Sunday, April 12, 2009

Of Pyramids and Pelicans

As my days in Mexico was getting over, I realized that I had never been to Chichen Itza, one of the new seven wonders of the world. It's like you go to Egypt and don't see pyramids!!! So without too much planning and contemplation, I booked the flight tickets to Merida, the capital of the state and wandered around the city, unfortunately for just 4 days. Nevertheless these four days were filled with vivid activities ranging from Mayan ruins to beaches, from colonial city to nature tours. Read on for more!

Yucatán is one of the Mexican states on the northern part of Yucatán peninsula, which is composed of Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. To it's south-east is Quintana Roo, famed for the famous gringo destination - Cancun and to it's south-west is the state of Campeche. On it's northern side is the Gulf of Mexico, from which one can easily sail to Tabasco or Veracruz states towards west, Brownsville or Miami cities to the north, Cuba to the east.

Day 1: Tulum

It was about an hour and half long journey by air, from Monterrey to Merida. As we landed at the Merida airport at 9AM, we walked for 10 minutes till the highway and awaited for a local transportation. One can also take taxi to city, but we were one of those poor travellers wanting to save money. We boarded the bus which cost us as less as 5 pesos and dropped us at the ADO bus-station. We bought the earliest available (at 10:40AM) bus-ticket to Tulum which cost us 194 pesos per person. We wanted to travel in second class bus, but we couldn't find the tickets anything earlier than afternoon.

We walked across the street to grab something for breakfast, we had some delicious huevos rancheros (sunnyside-up eggs in salsa served with tortillas) and tamales (chicken and salsa stuffed inside corn-dough), bought water and waited for boarding at the ADO busstation. It takes 4 hours to reach Merida, with a 10 minutes break in the city of Valladolid. By 3, we alighted at the Tulum busstation and found rooms at Weary Traveller hostel on the main street of Tulum and checked in. It was not the same Tulum, which I had seen an year and half ago. It was much developed, with ugly commercial buildings and exponentially grown crowd.

The weather was perfect, the sunlight was warm and mild and skies were artistically clouded. We grabbed some beer and snacks at Cervefria, the alcohol vending shop and took taxi to the beach (costs 45 pesos). We hit the ruins before entering the beach, there were great colourful birds chirping and welcoming us to the ruins. We arrived at the entrance by 5:00 and had just 30 minutes to explore the ruins before it's closure. We quickly passed through the ruins to the historical viewpoint, where one can see the magnificent "Temple of God of Winds" overlooking the deep blue Caribbean. It looked extremely picturesque in the golden evening sunlight and artistic skies and the deep blue waters and white sands of Tulum.

We walked back to the beach and started swilling the beer and entered the beach. The place was dirtied with sea weeds but it was a great pleasure to wet ourselves in the deep blue sea and walk on the soft white sands of Tulum. We spent time in the beach till the dusk and head back to the city of Tulum and had delicious roadside tamales of rajas con queso (poblano chilies with cheese) and pollo en salsa verde (chicken in green salsa). We then explored the Tulum town, there was some kinda fair going on. Before retiring to the hostel, we bought the tickets to Chichen Itza (118 pesos per person in first class ADO bus) for the next day.

Day 2: Chichen Itza

At 15 minutes past 9 on a bright morning, we were boarding the bus to Chichen Itza from Tulum's ADO busstation. It was about two and hours journey via Valladolid to Chichen Itza, one of the new seven wonders of the world. It was blazing hot when we alighted the bus at Chichen Itza, it stopped right in front of the entrance to the ruins. We first bought at our bus-tickets to Merida from Piste (neighbouring village), bought the tickets to the ruins (111 pesos per person), left our bags at the cloakroom, slung our cameras, smeared sunscreem and set out to explore the great ruins of Chichen Itza.

