2001-12-27

Valladolid, Yucatán, México

In 1543, Francisco de Montejo (the nephew of Mérida’s famous Francisco de Montejo) descended on the ceremonial centre of the Zací (Hawk) Maya, waging war on the Cupules, a group of Maya that hadn’t taken kindly to the Spanish conquistadors. When the battle was done and the town had been razed, he renamed it Valladolid in honour of the Spanish city of the same name. Today, Valladolid is one of the most beautiful colonial cities in the Yucatán, with a mix of Spanish and Maya influences. Maya from local pueblas and from the city sell traditional huipiles near the plaza downtown. The city is still roughly centered on the Cenote Zací that was the ceremonial centre of the original Mayan settlement.

The cenote is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. To get to it, you hike down a passage into a cavern, then wind your way down the side to get to water level. The water is a deep turquoise colour, and is absolutely crystal clear. In the shallow areas, you can easily see fallen stalactites lying 30 metres below on the bottom. In the deep parts, you won’t see the bottom — it’s more than 100 metres deep. The same little blind fish that are present in the cenote at Dzibilchaltún will nibble your toes in this cenote as well.

Above the cenote is a little zoo with spider monkeys, who spend most of their afternoon playing with toys, and getting fed potato chips by laughing groups of kids. What was more interesting, however, was that they had a raccoon in the zoo. You don’t see them in México at all, and most people we asked didn’t know what the Spanish word for it was, until an old man we ran into told us it was mapache.

The main plaza of the city is gorgeous. With ornate lamp posts, hanging baskets full of flowers, and beautiful hedges, it was the Yucatán’s answer to Victoria. The streets downtown are kept immaculately clean by a crew of street cleaners who run through the streets every morning at 5 am. The government of Spain has apparently deemed Valladolid to be one of the most Spanish cities in the Americas, and donates money to help in its preservation.

Probably the most exciting thing that happened while we were there was the rain. We had gone off in search of what is supposed to be an absolutely amazing cathedral and graveyard somewhere in the southwestern part of the city. In typical Mexican fashion, everyone we talked to was able to tell us in approximately what direction it was, so we were able to slowly make our way there stumbling randomly from one Vallisoletana to the next. We never did find it, but not for any lack of determination, but because it started to rain. Now, when I say rain, I don’t mean the rain we get in Victoria. I don’t even mean Vancouver rain. To fully appreciate a Yucatecan rain storm, you really need to experience one. Imagine the streets filling with water, then overflowing onto the sidewalks until the whole city is two feet deep in rainwater. We did the only thing we could do: jump into a corner store. The guys in the store reacted the same way any other Mexicans all over the country would react: toss over a couple chairs and invite us in to watch some TV. We bought some cookies and juice and sat for 45 minutes or so, watching the water level in the street outside rise closer and closer to the edge of the door before we finally decided that we were going to make a break for it, only stopping once for a slice of cheesecake in a bakery along the way back to the hotel.

Valladolid is also famous for the cenote at Dzitnup, about 10 km out of town. While we never did make it there, we heard some amazing stories about it from Nick, an Irishman from Cork we met in San Cristóbal de las Casas. What is so incredible about it is that it’s at the bottom of a dark cavern, with a small opening in the roof. At the right time of day, the sun shines through this opening and into the turquoise waters of the cenote, making it apear as though you’re bathing in light. The actual name of the cenote is Kiken which is Yucatec Maya for pig, because the cenote was originally discovered by a farmer whose his pig had fallen in through the hole in the roof.

Valladolid is also famous for its uprisings. What transpired in Valladolid in June of 1910 helped to spark the Mexican Revolution that erupted in the rest of the country that November when Francisco Madero flew across the border into Piedras Negras, Coahuila. The revolution wasn’t over until 1920; but as they say, the opening chapters were written in blood, here in Valladolid.

Unhappy with Spanish control of a land they considered their own, a small band of revolutionaries had worked together for months, planning the overthrow of governor Moñoz Aristegui. On the night of June 3rd, 1910, all those committed to the plan met in the Plaza de la Santa Lucia at midnight. Under the command of Ruz Ponce and José Kantún, one group stormed the police quarter, killing the guard outside and taking everyone else prisoner. Another group, led by Claudio Alconcer and Atilano Albertos took the office of the Mexican Guard, killing the Sergeant of the Guard, Facundo Gil. The governor, Felipe de Regil, asleep in bed at the time, woke up to the sound of gunfire outside in the streets. He immediately jumped out of bed and, a gun in each hand, ran into the street firing on the revolutionaries. He fought bravely until the end, when he was finally killed and left lying in the street.

