Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I'm Ruined Part 1-Road trip to Chichen Itza

When one is on the Yucatan Peninsula, there’s two things they must do—go to the beach and the ruins. Chichen Itza is the granddaddy of all the Mayan ruins and about an hour down the road from Merida. There are various ways of getting there and I decided to rent a car. After the 4 hr journey from Cancun, I wasn’t in the mood to hop on another bus. Plus I like the freedom a car brings. Online I found a really cheap rate but after the insurance and taxes, it wasn’t that cheap. Oh the price of freedom huh? Better pay more than sit in a Mexican jail.
I wanted to get the car early so I could get to Chichen Itza before the heat of the day. Of course being Mexico that wasn’t going to happen. Instead of an 8:00 start, it was more like 9:00. The Hertz girl was late, so I went to eat breakfast, we had to wait for the car to arrive from another location, and so on. I kept my inner Brooklyn at bay and repeated the “This is Mexico, go with it” mantra and was just fine. Worse comes to worse I just add more sunscreen and drink more water. So by 9:00 I was on my way to the famed ruins of Chichen Itza.
Speeding down the highway to the C.I. turnoff, there’s not much really to see. The drive is through flat, drab scrub land. Occasionally there’d be a fire for the locals like to burn plots of land for some reason. Maybe for farming or to promote new growth. Besides being nothing interesting to see, there’s no roadside stops or gas stations either. As the gas tank edged closer to empty, I hoped there was a gas station near Chichen Itza or I’d be walking home. Fortunately in the town of Pisto near the ruins I was able to fill er up.
I had a bit of trepidation going to ancient ruins after my four-day trip to Angkor Wat so fresh in my mind. Would they all blend together like an ancient civilization milkshake in my mind? Would I be underwhelmed by Chichen Itza? There was only one way to find out. I pulled into the parking lot and made my way through the tour buses and crowds to the ticket booth. The entrance to Chcihen Itza is like a circus; groups of tourists waiting, Mayans protesting the exploitation of their ancestral home, a big souvenir market. I ignored it all and just walked up to the ticket booth, got my ticket and went inside. No need to be with a tour guide, I have an aversion to them since my Russia days. If I needed information, I’d buy a guide book inside (which I did).
Part of getting in to the place is wearing a day-glo wrist band that says “Chichen Itza” on it. Branded like a calf with my temporary accessory, in I went to view the ruins. There it was smack in my face upon entry, the famed pyramid that is familiar the world over. I expected it to be bigger but still was impressed by its construction and the fact that it’s still standing strong after all these centuries. Bummer that you can no longer climb to the top of it. A rather daunting task, given the tiny steps and the steep grade. I’m sure many a tourist has fallen from those stairs. Groups of tourists from Cancun were all there for the day, each nationality easily spotted—the Brits, the Germans, the French, the Italians, the Americans (always the fattest). Moving about in clumps with their guides, I would sometimes sidle up to listen for a bit before moving on. Chichen Itza is very impressive. As I walked through all the ruins, one thought kept going through my head: “The Spanish really fucked things up”. Well they did. If there weren’t so narrow minded and embraced this pretty advanced culture, things would have turned out so much better for the Mayans and their culture would probably have still been around prominently today. Instead they had to destroy their buildings, books and force the locals to convert to Catholocism. Well, there’s no way to turn back time now. I was impressed with how advanced the Mayans were. The had an observatory to study the stars, a school of philosophy, written books, a code of hieroglyphics and an interesting outlook on life. If they could’ve just given up the more barbaric things like human sacrifices and beheadings, I’m sure they get along just fine with the Spanish.
At the pyramid and the ball court (my favorite spot) the guides tell people that if they clap, it will echo 7 times. So as you walk around the ruins, you a trailed by a cacophony of clapping, so much of it that you never do hear an echo. Rather funny. Chichen Itza is more than just that big pyramid—a sprawling complex of interesting buildings and temples. I toured all of them until the mid-day sun zapped me of all energy and interest in Mayan ruins. So after a cool drink in the shade and a walk through of the souvenir market, I hopped back in my car and headed back to Merida via Izamal, a small colonial era town known for its convent and yellow colour.
I always believe in taking a different road home so instead of getting back on the toll highway, I took the backroads which proved to be more interesting. Sleepy little towns with brightly coloured houses, gardens, palapas (Mayan houses of wood and thatched roofs), people lazing about in hammocks, children riding bicycles waving at me as I passed. For the most part, there wasn’t much life going on in many of the villages. Being mid-day, everyone was inside out of the heavy rays of an unforgiving sun. I’m sure closer to evening the little villages come alive again but I was not going to see that today.
Izamal didn’t underwhlem me in the least. A gorgeous little town of yellow ocher buildings surrounding a big convent/cathedral on a hill in the center of town. I don’t know whose idea it was to paint the town yellow but it works. It’s especially impressive with a blue sky as a backdrop. Izamal too was rather quiet, with a few clumps of tourists to be seen walking around the convent. To my dismay, my camera batteries died in Izamal so I wasn’t able to snap away as I would have liked. Still I got osome pictures of the church and yellow buildings around it. After my little tour, I sat down to lunch in the marketplace across the street from the convent in a little café Los Portales for a carne asada lunch and a grand view of the square. The lunch was very good, I loved the homemade hot sauce of habaneros and sour oranges—two local staples in a lot of the cooking here. As the sun began its descent toward the west, I followed it through more quiet towns on country roads back to Merida.
After leaving Brooks all day to work inside, we decided to take advantage of the car and drive to Progreso, a town on the coast 30 mins away from Merida for a swim and dinner. When in the Yucatan, apparently, one must go to Progreso for fried fish. So after a swim in the warm Gulf of Mexico, we dined on whole fried fish, washed back with cold Victoria beer at Flamingos (one of Brooks’ Progreso eateries). We strolled along the promenade post dinner among all the locals who were hanging out as we were doing, past the marquesita and elote sellers, past the carnival with the Ferris Wheel all aglow, past the excited children with their parents. We drove home around 10, back to a Merida just coming alive with activity. A long day indeed for me but oh so enjoyable.

No comments: