When we were in Oaxaca we mentioned to someone that we were heading up to the Yucatan and that we would go to Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan Ruins. His reply was 'Oh are you going for the Spring Equinox?'. Um, no.....when/what's that??
There are two equinoxes every year, when the sun shines directly on the equator and the length of day and night is supposed to be exactly the same (ie: 12 hours) – in March and September. In the Northern Hemisphere the March Equinox marks the start of Spring and has long been a time of celebration for cultures all over the world, including the Mayans. It always occurs on either March 19, 20 or 21st. The word 'equinox' comes from Latin and means 'equal night' but even though this is widely accepted in reality equinoxes don't actually have exactly 12 hours of daylight.
Our original plan was that we would skip Chichen Itza until we returned from Cuba to give ourselves a bit more time to see the other sights between Oaxaca and Cancun but since its only a twice yearly event, and apparently a pretty big deal we jiggled our plans around to be there.
The main pyramid – also known as El Castillo – has four staircases running from the top to the bottom of the pyramid's faces, and is notorious for the bloody human sacrifices that used to take place there. The staircases were built at a carefully calculated angle which according to our googling supposedly makes it look like an enormous snake of sunlight slithers down the stairs at the precise moment of the equinox. This year equinox was on March 20, at 11:02am.
Outside one of the temples
Our greedy Iguana
There are only a couple of public buses a day to Chichen Itza from Merida, as the majority of people go on organised tours from Cancun, so we were up early to ensure that we arrived in time for the equinox at 11am. We had read that thousands of people pilgrimage from around the world to be there for the exact moment so we were a bit surprised when sitting close to the pyramid at 10.45 that there were only a few people milling around. Unfortunately google is not always accurate as we got talking to an Aussie couple who said the snake doesn't actually appear until the sun starts setting, usually around 4/4.30pm. Right when our bus to Cancun is due to leave. Bugger. Ah well!
After a breakfast of pawpaw and lime under the trees we used the extra time we had gained as an opportunity to leisurely explore the sight. Chichen Itza was started around 400 AD and was described by lonely planet as jaw dropping for even the most jaded traveller, however we both agreed that the jungle setting of Palenque and the mountain top of Monte Alban were both more impressive. The fact that both of the other sites allow you to climb the structures gives you a much better understanding and appreciation of the culture, and the fact that they are less touristy means you are really able to soak up the history, without being bombarded by the touts selling trinkets and overwhelmed by the massive tour groups diligently following their leaders flag like sheep with no regard to other people on the path.
Visiting the cenote at the bottom of the site we made friends with a significantly sized Iquana over lunch. We had learnt from our guide to the Cuzama Cenotes
that Iguanas are vegetarians and so when one walked on by we offered him a bit of tomatoe. Initially hesitant but following the gingerbread tomatoe trail we laid out he slowly got more courageous and before we knew it the cheeky bugger was right up next to me snatching away the rest of the tomatoe. It was pretty funny aferwards watching him try to guzzle it down, much too big for his mouth but he was determined not to let it go unless we took it away from him!
Temple of 10,000 pillars
Serpent head on El Castillo
Gods of Rain with really big noses
Walking the gauntlet of trinket vendors back up to the main part of the site we ended up having a cool conversation with one of them who, once he realised we werent the a-typical rich american tourist who visits the site (and that we weren't going to buy any of his stuff), was happy to chat with us and let us practice our spanish and him his english. It made me feel really lazy though as he was self taught and his english was a million times better than our spanish!
After a siesta under the trees we headed to the centre of the site to check out the ball court. Mayan sports included a game similar to soccer except that instead of using their feet (it is believed) they had to hit the ball with their elbows, hips, knees and stomachs through a very small hoop high up on the side wall of the court. The enormous Chichen-Itza court where this game was played is the largest ever found and is lined with fascinating carvings that display the rules and details of the sacred game. One carving even shows the captain of the losing game being beheaded!
Heading back to El Castillo we met up with the Australians we had met earlier in the day to watch the snake appear. Evesdropping on a nearby guide it was pretty cool to learn that the pyramid is also a calendar with its four sides containing 365 steps (depicting the solar year), 52 panels (for each year in the Mayan century as well as each week in the solar year) and 18 terraces (for the 18 months in the religious year). As the sun began to set and the snake began to appear on the side I have to confess a certain amount of disapointment. While it is cool that the shadows do form somewhat of a representation of a snakes body which does meet up with the stone serpent head at the bottom it takes a certain amount of imagination to see the snake 'slithering'. Half an hour later and its certainly the slowest snake I've ever seen. But to be fair, just as 21st century movie graphics have come a long way since the 80's the Mayans didnt have stephen spielberg or weta workshop so perhaps this was the peak technology of the time. Not sure I'd bother to make a special trip for it again though. Lonely Planet did get one thing right however - you only need 3 hours to see the sight.