At this point, there was no turning back for the insurgents. They now had the support of nearly the entire city, and within three days had amassed an army of no less than 1500 men, armed with guns and machetes. Most had no military training. Local landowners provided weapons, ammunition and food.

In Mérida, this uprising had not gone unnoticed. While the locals were preparing in Valladolid, the government had sent a column of 65 men eastward with 300 guns, recruiting villagers along the way. Under the command of Colonel Ignacio Lara, they marched easward to Tinum, 12 km outside of Valladolid, where they waited for reinforcements to arrive. The cannons of Morelos arrived in Valladolid on the 7th. On the 8th, Lara led his men to the outskirts of the city, where, at dawn on the 9th of June, they began the assault on Valladolid. A batallion of 600 federal troops arrived on the 10th. Poorly equiped, untrained, and out of ammunition, the rebels fell under the three ferocious onslaughts. The death tolls were high on both sides: more than 100 revolutionaries and over 30 government soldiers had been killed. This was the highest balance of deaths of any battle ever fought in México, and would remain so until the Revolution began that November.

The leaders of the revolt were eventually rounded up, tried and sentenced to death. In the courtyard of the Shrine of San Roque, Kantún, Albertos, and Bonilla faced the firing squad. That November, Francisco Madero launched the Mexican Revolution, and by the following April, 17000 people had taken up arms against Porfirio Diaz and his government. The rest is history.

2001-12-26

Chichen Itzá, Yucatán, México

Somewhere on the old highway between Cancún and Mérida lies Chichen Itzá. The ruins at this site cover over 15 square kilometres, with El Castillo alone taking up 0.4 hectares. At 83 metres in length, the Ball Court is the largest in Meso-America. The close proximity of the ruins to Cancún and the size of some of the structures have made these the most famous Mayan ruins in the country.

The image that most people associate with Chichen Itzá is El Castillo. The pyramid rises more than 23m above the ground, with steep staircases up all four sides, leading to a small building at the top. What’s so spectacular about it is the fact that this pyramid is actually a huge Mayan calendar built of stone. The four staircases leading to the top have 91 steps each, which when added to the platform at the top, make 365. On the sides are 52 panels representing the 52 years of the traditional Mayan calendar round. The pyramid is composed of nine terraced platforms on either side of the two primary staircases, for a total of 18, the number of months in the Mayan calendar. If you’re still not convinced of the Mayans’ astronomical prowess, you can easily convince yourself by visiting on either the spring or the fall equinox when, as the sun rises over the jungle, the form of a giant serpent is projected onto the sides of the two primary staircases, each of which has a giant stone serpent head at its base. This illusion is created by the precise alignment of the terraces in relation to position of the sun.

In a corner in the shade of one of the giant staircases leading up the side of El Castillo is a door. Once or twice a day, the door is opened, and groups of 20 or so are allowed inside. A narrow passage leads to a steep staircase that runs up the side of another pyramid inside El Castillo. It’s narrow, cramped, hot and humid, not to mention dark, but the climb is worth it. Eventually, at the top of the staircase, if you’re lucky or pushy enough, you can catch a glimpse of a jewel-encrusted jaguar altar, used by the Maya for sacrifices.

The Ball Court is another feat of engineering. The walls are each approximately 8m high, with structures at the top for viewing the game. At either end of the court is an elaborate stone temple. But what is so amazing about the Ball Court is its acoustics. A whisper at one end can be clearly heard at the other end, 135 metres away. In fact, the sound reflection at the centre of the court is so incredible, you can hear at least nine echos if you clap or shout.

The following excerpt, by one of the supervising archaeologists restoring the ruins, describes the acoustics:
Chi cheen Itsa’s famous “Ball-court” or Temple of the Maize cult offers the visitor besides its mystery and impressive architecture, its marvellous acoustics If a person standing under either ring claps his hands or yells, the sound produced will be repeated several times gradually losing its volume, A single revolver shot seems machine-gun fire. The sound waves travel with equal force to East or West, day or night. disregarding the wind’s direction. Anyone speaking in a normal voice from the “Forum” can be clearly heard in the “Sacred Tribune” five hundred feet away or vice-versa. If a short sentence, for example, “Do you hear me?” is pronounced it will be repeated word by word... Parties from one extreme to the other can hold a conversation without raising their voices.

