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Sayil

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The third ancient city which we visited on our trip along the Yucatán’s Ruta Puuc was Sayil. Long since abandoned to the jungle, this extraordinary site is still paying silent testimony to the magnificence of the Maya civilization.

Sayil Maya Ruin

Sayil rose to prominence between AD 800 and 1000, toward the end of the florescence of Maya culture. The city was completely desolate by the time the Spanish arrived in Mexico, but recent excavations suggest that at one time up to 10,000 people lived here.

Before our move to the Yucatán, I had never given much thought to the complexities of the Maya. I suppose I had just considered them to be a single powerful kingdom that eventually collapsed. But this is so far from the case that it’s laughable. At best, the term “Maya” is extremely vague. It refers to a people who shared a counting system and certain cultural aspects, but were never unified. The Maya consisted of innumerable kingdoms, each with its own history and identity, and over twenty completely different languages. The biggest enemy of Copan was Kalakmul, for example; two totally distinct, warring empires we now refer to under the blanket term “Maya”.

I tried to keep this in mind while visiting Sayil. Here was a major city of the Terminal Classic era, which ascended only after the collapse of the grand civilizations of the southern highlands. The people who lived here traded with Uxmal, spoke Yucatec Mayan, and were as far away in time from the pre-Classic Maya of Guatemala, as we are today from Sayil.

The most imposing structure is found right at the entrance: the Great Palace, boasting three stories and nearly a hundred rooms. Unlike the compact site of Labná, Sayil is an expansive place, stretched out on a long, straight sacbé, or road, which leads into the woods. Eventually, we reached a flat structure called The Mirador and, farther down the path, we found a strange phallic statue.

Sayil was our third set of ruins in a single day and we were starting to feel a little fatigued by the time we finished here. But there was no opportunity for rest; the hour was growing late, and the nearby site of Kabah still remained on our list…

Location on our Map

Great Hotels In The Yucatan

Sayil Maya Ruin
Sayil Maya Ruin
Sayil Maya Ruin
Sayil Maya Ruin
Sayil Maya Ruin
Sayil Maya Ruin
Sayil Maya Ruin
Sayil Maya Ruin
Sayil Maya Ruin
Sayil Maya Ruin
Sayil Maya Ruin
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December 28, 2013 at 11:29 pm Comments (0)

The Eco-Museum of Cacao

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We weren’t sure what to expect from the Eco-Museum of Cacao, found between the archaeological sites of Labná and Xlapak. Apart from a flier we’d picked up in a tourism office, we hadn’t read a thing about it, and that’s usually a bad sign. But the museum turned out to be excellent, with nicely-presented information, a chocolate-making demonstration, animals and even a re-creation of an ancient Maya rain ritual.

The Eco-Museum of Cocoa

In a world of Hershey’s and fine Belgian pralines, it’s hard to remember that the West didn’t even know about chocolate until the conquest of the Americas. When Christopher Columbus first encountered American natives, cacao beans were among the treasures he received as a gift. Ignorant to the magic contained within, he disregarded them completely. But the Europeans would learn and eventually come to consider themselves masters of a plant that won’t even grow in their land. And here come the patents and the factories and the Cadbury and the Nestlé, and everyone’s getting rich… except, of course, the Maya.

The word “chocolate” comes straight from the Mayan “Xoko-atl”, or “hot water”. In the Yucatán, it has always been a highly-venerated luxury, considered the food of the gods. The beans were even traded as currency; 100 could buy you a slave. The Yucatecan Maya were the first to develop cacao plantations, and consume their chocolate as a drink. After roasting and grinding the beans, the powder was brought to bubble over fire and then made frothy by either blowing into it or stirring it violently.

The Eco-Museum, located on the grounds of the working still-operating Tikal Cacao Plantation, presents this information in a series of lovely thatch-roofed huts that lead into the jungle. Midway through, we had a chance to see a Maya ritual to honor the rain god. It began with just a single man blowing into a conch shell. These noises were echoed from the woods surrounding us, and soon five other musicians emerged from the trees to join their leader at the altar. Their ensuing performance was bizarre and riveting.

