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The Caste War Museum in Tihosuco

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The Spaniards may have conquered the Yucatán with relative ease, but destroying the spirit of the Maya proved a far more difficult task. From the very beginning of the conquest and up into the twentieth century, the Maya fought back against their oppressors, bending but never breaking. The stories of their struggle are told in the Museo de las Guerra Casta, in the village of Tihosuco.

Caste War Museum in Tihosuco

The Yucatán is a large peninsula with vast stretches of jungle, and it provides plenty of cover for those who know the territory, which explains in part why the Maya resistance proved so troublesome to the Spanish (and later, the Mexicans). For centuries, attacks flared up, cities were taken and re-taken, semi-independent territories were established, and vicious retaliations inflicted. The Conquest of the Yucatán is not a story of a docile, vanquished people, always the pitiful victims. The Maya were not to be trifled with.

During what’s come to be known as the Caste War, one of the most successful indigenous uprisings in the history of humanity, the Maya very nearly succeeded in taking back the entire peninsula. In 1847, Maya troops who had been stockpiling arms in Quintana Roo set out on the march. They took Valladolid. They took Izamal. They marched within 24 kilometers of Mérida, gaining momentum and support every step of the way. The white landowners and clergy were in panic, and those who could had already fled. There’s little doubt that, had they proceeded, the Maya would have conquered the capital and won the war. But then the rains came.

The rains! At the very heart of the struggle for independence was a respect for ancient traditions, which had been under attack for centuries. And these traditions called for men to return to the farm during the milpa, or corn harvest. Although victory was within grasp, the men abandoned the front. By the time they were ready to rejoin the fight, the Yucatecan troops had been bolstered with reinforcements from Mexico. The tide of the war had turned irrevocably.

The small museum in Tihosuco does a nice job of illuminating this story with paintings, artifacts and a top-notch guidebook in multiple languages. Tihosuco itself played an important part in the war as the scene of a major early battle. The church in the town square, the Iglesia del Niño Dios, is still in ruins, and serves as an evocative reminder of the conflict.

It’s not near any other touristic sights, but an excursion to Tihosuco is worth the considerable effort of getting there. If you’re feeling hungry after visiting the museum, ask around for Doña Nachita’s, near the church. The “restaurant” isn’t anything more than a table in her living room, but the food is great.

Location of Tihosuco on our Map

For This Trip We Rented A Car From Sixt

Caste War Museum in Tihosuco
Caste War Museum in Tihosuco
Caste War Museum in Tihosuco
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February 13, 2014 at 4:02 pm Comments (4)

Temazcal: The Mexican Sweat Bath

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During our stay in Tulum’s Akulik Hotel, we were invited to try out the traditional sweat bath called a temazcal. “That sounds pleasant,” I thought, not at all anticipating the intense and exhausting cleansing of the body, soul and mind I had just agreed to.

Temazcal Steam Bath Tulum

For centuries, the temazcal has been practiced by the Mesoamerican cultures of Mexico, including the Maya. The word comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs. It’s a physical purging of the body, a spiritual way to reconnect with the Earth, and a medicinal tool used to fight sickness and disease. Outraged by the idea of mixed-gender and mixed-age groups of indigenous people crawling naked into a dark clay hut, the Spanish tried to put an end to the practice, but the temazcal proved resilient.

Before beginning, Laura (our temazcalera) prepared us for the experience by praying and blowing copal smoke over our bodies. She explained that we would be giving thanks to the four cardinal directions and to the four elements. We would be reflecting on our lives, and meditating on our families and the world. She placed tobacco in each of our hands and asked us to concentrate an aspect of ourselves that needed improvement, then throw the leaves onto the fire.

I’m allergic to anything with the slightest whiff of New Age-iness. A reference your “inner child” or praise for the wisdom of The Secret, will earn you a big roll of my eyes. But as Laura was entreating us to enter the womb of the Earth Mother, I decided to just go with it; to suppress my usual skepticism and make an honest effort to embrace the spiritual side of things.

As it turns out, connecting with your spiritual side is easy during a temazcal. You’re sitting cross-legged inside this pitch-black hut, the only light provided by the red-hot stones glowing in the central pit. You’re sweating profusely, and you’ve been sweating for over an hour. You’ve got this little Maya woman chanting and singing, whispering and suddenly howling. She asks you to envision your family and conjure somebody into the hut and, yes, I can do this. It’s easy. I can actually see my mom sitting across from me, right there, plain as day.