This transmission of sound, as yet unexplained, has been discussed by architects and archaeologists ... Most of them used to consider it as fanciful due to the ruined conditions of the structure but, on the contrary, we who have engaged in its reconstruction know well that the sound volume, instead of disappearing, has become stronger and clearer... Undoubtedly we must consider this feat of acoustics as another noteworthy achievement of engineering realized millenniums ago by the Maya technicians.

Chi Cheen Itza by Manuel Cirerol Sansores, 1947
Aside from the Ball Court and El Castillo, there are dozens of other sites of interest. There are no less than three cenotes around the site, one of which was filled with tens of thousands of artifacts, from neclaces and jewelry to the bones of human and animal sacrifices. The Hall of the Thousand Pillars is also incredible to walk through, with each pillar featuring unique carvings and inscriptions; on some, traces of red and blue paint are still visible.

The site was originally populated by the Itzáes around 500 AD, and slowly built up until 900 AD, at which point it was completely abandonned. No one knows why the Itzáes left so abruptly, but it appears that the city was re-populated about 100 years later, and then attacked by the Toltecs, a tribe known for its brutality at war. Structures from the period between 1000 and 1300 AD show marked Toltec influences, including numeral reliefs of Toltec gods, including Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. The city was abandonned once again around 1300, this time permanently.

2001-12-24

Tulúm, Quintana Roo, México

Between San Cristóbal and Tulúm is a long, empty road. The overnight bus works beautifully for this trip, winding its way through the mountains, jungle and the vast plains of the Yucatán. The only major stop along the way is Escarcega, Campeche. By major, I mean a couple of comida corrida places, a papaya tree, and a dusty bus stop on a long, empty stretch of highway. By six in the morning, we were in Tulúm, a slightly bigger collection of restaurants and bus stops along a long, empty stretch of highway. We grabbed a plate of huevos motuleños and some coffee, which was (I swear that I am not making this up) blue. Sort of an off-grey blue. It tasted like milk mixed with dishwater.

The best time to see the ruins is, without a doubt, sunrise. The ruins at Tulúm, while not spectacular except for the two-metre rock wall surrounding the site on three sides, have one of the best views you could possibly hope for. The structures sit nestled amid the rolling green grass and white sandy beaches, hovering over the turquoise Caribbean. As the sun rises, the whole place is bathed in a warm orangey-red glow. Sitting on ruins watching the waves is pretty relaxing.

Since Tulúm is so close to Playa del Carmen and Cancún, the number of visitors is absoutely huge compared to a lot of other Mayan ruins, and especially given the small size of these ruins. Because of that, most of the structures are off-limits to the public, so you can’t climb up on them as you can at most sites. In the end, it’s nice to see that these ruins are being protected, but Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itzá are a lot more fun. That said, if you look hard enough, you will find a couple structures you can sit down on.

2001-12-21

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, México

San Cristóbal is, without question, one of the most beautiful towns in Mexico. It’s also the ideal temperature for visiting Canadians, with the temperature hovering around 10C, and the humidity close to 100% during the daytime in winter. It’s cold, damp and cloudy. After months of scorching heat and humidity, I was in heaven. San Cristóbal makes an ideal base from which to do day-trips to the surrounding villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán — indigenous villages comprising the Tzotzil and Tzeltal indigenous groups respectively.

In town, we met a law student named Luís who took a group of us to the villages. In San Juan Chamula, we first visited the shaman’s hut for the village, where we learned about the mix of Catholicism and traditional beliefs practised in the village. We then continued on to the village church which was probably the highlight of the visit. Seeing the mix of beliefs being practised there was incredible: everything from prayers to the Catholic saints to burning incense to chicken sacrifices and ceremonial purgings. Photography isn’t allowed in the church and out of respect to the Chamulans, we won’t describe everything in detail on the web, but suffice to say that it was an incredibly worthwhile visit.

Zinacantán is only a few kilometres away, but the villagers speak an entirely different language (Tzeltal). Here, the church is much more traditional, although most villagers still maintain strong ties to traditional indigenous beliefs, such as worshipping the Earth Lord and placing a strong emphasis on the interpretation of dreams. For a more detailed look at the beliefs and culture of the people of Zinacantán, we’d suggest Dreams and Stories from the People of the Bat by Robert Laughlin. This book is a collection of dreams and their interpretations as told by the villagers of Zinacantán, as well as a series of short stories passed from generation to generation in the village.

The town also produces many traditional handicrafts typical of Chiapas: blankets, clothing, dolls, etc. The villagers take these to San Cristóbal to sell them at the markets and on the street. The textiles are all made from hand, from the thread, to hand-weaving and embroidering. Typically, a medium-sized blanket takes two to three weeks to produce.