In the final hut, we got to see how the Maya prepared their favorite drink, and then sample it. It was a great conclusion to a museum we really loved. A definite highlight of our trip along the Ruta Puuc.

Location on our Map
Eco-Museo del Cacao –

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The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
The Eco-Museum of Cocoa
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December 27, 2013 at 12:42 am Comments (0)

The Ruins of Labná and Xlapak

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Down the road from the Grutas de Lóltun is the archaeological zone of Labná, the first of five ancient Maya sites we’d be visiting on our trip through the Puuc Valley. Nearby we’d find Xlapak, a much smaller site whose name means “Old Walls”.

The compact site of Labná was a great place to introduce ourselves to the Puuc-era Maya. Occupying a relatively small area, we didn’t have to walk far from the extraordinary palace, counting 67 rooms and seven patios, to the Labná Arch, which served as the subject for one of Frederick Catherwood’s most famous drawings. Both the palace and the arch have managed to retain much of their detail, with latticed geometrical figures and repeating sculptures of the rain god Chaac.

The limestone ground of the Yucatan Peninsula quickly absorbs water, which means no rivers run along the surface of the land. Drinking water is scarce, and the Maya had to learn how to collect rain in reservoirs called chaltunes. If the rains held off, the chaltunes ran dry. And if the chaltunes ran dry, death was not far off. So it’s no surprise to find the rain god so honored in the temples of the Yucatán.

A few minutes drive from Labná is the site of Xlapak. Despite being directly off the road, free to visit, and rather impressive, almost nobody stops here. So the site enjoys a more atmospheric sense of abandonment. The main draws are a couple of palaces with intricately decorated cornices, again prominently featuring Chaac.

Locations on our Map: Labná | Xlapak

Our Favorite Car Rental Place In The Yucatan

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December 26, 2013 at 11:36 pm Comments (2)

The Grutas de Loltún

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One of Mexico’s biggest cave systems is found just south of Oxkutzcab. With woolly mammoth bones and evidence of human presence dating back to the Pleistocene Age, the Grutas de Loltún (Caves of the Flower Stone) served as a refuge to both the Maya and to those who came before them.

In order to visit the caves, you have to hire a local guide. There’s no set price for this service; instead, you’re asked to pay what you think is fair. So before we departed, and throughout the entirety of the tour, our guide was reminding us to tip generously. “It’s up to you. Most people give me 700 pesos. Totally your choice, though! But 700 is normal. Just saying. I have a family to support.” He never stopped needling, and it was a real annoyance. I decided to give him 500 pesos ($40) for the both of us, and he was happy with this.

Luckily, it was easy to ignore the money-grubbing once we got inside of the cave. We began in an enormous chamber named “The Cathedral”. The path wound into another spacious room where a long, heavy stalactite hung close to the floor. The guide, unbelievably, started pounding on it to produce a low booming sound. Apparently that’s allowed. He asked me pound on it too, which I did, albeit more tenderly. One day, some roided-out rage freak is going to take a tour of Loltún, and it will be lights-out for that poor stalactite.

From here, we came upon a section of the cavern called the “Grand Canyon”, due to its uncanny resemblance to Arizona’s natural wonder. We also saw red hand paintings on the wall, left by the cave’s original occupants. The Maya were not the first people to make use of the cave, and they must have been as mystified by such paintings as we are today.

Our tour ended at a section of the cave where the ceiling collapsed, allowing in light to flood in. Along with natural rock formations that look like a lion and a monkey, there are huge piles of stones. During their battles against the Spanish in the Caste War, the Maya would retreat to Loltún, and these stones were from a wall which had been a part of their fortifications.

