December 18, 2008

The Yucatan - Cichen-Itza before the crowd

Anja and I took a trip down Yucatan way in December on my break between chemo rounds.

I had the idea that we could get there and just chill out for several days. After all I was kinda weak after several weeks of chemo and radiation and I didn't really feel like being Mr. Adventure right now. Yeah right! We flew into Cancun and the lazy idea went out the window, then we were off to see what the Yucatan was all about. We arrived in the afternoon and took the bus into Cancun. In Cancun there are really two Cancuns. There's the tourist land where you can basicly get the same thing in Florida and there's the real Cancun the locals call Centro. We crossed the street from the bus depot that Mexicans take lots of pride in, and got a collectivo to the ferry. It was well after dark when we got to the port where we were to catch the ferry to Isla Mujeres. We dropped our packs under a palm tree to wait for the next ferry. I went into a nearby mini-mart store, took some money out of an ATM, and bought a couple mexican beers. I went back to our packs, opened my first beer in weeks, and enjoyed the warm evening breeze coming off the wide open sea. We made it to the Isla where we discovered an amazing beach on the NW corner of the island. We thought about sleeping right on the beach which probably would've been fine, but we decided to go look for a room. We made our way into the town and stopped for a map check when a senora stepped into the narrow street and asked if we wanted to see the room. We thought sure why not, and got the room for $22. It was only about a two minute walk from the beach. We dropped our packs in the room and set about discovering the town. The next day we hung around the beach which is always quite nice during the winter.

We explored the streets of town for a couple hours that night and the next day. We found lots of timeshare salesmen and gringos that live there. It's quite funny to watch the ex-pats who seem to have themselves confused with Jimmy Buffett, except JB was a happy guy. These ex-pats seem to be really pissed off about something. Speaking spanish is definately not a requirement here like it is in other areas of Mexico. If your looking for true Mexican culture you may want to skip the Isla. Definately not the kind of place I'd spend much time hanging around again.


Needless to say we got the next speed boat ferry and skeedaddled! We went back to Cancun Centro and got a bus to Piste,

which is just outside of Cichen-Itza. In this part of Mexico there are several different bus systems to choose from when traveling. There are the all-inclusive resort buses that whisk the hoards of gringos off to what ever tourist event is going on. Thank God we couldn't travel on these buses even if we wanted to.

Then the more public buses in descending order are First class,

second class,

and collectivos.

We tried a couple of the first class buses, which are pretty nice, if that's what your looking for. They are quiet except for the movies playing on television, they are air-conditioned, and most have a toilet in the back. One of my problems with them are the curtains that cover the windows. I guess the curtains are to make the TV is more visible, I can't watch the countryside go by, and worst of all, I actually got a little motion sick on one of the mountain roads in Baja.

I have started leaning towards the second class bus system for a couple reasons. I like to not act like some rich elitist American when in Mexico, mostly because I'm not. I have found that if I travel on a lower key that I get more respect from the locals because they can see that I'm not like "those other Americans". I think this mostly because I've been told as much by the locals. (see my time-share salesman story in the Baja post). I also like the second class because it feels like it's closer to the culture and the culture is one of my main reasons for travel to Mexico.

When the bus stops at a stoplight a kid (or whoever) selling popsicles (or whatever) will get on and peddle his/her stuff for a block or two then jump back off.
The downside is that it takes longer to get where you want to go (but who cares), and there is no toilet. I would try to compensate by taking shorter trips. (eg) If we needed to go 10 hours away we would split it up over two days. It wasn't all bad to stop in some random place, eat some street food, see what was going on around town, and spend the night.

The collectivos are like route taxis. Sometimes they are very full. Most people take them just a few blocks in the bigger cities, but they are present in surprisingly unpopulated parts of the country side.

Once we made it to Piste we discovered that our bags had gone missing. Luckily we had all the really important stuff in our day packs, and there were plenty of places to sit around in the shade and drink mexican beer. After waiting a couple hours to discover they weren't on the next bus either I got a little worried until one of the bus company employees went and opened the cargo hold of a first class bus (the one in the picture above) behind the Piste bus stop and there they were. We paid about $8 and checked into the camping area in the beautiful back forty of a hotel where we pitched the tent under a palapa.

After getting set up under our Palapa home for the night (which i could seriously live in) we changed clothes and walked into the the town of Piste. Went to a little street food place where we got a ton of food for really cheap, then found out there would be festivities in town at the zocalo later that night.


When we were in Piste our education of the Mayan began unexpectedly. I was surprised to see stones with weird carvings in them placed randomly through the structure of the Mission at the Zocalo. As it turns out the Spaniards on conquering the Mayan tore down their temples and built catholic churches with the very rocks taken from the Mayan temples. My jaw was agape to say the least.

