Uxmal

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Everyone in Merida had great things to say about Uxmal, so we hopped on an ADO bus on a gorgeous day and made our way there. There isn’t a town near the ruins, just a couple hotels, so the bus drops you unceremoniously on the highway. A five-minute walk leads down the access road to the entrance. The first thing we noticed was how much quieter it was than Chichen Itza – only a couple vendors were out front selling hats and traditional-looking clothing. And once we entered the park, there were no vendors at all, no loud shouts to look at this or that trinket. It is also a much less accessible destination for tourists on the beachy coasts, so there was only a single tour group. It was so much quieter, and easier to appreciate than if we had been surrounded by crowds.

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The Pyramid of the Magician

Just after the gate is the highly photogenic Pyramid of the Magician. I thought it was much prettier than El Castillo at Chichen. The form seems more organic and it blends in with the jungle.

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Even the piles of rocks are ruins, detail and the whole of the Governor’s Palace

Off to the left was the Governor’s Palace. It has been mostly reconstructed, though scattered piles of carved stone show that there were probably even more gorgeous facades in the past. Unlike Chichen, you can climb many of the buildings at Uxmal. Looking inside, the rooms are plain stone and smell like a basement home to too many bats. Movable artifacts have been removed to be conserved and displayed in national museums.

My favorite feature of the Governor’s Palace is its unique echo. If you clap your hands on the ground in front of the building, the acoustics warp the echo into a squeakier version that imitates the call of the quetzal, a bird sacred to the Mayans.

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Grand Pyramid, views from the top toward the ball court then toward the Pigeon House, its very steep steps.

On the Palace’s far side is the Grand Pyramid. The front staircase has been restored, but the rest of it is only a pyramid-y shape covered in loose material and plants. At the time of the conquistadors, the Mayans were in the process of either refurbishing it or preparing it to have another, larger structure built atop it. It has essentially been an unfinished construction site for the last 500 years.

We climbed the very skinny stairs (each step was narrower than my shoe by several inches). From this highest platform, you can see the handful of other ruins and one very large hotel complex. Everything else is an expanse of jungle. The steps descend at such a steep angle that unless you look right over the edge, you have the impression of floating above the surrounding area.

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Pigeon House, fun signs, the Cemetery Group.

A few smaller structures are hidden towards the back. You can see the Pigeon House from the Pyramid; it only has a single, ornate wall that hints at what must have been another great temple, now vanished.

Down a short trail in another far corner is the less-visited Cemetery Group. There aren’t any burials, but low platforms in front of a vegetation-covered building are covered with skull and bone carvings. I got the impression this was probably not a fun area if you were on the ruler’s bad side. Despite the eeriness of the images, this was my favorite corner because it was so quiet and blended in the the forest so well; it let me imagine all the other ruins still awaiting exploration and excavation.

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Cemetery Group carvings, large-nosed faces, the Pyramid of the Magician, some archaeologist’s notes.

We ended up at the same place we started, the Pyramid of the Magician. Behind it is a small ball court where teams might have competed to the death, and courtyards ringed by buildings covered in snake and bird motifs.

I loved exploring this site. It was such a relaxing day, and there are birds and butterflies all through the trees and flowers. I rank it better than Chichen Itza, so if you get a chance to go to this one instead, head for Uxmal!

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Merida, Mexico

Let’s get the complaints out of the way early. There are only two: that the temperature was about 8 degrees too high and there were about 45% too many mosquitoes. Aside from those two minor things, Merida is an amazing city. The food was incredible, it was very walkable, everyone was friendly, and many of the city’s museums are free.

The city itself is full of history – it was built over the top of the Mayan city of T’Ho (which was sadly destroyed by the conquistadors) during the 1500’s. The Cathedral is the second oldest in the hemisphere. It reused stones from the Mayan temples, as did many other structures. Now the downtown core is full of narrow, one-way streets and brightly painted houses.

On Sundays, many central streets are closed to traffic and the plazas are turned into markets. There are music and cultural events and lots of cheap food. It feels like most of the population comes to hang out in the parks and enjoy the weekend.

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Casa Montejo and at the contemporary art museum.