We loved our walk through the caves, though it was a shame about the guide. When he wasn’t pestering us for money, he was rushing us through the cave as quickly as possible, making it difficult for Jürgen to get pictures. Also, much of the information he fed us was completely contrary to what we had gathered from more trustworthy sources. But hiring a guide is unavoidable if you want to gain entrance, so just be aware.

Location of the Grutas de Loltún on our Map

Our Yucatan Photos In High Res

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December 24, 2013 at 5:21 pm Comment (1)

Oxcutzcab and the Ruta Puuc

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Some of the Yucatán’s most impressive Maya ruins are laid out in a convenient row along the Ruta Puuc. Beginning in the village of Oxkutzcab, we made a rough semi-circle to the south and west, visiting caves, an eco-museum dedicated to cocoa, and five archaeological sites, among them the ruins of Uxmal.

The Puuc-era Maya, who flourished between AD 800 and 1000, situated themselves around a fertile valley of the same name (pronounced, by the way, like “pook” and not “pooch”, as we had been saying). The largest of the Puuc cities was Uxmal, though there were other major population centers such as Kabah and Sayil.

With an itinerary that included five archaeological sites, I thought we had planned a comprehensive tour of the region. But that was only until we were shown a map of all the ruins that have been discovered in the Puuc Valley. There are hundreds, and archaeologists are still uncovering more.

We stayed the night at Oxkutzcab, about 90 minutes south of Mérida, a pleasant town and the Yucatán’s citrus capital. With crates upon crates of oranges, lemons and limes packed up and bound for Mérida, walking around the morning market was a rich olfactory experience. It takes place every day in the main plaza of the town, directly across from the cathedral. The prime location underscores the importance of the citrus trade to Oxkutzcab.

With our busy Ruta Puuc itinerary, we didn’t have enough time to properly explore the town. But after visiting the market, we did track down an interesting old railway station, which dates from 1947 and was built in a faux-Maya style, complete with replica masks of Chaac, the rain god. It’s a shame that rail service has been suspended; rumbling through the jungle in an antiquated train would be an unforgettable way to experience the Yucatán.

Location of Oxkutzcab on our Map

No Hidden Cost Car Rental Company Yucatan

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December 23, 2013 at 6:54 pm Comments (3)

A Tour of Mérida’s Markets

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I’ve got one of those brains that appreciates order. I love numbers and logic, and anything organized. I always keep a list of tasks for the day, and often an item on that list will be reminding me to make another list. Seriously. Don’t even get me started on jigsaw puzzles. The challenge of arranging jumbled pieces into a coherent whole? I’m happy just thinking about it.

So, I was a little troubled during our first foray into Mérida’s market. More like, freaked out. It was chaos. Mérida had taken the jigsaw puzzle called “Shopping”, hacked up the pieces with scissors, stuffed them into a piñata, and then hit it with a rocket launcher. I’ve never seen a place as confusing, haphazard, nonsensical, noisy, and absolutely devoid of order.

Even calling the place a “market” is wrong. It’s markets! Three or four markets all loosely clumped together. Maybe there were five. Who knows? It’s impossible to say where one ends and the other begins, and anyway, they’re all spilling out into the streets. Want to buy a shoelace? Right there, next to the disemboweled chicken. D’uh. Down this lane, you can find (in order): yucca-candy, tailor, avocado-lady, voodoo shop, tortillas. How long must it take, before you can make sense of this madness?

Apparently it takes twelve years. That’s how long Rosa Soares, a British-Portuguese expat, has lived in Mexico, and she has an excellent handle on Mérida’s markets. Rosa offers guided visits to tourists, and really knows her stuff. We met her one morning in front of the city cathedral, and followed her around to her favorite spots.

I began the day diligently taking notes on the names of the various spots we visited. But let’s be honest. Although Rosa knew exactly where we were throughout the day, I lost track after about ten minutes. Anyway, attempting to impart specific names and exact locations seems somehow contrary to the anarchic spirit of Mérida’s markets.

