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Ek Balam: The Home of Black Jaguar

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Just twenty minutes north of Valladolid are the ruins of Ek Balam, a fantastic archaeological site which boasts some of the peninsula’s best-preserved Maya sculptures.

Ek Balam Ruins

Mayan for “Black Jaguar”, Ek Balam was a powerful king who arrived in the area on April 7th, AD 770. The city which he founded would prosper for little more than a century, and was abandoned shortly after September 23rd, 896.

You might have noticed that the exactitude of these dates; in contrast to many other ancient cities around the peninsula, a lot is known about Ek Balam because of its wonderful state of preservation. Protected by the jungle and lost from knowledge for much of modern history, it was only excavated in the 1980s. The level of detail is astounding; we were sure that some of the sculptures must have been recently reconstructed, but that’s not the case.

There’s a lot to see here, but the highlight is undeniably the grand Acropolis, reaching 31 meters into the air, high above the jungle canopy. We climbed the difficult, irregularly-stepped staircase and surveyed the scene, pausing at a terrace halfway up, where white stucco decorates the structure’s facade. In almost perfect condition despite an age of over 1200 years, the sculptures depict a monstrous mask with jaw agape, symbolizing the gate to the underworld. In the monster’s eyes and atop its nose sit full-size human figures in strikingly lifelike poses.

We loved Ek Balam. The details on its ruins are simply amazing, and the site itself is so compact that it’s easy to see in just an hour or two. Definitely worth the short drive from Valladolid.

Location on Our Map

Cheap Flights To Mexico

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January 31, 2014 at 11:25 pm Comments (4)

The San Bernardino Convent in Valladolid

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The Calle de los Frailes, or the Street of the Friars, cuts diagonally across Valladolid, completely ignoring the otherwise strict grid-plan. A little fresh, but we’ll allow it. This is one of the Valladolid’s most historic streets, home to specialty shops and popular restaurants, and it ends at the steps of the San Bernadino Convent.

Valladolid Convent

Construction started on the San Bernardino in 1552, under the auspices of Franciscan monks who had settled in the newly-formed city. Local Maya laborers were politely asked to help build the immense convent, and were happy to do so, as they were well-paid for their efforts. (Or, was it that they were obligated to work like slaves, and then forcibly converted to a foreign religion under threat of torture… I can’t remember.) Today the convent serves as both a church and a museum.

During the Caste Wars of the nineteenth century, the San Bernardino was repeatedly attacked and lost much of its priceless artwork. But inside, you can still find a few surviving paintings, as well as weapons from the war recovered from the large cenote that sits directly underneath the building. The water of this cenote was used in the convent’s kitchen and bathrooms, and was extracted using a large stone waterwheel which can still be seen in the unkempt back garden.

In front of the San Bernardino is a large flat park which, when we visited, was being used as a soccer pitch by a group of local kids. It was early in the evening, and the whole place was conspicuously quiet, especially in comparison to the jam-packed Plaza Grande of Valladolid. The convent is apparently just far enough outside the town center to discourage most tourists, but don’t let the distance discourage you. This was among our favorite places in the city.

Location on our Map

-Where we stayed in Valladolid: Casa Hamaca

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January 30, 2014 at 11:36 pm Comments (0)

The Casa de Los Venados

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The largest privately-held collection of modern Mexican art in Mexico can be found in the home of John and Dorianne Venator, in Valladolid. The couple have been indulging their passion for over 35 years and have packed their house, one of the city’s most historic properties, with over 3000 individual pieces.

Casa de Los Venados

Casa de los Venados, or “Home of the Deer”, is both a play on the Venator surname and a nod to the importance of the animal to the region and to the ancient Maya. Though this is a private home, the Venators open it daily at 10am for tours. They’re originally from Chicago, but after John made a fortune as the CEO of a non-profit organization, they chose to settle down in Mexico.

The villa is found just meters away from Valladolid’s main plaza, and stepping inside can be a shock to the system. Almost every conceivable inch of wall and floor space is occupied by a piece of contemporary Mexican art. The famous skeleton figure of the catrina makes frequent appearances, as does Frida Kahlo (not her works, but her likeness). There are amazing chandeliers, one-of-a-kind paintings commissioned by the Venators, strange pieces of furniture and colorful modern sculptures. I half expected to peer around the backyard and see a team of enslaved artists working on new pieces.