Chichen Itza, translates to "at the mouth of Itza's well", where Itza were the dominant tribes. As we passed through the entrance gates and started our promenade, the first structure that we encountered was a gigantic and brilliantly constructed pyramid, El Castillo. It's one of the most magnificent, tidiest and best maintained pyramid I have ever seen in Mexico. On all 4 sides, there are stairways leading to the four sides of the temple on the top of the pyramid. During the solstices, the edges of the pyramid casts a shadow of the plumed serpent (Quetzalcuatl) on the northern stairway, which ends with the feathered serpent head. It seems after Chichen Itza was declared as one of the seven wonders, climbing the pyramid or any other structures is prohibited.

We head to Templo de los Guerreros, the temple of the warriors is a stepped pyramidal structure with columns depicting the warriors and a Chac-mool on the top with brick walls surrounding. The top of the stairway has beautiful sculpted eagle heads. Next to it is Plaza de mil columnas, the thousand columns group. It's got stone columns on the south and west of the temple of the warriors, the entry among the columns is banned. The south face of the wall on temple of the warriors depict two warriors. We then head to El Mercado, the market where the stone pillars surround the central square where the Mayas used to sell their artworks.

We then head to Cenote Sagrado, the sacred cenote or the sacred well. It's a big natural well, very tempting to strip off and dive to beat the tropical heat. It was mainly used for human sacrifice and religious offerings. When Thompson dredged the well, along with offerings of gold, jade, cloth he found skeletons of humans. I overheard one of the guides telling that the bed of the cenote still has countless skeletons raising the level of the waters.

From cenote, we passed through the Platform of the Venus, to Juego de Pelota, the great ball court. It was indeed one of the biggest ball courts I've ever seen in Mexico. It was surprising to see the stone ring 9m above the ground, I kept wondering how the players could have thrown the heavy ball inside the ring.

El Ossario or the high priests' temple is a smaller version of El Castillo. We proceeded to El Caracol, which was used as an observatory tower by the smart Mayas. La Iglesia, the church has a brilliantly ornate tower, the sculptings are very similar to what I found in Uxmal. It was nearing 5:30 in the evening and the ruins were closing down. We rushed back to the entrance, relaxed for a while and took taxi to the village of Piste.

We had our lunch-cum-dinner at Restaurante Fabiola near the central plaza in Piste and took second class bus (costs 60 pesos per person) Merida at 6:30 in the evening. We reached Merida in two and half hours, we alighted very close to our hostel and navigated without any problems. Merida's streets have a very intuitive numbering mechanism, the streets running from east to west are even numbered and ones running from north to south are odd numbered. This makes navigation extremely easy, the addresses are always specified in terms of actual street between the two cross streets. The address of our hostel, for example, was street 61 between 50 and 52.

Edwin, the owner of the hostel La Casa del Tio Dach, is very warm and welcoming host. He introduced the whole city of Merida through a map as soon as we entered and ushered us to our room. The hostel is also an art gallery, he has displayed artworks and findings from Yucatan state. Both the room as well as toilet were very clean and tidy, though the bed was a little hard for me. The weather was sultry, we hit the shower and walked up to the centro to grab a bite. It was Sunday night and everything was shuttered down. I could find few roadside places selling out their last few tamales. We retired to bed early due to the exhaustion and also to start early the next day.

Day 3: Celestun, Merida Downtown

Edwin had told us how to get to Celestun on the previous night and we followed his instructions. We were up and out by 5:40 in the morning and walked to the intersection of 50 and 67, that's where we found Noreste bus terminal. The first bus (costs 46 pesos per person) to Celestun starts at 6 in the morning from Noreste bus terminal, though it usually starts at 6:10 or 6:15.

