Thursday, April 19, 2007

Merida to San Cristobal de Las Casas

We ended up staying six days in Merida because it is a great place to take day trips from and the city is very beautiful. It´s only flaw is the heat and the heat wouldn´t be that bad except there are very few escapes from it. When it´s hot in the U.S. you can go to the mall or maybe you have A/C at home or in your car. Either way, there is some way to get some relief. Here, however, very few buildings have A/C so when it´s´s HOT. Aside from that we had a great time. Merida has the feeling of a European city with its busy Plaza Principal and colonial architecture but you only need to wander a few blocks from the center of town to remember you are in Mexico. Many of the buildings there have had dozens of coats of paint and you can usually see several of them as the new layers have aged. It creates a beautiful atmosphere of unique textures and colors.

We did a full day trip out to the city of Izamal dubed the ¨Yellow City¨ due to being mostly painted in yellow along the streets. It is an old colonial town that was built in the middle of a handfull of Mayan pyramids. There are still three huge pyramids situated right in the middle of town amidst houses and buildings. Some people in that town literally have Mayan ruins for their back yard! It was super hot of course and we probably drank about 3 cold sodas each while there to try to cope with it. We hit the best restaurant in town for a splurge and it was a nice experience. The centerpiece of the town´s focus is a HUGE monestary-cathedral that is raised about 50 feet above the streets since it was built literally on top of the largest of the old Mayan pyramids, using it as a base or foundation. It was really cool to see and interesting at how the Jesuits came in and basically did whatever they wanted to the Maya peoples that were here first.

The Ruta Puuc was also a full day trip in which we visited five ruin sites in one day (Labna, Sayil, Xlapak, Kabah and then Uxmal). The extreme heat and humidity put somewhat of a damper on the experience but nevertheless it was incredible. We figure it was well over 100 degrees F with the sun in full strength and about 40 percent humidity. The ornate Chac-Mool (Mayan rain god) masks are all over most of these sites and for good reason, it´s hotter than hell with the lid on and very dry in those parts of the Yucatan. There are no rivers or lakes in the Yucatan, but around 3000 cenotes which they had to rely on for their water.

This leads into our next day trip which was a tour to a couple of picturesque cenotes out in the middle of nowhere. They are basically caves that are full of ground water. Some of them have stalactites and small black catfish in them, and tons of bats and birds overhead. It appears that most of the wild animals out there well know that fresh water and releif from the blistering heat can be found in them. On the tour we went snorkeling in two cenotes. The water was crystal clear, regular swimming pool temperature and about 40 deep from the surface. They are actually caves so they go way deeper than we could go snorkeling but they are sometimes explored by cave divers and are kind of mysterious. It was the best possible way to take a break from the Yucatecan heat and also a fun adventure.

Next we headed down to the city of Campeche which is on the Gulf of Mexico. We thought this might provide some relief from the heat but were gravely mistaken. The heat was absolutly unbearable there and the water was pretty gross and there were no beaches in town. The city is famous for it´s pirate history and it´s old sections of stone fort walls that still stand in parts of town. Other than staying in the Pirate´s hostel we saw little of it. We got out of town heading south as soon as we possibly could. We are completely baffeled at how people can exist there in that kind of heat. Not our kind of town.

Palenque was MUCH nicer. We stayed in a nice place in the jungle about a mile away from the Mayan ruins of Palenque. This place was a beautiful change! Michelle was kept awake at night by the howler monkeys that start up around dusk and keep at it until around 3:00am. There was wildlife all around that place. We had a little cabin right beside a swimming pool and there was a wild fish pond right next to the pool in which there were turtles and Jesus Christ lizards sunning themselves most of the day. For those of you who are not avid Jeff Corwin fans...we´ll explain how the Jesus Christ lizard gets its name: when they are scared or feel threatened they run away on their hind legs and usually over the surface of water. Since they can literally walk on water, well, that´s where it comes from. We were able to scare a couple of them right over the top of the fish pond! The gekos were our friends since they ate the insects in our room that Michelle was afraid of. The place was crawling in these cool little guys but they are a nice addition.

The ruins of Palenque are absolutly amazing! They are our favorite ruin site yet. They are perched high up in the jungle and are riddled with running creeks and small waterfalls. There are many impresive carvings and the famous observatory tower that it´s most well known for. The whole place was like looking at post cards wherever you turned. We got lots of great pictures at these sites but we are still trying to find an internet connection fast enough that will allow us to post them here on the blog.

The bus ride south to San Cristobal de las Casas was the worst either of us have ever experienced. It follows a picturesque winding mountain road for five solid hours and dispite the beauty, neither of us really enjoyed any of it since we were very motion sick and ready to lose it the WHOLE way! Needless to say, we stocked up on the Mexican equivalent of Dramamine that same evening in San Cristobal de las Casas for futur bus rides in the highlands.