The Venators made sure to grace our tour with their presence, so that they could point out their latest purchases and tell us about upcoming acquisitions. They don’t seem to be pausing their obsession anytime soon, so if you’ve got a sweet tooth for Mexico’s colorful modern art, don’t pass up the chance to peek inside the doors of their one-of-a-kind house.

Location on our Map

Framed Photos From The Yucatan

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January 30, 2014 at 6:29 pm Comments (0)

The Cenotes of Valladolid

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An inexhaustible number of cenotes riddle the limestone earth of the Yucatán Peninsula, but Valladolid is blessed with some of the most beautiful. In a single morning, we visited three, the first of which is right in the middle of town.

Cenotes Valladolid

The Cenote Zaci takes its name from the Maya city on top of which Valladolid was founded. We visited after enjoying breakfast at the city market. Given its location in central Valladolid, I had expected a small pool, but this was a massive cave, shaded by trees and shrubs. We descended a set of stairs and felt as though we’d entered a lost jungle paradise, unable to believe that this gorgeous pool is in the middle of a busy city.

But it is in the middle of a busy city. Let’s just say that, although it’s technically allowed, I wouldn’t want to swim at the Cenote Zaci. And the locals apparently agree. Despite the morning heat, there wasn’t a single person in the water.

In the nearby town of Dzitnup are two of the Yucatán’s most celebrated cenotes: Xkekén and Samulá. Dzitnup can be reached by bike from Valladolid; after the pleasant 20-minute ride, you can reward yourself with a cool swim. The two cenotes are right across the road from each other, and though you have to pay for each separately, both are worth seeing. We started at Samulá, which is famous for the dangling roots of the giant alamo tree that sits above it. Xkekén was perhaps even more stunning, a massive cavern with stalactites and crystal blue water.

Dzitnup is a popular bus stop on the well-established route between Cancún and Chichén Itzá, so the chances of finding its cenotes unoccupied are slim-to-none. They’re extremely photogenic, but the crowds and ubiquitous vendors are off-putting. We stayed out of the water.

Locations on our Map: Cenote Zaci | Dzitnup

Great Place To Stay In Valladolid

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January 30, 2014 at 5:32 pm Comments (0)

Valladolid

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We spent two nights in Valladolid, the second city of the Yucatán state. Found two hours due east of Mérida, near Chichén Itzá, it’s a magical place… and that’s official. In 2006, Mexico added Valladolid to its honorary list of Pueblos Mágicos, only the second town in the Yucatán to win the honor, after Izamal.

Vallodolid

Our base of operations during our stay in Valladolid was Casa Hamaca, a Maya-themed hotel a few blocks south of the Plaza Grande. True to its name, each of the rooms has a hammock if you want to stretch out. And the downstairs bar is a great place to relax and chat with the owner, an expat from North Dakota who has lived here for years and can offer great advice on the area.

Valladolid was founded in the 1540s, on top of the former Maya town of Zaci. Its somewhat isolated location and proximity to the important sites of Chichén Itzá and Ek Balam have historically made it the target of a lot of indigenous aggression. In 1848, Maya rebels even managed to take total control of the town, slaughtering or forcibly removing anyone of European descent.

Things are more peaceful today, and Valladolid has earned a well-deserved status as one of the Yucatán’s most beautiful cities. Found on the road between Chichen Itzá and Cancún, there’s a constant stream of tour buses pouring into the place. Apparently, Valladolid only rates a “Quick Stop” on the standard itinerary. We sat at a cafe on the corner of the Plaza Grande, watching each bus unload its frantic passengers. They were given just enough time to run off the bus toward the cathedral, snap a few pictures, and then sprint across the plaza for a picture of the Palacio Municipal, before running back to the bus. (A considerable number skipped the sight-seeing, and instead made a beeline to the tequila bar next to us).

The upside of this speed-tourism is that the rest of Valladolid is reserved for those who have more time. And with some of the Yucatán’s best cenotes, beautiful little plazas, an amazing convent, and an agreeably slow-paced atmosphere, this is the kind of town which rewards those who linger.

