Paseo de Montejo in Merida

Paseo de Montejo in Merida

The Paseo de Montejo is Merida’s Champs Élysées. Built at the turn of the century, this wide tree-lined street is a fun place to take a stroll. We saw lots of old houses — some restored and some in pretty bad shape.

About halfway down the block is the Anthrpologia y Historia Museo. It has a lot of well-preserved Mayan artifacts that you won’t see at the ruins (because they’ve been moved here for safety). The museum is also in a fully restored giant colonial house.

At the end of Paseo Montejo is the Monument of the Motherland — a gorgeous sculpture telling the history of Mexico. Eric, Chad, Megan and I ate dinner across the street from the statue while the sun went down.

Two awesome things we saw while eating dinner: 1) The monument is in the middle of a traffic circle. We saw a bicycle enter the circle that was carrying at least 8 small cages with one chihuahua in each. The cages were built onto the front of the bike so it could serve as a mobile pet store. 2) A Mayan man approached us selling corn husks that had been dried and made into giant grasshoppers. Eric said no out of reflex to vendors who come up to a table while you’re eating (and that he wouldn’t know how to pack it in a backpack), but we didn’t see anything like that again and he says he now wishes he had bought a grasshopper.

In between, we visited Merida’s only Irish pub where I had a Guiness (in a can) for 70 pesos. There wasn’t much Irish about it. More noteworthy was a little coffee shop called Cafe La Boheme that really made you feel like you were on a quieter (and muggier) Champs Élysées.

I also saw some signs of modernism. Maybe Frank Lloyd Wright was here in the 50s?

– Rachel

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Eric the Red at Chichen Itza

Our rag-tag group left Merida headed for the Carribean coast and the beach town of Tulum. We had booked a tour that included transportation, and a stop at Chichen Itza with a guide.

Chichen Itza is among the most well-known Mayan ruin and a very popular day tour for Cancun vacationers, so we expected a few crowds. We didn’t expect the dozens of vendors lining every walkway of the site. The vendors were all very polite, of course, but at times it felt more like a mall than a sacred ruin and detracted from the big wow-factor we experienced at Uxmal.

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Our guide walked us around the large site, which was very helpful as some ruins were down long pathways away from the main pyramid. Unfortunately, we were on a tight timetable so there were several areas we didn’t have time to visit. Additionally, some zones were closed for maintenance and renovation, including the famous and enormous ball court! But still, the sheer size and overall quality of the ruins made the side-trip more than worth the effort and hustle.

The Mayans at Chichen Itza had been conquered by the Toltecs. The Toltecs brought two things to the site: columns and human sacrifice. There was ample evidence of both here.

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An interesting story for all of us was that of the bearded white man who pulled up in a longboat with a serpent on it around 500 B.C. and taught the Mayans metalworking. With our Seattle backgrounds, we all looked at each other and said, “Viking.” Turns out we’re not the only ones with this theory:
Mayan-Viking connection

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If only the Mayans were known for their love of oily fish and cheese in a tube I would be more convinced.

Our photos from Chichen Itza

Afterward, we stopped briefly at a nearby cenote, just long enough to get an eyeful of Russians in Speedos, and then off to a descent buffet lunch (complete with traditional dance accompaniment). We were then handed off to a second bus, which dropped us at the side of the road outside Tulum an hour or so later. From there, the five of us (Eric, Tim, Chad, Megan, and I) crammed into a compact taxi with all our gear and rode literally into the sunset.

— Rachel

Playing Pirates in Campeche

cannon at Campeche

We didn’t know what to expect going in to Campeche. It’s on the coast to the southwest of Merida and we planned a day trip from Merida. Campeche is known as “The Walled City” for the stone wall 30-feet high and 10-feet thick built around the perimeter to keep out pirates. Apparently everyone with a parrot and eye patch had sacked the place for 200 years and the citizens were about sick of it.

The wall now exists just in large sections. Tim, Eric and I paid 10 pesos a piece to climb in one of the baluster to the top and then we were able to walk along the top of the wall for the length of it — at least 10 city blocks. We started at Puerta de la Tierra, The Land Gate. Looking through the Land Gate you can see to the Sea Gate, Puerta del Mar on the other side.

On one section of wall was a hidden little stone toilet that we all tried to fit ourselves into. I can imagine many Spanish practical jokes taking place here for some reason.

CampecheFrom the top of the wall we were surprised to see that many of the cute colorful houses on the street were actually just false fronts. Behind the fronts, what used to be colonial homes were now jungles filled with stray cats and dogs.

