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The Ruins

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Yucatan Peninsula - the Ruins

Feb 26 - Isla del AguaCatemaco Area

We left Catemaco today with a destination of Isla del Agua in front of us. This is an “island” that is really more of an isthmus connected to the mainland by bridges, both manmade and land. It was a beautiful drive, first traveling back inland from Catemaco through the jungle-clad landscape on a road that wound up, down and around. It was a slow road, with many villages and that means many topes. These are the speed bumps built into the road to slow us down as we approach and pass through the village.

Many times the locals stand beside these topes trying to sell us stuff through the windows. Usually this stuff consists of produce like watermelons, pineapples, juices and all manner of other fruit and veg. I like buying produce this way as I know I am buying from local farmers and the food is just-picked fresh.

The last part of the day was spent paralleling the Caribbean and this was equally interesting. The waters in this part of the Caribbean are so many shades of blue, each more intense than the other. We stop to walk the beach and take photos. It is very hot and the iguanas are all sunning themselves on the rocks. When they see us they freeze, pretending we don’t see them. We do.

The road we travel is built up with swampy areas segueing into bayous and bays on either side. Amazingly, the cattle continue to graze, sometimes belly deep in water. I wonder about gators. Seems like a perfect place for them.

By evening we come to Isla del Agua. The RV Park is part of what they call a balneario which is a kind of beach party place. There is a restaurant and patios and a party palapa with a band playing. These balnearios attract large family groups so they often have swimming pools and children’s playgrounds. Everywhere we’ve been in Mexico, “going to the beach” is a much favoured activity: cuddling couples, young families, ancient grannies bundled under umbrellas, masses of squealing children. Families erect tents and light up barbeques. Bench seats are dragged out of cars, whole sofas out of trucks. Boomboxes blare while small televisions project the avidly watched soaps.

At Isla del Agua the campsites are right up on the water, although separated from the public beach by a wire fence. We had to pay 300 p a night here which is pretty dear – nearly $30 US. That is too much by far, especially since the showers are cold and have no lighting. But that seems to be the going price over this side of Mexico. No matter how deserted the RV parks are, the proprietors do not drop their prices or improve the services.

Isla del AguaBut it is a very nice setting. We put up the table and chairs, make supper and enjoy watching the families playing together. One little toddler is a real handful, repeatedly escaping from his Mom. Once it gets dark we are amused to see that his t-shirt is equipped with a flashing light. Early the next morning, a Sunday, we are not even up yet when we hear the families arriving to claim the best spots on the beach. It’s nice.

Campeche & Mayan Ruins
Feb 27 - March 1

Today was not a good day. It is sooooo hot, in the high 90s. We are positioning ourselves so we can travel towards the interior and Steve can start exploring the Mayan ruins. We stopped for the night in Campeche so he can check out the forts. You can probably tell, I am not a fan of old rocks and ruins, nor am I a fan of the intense heat and humidity.

The RV Park here …and I use that term very loosely, is very hard to find. It takes us several attempts at winding through the city. Eventually we find the right street but there is no RV Park, just a big pile of rubble where the park used to be. Overheated and feeling hopeless we are wondering what to do when this lady comes running after us, waving a t-towel and telling us we should follow her. I guess the jungle telegraph is working. When the neighbours spot an RV they pass the info on to her.

The lady has a rustic “RV Park” in her front yard. Yes. She rouses her husband who moves this old wreck of a car out of the driveway and she directs us into a parking spot across from some Quebecers. There are a dozen little dogs racing around, the electrical outlet is an extension cord already in use by the Quebecers and the banos are basically outhouses with the wind blowing through. Good enough. We are home for the night. It is so very hot. She charges us 80 pesos for the use of Raod to Uxmalher front yard and bano.

In the morning we set off to explore the city. It’s pretty and has all the now predictable stone buildings of yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. By afternoon we are off towards the ruins of Uxmal in the interior. Enroute we stop to see some caves. The stalactites and stalagmites have been vandalized so there is not much to see. When I think of how anal retentive the rangers are in the caves we’ve toured in the US and Australia I understand why. In those places you cannot even put your hand out to steady yourself. But the difference is easily seen in the condition of these caves. These are ruined.

KabahWe also stop enroute to see the ruins at Kabah. On these interior roads now, you could basically stop every 20 minutes and see another pile of ruined rocks. Steve is in heaven. It is hot.

I don’t connect too much with the whole Mayan thing. I didn’t with the ruins in Angkor Watt a few years ago either. I think it is because we know so little about these cultures. Everything is pure conjecture. There are no real-life personalities to relate to.

