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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

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Casa-Museo Montes Molina
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January 29, 2014 at 2:41 pm Comments (0)

Uxmal: Thrice-Built Home of the Dwarf King

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An expansive city with soaring buildings that have somehow retained much of their detail, Uxmal is among the most important Maya archaeological sites. It’s about an hour south of Mérida in the Puuc Valley, and we showed up early in the morning after spending the night in nearby Santa Elena.

Uxmal Maya Ruins

Uxmal, which means “Built Three Times”, was at its most powerful between AD 875 and 900. When the Spanish arrived the Maya who were still living among the ruins shared the story of their city’s creation. Of course, just because it came straight from the mouths of the Maya, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should trust it…

According to the legend, Uxmal was ruled by a magic dwarf from nearby Kabah. The dwarf’s mother was a witch who managed to goad the king of Uxmal into a contest against her son. The king challenged the little man with a series of tasks; the final one being to build, in a single day, a structure taller than any other in the city.

When the king awoke the next morning and found a towering pyramid outside his door, he was forced to abdicate, and the dwarf ruled the city for the rest of his days. Today, the stunning Pyramid of the Magician is the first structure you see when entering Uxmal. This five-story temple is notable for its steep incline and elliptical base.

Uxmal Maya Ruins

Just past the pyramid is a set of buildings arranged around a spacious courtyard. This is the Nunnery Quadrangle: the central gathering place of the ancient city. Surrounded by buildings boasting exquisite sculpted motifs of snakes, Maya thatch-roofed houses and the Rain Gods of both the Maya (Chaac) and Aztecs (Tlaloc), the plaza is gorgeous. Its current name was provided by the Spanish. Nunneries, it scarcely needs said, were not a concept which existed among the Maya.

Other highlights include the reconstructed ball court, where the sacred Maya game would be played before ritual sacrifices. The House of the Turtles, a pleasingly simple house with a frieze full of turtles. The House of the Doves. The Great Pyramid. The House of the Witch. And of course, the Palace of the Governor, set atop a hill, whose intricately detailed facade is the longest anywhere in Maya architecture.

Our strategy to arrive as early as possible at the gates of Uxmal paid off handsomely. Just an hour south of Mérida, it’s a popular site with tour groups, but these tend to arrive around 11am. So it wasn’t until the end of our three-hour visit that the site was swarming with other tourists. And by then we didn’t mind. We were on top of the Great Pyramid, looking down on Uxmal as though we were the Dwarf Kings and the people below, our subjects. Just for fun, I picked one out for sacrifice: a strapping lad of twenty, with a strong and healthy heart. Almighty Chaac would be pleased!

Location on our Map

Neat Cabañas Where We Stayed in Santa Elena

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January 2, 2014 at 11:55 pm Comments (4)

Kabah and the Codz Poop

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Kabah was the fourth archaeological site we visited on a very long day dedicated to the Maya ruins of the Ruta Puuc. Our energy might have been low upon arriving, but it’s hard to feel listless in the presence of a building like the Codz Poop.

Kabah and the Codz Poop

Covered from top to bottom in a mesmerizing pattern of masks of the rain god Chaac, the Codz Poop was most likely used as a ceremonial temple. Its name might inspire juvenile laughs, but translates to the rather unfunny phrase “Rolled Mats”, which refers to the visual effect produced by the repeating masks. This repetition of a single decorative element is unique, and found at no other Maya site.

Kabah lies between Sayil and Uxmal, and was contemporary to both, but there is still academic debate about whether it was a satellite city of one of these bigger sites, or a powerhouse in its own right. In fact, there’s a whole lot left to be learned about Kabah. Today, you can visit the Codz Poop and a few other buildings, but the vast majority is yet to be excavated. That includes a massive pyramid laying just off the road, completely covered by overgrowth.

What mysteries are waiting to be discovered in the pyramid? What treasures? And the biggest question: how have professionals been able to resist digging for long? I’m seriously considering buying a shovel, and returning to Kabah myself.

Location on our Map

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January 2, 2014 at 12:40 am Comments (2)

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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December 27, 2013 at 12:42 am Comments (0)

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

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

Rancho Buenavista – On Horseback Through Cozumel

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Cozumel is most famous for its crystalline waters and amazing coral formations, but after about an hour of bouncing on horseback through a thick, humid forest and exploring forgotten Maya ruins, I began to take seriously the island’s true diversity.