Once off the wall, we went into the little pirate museum, which was huge photos with numbers and a 40 peso audio tour. We weren’t inclined to pay for the audio so just looked at the pictures and were kind of in the dark. They did have some cool old guns and an iron maiden, though, which perked us up and made us all do a Beavis and Butthead headbang — ok, that was just me.

It was one of the hotter days — about 87 and 200 percent humidity — but we pressed on to the Sea Gate across the city.

Now that we were on the water we wanted to see the gulf. After a lunch of some very good tacos, we walked to what we thought was the beach. In this part of the city it was just a big sea wall. A very 80s pastel sculpture of several gates (I think the same sculpture is in front of Santa Monica Place mall) was on the sea wall. Also, oddly, the sea wall had great free high-speed wifi. It seems even mermaids have IPods now.

Near the Sea Gate is the Museum of Maya Architecture, which we all really enjoyed. It housed the best-preserved Mayan writings I’ve seen yet. For once we didn’t need the “key” they put next to the sculptures pointing out where the face and other things are on it.

Super Mario in CampechePlaza de Independencia is the center of Campeche and a short hop from the Sea Gate. Sidewalks criss-cross the square and for Day of the Dead they had set up striking life-sized muertos at each entry. Eric was very interested in a cardboard version of Super Mario with a giant controller some people were setting up nearby.

Behind paper Super Mario, we find a tiny Italian espresso bar where we all ordered coffee and were standing around drinking it when one of us discovered a beautiful courtyard with tons of tables behind. One wall had a cascade of bright red flowers and we watched a hummingbird go from flower to flower until he zipped off.

The final corner of the city had a very old church and a folk art museum that was unfortunately closed, so we taxied back to the bus station and then home to Merida.

– Rachel

Loltún Cave

image of Loltún cave

By the time we reached Loltún cave, roughly 66 miles from Mérida, we were ready for some out-of-car action. The name comes from the Mayan words for flower (Lol) and stone (Tún), which is about as cool a name as you could hope for. This stop on the Ruta Puuc is steeped in history, and was a popular hangout for prehistoric shamans as well as 19th century Mayan rebels — and everyone who came in between. This extensive network of caves is one of the largest on the peninsula, covering many kilometers of subterranean space.

Loltún Apparently the caves have not been fully and completely explored, which is hard to believe in this day and age. We learned from our guide that a sprawling new branch of the cave system may be made public in the next few years (hot tip for those who are reading this post in the future).

There is a reasonable park entrance fee (though the Texans we met in the parking lot might disagree), and other than a small group of what appeared to be Mexican students we more or less had the place to ourselves. As an official archeological site, the government has put a number of protections in place, such as the requirement for a designated guide. They literally won’t let you in without one, but technically you don’t have to pay them. The assigned guides work as volunteers and “accept” tips, which in this case we more than happily provided.

We really lucked out with Pablo. He’s associated with a company called Real Mayan Adventures, (which can be found online and on Facebook), and he had every quality you want to see in a guide: a clear passion for his work, extensive knowledge of the subject matter, a friendly (but not overbearing) attitude, and a firm command of English (he told us he was working on his German, evidently an underserved market around there). Really, if it wasn’t for him, the caves would not have come alive like they did for me that day.

Loltún After walking down a steep winding stone stairway, we arrived at the mouth of Loltún, gate to Xibalbá (the Underworld). Most of the actual Mayan relics were more referenced than actually seen (pottery and other artifacts from 3600 years ago have been discovered here), but I always had a sense of their presence and significance. Marking the entrance was a faded, almost invisible bas-relief carving of a richly dressed warrior (“late-pre-classic”, among the oldest carvings in the area). We were standing right next to it when Pablo pointed it out. This wasn’t to be the last surprise he would spring on us. He motioned down into the darkness and said “Take a good look before I do something”. Then, he switched on the lights and the intricate yawning cavern stretched out of sight. Down we went.

I’ve been in a few caves before, most of them products of volcanic activity (Pablo was very curious about the lava tubes of Mt. St. Helens when we brought it up). I had even snorkeled in a cenote once before on a previous trip (outside of Tulum), but this was a different class altogether. The first couple of caverns were truly enormous, featuring a mad jumble of stalactites, stalagmites, with surreal surfaces warping and folding and disappearing out of sight. Pablo shot a flashlight briefly at an indentation in the ceiling to reveal a dense, twitching den of bats. Suddenly, the packed mud-like turf below our feet took on a whole new meaning.

