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Ka’a Xi’itech, Yucatán

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Once again, another 91 days have come and gone. This time, we’re saying adiós to the Yucatán Peninsula. Our three months here were amazing; an almost perfect mix of history, culture, sight-seeing and adventure. We’re leaving with tanned bodies, relaxed minds, and memories that we won’t soon forget.

Despite the fact that it borders the USA, we had never bothered to visit Mexico and, worse, we knew next to nothing about it. But overlooking our neighbor to the south is a mistake which Jürgen and I won’t be making again. Our three months in the Yucatán consisted of highlight after highlight, surprise after surprise. From the henequen plantations around Mérida to the walled city of Campeche, to the pristine waters off the coast of Quintana Roo, to the ancient Maya cities, we saw as much of the peninsula as humanly possible.

Yes, we had a hectic schedule, but don’t feel too sorry for us. After all, our itinerary was filled with items like “pearl farm on uninhabited beach” and “lagoon tour to see flamingos” and “excursion to forgotten Maya ruins” and “swimming with sea turtles”. There were times we got tired, of course, but whenever I felt myself about to whine, I remembered that my only complaint was having too much of a good thing.

Tulum. Uxmal. Poc-chuc. Sotuta de Peon. Celestún. Maní. Panuchos. Cenotes. Cozumel. I don’t think we’ve ever had so many experiences that I would immediately like to have again. That I would happily repeat the very next day. But that’s not to say that I was ready to sign up for another 91 days in the Yucatán, right away. After three months, there were aspects of life here that I was eager to escape, chief among them the heat and the mosquitoes. The noise and chaos of Mérida, initially fun and invigorating, wore thin. The unreliability of public transportation was infuriating. The lethargy and grime. The littering and the police stops.

But without a few little gripes, a place wouldn’t feel like home, and we knew that we were seriously going to miss the Yucatán. More so than in other places, I felt as though we really improved upon ourselves during our time here. We learned to scuba dive. We became versed in the history and present-day situation of the Maya, one of the most fascinating cultures we’ve ever encountered. We improved our Spanish, discovered a new cuisine, communed with nature, and met some wonderful people. While in the Yucatán, we grew in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

As always, leaving was hard. If nothing else, our time in the Yucatán opened our minds to the wonders of México, and I know for a fact that we’ll be back soon. We’re already starting to look forward to it.

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February 16, 2014 at 5:55 pm Comments (2)

Sotuta de Peon

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During the Yucatán’s henequen boom, there were close to a thousand haciendas (plantations) in operation across the state. Today, they’re nearly all in ruins. And in the area surrounding Mérida, only one still manufactures henequen: Sotuta de Peon. We joined a tour of the hacienda which led us through a mansion, the factory, a Maya house in the agave fields, a cenote, and ended at a restaurant serving up Yucatecan specialties.

Hacienda Sotuta de Peon

Our tour started in the hacienda’s main residence, which was filled with antique furniture and framed, faded photographs of the family who once lived here. Like all other henequen plantations, Sotuta de Peon closed up shop after the introduction of synthetic fibers in the mid-twentieth century. It was only recently purchased by a local businessman, renovated and restored to working operations.

Outside the mansion, we were introduced to the henequen-making process. The fiber comes from the leaves of an agave plant, similar to that which produces tequila. We saw both the old, labor-intensive method for producing the fiber and then moved to the more modern machinery. I use the term “modern” in a relative sense; these massive, roaring machines date from the early 1900s. We watched as stacks of henequen leaves were deposited into the machine, which broke them and “combed” the fiber out of the plant’s flesh.

Next, we boarded a cart hitched to a mule and set off into the fields where, at the top of a hill, Don Antonio was awaiting us in his palapa. He’s been living and working at Sotuta de Peon for most of his life and, since retiring from field work, has become a part of the hacienda’s tour. After explaining the process of cutting henequen, he showed us around his home, expressing his wonder and gratitude about his lot in life. Years ago as a simple henequen cutter, he couldn’t have imagined that he’d ever meet so many people from all around the world, and he seemed as interested in us as we were in him.

After saying “ka’a xi’itech” to our new friend, another short mule ride brought us to Sotuta de Peon’s cenote, where we had an hour to swim and enjoy a drink at the mobile “Wagon Bar”. The water was warm, and the underground cenote was more beautiful than we had expected. During our three months in the Yucatán, we saw many cenotes, and kept waiting for one to disappoint us. But it never happened.

Our tour ended with lunch in the hacienda’s restaurant. The food was excellent, and the prices reasonable. The tour itself, in fact, is a major bargain considering everything that it entails. If you have time to visit just a single hacienda during your time in the Yucatán, you’d be well-advised to make it the Sotuta de Peon.

