Sights of the Yucatan

Big road riding towards Campeche

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Big road riding towards Campeche

 

I have managed to stay upright all week. This even with some attempts by the Yucatan to offer up toppling sights, nauseating smells, and boring roads. My Yucatan checklist has been fulfilled. I went for a few swims in the Caribbean (courtesy of Cancun and Playa del Carmen), received an unhealthy dose of sun (not while on a beach, but on the bike), wondered the streets of a few colonial gems (Valladolid and Campeche), and have also visited a few of the more notable Mayan ruins in the northern peninsula.

Templo del Dios Descendente (left), El Castillo (right), TulumTemplo del Dios Descendente (left), El Castillo (right), Tulum

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Templo del Dios Descendente (left), El Castillo (right), Tulum

 

Nathan and my route through the Yucatan, and continuing on into Guatemala, is designed around the ruins we have an interest in exploring; Tulum, Chichen Itza, Pelenque and Tikal. So far, we have shared a manicured assortment of paths around the fortified coastal trading site of Tulum, and stood amongst the throngs looking up at the great pyramid at Chichen Itza. Tulum was a beach-goers ruin, with a few stacks of stone impeding access to the water. Not sure if people were there to see Tulum, or there to say they swam in the ocean at Tulum. I would guess the later. Tulum doesn’t represent anything of huge importance in the context of the Mayan culture, and therein lies its magic. It wasn’t a cultural hub, and therefor lacked a specific design influence, but was rather a utilitarian settlement based upon the trade routes of the coast. In that description is the very reason it is hard to see Tulum for more than its setting. The information given out, or plaquered in front of each aged stone structure, was as helpful in deciphering the mystical Mayan ways as it would have been to read the bird droppings on the ground. One such helpful sign explained how the stairs over the fortification were there to allow access up and over the wall; fascinating archeological work. Consequently, Tulum’s main strength is its contrast between clean-cut green grass, aged gray stone, and the blue Caribbean.

El Castillo, Chichen ItzaEl Castillo, Chichen Itza

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El Castillo, Chichen Itza

 

As ruins go, having the distinction of “New Seven Wonders of the World” is high praise. We therefore knew that whatever we experienced at Tulum would pale in comparison to what we would encounter at Chichen Itza. (It gained the distinction following a worldwide vote in 2001.) The first thing you encounter as you make your way down the path from the entrance and out of the crowded jungle growth is the stepped El Castillo, or pyramid. The steps and tiers that stack upwards match the Mayan calendar. The angled walls that flank the stairs on all four sides of the pyramid catch a specific pattern of light and shadow cast by the tiers on specific dates. During the equinoxes those shapes resemble a snake or serpent slithering down the pyramid, culminating in the dramatic stone snake heads at the base of the flanking walls.

Templo de los Guerreros and Grupo de las Mil Columnas, Chichen ItzaTemplo de los Guerreros and Grupo de las Mil Columnas, Chichen Itza

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Templo de los Guerreros and Grupo de las Mil Columnas, Chichen Itza

 

We arrived by foot, instead of tour-bus, and had the immense main ground almost all to ourselves. A hurried frenzy was underway as we tried to blanket the place in photos before the crowds descended. The sky was a vivid morning blue, and the contrast of the gray stone was a photographer’s dream. We joked about our fingers cramping with the thrill of each new shot. A few hours later, as we crawled our way out from the depths of the ruins along well roped paths, we first heard the buzz and soon saw the cacophonous tourist throng. What were initially empty paths were now the isles of a full blown crafts market. 10 pesos ($.80) could get you anything; a fancifully carved mask, a stone chess set, a t-shirt. I was near to buying a stone elephant to cart around the Americas as a gift to my sister before I realized there are no elephants in the Americas, so why would the Mayan craftsmen be carving elephants out of stone. Suddenly it all looked like a market in China, or Cambodia, or Peru.

El Castillo, Chichen ItzaEl Castillo, Chichen Itza

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El Castillo, Chichen Itza

 

And then, we began to look beyond the photo opportunities and at the ruins. With very little explanation, they sat there dominate, gruesome and lonesome against the jungle backdrop. The dramatic shifting shadows and play of the clouds couldn’t bring me to a deeper appreciation for the place. It was lost on me. Suddenly, the scale of the buildings seemed very undramatic, even the great pyramid became diminutive in comparison with the openness of the clearing. I began to ponder whether Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu were on the new list of wonders, because this stack of stones in the Yucatan paled in comparison to the jaw dropping, knock you flat on your ass, feeling I had when walking those sacred grounds. I am still intrigued by the Mayan civilization and the dominance it once held over such a huge swath of Central America. But, there is an architectural brilliance I experienced in the spaces of Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu that is lacking in the Mayan ruins we have visited. There is also a level of craftsmanship within the Incan civilization that is unmatched anywhere, and it makes the rest of the world look like amateurs. All of this is separated by time and distance and can be debated and disputed until the Mayan calendar ends in 2012. For me, I hope that there is better yet to come. Which is hard to imagine if this is the one given the other-worldly distinction that was snatched from Angkor Wat.

Parque Fransisco Canton Rosado, ValladolidParque Fransisco Canton Rosado, Valladolid

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Parque Fransisco Canton Rosado, Valladolid

 

This last week of riding in the Yucatan has also given me my first taste of the Mexican way of life (if we assume that what occurs in Cancun is not really indicative of Mexican life). We have often just passed peacefully through town, exchanging a few smiles. Sometimes we find the main plaza and prepare some lunch, both for our caloric benefit as well as the viewing enjoyment of the masses. We are quick to laugh at ourselves in the context, because often they are also laughing at us. What are a few spandex clad gringos in your main square if not a comedic gift from the heavens? And, in a few cases, we have worked out hotels to slumber away the night. There is a balance to life here in the Yucatan; the constant intensity of the sun is contrasted by the calm and easygoing manner of the people.

3 Responses to “Sights of the Yucatan”

  1. Patrick says:

    Do you need us to mail you a new pair of Chacos? How are you going to be stylish on the beach now?

  2. Martha says:

    Can’t tell you how wonderful it is to know that you’re back in the saddle and enjoying every crazy minute of it. And even though I’m not a southern/sun/hot weather gal, it’s so fun to live vicariously through you.

  3. Patrick says:

    Any fishing adventures yet while biking? I mean all this time at the beach and no fishing….

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