Back in San Cristóbal, we spent a few days visiting the markets and wandering around town trying out the local food before heading back north for Palenque again. On our way out of town we noticed a small shanty-town suburb in a gravel pit. On a big yellow arch, bold black letters declared the name of the colonia: Sal Si Puedes — “Get Out If You Can”. Just past this is the massive military encampment that has been in place since 1994 when the EZLN (Zapatista Liberation Army) overthrew and occupied the town before being driven out by reinforcements sent in, causing a bloodbath. There is a lot less tension now than there was then, but the Zapatistas still have incredibly high support in the villages just outside of town. The Mexican government under Vincente Fox has been much more responsive to indigenous peoples than previous governments have been, although in recent months this seems to be less and less the case. There’s still a lot of work to do before the indigenous groups in Mexico are able to live in conditions similar to the rest of the population. Most people in the villages still lack food, clothing and (non-dirt) floors in their houses, let alone running water and electricity. And although Chiapas produces more electricity than any other state, less than half the population has electricity in its home.

2001-12-18

Palenque, Chiapas, México

For Christmas, we decided to take a trip to the state of Chiapas, about an 8 hour bus ride from Mérida. Although Chiapas has been a somewhat politically unstable state during the past 10 years, it is also home to some of the most incredible scenery, archaeological sites and indigenous culture in the country.

The town of Palenque sits only a few minutes by bike, foot or bus from the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Palenque. The ruins themselves extend over a huge area and are composed of many smaller groups of structures situated around plazas. The most impressive of these are probably the main plaza — which is surrounded by the Temple of the Inscriptions and the palace/observatory tower — and the Sun Temple Plaza.

The Temple of the Inscriptions is well-known for housing the sarcophagus and jade death mask of Pakal, former ruler of the city. Unfortunately, it's no longer possible to visit the inside of the Temple of the Inscriptions without a research permit. In theory, that involves applications via your university and submissions of your research to the government; in practice it involves 150 pesos to the right people.

2001-09-11

Dzibilchaltún, Yucatán, México

About halfway between Mérida and Progresso lie the ruins of Dzibilchaltún, an important centre in the ancient world of the Maya. The name means “The place with writing on the stones.”

Dzibilchaltún covers an area of about 16 square kilometres, in which there are about 8400 structures. The central part of the site covers three square kilometres, which includes several temples and pyramids, as well as a cenote of unknown depth, one of the largest in the Yucatán. Many of the structures date back as far as 500 B.C.

From downtown Mérida, you can catch a colectivo that stops down the road from the temple. A 10 minute hike from there along a trail through the jungle gets you to the entrance to the site, where they charge 50 pesos per person ($7.50 CDN) to get in. The day we arrived, it was a scorching 40-something degrees, with 100% humidity, so the fact that the small museum on the site was air-conditionned was worth the price of admission in itself.

The site is divided into two parts, separated by a one kilometre long road. At one end is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, named after seven ceramic dolls found there as offerings to the gods. At the other end is a courtyard, a pyramid, a ball court and the cenote, as well as an open chapel that was constructed during the Colonial era, in the late 16th and early 17th century.

The Temple of the Seven Dolls is probably the most interesting part of the site. At least it was to us. At one time, the temple was adorned with plaster friezes, molded to the shapes of intertwined serpents, hieroglyphs, and masks, though these friezes are no longer on the structure itself. The building is thought to have served as an astronomical observatory, and during the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes, an interesting phenonmenon can be seen at sunrise. During the Equinoxes, the sun is perfectly aligned such that the morning sunlight passes directly between two sets of opposing doors on the temple, casting the light down into the courtyard facing the structure. Many people pile into Dzibilchaltún between 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning to witness the sunrise, then run back out and pile into a bus to Chichen Itza to watch the more spectacular effect of the sun casting light in the shape of a giant serpent slithering up the side of the temple there in the afternoon. If you don’t happen to be a teacher who has classes on these days, this is apparently the thing to do.

The cenote on the other side of the site is open for swimming, if you don’t mind thousands of little fish chasing you around the whole time. What’s curious, of course, is that there are any fish at all in the cenotes, since they’re fed by a series of deep, underwater channels of water that snake beneath the entire peninsula. There are no rivers or streams connecting them on the surface, so the fish have to descend to incredible depths (over 100m) to move between one cenote and the next. From what people have told us, the fish that live in the cenotes are blind, which is kind of cool.

