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A beach wedding; Old Triangles on the coast and in the forest

The events in this post follow on from and intersect the events of our time in Playa del Carmen.

It’s now two and a half months since we returned from Mexico and so, understandably, my enthusiasm for sharing our adventures is waning a little (but mostly because I’m bitter that I’m not on another holiday already) and some of the finer details of what we got up to fading in my memory.

Brevity is not my strong suit, as you all know – I was just going to bombard you with photos for this final installment of my Yucatan story, but that didn’t quite work out. However, WordPress tells me the word count of this post is roughly half that of my previous Mexico entry… so, win? Ok, let’s go.

Tulum

Tulum was actually a fairly small Maya city, not as large or powerful as Chichen Itza or the nearby Coba. Most of its importance in Maya times as well as its attraction as a tourist spot today was and is due to its location by the sea.

Around the 1200s to 1400s, it served as the main port for Coba and marked the convergence of trade routes from all over Central America… Today, it makes for a pretty stunning and romantic landscape.

Most of Tulum’s structures have been pretty well restored which, as you would know if you’d read my Chichen Itza post, isn’t something I like, as when I visit “ruins”, I expect them to be at least somewhat in ruins.

However, I have to admit the whole effect was pretty scenic, the white waves breaking upon the sandy beach below.

As with all the other sites, we drove ourselves to Tulum, 45 minutes down the coast from Playa del Carmen, and arrived bright and early before almost all the other tourists. Besides the beautiful views, the other advantage this site had over Chichen Itza was that touts were not allowed inside the boundaries of the site itself and had to set up their shops and stalls just outside.

Iberostar Tucan & Quetzal Resort

We returned to Playa from Tulum to by about noon as it was a small site and without many other visitors and we were able to look around unhindered. Plus, it was pretty, but really not that historically interesting or significant.

After having lunch in town, we returned to the resort we’d checked into the night before to get ready for the wedding which we’d flown all the way from Australia for (or at least, provided us with the excuse to come to the other side of the world).

You might have gathered that I normally don’t like the idea of staying in all-inclusive resorts unless a) it’s only for a night or two, b) it’s a fairly small one without noisy kids, c) I’m pretty certain that there are good food options beyond family-style buffet dining and d) it’s pretty easy to get to town where the action is, preferably by walking. Unfortunately, Iberostar fit none of those criteria, and we only stayed there as that’s where the wedding was… however, fortunately, it had some cool things going for it which I didn’t all expect!

Firstly, it had a sort of rainforest theme and there was a forest sanctuary type area in the middle of the two-sided resort where native wildlife lived. Some of the animals also roamed the complex freely, so that you’d see peacocks wandering around near the lobby or outside your room on the lawn trying to mate with a peahen who was… less than interested. There were creeks and ponds where cute turtles lived, and you would cross a bridge overlooking said body of water to go to dinner. Pretty cool.

Secondly, the beach was really very nice.

Thirdly, the place was huge, so even though food options were scarce and low quality, at least you never felt like you were short on space. The Tucan side dwellers could easily wander over to the Quetzal side, and vice versa, and it would be a nice 10+ minute stroll, or more if you went through the rainforest to see the cute animals.

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The Wedding

Fourthly, the wedding was just beautiful. Not only because I got to see a dear friend marry the love of his life but everything was just done so perfectly. Simple and cute, a little casual, yet elegant and pretty – it was a beautiful day, the beach pristine. The resort organisers did a great job, but mostly the success, I’m sure, was due to the lovely bride’s perfectionism and great taste.

For the sake of privacy, I haven’t put up proper photos of the wedding party, but you can see how picturesque the set up was. The groom is a ginga – I’m pretty sure that’s what the orange side was for!

The red United mat? I guess red carpet makes everyone feel important, but for this couple, this has a deeper meaning. This particular carpet was painstakingly obtained through auction and I believe symbolises one of their first milestones together. No pun intended.

That atmosphere was one of… mirth. (Why does no one use that word anymore? How else can I describe it?) All the guests were in a light-hearted, unrestrained vacationing mood. I guess that’s the major advantage of destination weddings – everyone is away from home and their daily worries, able to throw all their energy into helping the couple celebrate. We were helped along by swag bags put together for every guest containing keep cups for the beach, drugs to fight hangovers, after sun remedies, rubber duckies and other goodies.

Due to plans to head out to Coba early the following day, we couldn’t stay late to party with the other revelers, and besides, to be honest, as introverts (and after an active day in the heat) we were a little drained by everyone’s high spirits.