Location on our Map
Sotuta de Peon – Website

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February 15, 2014 at 4:06 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.

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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.

Location on our Map

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February 3, 2014 at 2:22 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.

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

Progreso – Mérida’s Beach Town

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Talking to expats and reading online accounts had led us to believe that Progreso was a humdrum place, and when we finally visited, it was more out of a vague sense of duty than any personal desire. But while we had braced ourselves for boredom, what we discovered was a friendly, likable and unpretentious beach town. Chalk it up to the miracle of low expectations, if you wish, but we loved Progreso.

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As we learned while trying to reach Maní, the Yucatán isn’t exactly blessed with speedy and efficient public transportation. But getting to Progreso from Mérida couldn’t have been easier. Direct buses leave frequently from the city center and arrive at the beach in less than an hour. I had become accustomed to painfully slow bus rides, but the trip to Progreso was so brief that I barely had time to dig into my bagful of “Mexican Bus Distractions” (books, music, sudoku, food, comics, needlework). I was almost disappointed when we arrived so quickly.

Besides a pleasant main square, a prominent lighthouse and an entertaining covered market, there isn’t much to the town. We didn’t visit any fascinating museums, upscale art galleries, or beautiful old churches. But that’s not the point of Progreso. The point is “beach”. We spent most of the day strolling along the promenade, sitting under the shade of a coconut tree, lounging at a bar and people-watching.

Part of the reason we so enjoyed Progreso was due to the dumb luck of visiting on a day without cruise ships, which anchor at the end of an insanely long four-kilometer concrete pier. Apparently, the town changes its flavor dramatically when the boats arrive, becoming much more commercial and obnoxious. But we didn’t experience any of that. Our trip to Progreso was perfect. Relaxed, easy and fun… just the kind of atmosphere a beach town should have.

Location of Progreso on our Map

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January 23, 2014 at 1:49 pm Comments (3)

Sayil

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

Sayil Maya Ruin

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

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

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

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

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

Location on our Map

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

Oxcutzcab and the Ruta Puuc

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

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

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

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

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

Location of Oxkutzcab on our Map

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

A Tour of Mérida’s Markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Río Secreto

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A vast system of underground rivers flows through the limestone earth of the Yucatán Peninsula, with the largest found just south of Playa del Carmen. The Río Secreto allows visitors an exhilarating chance to walk, wade, and float through an extensive network of subterranean chambers.

Río Secreto is one of a number of attractions along the Riviera Maya promoting themselves as family-friendly theme parks. Despite rave reviews, we almost avoided it for this very reason. (A special adventure for the whole family in the Secret River? What are we, twelve?) But once we put away the glossy brochures and got past the front gates, the park revealed itself to be much more serious and interesting than expected.

After a bumpy bus ride to the site, we put on wet suits and helmets, and followed our guide into the woods. Soon, we had arrived at a gateway to the underworld. Illuminated perfectly by light filtering in from above, we entered into a mesmerizing cave full of stalactites whose reflections shone off the still blue water covering the ground. Although it has long been known to locals, Río Secreto was only discovered by the world at large in 2007, and was almost immediately made into a national park, which helps explain the immaculate condition of the caves.

For 90 minutes, we followed the river into vast chambers and underneath delicate, chandelier-like stalactite formations. Sometimes we’d wade, sometimes float, and occasionally the darkness was complete. Our guide once had us turn off our helmet lamps in order to experience being alone in pure, pitch blackness. But more often, there would be light shining through. The Maya considered these caves to be sacred, and it’s not hard to understand why. Their beauty is absolutely sublime, and their size is difficult to comprehend. Although our tour lasted 90 minutes, we saw only around 3% of the entire system.

At $69 USD per person ($99 if you need transport), Río Secreto isn’t among the cheapest entertainment options in the Yucatán, and I’m sure the high cost turns a lot of people off. Even more frustrating, a professional photographer who follows you into the cave will take some truly excellent pictures, but the CD costs another $99 USD (with the option to buy individual pictures at $25 a pop). Shameful. Still, we can’t recommend a trip to Río Secreto enough. We’ve visited a lot of the Earth’s special hidden corners, but this was among the most unforgettable.

Location on our Yucatán Map

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December 9, 2013 at 11:15 pm Comments (7)
Ka'a Xi'itech, Yucatn Once again, another 91 days have come and gone. This time, we're saying adiós to the Yucatán Peninsula. Our three months here were amazing; an almost perfect mix of history, culture, sight-seeing and adventure. We're leaving with tanned bodies, relaxed minds, and memories that we won't soon forget.
For 91 Days