Mayan ruins

40 Days in Mexico

I ended up spending 40 days in Mexico. What was supposed to be just the gateway into Central America became an extended exploration of our neighbor to the south.

I didn’t expect to be in Mexico so long, but I didn’t know the variety that I would encounter there. When I used to think of Mexico two things came to mind: beaches and tacos. Which was totally accurate, but there’s also much more to it. The coast does have beautiful beaches, but they jut up against dense jungle that spreads far inland, before it transitions in Chiapas to rolling hills and pine forests mixed with limestone mountains around lakes and rivers. Tacos are the staple of Mexican cuisine, and they are absolutely outstanding throughout the country, but it would be a shame to just eat tacos when the gringas, quesadillas, panuchas, sopas, pollo asadas, moles, elotes, tamales, and so many more things I’m forgetting are also insanely delicious. I could eat Mexican food every day and not get tired of it.

Beyond the terrain and food there’s a cultural importance that permeates Mexico, both historic and modern. Mayan ruins aren’t just around, they’re everywhere, and they range in style from pristine tourist traps to majestic hidden archaeological sites. It’s actually possible to visit so many Mayan sites that you can’t fathom going to another one, but you don’t regret seeing as many as you did. Towns of interest vary as much as the landscape, from the modern, bustling, energetic capital of Mexico City, my introduction to the country that immediately started my visit off on the right foot, to the quaint, beautiful, and still bursting with options San Cristobal de las Casas, my favorite town in Mexico thus far, plus everything in between like tourist-central Playa del Carmen, expat haven Tulum, and often overlooked but charming in its own right Vallodolid.

Then there’s the people. Everyone hears about the negatives of Mexico – the dangerous drug cartels, the kidnappings, the clash between the Zapatistas and the government, the bus robberies – but the negatives just make headlines. What I encountered was the opposite. I met helpful people, people who didn’t care if my Spanish was beginner at best, who wanted to make sure I liked their country, who took care of me, who greeted me with a smile. Whenever I talked to travelers about why they couldn’t leave Mexico the welcoming people were always one of the main reasons.

So at the end of the day I’m not surprised that I agreed to repeat my route and stay in Mexico longer than intended. I was never in a rush to leave. I feel bad that I underestimated my neighbor to the south, and that I didn’t give it the time it deserved earlier. I will probably go back to Mexico when I have to do a visa run from Guatemala. Because this beautiful country captivates everyone who visits it. And because of the tacos.

Advertisements

My Final Mayan Ruin: Palenque

After Mirador I had one ruin left that I felt I had to see: Palenque.

For weeks I’d heard travelers talk about the allure of Palenque, a ruin whose jungle location and restored structures earned it top ratings. At this point I had already seen Teotihuacan, Tulum, Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Uxmal, Tikal, and El Mirador – I was pretty much “ruined out,” as people say, but told myself to push through for this final one.

So back to Mexico I went, and in the mosquito-ridden jungle heat I stayed, to see what all the fuss was about.

As so often happens, Palenque deserved the hype. Most of the ancient city is still covered by jungle, so wandering through the site feels like being part of an expedition. While there is a main uncovered square around which large temples and the palace stand, impressive in scale and design, it was the less crowded side temples and houses that I more enjoyed discovering. Buildings were scattered around, hidden by trees or up a stone staircase. A side group of temples had a fantastic view out over the main square and to the jungle beyond. I sat up there for a while, contemplating my final Mayan site and all the other ones I’d been to.

Palenque was that same appealing mixture of wild jungle and restored buildings that Tikal was, but the sheer mass of tourists, even within the first hour it was open, and stalls selling kitchy trinkets were distracting like at Chichen Itza. It’s the only ruin in Mexico in the jungle, setting it apart for most tourists, but I had just come from five days in the jungle at Mirador plus Tikal before that, so this typical fascination was lost on me. It was, however, the only one I saw with a river running through it that led to a beautiful waterfall, which made the walk to exit uniquely gorgeous. I appreciated being able to climb up and wander through most of its buildings, especially the expansive palace, reminiscent of Tikal and Uxmal but better due to how much was open to explore. In the end, I ranked Palenque second in my Pre-Columbian ruins tour.

What is the final ranking, you ask?

