Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Chichen Itza - Sweating to the Oldies

Our second Mayan ruins stop was Chichen Itza in Yucatan, which is considered to be among the "Seven Wonders of the Modern World." Palenque, which we visited the week before, had set the bar pretty high (See: Palenque Part Two - More gods more problems) so we were excited to see Chichen Itza, the crown jewel of Mayan ruins in Mexico. We arrived to Chichen Itza town mid-day and found the suitable, if rustic, Stardust Inn. We then proceeded to watch lousy American movies all afternoon. It was around 105 degrees, and neither of us really felt like walking down the scorching, dusty streets while tour buses coated us with diesel fumes and road grime. Apparently because of the "seven wonders" status, Chichen Itza has shown up on the international tourism radar in a big way, and the two lane main street entertains constant streams of 50 foot tour buses heading both directions for most of the daylight hours.

The funny part was, the town itself didn't have any tourist foot traffic. The buses seemed to come in from somewhere else, wait around town all day, and head back out around 6pm. I believe that the mega-destination status must have caused this, and looked to have caught the local merchants and hotel owners by surprise. The main strip was rife with funky, unique looking 1960s looking courtyard hotels, but with the now grand perception of the site outshining them, they had become just another strange, dust covered thing to take a picture of from the bus window. Somehow, though, I don't have any pictures of our hotel, or any of the others...sorry! They were really cool, though run down, and reminded me of the motels you see along the sides of old highways the outskirts of towns in the U.S. (but with palm trees)

 Though there were two tour buses in the parking lot of the "Stardust Inn", when we arrived, upon entering the courtyard it was apparent that we were the only guests in the 60 room hotel. The owner explained that the tour buses would be parked in front of the door until four, after which we were welcome to pull our bike into the lobby. I guess at four they drive back out, pick up the tourists at the ruins, and ferry them back to Merida or Cancun - never to set foot in town. The only lodging in the area which appeared to be occupied was a couple of brand new four and five star "eco-resorts" a few miles out of town, whose appearance and amenities (apparently) better suited the new class of visitor. As far as we could tell, two people worked at the Stardust: the owner who spoke English, and another guy who took care of everything else. The pool was too murky to swim in, the palm trees around it were fading fast, and, by the noises it emitted, our air conditioner seemed to be fighting for its very life. But they were all still there, and obviously doing their best to hold on. The situation presented itself most clearly when, as we were checking out, the "everything else" man was attempting to get an ancient electric pool vacuum to run. As I made trips back and forth to the bike with our tons of luggage, he rewired the plug, spliced it onto a longer cord, taped up the connections, and searched for an electrical outlet that would make it run. Once it was running the task ahead of him became painfully clear, as its 4 inch nozzle was nowhere near up to the massive task of cleaning out the horribly murky water in the 20 by 40 foot pool. Though, as we finished packing and said goodbye, he was giving it his best effort; lying on his stomach, his arms thrust shoulder-deep into the murky water, earnestly scrubbing at the algae to little avail. What else could he do?

So, the ruins. The ruins were a series of grand buildings which, because of the falling deaths of two tourists, you were not allowed to touch, let alone climb. On the dusty, flat ground in between them you could sweat profusely and buy all manner of Chinese jewelry, knick-knacks and tee-shirts. At the grand ball court we met a tour group from Mexico City, and their guide, who spoke English, invited me to play the traditional ball game with them. He asked me if I spoke English, and when I said I did, everyone chuckled and he explained the entire game in Spanish. Then, while “playing”, he continued his comedy routine by repeatedly yelling "gringo!" at me to the delight of his fans. We then stood relatively near a few pyramids and took photos inadvertently featuring a number of random tourists and knick knack sales people.(Who, we had been told in Merida, were not really even Mayan, let alone Artisans)

Jill and some new friends

The fate of the local businesses is quite sad, and having been to Palenque we understood what was being lost. In becoming world famous Chichen Itza seems to have sacrificed the charm of places like the Stardust Inn. As massive as the ruins were, there is more to a destination than its monuments.
Go to Palenque. 

To be fair, the night "light show" did give us an opportunity to take some neat photos, but was only in Spanish with no translation available.  
$10 photo op!

Post that! - Power outage in Merida

I'm writing this as it happens, though it will be posted later. 

