Caves, Haciendas and Chichen Itza

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September 15th 2012
Published: September 15th 2012
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Merida, Izamal, Chichen Itza

We have spent some time this week watching dramatic video of the Fuego Volcano erupting near Antigua, Guatemala. We reflected on how often we sat on our balcony in Antigua watching Fuego let off poofs of steam and wondering what it would be like if it actually erupted and how we might react. The videos were quite frightening and having spent a month in Antigua was very close to home for us. Costa Rica recently had a 7.6 earthquake near our house in Heredia just a few weeks after we left. Seeing video of people outside buildings in San Jose, Costa Rica was very realistic having just visited the city and walked on those same streets. We have heard reports of earthquakes in areas of Mexico and Panama not long after we left and saw unbelievable video of an erupting volcano in Northwestern Nicaragua that we visited not long ago. Travel has surely increased our scope of things in the world and has made us much more aware that people everywhere have struggles and challenges to overcome even if they are not reported much in the US media.

Tomorrow is Mexican Independence Day and tonight the festivities begin with gatherings throughout Mexico in the town squares for celebrations and fireworks and the annual “Grito” or call to independence that culminates with the ringing of large bells and shouts of “Viva Mexico” led by local politicians and answered by all in attendance. This will be our second chance to enjoy the festivities after being In Guanajuato, Mexico for last year’s celebration. Travel has also helped us to understand that all people everywhere are proud of their countries and have deep traditions that are celebrated each year in unique ways. We have been very lucky to have been able to share in many of these and look forward to continuing our journey.

We have had a busy couple of weeks since last writing. Merida is still quite warm for us and this sometimes limits how much we get out in town to just walk around. When we lived in the more mountainous areas of Mexico it was much cooler and more conducive to hanging out in the town square or just walking around and observing daily life. The Yucatan is very flat and of course at sea level and thusly never really “cool”. During the hot parts of the afternoon, even the local people seem to slow down and find somewhere inside to cool off. The malls and shopping centers are quite busy during the day as they offer air conditioning. One mall even has a large ice skating rink in the center of the mall, although there were more people watching than skating when we visited.

The Yucatan has no rivers or lakes but does have a large number of caves (grutas or cuevas) and underground lakes (called cenotes) that offer some relief from the heat. We made our way to one of the largest caves to do some exploring and attempt to beat the heat of the afternoon. We visited Grutas de Loltun located about 1 hour south of Merida. The cave is the largest in the Yucatan and takes a couple of hours to walk through. The cave shows signs of human use for more than 2000 years and even has handprints inside made by early Mayans. Some parts of the cave have openings to the surface which allows light to enter so some interesting photos can be taken. At the time we visited only our guide and us were in the cave (or so we thought) and when we looked at the pictures afterward some rather ghostly images showed on the photos. The photos had long exposure times so perhaps there was someone else there, but we didn’t see them in the near dark. Quite a fun trip, even though the caves turned out to be quite warm and humid and didn’t provide the break from the heat we were hoping for.

There are many beautiful mansions in Merida, especially along a large boulevard called the Paseo de Montejo. These mansions were built in the early 1900’s by wealthy henequen millionaires. Henequen is a type of fiber from the Sisal plant that is made into natural rope that stands up to sea conditions well. This rope was much in demand during World War I before synthetic rope was widely available. There were many Henequen plantations in the area of Merida and large fortunes were made producing the fiber. We visited one of the henequen haciendas called Hacienda Yaxcopoil that was closed in the 1980’s. Even though it is now in a state of ruin, it was quite easy to imagine the grandness of life while it was in full production. Stately gates welcomed the visitor to the large house and gardens which had beautiful arches, high ceilings and intricate tile floors. The plantation had large areas for horses and even a swimming pool and must have been a center of a unique lifestyle for many years.

We also visited the Museum of Archeology in Merida which is housed in one of the grand mansions along Paseo de Montejo. While the bottom floor contains some beautiful Mayan artifacts, we found that the upstairs display of the history of the mansion and family that owned it quite fascinating also. The house gave us a good prospective of what city life was like for the people who owned the henequen plantations and how they lived when not at the haciendas.