Celestun is a small rustic fishing village about 90Km from Merida, known for it's eco-tourism, especially the flamingo tour. It's got very few hotels and several small sea-food restaurants. The beach here is very tranquil with a greenish tinge. It's usually crowded with albatrosses, pelicans and seagulls. The coastline acts as a parking space for most of the fishing and touring boats. The bus stops at the centro and the beach is stones throw away from the central plaza. Celestun is a big estuary and the river ria Celestun, which joins the Gulf of Mexico is a breeding ground for flamingos. The guide told us that the river is fertile with some kind of shrimps which the flamingos binge on and that's the reason they populate the river.

We were ushered to the boat, by one of the guide who fished us as soon as we alighted from the bus. They usually charge 150-200 pesos per person depending on number of people filling the boat, for which you get a breezy 2.5 hours long cruise on the Gulf of Mexico and Ria Celestun. Enroute, we saw a pod of pelicans feeding and flying around, few black egrets and terns. We then entered the river and head straight to the pelican breeding grounds. I reckoned that the river wasn't too deep, for there were people fishing with their legs on sand underneath, though it left me pondering about their courage, for the river, I was told, was crowded with crocodiles.

I saw a red belt ahead but quite far, it was a huge stand of pelicans, few flying in, few flying out, few basking in the sun, few busy munching. They were extremely picturesque, blue of the sky, green of the mangroves, bluish-green water and a the pinkish-red of those lovely birds. There were two groups, one was of faint rose hue and the other were of dashing pink. The guide told us that the lighter coloured ones are the young ones and the darker ones were the adolescents. I was cursing that my lens was a bit too short (200mm) for shooting the flamingos, I think the Gods heard my concern and like a bolt in the blue, the whole stand of flamingos started a rhythmic noisy take-off and formed a beautiful pink carpet in the sky!!! I thanked those flamingos for not disappointing me and the guide turned the boat.

He took us deep inside some mangroves before stopping at a place called, Ojo de Agua. It's a sweet water stream with some rare fishes and other aquatic life, which cannot survive in the big river or ocean. The driver told us to be back in 20 minutes and told us we can swim there if we liked. I had not carried spare undies or towel, but couldn't resist the temptation of that crystal clear blue waters, I stripped down to my underwear and 1-2-3 I was in the air and inside the water. It was so damn refreshing and rejuvinating, it brought back memoirs of Cuatro Cienegas. I kinda got dried during the return trip on the boat. We had lunch at one of the small restaurants in the centro and head back to Merida by 12:30 bus.

In Merida, we had a siesta in the hostel before we started out to explore the city by 5. We walked down on 61 till we hit the Zocalo, the central square. The centro of Merida is encircled by the streets 60, 61, 62 and 63. The singularity of the central park is that it's wireless internet enabled. Take your laptop and start browsing for free. The centro also has the Cathedral of Merida, the Governer's palace, the muncipal palace, the house of the Montejo, the Contemporary art museum. All these edifices are of ancient grand colonial architecture.

We sipped a nice coffee at Italian Coffee Company and rambled around centro clicking photographs. We continued walking on street 62 passing the theatre José Peón Contreras all the way close to Paseo Montejo. Just around the square before Paseo Montejo, there was an Oaxacan fair, which sold art and food from Oaxaca. The very sight of it made me nostalgic about the great state of Oaxaca. We had typical Yucatan food at El Castillo, a small restaurant in the square. It consisted of delicious Panuchos, Salbutes (tortillas with shredded turkey, bean paste and onions) and Lime Soup (turkey soup with pieces of tortilla and lime juice).

Post dinner, it started drizzling. We took a taxi to hostel and terminated the day.

Day 4: Uxmal, Paseo Montejo

Our plan for the last day in Yucatan was to explore Uxmal (read Ush-mal) ruins. Taxi was waiting for us outside the hostel, at 5:40 in the morning, which drove us to ADO bus terminal in Merida. We bought tickets to Uxmal (41 pesos per person) and hurried for the waiting room since it was almost 6. It seems the bus had some problem and we started from Merida only at 7, pissed-off and bored. The 80km journey lasted for an hour and a half, we entered the ruins (tickets cost 111 pesos per person) by 9:00AM.

