The Maya I: Yucatan   Leave a comment

The beach and aqua Caribe at Sian Ka’an near Tulum, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

This is the first of a series of themed travel articles, based on recent trips.  Central America is certainly not the easiest region to travel through, especially if like me you fall firmly on the budget side of things.  My trip there a couple years ago was alternately relaxing and chaotic, gorgeous and grimy, fascinating and overlong, steamy hot and refreshing.  Central America is a place of contrasts, and this contrast begins with the Maya: past and present.

I’ve always been interested in the Maya.  On my first trip to the Yucatan years ago I visited a couple of ancient Mayan sites (Chichen Itza & Tulum).  The experience of standing on top of the carved stone temples of Tulum, alone as the sun rose over the Caribbean, was truly amazing.  But the main thing that impressed me on that trip was the fact that the Maya have gone nowhere.  They still live in the area, despite what we all learn – that they disappeared along with their ancient culture hundreds of years ago.

A huge Mayan pyramid at the remote site of Calakmul in the southern Yucatan.

Although they are a shadow of their former selves in terms of power and influence, the Maya remain a people relatively unstained by the worst of modern culture.  I found them to be delightful people, even more so on this recent trip, where I visited the current Maya cultural heartland: the Guatemalan Highlands.

Visiting the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan involves leaving the beach resorts of Cancun & the Riviera Maya behind and striking inland.  There is one exception to this rule: Tulum.  The ruins at Tulum, though nowhere near as big or important as other sites, are by virtue of their seaside location spectacular.  Like some other popular Mayan ruins, Tulum is mobbed by tours which arrive starting in late morning and peaking in the hottest part of the day.

A cool inner chamber near the top of a Mayan temple provides a unique perspective.

The Mayan ruins of Xpuhil in the Yucatan, Mexico.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arriving when they open is really the only reasonable plan for these popular sites.  With Tulum, you can do as I did and stay at one of the rustic beach “resorts” nearby.  The one in which I stayed in 2003 was the closest to the ruins.  My shack was on the beach (not facing the beach but actually surrounded by sand).  Inside was only a hammock and candle.  It cost me $12, and I was steps from the warm sea.  I don’t know how fancy things have gotten down there, but I imagine it’s suffered to some degree the scourge of “going upscale”.

I woke naturally at dawn, and hiked along the beach toward the ruins.  I clambered over rocks and reached the ruins by skirting around a fence.  The site was not open yet, and I was the only person there for some time, until one other guy, a Mexican, showed up.  He had apparently also walked in along the coast.  We didn’t say much to each other, and didn’t need to.  He just smiled at me in the golden light of sunrise.  We knew how lucky we were to be sharing that moment.  I was thinking about those Mayans who first caught sight of the Spaniards’ ships as they approached the New World.  Then I took a swim at the small sandy cove sitting at the base of Tulum’s walls.

A brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) perches on a branch in Mexico’s Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

I also visited Chichen Itza on my first trip to the Yucatan, in 2003, and like Tulum, I wanted to beat the crowds.  I stayed in the nearby town of Valladolid.  This is the only real town close to the ruins, though there are (spendy) hotels near the gate.  But Vallodolid is a quaint town with good street food.  I’d much rather sit in the zocalo (town square) and people-watch while eating cheap and tasty ceviche than sit in a big hotel’s restaurant trying not to be late for a scheduled tour.  You can catch a cheap van to the ruins starting in the early morning, and easily arrive when the gates open.  This will get you there with hours to spend before the tour buses from Cancun arrive.

Many other Mayan sites pepper the Yucatan Peninsula, and if you rent a car you can do excellent loops using the fine city of Merida as a base.  You can visit ruins like Uxmal south of Merida, taking in some modern Mayan villages along the way.  Or loop north to the Gulf, passing numerous cenotes, most of them swimmable.

As day ends in Mexico, I naturally gravitate toward the Taco stand.

Cenotes were (and are) sacred to the Maya, representing as they do the only sources of fresh water on the sponge-like limestone landscape of the Yucatan.  They are essentially sinkholes, some open to the sky, some more cave-like, filled with fresh cool water.  The cenotes in this area are aligned along a massive structure that is the remnant of an enormous impact crater.  It was formed when the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs slammed into Earth 65 million years ago.