Pablo explained to us how the pre-Columbian Mayans used this cave for ritual and meditation. He brought us to a smaller chamber and demonstrated an interesting property of the caves that may have been used to this end. He walked up to a pair of columns and gave them each a swift closed-fist whack in rapid succession. The result was two clear tones in what sounded like a major third on a standard musical scale. He invited us to try it out ourselves, and part of me wished I could have just stayed there and punched the rocks all day.

Loltún We went further into the cave system and things got a little darker. Then we saw the hands. Tiny handprints high on the wall, upwards of 7,000 years old. It was suggested that this was how the primitive spelunkers would mark their path as they wended their way deeper and deeper into Loltún. Other prehistoric goodness included the remains of mammoths and other extinct mega fauna (though we didn’t get to see the bones personally). Bones were found in the cave that appear to be over 10,000 years old, and Pablo suggested that a big sinkhole towards the end of our tour was actually used as a pit trap by prehistoric hunters. The precipitous drop would be more than enough to kill a giant sloth or anything else that wandered into it. Yum!

Going even further back in time, we were taken to a “canyon” with massive boulders all piled up on one end. Our guide said that one theory about the formation of the caves (and all the others in the cave-riddled Yucatan) involves the famous Chicxulub crater (you know, the one that supposedly killed the dinosaurs). The pile of boulders and the various high-water marks were supposedly indicators of the impact.

In the final cave (where the mammoths fell), we got a birding treat: a rare glimpse of a special migratory bird that actually hangs out in the caves when it’s not trekking up and down the eastern seaboard. Pablo retold a legend about the bird disappearing into the cave and returning, signifying that it had been to the underworld and back, or something like that. Truth is, I can’t remember the bird’s name or what the legend consisted of. Which is a real shame because when we actually saw one (which Pablo warned us not to get our hopes up), I was genuinely thrilled.

Lastly, on the way out, we passed some of the most recent Mayan contributions to the cave (if you don’t count the extensive electrical lighting system that illuminated our path). This was the remnants of a thick rubble wall built at the mouth of the cave in the mid to late 1800’s by Mayan rebels during what is known as the Caste War of Yucatán (yet another bloody 19th century revolt by oppressed indigenous Americans). This (and other) caves were used as hideouts, providing shelter, water, and security for the fighters and their families. The walls were built in such a way that, from a distance, they appeared to be a seamless barrier, but when you got right up next to them, you could see there was a way through. Heartbreaking, but nevertheless a vital part of the caves’ history.

Image of Tim and Rachel at Loltún Even after we had exited the caves and tipped out Pablo, he walked with us back to the car, pointing out wild stingless bee colonies in a tree trunk (whose honey was a trade commodity even before the “pre-classic” period) as well as wild chaya (“Yucatán spinach”, a shrub leaf poisonous unless cooked, and tasty after). By the time we got back in the car, only an hour had passed but it felt like one of the most extensive tours we’d done so far.

And so, on to Uxmal!

-Eric

Uxmal Bowls Us Over

There’s nothing like Uxmal! I’m afraid I may be at a loss for words describing this fantastic site. You’ll have to excuse me if I just say fantastic over and over.

After our stop at Loltun, Eric drove Tim and I in the rental car down the wild Ruta Puuc to our final stop of the day. We could tell Uxmal (pronounced Oosh-mall) was a big-ticket site from the giant sign and nice tourist shops. When we arrived at 3 p.m. we had barely two hours to see the extensive site. Most of the tourists had either left already or not made it all the way down Ruta Puuc. It was remarkably empty.

Walking in you’re greeted with a massive pyramid. If you clap your hands in front of it the pyramid makes the sound of the sacred Quetzal bird.

From Uxmal

We skirted around that to see the sprawling Mayan city behind. The square behind the pyramid was huge, with so many perfect glyphs. We climbed the steps of one building and could see at least three other structures in the distance.

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We hiked over to those and from the top could see even more — and some unexcavated. We got good at spotting unexcavated ruins — mostly because any natural hills in the Yucatan are suspect (though the Puuc region is a notable exception).

Like most ruins we encountered, animals loved just hanging around. Lazy iguanas reclined on the building steps or clung from the walls and corners. Colonies of bats chirped and flitted in the cool dark recesses and antechambers. Vultures circled constantly, but we tried not to read anything into it.

