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.

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