Yucatan Birthday Celebration #5 – Tulum

Another day; another Mayan archaeological site.  This time – for the last full day of our vacation – we did not drive too far from Cancun, just a little down the coast to Tulum.

While Chichen Itza had impressed for its scale and Coba was fantastic because of its position in the jungle, the thing that made Tulum special was its siting on the rugged cliffs of the Mayan Riviera and above the second longest coral reef in the world.  Unlike the sprawl of the other two ancient cities, Tulum was confined within a fortified outer wall.  That made it must easier to wander around in the blazing heat but also meant that we were a bit sardine-like with all the coach loads of other visitors.  What Tulum had that was entirely lacking at Coba was plentiful information boards so that we could interpret what we were seeing.

There was a palace in centre of the site and it was surrounded by other buildings.  Finally we were given the explanation that the flat platforms in evidence at Tulum and which we had seen elsewhere were the foundation for buildings made from perishable materials.   A few of the buildings had carvings of a descending god on them.  I rather liked his bizarre upside down nature.

 

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On the promontory, we read about the first contact between the Mayans and the Spanish who, from their ship, thought Tulum looked a lot like Seville.  I could not help but wonder what the Mayans, watching the ship from the cliffs, thought of the European interlopers.  I liked it up on the cliffs because of the cooling sea breeze.  I stopped there to take lots of lizard portraits.  There were lots of iguanas around, wandering with their wide slung cowboy legs.  They were not skittish at all and some even seemed to be posing for my camera but they certainly didn’t want me touching them. I tried though.

 

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We were disappointed by the actual town of Tulum.  We had high expectations as people had told us that we would love it.  I expected quaint, picturesque streets, interesting architecture, perhaps whitewashed buildings or houses painted in vivid colours.  What we found was just a street of shops selling the same souvenirs and crafts that we had seen all over the place.  There looked to be some intriguing eateries but we were not remotely hungry having had another of our breakfast feasts at the hotel.  The roads running adjacent and parallel to this main road were back to being ramshackle and run down, not much worth exploring, so we headed down the road to the coastline.   We found ourselves on a narrow road lined with cabanas ranging from “hippy” retreats offering sweat lodges, yoga and reiki healing to very swish and swanky looking boutique hotels.  The buildings all blocked any view of the shore line and prevented access to the beach but we had to forge on to its end in order to turn around.

We journeyed back back to hotel to swim.  I did lots of relaxing floating around again.  We finished with a dip in the large jacuzzi again as it was getting chilly and we could warm up that way.  I sat beside a jet so as to get the benefit of the lobster pot hot water.  The jets were so powerful that they kept pushing me off  the seat ledge and I had visions of floating into the centre like a star fish stuck in a spin cycle.   Thankfully my vision was not realised.
We dined in the Argentinian restaurant again.   This time I had caprese salad followed by a dish of chicken coated in some sort of piquant salsa and Mr Pict had a wedge salad followed by another steak.
The following morning at breakfast, the final day of our trip, I kept finding the waiter was taking my buffet plate from me and taking it to the table.  I thought it was because I was right under his nose at the waiter station but they had a surprise in store for me: I was presented with a cake complete with a candle and happy birthday written in chocolate on the plate. It was a very sweet and thoughtful gesture and, as Mr Pict and I ate chocolate cake for breakfast, it felt like a fitting conclusion to our vacation.

 

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Yucatan Birthday Celebration #4 – Coba

Our next excursion was to Coba, a Mayan settlement shrouded in dense jungle.  Coba is much older than Chichen Itza, dating from  around 50 BC.  The drive there was entirely uneventful.  It was busy around Playa del Carmen but by the time we turned away from the coast and towards the interior there were hardly any other cars on the road.  We noticed wooden platforms lining the side of the road at points.  These were where people put their bin bags, presumably to keep them up above ground level and away from scavenging animals.

Coba was totally different from Chichen Itza.  I could tell that even from the restrooms: I was handed three squares of toilet roll as I entered and there were no seats on the toilets. I was then handed one paper towel after washing my hands.  The facilities were very basic but the entry tickets also cost a fraction of what they did at Chichen Itza.  Also unlike Chichen Itza, there was no clearing around the ruins; the jungle was right on top of everything.  Our excursion became a walk through the jungle that occasionally led us to some ruins.  We really enjoyed it for just that reason.  We encountered frogs, lizards, grackle, a hummingbird, lots of ants, mosquitoes, yellow butterflies, and huge blue butterflies.   It was very humid and steamy. As we walked 4 square kilometres to see ruins scattered all over the place, my Scottish head became a glowing beacon.

