Monday, December 28, 2015

Zacatecoluca, Usulutan and Alegria

Zacatecoluca, Usulután and Alegría

Trips to Zacatecoluca shopping and to Alegria high on a volcano.
I have to do this blog just to keep saying Zacatecoluca! I love it!

One of the 2 bus routes running in front of the Bahia del Sol Marina is the Zacatecoluca bus 193. The route runs the 30 km to the Arco highway #2 junction and then turns east on the Lateral Highway another 20 km to the rural town of Zacatecoluca. As with most buses it was hot and crowded but because the Marina is almost at the start of the route, we had seats. The usual venders boarded the bus and tried to hawk their wares until at one stop two entertainers boarded the bus. Brothers? possibly. The older, about 19 dressed in a clown costume stood behind the younger who was probably 8 or 9 also in a clown costume. Their make-up was very good, much more professional than the usual black and white seen in the north. They exchanged high speed riffs so fast I could only catch the odd word. The rest of the passengers were unusually quiet and laughed and applauded at intervals. The boys quickly collected money and jumped off the bus to board the next one available. I was too spell bound to take a picture so I am hoping Mary’s turned out.

Church in Zacatecoluca
Zacate, the short form for the town name used by the bus hustlers, has a Don Juan and a Super Selectos for provisioning and both within walking distance of the bus terminal for the return trip to the boat. The plaza has some good statues facing the church.

A nice statue in the fountain
Our second bus adventure to the east was for a two night stay in the mountain village of Alegría.  We road our local bus out to El Arco and found the trail up to the highway to wait to flag down bus 302 to Usulután. As the map shows, we travelled through Zacate to the next large town of Usulután.

When cruising the coast of El Salvador you typically have two choices for moorage. Both are set on mangrove estuaries. We chose Bahia del Sol on Bahia Jaletpeque because it was close to the mouth of the estuary and also, Bill and Jean, with their efforts to create and organize the annual El Salvador Rally, have given it good publicity. The next moorage option is Barillas Marina located 9 miles up the Jiquillisco Bahia estuary 27 miles south of Bahia del Sol.

We were curious about Barillas and having Paul and Mary to share the cost, we decided to take a taxi the 15 miles  from Usulután down to the Marina. Much to our surprise the first taxi driver I started negotiating with adamantly refused to go to Barillas. “Demasiado peligroso!” Too dangerous. We decided to have lunch and walk around the town. The restaurant owner concurred with the taxi driver’s opinion, as did the wide eyed, fearful, young girl who was serving us. All were very concerned about our safety. We have grown accustomed to people on the buses telling us to watch our bags but this was different. There was a palpable fear in their actions and voices. It seems that in the last three months there has been a growing problem. We do not know how many boats are in Barillas but we have been told there were only a few and that the owners were away, leaving the boats in the care of the marina but we are glad we did not sail into there as travelling could be limited.
Church in Alegria

Although the number 348 bus runs from Usulután through the small town of Santiago de María and then up the side of the volcano to Alegría, there was some question as to whether we were too late to get beyond Santiago de María so we decided to take a taxi instead. There were about six taxis at the stand when I started to negotiate a price. The first driver in line wanted $30 and would not drop to the $20 I was offering. Much to my surprise another driver said he would do it and then said to us in good English, “If he doesn’t want to do it that’s his loss.” I mentioned the road south through the cane fields to the Marina Barillas, to the group of drivers collected and they all agreed it was too dangerous to risk. So we headed north into the mountains for Alegría with our driver who had lived in Arlington, Virginia, before returning to El Salvador when the civil war ended.

Alegria murals

We had read about Alegría in Lonely Planet and some cruisers had recommended it as well. The elevation made the mountain air clean and cool. Pride in their village has the locals both friendly and involved in keeping it clean. The elevation also permits flowers and vegetables to grow that are not able at the hotter sea level.
Alegria murals

The hotel/hostel we had hoped for was fully booked when I phoned but they suggested another option, Cabañas La Estancia de Daniel at 503-2628-1030. Although it was not listed in The Lonely Planet, I booked 2 bungalows with baños (bathrooms) but I was not too certain what we might find. At $25 each per night, it was cheaper than the recommended choice.