We were in town for Hanal Pixan, the Day of the Dead. The main avenue to the General Cemetery was closed to traffic on a Friday night. Families set out altars to honor loved ones who have passed away. Tables are filled with crosses, pictures, candles, food, and marigolds. The public celebration also features musicians and demonstrations of a traditional Mayan ball game called Pok ta Pok. The main procession (it wasn’t really a parade) took place after dark. Hundreds of people, their faces painted to resemble skulls and wearing traditional white clothing, carried candles as they walked out from the cemetery. They represent the souls of the dead returning to spend time with their still-living family members.

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Hanal Pixan and the free zoo.

Of course, food also heavily features in the celebrations. Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and other sweets were very much in evidence. This includes marquesitas – basically it is a crunchy crepe rolled around cheese and chocolate or vanilla filling… all things I already like, now even more conveniently packaged. Families were selling tortillas or tortas from tables alongside their memorials. Some were just store-bought food repackaged, but others were homemade deliciousness.

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Murals in the Palace of Government – Mayan creation story and a wall-sized version of the national symbol.

Local everyday cuisine is surprisingly tasty and cheap. Local ceviches were wonderful. The Marlin Azul was our favorite restaurant for seafood – their fried fish smothered in sauces and peppers accompanied the raw mixtos really well. El Pollo del Rey, a chicken place right across from our house proved that grilled chicken is an art form in Merida. Local places will have a grill covering an entire wall, and will send you home with a whole chicken, tortillas, salsas, rice, lettuce, and onions for just a few dollars. Inevitably, about 11 a.m. we would start smelling the roasting chicken and get hungry.

Walking anywhere, at any time of day, was a challenge because the smells wafting from food carts were so tempting. Tortas, tacos, fresh fruit (rambutan!), just-squeezed juices, and bags of snacks were never far away. Tortas are maybe a dollar each and one or two is enough for whole meal. Shredded pork is a perennial favorite for street vendors – and therefore for me.

Yucatecan meals are distinct from other regional dishes in Mexico. Panuchos (tortillas stuffed with beans and deep-fried, topped with pork and veggies), papadzules (tortillas filled with hard-boiled eggs and topped with pumpkin-seed and tomato sauce), and sopa de lima (chicken or turkey stock with lime and crunchy tortillas) are all brilliantly tasty.

Also, I’m going to claim Pake Taxo as my favorite junk food, anywhere in the world. I can eat a whole bag in one sitting. I’m not proud of that. But I can do it. The Quexo flavor is clearly abusing and tricking my brain into needing a daily dose of it. I’m probably going to cry if I can’t find it in the U.S. later.

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Free zoo, (mostly already eaten) ceviche, and a cemetery.

The free museums include Casa Montejo, the Museo Fernando Garcia Ponce-Macay (art museum), the zoo, and the Museo de Arte Popular de Yucatan. Casa Montejo was the conquer’s mansion. It now houses a bank in the back, but the front few rooms are preserved in nineteenth century grandeur. Both art museums feature modern artists and lots of vibrant, colorful works that celebrate the local culture. I liked “Arbol de las artesanias” by Oscar Soteno Elias. The picture below is a small part of all the people, flowers, and objects in the sculpture.

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Chocolate drinking cup and carved jaw from the Mayan museum, new favorite snack, modern art.

The only museum we did pay for was the Museo del Mundo Maya on the north side of town. We visited Chichen Itza (a previous post) and Uxmal (a future post) and wanted to learn a little bit more about the Mayan culture and see a few non-stonework artifacts. It was a good way to spend a few intensely-air-conditioned hours. They had all sorts of jewelry, carved bones, and displays about the complicated calendars the Mayans developed over centuries.

My favorite piece was a ceramic cup specifically for drinking chocolate and designed to look like a stylized coco pod. The owner had his named written on the side as well as the use and/or a recipe. I can totally relate and now want one of my own for Christmas. I think that person and I could have been friends.

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Cathedral and happiness from the Museum of Popular Art – lower right is ‘Arbol de las artesanians’

In a bit of an unusual move for us, we took a week-long intensive language class in Merida. We wanted to polish up our Spanish before spending the next several months in South America and practice what we had learned on Duolingo. The result is that I can answer the most simple questions with more confidence but that I still have to ask what others say two or three times because my brain can’t catch up with their talking speed. We were told that people speak even faster in Peru… so I’m not sure there is much hope for me comprehending anything but the more basic basics…

Chichen Itza

We spent a whole month in Playa del Carmen avoiding packaged tours to Chichen Itza because we knew it would be easier and cheaper to visit from Merida. The bus station nearest our home has three buses that leave each morning and stop at Chichen Itza’s main gate. At 5:30 in the evening, another bus that makes the return journey. The best part is the tickets costing between $3 and $5US per person each way, far cheaper than booking a tour.

