Yucatan 2013: Mayan Ruins, Merida and Beaches
I heard a man’s loud voice behind me almost yelling “Hey, hey”, but I paid no attention. I was walking through Chichen Itza with three other English speakers and a guide. Who would know me here? He caught the attention of one of my group, however, who tapped me on the shoulder and said “He seems to be pointing to you”. I turned around and saw the man approaching me. “Are you from Bharata?” he asked. “Yes, I am from India”. “There is no such country, its Bharata”. Getting wind of a crank, I asked “What can I do for you?” “I want to give you something”. He trotted back to the picnic table he had set up and came back with a copy of a detailed, long paper. I browsed through the first few pages later. It was an analysis suggesting a connection between the Mayan and Indian civilizations. A long shot, but it light of the recent discovery of Indian migration to Australia a few thousand years ago, not impossible. Our guide, who was of Mayan origin, seemed interested in the treatise so I left it with him.
Chichen Itza was developed between 750 and 900 CE and became the regional capital in the 10th century. It had declined in importance by the 13th century, long before the Spanish arrived in the middle of the 16th century. Even then its population was big enough for the conquistadors to locate a capital there. It is deservedly on one of the Seven Wonders of the World list. The buildings of Chichen Itza are grouped in architectural sets in an area of about 2 square miles. Each set was at one time separated from others by a series of low walls.
The best known of these complexes is the Great North Platform, which includes the monuments of El Castillo, Temple of Warriors and the Great Ball Court. El Castillo (Temple of Kukulkan, a serpent deity, and the main pyramid) dominates the site, standing about 100 feet high. The four faces of the pyramid have protruding stairways that rise at an angle of 45°. Heads of a serpent are carved at the base of the balustrades of the northeastern staircase. On the spring and autumn equinoxes, in the late afternoon, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western balustrade on the north side that evokes the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase. The Great Ball Court could accommodate a football field. The Mayans were clearly keen ball players as it was one of 13 courts on the site.
While there were many tourists and vendors, their presence did not interfere with enjoying the archeology because of the size of the site. Although Chichen Itza is definitely worth visiting, for me it was on a level with the Great Wall in China, but not in same league as Luxor and the pyramids in Egypt, Angkor Wat, Bagan or the Taj Mahal.
A few days later, I took a tour of Tulum, another popular Mayan site nearer Cancun. Built in the same architectural style as Chichen Itza, it was a trading hub, mainly for obsidian. Although much smaller, it attracts almost as many visitors as Chichen Itza because of its location on top of a cliff that drops several hundred feet down to the sea. The views of the beach and sea with the backdrop of the temple are stunning, marred somewhat by the crush of tourists.
Water for both cities was supplied by exposed sinkholes called Cenotes. Our tour to Chichen Itza stopped at a huge sinkhole popular with tourists for a swim. The Yucatan peninsula is a limestone plain and does not have exposed streams or rivers. They flow underground. Indeed, the top-soil is too shallow to support agriculture. During the 180-mile journey from Cancun to Merida, I did not notice any farming on either side of the highway, just wild vegetation and trees.
Merida may be the oldest inhabited city in the Americas. The conquistadores settled there in the mid-1500s and built on the Mayan city of Tho, recycling much of the chiseled stones used in buildings. It is now a bustling metropolis of 1 million people, but with a distinct colonial historical center. It also has a majority Mayan population that looks different from what one imagines Mexicans to look like—they are darker, shorter with broad faces and distinct noses. Many Mayans do not speak Spanish.
Much of Mérida’s architecture from the colonial period through the 18th century and 19th century is still standing. Colonial homes, in various states of disrepair and renovation, line the historical center, which is undergoing a renaissance as more and more people are moving into the old buildings and reviving their former glory. Paseo de Montejo, the city’s most sumptuous avenue, named after its founding colonial family, is lined with architectural masterpieces and original sculpture. The city is a vibrant cultural center with art and music in abundance. It is also considered the safest city in Mexico. Because of these qualities, its climate and its relatively low cost of living, it has attracted many Canadian and American expatriates, especially retirees.
Having been an economist, I have to say “on the other hand”, beyond the few square blocks of the historical center, Merida transitions quickly into third world chaos with crowded small shops and stalls and bustling sidewalks. The disorder is sprinkled with emblems of the first world such as Starbucks, Coca Cola and Walmart. This mélange was stark in the hundreds of floats in the Mystic Festival’s parade that my visit coincided with. It was a close match to major parades in the US, but with almost entirely commercial floats—beer, colas, chips, cars, etc—each with many scantily clad women wiggling their bums and jiggling their tits to salsa music. The parade was held every evening of my three days visit from 7:30 pm for four hours.
Although I eat Mexican food now and again, I do not have special liking for it. Many savvy people told me that the food is different and better in Mexico. Not true. I tried fancy and simple restaurants and found it pretty much the same as in the US, although with more variety. For my taste, Mexican food is bland, without complexity or delicacy, and the several salsas provided on the side to jazz it up are monotonous. Mayan cuisine was distinct, but still not interesting for me. I liked the Lime Soup made with lime, chicken broth and crispy tortillas and Papadzules, which were egg “tacos” bathed with Pumpkin Seed sauce and tomatoes. I stuck with Mayan food whenever possible.
A friend had offered me a few days in his time-share attached to one of the Westin hotels in Cancun. It was located in the hotel zone that stretched for about 20 kilometers, side-to-side hotels all the way with no gap in between, fronted by about 50 yards of white sand beach. Morning and evening walks along the beach were delightful, but the sea was a little rough for swimming except where reefs offered protection from waves. The hotel had swimming pools, gym, tennis courts, bikes—enough to keep guests physically occupied if they wanted to or just lounge on reclining beach chairs. I chose to be physically active and rest on the beach between exercises.
The hotel zone had malls like in the US with McDonalds, Johnny Rocket, etc. Indeed, the entire zone felt like being in America in Mexico. Only the service staff was Mexican, but that is also the case in California. The only difference was the sun and beach. Most of the guests I talked to or overheard were Americans or Canadians, but there were tourists from several European countries too.
Cancun’s township, called El Centro, was about a 45 min ride on a regular and comfortable bus. It is a Mexican city with about 750,000 people with hints of the US such as Walmart, Sam’s Club and Costco. In the flush of newly acquired wherewithal, middle class consumerism has taken to junk food in a big way. Mexicans have become almost as obese as Americans according to an Economist supplement. This was especially evident among the spectators of the parade in Merida. Much of the food in stalls was deep fried and/or laced with sugar and accompanied with Coca Cola or beer with no concession to their diet varieties. I wandered into El Centro a few times to eat at the restaurant in which my friend was a partner and try other places, especially Mayan, recommended in the guide book.
One day I also took a ferry ride from Cancun to Isla Mujeres, the island of women. Apparently, pirates in the 17 th. Century left their women there when they went out to rob merchant ships. Although tourists are evident, the island still has the atmosphere of a fishing village. I was directed by an attractive middle-aged lady from Vancouver, that I chatted with on the ferry, to a restaurant by the beach about 4 miles down from the ferry dock. I got to see most of the island and had a really nice meal by the water looking out at Cancun in the distance. If I go back to Cancun, I would stay on the island. It reminded me of Culebra (Puerto Rico) where I spent a week last year, but with better beaches and climate.