We had the taxi drop us at the small plaza that was fully decorated for Christmas. As it is a small mountain side village, flat land is at a premium and the blocks are short on the winding streets. The church is set high on the north side of the plaza with steps climbing to the entrance. Temporary Christmas street kiosks were set-up on one side with food and small trinket type merchandise. There were a few artisan tourist shops on the plaza and four or five restaurants within a block or two as well. Our Cabañas were about a block off the plaza and turned out to be more than acceptable. There were 5 bungalows made with volcanic stone walls and floors, complete with bathrooms and TV, set in a walled courtyard. We would have given up the TV to get hot water but our inline electric water heater was not working and the mountain air made for a very cold shower.

The restaurants closed early and we found ourselves wandering the streets hunting for something still open. A lighted awning on a side street attracted our attention and there were a few people eating still when we arrived. It had five tables and a curved J-shaped bar. The bartender/waiter had the biggest smile for us on entering but was actually quite shy in conversation.
Caption coming

He explained that the bar’s owner also had a restaurant, La Calesa, close and we could order from that menu. Drinks came quickly as did the food, complete with two waiters running through the streets of the village. We had both ordered fajita type dishes for two that were excellent and there was no shortage of wine.
Businesses facing the plaza in Berlin

The following day we caught the 348 bus as it ran past the plaza and our bungalow, down the hill to the somewhat larger town of Berlin. It was a steep drop down the side of the volcano past a geothermal electric generation site stopping at the town plaza. Berlin was populated by migrants from Germany and Italy back at the beginning of the coffee plantations at the turn of the century.
Commerce spills into the streets

Some of the buildings still have the metal siding panels imported from Belgium giving the town a unique feel. It is a busy center for the surrounding villages and lacks the charm and cleanliness felt up the mountain in Alegría. After wandering the streets, stopping for a much needed haircut and having lunch, we decided to catch the bus back to Alegría.

The small lagoon in the crater

Alegría is also known for its small emerald green Laguna set in the Tecapa Volcano’s crater, about 3 km uphill from the town. It was a pretty hike through hillside coffee plantations with some incredible miradoras, viewpoints, with vistas down to Santiago del María and beyond. The crater’s floor covers about 500 m by 300 m with the lagoon being about 150 m by 100 m. The sand gravel has obvious sulphur content but the lagoon did not taste or smell heavily sulphurous.
Coffee beans ready for picking

The hike down was very rewarding with verdant vegetation, numerous bird species and smiling locals trudging their way uphill to their homes after a day of work.

The return trip to Bahia del Sol was an exercise in perfect bus connections. Our 348 bus stopped at Santiago de María so we had to walk through their street market for four blocks to the other side of town to catch a bus to Usulután. That bus left almost immediately dropping us at the bus depot on the east side of town where our driver blocked the exit of an express air conditioned bus ($3 instead of $1.50) so we could jump on. It took us almost nonstop to the Arco intersection where we climbed down from the overpass to our bus 495 and out to Bahia del Sol. About $5.20 for all four buses and it took only four hours. Especially good in that we had seats most of the way!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Ruta de las Flores, Ruta Arqueológica and more….

Travels in Western El Salvador
We left the Hotel Tazumal at 8:00 am. Nelson had changed from his city car of the previous day to a Nissan Pathfinder for the trip to the northwest. Skirting the side of Volcan de San Salvador we stopped at old black lava flows fringed with sugar cane fields to see the results of the last eruption. From there our route took us past a former Levi Strauss garment plant that was closed due to labour disputes and that now produces no name brands, and then past a Kimberly-Clark paper products paper mill, Scott, Kleenex, and lots more logos, where Nelson told us K-C is a very desirable place of employment. They pay well, give benefits and treat the employees well. Highly regarded locally.

A preserved Joya de Ceren home under layers of ash and lava,
We continued to Joya de Cerén which is a small Mayan site named a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is unique in that it was frozen in time by a volcanic eruption in 595 AD, much like Pompeii. Both the site and the museum were very good.

Nearby we stopped at the Ruinas de San Andrés site of a stepped pyramid and small acropolis. It is believed that about 10 to 13,000 people lived here. Although not as tall as the later classical or post-classical constructions of Guatemala and Mexico it is beautiful nonetheless and has a piece of intricately carved obsidian in the museum. The piece is about 15”x 3.5” and was unearthed at the site. The artistry and craftsmanship are incredible.