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El Castillo, gorgeous clouds, a jaguar carving that managed to retain a bit of paint.

We opted for the 8:30am departure that got us to the ruins about 10:30. This gave us about an hour before the hordes of tourists arrived from the coast. Entrance is 232 pesos per person (currently about $17US/person). Visitors are a semi-captive audience and hundreds of souvenir hawkers compete for attention all around the temples. If you really need a jaguar call or festive blankets, you can take the opportunity to stock up (it’s cheaper than Cancun, so there’s that).

Beyond the first gauntlet of vendors are the actual ruins. The steeply rising El Castillo pyramid is the largest and best-known. It is hard to give a sense of how imposing it is in photos, or just how narrow the stairs up its sides are. We weren’t there on an equinox, but it was clear that the builders intended the snake symbolism to match with the year’s solar cycle.

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Temple of the Warriors and the Observatory

Immediately behind El Castillo is the Temple of the Warriors (with the famous Chac Mool statue awaiting human hearts) and the Group of the Thousand Columns stretching off to the right. Many structures, including the columns, used to have roofs. It’s hard to imagine what the city would have looked like at the peak of its power. Not to mention that much of it would also have been brilliantly painted to awe the viewer. Only a few carvings retain small sections of rich blues and rust reds. Bare stone conveys the immensity but not the more personal human touches.

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Crowds in the Great Ball Court, leafcutter ants, stone faces on La Iglesa

Off to the right is one of two cenotes inside the site; vines and ferns climbing the walls make it feel Jurassic-Parklike. Further in this direction is the Observatory, one of my favorite buildings at Chichen Itza. It was probably used to make astronomical observations and is more eclectic in style with several levels of platforms in front of the round tower. in the far corner are buildings named La Iglesa and the Nunnery. Great stone faces peer out from their facades. Hooked noses jutting out from the structures call Pinocchio to mind.

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Group of the Thousand Columns, snakes guarding temple stairs, part of the Nunnery, carved scene at the ball court showing a beheaded player

Going the other way from El Castillo, we first stopped at the ball court. The acoustics inside its walls were planned carefully – converse at one end and it can be heard at the other more than a hundred feet away. Probably useful for cheering and calling fouls. This was definitely a serious sport. The small goal hoops are 25 feet off the ground and a relatively heavy rubber ball would have been used. Rules forbid the use of hands but with the addition that losers might also lose their heads. I suppose you learned to play very well, very quickly.

A few images of the necks of beheaded players shooting out snakes are just a small taste when compared to the Platform of the Skulls. This low platform makes no bones (sorry, I had to) about its purpose. Human sacrifices needed to be put somewhere (apparently), and this elevated space was the perfect spot. All sides are carved with skulls and the occasional eagle ripping the heart out of its human victim. Ah, subtlety.

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Vendors, the Sacred Cenote, Platform of the Skulls

From here another narrow path between tables laden with t-shirts and stone turtles leads to the Sacred Cenote. There are a few small ruins right at the edge of this cenote, which is the more impressive of the two. It is a vivid, violent green. The sides drop away though white stone in a near-perfect circle. The Maya thought it might be an entrance to the underworld. I could easily imagine the same thing: anything might be under that water, looking up.

Chichen Itza was just about everything I’d hoped. the temples and stonework was far more impressive than guidebooks convey. In many places the remaining carvings and stonework face are gorgeous and clearly the work of vast amounts of artisans’ time. It would be nice if the site had fewer vendors inside. Of course, the local economy depends on visitors’ money and most of the sellers probably barely earn a living despite this. Before the heaviest crowds arrive the site is still relatively peaceful (and the vendors are occupied by setting up) and it is mind-numbing to contemplate the amount of stone moved under the burning sun and all the years of devotion that went into the temples’ planning and construction. During the middle of the day the tour groups and high temperatures make it less pleasant, but many people don’t make it to the far corners so it is still possible to find a spot to yourself, even then.

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Casa Colorado and El Castillo