Coba

To get to Coba from Playa, one has to first drive down to Tulum, then turn inland and take a less well maintained road north-east for another 45 minutes.

Coba was my favourite out of the Mayan sites we visited during this trip for a few reasons. Firstly, it wasn’t so well restored as Chichen Itza or Tulum. Secondly, it wasn’t so overrun with tourists – in fact, we barely saw a soul the entire time we were there, which was helped in part by point three; the place was huge! The built up area of Coba covers some 80 square kilometres and if we hadn’t hired bicycles (awesome point number 4), it could have taken us days to explore the site.

Lastly, I loved Coba because of the Nohuch Mul pyramid, which with its 42 metres of precariously steep and worn steps is the second highest structure of the whole Mayan world (and certainly the tallest in the Yucatan), and best of all you could still climb it!

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A special mention must go to the adorable squirrel I found leaping from tree to tree. Too bad it was to quick for me to capture it in action.

Riding our slightly rickety hire bikes through the canopied paths of the forest, surrounded by trees and bush and not a single human in sight, was indescribably delightful – I just felt giddy with exhilaration. We sped up or slowed down whenever – it didn’t matter. It had romantic potential too – if only I’d thought to pack a picnic lunch! We were away from harsh Yucatan summer sun, and even the mozzies kept surprisingly distant.

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And that concludes my travelogue for Mexico 2013. I shall be back with more pretty pictures from our next adventure, wherever that may be. In the meantime, I’m sure you will get very fat off my food-related blogging (if you listen to me at all, which you should).

You can see the set of full-sized photos on Flickr.

Egg Yolk Town, “Chicken Pizza” and other Old Triangles

Warning/Disclaimer: contains a lot of “old building porn” and almost half the photos were taken with an iPhone.
The events in this post are surrounded by our time in Merida

Uxmal

The first thing you need to know about Uxmal is that it’s not pronounced “Ucks-Mull”. It’s actually said like “Oosh-Mahl” and means “built three times”. A contemporary of Chichen Itza, Uxmal collaborated economically and politically with the larger city. It was founded around 500 AD reaching the height of its power being in the 9th century, being home to about 25,000 Maya during this golden era.

Today, it is one of the slightly less restored and less tourist-infested sites of Mayan ruins, located about 80 km south-west of Mérida, passing through a number of small villages. The road south from Mérida was modern but not exactly excellently maintained. We rocked up about 10 minutes before the site opened to the public and during our whole visit, we only saw about 3 other people. Hardly any of the structures were fenced off and un-climb-able, which we were to learn was a bit of a rarity.

Pyramid of the Magician

Nunnery Quadrangle

I’m no Mayan architecture expert, but apparently the buildings in Uxmal are typical of the Puuc style. There were beautiful friezes on the walls and sprawling courtyards (quandrangles), and lots of dramatic height for important structures.

Nunnery Quadrangle

Nunnery Quadrangle

Nunnery Quadrangle - seat or throne

Nunnery Quadrangle

The site of Uxmal includes two step pyramids. You are greeted by the Pyramid of the Magician (Pirámide del adivino) as you walk through the entrance. Quite an attractive structure from some angles, I noticed this pyramid has curved sides.

Pyramid of the Magician

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There was also a large ball court on which the Mayan version of the Ancient Mesoamerican ballgame was played once upon a time. Not a whole heap of detail is known today about the finer rules of this sport, however, we know that in most versions of the game you had to hit the ball with your hips and the use of hands and feet was not allowed. There are some further clues in the ballgame’s modern descendent, called ulama, still played by some indigenous communities in parts of Central America.

Ball court

What’s also fairly certain is that a rubber ball was used, and it was probably very heavy. Judging by the height of some of the hoops I’ve seen in the ancient courts, I can’t even imagine how hard it must have been to score, and boy do I hope they got their calcium, because hitting a 2kg (?) ball with just your pelvis has got to hurt!

Research has also suggested that the game was used to settle political conflict between cities instead of engaging in full on warfare. If that was the case, I kind of wish today’s wars could take the form of a friendly rugby game.

Not so friendly was the fact that a bit later on in Maya history the game was closely entwined with human sacrifice rituals. Hmmmm.

Ball court

The Governor’s Mansion was impressively majestic and overlooked the whole site, being built on top of a hill. Even today, it’s a beautiful view.

