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The Railway Museum of Mérida

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Once upon a time, the Yucatán had a popular and far-reaching network of passenger locomotives. Today, most of the train stations scattered across the peninsula are little more than ruins. Mérida’s, however, has been converted into a museum dedicated to the machines that once chugged through the jungles.

Train Museum Merida

If you’re a train fan, you’re going to love this museum, which asks for just a small donation on entry. And even if you’re not big on trains, you should still have a good time. The old locomotives are beautiful and you can climb into many of them. A couple have been refurbished, but most are still in their original, half-decrepit condition.

Unfortunately, the museum doesn’t provide information about any of the trains. So if you’re not the kind of person who can confidently tell a 4-4-0 locomotive from a 4-6-2, you’re not going to know what you’re looking at. But the photo opportunities are great and you don’t need special knowledge to enjoy exploring old trains. This museum will especially appeal to kids and, should you have any questions, the knowledgeable manager is usually around.

Location on our Map

Our Visit To The Train Cemetery In Bolivia

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February 14, 2014 at 3:08 pm Comments (0)

Pictures from Tulum Town

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The beaches are unforgettable, but there’s a side to Tulum which has nothing to do with sand or turquoise blue waters. And that would be the actual town, where most of the locals live and work. It’s not quite as picturesque, but don’t let that keep you away… we enjoyed the pueblo almost as much as the coast.

Tulum Blog

Tulum Town provides a nice dose of “normal life” after the paradise-overload of the beach. The bars and restaurants are good, and a lot cheaper. And though you’ll see a lot of tourists wandering the streets, and a few chintzy souvenir shops, the pueblo has managed to retain its Mexican identity.

Location on our Map

Vacation Rentals in Tulum

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February 11, 2014 at 3:21 pm Comment (1)

Snorkelling at the Yal-Ku Lagoon

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After completing our Open Water scuba certifications, we expected the idea of snorkeling to lose its appeal. Why float on top of the water when you can dive right down into it? But at shallow sites like the Yal-Ku Lagoon in Akumal, snorkeling is just as good as scuba. Perhaps even better.

Yal-Ku Lagoon

Yal-Ku is a natural lagoon near the sea, not as large or expensive as the much more famous Xel-Ha, but big enough to comfortably occupy half a day. We visited in the afternoon, following an unforgettable experience swimming with Akumal’s sea turtles.

The big advantage snorkeling has over scuba is that you can spend as long as you want in the water. We swam around Yal-Ku for at least 90 minutes, which was easier than it sounds even without a life jacket. The visibility was a little blurry, especially where the fresh water mixed with the salty ocean water, but we saw a ton of fish, including barracudas, trumpet fish and a couple gigantic rainbow parrot fish, who led us on a chase around the lagoon.

Toward the end of our swim, we went through a tunnel in the limestone rock, and ended up in front of a school of thousands of silver fish, moving in perfect unison. Doing my best whale impression, I dove into the center of the school, making them dart away from me with such precisely synchronized movements, it seemed impossible that they weren’t sharing a collective consciousness.

You could spend an entire day at Yal-Ku, even booking a palapa. A stand at the entrance will rent whatever snorkel gear you need, at a reasonable price, so all you have to bring is your swimsuit and towel.

Location on our Map

I used this underwater camera!!!!

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February 10, 2014 at 10:18 pm Comments (0)

The Cenote Siete Bocas

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Underwater Pictures Were Taking With This Camera

The road leading inland from Puerto Morelos has just one thing on its mind: cenotes. Sign after hand-painted sign exhorts you to visit Cenote Las Mojarras! Cenote Boca del Puma! Cenote Verde Lucero! Without prior information, it’d be impossible to know which to choose, so we made sure to get a recommendation. And those we talked to were in agreement that Cenote Siete Bocas, or the Seven-Mouth Cenote, would be unforgettable.

