Yucatan and Chiapas02/04/2012
What a busy, amazing, varied and beautiful couple of weeks, fuelled by excellent food!
We first arrived into Cancun where we spent a day enjoying the Caribbean beach Cancun style. Cancun really is a very long series of very large all-inclusive hotels. In fact the only way we could get to the beach was to go through one of these hotels and just ignore all the calls about did we have a room etc. The Caribbean is beautiful here and you can see how this developed has happened but it is also slightly sad and hard for us to really enjoy so we hot-footed it out of Cancun and in land to Merida.
Merida is a very nice city with a beautiful plaza in the middle where life seemed to congregate. From here we visited the first of our Mayan ruins - in fact the first 3. It was one of our very rare arranged tours (transport only though, no guide at the sites) which allowed us to visit Labna, Xlapax, Kabah and Uxmal. Without a doubt Uxmal was the highlight of the day with an impressive oval shaped pyramid. There was also a lot other buildings including, the ubiquitous Ball Court, to explore in excellent condition, and we climbed up the side of the "Great Pyramid" which gave amazing views over the whole site. The next day we went to the museum in Merida which showed lots of interesting artefacts from the Maya history.
Our timing in Yucatan was controlled by the equinox as we wanted to visit Chichen Itza to see a shadow. Sounds strange I realise and actually sitting in a massive crowd of thousands of people all waiting for hours for a shadow did feel slightly surreal but when we saw it it was worth it. Basically for only a few days a year, at the two equinox, a shadow forms for a few minutes that looks like a serpent down the side of the main staircase of the massive pyramid in Chichen Itza, and the effect lines up with the sculpted head of the serpent that is at the base of the stairs. It is a good effect that must have been planned as part of the design of the pyramid back in days of the Maya.
After this we headed to another Maya site - Ek Balam. It is described by some as more impressive then Chichen Itza but I'm afraid we didn't see that. It was a good site though and there are some very impressive restorations on the original staccos, and it was fun to be able to climb the pyramid here (which you can't do in Chichen Itza, everything is roped off).
Believe it or not we still hadn't had our fill of Maya sites so next stop was Tulum. This is on the Caribbean coast and an incredible setting for the old port town. There are no grand pyramids dominating the site, but it felt much more like a town that was actually lived in at one time - oh and the setting, did I mention that already? Overlooking the most beautiful turquoise blue ocean just begging to be swam in if only we had time. (There is also an excellent fish restaurant in town which had fabulous Ceviche). But we weren't too sad to miss out on the swimming here as our next stop was the island of Cozumel for some diving.
It has been 10 months since I did my diving course in Ko Tao and I'm sad to say that my lack of experience really hurt both us in Cozumel as my tank of air didn't even last 30 minutes but each of our dives were amazing and varied and I have no regrets about going (plus more experience is clearly needed anyway!). The currents were strong and we were washed around a lot but we also saw great things including a tiny seahorse also being washed around by the currents, a couple of massive turtles, an eagle-ray and lots and lots of colourful fish taking it easy as I struggled to remember to breath slowly and not wave my arms around. I loved it all, except the feeling of having cut Seth's dive so short.
After a few days of Caribbean living it was time to go back to Mayan ruins, this time Palenque in northern Chiapas. It took some getting to as we decided to take a rather long route in the hope we would avoid a night bus by doing so, only to discover that night bus was our only option so we arrived into Palenque town at about 5am and decided to take the rest of the day easy. We went for a walk into the nearby forests where we found a nice pizza restaurant and explored the route to the ruins, basically just to enjoy the walking, surrounding area and space. The next day we got to the ruins early and were deeply impressed. Seth has been before, 15 years ago, but much seems to have changed since he was there with the main pyramid now closed to tourists (you used to be able to walk down to the tomb in the base) and lots more buildings seem to have been uncovered and opened to the visitors. It really is an incredible site and I was very impressed by it all. It is in beautiful forest and you can almost sense the forest trying to reclaim the city but so far the hard work of the many workers on the site mean that forest is losing the fight. The pyramids (there are quite a few) are all beautifully restored and maintained and as you look at the beautiful waterfalls and streams closer to one of the residential areas of the city that has been uncovered, you get a small sense of what it might have been like to live in this massive city. The museum also gave a really interesting insight into the life of the people and the size of the city in its heyday.
Palenque was to be our last Maya site for a little while as we headed to San Cristobal de Las Casas. We had originally just thought this would be a nice and practical place to stop briefly before heading to Guatemala, but it turned out to be a very nice city and we decided to stop an extra day here and enjoy it. We headed out to the local villages of Chamula and Zinacantan to see the lives and religion of the modern day Maya. It was a fantastic tour with a lot of interesting information particularly about their religious practices which, in Chamula, are not exactly standard Catholic - for example chicken sacrifice is practised in the church on a daily basis. Luckily we didn't witness this but there were about 3 chickens in the church with us at the time, all of whom had short life expectancy. Apparently the sacrifice is in order to replace a persons soul which was taken to the underworld after that person had some form of accident such as falling over. It is clearly a strongly held belief, as was drinking fizzy drinks in order to make the worshippers burp so the bad spirits left their bodies. As I said, it was a fascinating tour and the guide was very informative and it was great to learn more about modern the Maya.
Now, with less then 6 weeks of our trip left we head to Guatemala after which we will return to Mexico before heading home.