Horse Back Riding Cozumel

We were guests at Rancho Buenavista, a horse ranch on the eastern side of the island. The ranch occupies a significant portion of Cozumel’s entire area, and has been in the same family for generations. Among archaeology buffs, Buenavista is appreciated for its Maya ruins, the most important on the island after those at nearby San Gervasio.

After a short safety demonstration, we met our horses for the day. I would be atop Máscara (which, for the sake of Máscara’s manly pride, I should clarify is Spanish for “Mask”, not the eyelash-darkening cosmetic). These were full-sized North American horses, nothing like the pint-sized fellows we’d ridden in Iceland, and I felt a little nervous while mounting. But I kept my fears to myself. I had to, since the four-year-old daughter of the proprietors was riding with us, and was the confident master of her own steed.

Soon enough we were bouncing through the jungle. A playful pack of Xoloitzcuintles, Mexican Hairless Dogs, had decided to follow us, jumping at our feet as we dismounted to explore the first set of Maya ruins. Here, deep in the jungle, the Maya had excavated a cave out of the limestone, which they used for rituals to the goddess Ix’Chel. All along the path, we encountered statues which had been discovered around the grounds of the ranch.

Riding through the jungle, swatting away mosquitoes, and following our guide to ancient ruins… at Buenavista, we truly felt the thrill of adventure and discovery. Our tour lasted for around 90 minutes. Afterwards, back at the ranch, we relaxed with sore butts and a couple beers enjoyed “Chelada” style, with lime and pepper. It was a wonderful day out; if you’re looking for an exciting and absolutely non-standard experience in Cozumel, consider an excursion to Rancho Buenavista.

Location on our Map

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December 11, 2013 at 5:53 pm Comments (4)

Dzibilchaltún – The City of Writing on the Rocks

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The longest continuously-inhabited Maya city on the peninsula, the site of Dzibilchaltún is found just a few minutes outside of Mérida. The Maya occupied this spot from roughly 500 BC to AD 1500, and left behind ruins which, though badly eroded, are a wonder to behold.

Dzibilchaltún
An eroded stele, and the Temple of Seven Dolls in the background

Dzibilchaltún means “City of Writing on the Rocks”, and was the name bestowed by the Spanish in 1689. Only recently did archaeologists uncover the original name of the city, Ch’iy Chan Ti’Ho, but the Spaniards picked a suitable replacement; although today the detail has been lost from most of the ruins, this was indeed a place in which the Maya did a lot of writing on rocks. A couple of the more important stele, or hieroglyph-inscribed columns, have been preserved in the onsite museum.

Having just visited the Casa Catherwood, we were in high spirits for our visit to Dzibilchaltún. The ruins are fascinating, particularly the Templo de Siete Muñecas. Found at the end of the town’s main sacbé, or road, this temple is named for seven small clay dolls which were buried inside, presumably as an offering. The building was probably built as an observatory; it’s aligned so that, during the spring equinox, the sun will appear to rise through its doors.

Not far from the temple, we found the ruins of an entire city, including remnants of houses and even a pyramid which we were able to ascend for a view over the forest canopy. You can hire a guide to introduce the various features of the city; we passed on this, but were second-guessing our decision throughout the day. There isn’t a lot of explanation on the ground and it would have been nice to have an expert on-hand to point out the different facets of the ruins.

Dzibilchaltún Cenote

One area for which we needed no explanation was the Xlacah Cenote. Hundreds of cenotes pockmark the Yucatán Peninsula, but this was the first we had seen. These pools are the result of sunken caverns or sinkholes in the limestone terrain, which have filled with fresh water from underground cisterns. They’re popular places for swimming, and were historically used as a clean water source.

Apart from the ruins and the cenote, Dzibilchaltún has an excellent museum preserving some of the relics found here, such as the seven clay dolls from the temple. We spent almost as much time in the museum as out among the ruins. Less than twenty kilometers from the city center, Dzibilchaltún makes for an easy day trip from Mérida.

Location on our Yucatán Map

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November 27, 2013 at 12:06 am Comments (2)

A Concise History of the Yucatán

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The phrase “Yucatecan History” inevitably conjures images of the ancient Maya, who constructed out of limestone and ingenuity one of the most fascinating civilizations mankind has ever known. The Maya might be the most brilliant piece of the puzzle, but there are others. Here’s our concise rundown of the peninsula’s story.

