Sunday, March 30, 2014

Chichen Itza

We could not leave the Yucatan without seeing one of the "new seven wonders of the world," so the family made the decision to get up before dawn and make the two and a half hour schlep across the Yucutan to see Chichen Itza.  Keegan, being a very responsible young man, served as the alarm clock and rousted the whole family at about 5:30 am,  so we could arrive when it opened at 8:00.  As you can see from the photo above, it was worth losing the sleep -- we arrived and got into the ruins well before the crowds from Cancun flooded in, which made for some great moments.

First up we hired a guide, named Hisrael (first picture below), a wonderfully nice, proud Mayan who taught us how to say thank you in his native tongue (Um Bo Tique -- phonetic),  which literally translated means “God pay you.” He explained that there are two million people in Mexico that still speak Mayan, and he himself spoke four languages -- Mayan, Spanish, English, and Italian.

Hisrael immediately took us into the great ball court.  It was there where we began to learn why this is considered an architectural marvel.

The ubiquitous Quetzalcoatl (feathered serpent) greets you as you enter.

If you stand exactly at the center of this mega court, and clap, you will hear exactly 7 echoes.  It was designed that way on purpose, with stones placed just so to keep it there and no further.  You can also hear all the way from one end of this monster to the other, and a clap from the end will echo twice. Amazing to see the carefully planned acoustics.

In addition, the decor was not the whitewashed stone you see here, but blood red, and full of hieroglyphics, as you can see in the photo below.

Seems appropriate coloring for a place where the WINNING captain was sacrificed to the gods via decapitation.  How they kept people from throwing games I will never know.

Happily, no decapitations occurred during the filming of this trip. With the family in the photo you can get a little perspective on the size of the field. Apparently, the goal was to knock a 12 lb. ball through those rings, using only hips, elbows, knees and feet.  It hurts me just to think about that. On the bright side, I would have been at very low risk of decapitation.

From the ball court, we headed to the grand pyramid, where we learned even more about the exquisite precision of these great edifices.

If you stand right here, in front of the great pyramid and clap loudly, you will hear an echo that makes exactly the sound of one of the Toltec's revered birds: the Quetzal.  It is created by precisely placed hollow spaces in the pyramid, and the way they interact with other nearby walls and buildings. To me, that is just amazing, that they could build something so large and so complex as this group of ruins, yet intentionally create that precise sound.

The pyramid is also positioned so that Quetzalcoatl, the serpent god, is illuminated precisely to appear alive at the summer and winter solstice, by virtue of the way sunrise and the steps of the pyramed interact to create light on these long stairway sides.

We also learned that the american explorer who first worked on this ruin removed a large number of stones to build a nearby hotel, which still stands. How shortsighted is that?

Just past the Grand Pyramid, we came to the Temple of the Sun.  I don't think I have ever seen a building with more columns.  How many, you might ask?  Take a look at the photo below, and realize that those columns are connected to the temple columns you see above, but you can't even see the temple in the picture of columns below.

Quite a place, to say the least.

No Mayan ruin would be complete without an observatory, and the one at Chichen Itza is a fine example.

Their knowledge of stars and calendaring is legendary, and their buildings reflect that serious focus.

Being a full fledged teenager, however, nothing interested Kate quite as much as the wall below:

Yup, those are skulls.  Go figure, a teenager and skulls. Must be 21st century America, except it's 11th century Mexico.  The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Next up, the colonial town of Valladolid, and a surprise end-cap to our trip, the wonderful and intimate ruins at Ek Balam.

Monday, March 17, 2014

COBA Mexico

I don't know if many people know about Coba, a Mayan Ruin about an hour west of Tulum.  If they did, more would make the trip. Having spent the prior morning at Tulum, the boys were not quite ready to leave the heaven of Akumal again, and Kathleen graciously stayed with them.  Kate and I arose at 6:00 a.m. to arrive when the ruin opened, wanting to see what to make of mysterious Coba. It was fantastic.

Still mostly buried in jungle, you have to take the trail in the lead photo to get in and explore the ruin.  In fact, the entrance to it is so hidden Kate and I drove past it twice, thinking "that can't be it."  No big parking lot. No hawking vendors. One restaurant. Lake across the road with water lillies and an occasional crocodile. Tiny nearby town. It feels like rural Mexico at its most authentic.

Once we found the entrance, we discovered there was one guide there, selling his services.  On a lark, and wanting to support the locals, we decided to hire him.  Good decision.

He drew an amazing picture of what this place had been, before the jungle took it.

