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.


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.


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.


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.


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.