  1. Tikal
  2. Palenque
  3. Uxmal
  4. Ek Balam
  5. Tulum
  6. Chichen Itza

I purposefully left out El Mirador and Teotihuacan: El Mirador because it’s so unlike the others, it’s more of a jungle exploration than a visit to a ruin, and Teotihuacan because it’s not Mayan. I realize I put the New Wonder of the World last, but I suppose I just wasn’t as impressed as whoever comes up with those rankings.

I was in Palenque for just one night. I opted to spend my night in the town of Palenque instead of the more popular backpacker choice of El Panchan. I had had enough of the jungle by the time I got there and wanted to be near the bus station. The town itself is nothing special, although it does have some very delicious gringas (tacos with cheese), and was sadly uneventful for Day of the Dead. On a return journey to Palenque a week later (I’ll explain how that happened soon) I actually saw El Panchan so I can now recommend staying there instead of town, as long as you’re in the mood for some jungle time.

Since I was there on a Monday the museum was unfortunately closed, so my time at the Zona Arqueologica was done by noon. Anxious to get to San Cristobal, I got on a 2 pm bus out of town. A short but necessary visit, beautiful Palenque was a good way to close out my Mayan exploration.

Flores and Tikal

I got off the bus in Flores and had to remind myself where I was: Guatemala. I had moved countries. That’s the thing about making such last-minute decisions – they don’t really have time to sink in before you find yourself standing in the dark on a cobblestone street being asked what hostel you’re going to. Hostel? Right, we had to find one of those. Cassidy had a recommendation, which matched the friendly travel agent’s who accompanied us into town, so off we went. It didn’t take long to find Los Amigos, since Flores is a tiny island whose circumference can be walked in no more than 10 minutes, and once inside it didn’t take long to reunite with the girls from Bacalar. The gringo trail is strong in Latin America.

Too exhausted from the full day bus journey (we had to pass through Belize, meaning two border crossings with four passport stamp stops), we decided to dine on the surprisingly good but totally overpriced international fare at Los Amigos, and only made it through one giant Jenga game at the Night Bar before succumbing to sleep. In the loft. Because apparently real beds are just too easy, so I decided to sleep on a pad on the floor above a real dorm room, covered by a peaked roof but sans walls and doors. The sacrifices we make to save Quetzales.

My time in Flores was focused on two things: 1) Arranging the trek to El Mirador; 2) Seeing Tikal. Arranging the trek took most of our first day – a topic that will get its own post soon – but we were able to secure a Monday morning departure (it was Saturday). We celebrated our success at Jorge’s Rope Swing, a chill place on the edge of the lagoon with hammocks, tubes, a surprisingly daunting platform to jump off of (my estimate is 8 meters), and, you guessed it, a couple of rope swings. We had a solid group of 9, a combination of former Green Monkey residents and bus trip buddies, who casually changed positions between land and water until the dazzling sunset signaled our return to the island.

Sunday was Tikal day, and Tikal does take the greater part of a day. We opted for the sunset tour, having heard about the struggle our friends endured for the sunrise tour, complete with 4 am departures and cloud-covered skies, and were picked up at noon. The ride to get there was hot and long, and the guide was not in any rush to get started, but once we did begin we were treated to stories about Mayan history and details of what we were seeing. It was well worth going with the English-speaking guide.

Tikal is gorgeous. It’s a great mixture of the kinds of ruins I’ve seen: it’s out in the jungle and not totally uncovered, but what is restored is jaw-dropping. The main positive about going on the sunset tour was being able to take our time exploring the site on the way to the tallest temple, as opposed to the morning when you go directly to the tallest one and work backward. We saw lots of wildlife on the walk in through the jungle, from toucans to spider monkeys to some relative of the raccoon whose name I forget, but did not see many other people, thankfully. There’s a lot to explore at Tikal, lots to climb up and around, which put it at the top of my ruins list thus far. Plus Temple 1, the one on all the postcards, is actually that pretty in real life. We were sitting in a grassy plaza surrounded by two towering temples and two multi-room complexes built up on hills when the colorful, strangest-looking turkeys I’ve ever seen came over to say hello. It was one of those scenes that is almost too good to believe, one that makes me think “wow I’m here right now.”