We learned of a 47 square kilometer city, filled with 55,000 people, the second largest city in all of the Maya kingdom, filled with plazas (like the one above) where people came to hear the priests pronounce your future -- literally.  As children were born they determined, based on your birthdate and a religious calendar, whether you would be a laborer, warrior, farmer, or human sacrifice. The latter was considered an "honor,"  but I have a hard time believing it did not lead to the eventual dissolution of this once great place, as mothers and fathers must have grown tired of losing this most precious of gifts to the priests and their gods.

We learned of cement made from  honey, limestone, ash, and the gum of the Chicle tree; of the five  hierarchies – King, Priest, Warrior, Laborer, Farmer; and of the Tourist tree -- the one that is red and white a peels all the time. :-)

We also learned of color; our guide helpfully pointing out tiny pieces, like the one above, showing the original colored plaster which used to cover entire buildings. And not just in red, but also blues and greens and whites. Add to this roads, perfectly straight and sometimes a hundred kilometers in length, that glowed in the moonlight from ground sea shells used as cement/base, and you see this world in a whole new and beautiful, but perhaps frightening light.

From the ruins near the entrance, Kate and I continued in along the jungle path towards our ultimate destination, the Grand Pyramid of Coba.

The route wandered past many ruins like these, saved from surrender to the relentless forest, and including the ubiquitous "Observatory" (below).  Every Maya ruin seems to have one, in some form or another.  Stars must have been a big draw back then.

After a longer than expected traipse, we made it to the grand pyramid. It is both taller and steeper than it first appears, but is still climbable, unlike the pyramid at the Toltec Chichen Itza.

The above shows a little perspective on how steep it is, or else is the dramatic tension piece of this entry, waiting to see if that old overweight guy is actually going to keel over and die on the spot. . . .

It is also a lot taller than you might think.  According to our guide, it is the second tallest in the purely Maya (as opposed to Toltec) kingdom, after the grand pyramid at Tikal, Guatemala.

The views from the top were impressive also, and not just because of the very impressive teenage girl who posed in them.

All in all, it was a very good morning. By 10:00 the tourists began to arrive (though not in near the droves that beset Tulum), and we headed back to Akumal, to snorkel away the afternoon, spotting spanish cannon, stingrays, sea turtles and a plethora of brightly colored fish.  If that is not an A+ day, I don't know what is.

Next up, Chichen Itza, Valladolid, and the surprising Ek Balam.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Somehow, we managed to drag ourselves away from the paradise of Akumal a few times while in Mexico, but only where there was really good reason. Tulum,  a well known Mayan ruin,  provided one of those reasons. Thanks to a helpful guidebook tip, we made sure to rise early for arrival by 8:00 a.m., when it opened.  Good thing we did too -- once the tour buses from Cancun pour in around 10:00, it is difficult to get a shot in edgewise, and the ruin itself is not big enough to provide room for all those people.  An added bonus is that all the hawkers and tchotchke shops were closed when we headed in, sparing us untold sales pitches. (More on that later.)

Happily we had the run of the place for about forty-five minutes, joined mostly by the current inhabitants -- Iguanas.

They were everywhere.  The boys spotted 57 before we managed to leave. Each of the pictures below has an Iguana in it -- some more obvious than others.

It entertained Keegan endlessly, and led to one of the funnier stories we heard while in Mexico.  A local guide told us that there were many theories about how to tell a female Iguana from a male Iguana -- one was darker than the other, one had more spikes than the other, one was bigger than the other -- but none of them proved true in all cases.

He said the only surefire way had been told to him by his grandfather, and had been passed down from the Maya for generations. In order to really tell, you have to wait and watch them for a time.

Eventually, the Iguana will move its head in a repeated, distinctive pattern -- the males will bob their head up and down, as if nodding YES, and the females will always bob their head side to side, like they were saying NO. He said it with a grand twinkle in his eye, but swore that it was true.  We laughed pretty hard.

Overall, we did have the ruins to ourselves for a time (Iguanas excepted of course) and as the photos below will attest, it was a glorious, blue sky morning.

If you look closely at the photo above, you can see turtle tracks in the sand. Unlike the beach on the south side, this beach to the north of Tulum's famed castle is reserved exclusively for sun-bathers with shells firmly attached.

Eventually, the crowds did begin to arrive, but not before Kathleen and Keegan had the beach south of the castle virtually to themselves for a time. You can see them in the lower right hand corner of the photograph below.

Eventually, we all joined them, and the boys had a great time in the surf.

That pretty much put an end to touring though, as soaking wet shorts are no fun to walk in, so we climbed the stairs, and bid farewell to a beautiful place.

