THE YUCATAN: A TRIP TO THE MAYAN BEACH
When the conquistadores sailed into Cozumel island, they were within spyglass distance of the clifftop fortress of Tulum, one of the last city-states of the Maya.
At low tide, the Spaniards saddled up, applied their armor and rode into Tulum through a breach in the city wall. Instead of being faced with an angry war party, they were welcomed as returning ancestor gods because Mayan artists had painted frescos of centaurs and other gods on the interior walls of the ‘Red House’ in Tulum — a few hundred years ago, all of the houses in the compound were red — possibly before anyone on this continent had ever seen a horse, much less a centaur.
But fact and fiction are woven into the fabric of Yucatecan history. Archaeologists say the frescoes are 13th century (aka: pre-Columbian) and urban mythology-busters say they were an attempt by Spain at early American public relations. The Maya had a change of heart about these foreign gods, and fought them for 170 years until the conquerors — along with disease and intermarriage — subdued them. Few enquiring minds even ask about the locked-for-decades house of frescoes* today, because Tulum is now at the center of the Riviera Maya. Ole!
Many modern Mayan city-states have the same sophisticated palate they did when royal chocolate was invented — 300 years before the Maya had a written language. Tulum is now cuisine central: begin at Cetli, which features chef Claudia Perez Rivas’ gourmet Mex as it should be, followed by the most authentic margarita in town at Don Cafeto’s. Sleep it off in Hotel Posada Zerosei: each of their 12 rooms has either a patio or a terrace; Hotel Azulik (a clothing-optional eco-resort with wooden bathtubs made from hollow tree trunks) or the eco-rustic Hotel Copal with its Mayan Spa.
Cozumel island has changed, too. Originally called ‘the land of swallows,’ Cuzamil was the county seat of the main Maya-Itza religious oracle that faded into the jungle with the arrival of the Spanish. Just 12 miles southeast of Playa del Carmen, it is one of the world’s best ‘reef’ dive sites: a high reef on the western shore (now protected after Mexico rethought its decision to have cruise ships damage the reef to tie up at Cozumel) causes a beautiful underwater landscape. It is still the most poular destination along the Mayan Riviera, and still has only one city: San Miguel de Cozumel to which the El Presidente Hotel pool continues to attract Bold Face guests, not to mention Admirals of the Mexican fleet who sunk two ancient battleships to round out the rebuilding of the reef..
Shaped like a fish, Isla Mujeres — the island of women, next door — was a major destination for Mayan women who wanted to worship the fertility goddess, Ixchel and insure pregnancy. The 8th century ruins are near the Cliff of the Dawn. There is a small Mayan temple, dedicated to the Moon and the goddess (made smaller by the U.S. Navy using it as target practice during the last war). There is also a pirate fortress, built by a slave trader in the early 19th century. The Cuevas de los Tiburones (Caves of the Sleeping Sharks next to Las Brisask dive sight): shark sightings are rare since the famous arch fell into the Caribbean after the last hurricane), but it is still the largest attraction on this tiny island. Other than the main street, here is no real road. There is, however, a Dolphin training facility, facing Cancun. The Turtle Sancturary protects eggs and turtles, both of which are released beween May and October. International sculptors Jose Luis Cuevas and Vladimir Cora donated their underwater work to the island. The best restaurant is a collection of food stalls inside the Municipal Market. There’s no telephone for the island’s most famous ice cream shop, La Coppa: just join the line for 18 flavors of Italian gelato, worth every calorie. Still, the most romantic spot on this romantic little island is the Hotel Villa Rolandi Gourmet and Beach Club: luxury with thalasso theraputic whirlpools and beautiful private balconeys facing the sea.
Slightly up the coast is Xel-Ha, another popular eco-destination for sun bunnies, most blissfully unaware that they’re swimming over a once large Mayan archaeological site, viewed only through goggles or a diving mask.
