Note from Jaspa – So, we have a confession to make. We promised ourselves that we would try and write a blog every weekend, and here we are, late on only the second attempt! I blame Bisckits myself. Anyway, if you can pretend we posted this blog entry at the weekend, we’ll try not to be late again…
Rich – The Mayan Riviera region is best known for endless picture-postcard beaches and an embarrassment of jaw-dropping archaeological sites. As far as the beaches go, we’ve not had very much to do with them since our last blog. On the other hand, we’ve seen all three of the major Mayan sites in the area, plus a bunch of smaller ruins.
Our first taste of the true scale of Mayan architecture was at Coba, the undoubted highlight of which was climbing the Nohoch Mul pyramid, the last Mayan pyramid still accessible to the public (for now, at least). The ascent was comparable to climbing Everest (honest!), over 40 metres in just 121 precarious steps – steps so steep that hands are needed almost as frequently as feet. The view from the top was incredible – uninterrupted jungle stretching all the way to the curved horizon in every direction, except for the crumbling summits of a couple of smaller pyramids straining to keep their heads above the sea of trees.
The trip down was even more knee-trembling than the ascent, because the whole time you’re looking down the steepest, most treacherous-looking set of steps you’ve ever seen. Even with a rope to steady us, it was a relatively slow and nervous descent. And reaching the bottom wasn’t the end of it. For two or three days afterwards, we suffered from sore ‘Coba legs’, as they became known. (Well, Sue and I did anyway – although Jaspa made it to the top, as usual he didn’t have to do it under his own steam!)
The excursion culminated in a visit to a local Mayan village to see how traditional Mayan families live today, in more or less the same way as their ancestors have for hundreds of years. By far the most disturbing part of the whole day, was the matter of fact way our guide talked about human sacrifice. He claimed to be a Mayan priest and seemed to think offering up human hearts to appease the gods was a perfectly understandable and reasonable practice. In fact, he implied that all of us who find such things shocking are way too squeamish. I guess it takes all sorts!
A few days later we visited the most famous of all Mayan sites, Chichen Itza, which is now considered to be one the ‘New’ 7 Wonders of the World, and rightly so. Despite the 38º C temperatures (feeling like 47º C with the humidity) we had the most fantastic day. Our guide, Miguel (from Playa del Carmen Tours), was knowledgeable and enthusiastic (and thankfully not the least bit interested in sacrificing us) and our chance travelling companions, a great Irish couple, Diarmuid and Eibhlis, who happen to live in Toronto of all places, just couldn’t have been better.
Miguel guided us through the site chronologically, each monumental building getting larger and more impressive than the last. Along the way we learned the story of the Mayan gods and the people who worshiped them. Finally we arrived at the famous Great Ball Court and the breathtaking El Castillo (also called the Pyramid of Kululkan), perhaps the most recognisable building in all of Mexico. It’s incredible to think that 170 years ago the entire complex was overgrown with jungle and forgotten by all but a handful of local Mayans.
After the extreme heat at Chichen Itza, we were thankful to be given the chance to cool off in an incredible, almost completely enclosed cenote (more on them later), before heading on to the charming colonial town of Valladolid for a fantastic lunch and a tour of the picturesque monastery of San Bernardino.
The buildings at Tulum, the third Mayan site we visited, might not be quite as impressive as those at Coba or Chichen Itza, but Tulum wins hands down in one important respect – ‘Location, location, location!’ as they say in certain circles. Perched atop one of the few cliffs in the region, above a golden beach with white rollers crashing in from an azure sea, it would be hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for the ruins of an ancient civilization.
The Yucatan Peninsula is a vast limestone plain, with no mountains, no hills, and no surface rivers. What it does have is a mind-boggling expanse of virgin jungle and more sinkholes (known locally as cenotes), caves and underground rivers than you could shake severely large stick at! Although at first glance such a barren landscape has little to offer the tourist industry, over the last couple of decades a number of entrepreneurs have been tapping into a rising global interest in all things environmental, by developing an increasing number of so-called ecoparks. And during our stay in Mexico we visited several of them.
We began our adventures at Xcaret, which is set up like a traditional theme park, except instead of roller coasters the main ‘rides’ are two branches of an underground river, each branch around 600 metres long. Donning lifejackets and snorkelling gear, you float and paddle along at your own pace, through natural caves and artificially enlarged tunnels and canyons. Take it from us, it’s great! And like all good theme parks, there’s lots of other stuff to keep you interested all day.
Xcaret is built on the site of an ancient Mayan port called Polé, and the park really takes advantage of this. Dotted around the site are actual archaeological ruins (which we thought were fakes to begin with… sorry!) and a replica of the ball courts we saw at Coba and Chichen Itza. In the ‘Mayan Village’, dramatically reconstructed above an open bend in one of the rivers we’d swam along earlier, we stumbled across a gripping re-enactment of a Mayan ceremony. Unfortunately, Sue’s enjoyment was severely spoiled when a pushy (and very hairy) man, who clearly didn’t understand the concept of personal space, got so close that he dripped sweat on her until she retreated to where she could only listen to the remainder of the performance. Eeeww!
At lunchtime we watched the Papantla Flying Men perform their vertigo-inducing rituals, dancing and spinning from atop of a tall wooden pole by ropes attached to their ankles. Apparently, part of the ritual is a sort of rain dance, and sure enough the only rain of our entire vacation (all 20 drops of it) came just as the ritual ended. Truthfully!
In the evening, we stayed on for the ‘Xcaret Mexico Espectacular’ in the beautiful, purpose-built Tlachco theatre. For me, the most interesting part of the show was the first half, which included re-enactments of the enigmatic ball game played by the Mayans in the ball courts mentioned earlier, the colonization of the region by the Spanish, and a type of hockey played with flaming balls, which I’m sure would be a hit in Canada!
Xel-Ha operates on similar lines to Xcaret, except here the main attraction here is an entire inlet of the sea that, true to the adverts’ claims, forms a natural aquarium. We spent a whole breathtaking afternoon snorkelling around this wonderful place, captivated by the exotic and colourful fish going about their fishy business. Seeing live conch moving (and jumping) about was particularly cool. It really was like swimming around inside an aquarium.
We love visiting caves and do so whenever we get the chance, but Río Secreto, the Secret River, is a far cry from most other cave tours we’ve ever been on. There were no well-maintained pathways or artistic lighting displays, and the emphasis was less on ‘park’ and more on ‘eco’ and ‘adventure’. Wearing wetsuits and caving helmets, we were guided as part of a small group through a portion of a natural cave system. The only illumination came from the lights on our helmets as we walked, waded and swam through caves full of stalactites, stalagmites and other formations. To see this wonderful creation of nature, untouched or ‘improved’ by humans, was quiet an experience and privilege!
Whereas Xcaret, Río Secreto and Xel-Ha took us beneath the surface of the land and sea, Selvatica took us above the jungle canopy. In a rush of pure adrenaline, we raced along 12 ziplines through the trees. We even did one zipline upside down! Then, to cool down from the heat, we got to zipline into another cenote. A fantastic adventure!