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Ruins and flamingos in the Yucatan, Mexico, May 2010

Mexico's Yucatan peninsula is well-known for: So we spent a long weekend cruisng around the Yucatan, mostly at the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza and Ek Balam, and visiting a couple of cenotes (one with an underground river, one with a deep pool, and one very hot and humid with Maya artifacts). The area also has several huge preserves of flamingos and crocodiles, so we checked these out as well.

NB: After being in Mexico for a bit over two years, this is probably the last trip away from Mexico City. So sad.

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Overview map. We flew into Merida (pop. 1M), then drove to and stayed at Chichen Itza. The next day we took off for Rio Lagartos, on the N. Yucatan coast, to see crocs and flamingos, and then in the morning saw the Maya ruins of Ek Balam. A quick trip toward Tulum had some cave-swimming action, before heading back to the Chichen Itza area for another cenote and a ceremonial cave. Then back home. 4 days, and it's a bit over an hour from Mexico City on a cheap flight.

"Henry, that's a really good drawing! I'm proud of you!" says Piper.

Just outside the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza is Mayaland. Even with a name like that, Mayaland is actually awesome. It's a set of bungalows that are allegedly sort of the same ones that the archaeologists who were working at Chichen Itza were staying in in the 1930s. It's all built on a hacienda with lots of tropical trees and birds, and it's been run as a hotel since then. The same Mexican owners of the hotel actually owned the land underneath Chichen Itza up until last year, when they sold the land to the Mexican government for 200 million pesos. (The government has always* owned the monuments, but not the land til now.)

(*) In 1894, the US Ambassdor to Mexico, Edward Thompson, purchased all of Chichen Itza, since he thought he'd get rich off of Mayan gold he'd dig out from the cenotes. Too bad the Mayans didn't know how to refine gold. The Mexican government came in, took the land from him, but his heirs got it back in a Mexican Supreme Court case in the 1940's. Interestingly, this is not the first case of diplomatic missions gone awry with respect to Mayan culture US Ambassador John Lloyd Stephens actually bought the Copan ruins in Honduras about 50 years earlier. He paid for them (with plans to move them by barge to New York), but he was less successful in court, so those remain in Honduras.

OK, enough history. Here's a peacock wandering around the hotel, 100 m from the entrance to the ruins. It's all tropical and lush and quite beautiful.
Fin is ripping apart something here. I think it's food.
Piper is a little less into her food.
In the pool...
...
... where at night, Piper desperately felt the need to rescue thousands and thousands of beetles that had nearly drowned in the pool. So yes, I helped here. That's one there (the brown thing floating).
The obligatory Chichen Itza pyramid photo. This is the one that the shadow snake walks up and down -- the big famous one. 10 years ago when I was here you could both climb up it, and go inside (there's a second smaller pyramid inside, as well as a jade jaguar). But the limestone here is a lot softer than the volcanic basalt used constructing the larger Teotihuacan pyramids outside of Mexico City, so no climbing allowed here any more. The steps at Teotihuacan will last forever compared to the limestone, even with the much higher number of visitors there.
Here is a set of cute perritos.
The scary jaguar that eats human hearts.
Lizard eaten by snake.
Grasshopper eaten by bee. (Did it sting it? I'm not sure, but the hopper was certainly disabled somehow.)
The Mayans were known to cut heads off at the conclusion of the ball game. Here is one unfortunate victim.
Our guide, Juan, shows off his wedding invitation, written in Mayan script. He and most of the guides are Maya. They speak Mayan at home much of the time -- there's about a million speakers in the Yucatan, so it's a pretty active language.
Did I say how much I love ruins? They are so fabulous, and I love the plants that grow throughout them. If you haven't seen the books of Frederick Catherwood, who made architectural drawings c. 1850s of Chichen Itza and other ruins as they'd been covered up for half a millenium, you really should.
These are -- literally -- 500-year-old pieces of wood. They're originals.
Piper chases an iguana past the Maya steam baths.
OK, end of Chichen Itza. We then headed north to Rio Lagartos (i.e., Lizard River). As you might guess, there are crocodiles here.

This is a guy we met named Santiago. For forty bucks, he said his friend (also named Santiago) would take us out to see the crocs from a boat in the rain at night. Why not? So we did.
This was the night of the election (state governership in Yucatan), and Santiago had just voted. They give you an ink mark on your thumb to prevent re-voting.