Swimming in a cenote is practically a requirement for visiting the Yucatan.  If you’re a diver you can take guided scuba trips into some cenotes.  This way you’ll get a strong feeling (maybe too strong for some) of what underwater cave diving is like.  My cenote dive was a true adventure, fascinating, unique, a little scary…a fantastic dive.

This is a fine trip, exploring the more popular Mayan sites in the northern Yucatan Peninsula.  But if you want a bit more adventure, and also the chance to see wildlife, make the southern Yucatan your goal.  I did this on my more recent trip, visiting the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, south of Tulum on the way.  You can stay right on the reserve in gorgeous tented cabins at Centro Ecologico de Sian Ka’an (Cesiak).  There are reasonably priced boat trips into the wetlands, and the beach is long and empty.  It’s not too expensive, but not backpacker-cheap either.  You might be able to swing a deal in Tulum town, and you’ll be able to catch a ride out there with them in their van.

But the mysterious ruins in the Peten were my destination.  Heading inland just before reaching Chetumal near the Belize border, I arrived in the town of Xpuhil.  Public transport is fairly reliable, since this is the route between Chetumal and Campeche.  There are simple lodgings in this small town, and a great Mayan site (Xpuhil) that you can walk to.  I considered this a warmup to the huge ancient Mayan city of Calakmul, south of Xpuhil.

I was forced to do something I sometimes resort to when I arrive in a place that is relatively untouristed, and without much of a plan.  I walked around looking for the few other tourists in town, and finally found a couple who wanted to visit Calakmul as well.  Then we simply asked around and found a guide to take us.  We left early in the morning, and drove down the lonely road through the flat jungle of the Peten.  We passed our first car and stopped.  They had just seen a jaguar on the road, but when we hurried onward it was already gone.

We arrived at Calakmul and were the only visitors.  A couple workers were using homemade brooms to sweep the stone walkways as we walked through the enormous site.  A large herd of wild pigs roamed the trees between the ruins.  Calakmul was one of the Maya world’s more important cities, rivaling Tikal in size.  In fact, Tikal and Palenque, two other famous sites of the Peten, were Calakmul’s fierce rivals.

The pyramids of Calakmul are truly gigantic, standing well up above the jungle.  The surrounding landscape is so flat that on very clear days you can see some of the pyramids at Mayan sites south across the Guatemalan border.  I imagined standing up there during the height of Mayan power, looking across the jungle to a rival city’s pyramids.  Would they be attacking my city soon?  We spent a few hours wandering about, checking out the ruins.  A few other visitors showed up, but we mostly had the place to ourselves.

A fine thing about being in Central America is the ready availability of fresh jugos (what we would call smoothies).

We ended up staying at a little “eco-resort” (really a campsite) on the way back.  There was a canopy platform there, accessible by hiking trail.  This is a tower with stairs you climb to an observation deck situated near the treetops.  This allows you to do some serious birdwatching.  I saw beautiful parrots, toucans and other birds.  While hiking I also came upon a group of Coatis, curious looking creatures that really don’t look much like any other animal.  The Peten is heaven for a naturalist.

A Mexican woman from southern Yucatan relaxes with her knitting on a perfect afternoon.

That evening we visited a cave where thousands and thousands of bats emerge at sunset.  What a trip!  Clouds of them, flying right past my head in a blur.  The image above is of a woman we met along the road, at a stop for drinks.  She was just sitting there knitting, and was very happy to exchange the local gossip with our guide (who she knew of course).  Typical Mexican flavor, so I had my camera out, and she was a very cooperative subject.

The wild jungle of the Peten stretches toward Guatemala from atop a pyramid at Calakmul in Mexico.

I love Mexico, and will be back there soon I hope.  I would love to go on an archaeological expedition into the Peten, either northern Guatemala or southern Mexico.  There are drug smugglers operating in this remote area, and penetrating it means trekking on foot through rough jungles.  But I know that not only is it a rich hunting ground for fresh discoveries of Mayan cities, but it is also home to Central America’s most diverse and abundant wildlife.  But this trip, in which I visited all the countries in Central America, was only just beginning.  I would visit many more Mayan sites, and also experience their culture in western Guatemala.  That’s the subject of the next post in this series.

The sun goes down behind an island in the lagoon at Sian Kaan Reserve on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

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