Touring the Yucatan Peninsula – Part One: 07 – 15 March 2013
We decided on a mid morning departure from Balvenie to start our weeks adventure touring the Yucatan Peninsular. This meant that we would have the afternoon to travel from Cancun to Chichen Itza and then also have the morning on our last day to get our hire car back, perfect.
Without a map of Cancun we had an interesting time getting on the right road. Driving down 3 and 4 lane roads without any lane markings certainly kept us alert, but soon enough we left the hustle and bustle behind and moved into rural Mexico. The roads were straight and flat, the countryside covered in scrubby bush and this was to be our view over the next 7 days with little variation, not unpleasant but somewhat monotonous. The small villages enroute were very modest, but most were clean and cared for.
We arrived in Piste, the closest town to Chichen Itza, late afternoon. Considering the thousands of tourists that visit this major Mayan site every year it seems Piste has done little to make itself attractive to the passing hoards. We stayed a couple of miles out of town at the Hotel Dolores Alba and decided to wait for the cool of the early morning to explore the ruins. We drove to get our tickets for the evening Sound and Light show, but no, it would not be on tonight, we lost in translation the reason why not!
We were at the ruins by 9am, just one coach and 8 other cars in the car park. We walked into the ruins with hardly another soul insight, the main showpiece of El Castillo stood prominent and bold in front of us, this ancient stone pyramid rising proudly to the sky.
We spent nearly three hours wandering through the grounds, wondering what it was like when the Mayans first started to settle here and build these outstanding structures around 600AD and what mysterious circumstances then transpired to see them abandon this amazing location in the 14th century.
By the time we left the crowds were gathering in force, several tour groups were on the move – follow the red umbrella for one, the orange sombrero for another - tour guides rattled off history lessons in several languages, cameras snapped away, videos whirred. We were glad of our early start. Hundreds (yes actually hundreds) of souvenir stalls had set up within the grounds selling some seriously tacky products, the hawkers hounded us as we ran the gauntlet past them. The variety was limited, the quality poor, the vendors desperate – too many people trying to eek a living by selling the same things. Tourism is big business but there were no signs of anyone getting rich from it here.
Chichen Itza to Izamal
We left Chichen Itza behind us in the dust and headed west, intended destination Izamal. We continued on the local road in preference to the toll road, but somehow we missed the turning to Izamal and ended up of the 2 lane highway, whoops. Eventually we did find an exit and decided to retrace our steps and visit Izamal, it was worth the extra miles.
Just a small town , nicknamed the Yellow City (easy to see why when you look at the photos), Izamal really did display ample colonial charm. There were large treed central plazas on two sides of the cathedral, handsome buildings were set back with overhanging colonnaded sidewalks, just a couple of cafes plied for our custom (not quite European!!) and pony and traps awaited the few tourists.
This once was a major Mayan centre of worship, then along came the Spanish who conquered all, most of the Mayans were killed or put into slavery, their buildings were dismantled and up popped the Spanish alternatives, stones already pre-cut, how convenient! One pyramid remains, albeit in rather a sad state of repair, but it is free to enter and we were even allowed to climb it so up we went, the view was excellent, you could see flat lands for miles and miles. We stayed the night at San Miguel Arcangel Hotel a delightful hotel set in the corner of the main square, it even had some Mayan ruins in the garden, a great choice.
Izamal to Uxmal
Next morning we took to the road again, this time we got adventurous and took the highway and ring road around the large city of Merida, somehow we succeeded in getting in the correct lanes amidst some somewhat dodgy Mexican driving!
We headed south on the “Hacienda Trail” but didn’t have a good success rate in visiting a hacienda. We never found the first, the second was closed, didn’t spot another and then we lost interest. The henequen plant is a huge part of the Yucatan peninsulas latter history, sisal was made from the plant and supplied a huge portion of the worlds rope requirements until synthetics came on the market late last century. This major industry then fell into rapid decline and just a couple of haciendas still operate as tourist attractions and small hotels, the remainder are crumbling into this dry, dusty and unforgiving landscape.
Next on the sightseeing itinerary was Grutas de Loltun, the largest cave system on the Yucatan Peninsular. We hooked into an obligatory tour which lasted an hour, nice and cool underground, certainly an attraction when its 45c outside in summer. Habitation of these caves dates back around 2500 years so very old for these parts.
The area around the caves is called the Ruta Puuc, it is littered with Mayan sites mainly small settlements with the exception of Uxmal, the jewel in the crown. We passed a few, some could even be seen well from the road, The Palace of Masks at Kabah looked impressive even from the car park.
We found the The Pickled Onion B&B on the outskirts of Santa Elena, an oasis in the scrubby desert. We stayed in a beautifully appointed cabana set in well cared for grounds and had the best meal so far in Mexico, excellent choice.
It had been a long hot day but there was still more to see. We drove to Uxmal for the evening Sound and Light show, unlike Chichen Itza this one was still operating and it played to an almost full crowd.
The informative narrative told of a history of peace, war and battling the elements – not much has changed over the millenniums. Historians believe Uxmal was finally deserted after prolonged drought and the jungle reclaimed the land.
More Colonial Charm and Mystical Mayans to follow soon