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!

Campeche, the walled city

Campeche, a Spanish Colonial walled city

23 Julio 2015

Palenque, Chiapas to Villa Hermosa, Tabasco to Campeche, Campeche
I bought tickets on the Cristobal Colon bus line to the town of Villa Hermosa, about 2 hours north of Palenque. The road quickly left the mountains and passed into Tabasco State. As it was still early and the roads much better, we decided to continue directly to Campeche, capital of the State of Campeche. The flat country was primarily cattle country with a mix of Indian cattle with their drooping ears and front shoulder hump and American beef cattle, variations of Angus and Herefords. The fields were large with only relatively few head of cattle in any one field and a good number of fields empty, left to regrow the hay for grazing. Horses were plentiful and Caballeros, cowboys on horseback, were a regular occurrence. The shops in the small villages we passed through had large displays of saddles, cowboy boots, lariats and all the trapping of the cowboy trade. Palm oil was the other dominant agricultural pursuit.

A clean Campeche street
The Campeche bus terminal was 2.5 Km south of the City Center where our hotel was located. After convincing Mags to drag our bags over cobbled streets from the bus terminal in San Cristobal, I knew a taxi was in order for the 2.5 Km. As had been the case in most of the cities we had been in, the taxi driver asked the normal city rate, which for Campeche was 30 Pesos. I am not sure if speaking Spanish helps, or that we always agree on the price before we start, but we have rarely faced any efforts by taxis to inflate the price for the tourist. When buying souvenirs or artisan goods, typically sold by the indigenous people, bargaining is definitely in order, but the stores in Mexico are generally fixed pricing. Oops, a short digression.

The old colonial Cathedral
The taxi gave us a great tour of the remains of the city wall which have been well preserved for much of its length. The city was the cleanest we have yet seen. The sidewalks were in excellent repair. It was obvious the residents were playing an active part in show casing their city.
The Gulf of Mexico
Our hotel, a somewhat forgotten product of the 70’s or 80’s, had an excellent view of the Malecon and the water. It was clean, close to the city wall and waterfront and was inexpensive, everything I hope for in a bed for two nights.

The next day we took an open double decker bus tour the turned out to be the perfect way to quickly get a historical perspective of the city’s development. The wall, as it turned out, was the result of the locals being frustrated by regular attacks by Drake, Hawkins and the boys and apparently was successful. That evening we walked to a section of the wall that first gives a tour of the battlements and defences and then gives a slide and light show on the wall giving the history from Mayan times. Again, as this time of year most of the tourists are Mexicans, it was good to see them out enjoying their history.
Buildings around the plaza