Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Yucatan Peninsula continued: Quintana Roo (Tulum to Cancun)

I'm going to try to be succinct and make this the last post about our February 2013 trip to the Yucatan Peninsula traveling from Merida to Tulum and up to Cancun.

My last post ended on our arrival at the Eastern coast of the peninsula.  The cultural atmosphere all along the coast felt very different from the inland areas.  Our hitchhiker had explained that Tulum has expanded in the past 10 years from being a small community of residents and hippie ex-pats to the laid back, high-end resort town it is now.  The hotels are mainly comprised of thatched-roof cabanas on the beach, mostly powered by solar and wind.  Staff at the hotels seem fairly international and there is a strong focus on health.  There were yoga and fitness classes on the beach, people learning to samba, a full-moon celebration, and a lot of people were jogging, windsurfing, and cycling.  Unfortunately, the signs of growth to come were everywhere, and I'm sure  tall buildings and gated communities will soon begin to displace much of the surrounding jungle.
Our hotel, Coco Tulum, right on the beach with a wind turbine generating power overhead.
We stayed in Tulum for 4 days, taking short trips each day.  The first day, we drove to Punta Laguna, where there is a nature reserve.  We hired a Mayan guide to lead us on a hike through the jungle in search of monkeys.  It was a long, almost silent hike, and very enjoyable in and of itself.  We saw amazing foliage, birds, and leaf-cutter ants.  It took a long time to locate a group of black howler monkeys, and when we did, they bounced through the trees to position themselves right over our heads.  Then they began to pee and poop in our direction!  We had to duck and run, but I have always wanted to see monkeys in their natural environment, so it was a thrill.  Later, we found a spider monkey with her baby.
A black howler, right before getting ready to release a stream of urine at the human intruders.
The tour ended with a canoe trip across a peaceful lagoon and a visit to some very eager Mayan women with a variety of crafts for sale.  (We bought a little embroidered monkey patch.)

We also found a cenote that day, which was not a cavern.  It was more like a very deep pool with a baby crocodile lounging on the edge, but divers were exploring the depths.  They told us that there are caverns below that lead to other cenotes.  Mike and Anouk swam for a while, but I just dunked myself to cool off, then relaxed at the edge.

On our second day, we decided to succumb to a tourist trap, so we drove to Xcaret (pronounced "Shcar-et") which is a sort of theme park.  The entry fee is astounding.  We paid $200 U.S. for the day!  And it was not exactly what we expected (which was something equivalent to Disneyland.)  But, it did have a lot to offer.  I think, for a lot of visitors, this sums up the whole Yucatan Peninsula in one day.  There is a beach for swimming, zoo exhibits throughout, several "lazy rivers" to float, swim, or snorkel through, a boat ride, a Mayan village with educational exhibits, genuine Mayan ruins to explore, bat caves, the largest butterfly house in the world, a Space-Needle-style ride, the most incredible cathedral I've ever seen, a fantastic folk art museum, mushroom farm, orchid farm, jungle walk with labeled plants and trees, a sisal factory, horse show, and this underground crypt with a cemetery that is indescribable.  And more.  In the evening, there is a performance in an auditorium modeled after ancient Mayan ball courts.

While waiting for the performance to begin, we discussed whether we felt it was worth the entry fee.  At that point, we both felt, adding all of the things we had done, we would have paid about $160 for the experience.  By the time we left, we really felt it was a fair value.  The show was much better than I expected.  It included a dramatization of the history of the area (the brutality and the blending of cultures) and demonstrations of dances and costumes from different areas of Mexico.  The most impressive part for all of us was a recreation of the Mayan ball games, which were incredibly athletic.  One involved a ball of fire being volleyed through the air with sticks.  I expected it to be a cheesy Vegas-style show, but it was actually very well done.
I love this church dedicated to the Virgin de Guadalupe at Xcaret.  The carved tree overhead, the cave pulpit, and it is full of art.
On the 3rd day, we drove to Coba to find cenotes.  Following signs, we eventually found a cluster of three that we could visit for about $10 total.  These were all completely underground.  We had to descend via long stairways, finding deep pools underground with that crystal clear water.  You can see all the way down, except where it appears to be fathomless.  In some, you can dive from a platform high on the stairs.  The first was more shallow, but very beautiful.
A shallow underground cenote.