Cenote Siete Bocas

Siete Bocas is found at the end of a long and poorly-marked dirt path leading off the main road. We were overjoyed to see that ours was the only car in the parking lot, and a woman immediately came out to greet us. She told us a bit about the cenote, and then asked for 250 pesos (about $19) apiece. For a cenote, that’s quite steep. I looked around but couldn’t find the normal price listed anywhere, so we had more than a sneaking suspicion that she had sized us up before inventing the figure, but whatever. We weren’t in the mood to haggle, and handed over the cash.

Luckily, the cenote was amazing; easily worth the price, however inflated. As its name implies, this is one large cenote with seven small entrances that have opened in the earth. Because of high water levels following a long period of rain, two of the bocas were closed during our visit, but it hardly mattered.

We started at the first hole, and jumped off the subterranean platform into the cave. With light pouring in from above, the water was a deep, beautiful blue, and the cave itself was both scary and exciting. We swam slowly around, discovering a passage which led to Boca #5. I swam around the back of a huge stalactite and into a section of the cave that received very little light. Just as I was about to turn around, a bat flew out of darkness and past my head.

Bocas #3 and #4 were connected by a small passageway. You could climb down a ladder into #3, but #4 required a leap of faith. This was a huge, perfectly circular hole where the water was extremely deep. I gathered my courage and made the jump, holding it together until the very end, when I couldn’t resist letting out a shriek of terror (or a bellow of virility, however you want to interpret it).

Siete Bocas is especially popular with cave divers, and it’s not hard to see why. With scuba equipment, you can explore the entire underground lake and with seven sources of light pouring in, the view from the deep must be unreal.

Location on our Map

We Stayed In A Great Affordable Place In Puerto Morelos

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February 4, 2014 at 2:06 pm Comments (0)

The Maya Ruins of Edzná

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Found 50 kilometers inland from Campeche, the Maya site of Edzná is best known for its five-level pyramid-palace structure. Without our own transportation, Edzná was difficult to reach, but the opportunity to see its compact and beautiful ruins made the effort worthwhile.

Edzna Maya Ruins

We had to depend on public transportation to get from Campeche to Edzná, and finding the bus wasn’t a simple task. The tourist office had been of no help, so we went to the market and started asking around. Everyone had a different idea on where to find the appropriate colectivo (mini-bus), but none of their advice panned out. Eventually, a scraggly, sketchy guy selling ice-pops out of a cooler approached us, claiming to know where to find the bus. We followed him apprehensively into a dilapidated building, out the back courtyard, and into an alley where, indeed, there were colectivos bound for Edzná. “Haha,” I said, clapping our hero on the shoulder, “and here I thought you were planning to kill us.”

The crowded, sweaty bus ride took an hour, but soon enough we were walking into the ruins. Edzná is an extremely old site. Originally settled around 400 BC, it reached its peak during the terminal classic period, in about AD 900, at which point it was home to 25,000 people. After a long decline, the city was abandoned by 1500. Edzná’s name means “House of the Itza”, indicating a strong connection to Chichén Itzá. It’s possible that the powerful Itzá clan settled here first before moving farther north.

Edzná is famous for a five-tiered structure that marries elements of a pyramid and a palace. When we first arrived, I figured that this was the somewhat large pyramid at the end of the plaza. Pretty cool, but not mind-blowing, and I couldn’t see any palace-type features on it. However, upon climbing to the top of a sub-structure, my mind was blown after all. Turns out that Ednzá’s famous five-story pyramid is completely obscured from view at the entrance, and suddenly seeing it after cresting the steps was quite a shock.

This structure, which you unfortunately can no longer climb, has multiple doorways on each floor that led to the private quarters of Edzná society. The more important you were, the higher up on the pyramid you lived. Considering that it wasn’t just ceremonial, but home to the upper echelon of Edzná society, it seems safe to assume that the pyramid must have been full of treasures. And it still might be. Incredibly, it’s never been fully excavated.

Edzná is compact, so you don’t need a lot of time to see the entire site; we were done in about an hour, and then had to wait for the colectivo back to Campeche. To pass the time, we ate tacos made by a woman at a makeshift stand on the side of the road, and chatted with her about the Mennonites who kept driving past. Jürgen and I don’t necessarily have a lot in common with rural taco ladies, but if there’s one thing that can bring even the most disparate groups of people together, it’s laughing about weird, white Mexican Mennonites.

