especially when travelling alone. A quick dip in the ocean was enough, followed by a longer spell on a balcony with a view and a Coke. I’m glad I visited the beach, though I’m now going to be spending the rest of the day finding sand in all sorts of places – my major reason for not being a beach boy…!

So as mentioned, spending the next 24-hours in air-conditioned bliss, having another duvet-day for the rest of the day. I am definitely feeling tired now, and it’s just about the right time for me to go home. This has been an amazing trip, and I’m so glad I came – I have seen some amazing places, met some wonderful people, and will be taking many memories, thoughts and ideas away with me back home to the UK. I’m looking forward to the next part, which is the processing of all these experiences, when I get home – actually my favourite part of any trip really!

So I will write up once more once I’ve arrived back in my hobbit-hole. For now, it just remains for me to say thank you again for reading, ¡y saludos por la ultima vez desde Mexico!


Additional photos below
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Cenote Xkeken

26th August 2016

Happy hour and sinkholes
It sounds like your trip is ending all too soon and you are enjoying the last few hours. Air conditioned bliss and duvet comas can be appreciated after a long road trip. Safe travels home.
27th August 2016

Yes - you're absolutely right! I love all aspects of a trip, but the end is particularly great in the appreciation of home comforts again :D

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