We hiked back out to the road after a few hours of wandering around, the sat waiting for a colectivo to drive by and pick us up. For 30 minutes we sat around, the air totally still and boiling hot, with only the sound of the mosquitos and the cow in the field next to us. I’m not entirely sure what was wrong with it, but the way it hollered made it sound demented and insane. I honestly hope I never drink any milk from that one; no way that’s safe.

2001-09-06

Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, México

Lo que tu eres, yo fui
Lo que yo soy, luego serás
— Inscription on the pirate Mundaca’s Tomb

Many, many years ago, a pirate by the name of Fermin Antonio Mundaca de Marechaja landed on Isla Mujeres and fell in love with a young lady whose name has been long forgotten. Today, she is known only as La Trigueña (The Brunette), the name by which he referred to her. In order to win her love, Mundaca built an elaborate hacienda, erected archways and laid paths throughout the gardens. He had trees and plants brought from all over the world to plant in the gardens. Unfortunately, before he finished this masterpiece, she ran off with another islander and got married. Today, his house lays in ruins in the middle of what remains of his fortress. And if you look carefully, you can faintly work out the words La Trigueña carved into the stone archway. Mundaca eventually died of the plague in Mérida, but his small tomb can still be seen among the headstones of the small cemetary near the north beach of town. Adorned with an eerily grinning skull and crossbones, it bears no name, but carries the inscription: “As you are, I was. As I am, you will be.”

With a couple weeks before school and work starts, we decided to visit Isla Mujeres (lit. The Island of Women), a small island that sits about 11 km off the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, in Quintana Roo. A few hours east of Mérida, the island is surrounded by the turquoise, bathtub warm, crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, and is the site of some spectacular snorkeling and diving.

Isla Mujeres is tiny — about 8 km long and between 300 and 800 metres wide — and has a population of 7000 residents. The main part of the town sits on the north-west tip of the island, but there are some smaller colonias in the central Salinas area, as well as on the south end. Although it was once a fishing town, the main business today is tourism. Unlike Cancún, however, Isla Mujeres has a much more relaxed, laid back pace of life, and it hasn’t yet turned into a party town full of drunken gringos. The locals appear to want to keep it this way, and the local San Francisco store stops selling alcohol at 8:30 or 9:00 in the evenings.

From the downtown Cancún bus station, we grabbed the Route 13 bus north along Avenida Tulum to the Puerto Juarez ferry terminal, then hopped on a boat for the 30 minute ferry ride to the island. We spent the whole ride locked in a psychological battle trying not to jump off into the gorgeous blue water; it was sheer torture. Apparently we weren’t the only ones — as soon as the boat pulled alongside the Isla Mujeres dock, one 40 year old passenger jumped overboard and swam to shore.We spent the next few days wandering around the island on foot. Like a lot of touristy places in Mexico, there are thousands of people trying to sell you anything and everything on the street. Fortunately, the city is small enough that all the hawkers seem to be packed into two blocks along Avenida Hidalgo between Av. Abasolo and Av. Lopez Mateos. Unfortunately, that’s the easiest way to get to the beach. Fortunately (yet again), it’s easily bypassed by taking the scenic route.

The best times of day for the beach are sunrise and sunset. The boatloads of tourists from Cancún aren’t there, and the beach is nearly empty. The water stays warm 24 hours a day, and the sunsets and sunrises are spectacular. During the afternoons, the beach is packed with people and the sun is intense enough that if you don’t fork over the 60 pesos ($10 Canadian) for a beach umbrella, you’ll fry like bacon, even with the SPF 50 they sell at the super market. There’s a reason most Mexicans swim in shorts and a t-shirt.

There are a lot of other things to do on the island. One of the most interesting is the Sea Turtle conservation park. This is the only facility in Mexico dedicated to preserving endangered sea turtles, such as the Hawk’s Bill Turtle, which grows to over 100 kg, and lives to around 120 years old. The sea turtles have been hunted to near extinction because of world-wide demand from for their meat and shells. At the conservation facility, the turtles are bred, cared for, then released back into the wild. There are no railings on the walkways above the huge walled off section of ocean where the largest of the turtles swim, and according to the guy who showed us around, if you fall in, “te comen!”, “they eat you!”.