Governor's Mansion

View from the Governor's Mansion

Governor's Mansion

The Great Pyramid (la Gran Pirámide) is the bigger of the two “old triangles” and despite a cautionary sign, we scrambled all the way up to the capstone. It had a great view of the remaining façade of the House of the Doves (below right).

Great Pyramid of Uxmal

View of House of the Doves from the Great Pyramid of Uxmal


Great Pyramid of Uxmal

Another shot of the gorgeous House of the Doves:

House of the Doves

All of the Maya sites we visited were surrounded by greenery, probably having been excavated from amongst jungley-ness. I attracted mozzies like nobody’s business at each of them but Uxmal was far from the worst for that. Nevertheless, that evening we hunted down insect repellent. There were also lots of big-ass lizards just happily wandering around like they owned the place. I guess they kind of do, since they’re the largest permanent residents?

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Uxmal ended up being a great first Maya experience and the fact that there was barely anyone else around except lizards and we didn’t encounter a single person trying to sell us stuff really helped us enjoy it immensely.

Chichen Itza (which rhymes with chicken pizza) the next day… was a different story.

On the way back, we went a slightly alternative route following a little truck loaded with what I think were plantains and drove through a small town.

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I loved all the ultra-colourful residential buildings everywhere in Mexico.

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Chichen Itza

Almost every structure in Chichen Itza was fenced off with a wide berth. So visiting was basically a lot of standing 20 metres away from a bunch of old stones thinking “oh, that’s nice… moving on!” Many of the main buildings had been restored to nearly pristine condition. On the one hand, I guess it’s nice to be able to see almost exactly what a pyramid looked like a millennium-and-a-half ago, but it just doesn’t “feel” right to see something so ancient looking so shiny and new and “perfect”.

El Castillo pyramid is the worst culprit. From only a few metres away, it looks like it was built last year!

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What was fortunate was that we managed to beat every single tour bus and all but a dozen or less other visitors. We also arrived before any touts – in fact, we didn’t even know they were going to be setting up unattractively right in the middle of the site until an hour or so after we came in.

The rich history of Chichen Itza covers almost 1000 years in Mayan chronology. It was one of the largest and most powerful histories in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The temple atop the pyramid served the Maya god Kukulkan, a deity in the form of a feathered serpent. But the really interesting thing about El Castillo is that each of its quite symmetrical four sides has 91 steps, and added together with the capstone (top) counting as the final step it makes 365 – the number of days in a year.

The Temple of Warriors along with a couple of other temples are surrounded by a thousand beautifully carved columns. I don’t actually know if there are exactly a thousand of them but collectively, the structures are called the Group of a Thousand Columns and they were my favourite group. In its heyday, the columns would have supported an extensive roof.

Temple of Warriors and Group of a Thousand Columns

Temple of Warriors and Group of a Thousand Columns

Though the ballcourt at Uxmal was considered a large one, the Great Ballcourt of Chichen Itza was in a league of its own. This court is actually the largest in Mesoamerica and currently the most well preserved. Magnificent…

The Great Ballcourt - Chichen Itza

The Great Ballcourt - Chichen Itza

The Great Ballcourt - Chichen Itza

Here’s a small step pyramid called the Osario. A temple at the top opened into the pyramid, and in the cave below, several skeletons were excavated in the 19th century.

Osario pyramid

I talked about the annoyance of the souvenir stalls setting up right in the middle of the Chichen Itza complex, but I’ll allow that some of them actually had pretty cool stuff. Hand-made, some of them unique and one-off, others very similar to what everyone else was selling but clearly not manufactured all in the same big factory. That may sound like a strange remark but after having identical souvenirs touted in my face in a dozen developing countries, this is saying something.

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It was at about this point when my camera ran out of juice because I’d stupidly decided the night before that it didn’t need a charge. I had only charged a few days before and at home it tended to last a month or more, but the heat combined with walking around for hours with it switched on a lot of the time was obviously draining it more than I thought! The rest of my photos that day were taken with my trusty iPhone 5, which did an okay job… but when we got to Izamal later, and when I tried to zoom in down on KP diving into a cenote, I really wish I still had my G1 X.

So, I guess I was pissed off about that when I took the next few photos, because I can’t for the life of me remember what they’re of!

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El Caracol (The Snail) is a circular or cylindrical temple built a top a platform and looks suspiciously like an observatory of some sort. Interestingly, historians do believe it was used for astronomical observations, particularly that of the movement of Venus.