Location on our Map

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January 29, 2014 at 10:54 pm Comments (8)

The Incredible, Horrible Chichén Itzá

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On a visit to Chichén Itzá, you’re going to oscillate violently between love and hate for your fellow man. The mathematics, artistry and astrology involved in constructing these ancient buildings… people did this? People are awesome! But still, there’s no way around it: people are terrible. Today, the site is overrun with money-grubbing locals, megaphone-wielding guides and sheep-herd tour groups. On leaving, I said to Jürgen, “The ingenuity and ambition of humanity is truly inspiring.” And then: “I wish everyone was dead.”

Chichen Itza

We knew in advance that Chichén Itzá was going to be crowded and annoying, so we had a game plan: oblivious enjoyment. Just put the other people out of our minds, ignore the pushy guys hawking cigars, and concentrate on the wonders. There’s so much to love, we reasoned, let’s stash the hate.

That noble mindset lasted about fifteen minutes. It’s hard, though. It really is. You’re standing there admiring something like the Tzompantli, a massive pedestal decorated with hundreds of carved skulls, reflecting on how it must have looked when it was used to actually display the severed heads of enemies, and behind you this guy just will not stop selling you a jaguar whistle. ROWARR! Over and over again, blowing this whistle into your ear, ROWARR, regardless of how many times you turn to him and say, “No gracias”. ROWARR! “No, señor, mil disculpas pero no tengo ningún interés”. ROWARR! “¡Que te vayas, malidita p***!”

Nice one, Zen Boy. Way to rise above.

Chichen Itza

Now shake it off and get back into the zone. Jaguar Whistle defeated you, but over there: the Holy Cenote. Just have to get past… shove by… shoulder-check our way through these bikini-clad girls making pouty faces for their selfies. Look, girls, I get it. Seriously, I understand. Taking pictures of yourself is fun and easy, and smartphones and Instagram and youth, I get it. I can even understand why you might think your pouty-face is sexy, although I do not concur. But why do you have to do this here? Why not, say, at home in your room, on a bed with fresh white sheets and pillows of feathery down? That is the place for pouty-face selfies. Not in front of Chichén Itzá’s Holy Cenote. Seriously!

“Stop it”, I say to myself. “These girls are just enjoying themselves. Step down off the ‘Perfect Tourist’ pedestal and start concentrating on your own experience instead of theirs. Just look at this gorgeous, almost perfectly circular sinkhole, surrounded by the jungle.” I pick up my guide book and read about how the ancient Maya would throw trinkets and valuables into this cenote as sacrifices to the gods. And I read how, in the later years of Chichén Itzá, it was also used for human sacrifices. Ever so briefly, my eyes flit over to the pouty-face-selfie-girls. Just one little shove… Ah Puch would be so pleased!

Moving on. There’s the fascinating Ball Court, still in fabulous condition. The Platform of Eagles and Jaguars, decorated with the animals feasting on human hearts. The Temple of Warriors, with its famous chac mool: a reclined figure on whose stomach the hearts of sacrificial victims were thought to be placed. The Plaza of 1000 Columns. The Ossuary. The massive group of sweating, safari-hat zombies whose guide is shouting at the top of his lungs so that everyone on Planet Earth can hear him.

Chichen Itza

The wealth of treasures at Chichén Itzá is mind-blowing. It’s unreal. Just being able to see El Caracol, an ancient astrological observatory aligned with the cycles of Venus, was worth the price of entrance. Everywhere you turn, there’s another incredible ruin.

The Castillo! I almost didn’t mention El Castillo, the most famous Maya construction of all. This giant pyramid is the ancient world’s most incredible calendar. Four monumental staircases ascend its four sides, each of which has 91 stairs. Together with the large step which makes up the top platform, these represent the 365 days of the year. (It’s the same math which led us to the concept of For 91 Days).

And on the spring and autumn solstices, something remarkable happens. The shadows cast along the sides of the principal staircases undulate from the top of the pyramid to the bottom, attaching to giant snake heads on the ground. And Kulkulcan, the serpent god, comes to life. The level of knowledge required to devise such a building, and the will and strength to pull it off, it’s hard to conceive that an ancient people who lived in the jungle were capable of it.

Despite the number of visitors and the awfulness of the people selling junky trinkets, we loved Chichén Itzá. It’s absolutely understandable why the place is so popular. And even if it degrades the experience, ultimately it’s a good thing that so many people get to see it.