Uxmal ruins belong to Puuc style of architecture of Mayas, those prevalent in the hilly region of Yucatán peninsula. The first structure that one encounters immediately after entering the ruins is Pirámide del Adivino. It's a gigantic reconstructed pyramid (35m high and 53m wide) with oval base, which is very unusual among Mayan pyramids. The legend says that, there was a certain dwarf born to a witch out of an egg. With the intention of being the governer of the city of Uxmal, the dwarf bet with the existing governer, that it can build a pyarmid overnight. It was successful in building the pyramid and proclaimed itself to be the governer of Uxmal city. A sidewalk is constructed around the pyramid and the sides of the stairway are delightfully decorated with huge Chaac Masks. The courtyard in the front of pyramid are some passages with corbel arch and halls with pillared entrances.

Cuadrángulo de las Monjas
, or the Quadrangle of the nuns is a huge patio, situated behind the aforesaid pyramid. The decoration on the walls are of pure Puuc style, the lower walls are plain while upper walls are highly decorated. The corners are made of Chaac masks and serpent heads. The upper walls have greatly preserved their details and are decorated with double headed serpents, quetzal birds and chaac masks.

The ball court is just outside the quadrangle of the nuns and is in a highly deteriorated state. Up on the mound, next to the ball court is located an oustanding building, Palacio de Gobernador, the Governer's palace constructed on a grand platform. It's got a brilliantly decorated upper wall and has got 14 rooms, 11 of them could be accessed from outside. Next to the palace is Casa de las Tortugas, the house of turtles which receives it's name due to the decoration of turtle figures on the walls of the edifice. Behind Governer's palace is La Gran Pirámide, the grand pyramid. It's almost as high as Pirámide del Adivino the steps of which have been reconstructed. Atop the pyramid is a temple with a big Chaac mask as it's deity and the walls have been carved with some geometrical patterns and birds.

Exploring all this easily drained us out of our energy and time. It took nearly 3 hours for us to see the entire ruins in detail, the entrance has a small museum with few findings in the site. We had to walk to the highway and wait till we got a bus to Merida. Once we reached Merida, we had lunch at El Trapiche on street 62 which was recommended by Edwin, the hostel owner. We had Pollo Pibil and chicken in pepper soup which was delicious but heavy, after which we had a siesta.

At 4:30, we went to Paseo Montejo, the widest and the most beautiful avenue in Merida. It's inspired by the grand boulevard of Paris, the avenue has big old trees and wide sidewalks which makes an evening promenade very pleasant. We entered Museo de Antropologia, the Anthropology musem at 5 in the evening, thinking that it closes at 8, but to our misfortune it closed at 5:30 and we just got a glimpse of it. Our evening stroll on this street, was indeed very gratifying. We stopped over at Olive Cafe Stop on the avenue, which served the most delicious cappuccino and had books to read. I highly recommend this place for coffee lovers on a pleasant evening. We continued our stroll upto the highly artistic monument,
Monumento a la Patria, with the Mexican nation flag designed by the Columbian artist Rómulo Rozo. It's a monument on a roundabout with flag on top of a stone human figurine and on the backside is the fountain with the artistic version of Mexican national emblem (eagle hunting down a snake on cactus).

We relaxed for a while on the monument and walked back the whole avenue and went to the theatre, teatro José Peón Contreras for a trova concert. We were the only young crowd with shots and T-shirts in the concert, while the rest of the crowd consisted old ladies and gentlmen dressed formally. The theatre was of old kinds with semi-circular multiple rows of streets with decoration of baby-angels and vines along the walls. The concert was pretty good, but they bored us to death for first 45 minutes with speech. We were out by 10:30 in the night and most cheaper restaurants were already shuttered, we grabbed a roadside burger and retired to hostel.

The next day, we took a bus to airport and flew back to Monterrey.
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