Interestingly, in the Yucatan, all alcohol sales were prohibited for two days prior to the state elections. I kept trying to score a cerveza, but no one would sell me one. It's bizarre, being that a) public drunkenness is essentially non-existent in Mexico, and b) when was the last time a law about anything was strictly enforced here?

Here's Santiago #2, who took us out in the boat. "Not yet -- I come back for you in two hours, when it is dark." By that point it was raining up a storm, but we still did pay up to get into the motorboat with two bare-footed hombres, a 12V car battery sitting in a half-foot of water, exposed wires, no moon, and no life jackets. Oh, but he did have a bright flashlight, for navigation ("I search now for the buoy. We find it.") and to find crocs.

The crocs were pretty cool -- shine a light at night, and croc eyes shine back at you, just like cats'. We saw four. Santiago got out of the boat and walked around in the water while watching one of them. We also saw a raccoon, which he appeared to be just as excited about finding -- they must be relatively rare to see.

In the morning we went out with another guy, Luis, to look for flamingos in the same area. That's the town of Rio Lagartos behind us (pop. 2000).
Osprey.
Pelicans are awesome.
Frigate birds, I believe.
My precious saltwater crocodile!!!!! (And no, they're not alligators, for the record.)
Crazy birds. Pink flying birds with long necks. Yes, the color is distorted here, but it doesn't matter -- they look just as pink either way.
It really is bizarre, since you look up in the sky, and there's a flock of birds. But flying flocks of birds are 99% of the time black or brown. But these are crazy pink! Flocks of bright green parrots would be the one other major exception.
That's a salt refinery there. Flamingos like brine shrimp, which one could infer enjoy salt, so it's not a coincidence both the flamingos and the salt are located here.
Piper acts like a flamingo, in order to bring them over to our boat.
We couldn't get as close to this flock. But holy moly there's a lot there! There are something like 5,000 flamingos in this general area (few miles).
Heading back to Rio Lagartos. Oh, our driver Luis was stoked, since his party (the PRI) won the election the night before. Judging from his breath, the alcohol sales prohibition that was in effect for the two days before the election was lifted in time for him to drink up plenty before taking us out.
Done with the birds for now. We headed back and passed by the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam (another link). One guidebook (5 years old) had it on a map but didn't say much about it, and another (10 years old) ignored it totally.

But holy moly -- it was amazing, and there was almost no one there. And the reason why the guidebooks didn't have much on it is that it's only been explored in the last couple of years. 15 years ago, it was pretty much all just a pile of rocks under jungle trees.

Ek Balam has without a doubt the best-preserved statues and facades of all the Mayan ruins out there that I've seen. They were apparently carved, then covered in tons and tons of limestone powder to protect them, before the city was abandoned some 800 years ago. They've now been uncovered just recently, and they are in amazing shape. These are not restorations -- this is the real thing.
This area is halfway up a very tall, very steep palace building. Chichen Itza was a religious zone (like Mecca) -- people would go there once a year to be in front of the pyramid, for instance. But Ek Balam was a palace, with a ruler. This tall building with stairs was his house. Halfway up, in the carved area, is his tomb, which is this whole area here.
Those white rocks sticking up? Teeth. Very clear if you're standing in front of it -- the door to the tomb is the very toothy mouth of a giant serpent thing.

Mayas used a lot of colors in their stone works and paintings. But not this -- this was all white, and there's no evidence of colors ever used here.