Location of Edzná on our Map

Cheap Flights To Mexico

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January 26, 2014 at 7:21 pm Comment (1)

Acanceh

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After swimming in Chunkanán’s three cenotes, we felt energized enough to stop at nearby Acanceh before our return to Mérida. This small town is one of the oldest Maya sites in the Yucatán, and one of the few to retain its original name, which approximately means “Cry of the Deer”.

Acanceh Yucatan

Archaeologists date the ruins of Acanceh to AD 300 and the dawn of the Classic Era. At this stage in Maya history, the great cities were much farther south in Guatemala and the Chiapas region of Mexico. There’s reason to suspect that Acanceh wasn’t even founded by the Maya: its oldest carvings are evocative of Teotihuacan, a powerful empire from northern Mexico.

In a rare juxtaposition of the pre- and post-Columbian religions, Acanceh’s central pyramid is found right across from the town cathedral. The Spanish must have been in an unusually good mood when subjugating Acanceh; Maya structures in populated towns were almost always demolished, so that their stones could be used as material for the new churches, but Acanceh’s pyramid was allowed to survive.

Archaeologists eventually discovered a secondary structure hiding underneath the outer layer of the pyramid: a sub-pyramid, crowned by eight enormous masks which look out over the town, two facing in each cardinal direction. You can climb the scaffolding for an up-close look at the sculptures, of which only a couple have survived relatively intact.

Nearby, another pyramid can be climbed for a view over the jungle canopy, and Acanceh boasts a third structure called the Palace of the Stucco, which we completely missed. Frustratingly, we didn’t even know of the palace’s existence until a few days after our visit. If there’s one thing Yucatán’s Maya sites are lacking, it’s information for the visitor; it’s always a good idea to bring your own guidebooks or brochures when exploring the peninsula, and to research a specific spot rigorously before visiting it.

We really enjoyed our short time in Acanceh. More than just a set of forgotten ruins, it’s a town which is very much alive. Before grabbing the bus back home, we walked around the central plaza, which was buzzing with activity. The pyramid is an odd sight on the edge of the plaza, but a refreshing one. In Acanceh, more than in other places, you can really sense the pride which locals have for their wondrous Maya heritage.

Location on our Map

Great Rental Car Company For the Yucatan

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January 15, 2014 at 7:10 pm Comments (0)

MACAY – Mérida’s Contemporary Art Museum

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Next to the cathedral and inside one of the city’s most historic buildings, the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Ateneo de Yucatán (MACAY) offers a great place to escape the sweltering heat of the sun and take in some thought-provoking modern art. During our visit, we were almost as impressed by the fabulous air-conditioning as by the bizarre pieces hanging on the walls.

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The museum is totally free to visit, so even if contemporary art isn’t your thing, there’s no reason not to take a quick tour. This building was constructed in 1573 as an ateneo, or private cultural institution, on the orders of the Bishop Diego de Landa. Perhaps he was still feeling a tinge of guilt for having destroyed every Maya codex, book and idol he could get his hands on during 1562’s notorious auto-da-fé in Maní. Regardless, the ateneo is a striking building, and has found a perfect modern purpose as home to the MACAY.

The exhibition begins on the upper floor in a series of rooms organized around a courtyard. Most of the rooms are dedicated to temporary collections, focusing mostly on contemporary Mexican artists, though there are a couple permanent exhibitions. One features the work of Mérida’s own Fernando Castro Pacheco, one of Mexico’s greatest muralists. We had already been impressed by his work in the nearby Palacio del Gobierno, and were happy to see more.

A tour through the museum can take about an hour, depending on your tolerance for contemporary art. For me, it was a mixed bag; some of the exhibitions were truly fantastic, while others inspired “what a load of rubbish”-type sentiments. But still, I was disappointed when, after walking through the sculpture garden, our tour had come to its conclusion. The MACAY is quiet, cool and interesting, and spending time there is a pleasure.