This view is from near the top of the stairs.  The little black thing in the water is an inner tube.
I think the cenotes were my favorite part of the whole trip.  Granted, we try to visit caves on every trip we take and many people are not as enchanted by entering the depths of the Earth, but I can relate to the Mayan belief that these are holy places.

On our last day, we decided to spend more time enjoying the beach and ensuring that I return home with a painful sunburn.  We did go into Tulum to walk around and we found a very out-of-the-way cenote called Isla Adonis that was different from all of the others, and worth the confusing drive over many rocks and pits.  Then we picked up some salt, lime and tequila and spent the last evening playing at the cabana.

We drove to Cancun for the last 2 days of our trip.  While others stay in the fancy Hotel District, we stayed in town at an affordable chain hotel that was completely without charm, but was comfortable.  We were easy walking distance from a market for locals and one for tourists, and we enjoyed both.  This was our easiest and most enjoyable trip to a foreign country thus far.  It offered history, geology, culture, and archeology.  It was a warm break from our chilly winter weather.  We found it safe and accessible, people were friendly, we never ran into trouble, and we never found ourselves holed up in a room eating dry bread and cheese because there was a holiday where all of the businesses had closed.

Things we would have done differently:
  • We would have gotten pesos before leaving and not taken U.S. dollars.  (Much of the advice we received was that everyone takes U.S. $$, so there's no need to have pesos.  Many do take dollars, but will round up the exchange rate and not have change, so you spend a lot more.  This is probably not the case in resorts.  ATMs are plentiful and the exchange fee is minimal.
  • I would not have taken make-up or jewelry.  It was too hot for make-up and there was no occasion to dress up.  It was just extra stuff to carry around.
  • I would have brought nail clippers, antihistamine ointment, facial toner, immodium, snack bars, talcum powder, and athletic sandals like keens or tevas.
  • Somehow, I only packed tank tops.  In the inland cities, I wished I had a more modest, light blouse.  On the coast, people walk around in tiny bathing suits, but Merida and Valladolid were very traditional.
  • I would not have packed all of those almonds, pistachios, and dried fruit that had to be tossed at customs.  Sealed snacks would have been acceptable, and would have been handy on long drives.  
  • The water bottles and to-go coffee cup would have been left at home.  Maybe one water bottle for the flight, but the rest were just extra luggage.
  • Most things can be purchased when you get there.  Pack light.
If you are planning a trip to Yucatan or Quintana Roo, feel free to email me if you have any questions.  We were only there for 2 weeks, but we managed to do and see a lot.  I'm happy to share what we learned.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Yucatan Trip: from Merida to Tulum

This is a continuation of a series of entries describing a recent trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, as a family of 3 (with a 9-year-old) on a modest budget, interested in learning about the history, culture, and unique landscape of this area of Mexico.

One thing that struck me was how different the culture is in this part of Mexico from Baja; the only other area of MX that I've been to.  I anticipated the gregarious atmosphere I had experienced on those trips across the border.  On those earlier trips (granted, I was 10 years younger and then some) my blonde-ness generated a lot of uncomfortable attention.  On the streets of Ensenada while pregnant with my daughter, men would mutter suggestive comments to me as they passed, just loud enough for me to hear.  It was unsettling, and I braced myself on this trip, thinking it might be the same.  But it wasn't.  The people in the Yucatan are gentle and shy, and very polite.  The salespeople can be persuasive and exhausting in their efforts to make a sale, but I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe in the least.  In fact, I felt much safer there than I do here in the U.S. (The police armed with assault rifles are a little bit scary, but they are actually quite nice when you ask for directions.)

On our 5th day, we left Merida and headed toward Chichen-Itza, one of the most well-known archeological sites in the peninsula.  We stopped in Izamal, where we had lunch and took a carriage ride around the city.  This little town is definitely worth a visit, and maybe an overnight stay.  All of the buildings are painted ochre and white and it is exceptionally clean, which makes it very picturesque.  In the center of town, like most that we visited, is a large square park.  Senior citizens sit on park benches, little kids play, and there are a few vendors offering traditional crafts and food for very low prices.  Rising up next to the park is an old monastery with gorgeous architecture.  From the courtyard of the monastery, you can look out over the landscape, and you'll see that there are ruins a few blocks away, right in the middle of a neighborhood.  We visited a very nice folk art museum that is right in the centro, on the edge of the park.
The carriages lined up in the square in Izamal.  If you look at the center of the horizon, you'll see the top of Mayan ruins that are a few blocks away.
After lunch, we headed to Chichen-Itza, where we stayed at another Hotel Dolores Alba.  The Dolores Alba in Chichen-Itza was a disappointment, unfortunately.  They charged us a lot more than the listed price, and wouldn't explain why.  And, like their Merida hotel, the food was abysmal.  It seemed like an attempt to make U.S. or European fare, but failed miserably.