On our way out, the many shops and tour vendors were open, pressing us as we left to buy this and that. As Kate and I walked out, a very nice young man earnestly pitched us on taking a trip to Dos Ojos Cenote, two limestone sinkholes filled with fresh water where you can snorkel. In trying to seal the deal he told us he would even show us the part of the cenote where, in an underwater cave, fathers would sacrifice their 14 year old daughters to appease the gods of the underworld.  Unable to resist, I looked squarely at Kate and said, "Perfect, where do we sign up?”  One sore shoulder later, it was clear our next excursion would not be to Dos Ojos. Instead, we ended up at the ruins of Coba, which will be our next post.

Friday, March 7, 2014

We Found Paradise In Mexico, And Its Name is Akumal

We had never been to the Cancun area before last month. Truthfully, we were never really excited by the long lines of towering hotels, or an Americanized Mexico experience, replete with spring breakers.  Little did we know that it was all just a smokescreen, a cleverly blinding decoy, hiding one of the great places on the planet -- Akumal Mexico.

Two perfect, adjoining half-moon bays, less than 20 miles from Tulum, where the Mexican government brilliantly refuses to allow buildings over two stories high.  White sand beaches, protected by a kaleidoscope of fish-filled reefs, containing a placid bay so accommodating that giant sea turtles call it home, happily swimming away with the snorkelers that come to see them.  If that is not enough, the reefs hold the remains of a sunken spanish galleon, its cannon still clearly identifiable, though encrusted within the reef. Warm sun beats down in February at a steady 80 degree clip.  The water temperature is just a bit lower -- enough to cool you off, but warm enough to bask in all day long.

Finding it hard to believe that such a place exists? So did I, but trust me, I have been there, and it exists. I have the pictures to prove it :-).

The first thing you notice about Akumal is the birds -- at least, it was the first thing we noticed.  You see, there is a price to pay for finding paradise, and for us, it was a long slog to get there.  Maybe if we hadn't travelled on Valentines' day, which just happened to be the Friday before President's day weekend, security and customs lines wouldn't have been quite so long. And maybe if I had chosen another rental car company, I would not have found myself listening to Gerardo pitching me a time-share opportunity for forty-five minutes while they "checked on" my car.  In any event, despite a 7:00 am flight from Salt Lake, with a stop-over in Houston, we did not start the hour and a half drive from Cancun to Akumal until sunset, arriving exhausted well after dark.

So what does that have to do with noticing birds, you ask?  Well, in Akumal, they begin to sing well before the sun comes up.  That might seem like a bad thing when you are tired after a long day of travel, but the sounds were so varied, so different, so tropical, that upon waking you knew, before even opening your eyes, that you had been transported somewhere exotic, green, warm and wonderful.  Then, you step out onto the balcony, and see this:

So of course you head straight down to the beach to see where you are, and where you will spend the next 6 days.

You can see our balcony from this spot, the upper window on the right, and the chairs where we would plant ourselves as often as possible in the week to come. Safe to say I have woken up in better places . . . NOT.

The place we stayed was called Las Casitas Akumal (the "little houses" of Akumal, entry-way above)--two bedroom, full kitchen, big living room places, whose only downfall was mattresses whose picture is in the dictionary next to the word "firm." Putting that aside, you would be hard pressed to find any fault in this place.

Five steps out the back sliding door of your unit, you are greeted by this:

which steps down to a path like this:

which leads past casitas that look like this:

and ends up with views like this:

If you snorkel, which we did every single day as often as we could, this is where the magic really begins. Straight out from these cannon, about a third of the way to the boats, lies the remains of a spanish galleon, its cannon scattered amongst the coral by waves and time, crewed now only by fish having every color and shape imaginable.  Just under the yellow and turquoise boat in the distance, we found a sting-ray who makes the shadow of that boat his regular home.  And to the left of the last boat out, sea turtles munch contentedly on underwater sea grass all the day long. I wish I had underwater housing for my camera, but since I don't, I'll have to leave all of that to your imagination.

When we weren't in the water, it was all sandcastles and casual reading, with the sounds of a gentle breeze through palm fronds, lapping waves and laughing children accompanying scenes like these:

We even had a full moon while there, showing that this little place is spectacular even in the heart of the night.

Akumal town itself is small, a great mix of ex-pats, locals and tourists, who all eat at the same half-dozen restaurants, all within walking distance, and most of which have pretty good food.  As an added bonus, the local library has a couple of nice walls that can be used as the backdrop for family pictures :-).

It is no wonder that the family in the casita two doors down (whose son instantly became best friends with ours) had been back for 10 years straight, or that the family next door (also with a son our boys' age) was on its eighth visit.

With superhuman effort, we did manage to tear ourselves away for adventures in Tulum, Coba, Valladolid, Chichen Itza and Ek Balam, which we'll post about later, but next time, we may not leave at all.

Anyone care to join us?  In case you need more convincing, I'll close this post with the farewell sunset from our last night there.

Paradise indeed, now lost in the pressing blur of life, but it will never be forgotten.