The ruins of Mundaca’s fortress are in the central part of the island, and if you want to be eaten alive by mosquitos (there are Dengue Fever warnings all over the place on the Yucatán Peninsula, by the way) it’s a great place to go. No wonder the object of Mundaca’s affections ditched him for another man. Any sensible pirate would have built his fortress on the beach or at least within walking distance. Mundaca built his in the marshiest, grottiest, most densely jungled part of the island. On the bright side there is, however, a sort of small zoo in his gardens, with alligators, monkeys, a deer, and apparently a jaguar, though we never got to see it, because the mosquitos drove us out first. By the twentieth or thirtieth bite, we’d had more than enough of Mundaca’s place.On the south side of the island, there’s Playa Garrafón, which is part of a national park, but seems to have been recently turned into an expensive tourist trap, complete with all-you-can-eat restaurants, zip lines, “underwater adventure” and more construction, all for the low, ubeatable price of $35 US a day! I believe they even translated that price into pesos underneath in small type. We actually went next door, paid 20 pesos (about $2 US) and had the whole beach to ourselves. We snorkeled around the wharf and a small reef, then Pablo and Armando, who ran the place, took us out to a reef 15 minutes out by boat, where we saw sharks, a sting ray, and a ton of live (and dead) coral. Unfortunately, it seems like a million and one other people go out to the same reef, and most don’t know how to swim. This means you’ll end up spending an hour getting your head kicked in by screaming hoardes of life-jacket wearing, water spitting drowners. I did get rammed in the legs by a nurse shark though. It felt like sandpaper and was among the creepier sensations I have experienced in my life.

There are also some Mayan ruins at the south tip of the island, though there’s very little left of them. Most of the ruins have been hurled into the ocean by various hurricanes, but what’s left sits on a small point overlooking the crystal clear blue water. My favourite part was the hand painted sign that reads “IGUANAS - No los tire piedras - Cuidelas” — Please do not throw rocks at the iguanas - take care of them! Two English ladies who now live in Kentucky were kind enough to pick us up on their rented golf cart and haul us back into town, saving us a taxi ride/sunburn.During our stay on the island, we ran into a small herd of beach cats. They appeared to be completely starving, which I’m sure is all part of their little ploy to get food from unsuspecting tourists. In fact, I’m sure that if a study were done, they’d probably find that this is a behaviour that beach cats have evolved over centuries of tourism, sort of like pigeons that pretend to be one-legged to get sympathy points from old grannies in parks. In any case, these poor things ended up rounding up enough sympathy to get some canned tuna… twice. Most of the time, though, I we watched it digging holes on the beach, which I don’t really want to think about too much. We also saw it kill and eat cockroaches, which no matter how disgusting it is, I have to admit is actually sort of mezmerising.

All in all, it was a great vacation before everything gets crazy here. We hope we’ll have time to go back at some point for another visit. The place to stay is definitely the Hotel El Marcianito; the guy who runs it is totally friendly, and gave us a ton of advice on places to see.

2001-08-25

Chelem, Yucatán, México

Grabbed a bus north to Progreso to go to the beach. While it was beautiful weather and the ocean looked great, there were no palm trees on the beach, so it was impossible to find any shade. We’d heard that in the next town over, Yucalpetén, there were some great beaches, so we asked around and finally found a colectivo headed out in that direction. The one we found stopped by a bathing centre and the town of Chelem. Now right now I’m going to come straight out and say it: if someone ever tells you a story about the amazing beaches at Yucalpetén, just back away slowly and do not make any sudden moves — the person you are talking to has probably escaped from an asylum.

We wandered around for a few hours, but we never did find a beach in decent condition. In the end we sat on a grass embankment close to the ocean, observing what appeared to be the remains of a house that had been bulldozed across the beach and into the ocean; there still were big chunks of concrete wall strewn all over the place. It was sort of post-apocalyptic looking. On the bright side, there was a nice cool breeze.

Progreso, Yucatán, México

Half an hour north of Mérida is the port town of Progreso. Though it’s on the gulf side of the peninsula, the water is still a beautiful turquoise-blue; it puts Canadian beaches to shame. On a hot weekend, Progreso makes a fun day trip. The wind keeps you cool, and as long as you keep ordering drinks, the food comes free at the palapa huts on the beach.

The one thing that is impossible to miss in Progreso is the pier. At its original length of 6 km, it was the longest in all of México, and with its new 3km extension for cruise ships, it’s now the longest in the world. The reason for its size is that the Yucatán Peninsula is in essence a huge, flat limestone shelf that continues to extend long past the waterfront. At 6 km out, the water is still only 7 or 8 m deep. As a result a 3 km extension was added in 2001 to allow cruise ships to dock safely.

When we asked friends in Mérida about the beach in Progreso, they mostly told us that it wasn’t that nice. When we got back, I told my class that in Canada we put beaches like that in beer commercials. I guess when Cancún is only a few hours drive away, you can afford to be picky. The only downside is that most of the palm trees are tiny. The previous ones were all ripped out during Hurricane Gilberto a few years ago. As a result there’s very little shade, so your only option is to hide under a palapa.