If we had it to do over, we would give Chichen-Itza a miss.  It is very commercialized, with all of the walkways lined with aggressive hawkers of Mayan arts and crafts.  Unlike most people we met, these guys could get downright rude if we didn't look at wares from every single booth.  Plus, they all had these cheesy clay jaguar heads that you blow into and it roars like a jaguar.  I prefer the sites where you can quietly explore and contemplate the magnitude of the place without constant harrassment.  Plus, all of the ruins are roped off, so you can't even get up close and personal.
Walking to the Chichen-Itza ruins is an exercise in patience.
On the other hand, if you are interested in buying Mayan artwork, save it for Chichen-Itza.  We saw high-quality masks, pottery, and textiles here at the lowest prices anywhere.  Many of the vendors who were not busy heckling visitors were carving masks or embroidering beautifully detailed flowers onto huipils.  Unfortunately, we had depleted our art budget in Merida.  It was almost painful to walk past these folks as they begged, joked, and sometimes insulted us when we just wanted to see ruins.

The ticket to Chichen-Itza was supposed to include a light show at night, and we had planned ahead this time, strategizing with Anouk so that she wouldn't freak out.  We drove a couple of miles until we found the only non-hotel restaurant in the area, which turned out to be a great choice.  We were served by a very sweet, grandmotherly woman who spoke no English, but we managed to have choppy conversation with her while we ate.  We were able to communicate details about our family, our lifestyle, and understand her description of her children and grandchildren.  And the food was some of the best we'd had, but our three meals and drinks came to less than $20.  We made it back to Chichen-Itza in time for the light show, to find the gates closed and parking lot empty.

Back at the hotel, some guests from Oregon filled us in that the show was cancelled, and it has been for more than 2 months.  They had heard about this from the front desk, but no one had mentioned it to us.  All in all, Chichen-Itza was a bust.

In the morning, after a breakfast of "Mexican Eggs" which turned out to be a small plate of dry scrambled eggs with no seasoning at all for about $9 each, we drove toward Valladolid.  We took the smaller (non-toll) road through villages, and arrived at our hotel at about lunchtime.  We stayed at Ecotel Regia, which was one of our favorite hotels of the trip.  The Ecotel Regia is clean with nice landscaping and beautiful buildings.  It's an easy walk (for able bodies) to the town center.  Again, there is a square park in the middle of downtown, with a cathedral rising up on one side.  We learned that, as in Merida, the square that is now a park was once a Mayan temple.  But Spanish conquerors tore down the temple and used the stone to build the cathedral.  And that's sugar-coating the story:  They enslaved the Mayan people and forced them to do the work.  It's an ugly history that repeats throughout the Americas.

But Valladolid is quaint, with a lot to do.  I would say that it is as charming and interesting as Merida, without the hustle and bustle of the bigger city.  The best thing about Valladolid is the cenote that drops down into the earth only a vigorous walk from our hotel.  We followed a map on foot, passing houses and little shops, and then entered a walkway where, as you descend, the Earth opens up into an immense cavern with a deep pool at the bottom.  Stalagtites hang from the ceiling, along with tree roots and vines.  There were a couple of tour groups also enjoying the cenote, but it was so large and magnificent that it didn't bother me at all to share the experience with a small crowd.  Everyone was so excited and expressed it in all of their different languages.  Almost everyone was getting in the water and some were diving from the high cliff edges.  Mike and Anouk got in, and I was very nervous for Anouk at first because the pool is incredibly deep.  But, she proved that her swim lessons have been a good value, and those two spent a long time in the water.  I even got in for a bit, and I'm skiddish in water.
Look for the little people to see the scale of this cenote!
I really can't describe how amazing the cenotes are.  You have to experience it.  The water is crystal clear and fairly warm.  Rays of light stream down from above, passing through tropical vines and trees.  Birds and bats fly in and out overhead.  These caverns are considered holy to the Mayan people because they connect to the underworld and to the Gods that provide water and take care of souls after death.  Many of these were used as temples in ancient times and religious ceremonies were held here to ensure that the life-giving water continued to flow.