The crater lake, Lago Coatepeque, from the volcano's rim
Continuing northwest on a narrow mountain road, we stopped at a lookout restaurant/bar for beer and drinks overlooking Lago Coatepeque, a lake in the cone of a volcano, unique in that there is an island formed by a later eruption in the lake. The lake is lined with private residences with long docks for the toys of the wealthy. A stunning view from high on the craters edge.

The coffee was excellent and the gardens cool and inviting.

From there we climbed further into the mountainous coffee growing region until we reached a coffee farm that has diversified into tourism with a very good restaurant, some ziplines, honey production and an artisan shop. Our multiple meat barbeque was delicious and the beer was cold!

Xmas tree in Apeneca plaza
The little girl's eye lit up with surprise
as she turned the corner and spotted the tree.
She ran non-stop to touch it.

The Ruta de las Flores took us through three small early colonial villages, Juayua, Apaneca and Ataco. Nelson stopped in each giving us time to see their plazas and churches, all being prepared for the coming Christmas season. Between Apeneca and Ataco we stopped at a roadside Café. The gardens covered more than an acre with almost half covered by trellises thick with hanging orchids. Excellent coffee and treats, and again, the beer was cold.

When we turned northeast at Ahuachapán, we were about 10km from the Guatemalan border. Unfortunately by the time we got to the Mayan ruins of Tazumal dating back to 5000 bc, and the nearby Casa Blanca ruins it was late afternoon so we are hoping for a return trip to see them some time in the future. The drive back to the city with the end of the day rush hour in progress was exciting.
San Salvador


Time Flies in El Salvador (when you are riding the buses!)

A unique part of bus travel in El Salvador is that the bus going to where you want to go may not be the bus you want to take. As our friends, Sam and Dave from s/v Isleña, showed us, bus travel in El Salvador can be convoluted.

Two separate bus routes run up the long peninsula past the marina entrance. The number 495 buses, with San Salvador – Puntilla signs painted on the windshields, clearly goes to San Salvador. I will say more on the 193 bus route to Zacatecatoluca in the next post. But where in San Salvador does the 495 go? And how quickly does it get there? Well, it stops at the Terminal de Autobuses del Sur, out in the southern suburbs and it is painfully slow, stopping to pick-up and drop passengers at any point along the route. The trick is knowing that at the junction of the Playa del Sol Road and the east/west highway #2, a place called El Arco, there are multiple connection opportunities with buses and micro (meecro) buses going west to various destinations in San Salvador and east to the eastern part of the country. But, the real secret is, to get a seat on one of the micro buses you get off the 495 and jump onto the 138 where it does a u-turn in the middle of the road, one stop before Arco. First on the empty bus gets a seat! And better yet, the 138 goes to a mirco bus terminal one block from the Centro Historico, in San Salvador.

At all more important crossroads, venders board the buses squeezing their way from the front or back doors thru the jammed aisle to the opposite door selling drinks, fruit, endless types of foods, and an amazing array of consumer goods. El Salvador has a major unemployment issue but the response is to be innovative and entrepreneurial, sell, sell, sell. If the buses are not too packed some will ride the bus for a stop or two, while loudly explaining the virtues of their cell phone chargers, miniaturized clocks or portable speakers, all punctuated by the inevitable “ at a new low price of ……  Much cheaper than in the big stores.” It is a great Spanish lesson!

San Salvador
Palacio Nacional - San Salvador
Catedral Metropolitana from the Plaza

Some must see sights in Historic Central San Salvador are the Catedral Metropolitana on the Plaza Barrios with the Palacio Nacional on the opposite side. The local Mercado Central or public market, a few blocks, away covers many blocks under metal roofs and makeshift canopies, and sells everything imaginable. It is not a tourist venue as there are almost no tourists in San Salvador, but rather a working market used by most of the Salvadoreños living in the central district.
A small corner of the market
The walkways are hot, narrow and loud as everyone competes for attention. In some areas the smells are overpowering. The old streets are narrow in all of the Central District and vendors take over the sidewalks. Pedestrians are forced into the streets where the buses and taxis vie with each other to fit thru impossible openings while all the while beeping horns and blasting their air horns. Crossing streets is not for the feint of heart and pedestrians have no right of way. The exhaust fumes hang in the sweltering streets. The area is said to be dangerous after dark and I have little cause to doubt the assessment.

