Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Next Episode... which we climb pyramids, escape floods, and trek through jungle....

On Thursday morning, when normal Americans were putting turkeys in ovens and baking pies, we were preparing for an overnight journey inland. Our rental car wasn't there when it should have been, so after some delay, we left around 11:30 for the two hour drive west to Valladolid. We arrived in this colonial town and found ourselves on the Square, which was dominated by a huge old Catholic church and convent. The buildings surrounding the parklike square were painted all shades of the rainbow, and along one side of a row of little Mayan women in embroidered cotton dresses selling their wares. Our first task, even though it was only 2PM, was to find somewhere to stay for the night. We chose a place recommended in our guidebook, the Hotel Maria de la Luz, situated right on the square. Our room was basic, one double bed and one single, a bathroom, and most importantly, air conditioning. Without the coastal breezes it was a lot hotter inland. We noticed a pane of glass missing from the window and because of mosquitoes asked if we could move to another room. We transferred our things a couple of doors down and then set out on our next task: lunch.
There were a few restaurants right on the square, but, seeking a more "authentic" experience, we ventured down some streets in search of a little taco stand. We'd passed several on our way into town, but couldn't seem to find one now! We decided to just eat lunch in the restaurant of our hotel. Erik and I tried some traditional Yucatecan food. Erik had seasoned pork cooked in banana leaves and I had chicken in some sort of vinegar-based sauce, both served up with lots of tortillas of course! While we were eating it began to rain, and we hoped it would soon pass. We went back to our room and got ready to walk around the square and do a little shopping, but just as we were about to go out it really began to rain! It let up a bit, but was still coming down pretty hard so I said I'd stay with the kids if Erik wanted to go look around. He returned after about an hour, and, since it wasn't raining much by this time, we all decided to go out. We walked across the street to the Mayan women and looked at the things they were selling. Then the downpour began! Within minutes we were completely drenched! Some kind men let us take shelter under their large umbrella and we waited for several minutes, but the rain didn't let up. We didn't have far to go back to our hotel, and we couldn't get much wetter, so we just decided to make a dash for it!
We got back to our room and started to get dried off and changed, but then we noticed water started seeping under our door and across the tile floor. Erik went to the front desk to see what could be done and by the time he got back the entire floor was covered with water! He came back with yet another room key, this time upstairs. We gathered up kids and bags and walked carefully up the wet stairs to our third room of the day! As we were getting settled- again- we noticed that in this room the air conditioner didn't work. So, once again, Erik had to go ask if we could be moved to a different room. Fourth room checked out okay, windows intact, no flooding, air conditioning working. The bed was sagging and uncomfortable and the pillows could have doubled as sandbags if the water did start seeping in, but hey, we were dry! And cool. And at that point that was enough. By this time it was dinner, and because it was still raining pretty hard (and we could see flashes of lightning) we just went downstairs and ate there. We drank hot cocoa and the kids had pancakes; this was our thanksgiving dinner and we all enjoyed it! Knowing that we needed to be up early the next morning we pretty much called it a day after that.
We all awoke plenty early on Friday morning. The rain had ceased and
the air still had a nice coolness at 6:30! Thankfully, the kids had
slept well. Erik and I, well, we must be getting old or something,
because we just didn't find the saggy old bed and sand-bag pillows very
conducive to a good night's sleep! After gathering up our things we
headed downstairs for breakfast; there was a nice breakfast buffet with
a funny mix of American and Mexican food; lots of fresh fruit, rolls,
pancakes, eggs, tamales, beans, and shredded pork as well as delicious
fresh orange juice. We ate our fill and then loaded up the car and drove
further west to the old Mayan city of Chichen Itza.
We arrived at 8:30; part of the reason we'd spent the night in
Valladolid was so we could get there early, before the tour buses from