As sunset approached we climbed the tallest pyramid at Tikal for an overwhelming view of the jungle expanse beyond, with the tops of two temples peeking out in the near distance. Then we went to the oldest pyramid for the main event, which we had to earn by climbing up one of the more challenging ancient staircases I’ve ever ascended. Why people who were so short built such steep giant stairs I will never understand. Were they meant to be climbed like a ladder? Did they actually go up these? The climb was of course worth it. From our perch we could see the sun setting over the jungle, with the tops of the other pyramids lit up around us. The moon was just a few nights from full on our walk back out. We caught a glimpse of it behind Temple 1, which created an eerie, mystical scene that made me feel like I could understand a bit better the Maya’s fascination with the sky.

Flores itself though is not to be discounted. I’d heard that it wasn’t worth staying in for more than a day, it was just a launching point for Tikal, but I was charmed by its tiny size and the colorful buildings and cobblestone streets that covered it. If they promoted it well, Flores could really be a tourist destination itself. But hopefully that wouldn’t ruin my favorite part of town: the tostada stands. Every night at the water’s edge five stands set up that all sell the same things: tamales, burritos (the tiny Guatemalan version), empanadas, jugos, cakes the size of the one Miss Trunchbull made Bruce finish, and the highlight, 3 for 5Q tostadas. My personal favorite was the beets, but others preferred the noodles, and the carne wasn’t too shabby either. We went there for our second, third, and final dinners in Flores, and if I ever go back I will go again.

 

Two Day Trips from Mérida: Uxmal and Dzibilchaltun

Uxmal
I’d read that Uxmal was a good day trip from Mérida but after Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and Tulum I wasn’t sure I would make the trip out there. Then our city tour guide told us that Uxmal was his favorite ruin. So John and I decided to go for it.

Despite the weather. It was predicted to rain in the afternoon so I hoped we would make it before the daily downpour, but it started on the hour plus bus ride to get there. But we had committed, we were there, so we devised a way to both fit our belongs with us in our rain jackets. The weather gods must have appreciated our efforts; the rain trickled off as we started to explore the complex.

We quickly realized our guide was right. Uxmal is my favorite ruin so far. It is the largest site I’ve been to with multiple structures to explore, including temples and a palace. We were happy to discover that we could climb almost everything too (except what we assumed was the most important temple, for preservation reasons). The architecture was an interesting mix of forms: one temple had rounded sides and the rectangular palace was built on what appeared to be a man-made hill. Carvings adorned the facades of every building and ranged from geometric patterns to complex figure reliefs. It was the best detailing I’ve seen yet.

The preservation of Uxmal was impressive. How did these ornate details last so much better than the other places I’ve been to? Every new structure we came across was just as picturesque as the last. With at least three more ruins to go I’m curious how Uxmal will fare in the end, but so far it’s leading the pack.

Dzibilchaltun
I was fairly hungover when John asked if I wanted to join him in an excursion to a cenote, but the prospect of jumping in a cold body of water sounded to good to pass up. I picked up a pair of cochinita pibil tacos across the street from where the collectivos lined up to soak up the lingering mezcal and fortify me for the half an hour ride.

What I didn’t realize was that we were going to a cenote within another ruin. When we arrived we were both too distracted by the thought of swimming to really process where we were, so we beelined to the cenote. I jumped in and felt a wave of relief. The cool water was a welcomed refresher from the high humidity of the day. The fish that picked at my feet were not quite as welcomed. But still, the cenote brought me back to life.

Then I started to process where we were. We were swimming in a natural sinkhole surrounded by Mayan ruins. It may not be the best cenote in the region, but there’s something undeniably cool about that. After we got our fill of treading water we explored the rest of the site. It was a small complex but ruins are ruins so we took it in anyway.

Finding the collectivo back was more of an adventure. We had to walk a kilometer into the closest town, where we stumbled onto some sort of street fair that either was just starting or the remnants from the day before. A few stalls were selling corn or t-shirts and a band was playing on a small stage. Out the other side we found the random street corner where the collectivo back to Mérida would supposedly stop, which was happily confirmed after a short wait.

I wouldn’t rate this excursion nearly as highly as Uxmal, but it was still a good snipit of what the Yucatan has to offer.