El Caracol observatory

Among the things I found out at the Maya world museum in Mérida was that the peninsula’s foundation is made of limestone and other carbonate rock, like a big fat sponge. Due to this geological composition, the Yucatan’s famous caverns and sinkholes (cenotes) were born out of gradual limestone erosion and collapse from moisture absorption over the centuries.

Chichen Itza is home to two large cenotes, Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) and Cenote Xtoloc, which supplied the ancient city with water as well as being used in sacrificial rituals. Objects as well as humans were sacrificed and valuable artifacts were uncovered in the early 20th century.

Sacred Cenote

Sacred Cenote

Cenote Ik Kil

The final photo (right) above shows Cenote Ik Kil, which is not part of the Chichen Itza complex but a few kilometres outside the ancient city. This was safe for swimming and accessible to the public for a fee (as you can tell by the smoothed walls and the ladders) and KP had a wee dive in here. The iPhone did a shitty job of capturing this action down in the dark sinkhole so I haven’t included those photos.

Izamal

By the time we left Chichen Itza, our hire car was running out of petrol and there wasn’t a gas station in sight. Everything seemed to be dying on me that day. At one point, a giant sign teased us by having an image of a petrol pump machine on it, which got us excited, only to read the label “80 KM” underneath. What is the point of having a sign to indicate something that is eighty kilometres away, if not to take the piss!?

Our calculations indicated that we would most likely but not certainly make it all the way back to Mérida on our current tank, but the bigger problem is that I actually wanted to make a huge detour to see Izamal. With the average data reception on my phone, I managed to – maybe, vaguely, on some dodgy forum somewhere, perhaps, there’s-a-pretty-good-chance – figure out that there was a Pemex (Mexico’s state-owned petrol company) in Izamal. That being good enough, off we went, driving through some tiny towns and over horrible, bumpy, narrow roads and passing many a motorised tuk tuk taxi.

Izamal is one of Mexico’s “Magical Towns“. I’m pretty unclear on what that means or what the criteria are but perhaps Wikipedia can tell you (I didn’t read it that closely). I don’t know about you, but when I hear “magical” and “yellow” in the same sentence, I just think of the Wizard of Oz.

Large for a town but very small for a city, I don’t know if I’d call Izamal “magical”; however, it was pretty charming and pretty pretty.

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For one thing, every building within the city centre and just outside of it is painted the same shade of egg yolk yellow. It’s pretty magnificent and a bit dizzying as you’re driving through it. My poor iPhone didn’t know what to make of all the yellow and I’m sure the colour balance is off in these photos because it was really much cooler in person.

Izamal

Izamal

The town was a maze of one-way streets and Google was not being as helpful as it was in Mérida – we almost didn’t find the Pemex! It was only by accidentally driving the wrong way down one of these streets that we lucked out. We were stopped by a cop and at first were convinced that this was “finally it” – we’d be asked to fork out the bribe money like we’d been warned. Instead, the lovely dude explained to us in decent English that we were idiots driving the wrong way and gave us directions to the petrol station.

Izamal

Izamal

Like many of the larger towns and cities in the Yucatan, Izamal was built on top of ancient Mayan ruins and is surrounded today by several important Maya archaeological sites. In the centre of the town, atop an Ancient Maya acropolis and next to two large public parks is a huge Franciscan monastery. Or convent. I don’t know, because I’ve heard it called both. Either way, it’s one of the oldest in Central America, and the Atrium was the second largest in the world (after the Vatican!) at the time of its completion in 1561.

Izamal - Franciscan Monastery

The Franciscan monk Fray Diego de Landa, who was born in Spain but was sent to Colonial Yucatan to bring the Roman Catholic faith to the Maya, became a Bishop and resided here.

Izamal - Franciscan Monastery

Izamal - Franciscan Monastery

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While Landa was ruthless in his efforts to stamp out “paganism”, burning and destroying many Mayan codices (writings) and religious idols, he also dedicated much of his life in recording detailed accounts of the Maya language, writing, culture and religion, much of which work is deemed quite accurate even today.

Izamal - Franciscan Monastery

Izamal - Franciscan Monastery

And there, my friends, ends your history lesson for the day, and ours for that day. Our Maya and Colonial Adventures over for at least a few sleeps, we drove back to Mérida through those little crappy country roads on a nice full tank of gas.

You can see the set of full-sized photos on Flickr.
Next up: Playa del Carmen

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