 

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It was evident that Coba was not as protected as Chichen Itza.  We could climb on the ruins up to certain height when they got roped off probably more out of concern for the safety of visitors than for the preservation of the ruins.  Mr Pict was even brave enough to climb the great pyramid.  He found the ascent and descent quite nerve-wracking but decided it was worth it for the fabulous views over the surrounding jungle.  I didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself having a panic attack so I spectated from the “weenie creche” benches below.  There were two ball courts at Coba and they had much lower rings than at Chichen Itza but I still had no idea how players scored goals off their hips.
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We felt like a pair of hog roasts when we emerged from the jungle so we decided to go back to our hotel and make use of the facilities.   We quickly got into our swimsuits and headed down to the seaside pool. Mr Pict went swimming in the ocean first, diving around in the large waves and strong current, and then we headed into the pool.  The water was a lovely temperature.  I spent most of my time swimming lazy circles on my back, staring at the clouds, birds overhead looking like pterodactyls, watching the sky melt from blue into pink, the early evening sun slipping below the building line, ears underwater to enjoy the quiet.  It was the most peaceful and restful I have felt in a very long time.  I also got to experience my first wet bar as we sipped margaritas as we sat in the water.  That was definitely luxurious and a big birthday treat.  We ended our swimming trip with a dip in the toasty warm jacuzzi as the waves crashed on the shore behind us.
Feeling lazy again and drawn to the thriftiness of a substantial discount, we dined in a hotel restaurant again.  This time it was an Argentinian Steakhouse, not a promising prospect for someone who doesn’t eat red meat.  However, I wound up so stuffed I couldn’t finish my entree which was a wild mushroom risotto.  Mr Pict had a steak that was so perfect he could slice through it like butter.  The waiting staff were so vigilant and on the ball that I ended up feeling super lazy since I never once had to even pour my own water.  I was actually a little uncomfortable with the degree to which I was being waited upon, as if I had servants.  I was definitely being spoiled rotten on my big birthday trip.

 

Yucatan Birthday Celebration #2 – Chichen Itza

On each morning of our vacation, we breakfasted in our hotel.  It was included in the room price but also made sense in terms of logistics in time, allowing us to just munch and go.  Hotel breakfasts can often be a bit limp, especially for me given that I don’t eat red meat, but this breakfast was incredible.  It was a buffet of Mexican and European foods, patisserie, an omelette station, a wide variety of fresh fruits and even some Japanese food.  When I am often stuck just eating scrambled egg on toast, there was a cornucopia of vegetarian food for me to sample and devour.  Even the scrambled eggs were superb, creamy and light.  The refried beans were the best I have ever had.  Mr Pict was also delighted to discover that the sausages being served were just like British bangers.  The waiter service was always superb.  Indeed the waiters were like ninjas, bringing glasses of fresh orange juice before I even knew I needed another, replacing clean cutlery in the blink of an eye.  On a practical rather than gastronomic level, the benefit of having feasted on such a wonderful breakfast was that we never needed to eat again – not even a snack – until late evening and that meant we never had to factor in meal times when we went out on excursions.

 

The destination for our first full day in Yucatan was Chichen Itza.  We hopped in the car, headed onto the toll road, and in no time at all we had left buildings behind and were flanked by lush, verdant jungle on both sides of the road.  With nothing but foliage to view over such a long distance, I cannot say it was the most exciting journey I have ever undertaken.  There was very little to see between Cancun and Chichen Itza.  Indeed signs warned that there was over a hundred kilometres to the next petrol station and exits were few and far between.  One thing we did note were dozens of men scattered along the road who were pedalling bikes with large baskets on the front, somewhat reminiscent of butcher’s boys.  We could not figure out where they were coming from or going to and many of them were even cycling in the wrong direction on the road.  We did spot a serried row of riderless bicycles at one point, their baskets filled with wood.  We assumed, therefore, that the men were pedalling hither and yon in order to gather the wood and that the collected piles of woods were then awaiting collection  by motorised vehicle.

 

I am not sure how many UNESCO World Heritage sites I have been to (certainly not enough!) but I was very excited to be adding to my “collection” by visiting Chichen Itza.  Mr Pict had been a quarter of a century before and found the place transformed, with the ruins now much more protected from the thousands of daily visitors and with much improved facilities.  Chichen Itza is the area’s most famous and perhaps even Mexico’s most famous Mayan archaeological site.  It dates from 600-1200 AD so is quite late as prehispanic settlements go.  Indeed, people were still living there when the Spanish arrived.  It was also apparently a culturally diverse city which accounts for its range of architectural styles.