The Rainbow Iglesia
A few blocks east of the Plaza is the Parque Libertad, with Iglesia El Rosario on the east side. From the outside the church is a rough formed, fairly new, 1971, but dilapidated, concrete double arch structure spanning 80m with the arches 24m apart. Inside, it is breathtaking.
A series of beams span between the arches creating steps that are glazed with coloured glass in a rainbow transition. The effect is beautiful, the sun filled space through the coloured glass, with the bright hues cast on the floor and walls, highlighting scrap steel sculptures is riveting. Definitely the most impressive modern architectural design feat that I have seen for a long time.

El Salvador and San Salvador have had a history of challenges. Volcanos are numerous, some still recently active, earthquakes and floods alarmingly common and their civil war just ended in 1992. And yet, when you drive into the hillsides surrounding San Salvador with newer suburbs, see the wide winding streets with modern cars and SUVs, walk through the vibrant modern shopping malls, some of them enormous by US standards, you realize there is a rapidly emerging young middle class.

Although San Salvador is only about 70 km from the marina we decided we would stay for two nights. We stayed in the Hotel Tazumal (503-2235-0156), a cheery, very clean 10 room hostel/hotel near the Nacional University and recommend it highly. Concepción, the owner, and Angelíca who manages bookings and the desk were great. The included breakfasts were an excellent start to our busy days. The area is very tranquil and safe for walking, even at night. While there, Angelíca connected us with Nelson who lives in the area and has a Taxi Service (503-7181-2590). Because there were four of us, it was an economical way to get to the more remote sites. The Guzman National Museum of Anthropology was well worth the visit. Nelson also took us on a very full day trip on the Ruta de Flores / Ruta Arquiologica to the northwest of the country, that I will do as a separate page.

Hotel Tazumel is on the northern edge of the area known as the Boulevard de los Heros which is north east of the Zona Rosa. Both of these areas are more modern areas with many restaurant and drink options. With lots of people on the street, they are considered safe, although at night people are told to take taxis to hotels off the main streets. During the day the big food store chains, Super Selectos, Don Juan’s and Despensa Familiar in the various malls make provisioning an easy task with virtually everything is available. We have also made the daytrip in to shop and then shared a $40 taxi ride back to the marina.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

24 diciembre 2015

Merry Christmas to All!

From Mags and Gord in Bahia del Sol, El Salvador

Monday, December 14, 2015

Bahia del Sol


Twelve days in El Salvador – and loving it!
Kanilela with lots of sun shades at marina, anchor chain out to repaint depth marks
As previously mentioned, we entered Bahia del Sol by crossing the bar which is a narrow strait called Estero de Jaltepeque with the Puntilla on our left as we entered. The Puntilla is the tip of a 16 km strip of land with the open Pacific on its ocean side and a mangrove estuary on the other. A road runs down the middle of the strip of land that varies in width from as little as a few hundred meters to as much as a kilometer in width.
Bahia del Sol Restaurant/Bar - yep - $1 beers!
The Bahia del Sol Marina/Hotel is a little more than a kilometer up the estuary and their property extends on both side of the road from the ocean to the estuary.
A swimming pool - life is tough
The marina has about 36 slips but you can anchor in the river or rent buoys which are owned by either Santos or by Bill and Jean, the El Salvador Rally organizers.
Looking out to Isla Cordoncilla, sailboats on the buoys

There is a 30T travel lift and small yard for haulout near Bill and Jean’s but the entrance to the yard needs dredging and the travel lift needs tires and probably more work so it is not operational now.  The other yard, about thirty-five miles south at Barillas has dry dock ways for the shrimpers but we are told they no longer haulout sailboats. Not certain why but that leaves Puerto Chiapas about 250 miles north as the only haulout option now. Fortunately, we are good for now but others had read in the guide books that facilities still existed here.

The muddy brackish water of the estuary is surprisingly clean considering it is the out flow for an extensive mangrove swamp area with numerous single residences and villages as well as the town of Herradura on its shore, but it is not clean enough for swimming. The tidal flow of about 5 to 6 feet provides a constant flushing with ebbs in the 3 knot range and floods slightly less, hence the need to time your entry at the Estero to a slack high tide. Ideally, with very little open ocean swell hitting the coast as well.
Life on the estuary

A fisherman throws his casting net
Opposite the long peninsular barrier strip, the estuary is lined with numerous islands. Bill and Jean own an acre on Isla Condoncillo across from the marina. The residences and village on the island are off the grid, no power or roads, but lots of happy people. Jean is mentoring Isabela, an island resident, in marine fabric work and we have finally decided to get the dinghy cover, or chaps, made  as the sun will eat the PVC tubes if we do not get them covered.