We started with a breakfast of panuchos inside one bustling market, and then moved to another which specializes in fruit. We visited a fish hall, then exited onto a road with lunch stalls, and found the dead chickens. And then the live chickens. Rosa knew what every vegetable was, every strange snack. She brought us to a lane of shops where the specialty is sweets, and then out onto the street where we saw a store that makes sauces in bulk.

Eventually, Jürgen and I had to raise the white flag. We had been walking for over two hours, and I had the distinct impression that Rosa could have gone on for two more. For this exhausting tour, she asks for almost no money, insisting that she does it because she loves being outside, meeting people, and helping newcomers become oriented. If you’re interested in an informed tour of Mérida’s most chaotic and colorful side, get in touch.

Location of the San Benito Market (as close to the “center” of Merida’s markets as exists)
Rosa’s Market Tours – Facebook

-Other Great Markets We Visited Around The World: Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Market in Sucre, Vucciria Market in Palermo, San Telmo Sunday Market In Buenos Aires, Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan

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December 22, 2013 at 12:41 am Comments (3)

Hotel Xixim in Celestún

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The tiny Gulf Coast town of Celestún was about as remote as possible, but to reach our hotel, we had to continue past its final shack and along a ridiculously bumpy dirt road for another half hour before reaching our hotel. Xixim is truly the back of beyond, and when we pulled into the parking lot, we knew the wearying trek was about to pay off.

More than just a simple hotel, Xixim resembles a reconstructed Maya village. Guests gets their own deluxe Maya-style thatch-roofed hut, complete with a hammock on the porch, welcome cocktails in coconut shells, and comfortable beds outfitted with mosquito nets. During our stay, we felt completely disconnected from the outside world. Which was exactly what we wanted.

Jürgen was still recovering from dengue, so our stay in Xixim couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. This is an ideal place for relaxation. We spent our time moving from the beds to the hammocks, over to the pool or the beach. When it was time to eat, we’d wander into the restaurant found in a massive palapa, and then head back to our hut for sleep. All the while, we were kept company by the sounds of the jungle and wetlands surrounding us.

Xixim is totally off the beaten path, which is its main selling point. When you pass flamingos on your way in, you know you’re in the middle of nowhere. With a friendly and helpful staff, an excellent restaurant, speedy wifi, enough on-site activities to occupy even a long stay, and those wonderful huts, Xixim offers a unique place to enjoy an extended, disconnected vacation.

Location on our Map
Hotel Xixim – Website

Best Prices For Car Rentals In The Yucatan

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December 21, 2013 at 6:00 pm Comment (1)

Crocs, Snakes and Flamingos at Celestún

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In the southeastern corner of the Yucatán is the Celestún Biosphere Reserve, a natural lagoon home to mangrove forests, flamingos, crocodiles and fearsome snakes.

While booking our tour on the Biosphere’s lagoon, we were the only tourists present. Normally, this is something we’d be pleased about, but not today. “If only some other people would show up,” we wailed. We even waited twenty minutes before buying tickets, just in case. Of course, we weren’t concerned about “sharing the glories of nature” with strangers or anything like that. We just wanted to save a buck. To take a tour at Celestún, you have to rent an entire boat, and it’s the same price whether you’re a group of ten or two. About $120 US.

Alas, nobody came. We cursed and paid up, but at least we’d have a private tour. For two hours, we cruised up and down the lagoon, just ourselves and our guide. Celestún is home to a healthy population of flamingos throughout the year, and we saw plenty of them. They were soaring in from the sky for a graceful landing, running atop the water while preparing for take-off, and wading in the shallows, bobbing for food like the keys of a big, pink piano.

Not far from the flamingos, and surely too close for their comfort, we spotted crocodiles. Well, our guide spotted them. Jürgen and I couldn’t see them until we got very close. A big mother and her son, partially covered by the brush and completely immobile. Shortly thereafter, near the edge of a mangrove formation called “Bird Island”, the guide suddenly stopped the boat and pointed into the bush. It was now that I began to suspect him of being half-eagle. Somehow, from fifty feet away, he had spotted a boa constrictor napping in the tree.