It is very important that visitors respect requests to use only biodegradable sunscreen and avoid use of lotions and deodorants when swimming in the cenotes.  Most are owned and maintained by the Mayan people, and opening them to the public provides much-needed income for these groups.  But they are still trying to find a balance between sharing their incredible cenotes and keeping them pristine.  Some have installed showers at the entrance, and you are required to use them before entering the water.

As we drove away from Valladolid, toward Tulum, the next morning, we spotted a woman on a long, fairly desolate road trying to hitch a ride.  She looked harmless and we had room, so we picked her up.  She is an ex-pat from Arizona but has been living and working in Quintana Roo for many years.  Serendipitously, she is also a mosaic artist!  What were the chances?!  She filled us in on life in Valladolid and Tulum, on how affordable land is and how plentiful resources are and how environmentally responsible the culture is, and by the time we reached Tulum, Mike and I were discussing a retirement plan.  Our new friend rushed to catch her bus to Cancun where she had to file some paperwork with immigration, we hugged good-bye, and I realized I didn't even remember her name.  She has my card, and I hope she'll get in touch.  It was a long drive to Tulum, but it flew by because of good conversation.
We happened upon this amazing mosaic in a courtyard in Valladolid.  Our hitchhiker works at the  location,  and filled us in about the significance.  This is only the central part of the sculpture, which has more sections and a fountain, all made of colorful pottery and shells.  Now I want to make mosaic that incorporates whole vessels, plates, cups, etc.
In order to keep this read-able and to get some work done today, I'll go into our visit to Tulum when I get a chance to write again.  Next up: the beach, monkeys, and a theme park.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Yucatan Trip: Flamingos and Mangroves

This is part 3 of my chronicle of a recent trip to the Yucatan Peninsula.  I'm writing it out partly to share the story with friends and family, and also for anyone researching their own potential trip to that area.

We are a family of three, with one 9-year-old girl.  Ours is a teacher-supported family, so we can't afford lavish vacations, but travel is a priority for us, and we sacrifice other things in order to make room for it.  So, our trips are designed to be affordable, but we also try to keep it relatively comfortable and fun for our daughter.  Gone are the days when we strapped on some giant backpacks and headed to a post-communist country during the off-season with no plan, staying with someone we met in the train station.  But we are also not satisfied with an all-inclusive resort hotel on the beach.  We want to learn about the history and culture of a place, to explore and engage with it.  So, our trip is different from most that I have read about online.

For this trip, we rented a car and had our budget hotels scheduled between Merida, Tulum and Cancun.  After enjoying Uxmal, we headed to Celestun on the West coast of the peninsula.  By this time, we had figured out that the pages of google maps directions I printed out before leaving were completely useless.  I had a Tomtom Via that usually can't find a signal, but on this day, it directed us to our destination very reliably, taking us on small two-lane roads through a number of little towns.  This gave us a chance to see how people live outside of the larger city.  If we had it to do over, we might have spent a day in Maxcanu, which looked really sweet.  Most of these villages were made up of thatched roof huts and crumbling adobe houses, but in the center would be the remains of a large Colonial building that was obviously once a beautiful symbol of affluence.  We saw people on their bicycle-carts; the main form of transportation.  Often, these are laden with wood or foliage just gathered in the jungle, and the driver would have a machete.
A house in one of the villages.

Since we in the U.S. are in constant conversation about our economy, this trip was a reminder that U.S. citizens have a very different idea of poverty than most countries in the world.  Also, our lifestyle is completely dependent on consumerism, and we don't know how to go out and gather resources from our surroundings.  These peoples' lives depend on their ability to hunt, gather, and to live in clusters where resources are shared.  The villages are full of cisterns that collect water, and we saw some that were raised up with spigots underneath.  Once we saw someone showering under one of the spigots.  We saw freshly butchered chickens hanging in windows, a dead cow in the bed of a truck probably on its way to be turned into food, and a lot of people offering their fruit or tamales in their front yards.  Luckily, fruit trees grow everywhere there, so it is a major part of the diet.  Juices of all kinds are very popular and are served in restaurants.  They can contain prickly pear and aloe, along with more common ingredients.