The long staircase. Up top is where the jefe would rule from.
Heidi/Piper/Fin up top.
Looking down on several other buildings from above.
I mean, no wonder the area was just excavated recently! The jungle is so dense that it's very easy to lose a set of ruins, even a large palace like this.
This is Kashmiri, our awesome Maya guide.
He grew up near Cancun, got married, got divorced, then came over to the ruins a few years ago and was amazed by them. He's been working as a guide for a year or so. He's not an archaeologist but knows a ton of history about the area. He learned English by taking classes in Mitla (a few km up the road) for a year, and speaks super well. After mastering that in a year, he decided to learn Italian, so he uses what must be about half his salary to take the bus into Merida (4h round trip) every week for Italian tutoring.
This guy is one of the workers re-thatching the roof which protects the buildings. Ek Balam has really good roofs covering everything -- much better than a lot of the Maya ruins. In Yaxchilan, several of the fabulous stellae have been taken out of the ground where they're perfectly preserved, then set out into the jungle where the limestone is quickly eaten away by rain and bat guano.
As is he.
Piper and Fin feel the walls.
A bedroom within the palace. See the bed even! (At least I think it's one.)
Man, I love archaeologists. I mean, they just have a stack of rocks here, and they number them, and put them back together into these amazing buldings. Most of what you can see here at Ek Balam is not reconstructed -- it's the original thing. But these rocks here need to be rebuilt into something.
Piper exploring downstairs. Favorite photos of mine.
Nice staircase, but downstairs is blocked off -- come back in a few years when the passage is more open!
The friendly dog guarding our car in the barking lot.
We give Kashmiri a ride back to his place.
Then the idea was to drive to Tulum. We got there and -- well, I suppose the Tulum area is less commercialized than Cancun, but it was still pretty overrun with Americans. Hard to find much of anything that wasn't imported there (at least, if you want to stay on the beach, which apparently all Americans do). Never made it to the famous Tulum beach-front ruins, in hopes of avoiding the Cancun crowds. Oh well.

We did get suckered into one cenote (freshwater-filled limestone cave), owned by Americans and run by a horde of incessantly perky Brits and their bretheren. It looked awful, but we'd forgotten the snorkels at home and wanted to go, so this was the most straightforward way to do it.

In spite of the shameless commercial tacky appearance, once we got back to their little cenote, it was peaceful and beautiful, and there was no one there.

The cenote is your basic limestone cave, but filled halfway up with running water. Bats fly above, fish nibble below, and you can swim/float in between the two. Take a lamp. Here, Heidi and Piper come back from exploring, along with a pleasant but clueless guy from Edinburgh who was guiding around. He moved to the Yucatan after seeing a BBC special about caving, but doesn't himself dive or even put his head under water.

"Q: So, like, what's the geology here -- how long have these caves been here?"

"A: ForEVER, mate. Longer than you could even imagine. I mean, they are just aMAZingly old. Even I don't know, mate... I don't know if ANYbody knows."

But regardless of him, the cave itself was awesome. And one of my motives for showing up was a BBC show called Planet Earth (very recent, amazing footage throughout, massive production budget), which had an episode about cave life, featuring the cenotes in Mexico.

Hard to see here, but the litle strands poking down are glow-worm threads. They're like spider webs, and catch individual unlucky mosquitoes who come into the cave and get this far back.

Looks like an asteroid here...
We're both floating down the river. Pitch black without the light. A few tree roots come down, and there was some other life (spiders, bats, catfish, tetras, plus the glow worms and mosquitoes).
A couple of fish. Compared with the BBC, my production budget was a borrowed flashlight and an acrylic case for my camera.
Just amazing. Loving it.
Finally -- we came acros some other types of fish! Check it out -- goldfish in the cave!
"Henry!! Why are you putting your camera in the fountain with the fish? We're in a fancy restaurant!"
Driving back to Chichen Itza and Merida, we hit another cenote. This one was more of a deep pit with a small freshwater lake in it. It was being used essentially as a commercial swimming pool (lockers, showers, taco stands, hotel, tour busess, etc.). But at the end of the day, in the rain, it was pretty vacant. For all I know it has a deep underwater cave/river system attached to it, but it's not easily explored from the surface. Those are all 100' tree roots hanging down.
One more attraction: we were out-of-hours on our first two visits, but on #3 we managed to finally see the Balankanche caves. We got there in time for the French tour, which was done in English since there were no French-speakers who showed up for it (or anyone else besides us any of the three times we went, for that matter).

This is amazing though. We walked 1/8 mile through your basic twisty multi-leveled cave, until coming to this beautiful room filled with Maya pots. The room was discovered in the 1950's, and allegedly all the pots are originals that were discovered right there, in place.

Hot and humid, so photo-wise everything clouded up fast. Then halfway in, my flashes started going off at full-power -- perhaps from a humidity short? Don't know, but I'm in awe of those BBC videographers even more now.
Friendly cave bats!


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Henry Throop

Last modified Sun Jun 20 23:06:46 2010