Temazcal Steam Bath Tulum

Probably, I was hallucinating. Our temazcal lasted for two hours. It got insanely hot, hotter than any sauna I’ve ever visited and at one point, I had to lay face down on the cool ground. There were four stages, called puertas or “doors”, each dedicated to a different element and a different direction. Before each puerta, new stones were brought in. These were the abuelitas, or grandmothers of the earth, and we were asked to welcome each with a song.

During the first puerta, we concentrated on the animals and plants of the world. For the second, we contemplated humanity. The third was dedicated to ourselves, and we reflected on our own lives, our own happiness. And during the fourth puerta, we were asked to think about our families and friends. There came a point during the third stage that I had a spiritual epiphany about my life. Even if it was triggered by heat fever and delirium, that was a powerful moment, and it has stayed with me.

It was early afternoon when we entered the temazcal, but by the time we crawled out, it was dark. It truly felt as though we had been newly born, and had exited a womb of some sort. I stood up too quickly, and promptly fainted. Luckily, Laura’s son was standing nearby to provide a steadying hand until I regained control.

For the hours and days after our temazcal, Jürgen and I felt amazing. A two hour steam bath is intense! I’ve never sweated so much in my life, and it really seemed like everything negative in my mind and body had been pushed out through my pores. Quite an experience, and though it’s not one I’m eager to repeat, it’s something I’ll probably never forget.

Location On Our Map

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February 12, 2014 at 3:49 pm Comment (1)

Cobá: Our Final Maya Site

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Found forty minutes inland from Tulum, the Maya city of Cobá has become a popular destination for tours out of Cancún, and upon arriving, we were disheartened by the number of buses we saw in the lot. But the ruins are spread out across such a wide swath of jungle that the crowds never became overwhelming. This was the final archaeological zone we would be visiting during our 91 days in the Yucatán, and we greeted the milestone with sadness and a little relief.

Coba Maya Ruins

Cobá was established around AD 100, and reached its zenith seven hundred years later, becoming one of the most powerful kingdoms in the northern Yucatán. The city is centered around two large lagoons and occupies a vast area, only a fraction of which is open to tourists today. Cobá has only recently been linked to the highway, and for most of modern history, was inaccessible to all but the most intrepid visitors.

Cobá is split up into three main clusters of ruins connected by sacbeob, or Maya white roads. Bicycles can be rented to get around between the groups, but we decided to walk. This was a mistake. The sets of ruins are about a kilometer apart from one another, and a bike would have made our visit much quicker and easier.

Coba Maya Ruins

The first group of ruins had some buildings and a small ball court, and the second group had a few stelae (ceremonial columns carved with hieroglyphics), but neither were all that compelling. So far, we were rather disappointed. We had been hiking for a long time through the jungle, and were hot and miserable, but finally we arrived at the third set of ruins and laid our eyes upon the pyramid of Ixmoja. Cobá was about to be worth the effort, after all.

At 42 meters in height, this is the tallest pyramid on the entire peninsula, higher than Chichén Itzá’s or that of Ek Balam. The climb to the top was difficult, but the view was breathtaking, encompassing not just the jungle, but the lagoons around which Cobá is situated.

During our time in the Yucatán, we visited nearly twenty Maya archaeological zones. Each had something different to offer, and it would be difficult to pick a favorite. But climbing Cobá’s pyramid and looking out over the lush green jungles of the Yucatán felt like the perfect way to close our journey into the world of the ancient Maya.

Location on our Map

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February 9, 2014 at 5:01 pm Comments (3)

The Ruins of Tulum

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Memorably set on a bluff overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, the ruins of Tulum are perhaps the most picturesque on the peninsula. The site itself is small and compact, and none of the surviving buildings are particularly large, but this doesn’t make the place any less impressive.

The archaeological zone can be extremely crowded, especially on a sunny day like the one we chose for our visit. To view certain buildings, or take a picture from the designated vista panorámica, we were even forced to queue up. But that was alright. It was a beautiful day and the ruins were so lovely that not even hordes of other tourists could spoil our moods.

All the buildings in Tulum are small, which was by design. Just as at Cozumel’s San Gervasio, the Maya knew better than to build huge pyramids in zones regularly afflicted by hurricanes. Unfortunately, visitors are kept well away from any of the ruins. Climbing around on them is strictly prohibited, and you can’t even get close enough to look inside. This is particularly frustrating at the Templo de las Pinturas, which contains amazing interior murals.