So, we arrived in Celestun and found the nature reserve where we hired a boat to take us out to see the flamingo nesting grounds.  The cost for a boat was more than double the amount stated in the guide book, and it was nearly $125 for 90 minutes.  An Austrian couple were standing in front of us, experiencing the same sticker shock, so we asked if they would like to share a boat.  We pooled our money, which still cost us $75, but I think it was worth it.  The boat took us on a long ride out to the flamingos, which was an indescribable experience.  As we approached the nesting grounds, there was a thick line of pink across the huge body of water.  As we got closer, we could see the individual birds.  The driver cut the engine and we just floated around as close as we could safely get to these amazing creatures.

After that, we were taken on a beautiful tour of the mangrove forests, through little lagoons and waterways, and finally docking at a spot where we could get out and explore.  Some people from other groups were swimming in the crystal clear water and we got close-up views of all kinds of loons and cranes.

It was a very satisfying tour, and when it was over, we went into town to play in the ocean.  I'm not sure we found the normal area for swimming.  As we looked for parking, a man approached the car and spoke to us in very quick Spanish, helping us to find a suitable parking spot.  We gave him some change, and he led us to the beach where he handed us over to another guy.  This guy asked us for more money.  We asked, "Por que?!"  He said, "For a boat!"  We managed to explain that we had no interest in a boat, but only wanted to come to the beach, so he walked away.  I think we had found a place where boats come and go, but we spent a little time enjoying the beach and water anyway before heading to Merida.

This was a second trip to Merida, and I wrote about the city in my first segment, so I won't go into it.  But we stayed at a small family-owned hotel called Hotel Casa Nobel.  It is in a more affluent area of the city, just a few blocks from Paseo de Montejo, which is a whole street of beautiful buildings and the Museum of Anthropology.  As usual, the exterior of the hotel blends in with everything else, but the interior is a little oasis.  The room was clean and comfortable, the pool is small but just right for us, and the courtyard is nicely landscaped and a very peaceful place to relax.

Next time, I'll write about our trip to Izamal and Valladolid, and introduce you to cenotes.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Yucatan trip continued...

By our second day in Mexico, we had adjusted our aesthetic sensibilities, and began to see the humble charm of Merida.  This city is much older than a typical U.S. city, with narrow cobblestone streets and many colonial-style buildings, some dating back to the 1500s.  The streets are very busy with vendors and shops and people rushing from place to place.  There are little Mayan women selling fruit or hand-embroidered napkins with babies strapped to their backs next to modern clothing stores blasting pumping hip hop beats.  We once noticed a little old lady in traditional dress dancing to the modern dance music.  There is a striking mix of modern and traditional all over the city.

It was Sunday, and many stores were closed, so it was less chaotic than when we arrived.  The central square was filled with booths for a folk art/craft market, along with vendors selling all kinds of food, balloons, and toys.  We spent a lot of the day walking around, just enjoying the atmosphere of Merida.  We found very good food at a restaurant called El Chili Habanero.  Every little park was filled with artists and craftsmen and music and even dancing.

The atmosphere became more festive as evening turned to night, and one of the streets of the downtown filled with dancing people.  With the old buildings and the cathedral lit up, smells of food everywhere, and kids running and playing, it felt like a huge party.  And I guess it's like that every week!

On our third day, we checked out and headed to Uxmal.  After checking in at our hotel, we drove farther along the Puuk route and visited a couple of archeological sites.  It was much hotter inland; probably around 90 degrees F.  We headed back to the hotel when we were too hot and hungry to continue.
Kabah, near Uxmal.
When we got back to the hotel, the restaurant was closed.  They told us to go to a nearby resort hotel (same owners) closer to the Uxmal ruins.  We walked over to that restaurant, attached to a much more expensive hotel, and found a buffet lunch in progress.  We were told to grab a plate and help ourselves.  The food was good, but we were shocked when our bill came to more than $50!  Anouk had eaten only a small plate of beans and rice and a few pieces of fruit.  Our lunch cost more than our room, and was the most expensive meal of the entire trip.  Fellow travelers, beware and stop for lunch before you get to Uxmal!

Uxmal was the most fantastic archeological site of our trip.  It was far better than the more popular Chichen-Itza.  Uxmal is open for exploration, vast, well preserved, and we were able to climb one of the pyramids.  Mike and I both studied anthropology in college, so we love visiting places that give us a sense of history.  I especially enjoy the hieroglyphics and relief carvings embellishing the buildings and learning about ancient religious beliefs.
The ticket to Uxmal includes the light show at night.  After swimming and dinner, we walked back to the ruins and Mike and I tried to enjoy seeing how the geometry and design becomes more clear when strategically lit, while Anouk freaked out and begged to leave.  We did give in and took her back to the room, where we all succumbed to physical exhaustion.  Those pyramids don't have escalators.