Location on our Yucatan Map

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January 29, 2014 at 9:07 pm Comments (8)

The Casa-Museo Montes Molina

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Most of the mansions along the Paseo Montejo have either fallen into a state of disrepair or been converted into banks. But the Casa Montes Molina is a fortunate exception. Owned by the Montes-Molina family for generations, visitors can today tour this amazing house, or even rent it out for special events.

Casa-Museo Montes Molina

The mansion was built in the early twentieth century by Don Aurelio Portuondo, a Cuban businessman who fell in love with a local beauty. Don Aurelio was in Mérida supervising construction of the Peon Contreras Opera House, and was so pleased with the results that he hired the same architects to design his home. After a couple decades, when his fortune had dried up, Don Aurelio sold his mansion to Don Avelino Montes, a Spanish banker who had also fallen for one of Mérida’s young lovelies: Maria Molina Figueroa. (One of the city’s prime products seems to have been its marriageable maidens).

The Montes-Molinas moved in, made some additions to the house, and established themselves permanently on the Paseo Montejo. Today, nearly a hundred years later, the family still owns the property. The furniture is all original, with exquisite chandeliers, mirrors, floor tiling and everything else you might expect inside the mansion of a fantastically wealthy twentieth-century family. The great-granddaughter of Don Avelino and Doña Maria stays here when visiting from Mexico City and, incredibly, a couple servants who waited on the family over thirty years ago are still living in the basement.

During our tour of the house, we saw one of these women scrubbing the linens by hand in a washing basin. The scene fit so perfectly with the spirit of the house, we weren’t even surprised. This place is as authentic as you can get. We’ve been to quite a few historic homes during our travels, but never sensed the spirits of those who actually inhabited them so strongly as in the Casa Montes Molina. The personal items, such as toys and old LPs on the shelves, really bring the place to life.

If you have a chance, make sure to stop by. There are a limited number of tours every day, and just a couple in English, so it’s worth calling in advance to check on times.

Location on our Map
Casa Museo Montes-Molina – Website

Great Hotels In Merida

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January 29, 2014 at 2:41 pm Comments (0)

The Corners of Mérida

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When founding cities around the Yucatán, the Spanish were nothing if not organized. Mérida’s streets are laid out on a perfectly square grid, with a naming convention that is logical almost to a fault. North-south streets have even numbers which increase as you head west, while east-west streets are odd numbers which increas as you head south. So the street to the east of Calle 54 is Calle 52. If you’re on 44/73, and go one block north then one block west, you’ll be on 42/71.

Street Corners Merida

The numbering system makes navigation and orientation easy. I could instantly calculate that 47/60 was thirteen blocks north and eight blocks west of our house. But it’s awfully dry, and potentially confusing to those not good with numbers. That’s why almost every corner in Mérida also has a special name, commemorated by a red and white plaque. The corner of 48 and 73 is the Castle. 60/63 is the Duchess. 50/69 is the Iguana. 59/68 is the Cowboy.

Especially in the past, these names were how people knew their way around Mérida. Asking for 59/64 might earn you confused looks, but anyone could give you directions to El Tigre. The names are evocative, hinting at a story or legend. On the corner of El Imposible (65/50), for example, a large mound was hampering further development and slated for removal. Locals believed it to be a permanent part of the landscape that would prove impossible to destroy. But then the Spanish leveled the ground, accomplishing “the impossible”, and giving this corner its new name.

Or take the corner of 57/66, where a tall beauty from Cuba had moved into town, inflaming the passion of every man in the neighborhood. The local women didn’t take to kindly to their new competition, and referred to her as “La Tucha de Cuba“… “Tucha” being a Mayan word for “Monkey”. Henceforth, the corner has been known as La Tucha.

Som of the corners have plaques explaining their names, but many more of these stories have been lost to time. I couldn’t find anyone who could explain why the corner of 63/44 is called El Globo (Hot Air Balloon), not even the people who worked in the shop on whose wall the plaque was hung. But a hot air balloon, here in the center of the city? It must have been quite a story.

The tourism board of Mérida should bring out a guidebook to the city’s corners; a walking tour that brings you from plaque to plaque, and relates the origins behind the intriguing names. As it stands, your imagination is left to do a lot of work. That’s alright, too; finding and photographing these plaques can still make for an enjoyable day out, even if the stories behind names like “The Sun” (at 59/70) and “The Stork” (53/62) remain shrouded in mystery.