Cancun started rolling in, and before it got too hot. We were very glad
we did, because there really weren't many people there at that hour
which meant Erik was able to take lots of pictures of the ruins without
having tons of other tourists in them! Also, we were able to let the
kids run and play a lot since there was lots of open space. Chichen Itza
was one of the largest Mayan cities and was occupied between 500 and
1500AD (roughly). It has been extensively excavated and restored, and
has recently been named one of the "new" seven wonders of the world.
Upon entering the sight the first thing you see is a large pyramid that
was apparently some sort of temple. There are many smaller temples, a
market place, steam baths that were likely used for ritual purification,
a huge ball court, an observatory, and much more. I enjoyed walking
around and seeing all the buildings and learning a bit about this
ancient civilization. It's amazing to think of how they cleared the
thick jungle and built such impressive structures without the modern
tools and machinery we have now! I kept trying to pictures what daily
life may have looked like in this city a thousand years ago, but it's
really impossible to know for sure.
I've never learned a lot about the Mayan culture, but from seeing
the ruins of this great city and doing just a little reading, I'm struck
with sadness. While they excelled in astronomy and great feats of
building and engineering, they were an extremely militant and (in my
opinion) fear-driven people. On many of the buildings remain carved
images of their numerous gods; common images are feathered serpents,
jaguars, and eagles. There is one building with hundreds of carved human
skulls, apparently showing victory over their enemies. On that same
building or a nearby one are images of their gods holding human hearts.
It seems that all aspects of their culture were influenced by their
religion, which over the years was influenced by other tribes and
various conquests. There were gods of wind and water, and of the planet
Venus. Pictures from the time indicate that at the end of the ball game
one of the captains was beheaded; the jury is still out on whether it
was the captain of the winning or losing team. Out in the jungle was
their sacred cenote, a large natural well. It was dredged a little over
one hundred years ago and along with many offerings of precious stones,
gold, silver, and copper, were numerous human skeletons of men, women,
and children. We walked out to see it, and I really felt sad; sad for an
entire civilization who was enslaved by fear to gods who required such
hideous acts of worship. I guess I felt that way somewhat while walking
through the entire thing, but especially there at the very sight where
people were sacrificed to these so-called gods. It brought up some
interesting things with Peregrine; a lot of this went over his head, but
we talked about some of it in an age-appropriate way.
We left Chichen Itza around 11:30 and by that time the parking lot
was full of big fancy tour buses and it was really getting crowded. We
took the back road to Valladolid where we found what we'd been looking
for on Thursday- an authentic eating experience! Feeling refreshed, we
headed north to visit yet another old Mayan city, Ek Balam. This sight
is much smaller and not completely reclaimed from the jungle. That
translated to a lot more shade, fewer people, and the freedom to climb
on the structures and get a real hands-(and feet-)on experience. The
main building at Ek Balam, which isn't quite a classic pyramid, is
actually taller than the one at Chichen Itza, and they still allow
people to climb it. I stayed below while Erik ascended the steep steps
all the way to the top! The kids played in the remains of a very tiny
building, which was likely some sort of miniature temple, and they were
sure it had been built just for kids! I was also able to climb a smaller
building and look out over the flat jungle that stretches as far as the
eye can see. I was glad I did it, but it was enough of a climb for me!
Going up isn't too bad but coming down is a bit dizzying and scary!
Peregrine and Erik climbed up the same one right before we left, and
Peregrine was very, very excited to have conquered his first pyramid!
I was glad we'd visited Chichen Itza but I think we all enjoyed Ek
Balam more. Being able to actually climb on the buildings, and explore
the many small rooms was a pretty amazing experience and made it a lot
more interesting for the kids. From there we drove back to Puerto
Morelos, got some dinner, and headed to bed, all thoroughly exhausted!