66 Million BC The dinosaurs are wiped out by a massive meteoric impact, which creates the Chicxulub Crater just off the coast of the Yucatán.
13000 BC Having crossed over the Bering Land Bridge, humans arrive in the Yucatán in search of big game.
1500 – 400 BC The first established settlements on the peninsula are thought to belong to the Olmecs, who were in many ways the precursors to later Maya civilization, already possessing achievements like the calendar and written language.
AD 250 – 900 The civilization of the Maya reaches what is referred to as its Classic Period. The culture is at its pinnacle, exhibiting remarkable sophistication in fields like astronomy and architecture.
900 – 1500 The fabled Maya civilization which stretched to Guatemala had fallen, likely due to drought and overpopulation, but the Yucatecan Maya continue to thrive during the Post-Classic Period. Chichén Itzá is the most important city of this era, which also saw the arrival of the powerful Toltec from the north.
1517 An expedition led by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba arrives on the shores of the Isla Mujeres, in the first appearance of the Blue-Eyed Bearded Men on the peninsula. The initial encounter does not end well for Córdoba, whose company is attacked and badly defeated by the bewildered locals. Córdoba dies of his wounds.
1542 Try as you might, you can’t keep a determined conquistador down. The Spanish eventually subdue a surprisingly resistant Maya population and Francisco de Montejo founds Mérida on the ruins of T’Hó. As will happen later to native populations farther north, the Maya are devastated by disease.
1562 Terrified by their strange, “demonic” hieroglyphs, Catholic bishop Diego de Landa gathers up every Mayan text and document he can find and burns them. This was a people who had carefully documented their own civilization, and very little survived de Landa’s ignorant wrath. The good bishop also considered himself a “historian” and would later write a book about the Maya.
16th – 18th Centuries Spain basically enslaves Mexico, and those not of Spanish blood have a very difficult time in the Yucatán. Haciendas are established around the peninsula, and a very few people live very, very well.
1841 Twenty years after Mexican independence, the Yucatán declares independence of its own and becomes a full-fledged country. The Republic of the Yucatán lasts for a glorious seven years.
1849-1901 Across the peninsula rage the Caste Wars, one of the most successful indigenous uprisings in world history. Fed up with harsh treatment, the Maya rise up and succeed in creating an independent state which lasts for 50 years.
1800s – 1940s The Yucatán grows fabulously wealthy with the success of henequen, a fabric made of agave which can be made into rope, rugs, strings and more. Once Mexico’s poorest state, Yucatán is suddenly the richest, and Mérida flourishes.
1960s For the first time, the Yucatán is linked to the rest of Mexico by highway. So long in isolation from the rest of the country, and often semi-autonomous, the peninsula had developed its own culture and traditions.
December 21st, 2012 The world ends.
… and beyond What? We’re still alive? Guess that ridiculous doomsday prophecy didn’t pan out (not too surprising since the Maya themselves believed no such thing). Far away from the drug violence and official corruption which plagues so much of the country and blessed with an extraordinary heritage, the peninsula is developing itself as a prime touristic destination. More and more foreigners are discovering the warm sun, amazing history, delicious food, fascinating culture, and friendly people who call the Yucatán home.

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November 19, 2013 at 4:50 pm Comment (1)

The Museo de la Ciudad in Mérida

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Found just a couple blocks southeast of the Plaza Grande, Mérida’s grand former post office is now home to a museum which introduces the city and its history.

Merida Museum

We decided to move to the Yucatán because of the Maya ruins, the warm winters and the great beaches. We knew nothing about Mérida itself, and only chose it as a base because it’s the peninsula’s largest and best-connected city. But within almost no time, we had advanced from totally ignorant to decently knowledgeable about our new home. In the first twenty-four hours, we had visited the Cathedral, Palacio del Gobierno, Casa de Montejo, and were now at the doors of the City Museum.

Two days before, I would have had no clue what “henequen” was. Maybe a Dutch beer? A card game? But now I’m like, “God, you don’t know what henequen is?” Totally rolling my eyes.

Merida Museum

From ancient Maya beliefs to the arrival of the Spaniards, the Museo de la Ciudad takes visitors on the same historical journey as that offered by the murals in the Palacio del Gobierno, but more studiously. We were eager to learn about our new home, and gobbled the information up greedily, but I can imagine that those with only a day or two in the city might find it superfluous.

Then again, the museum is free. And even if you have no interest in history, there are temporary art exhibitions on the second and third floors, usually featuring artists from the Yucatán. We saw a fun collection featuring robots in popular culture, and another dedicated to the colorful Maya gods.

Location on our Yucatán Map

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November 17, 2013 at 11:22 pm Comments (0)
The Casa-Museo Montes Molina 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.
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