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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Playa del Carmen

The last four weeks have been very lazy… we spent a few days jet lagged from losing 8 hours plus more than a full day of travel to move from Tallinn, Estonia to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. There was an airport transfer, multiple flights, a bus, and a taxi involved in our move. Still, not that bad for a quarter way around the world.

The heat and humidity are much harder to accept than the new time. Tallinn was starting a lovely fall as we left: 50-66 degrees, a brisk breeze near the water hurrying the changing leaves along. Playa is 85 degrees (even nights don’t get much below 78) with humidity between 80 and 90%. All this makes it feel like something north of 100 degrees. Living for years in the northwest turned us into temperature wimps. We got used to cool summers and warmish winters with only a few outlying days to remind us how lucky we were.

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Our local beach and some local wildlife – pelicans, and  yes, that is a massive grasshopper wanting in.

We adapted by embracing the best part of Playa: the sand and water. We booked an apartment a 5-minute walk from the public beach, which is much less crowded than the often-drunken party going on at resorts near the city center. 4:30pm was the best time to walk along the water and go for a quick swim. We also used it as a more pleasant way to walk to 5th Ave.

We ate out a few times on the main tourist strip, but hit on good meals only a third of the time. But away from the water, at the mobile stalls around the Mega and Super Aki parking lots, we were never disappointed. And the food there costs about a fifth of the price. The absolute best meal was shredded pork tacos with lime and tomato salsa from a stand under a tree south of Gran Morena and Super Aki. At 15 pesos each, we left stuffed for $3US. Bicycle carts also meander the streets selling bread, ice cream, and pork rinds for just a few pesos each.

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Sunrise, new snack flavors, more local wildlife. The ants are especially ambitious.

There are lots of things to do if you are into swimming, snorkeling, and diving. Sadly, I can do none of that and really don’t like water all that much. Aside from the beach and the eating, we did take a ferry to Cozumel to see other beaches and other places to eat. The sand is much better on the Playa side.

I really just like wandering around the non-touristy parts of town. Since it is so hot, lots of people are outside trying to catch a breeze, especially in the mornings and evenings. Most stores are specialized (thought there are supermarkets and WalMart has more than one store in town). Walking across town, you go by small taco stands, torta stands, local Chinese food places, tiny veggie markets, paint stores, bike shops, panaderias, shoe shops, places selling purses or shirts or flowers.

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One of many murals, local liquors, sculpture on Cozumel.

The most annoying thing are the hawkers that shout at you all over the city center…. we get called “Honeymooners… honeymooners over here… nice hats… good trips… wanna take a look at the jewelry?” I try to throw them by looking really sad at the honeymooners part. It is annoying because we don’t have room for souvenirs or extra tie-dyed t-shirts or large hats (not that we ever buy souvenirs), and prevents us from just enjoying things that are actually interesting or unique in the downtown. Of course, these are few and far between since nearly every place has the same giant sombreros, wood carvings, bottle openers and magnets with pictures of palm trees and the words “Playa del Carmen.”

Still, even with the gauntlet of 5th Ave, most of it city isn’t like this and it is possible to escape the feel of Playa being a tourist town.