I doubt even a photo from the sky would give you a clear sense of the scale of this site. Ruins were simply everywhere you looked and they were massive. The carvings on every building were all in sharp relief.

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At 5 we had to leave after not having explored much of the site. I haven’t seen many ruined cities, but I think this is as good as they come.

Uxmal photo gallery

– Rachel

Driving the Ruta Puuc

Rachel, Tim, and I woke up and walked down to the Oriente (2nd Class) bus station with the intention of purchasing a Ruta Puuc bus pass that Rachel learned about online. This was supposed to be a great way to see the legendary Ruta Puuc in the Yucatecan hill country south of Merida. This region features half a dozen Mayan sites dotted along a lush and winding country road, and the bus was supposed to drop into each site for a half hour (except at majestic Uxmal, where it lingered for two full hours). It sounded like a full day of ruin hopping on the cheap. Of course, when we got down to the station, we found out that this particular bus only ran 3 days a week, and this wasn’t one of them.

Renting a car was remarkably painless, requiring only my USA driver’s license and a Visa card (American Express not accepted). The so-called “international driver’s license” we purchased at the AAA in Seattle was superfluous, but we knew that at the time we bought them (these documents are mere multi-language translations of our USA licenses and don’t carry any legal weight, per se). We spent $750 pesos on a Nissan Sentra with zero-deductible insurance. We could have saved $200 pesos to skimp on insurance, but I wasn’t feeling lucky. Even though nothing insurance-worthy ended up happening, I’m still feeling like it was a good investment, considering the gauntlet we ran through.

It didn’t take too long for me to get into the driving groove for the Yucatan. My first lesson: yellow light means “gun it”. I’m so used to Seattle sissy driving where yellow was as good as red. When I tried to brake for a yellow light at an intersection, the truck behind me nearly rear-ended us, having squealed and swerved out of the way and presumably glared (though I couldn’t bring myself to look over). From that point on, I knew that I had to up my game and drive more aggressively. The “zero-deductible” was a nice confidence booster.

Naturally, we ended up taking the wrong way. I suppose it could have been avoided with a standard paper map. But no, we thought we were smarter than that. Highway 261 went straight to Uxmal, but our plan was to do the Ruta Puuc in reverse, starting at the Loltun caves and ending at Uxmal. Using Tim’s phone’s data plan (for Google Maps) and a basic regional map out of the back of a free local tourist magazine, we figured that as long as we kept heading due south and were mindful of the sequence of villages, we’d get where we were going in short order. We did get where we were going, but the order was anything but short.

It turned out that the fastest route to Loltun was indeed Highway 261, which bypasses all villages down to the Ruta Puuc. If you are planning on hitting the Ruta Puuc out of Merida, do yourself a favor and stay on 261 instead of Highway 180, even though it may seem like a straightforward north-south route. We kept seeing signs for Uxmal (which would have led to Highway 261), but these would alternately appear on the right and left sides of the road. According to our logic, we needed to keep going straight on 180 towards the towns en route to Loltun. What we weren’t counting on was that 180 snaked through each village individually. And I mean seriously snaked. Detours and construction, poor or non-existent signage, and profligate tangles of one-way streets turned each of the towns into navigation crises. Rachel and Tim worked in tandem to puzzle out each village turn by turn, with Tim glued to his phone and Rachel scanning for any useful signage or immanent hazard. I had my hands full just keeping from killing anyone.

I was contending with every imaginable obstacle simultaneously. Potholes, parked cars, and traffic cops cluttered the landscape, but the moving bodies were what made this ride especially hectic. Apart from swarming pedestrians, there was a constant chaos of two, three, and four wheeled vehicles competing for road space and apparently ignoring whatever sort of traffic laws that may exist in Mexico. Bicycles, pedicabs, pushcart gelado vendors, scooters, motorcycles, cars and trucks of all kinds and conditions (though there was a heavy showing of VW classic beetles and decrepit Ford pickups), and of course buses, dozens upon dozens of buses. And supposedly this doesn’t hold a candle to traffic in India. Something to look forward to, I guess.

The payoff? We got to see a lot of real Yucatan, the urban in-your-face bustle of modern Mayans, their unvarnished storefronts, ancient churches and cemeteries (bright with the trappings of Hanal Pixan, the Yucatecan Day of the Dead), wild turkeys and stray dogs. We eventually arrived at Loltun, a bit dazed but grateful for our glimpse at the tableau of everyday life down here in the jungle towns.

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