San Cristobal has beautiful mountain scenery and good weather with high temps reaching only to the 70s-80s. There are lots of trees and a lot of the sidewalks and streets are cobblestone. The architecture in general, has more of a colonial feel to it and there are definitly way more foreign tourists here than anywhere else we´ve seen in Mexico. There is a very strong hippy presence here and our hostel eminates a strong smell of weed most of the time. (You don´t even have to buy it about get a free buzz just going to the lounge)...if we were into that sort of thing. You can definitly sense that this area was the center of the Zapatista movement in the mid 1990s. There are tons of machine gun wielding Mexican military personel patrolling the city and we´ve seen a fair amount of Zapatista graffiti and souveniers (i.e., masked dolls holding machine guns...a bit disturbing!). We even passed an operating Zapatista training school on the way into town. There is also a much larger Mayan presence here as we get closer to Guatemala. Every time we sit down to eat in a restaurant or on a park bench or even just walk down the street Mayan children and old women thrust their souveniers in our faces and beg us to buy them. There are also lots of beggers just sitting along the sidewalks. The poverty is very apparent.

The architecture here incorporates much more wood and even some of the big cathedrals have wood floors and ornate wood ceilings and carvings. Overall it´s a beautiful city and it´s easy to see why there are so many other travelers here too.

The food for the most part is nothing like what we Americans think of as Mexican. It´s always served in very small portions and the taste is nothing to look forward to. We have discovered that the reason why they serve soft corn tortillas with EVERYTHING is because if you mix everything on your plate together in one of them it magically becomes edible! (Strange but true...unfortunatly this is only a very recent discovery on our part).

Sunday, April 8, 2007

El Yucatan

We are officially south of the border in old Mexico (that´s Mejijo for you Glenn Beck listeners out there). We got into Cancun Tuesday about 2 hrs late because they had to change some part on the plane in Denver before we could take off. This made us a bit nervous since we knew we had a reservation for our first night in Cancun at a hostel and we had no way of letting them know that we were going to show up late. We were lucky and they didn´t give our room away before we got there after all that time. Once we dropped our stuff off at the hostel we went out to walk around a bit downtown (not in the tourist part of Cancun but the real down town) to get taste of what it´s going to be like for a while. After looking around at a number of street food stalls we decided to pass them up and eat for the first time in a real restaurant serving Yucatecan food. Michelle already has had stomach problems since Boise anyways so we have to ease her into things slowly here. (The food at that place was not very good and quite possibly the source of Michelle´s first encounter with Montezuma´s revenge...not pretty).

The first thing the next morning we got on a second class bus bound for Valladolid which is a nice little colonial town about 140 kms due west of Cancun. The idea was to get out of Cancun in a hurry and get into the real Mexico right off the bat...Valladolid was it. The town has a central park which is one city block and across the street on the south side is the town cathedral (very typical of a town down here). The cathedral is huge for such a small we think. Here we caught some of the Semana Santa procession which was basically a small parade of catholics carrying candles, signs, flowers and various other Catholic paraphernalia. They circled the square and entered into the cathedral across the street and there held some sort of mass.

The hostel in Valladolid is called Albergue la Candelaria which is an old house (over 200 yrs old) that has gone through probably a dozen changes from originally being a house for a single wealthy family to a nun convent to various other domiciles and now a hostel. The place was very cool and our room was the best in the house with as small balcony overlooking the park and with views of the big church La Candelaria (a different big church--they are all over the place here). It was super cool and the room only cost about US$20 per night!

While based in Valladolid we took a day trip to Chichen Itza which is the most famous, largest and most restored of all the Mayan ruin sites in the Yucatan. It was completely awesome! We will post all our photos and even the video we took of that day once we can find a decent Internet connection somewhere down here. About all we can find is dial-up and it´s not good enough to upload so many large files. Stay posted!

Chichen Itza was absolutely incredible! The stone carvings and architecture were enough to leave you speechless and there were tons of wild Iguanas climbing around on them, sunning themselves. There are also two huge cenotes (sink holes in the limestone bedrock that form large natural wells) in the site as well. These are swarming with lots of interesting birds. Matthew had no problem filling our 1GB camera memory card and wished he had about 3 GB. This is an absolute must-see for anyone that goes to the Yucatan!

The next day we took the 1st class bus (with movies, A/C and on-board toilet) to Merida which is the capital city of the Yucatan (around 1 million people). It is more like being in Europe than in Central America. The main square is surrounded by interesting buildings, especially the huge cathedral which is one of the oldest churches in the Americas. Merida was once the site of a Mayan city called T´ho and at the time of the Spanish conquest they tore down the Mayan temples and buildings and used the stone blocks to build the immense cathedral along with a handful of other churches near the square. One of them about a block north of the square even has a couple of blocks that still show Mayan carvings on them. (Click on the picture at the left to see the two carved stones in detail.) There are also a number of other interesting buildings around the square like the Palacio de Gobierno (Yucatan´s State Capitol bldg.) which has lots of large murals depicting the bloody history of the region. On the south side is the original fa├žade of the Conquistador´s house with it´s statues of Spanish soldiers in armor standing on the heads of some dead Maya Indians. The whole square is very picturesque with many colors and bustling with vendors, street performers and Merida citizens. The vendors really try to push you hard to buy hammocks and other handmade stuff from them...but we´re going to hold off until toward the end of the trip so we don´t have to haul around more weight and bulk in our packs. The weather is very hot and sweltering with high humidity so we try not to carry them any more than we have to.

Today (Sunday) we went to church about 15 blocks from where we´re staying. Then afterwards we toured El Paseo de Montejo which is a famous street with lots of historic bldgs. lining both sides. The cyber infrastructure is somewhat less than desirable down here so we find ourselves spending more time than we´d like just looking for an Internet cafe that has a fast enough connection to load up the cool pics we have taken to share them with you all and to back them up for our own piece of mind. For now words will have to do.

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