2001-08-21

Izamal, Yucatán, México

Took a trip a few towns to the east this morning, to Izamal. While Mérida is known throughout México as the White City, Izamal is referred to as the Yellow City due to the preponderance of yellow buildings. With a population of 15 000 or so, it’s much quieter than Mérida, and horse-drawn carriages are still used as transportation by some of its residents. The two big tourist attractions here are the ruins of Kinich-Kakmó, one of 12 Mayan temples that originally stood at the site of this town, and the Franciscan Monastery, one of the first in the New World, built from the stones of the largest Mayan temple in Izamal after it was torn down by the Conquistadors.

The Convento de San Antonio de Padua sits on one side of the Plaza Principal, a block from the city’s bus station. Climbing up the ramp in front brings you to a large flat terrace and the entrance to the buildings themselves. From there, you can enter the chapel, visit the arboreum or climb up to the top levels of the monastery. If you look carefully, some of the stones in the walls and arches have Mayan designs on them — these were part of the temple that originally stood at this location. Facing away from the monastery, you can see Kinich-Kakmó towering over the jungle six or seven blocks away.

Kinich-Kakmó, which is about 200m x 180m, was built between 300 and 600 A.D. and was recently restored. From the top levels, the temple provides a great view of the city. Following a narrow dirt path around the back affords a spectacular view of the surrounding jungle and the vast, Saskatchewan-like flatness of the Yucatán peninsula. All over the place, big, lazy iguanas sunbathe on the rock walls of the temple. Just beside the entrance, at the base of the front side of the pyramid, is a great-smelling tortillería.

We ate at the Kinich-Kakmó Restaurant, and it was delicious though a little pricey. We each had a Montejo beer and lime soup, followed by Poc-Chuc¹ and Rellenos Negros², along with some fresh handmade tortillas. As with many restaurants, homemade tortilla chips and salsas are served with the meal. The total came to about 160 pesos, which is enough to buy you several days worth of groceries at Wal-Mart or San Francisco in Mérida. The main dining area is outdoors under a thatched Mayan style roof (and yes, lots of people still live in traditional Mayan huts — some have corrugated metal roofs these days, but just as many use the traditional palm fronds). The waiters even offer bug-spray if you need it. Fortunately, due to some creative engineering by the staff, you don’t need it. Clear plastic bags of water dangle by threads from the roof and, in the words of the waiter, “when the bug sees his reflection as he gets closer, he sees himself reflected so big and ugly that it scares him away.” It seems to work — we didn’t see a single fly or mosquito during lunch, and there were tons outside. Royal Thai in San Rafael, California does the same thing, so there’s got to be something to it.

Unfortunately, I forgot to bring the memory card for the camera, so no pictures, but it was well worth the trip.

Glossary

¹Poc-Chuc: A Yucatecan dish made with pork marinaded in orange juice.
²Rellenos Negros: A spicy, black Yucatecan soup made from beans, with pieces of chicken and a hard boiled egg bathing in it.

2001-08-17

Mérida, Yucatán, México

Arrived in Cancún on Friday at about 6 pm, took out some money from the bank machine, and hopped into a colectivo¹ for Ciudad Cancún, — the city itself — a twenty minute drive from the long strip of hotels between the lagoon and the ocean that the outside world refers to as Cancún. By the time the colectivo got to the bus station, it was 9 pm, so after checking out the schedule and booking tickets, there was just enough time to grab some dinner and get some sleep before heading off to Mérida first thing the next morning.

Sitting in a Mexican bus station is an activity in itself. Drenched in sweat and surrounded by hundreds of other sweaty people carrying bags, backpacks, and cardboard packages held together with twine, in heat and humidity well above what any sane person would tolerate, you gain an appreciation of just how patient a people the Mexicans are. Buses come and go as they please; to the Mexican bus driver, the posted schedule is only a guideline. Buses are notoriously late, and ours is no exception.

When it does arrive, the bags are loaded, everyone climbs into their seats and, once the bus driver has got his drinks and snacks ready for the trip, he throws it into reverse and we´re off. After a four hour ride through the Yucatecan jungle, we arrived at the Fiesta Américana terminal in the north end of Mérida. From there, we grabbed a taxi into town and unloaded everything at Hotel Mucuy, on calle 57 between calle 56 and calle 58, where we stayed while we searched for jobs and a place to live.