Merida, Mexico, May 13 2011.
Ok, so it's 11pm, and we're posting blogs in the courtyard of our lovely hostel, because we're the sort of people who do that sort of thing. Yes, we found the hostel online and, yes, it had great reviews. Anyway, we're the only ones up, and right at 11 everything goes dark, so we figure the management is letting us know that it's time to call it a night. Oh, wait, the internet is gone, and it's dark next door too...Mexican power outage! Call it a hunch, but I don't think that a power outage here will be handled as promptly as one at home. It was 105 degrees today. As a cheapskate, the first thing I think is, no A/C, so maybe we can get the $4 we paid for A/C back. Our room is pretty roasty, so I open the window and when the giant, unbelievably loud diesel trucks go by, they send a cool, diesel infused breeze through our room. So that's a plus. And, with the noise, we'll be awake to enjoy each passing truck! The dogs and roosters of the neighborhood are locked in a timeless struggle, so we can't really blame either party for their incessant noisemaking, though it seems appropriate to point out that at 11pm the roosters are getting an unfair lead on dawn. I'm never sure what the yelling is about, but I've found that is often the beauty of not knowing the local language. Once you learn it, the desperation becomes a little too personal, and the late night arguments are both annoying and depressing - which just won't do at $24 a night. Post that on our lonely planet.

Fidel, the Wonder Dog of Merida

After our stay in secluded, monkey-ridden Palenque (although we never saw them we know those sneaky rascals were out there!) we wanted to change it up and head for the city.  We decided that we would stay in Campeche for a night and continue on to Merida for two nights.  Later, we wished we had stayed longer in Campeche and spent less time in Merida; Campeche was smaller, cooler (temperature-wise) and much more our scene.  Quite a bit of Spanish influence could be seen throughout the city and a giant stone wall surrounding everything still exists along with eight attached guard towers, built after the citizens of Campeche (circa 1600’s) were attacked by a particularly violent crew of pirates.  
The wall surrounding the city with the church steeples in the background
 We pulled into the city after what seemed to be the hardest day of riding (although I know it wasn't Ty's after driving from Reynosa to Veracruz) and, hot and exhausted, decided to stay in the first place we saw with internet, a/c and cheap accommodations.  Turns out it was a perfectly nice place and was located in the best part of town (right next to the town square.)  The owner let us park the bike in the lobby of the hotel; it was quite a feat to get it in but we were very grateful to not have to leave it on the street.  We had spent most of the day stopped in 100+ degree heat on dusty highways while construction crews meandered across the road in their trucks and bored cops stopped traffic to inquire where each driver was headed and we were ready to relax a bit.  After not eating all day, we decided to scarf down some unrecognizable Chinese food from a buffet next door to the hotel.  It wasn’t great but we couldn’t have cared less.

After a shower and a little a/c time, we decided to take a walk down the boardwalk for sunset.  It was nice to see the ocean again and the sidewalk was lined with other people out running, roller blading or just taking in the views.  I think I finally have the Mexican timeline down.  Everyone wakes up around 10AM, has breakfast and accomplishes whatever they can until about 2PM, when everyone disappears until evening (I think that most people take a little siesta because of the heat.)  Then, everyone ventures back out once it has cooled down and hangs out until about 11PM (besides the partiers, of course, who will keep going well into the morning hours.)  Even little kids are out playing late at night which might be unusual at home but is very common here.  We made our way back into the main square (where a beautiful, old church was lit up for the evening) and had to grab some limon ice cream after seeing so many people eating it down by the water.  We went on an unsuccessful quest to find an open beer store, but weren’t completely disappointed as we got to see quite a bit of the city, including several of the towers and the university.

The view of the city from the boardwalk

After an air conditioned night's sleep (which felt so good after Palenque) we made a fairly quick ride up to Merida.  I had made reservations at a highly recommended hostel (Casa Chalia) and was so glad that I did as it turned out to be one of the highlight hostels of our trip.  The proprietors, Rosalinda (from Merida) and Jan (from Belgium), were two of the nicest and most knowledgeable people we have met so far.  They are a married couple who have been running their hostel for about two years.   When they inherited Rosalinda's family home in Merida they left Belgium and decided to run a hostel completely on their own; they have never had any hired help.  Did I mention that they cook and serve and delicious breakfast every morning?  As much as we enjoyed Rosalinda and Jan's company (who, if you were so inclined, you could speak to in English, Spanish, German, French or Dutch fluently...) there was one other little guy whose company we enjoyed the most; his name is Fidel and he is a miniature grey poodle (and one of the funniest/rascaliest dogs Ty or I had ever been around!)  Fidel was living the high life at his palace in Merida and had new people to play with every day...and believe me, he could play for hours. Every morning at breakfast we would spend a solid hour or two throwing him his ball and he would never get sick of it.  He, along with his owners, were definitely the best part of our trip to Merida.  
My new soulmate