Yucatan trip!

I'm going to begin writing about our recent trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in February 2013.  I'll write about it in multiple entries, partly because my spare time is limited, and because we fit so much into our trip that I want to cover, it would be overwhelming to put it all into one document.

We flew overnight from Seattle to Denver to Cancun, arriving at 5:25am.  We had scheduled a rental car and they were supposed to pick us up at 7am.  When we arrived at the airport, the sun was just beginning to rise, and the taxi drivers told us that our rental company didn't actually open until 8am.  Luckily, a few other people had made the same arrangement with the same company, so we all waited together until the shuttle came.  While we waited, we soaked in the warm air, watched the sun come up, heard increasing and unfamiliar birdsong, and watched an animal that looked something like a capybara, but smaller, running around in the bushes.

We had paid for the rental car online, or so we thought.  It had been remarkably cheap, which was a deciding factor in choosing to rent a car rather than use public transportation.  However, the fee we had paid did not include insurance, as it turned out, which is vital.  (Do not rely on your car insurance or that provided by your credit card!)  But, the insurance cost was more than triple the cost of renting the car, and the total we paid came out closer to $600.  This was a shock, but by the time we got this news, we were in Mexico, at a rental car counter, and utterly exhausted after traveling for over 12 hours overnight.  Also, they gave us an SUV instead of a compact, which added significant gas cost on top of the rental.

Despite all of that initial disappointment and sticker shock, once we were on the road, it was smooth sailing and we were grateful for a vehicle that could contain our luggage and allow Anouk to sleep comfortably during the 3 hour drive to Merida.  Had we taken a bus, the trip would have taken much longer, and we would not have had the opportunity to see all that we did over the next 2 weeks.

*Note: We paid about $40 in tolls.  It would have been less if we'd had pesos, and we could have taken a smaller road without a toll.

When we arrived in Merida, around noon, it was not exactly what we expected.  Coming from the relative affluence of the U.S., our expectations of the capital of the State of Yucatan were very different from the actuality.  Buildings are run-down, half built, dirty, and with walls or rooftops that sometimes look like they were blown off in a tornado and just left that way for years.  Streets are crowded with people, cars and motorcycles shifting lanes and honking unpredictably, and all of the architecture and streets are very old.  The directions I printed from google maps proved useless.  Streets were numbered, but we couldn't make sense of it because we would see 14th and expect the next street to be 15th, but there would be no 15th, yet we would cross 63rd and think that would lead us to 72nd, which didn't work out either.  Later, we learned that all even numbers go one direction and all odds go the other.  When you know this, it makes getting around supremely easy, but that first day, we were sleep deprived and very lost.  We finally just followed traffic to the City Center and found our hotel almost by accident.  The exterior matched the rest of the city, but when we stepped inside, we were pleasantly surprised to find beautiful courtyards, a pool, and and a nice, clean room.

It was lunchtime, we were hungry, and we didn't want to fall asleep early in the day.  So, we headed out onto the streets to find food.  We ate at a chain restaurant called Los Trompos, which was very satisfying.  I was surprised how hard it was to make sense of the menu items, despite plenty of experience ordering and eating Mexican food and Mike's half-Mexican background.  I know the names of meats and veggies, but had to guess at the way the food would be cooked.  I don't think I ever ordered something I really didn't like, though.

After our late lunch, we hired a man with a very emaciated horse and carriage to take us around the city.  We were so tired, this worked out well.  We could just relax and look around, making note of things to go back to later.  After a long and circuitous walk back to the hotel, interrupted by hawkers insisting that we look at their wares or directing us to follow them to one of the Mayan cooperatives, I literally passed out in the hotel room and slept for about 12 hours.  That was our first day, and I've already written a much longer entry than I intended.
This is the oldest cathedral in the Western hemisphere.  Spanish colonizers tore down Mayan temples and used the stones to build this structure.

*Our hotel was the Dolores Alba, and I would recommend it for budget travelers like us.  However, the food at the hotel restaurant was absolutely awful.  Mike and Anouk ended up going to a nearby Dominoes for dinner while I was unconscious.  The continental breakfast was fine, however.