I remember being in France and coming on the remains of an old castle that Joan of Arc had stayed in while she prepared for her final campaign. I sat there in the grass, shaded by the same trees she would have sat under. I looked out over the townsite below, seeing the same view she had seen. I ran my hands over the stone hearth of the gigantic fireplace. The same place she would have sat on cold nights. And being familiar with her story I was moved. I could feel her there; ponder what she felt as she faced her destiny. I could connect to her.
Uxmal
I had the same experience with Marie Antoinette at Versailles and the Bastille. I was a young mother when I was there, running my hands over the stone window ledge of her cell in the Bastille. I had only been away from my young children for a few weeks but was already so lonely for them. I could feel her pain, apart from her children. I could connect with these cold stone buildings because I could connect with the person who’d inhabited them. To the Mayans? Not so much.

There is no campground at Uxmal but for 130 p they let you camp in the parking lot. There are restrooms in the admissions building at the site once they open at 8. You’ll need to make other arrangements till then. There are also several fancy lodges with nice restaurants and bars onsite. We had our most expensive dinner yet – not memorable except for the price.

What I did really enjoy is that once we are at Uxmal they have a light and sound show after dark. Walking through these ruins in the cooler temps of the evening was very pleasant. They had chairs set up on the precipice of a building. The thunder roared and the lightning flashed. There was lots of chanting and grunting. I think they were narrating the history of thUxmale Mayans here, but it was all in Spanish so I am just guessing. The stars were startlingly bright in the very black sky.

It was a lovely cool night, alive with the sound of birds settling in, frogs and crickets vocalizing. I’m pretty sure there were some howler monkeys in the vicinity too. It had been desperately hot all day, but cooled down to a lovely temp in the evening. We used the shower off the back of the van to cool down and clean up. We are the only people staying here, except for the ghosts of the Mayans. There is an ancient staircase coming right down beside the van and I could swear the Mayans are strolling down them, pausing when they see our van, wondering who we are.

In the morning we drive a little further down the road to the entrance area for Chichen Itza. Here we are camped in front of a motel called the Pyramid Inn. the "campground" consists of the parking lot in front of the motel. It has seen better days for sure but it has a great pool – huge and clean. It is in excess of 100 degrees again today so we decide to spend the afternoon camped out IN the pool. We’ll hit Chichen Itza first thing when it opens in the morning, before it gets too hot.

Chichen ItzaPyramid Inn campsite

March 2

And that is exactly what we did. We were first in line at 8am and genuinely enjoyed walking the site before the hordes descended. Without a doubt Chichen Itza is the glamour girl of the Mayan ruins. It’s where all the bus tours from Cancun roll in, carrying literally thousands and thousands of visitors.

The vendors are something else. They line up outside the gates with great wagons full of product which they pull to their spots. At these locations, bordering the woods, they’ve hidden away the lumber for erecting their booths and tables. So at 8 am they too are lined up, waiting for the gates to open. They are not in too big a hurry though as they know it will take the buses from Cancun several hours to wind over the narrow roads to Chichen Itza.
Vendors settingup at Chichen Itza
There are literally hundreds of these vendors, repeating the same products over and over again. Most of their stuff is Mayan-style carvings, either stone or ceramic or wood. There are weavings and paintings and jewelry- but always the same from booth to booth. Prices are not cheap either. There was a carved wooden sundial that Steve kind of fancied but the price was $250 US! The fellow would not budge from that price. Not by a cent.

By the time we were leaving we knew why – thousands of people on tour buses, each of them fresh meat for the inflated prices. The thing was, these people getting off the buses already looked way too hot and grumpy. We were so glad we’d gotten up early to see the site in the cool of the early morning.
Buses at Chichen Itza
The ruins themselves are not that great, frankly. There is a really big pyramid in the center of everything. That’s the pyramid that is photographed for the cover of every tourism brochure promoting Mayan culture on the Yucatan. Kind of like the Ayers Rock of Mexico. There are some minor buildings that are basically just walls and arches. You can’t climb the pyramid or investigate too much. If you want to take any photos you need to get there early like we did because after an hour hundreds of vendors have set up around the pyramid.

I’d always heard Chichen Itza was the biggest and most impressive ruin in Mexico but a few years ago we went to Mount Albàn in Oaxaca and those are by far more impressive. The site was larger, there were more buildings and they were accessible. You can actually climb those and poke around inside many of the structureChichen Itzas. And most importantly, vendors were not permitted inside the site. Road reports for that trip are posted HERE.

At Mount Albàn we hired a guide to show us around and explain what we were seeing. He was an interesting fellow but even then I was struck by how little we know about the Mayan culture. The archaeologists still have no idea why most of these cities were abandoned. A few weeks later in this trip we spent the morning at the Mayan museum in Chetamul and even after spending a whole morning reading everything written there I was struck by what an intense mystery it all is.

Tomorrow we’ll be off to Cancun and Playa del Carmen. At last, some beach time in paradise.

 

Carolyn Usher