Rosalinda, Jan and their baby
Our cute watermelon room at Casa Chalia

 For the right person, Merida would be a lot of fun.  Unfortunately, when we were there it was extremely hot (100+ degrees both days) and very, VERY crowded...not the best combination.  We did, however, find a restaurant (with the help of Jan) that served the best food either of us had had so far and was air conditioned!  The owner of Las Vigas was a nice guy from Pittsburgh and we enjoyed talking to him.  We also made a visit to the second story McDonalds, located right above the craziest market in Merida, for lunch one day.  We watched the flocks of people walking in every direction down below and for some reason it reminded Ty and I both of the second story McDonalds we visited in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Second story McDonald's view of Merida

We said goodbye to Jan, Rosalinda and Fidel after a healthy breakfast of fruit, eggs, bread, coffee and tea and headed out for Chichen Itza, the most famous of the Mayan Ruins of Mexico and one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World.                 

Palenque Part 2: More Gods, More Problems

After a relaxing day at Misol Ha and Aqua Azul falls, we headed into the Palenque Archeological Park for the main event. As Jill previously explained, the schedules all run a little later here, so when we arrived at around 9:30 we were probably within the first 25 visitors of the day. The layout of the park wastes no time in revealing the gradeur of the ruins; the entrance path runs directly into the main plaza and the first things you see are Pakal's tomb and the palace complex. In my opinion Pakal's tomb was the most impressive structure on the site, and its classic Mayan pyramid construction is just what people are thinking of when they think "Mayan ruins." Unfortunately, because of preservation concerns, Pakal's tomb is also the only struture on the site which is not open to the public, so we were not able to experience what has to be a spectacular view from the top.
The view from Jill's favorite temple
 Fortunately, just to the right of Pakal's tomb is a large hill with a number of ruined temples, all of which visitors are free to climb. This group has the highest elevation on the site, and is crowded in by jungle on three sides, with the fouth offering an amazing view of Pakal's tomb and the palace complex from above. This group also contained Jill's favorite temple, which was a more modest structure with three arched doorways on the facade. It was built into the hillside, and looked as though it could tumble down or be overtaken by the jungle at any time.
Jill at her favorite temple
I think the most 'magical' thing about Palenque was the landscape, and the way the overgrowth and steep, hilly terrain hid some huge structures from view until you were right next to them. Every time it looked like we were at the back of the excavated area, we would discover a path leading further into the jungle. Sometimes they would open onto large plazas and temples, or sometimes on to modest stone homes and beautiful natural pools and waterfalls. Seeing the vast ruins one small area at at time gave the impression of actually discovering them, and made each small site more personal and comprehensible. It's hard to know what these areas would have looked like when they were in use, but it's easy to imagine thousands of people living happily among the trees. 'Commuting' back and forth to the main plaza; making their way up and down the winding hillside trails, between the crystal clear pools and falls, accompanied by the constant din of life in the scattered patches of sunlight below the jungle canopy.

On a Mayan's morning commute, up the hill
On a Mayan's evening commute, down the hill.
But, over on the main plaza there were all of the sacrifices, decapitations and bloodletting rituals, so I guess that would be something to keep in mind before moving. Unfortunately we didn't have a guide in Palenque, as most were charging between $50 and $100 for a three hour tour, and as we're not technically on vacation, we felt that was a bit out of our price range. (These types of decisions are going to be tough to balance, as we don't have the money to do whatever we want, but we don't want to travel all this way and not do anything. More on that some other time.) 

Anyway, it would have been nice to have a guide, as we both felt that we didn't get the full story on the sacrifices and rituals for which all of these magnificent temples were built. My impression was that the Mayans worshipped myriad gods, all of which were pretty demanding when it came to lodging and (human) sustenance. If you weren't being sacrificed locally, you might still have the opportunity to be captured and sacrificed in a neighboring city, so, to prevent that, you should probably keep your gods happy... which means... offering them more sacrifices. Not a good loop to get caught up in, but by the looks of the many carvings of war captives in the palace, it was not an uncommon way to go out. There is actually a plaza within the palace built for the specific purpose of presenting captives to the king. It features carved images of captives from all of the surrounding cities, so maybe when you were captured you could feel at home? Just kidding, it's so later they can kick it and reminisce about that time when they captured and sacrificed you!
The plaza for the presentation of captives

More gods, more problems, it seems. 

We spent all morning and most of the afternoon wandering up, down and through Palenque, much of the time nearly alone. Something like 95% of the site is still un-excavated, and often when you reach the end of a trail you can see that the buildings continue as vine covered mounds as far as you can see...

Common homes taken over by trees, with more un-excavated behind