Our Favorite Car Rental Company For The Yucatan

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January 29, 2014 at 12:14 am Comment (1)

The Anthropology Museum in the Palacio Cantón

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Not only is the Palacio Cantón one of the loveliest buildings on Merida’s Paseo de Montejo, but it’s also home to one of the city’s best museums: the Museo Regional de Antropología de Yucatán.

Anthropology Museum in the Palacio Cantón

The palace’s original owner was Francisco Cantón Rosado, one of the most important men in Yucatecan history. Having distinguished himself as a general in the Caste Wars against the Maya, the arch-conservative Cantón earned riches as a railroad baron, and was elected governor of the state. After retiring, he moved into the palace which he had constructed with materials imported from Europe. Decades after his death, the Palacio Cantón was sold to the state and, in 1950, transformed into a museum.

Anthropology Museum in the Palacio Cantón

Having already admired its Beaux-Arts facade, we suspected that that palace’s interior would be stunning, but the Anthropology Museum it hosts was a real surprise. We had recently visited the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, dedicated to the same field, but the Palacio Cantón offered the superior experience. It’s smaller and less comprehensive, to be sure, but the displays are more thoughtfully selected and presented. There’s not as much space, so each piece has to be compelling.

The first floor of the Palacio Cantón is dedicated to the pre-hispanic Maya society, bringing together rare carvings, masks, fabrics and detailed information about their society. Temporary exhibits are presented on the second floor. We saw an excellent collection which fused modern photography with Maya myths, in a way meant to bring the tales to life.

Even if it didn’t host an incredible museum, the palace would be worth visiting just to see its interior. Italian marble, Doric columns, a spiral staircase… the splendor just accentuates the delicious irony in hosting the Anthropology Museum here. What would General Cantón think, after all, if he knew his retirement palace was being used to celebrate the very people he built his career fighting?

Location on our Map

Anthropology Museum in the Palacio Cantón
Anthropology Museum in the Palacio Cantón
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January 28, 2014 at 10:16 pm Comments (2)

Other Sights in Campeche

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We had circled the path of the old fortifications which once protected the city, and taken a trip into the jungles of the interior to visit Maya ruins, but it wasn’t until our final hours in Campeche that we spent much time exploring the city itself.

Campeche Church

Comprising a five-by-eight grid of streets, the center of Campeche hasn’t changed much since the fortifications were erected in the early 1700s. We ambled along the roads, climbing up onto the exaggeratedly-elevated sidewalks when a car would pass by, and directed ourselves to a few of the city’s sights.

First up, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which took nearly two centuries to complete. The baroque facade is impressive, but inside it’s much the same as any cathedral. It does, however, have a small museum full of macabre religious relics, the best of which is a black wood and silver coffin holding a Jesus corpse.

Mansión Carvajal

Nearby the cathedral, we stopped in at the Mansión Carvajal. This baroque residence was built by one of the city’s most important businessmen and is today home to government offices. Visitors are free to wander through, although there’s nothing specific to see here, apart from the interesting architecture.

San Jose Church Campeche

Across town, we sought out the Ex-Temple of San Jose, which is most notable for the lighthouse sticking out of its roof, and for the blue and yellow tiles of its exterior. During our visit, this former Jesuit convent was hosting an exhibit of modern art.

On the southern side of the Plaza Grande, visitors can tour the Centro Cultural Casa 6. This colonial-era home doesn’t have the most inspiring name, but it’s filled with authentic period furniture and does a good job of illuminating how the upper crust of the eighteenth century lived.

We only had a brief taste of Campeche, and were left wanting more. Its cobblestone streets, colorful houses and colonial architecture are hard to dislike. To experience the city at the relaxed pace that it seems to encourage, you’d need at least three or four days. Perhaps even 91.

Locations on our Map: Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception | Mansión Carvajal | Ex-Temple of San Jose | Centro Cultural Casa 6

List of hotels in Campeche

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January 26, 2014 at 10:13 pm Comments (0)

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Ek Balam: The Home of Black Jaguar Just twenty minutes north of Valladolid are the ruins of Ek Balam, a fantastic archaeological site which boasts some of the peninsula's best-preserved Maya sculptures.
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