A boa constrictor! It had recently eaten, if its distended stomach was any indication. I’ve never seen such a big snake in the wild, and was mesmerized. Our guide tapped my shoulder and pointed to another boa farther up the tree. And then another a few feet away. I have no idea how he kept spotting them. Later on, while coasting along the river, I nudged Jürgen and whispered, “Watch this.” And then without warning I threw a sardine high up into the air, certain that our half-eagle guide would leap off the boat in pursuit. But he didn’t take the bait.

Midway through the tour, as we were cruising along the river at a rapid clip, we suddenly took a sharp left turn. It looked like we were going to crash into the thick brush, but instead we entered a mangrove tunnel. This was the most picturesque moment of the day, a natural passage through the dense growth, with sunlight filtering through the canopy and pelicans taking a break in the shade.

The long tour finished with a visit to the Ojo del Agua, a natural freshwater spring, and a trip down to the Gulf of Mexico, where we stopped briefly at a petrified forest which had died after the encroachment of salt water. This had been an expensive day out, but was ultimately worth the money. If you’re in a larger group and can split the cost, the boat tour is a no-brainer.

Location on our Map

We Rented A Car From Sixt For This Trip (No Hidden Costs!)

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December 19, 2013 at 6:22 pm Comments (2)

After One Month in the Yucatán

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Unlike a lot of places we move to, Busan or Idaho for instance, we were fully confident that life in the Yucatán Peninsula was going to be wonderful. It didn’t take anywhere near a month to confirm that. We spoiled ourselves with wonderful cuisine, explored Maya ruins, relaxed on the beach, and started to learn about our new home. They were an eventful 30 days, and I didn’t know whether to be excited that we still had another two months to look forward to, or disappointed that we were already a third done.

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Most Memorable

Mike: One of our first days on Cozumel was spent scuba diving, and then taking a trip to the Cozumel Pearl Farm. The weather was gorgeous, we were with fun people, and while sailing back in the direction of a beautiful Caribbean sunset, I knew that I would always be able to look back on the experience as one of life’s few perfect days.

Jürgen: Learning to dive is something I will never forget. And doing the first fun dive made it all worth it. Scuba really opens up a whole new world.
Favorite Food

Mike: I’d like to say “Yucatecan Food” in general, but that’s a cheat. So, I’ll go with panuchos, more of a snack really, which I’d never heard of before. Panuchos are corn tortillas sliced open and filled with refried beans, then covered with shredded chicken or turkey, onions, avocado and jalapeños. Runner-up: poc-chuc.

Jürgen: All Yucatecan food is great (except for papadzules, which I don’t like). But if I had to choose one dish to eat every day for the rest of my life: Huevos Motuleños. And I love Chaya everything! And Lime Soup!
Most Surprising

Mike: Discovering that Mayan is still spoken by over 10 million people. I had always considered the Maya a “lost” civilization and just assumed that the language had vanished with them. But people — a lot of people — speak Yucatec Mayan as their first language. I was so confused the first time I heard it on the streets.

Jürgen: How many cenotes (sinkholes / caves) there are. It’s like someone decided this is going to be the Swiss Cheese part of the world. I can’t wait to explore more.
Most Disappointing

Mike:I’m most disappointed in the lack of Americans I see in the Yucatán. There are a ton of Germans, French and British tourists, but almost no Americans. And this is basically our backyard! I think American media has been shameful in ruining Mexico as a tourism destination… most consider the country too dangerous, as though the Yucatán has anything to do with Ciudad Juarez. It’s like equating Vermont with Detroit.