Saturday dawned early, as always, and we were all glad to have slept in "our own" beds that night. Still being pretty tired out from the previous days' adventures we planned to have a somewhat restful day. After breakfast we drove into the colonia to buy some fruit at the produce market there, then headed back to our casa. We stopped for a moment by John and Renie's to find out when they wanted to go out to the jungle with us. Renie has gone away overnight but John thought there was no time like the present! Our plans of a quiet day evaporated in the hot morning air and we planned to meet him in one hour. Erik dropped me and the kids off at home while he returned the rental car, then we all made the short walk over to meet up with John. We piled into his old Pathfinder and headed west on a newly paved (well, part of it's paved anyway!) road to Verde Lucero Cenote.
Cenotes are apparently unique to this area of the world and this was something we wanted to experience during our time here. The Yucatan peninsula is a flat bed of limestone covered with thick jungle. Because the ground is so porous rainwater sinks through it and joins one of the many underground rivers that flow out to sea. In many places, over time, sinkholes have formed and there are natural wells, or cenotes, that have been sources of fresh, cool water for the inhabitants of this area. I guess all of them are different; some are right on the surface, others, like the one at Chichen Itza and the one we visited are sunken ten or twenty feet below. Others are partially or mostly underground but have some access from the surface, creating more of a cavern. Verde Lucero is about fifty feet wide and circular; and is open but the water level is about fifteen feet lower than the ground. Trees grow thickly around it and roots and vines wind and grow down over the layers of limestone. We climbed carefully down steep wooden steps and lowered ourselves into the cool water. On one side the water was clear and probably less than ten feet deep but it sloped down and apparently goes down three hundred feet to where it meets up with an underground river! On one side there's a bit of overhang and apparently there used to be bats that lived in there. We did see a few vultures in the trees overlooking the cenote, and several butterflies, including a blue morpho.
Many people dive in cenotes; I was perfectly happy on the surface! We swam for probably an hour. We had both the kids in life jackets (of course) and enjoyed the cool water, the trees, the birds, and just being in such a beautiful place. The owners of this particular cenote had strung thick ropes across for people to hold onto, and also made a zipline about fifteen feet above the water so that people could fly out over it and jump in! Not my cup of tea, but by daring husband took the plunge three of four times, much to the delight of the kids!
After our time at the cenote John drove us back to the tiny village and his little stick house in the jungle. He strung up some hammocks for us- real Mayan hammocks- and showed us how to properly use them. There's actually a technique to it! He'd brought a couple of roast chickens and we sat out back and enjoyed the stillness of the jungle and our "picnic" lunch. The house is made of a type of palm and the roof thatched with the leaves. This allows airflow and it was surprisingly cool inside. While the Mexicans in the village are all building concrete block homes he chose to build a traditional home for his little jungle sanctuary. He does have the added luxuries of little balconies on both the front and the back so he can sit and watch birds, and also had the entire house lined with mosquito netting. He said it helps keep out not only the mosquitos, but also the scorpions and lizards that like to make their homes in the thatch!
After lunch we headed out into the jungle on a little path he worked to clear. It sounds like it's a constant battle to keep the path semi-cleared; the jungle takes over quickly. It's amazing how thick the undergrowth is. Two years ago there was a hurricane that sat over this area for three days and he said it brought down a lot of the bigger, fruiting trees. Prior to that he said there wasn't as much undergrowth. We also learned that many of the jungle birds are no longer seen in this area since the fruit they lived on is gone. We did see a few birds and some beautiful butterflies. John pointed out all sorts of interesting trees and plants. One of the largest trees that grow here is the chicle tree, and all of the big, old trees are scarred where the chicleros gathered the trees' sap which was used to make chewing gum! Apparently they stopped using it about forty years ago. John pointed out one tree whose black sap causes a horrible skin reaction similar to poison oak. But he showed us another tree whose sap will cure it that always grows nearby!
On the way back towards the house John made sure to walk in front of us and had his machete out. He jokingly (I think) said that this was the time of day when the jaguars come out. Then, when we got back to his house he showed us in a book the real reason, a deadly snake, one of the most venemous in the world, who also happens to be aggressive. I'm glad I didn't know that when we were having our lovely stroll through the jungle! We relaxed in the hammocks for a while longer and then headed back into town, had some dinner, and called it a night.
Today we actually did have our relaxing day. It started early for all of us, but we had a leisurely morning with a pancake breakfast and then spent the rest of it playing and swimming in the pool. I made quesadillas and took them down for a "picnic" lunch. We all had a nice rest this afternoon, then walked to the beach for a swim and a little sand play. After that we walked to town for dinner and picked up a rental car for tomorrow. The kids are in bed and Erik is visiting with John, who happened to press too many oranges today and brought us some fresh orange juice. And I'm finally caught up on the last few days of adventures!


  1. Anonymous11:05 PM

    What does the word Lucero mean?
    When I was a little girl (age 1) my parent's bought me a dog from the humane society. He was a few months old and the lady told them they man who brought him in had named him Lucero. We kept the name, though I never found out what it meant. The woman had told my mom she thought the man was Iranian or guatemalan (who knows, it ws 1972). anyway, I enjoy reading about your adventures! What memories your kids will have of these trips! Blessings to you each! ~Shannon

  2. I enjoyed reading your comments about your sadness over the Mayans. My kids and I are slowly and not-so-consistently going through a prayer guide and we prayed for the descendants of the ancient Mayans and that they would no longer be under bondage to false gods.

    I love you.

  3. This is great! I've so enjoyed reading all about your adventures this past week or so. Quite a learning experience for me! I'm glad you're having such a wonderful time.

  4. Anonymous6:53 AM

    WOW! I just randomly came across your blog, via your Orthodox Circle profile (my name there is wanderingpilgrim)... I spent a month in Mexico over the summer, and your posts are only making me more determined to go back than ever. I think I missed the post where you said where exactly you're staying though...somewhere on the Yucatan Peninsula... This is really interesting, I'm bookmarking your site:-)



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