This might be a good time to explain the mysterious numbering system for the addresses in Mérida. Odd numbered streets run east-west and even numbered streets run north-south. For streets that run diagonally, the ones that run from SE to NW are even, the rest are odd — usually. Another challenge is that street addresses are not often consistent; number 499 might be three or four blocks from 498. Because of this, addresses are usually given as a street number and a cross street (for corner addresses) or a street number and the two cross streets between which the address lies.

Mérida is the capital city of México’s Yucatán state and, centuries ago, was the capital of the Mayan empire as well. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the city in the mid-16th century, led by Francisco de Montejo, they discovered the Mayan city of Tihó. Its temples and limestone architecture reminded them enough of Mérida, Spain that they promptly renamed the city and began dismantling the Mayan structures. While you won’t find any of the original Mayan buildings remaining today, the cathedral in the Plaza Principal² contains blocks from the Mayan temple that once stood in the same location.

In any case, the city today is gorgeous. Its narrow streets and colonial architecture give it a traditional feel. Every Sunday, all the streets within several blocks of the main plaza are shut down to vehicle traffic while musicians play live music near the Plaza Principal, and people dance in the streets.

28 August 2001
In Mérida, most people sleep in hammocks. Walk down any residential street and look in the windows and you’ll see hammocks strung all over the room. What I’m getting at is that I finally caved in and bought a hammock. Now sit back and listen, ’cause here’s my advice… If you’re in Mérida, you’ll be approached every five minutes by someone wanting to sell you a hammock off the street. Do not buy it! That man is crazy! The quality of hammock you get from a wandering hammock guy is a mystery until you try it out. And you’re not going to be trying it out until after you’ve paid for it. Generally speaking, they’re pretty bad. Locals refer to them as ‘hospital hammocks’ because that’s where you end up if you use them. Go to a hammock shop with a good reputation. If they can show you a photo album of them and their grandparents chopping down sisal (henequen cactus), stripping the fibre, and making hammocks, it’s a pretty safe bet that the hammocks are good.So Julio Armando pulled out a few hammocks, strung them up, proudly displays the threading to show there were no flaws, and got me to jump in and take it for a spin. Hammocks come in lots of sizes: single, double, matrimonial, and matrimonial especial. The difference is the number of pairs of end threads. Matrimonial has about 150 pairs of end threads, whereas a single has about 50 and a double has about 100. Keep in mind that these sizes were designed for people of Mayan stature, which is a lot smaller than your typical Canadian, or Mestizo Mexican.

Unfortunately, the walls in the apartment must be the only ones in the whole city that doesn’t have hammock hooks! Even a lot of hotels in Mérida provide hooks! I ran across the street to the Tlapalería³ and using hand signals and pantomime, bought exactly five metres of nylon rope. Using those engineering skills I spent so much effort learning at UVic, and some knots I learned in Boy Scouts, I rigged up a makeshift hammock hookup. Unfortunately, the only available post to string a rope around was the chunk of wall between the balcony door and the window, which meant that both the door and the window had to be open to use it, and I had to pull the mosquito screen out of the window anytime I wanted to use the hammock.

About Mérida’s weather: Maybe you people back home have looked at the temperatures in Mérida and thought “Wow! They spend the whole summer in the mid to upper 30s! It’s just like Cancún!” True, but it’s also insanely humid, which means you’re covered in sweat 24 hours a day — imagine waking up sticky and sweaty every morning; that’s why most people use hammocks. What’s more, unlike Cancún, there are thunderstorms every afternoon between about four and seven. You can set your watch by them. During these thunderstorms, it rains. A lot. So much, in fact, that having the window or door open even a centimetre spells certain doom. In short, the hammock is no longer up. Back to the drawing board.

A curious side note here. If you wander the streets of Mérida enough, you’ll notice an inordinate number of people with one or both eyes missing. The reason for this is quite interesting. Mérida is famous around the world for its hammocks. And to make hammocks you need henequen fibre. The sisal cactus from which you get it has very, very sharp, needle-like barbs. You get the point.

Glossary

¹Colectivo: a communal taxi, usually a VW van, into which the driver packs as many people as the laws of physics will allow. For example the last one we used had 16 people stuffed into it.
²Plaza Principal: the main square found in almost every Mexican town.
³Tlapalería: A sort of little roadside hardware store.

[gallery]

¡Hola México!

After a year and a half in San Francisco, California, I’ve moved to Mérida, Yucatán, México. So far so good! The heat is scorching, the humidity is sweltering, and the mosquitos are biting. But Mérida is a beautiful city, and the people are wonderful.