Sam (presumably Samantha) and Dave from sv Isleñia are anchored in the estuary and have introduced us to several people, ex-pats and cruisers, and shared their expertise with the bus system. More on the buses in the next post but the ex-pats we met, Lin and Lou, have an open house swim and barbeque on Sundays at their beautiful house about three miles up the estuary. We had a fantastic time enjoying their hospitality and the interesting group of cruisers who had gathered.

We have only just begun to explore the estuary but today we road with Paul and Mary in their dinghy, four miles up another arm of the estuary to the small town of Herradura. It is a fishing village that has a good fruit, vegetable, meat and fish market as well as a fairly good sized food store that is very well stocked and much easier to get to than either the capital, San Salvador, or another town within 1.5 hours by bus, Zocatecoluca.
Approaching Herradura waterfront

As we approached launch ramp and pilapas, a boy of about thirteen signalled where we should tie the dinghy amongst the pangas and upon landing, introduced himself as Jonaton.  We were on the water side of a large open air pilapa style restaurant. There are no tourists in Herradura and only infrequent cruisers approaching from the estuary, so Spanish is necessary.
Pangas at low tide
We gave Jonaton a dollar to watch the dinghy while we walked into the village. People were very friendly and a little inquisitive. We stopped at numerous stalls in the market, buying excellent produce and then completed our provisioning in the small supermarket. Everywhere people are selling their offerings, working hard to perceive what you may want, but there were no beggars. Even the youngest work with the family and are always quick with a shy smile when talked to.

Mags, Mary and Paul at the Restaurant
Upon returning to the restaurant, we were greeted by Elsa with cold cervesas and menus. The avocado shrimp dish was excellent. While there we saw a panga arrive with two fishermen who began unloading sharks.
Several tiburones azules, blue sharks
They said they were tiburones azuls, blue sharks, about four to six feet long and one hammerhead shark close to eight feet. They had been out beyond the entrance bar and had been fishing for twenty four hours. They were tired but happy.
and one hammerhead shark

Jonaton was there as we finished our lunch, to help us load our purchases and give us a push from the shore. There are places on the estuary where there are no signs of anyone else but you and the mangroves. Then you turn a corner and see a local fisherman in a dugout throwing a cast net or pangas racing up river to sell their fish. The estuary is a source of life for many.

As we arrive back on the main arm, we crossed to a small marina, Paradise Marina, a few miles up from Bahia del Sol. There were four sailboats and a few powerboats moored and we visited with Steve and Rochelle from Channel Islands, California and Greg on sv Irie from Sausalito. As both location were highlights of our time in California, we had a good visit with them, learning about more sights to see in El Salvador and south. There was also a sailboat from Nanaimo, BC, but the owner was away.
Just another great day in El Salvador!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Leaving Mexico, El Salvador Bound

Bahia del Sol, El Salvador

Sitting in our hotel in San Salvador, El Salvador, trying to provide a succinct summary of events between our travels to Cancun last July and now, in El Salvador, provides ample evidence of the failures of procrastination. In brief summary we had a fantastic time. Seeing family and friends was the objective and our greatest failing was not seeing enough of both.
In truth, our time was dictated by the needs and wishes of two sweet little girls, ages 3 years and 5 months. Orla Jade and Emilia were a delight but it’s difficult to project an Old Salt image while pratting on about two beautiful granddaughters so I will spare you. So for any friends or family whose schedules did not fit our travels in your areas we apologize and place the blame solely on the shoulders of two little girls! Our travels to the Okanagan, Prince George, Vancouver Island, Vancouver and New York were great. Sharing time with all of you was fabulous…..
We treated ourselves to 4 days in Mexico City after New York. It is an incredibly vibrant, alive city with so many places to see. Its pre Columbian history and colonial history is well preserved and presented. We stayed at the Suites DF hotel through and recommend it highly. It is located close to the Plaza de la Republica, about a 15 minute walk to the zocalo.
We returned to Marina Chiapas in the middle of November, in time to see several friends, new and old, preparing to head both North and South. Happy hours, pot lucks and some good old serious drinking provided time with good land travelling companions Paul and Judy of sv Grace, Wayne and Judy of sv Curiositas, new friends Joe and Karen of sv Flyin’ Sideways, Michael and Doreen of sv St. Ledger and many others to glean their knowledge and experience.
During all of this, Enrique, Memo and the crew at Marina Chiapas provided any assistance necessary to prepare for the trip south. Mags’ great interior preparations last June proved stellar as we had minimal work beyond routine cleaning to get ready to sail. Our Newfoundland/ Albertan (they have dual citizenship!) friends Paul and Mary on sv Genesis III were also ready to head south so early on 28-November, after clearance from the navy and Port Captain, the two vessels cleared the breakwater and again turned left.
Leaving Marina Chiapas