 

Tickets purchased, we stepped through the turnstile, took a few steps along the path and I was instantly wowed: my first view was of the massive 98 feet high El Castillo pyramid which actually dominates just about every view in Chichen Itza.  Mr Pict had climbed the pyramid – back in the day when preservation was apparently less of a concern – and I was rather glad that ascending and descending the steep steps was no longer permitted not only from a conservation perspective but also because I would have had a panic attack part way up.  Even standing at the bottom of the steps and looking upwards made me feel a little wobbly.  Those Mayans must have been hardy folk to not have suffered jelly knees.  The temple being dedicated to the plumed serpent god Kukulkan, the steep stairs had pairs of feathered snakes at their bases.  Apparently when the sun hits the stairs at certain angles, the serpentine effect becomes emphatic.  Maybe those served as a warning that danger awaited anyone who even thought about rushing up and down those stairs.

 

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We started with the ball court which was one of my absolute highlights of the day.  It is one of at least a dozen ball courts on the site but is by far the best preserved and is indeed the largest Mayan ball court in existence.  Before seeing it for myself, I had not appreciated the vast scale of the Chichen Itza ball court nor how high the goal rings are.  An interpretive board explained that it was unlikely that the tradition goal scoring rules of hitting the ball with the hip were followed at Chichen Itza because of the height of the rings but I have no idea how they managed since they struck me as being even rather high for basketball style hoop shooting.  There are temples at either end of the huge ball court but it was the court walls that were the most fascinating and engaging.  The carvings were hugely impressive, retaining such crisp detail after millennia exposed to the elements.  There were friezes depicting male figures, their costumes and expressions vivid in the stone, and a border of a scaled snakes body concluding in a large head.  My favourite carving depicted a ball player being decapitated, the spurting blood transformed into undulating snakes.  It was the winners who were sacrificed, it being some sort of honour to be chosen to appease the gods.  Since I was always very rubbish at sport, at least I would have been safer as a Mayan.  Chubby and unhealthy maybe but a least with my head attached.

 

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I was also rather taken with a stone platform that had edges carved in row upon row of skulls – sometimes referred to as a tzompantli.  There was some speculation that it might have been connected to human sacrifice – I overheard one guide saying that it was probable and another saying that it was highly unlikely – but given the carvings in the ball court I think it was rather more likely that the former was true and that human heads were displayed on the platform.  There was also a smaller pyramid or temple that had carvings of pumas on its four sides.  I found those carvings to be rather delightful as there was something of the pose of a domestic cat in the angle of the shoulders and the tilt of the head of the large cat.  Of course, this moggy was munching on a human heart which most pets don’t do.

 

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Apart from the ball court, my favourite buildings in Chichen Itza were the group known as La Iglesia – the church – and Las Monjas – or nunnery.  They were off the beaten track a bit and were, therefore, more closely surrounded by trees and plants.  What made them especially spectacular, however, were the amazing carvings: hieroglyphs, geometric shapes, long-nosed gargoyles, and gods.  I also liked the El Caracol, known as the observatory.  It contains a spiral staircase, which gives it its name, and is topped by a dome at the top that did indeed make it very reminiscent of modern observatories.  Annoyingly the path that leads out to old Chichen was blocked off to visitors on the day of our visit.  That was a pity since the names of the buildings – involving as they did phalluses, turtles and monkeys – made that site a very intriguing prospect.

 

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The paths that circled the central “plaza” at Chichen Itza were lined with local people selling crafts and souvenirs.  On the walk out to the Sacred Cenote – where the community had made sacrifices during droughts – we were able to see quite a few of the men sitting carving the wood and women sitting in the shade of trees sewing fine stitches into fabric.  So omnipresent were the stalls, however, that the soundtrack to our visit to Chichen Itza became the promotional cries of the stallholders and the ever present growl of puma ocarinas they were selling all layered on top of the weird laser noise of tour guides relentlessly clapping to demonstrate the site’s weird acoustics.

 

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We absolutely loved our visit to Chichen Itza.  It was an incredible place full of fascinating archaeology and architecture, wonderful carvings, and intriguing details, and the visit left me itching to learn more about the ancient Mayans and what everyday life was like for them.