Start: January 4, Chichen Itza (Chicken Pizza)
Finish: January 10, Tulum
Mayan Ruins Visited: 3
Tourists Seen: Too Many
Collapsing Palapas Avoided: 1
Nights Spent Camping: 7
Continuing our whirlwind tour of the Yucatan Peninsula, this week brings us to three more Mayan archeological sites - two of which are without a doubt among the most visited tourist attractions in Mexico.
After several nights spent recuperating in Merida, the Yucatan's largest city, we head east towards Cancun and stayed a few nights near the ruins of Chichen Itza. Deemed one of the new seven wonders of the world, it is home of the most famous Mayan pyramid, thousands of tourists and miles of souvenir stands.
While in Chichen Itza we also visit the less-impressive (although much less tourist-laden) ruins at Ek'Balam. Then it's around Cancun to the Caribbean coast and the white sand beaches near Playa Del Carmen and Tulum. Having learned our lesson at Chichen Itza, we head out early to see the picturesque ocean-front ruins and manage to just miss the caravans of tourist buses. We're glad to be done with ruins for a bit - although in less than two weeks we'll be at the grandaddy of all Mayan cities, Tikal in Guatemala.
Our campsite near Chichen Itza was a welcome change from the past few places we've camped at. Covered palapas, lots of tables, grass and friendly owners made our three days here quite enjoyable. Add in the collapse of a palapa thirty feet from our kitchen area and you might even say it was exciting.
Along with palapas, the campground also has plenty of cats. Tame cats, wild cats, kittens, probably twenty or thirty in total. We'd have nightly visitors begging for food scraps, which wasn't working out in their favor until I spilled the bacon grease.
We had heard that Chichen Itza would be crowded. More crowded than any place we'd visited so far. Turns out that was true. Painfully true. It took us thirty minutes to get tickets and through the door. Once we arrived at the pyramid, above, we were greeted by a horde of people.
Don't get me wrong, the ruins are spectacular. I'm not certain it deserves to be one of the seven "new wonders of the world", but it's easy to understand why they attract thousands of Cancun-based tourists every day. The pyramid, El Castillo, is beautifully restored. Each side of the pyramid holds 91 steps, including the top platform gives a total of 365 - the number of days in a year.
The most unfortunate aspect of Chichen Itza, far worse than the droves of tourists, is every walkway lined with Mexican touts selling every possible type of souvenir. They distract from the surroundings with shouts of "ONE DOLLAR, DIEZ PESOS, ALMOST FREE". They blow obnoxious whistles that are supposed to sound like jaguars, but usually sound like a choking cat.
In my opinion they destroy what could be an awesome experience. And for what? A dollar. Screw that. This is tourism at its worst. My only regret is that we didn't go early in the morning, before they had setup their stands. Oh well, next time.
Cenote Sagrado (the sacred sinkhole) is a short walk from El Castillo and the great ball court. As I mentioned before, there is no surface water in the Yucatan. The entire peninsula is made from risen ocean bed, consisting mainly of limestone. Water quickly seeps through the stone to create huge underground aquifers. When an aquifer collapses it creates a sinkhole (cenote).
Cenotes were held sacred to the Maya as sources of water and religious observance. Some were also sites of ritual sacrifice and suicide.
This wall is lined with carvings of skulls. Called the skull platform, it held the severed heads of human sacrifices, enemy warriors or the losing team of the ball game. It was the Toltecs, a sometimes-rival Mesoamerican civilization based in central Mexico that brought the worst of these sacrificial displays to the Mayan culture of the Yucatan. Evidence of this messy work is most obvious at Toltec-influenced Mayan cities who continued to be occupied until the Spanish conquest, such as Chichen Itza and Mayapan.
The day after Chichen Itza we decided to cleanse our proverbial palate and hopefully return to the type of archeological site that wasn't overrun with tourists and touts and hopefully one that actually let us climb up some ruins. Ek 'Balam did not disappoint. Click the above photo for a full-sized panorama of The Acropolis.
Half way up the Acropolis is the most interesting feature at the site, a restored 16-foot tall jaguar mouth complete with the usual Mayan inscriptions.
Climbing The Acropolis tested our pyramid-climbing muscles to their fullest extent. But the view at the top was well worth it, overlooking the flat Yucatan jungle with the ruins of two large Ek 'Balam palaces in the foreground.
From Chichen Itza we headed to the white sandy beaches south of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Upon arrival we were greeted with the sight of our Christmas neighbors - a 40 foot RV pulling an Escalade and two 600 HP jet skis. It took them twenty minutes to park, and the poor groundsman, seen to the left, had to trim half of the palm trees so the rig would fit. Jessica suspects the size of their rig is compensating for something else. Let's not go into that any further.
Rather than spend another night next to those guys, we headed down the path a bit and found a spot in the shade. Thrice warned that if it rained we would be washed out, told to put out our charcoal cooking fire, and having discovered we'd have to pay $30 for internet access, we decided to only stay one night.
We came to Playa del Carmen to visit Tulum, a ruined Mayan city on the Carribean coast. What it lacked in architectural wonder, it made up for with its picturesque setting.
Having learned our lesson at Chichen Itza, we left camp at 8:30 and arrived at the ruins five minutes after it opened. For 30 minutes we were virtually alone, which was enough to snap a few pictures and watch the iguanas emerge into the sun.
Many are convinced that Tulum was the first Mayan city to be spotted by the Spanish. It is relatively new in terms of Mayan sites, at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries. It even managed to survive sixty years after the Spanish landed on the shores of the Yucatan. Diseases imported from the old world are blamed for its eventual collapse.
Walking around Tulum reminded me of walking around a golf course. Areas are clearly marked, sprinklers are plentiful and the most interesting areas are roped off. You have to stick to a prescribed walking path, and aren't really able to explore on your own. Once the buses of tourists showed up, we understood why - there would probably be nothing left if people were given free reign to stomp about.
After abandoning our first campsite in Playa Del Carmen, we headed another 10 minutes down the beach and found a nice place close to the shore. The horizontal palm tree above, next to my tent, is evidence of past hurricanes which have seriously devastated this coast in recent years.
The hazardous palm trees, cold salt water showers and occasional mid-afternoon downpours were all worth putting up with, to spend three days on this beach. Yeah, I know you're jealous...
Up next: We wrap up our time in Mexico in the city of Chetumal, and then head to Belize!