Raising the Guatemala flag en route

The destination was Bahia del Sol, El Salvador, typically a 42 hour sail. We had contacted Bill and Jean, the organizers of the El Salvador Rally, telling them that although we were too late for the 2015 Rally and too early for the 2016 Rally we were headed their way and when was the high slack tide for us to cross the notorious Bahia del Sol estuary bar. With an early dawn crossing time of 0530 as their response, we were two boats on a mission.
The winds for the first day were initially light and on the nose. Flat calm seas. Late that night I realized we were running solely on auto pilot, the manual steering was not responding. I decided to continue with the autopilot until daylight before working on the repair. At 0300 the wind freshened to gusts in the high 30 knot range with consistent winds 25 to 30, still on the nose. The seas increased to 10 to 12 feet and were steep and short, about 75 feet crest to crest. We took a beating but with a bar crossing scheduled, we pressed on to the afternoon when the winds dropped and surprisingly quickly the seas subsided. The repair went swiftly after getting to the quadrant and we again set-off with about 13 hours to our crossing deadline.    Paul got a short video of Kanilela on reefed main as the winds were building.
At 0330 we radioed the Bahia del Sol pilot that we were an hour out from the rendezvous point and agreed to meet at the arranged 0530 time as dawn was breaking. Bill was riding in the pilot’s panga relaying instructions on our trip over the bar and getting some great photographs. Fortunately the swell was not large and our crossing was happily uneventful. Bill’s welcome to El Salvador was a great conclusion to our run out from Chiapas, past Guatemala and into Bahia del Sol.
Kanilela crossing the bar,  thanks Bill and Jean, El Salvador Rally organizers

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Chichen Itza - the pinnacle of Mayan astronomical related architecture

26 Julio 2015

Merida to Chichen Itza

Several years ago, I sub-contracted to a Mexican company building a transit system in San Juan, Puerto Rico. There was a flurry of excitement through the office with everyone being urged to send in their vote to have Chichen Itza accepted as one of the “new list” Seven Wonders of the world. Although I had not yet seen it, I had been to Palenque and thought the Mayans deserved some international recognition. Of course, I resolved to visit Chichen Itza soon. As we all know, soon is a relative word, especially in the life of a cruiser.
El Castillo
The Lonely Planet Guide Book did not give the small town of Piste, which is beside the ruins, a very good report but it was so convenient for a brief stop we decided it would be fine. I managed to find a room on line and made a reservation. Being a very small town Piste was only serviced by the chicken buses or the big tour bus operators that were much more expensive. Obviously we were on the chicken bus again.

The trip from Merida through Yucatan State was a continuation of the lowland plains we had been seeing since coming out of the mountains in up-state Chiapas. The agriculture gradually diminished as we passed from fields with a few rocks to rocks with a few fields. The scrub vegetation was thick, so cross roads and small villages, and we stopped at every small village, provided the only views of any distance.

The High Priest's Tomb
Finally, we arrived in Piste and probably could have been dropped in front of our motel-like hotel if we had known where it was. We chose the center of the village to get off and as the bus rolled away, a 3 wheel motorcycle taxi rolled up and we were away to the Piramide Hotel.

The owner’s friend told us about a laser lightshow they project onto the main pyramid at the ruins so we walked to the site that evening in time to see an incredibly good lightshow depicting the history and development of Chichen Itza. It is a new feature that will have an entry fee once the winter tourism season starts but for now, with the Mexican tourists visiting, they are working out the bugs of night time crowd handling and show presentation all for free. It was good getting our first look at El Castillo Pyramid during the night as a backdrop to the presentation.