During the week we made our way to a city to the west of Merida called Izamal. Izamal is the home of a large convent called Convent of San Antonio de Padua. The convent was begun by the Spanish in the 1500’s during the conquest and is literally built upon a holy Mayan site and the convent is unique in that it is largely constructed using stone from the ruins. Izamal still contains many Mayan ruins and presents an opportunity to see a place where many cultures from the past can be observed in one place. The entire downtown area of Izamal is painted in a shade of yellow that is quite striking. The day we visited was really hot and the streets seemed to be mostly deserted with the exception of some horse carriages carrying local people through town. We toured the convent and climbed to the top of the Mayan temple of Kinich-Kakmo that gave us a wonderful view of Izamal and the surrounding area of the Yucatan. You could literally see a 360 degree view of the flat scrubland or the Yucatan for many miles in every direction.

We made our longest day trip so far to the Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza is located about 1 ½ hours from Merida on the highway to Cancun. Chichen Itza was recently selected as one of the new 7 wonders of the world and because of its proximity to Cancun is heavily visited by tourists. We were quite excited to visit after having heard so much about the site. The drive was easy as the Yucatan has wonderful freeways that are as nice as roads in the US. We arrived early enough that it was not too hot to visit and the buses had not really arrived from Cancun yet. Chichen Itza is incredible and we spent several hours seeing all of the ruins. Really large crowds visit Chichen Itza during the spring and fall equinoxes to witness the shadows the sun creates on the side of El Castillo which is one of the large pyramids at the site. The shadows create the silhouette of a snake on the side of the pyramid that ends in the large snakes head sculpture at the bottom of the steps to the pyramid. We decided to go about a week before the fall equinox to avoid the crowds which will be especially large due to this being 2012 and the end of the Mayan calendar.

We saw the large ball court, El Castillo, the temple of the thousand pillars, the nunnery (edificio de lasmonjas), El Caracol and the sacred cenote. The buildings were beautiful and were very advanced in their construction and definitely showed the Toltec influence in their design. Towards the end of our visit the buses arrived and the site really filled with tourists. It made us glad we had arrived as early as we did. While the site was quite grand in both size and amount of reconstruction and I would recommend that everyone who has an opportunity should visit, I would have to honestly say that I didn’t understand how Chichen was selected a world heritage site over some of the other Mayan sites we have visited. Perhaps it is because we have had an opportunity to visit so many other sites in the last couple of years and we are a bit jaded, but I honestly would have picked Tikal or Palenque above Chichen Itza. Still we enjoyed our visit and would highly recommend it to anyone who gets a chance to visit.

It’s almost time to head out to tonight’s celebrations so we have to close until another time. We have really enjoyed our time in Merida and the Yucatan so far and look forward to many new adventures soon.

Additional photos below
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15th September 2012
Izamal Convent - Yucatan

Volcanoes erupting, caving, beautiful pics
16th September 2012
Izamal Convent - Yucatan

Thanks for writing
I love your blog, as well! The pictures are, as usual, stunning! Nanci
16th September 2012
Izamal Convent - Yucatan

Thanks for writing
I love your blog, as well! The pictures are, as usual, stunning! Nanci
16th September 2012

Incredible photos!
Those photos of the caves are stunning as well as those of Chichen Itza and the hacienda. At first, when I saw you sitting at that table, I thought perhaps it was your rental in Merida. I was at Chichen Itza once for the equinox and it was impressive to see the serpent, then its head descend into the earth, but I'm sure it will be a zoo this year--good call! And how lucky to have all these earthquakes and volcanoes happen after your visit--may your luck hold!
16th September 2012

"Travel has surely increased our scope of things in the world..." Definitely a true statement there Nanci. Beautiful cave pics, we have become very fond of caves so far on our travels.
12th December 2012
Loltun Caves - Yucatan

Dois mio
Impresionante la foto de la grota.

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