But the exterior detail on many of the buildings is also stunning, and the best part of Tulum has nothing to do with antique masonry at all. At the foot of the site, there’s a gorgeous public beach. Bring swimsuits and a towel, and you can swim in pristine water with the ruins of Tulum rising majestically on the cliffs above you.

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February 8, 2014 at 3:09 pm Comments (0)

The Forgotten Ruins of Oxkintok

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Okay, so the ancient Maya site of Oxkintok is not “forgotten” in any true sense of the word. It appears on maps and in guidebooks, and there are people waiting at the entrance to collect your fee. But once you’re inside, wandering about ruins half-reclaimed by the jungle, so distant from the next town, Oxkintok feels forgotten. And you’re allowed to feel like the intrepid adventurer who discovered it.

We’ve learned that, in terms of quality, the place you’re visiting and the experience of visiting it are often completely distinct. I mean, Rome is essential, but visiting it can be excruciating. It’s tiring, dirty, crowded, overwhelming. In contrast, the tiny town of Sandpoint, Idaho has nothing specific to recommend it, but it’s so beautiful, peaceful and remote, that it’s hard to imagine anyone not falling in love with it. But if someone came to me and said, “I can spend a week in either Rome or Sandpoint, which should it be?” Obviously, the answer is Rome. There’s no doubt. But really, you’d probably enjoy yourself more in Sandpoint.

This is what I was thinking about while picking my way among the ruins of Oxkintok, found in the southeastern corner of Yucatán State. We were visiting soon after our trip to Chichén Itzá, and the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. To reach Oxkintok, we had embarked on a long trico ride along unpaved and increasingly bumpy roads from Maxcanú. Although the ruins here weren’t anywhere near as glorious as those we’ve seen elsewhere, they were far from unimpressive.

Oxkintok looks just like the crumbling Maya cities of my imagination. We were the only tourists here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn we were the first in a very long time. The place just feels abandoned, and I mean that in the very best sense of the word. We had a blast hiking from temple to temple, free to climb around many of them, occasionally spotting strange sculptures or statues sticking out of the jungle, often spooked by a loud rustle from some bit of undergrowth near our feet.

Unlike our visits to other Maya sites, I largely disregarded the information which was posted in front of the most important buildings. Here, I didn’t really care whether this was Structure B8 or A3, or in what year it was built. I simply enjoyed the sensation of adventure and discovery, unconcerned about committing dates and facts to memory. We appreciated Oxkintok not for what it used to be, but for what it’s become: the most atmospheric ruins we saw during our time in the Yucatán.

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February 3, 2014 at 11:17 pm Comments (0)

The Ruins of Aké

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On the way home to Mérida from Izamal, we swung by the small village and archaeological site of Aké. Requiring a long drive off the main highway, it’s a town which feels forgotten by the march of time.

Ake Yucatan

The ruins are not the most impressive that we saw during our time in the Yucatán, but are found so far off the beaten path that visiting them is quite fun. The site was completely empty, as I would venture is usually the case, and we had the run of it. We climbed to the top of the main structure, the Edificio de las Palastras, and walked along the walls which form the perimeter, all alone under the heavy sun.

Before leaving, we noticed a path leading into the jungle, and followed this for a couple hundred meters to yet another set of ruins. At the top, two deep caves were hollowed out into the rock. Alone in the woods and standing atop an ancient ruin which must have served as a dwelling for Maya holy men, it was hard not to feel the rush of adventure.

Next to the site is an old henequen factory, which we assumed had long been abandoned. But on our way out, we could hear the hum of machines emanating from within. Peering through the window, we saw that the old machinery of this factory was still in operation. Apparently, it’s possible to tour the plant, although this is something we unfortunately didn’t have time to do.

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February 3, 2014 at 2:22 pm Comments (0)

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.

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

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.

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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.

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

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?

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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)

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The Caste War Museum in Tihosuco The Spaniards may have conquered the Yucatán with relative ease, but destroying the spirit of the Maya proved a far more difficult task. From the very beginning of the conquest and up into the twentieth century, the Maya fought back against their oppressors, bending but never breaking. The stories of their struggle are told in the Museo de las Guerra Casta, in the village of Tihosuco.
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