The next morning we woke early and walked a couple miles through the misty jungle and into the famed gates of Cichen-Itza. We heard from several sources that to be there early was crucial to miss the hoards of tourists and to experience the haunting essence of Mayan gods past. I don't think there were 10 other people in the whole place as we walked in. As we moved down wide corridors, through the ancient pyramids, even those few people went their way and we found ourselves alone in the hollow corridors of gargoyles, goblins, and the far off chant of Mayan gods over a sacrifice. It was truly an epic experience for at least an hour.

Inevitably the people started showing, but we were pretty well done anyway. I was entertained with the efficiency at which the local vendors set up shop to sell their wares to tourists passing by. The wide corridors would soon be filled on both sides by the vendors selling some really fantastic souvenirs. 

That afternoon we got a bus to Merida (population about a million). I was excited to see it since I'd never been in a city that large in Mexico. As we approached the outskirts I was following our route on a map I was carrying. The traffic was getting bad and we were spending a lot of time sitting and waiting at intersections. Pretty soon the driver wheeled into a parking lot and was pretty much like "this is it'. Needless to say it wasn't the main bus terminal. I had a rough idea of my cardinal directions from following the map and sort of knew which we we needed to go, so off we went. The sidewalks were as busy as the streets and we had sizable packs. I was nervous about turning just wrong and knocking some little ol' lady into the traffic lane only about 18" away. When the traffic would move it was scary cause it was moving really close and fast. We walked for about an hour stopping in what I called people eddies (where the flow of people wasn't such a gauntlet) every so often for a drink of water and a map check. Finally, on approaching the zocalo I knew where we were. The zocalo was massive, an entire city block, a huge people eddy. Adjacent to the zocalo was the marketplace where there was a row of street food vendors as far as I could see. After the busy walk we dropped packs in a corner and chowed down on the best street food I've had in Mexico. We people watched and contemplated a full day. Also commented to each other how glad we were not to be part of the high-roller tourists on a bus back to Cancun. 

We finished eating and started looking for a place to stay. We quickly found out about some sort of an event in town and that a room would be hard to find. I think there is always some kind of an event going on in Mexico, Thats just the way they roll, happy people always looking for a reason to celebrate something. We ended up finding a room about a half-block from the zocalo for about $20. Later that night we walked back to the market that was fascinating all by itself. I quickly learned how influential the habanero peppers are in the Yucatan. A distinctly delicious flavor that is available in every form I could've imagined. The pics below are dark (so you have to look close) because I was trying not to piss people off with the flash.


The next day we spent walking all over town. I'd heard of the Yucatan being famous for it's hammocks so I wanted to do some hammock shopping. I quickly learned the difference in quality between the cheap touristy polyester and the expensive hammocks that are made from Yucca fiber hemp, I can't remember the name of it, but it's dyed with organic compounds, made by local villages. Very worth while, but I decided not to purchase one because of the weight and bulk already in my pack. 

Later in the afternoon we made our way back toward the zocalo where we checked out the state capitol building and the second largest mission in the world (also made of Mayan temple stones) only topped by one in Peru. In the capitol building is the story in mural of the Spaniard conquest of the Mayan on the Yucatan peninsula.


After two days in Merida we were looking for some beach time and the small gulf coast town of Progreso was only an hour away so we headed out for the bus terminal several blocks away. It was an easy day of chillin in the sand and sun with the usual locals that are selling trinkets and such. A pretty mellow place that seems to attract a crowd of locals from Merida. There are a few beachfront bars that open only when the cruise ship docks at the end of the jetty that is out of sight from the beach. It's kind of a comical sight to see the tourists being bussed into town like cows coming to the barn.

We went back a few streets off the strip for some fish tacos and beer. We met a jolly guy who walks the beach during the day selling trinkets. He was having some beers after work, and, with the help of his liquor, was a little fascinated with my height, so with the help of my liquor, I tried out carrying the big pizza pan looking thing on my head like he does on the beach. He about laughed his chubby mexican ass off.

A little later after dark we headed back out onto the beach to sleep under a palapa. I don't know if I'd do it again. Between the drunks on the beach after dark, the rabid dog packs running around, and trying to keep an eye on the tide there wasn't much sleep to be had. When we woke in the morning the views were splendid and the tranquility was what Mexico is famous for.

Later that day we headed out for Merida and then on to Valledolid where we hoped to spend the next night. There is a Mayan site about an hour north of Valledolid called Ek' Balam that we wanted to visit. We hired a cab to take us to Ek'Balam and wait an hour then return to Valledolid. We thought about hitch-hiking but decided not to because if anything went wrong we'd be running too close to when we needed to be back in Cancun at the airport.
The thing that was interesting about Ek' Balam was that archeologists are still uncovering incredible ruins from the jungle.

The hillside behind this plaque is actually a Mayan temple

We did a quick tour through present Ek'Balam

to check out an Agave farm

and some of the local hoolians

Then we hurried back to the bus stop at Valledolid. Do you recognize that Santa from the Merida market pictures above. Anja had to have it and an epic journey it made to get to Utah by Christmas.

We made Cancun and walked out for some street food one more time.

and on to the airport the next morning to call it a trip.

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