Waiting in line for our bus to Cancun we were approached by a friendly american who wanted to know whether we were 'backpackers'. Admitting that yes we were, she go really excited and wanted to know 'how we do that'. We gave her a few tips before she took our photo making us feel a little bit like rockstars haha.
Next stop: Cuba (via Cancun)
Waiting for the snake to appear
After what should hopefully be our last overnight bus, well at least for a couple of months anyway, we arrived in Merida; the capital of the Yucatan Penninsula. Mérida was founded in 1542 by Francisco de Montejo y León ("el Mozo") and named after the town in Spain. Some historians consider it to be the oldest continually-occupied city in the Americas. The city architecture has a lot of French influence and walking along the Paseo de Manejo you are surrounded by beautiful French colonial mansions with ornate woodworking, although these days they are mostly occupied by banks or other international head offices. Coming from the DF, Oaxaca and Chiapas regions we were surprised to find that the Yucatan feels very different - much more American-ised, with TGI Friday's, Chilli's and Walmart dotted in between international hotel chains.
The hostel we stayed at offered Yoga a couple of days a week and we arrived just before the class started so I jumped in and used the opportunity to stretch out all my tight muscles from the bus trips. Ty was a bit frustrated though as the class turned out to be an hour and a half long so he was left waiting for me to go exploring but I felt so much better afterwards.
Pulled pork tacos - YUM!
Beautiful Meridan architecture
On the boat going flamingo hunting
Seeing as it was Sunday there was a big market on in the centre of town so we walked in to have a look around and stopped for some more of those delicious pulled pork tacos I talked about before. The day was absolutely roasting and our hostel was the first one we had come across with a pool so we couldn't resist heading back to cool off and chill out for a couple of hours before we took part in the free cooking class that was happening that night to learn how to make Papadzules
. We have been in Mexico for almost a month now and I was still yet to have a Margarita so we headed out to one of the bars for a quiet drink. Unfortunately the bar tender needed a few lessons so I left feeling pretty disappointed with my overpriced drink - will just have to continue the search! haha.
Day 2 we booked on to a tour to Celestun, a tranquil fishing village located west of Merida. The main attraction is the Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Celestun (Celestun Biosphere Reserve), a large coastal wetland reserve and wildlife refuge which is home to thousands of flamingos. The reserve is an impressive 146,000 acres and is one of the largest areas of mangroves in the Gulf of Mexico. Freshwater from the ria (estuary) mixes with saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico creating a habitat that’s perfect flamingos and waterfowl, and the reserve is home to more than 300 species of birds including egrets, pelicans, herons. Unfortunately for us, you cant control nature and we lucked out only seeing about 50 flamingos (the day before there was 5000 of the buggers!) but we had an enjoyable boat ride and marvelled at the braveness of some local children swimming rather close to an alligator. Our captain said there were two gators living in that area of the mangrove - I'm still not convinced he was real but I certainly wasn't going to get in to find out, especially after a local made a crack about him
preferring the taste of gringo!
We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying a leisurely lunch and swim at Celestun Beach before heading back to Merida. Driving back we saw big ominous looking storm clouds gathering and by the time we arrived the heavens had opened and it was pouring down. Within minutes the streets were filling up with giant puddles and I was very glad for the door to door service the tour provided! The silver lining to the first rain we've had in over a month was it gave us some time to sort out our plans for the next couple of days and book things we needed to.
Railroad 16th century style
Real or not i'm still not getting in!
The Yucatan Peninsula is full of Cenotes (sinkholes) which occur when limestone rock collapses exposing groundwater underneath creating the most amazing swimming holes if you can get down to them. Because they are dotted all over the place here we werent sure which one to go to. Some were located pretty much in town and didn't take a lot of effort to visit (one even has a restuarant built on the edge with a diving platform) and others require a guided tour. Basing our choice on the theory that the things which are hardest to get to are usually the best we booked a tour for the following day to the cenotes near Cuzama. To get to the sinkholes the locals take you on an extremely rickety horse and cart type contraption which sits on 16th century rails. I'm pretty sure we could walk faster than the horses were pulling us but it all adds to the adventure and these rides are most likely the main income supporting the locals who live there.