Jürgen: Well, I contracted dengue and was out of commission for a few days. That was no fun. At first I thought I had a common flu, but once my fever went down I developed a rash. So I researched, and discovered that I had all the symptoms of dengue. Luckily, it was only a mild case. My advice is: don’t freak out about the possibility of contracting dengue, and just try your best to prevent mosquito bites.
Funniest / Weirdest

Mike: We went to a restaurant in Mérida and there were seven different waiters all vying for our attention, trying to get us to sit at their table. It was bizarre. Walking through this restaurant, and having so many people begging us to sit… here! No, sit over here! No, [waving] this is the best corner over here! I suppose they don’t split tip money. We were the only customers in the place and when we finally chose a table, the triumphant waiter lorded it over the others.

Jürgen: When we came back from exploring the Ruta Puuc we got pulled over at a police checkpoint. The cop was talkative, and wanted to know where we came from and what we thought of Mexico. We popped the trunk and everything, but he didn’t even check our bags… I think he was bored and just wanted to chat!
How Expensive? From 1 (cheap) to 10 (expensive)

Mike: 3. Life in Mérida is cheap, cheap, cheap. Cheap housing, cheap food, free museums, free culture. You can splash out if you want, but you certainly don’t have to.

Jürgen: Food and housing is cheap and street food is very affordable. Some of the sights and activities can be expensive but not all of them. So there is something for every budget. I would give the Yucatan a 5.
People from the Yucatán Are…

Mike: … friendly, of course, but unbelievably loud. In Mérida, every store blasts Mexican pop at decibel level 1000. Even the supermarkets! But my favorite purveyors of noise are the “advert vans” outfitted with loudspeakers that cruise up and down the streets at all hours.

Jürgen: … extremely polite. I didn’t expect people here to queue up for the buses like they would in the UK.
The Yucatán in Three Words

Mike: Maya, Musical, Lethargic

Jürgen: Delicious, Adventurous, Humid
December 18, 2013 at 4:06 pm Comments (2)

Three Great Cozumel Hotels

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As guests of Cozumel’s tourism board, we weren’t just exposed to a wide variety of sights and restaurants, but were also introduced to a few wonderful places to stay. Whether your budget is small, medium or large, one of these options should fit the bill.

Hostelito

Hostelito, or Little Hostel, welcomed us for three nights at the beginning of our stay. For budget travelers, this is a perfect option. Clean, affordable, and with a perfect location right in the middle of the city, Hostelito offers both dorm-style accommodation and private suites with bathrooms. There’s a community kitchen, where you will likely meet other travelers, and fast internet throughout the premises.

Hostelito Cozumel – Website
Location on our Map

Villas El Encanto

Farther away from downtown, Villas El Encanto is exactly as enchanting as its name suggests. When we came through the gate, the scene was like something out of a fairy tale. Hammocks, a pool, flowers and trees, and even a pair of peacocks strutting about. The hotel’s eight rooms are lovely, with wifi and access to a kitchen. I almost think it would be a bad idea to stay here… the garden is so pleasant that you might end up lounging around all day, and miss out on everything Cozumel has to offer!

Villas El Encanto – Website
Location on our Map

Hotel B

B stands for boutique, blue, beautiful, bewitching and breathtaking. And while the “B” in Hotel B could stand for any of these, it’s probably an abbreviation for Beatrice, the hotel’s young owner and operator. This recently renovated hotel has an incredible position right atop the Caribbean Sea, with an infinity pool, hammocks and a great beach bar. Hoping to capture a different, more involved kind of tourist, they offer workshops in areas like yoga or cooking, and diving excursions.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Hotel B, though, is the fact that every room is individually designed with decorative elements from around Mexico. And every piece inside each room, from the rugs to the paintings to the soap dishes, is available for purchase.

Location on our Map
Hotel B – Website

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December 18, 2013 at 1:00 am Comments (0)

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Sayil The third ancient city which we visited on our trip along the Yucatán's Ruta Puuc was Sayil. Long since abandoned to the jungle, this extraordinary site is still paying silent testimony to the magnificence of the Maya civilization.
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