The following morning we were back at the entry gates before they opened at 8:00 am. Two backpacking girls from Germany and another girl from the UK were the only ones ahead of us as the gates opened. The early morning jungle air had a mist that gave a soft shrouding to the ruins once we got into the open field area to get a perspective on El Castillo. The perfection of balance is sublime, especially when one realises it is not purely a beautiful architectural accomplishment but also a precise realization of astronomical understanding with the equinox orientation and chronological precision reflected in the numerology in the construction.
El Castillo
Some detailed stonework
The largest ball court in the Mayan world
Some of the thousand columns
One could leave having only seen El Castillo, feeling the trip was worth the effort, but, there is so much more. The level ground at Chichen Itza is very different from all the other sites we have visited, where the mountainous terrain gives glimpses of what is to come and reveals vistas out over the canopy. At Chichen Itza the trails lead through the dense overgrowth opening into courtyards, extensive expanses of columns that had supported roofs, intricately detailed stone structures, a cenote, a natural circular water reservoir used for sacrifices and El Carocol, an observatory dome shaped structure.
The Sacred Cenote
Arriving in the cooler morning air permitted us to walk at a good pace through the site while the hawkers were arriving and setting up their blankets of wares and showing little interest in our exploration. By the time we were leaving at 11:30, the site was filling up, the parking lot was full of monster coaches from Cancun and Merida. The other notable difference with Chichen Itza is that due to its accessible location and popularity, the ruins are protected by barrier ropes. This is both necessary and to be expected but the hands on feel of climbing to the top of the more remote, lesser known sites is not there. As Palenque, Yaxchelan, Tikal and Copan’s popularity grows and the numbers increase they too will have to restrict access.

Chichen Itza to Cancun, Quintana Roo and onto Vancouver
All too soon it was time to flag down the chicken bus for the ride to Cancun to catch our flight back to Vancouver.

Merida, historically the cultural capital of the Yucatan Peninsula

Merida, historically, the cultural capital of the Yucatan Peninsula

24 Julio 2015

Campeche to Merida, Yucatan
Travelling northeast across the flat plains of the Yucatan Peninsula, the land gradually changes from agricultural to scrub brush, generally quite dense about 10 to 15 feet tall. The smaller farms are lined with rock walls after the rocks were cleared to find enough soil for marginal crops. On arriving into Merida, the colonial past is apparent everywhere, but while Campeche had its wall to scribe a line between old and new, the transition in Merida is more of a blend. This may account for more old buildings being left abandoned, often with only the crumbling, beautiful old facades still standing.
Government offices and Cathedral on the Plaza
One of the courtyards at Alvarez Guest House
People in Merida are very friendly and proud of their city but it is very much a commercial city of today, not just a colonial heritage. We were fortunate to find the Alvarez Family Guest House close to the central plaza in an area surrounded by several parks with their old churches. Enrique, who manages the Guest House, maintains a quiet house with a maze of courtyards and stairs that the rooms face onto. The construction is old and the rooms are immaculate with common kitchen spaces available.

Yucatecan food is delicious and quite different in its preparation than most of Mexico’s food with the Chaya dishes a must try.
A horse drawn carriage with its own horse umbrella

A unique aspect of Merida is the number of horse drawn carriages that ply the streets of the city center, particularly in the cooler evenings. Although the streets are narrow and motorcycles and supersized buses work their way around the carriages, the small statured horses seem completely at ease with the traffic carrying their tourist cargo into the night. Fortunately, Merida, like many other colonial cities with narrow streets relies heavily on one way streets to maintain the traffic flow. There is also an interesting street numbering system with the odd numbered streets running east west and the even numbered streets running north south. In Meida’s case, the central square is bounded by Calle 61 and Calle 63 on the north and south and Calle 60 and Calle 62 on the east and west. When you get an address, the street number and the cross streets are most important because building numbers are just sequential and have no relation to the block you are in. Strange compared to our numbering that is based on blocks, but very effective.
Colonnades on the Plaza
There was particularly good evening music and traditional dancing happening every night at Parque Santa Lucia, sometimes quite formal in the presentation and other times much more of a rehearsal done purely for their dancing pleasure.
We, as usual, walked our obligatory 110 miles a day, seeing numerous churches, museums and presentations.  Only Englishwomen and mad dogs go out in the noonday sun and we know where that leaves me!