We visited three cenotes and had the chance to swim in all of them, although climbing down the wooden ladders held together with chicken wire didn't inspire confidence! The water was so astoundingly blue and crystal clear it was amazing! But the weirdest thing was that there were fish in there! Our guide explained that they are Catfish and because all the sinkholes are connected by underground rivers despite it looking like there are no exits they have got themselves in somewhere along the line and so now they stay. Heading back on the carts to the town we were practising our spanglish with our guide who was telling us about the region and its specialities, particularly the food. We had seen a number of Iguana's sunning themselves on the rocks during the day and Ty cheekily asked whether or not they ate them, which he said they do and did we want to try it. Up for the challenge he took us to a local restaurant and we ordered Sopa De Lima. Living up to the old 'tastes like chicken' adage I'm not convinced it was Iguana but either way it was very tasty and I'll happily order it again!
Next Stop: Spring Equinox at Chichen Itza
Not a bad place for a swim!
Art, the lovely man at our hostel in San Cristobal told us about a tour which went to Palenque, stopping along the way at Agua Azul and the Cascades, before visiting the ruins at Palenque and then returning. The cost of the tour was about 30 pesos (£1.50) more than the cost of the one way bus. Unfortunately, the one time I have tried to be organised since we arrived in Mexico was me buying our bus ticket when we arrived in San Cristobal to 'save us time later'. We had heard about Agua Azul (beautiful bright turquiose blue waterfall) from some other travellers and were pretty keen to check it out. So despite not liking our chances we headed back down to the bus station, although we couldn't get a refund for our tickets, we were able to change the tickets for another route, so we swapped it for our bus from Palenque to Merida a couple of days later and Art booked us onto the tour :)
The day started pretty early with a 6am pickup, although it was just after 7 by the time we had everyone else from their hotels and all of our luggage was hoisted onto the roof ready to go. Because San Cristobal is in the mountains we had a pretty windy road downhill for a couple of hours, punctuated by the ever present judder bars, before we stopped for breakfast. The breakfast buffet was pretty miserable looking, and pretty expensive for what was on offer so we decided to give it a miss and tried our luck with a portion of quesadillas which turned out to be pretty pathetic ones but never mind they kept us going until later.
Halfway up Agua Azul
At the top of Agua Azul
Our first stop was at Agua Azul, a series of beautiful turquiose blue waterfalls. The day was starting to warm up and it was very tempting to hop in for a swim but since we were going to be visiting another fall later in the day we decided we would save it until then. There are lots of locals set up selling fresh fruit, juices, crafts and food along the walk to the top of the falls, and although the empanadas left a lot to be desired the watermelon went down a treat on our way back down.
Next stop was Misol-ha, a 120 foot waterfall, that you can walk behind to feel the roar of the water falling from above. The area is surrounded by Mexican rainforest which is cooling from the midday sun, but unfortunately also means the water is a little less appealing that at Agua Azul, and we immediately regretted not swimming earlier. Supposedly its wise to be off the road between San Cristobal and Misol-ha by mid afternoon (its a well known drug smuggling route) and so we headed off to the ruins of Palenque soon after.
The Palenque ruins date back to 226 BC. By 2005 the discovered area was about 2.5km² but its estimated that this is probably less than 10% of the actual city area, with thousands of structures still covered by the lush jungle which surrounds the site. Much of the history of Palenque has been reconstructed from reading the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the many monuments and Ty became particularly taken by King K'an B'alam the 2nd (Serpent Jaguar King) declaring that it would be the name of our first born son. Sorry babe - thats a deal breaker!
Murals at Palenque
Looking towards the Grand Palace
Ruins at Palenque
Wandering around the site we were glad for the forest at the site as the afternoon had got pretty hot and we didn't have much water with us. A great thing about these ruins is that you are still allowed to climb up them which means you get different perspectives on the site from each one and allows you to appreciate the thighs of steel that the Mayans must have had walking up and down the extremely steep steps every day! I got pretty excited at one point when Ty spotted a monkey running along the branch of a tree but wasn't fast enough to get a photo of it.
Lonely Planet's opinion of Palenque town is pretty much spot on; apart from as a jumping off point for the ruins there's not really much to see and its rather uninspiring compared to the other towns we have visited so far but we ran into Nick and Nicky, a British couple we met in Oaxaca so it was nice to see them again.
Next stop: Merida