Location on our Map

Framed Photos From The Yucatan

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January 14, 2014 at 12:35 am Comments (0)

MUSA – An Underwater Museum Off Isla Mujeres

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We’ve been to plenty of strange museums during our travels around the world. An optical illusion museum in Busan. A bordello museum in Idaho. The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul and a phallological museum in Iceland. But there’s a new contender for the title of most unique: the MUSA, an underwater museum found off the coast of Isla Mujeres.

Manchones Reef Diving Isla Mujuere

The MUSA, or Museo Subacuático de Arte, is the brainchild of Jason DeCaires Taylor, a British artist who was motivated to act after the devastation wreaked by 2008’s Hurricane Wilma. By designing sculptures and placing them on the sandy bottom of the sea, Taylor was fulfilling two purposes. First, he was creating an artificial reef onto which coral would grow and within which sea life might flourish. Second, he was diverting human attention away from the overtaxed natural reef.

Both of these aims have been met. Visiting the museum requires an easy dive of just 8 meters (24 feet), or you can choose to see it from above while snorkeling. The sculptures include a miniature house, a Volkswagen Beetle and a haunting collection of human statues, frozen in time. If you look closely, each person in this group is different, from a pregnant woman to a kneeling priest, and they’re all slowly being claimed by the coral.

Our visit to the MUSA was the first of two dives we made on the same day. The second was to a nearby reef called Manchones. It was another shallow dive, during which we swam along with an incredible array of fish. Our most exciting encounter was with a Stonefish. It was shifting a little as I passed over, otherwise I’d never have spotted it. The fish was so well camouflaged that Jürgen had a hard time seeing it even though I was just a foot away, pointing frantically. I dared not get closer; these are among the most poisonous fish in the world, and a single sting can prove fatal.

Location of the MUSA on our Map
MUSA Museo Subacuático de Arte – Website

My Underwater Camera

More images from the underwater museum:

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More photos from the Manchones Reef:

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Manchones Reef Diving Isla Mujuere
Manchones Reef Diving Isla Mujuere
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January 11, 2014 at 4:19 pm Comments (9)

Isla Mujeres

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After 24 hours, we’d seen enough of Cancún and made our way to Isla Mujeres, just a half-hour by ferry off the coast. This island of around 12,000 people has made a name for itself as a sort of anti-Cancún. A place to relax, escape the crowds and bask in the simple joy of being on a gorgeous Caribbean island.

Isla Mujeres

Named for the numerous Maya goddess statues which the Spanish found here, Isla Mujeres (Island of the Women) isn’t exactly off the beaten path. In fact, we found it to be even more crowded with tourists than Cancún. But the vibe is totally different. People don’t hang out in their hotels, but at beach bars and cozy downtown cafes. There are fewer drunken frat boys and more dreadlocked rasta boys. Isla Mujeres is just a lot cooler, a lot more relaxed.

The island is small enough to comfortably handle in a couple days, but most visitors stay longer. And plenty end up staying forever. Isla Mujeres is popular with wealthy American expats, which comes with both positive and negative aspects. Better restaurants and services, perhaps, but there’s a palpable sense of pretentiousness. This isn’t Cancún, but you’ll still hear more English than Spanish on Isla Mujeres and, for all the hippy vibe, the best locations and properties are in the hands of rich foreigners. The locals have been shunted off farther south, farther inland.

We spent three nights on the island, which gave us plenty of time to see the highlights. Unfortunately the weather didn’t play along; we had torrential rains and a lot of our sightseeing had to be cut short. But overall, we came away with a positive impression of the tiny island.

Location on our Map

Great Hotels On Isla Mujeres

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January 9, 2014 at 6:43 pm Comments (3)

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)

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The Railway Museum of Mrida Once upon a time, the Yucatán had a popular and far-reaching network of passenger locomotives. Today, most of the train stations scattered across the peninsula are little more than ruins. Mérida's, however, has been converted into a museum dedicated to the machines that once chugged through the jungles.
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