Merida is generally viewed as the capital of the Yucatan (the Maya called it ‘Icnaanzihoo’) — and the conquistadores chose it as their first base. Then as now, women wear lavishly embroidered white cotton blouses (huipil) over a voluminous white shirt, but Merida is called ‘the white city’ because so many of its public buildings are faced with limestone. Art is everywhere, even in the central market. Restaurants are many and varied from authentic to gringocentric. At Veggie to Work, they’ll deliver everything from baguettes to pasta dishes. In the Galeria Mall: Liverpool’s Restaurant is the place for the Chicken Cordon Bleu (at only 99 pesos). Attend a Monday horse show and lunch for $20 US at Rancho Tierra Bonita: the cerdo en salsa verde (pork in green seauce with potatoes) is wonderful — and you receive one free drink. Gentlemen still wear white linen suits and Panama hats.
Guide Oscar Menendez tours guests along Paseo Montejo in his horse-drawn carriage and says: “We get quite a number of Cuban tourists here — Cubans from Miami: Merida reminds them of how Havana used to be.”
But author Jimm Budd who, with his doctor-wife and three daughters, has lived and written in Mexico for decades contends that “In Merida, Cubans find themselves outnumbered by Germans, Scandinavians, the Dutch, Swiss, French and Italians. Tour guides call Calle 60 the ‘Colonial Corridor’, with the sidewalk cafes by the Teatro Peon Contreras and those around the charming little Parque Hidalgo, always busy” with gourmands lining up for for Lime Soup (chicken soup with a touch of lime) followed by chicken or pork pebil (not on the menu at local German hotspot: La Bierhaus). “Instead of windows, the Cathedral — started in 1561 — has gun slits as it was expected to double as a fotress”, warns Budd. Francisco Montejo, father and son, built a home that was a showplace: it has survived as a bank. “The monumental sculpture on the facade shows dad and junior balanced in triumph on the heads of defeated Maya warriors (and all of the women in European dress appear to have Mayan faces) — and the Montejos were popular enough to have a local beer named after them!”
A number of the original colonial haciendas have been converted to lavish resorts, with “Lemonade,” Budd says, “At 55 pesos.” Golfaholics take note: the Yucatan Country Club (and tennis academy) has been in Merida for a half-a-century, and Flamingo Lakes advertises 27 holes of golf. The newly opened Spa at Hotel Rosas & Xocolate Boutique offers a holistic spa experience. Hotel Medio Mundo is an intimate 12-guestroom hotel with colonial architecture and tropical garden patios built in the historical center of Mérida. Birders flock there in winter for the Annual Yucatan Bird Festival to see to see the migration of flamingos, herons and the quetzal bird (takes its name from a Nahuatl word, ‘quetzallis’ which means ‘a large brilliant feather’) which had great religious significance to the ancient Maya (www.yucatanbirds.org.mx) and is seriously endangered today.
There are few-to-no direct flights from U.S. cities to Merida, and most first-time visitors fly directly into Cancun, capital of sun, fun, ‘almost free’ silver, fake Cuban cigars and real duty-free shopping. If Merida is the soul of the Yucatan; Cancun is its bank.
From the momento you arrive at Cancun Airport (only JetBlue lands in Terminal 2; all of the other carriers are in Terminal 3), you see tequila — and Pharmacias. Whether to refresh your asthma prescription or purchase Lomotil (one little shred of mercury is said to prevent ‘Tourista’) on the cheap, welcome to the eternal sale. A near-desert island that became tourist mecca-by-design in the late 1970s, Cancun is a great place to drink, jet ski, snorkel, SCUBA dive, swim (with or without dolphins), sail, ride horses, speed down a jungle zip-line, rent a car or take one of the hundreds of tours to modern beaches and ancient archaeological sites. There are literally hundreds of tours available, daily; and if you choose an all-terrain tour (like that offered by Cancun Mermaid, www.cancunmermaid.com), you’ll roll from Cancun’s jungle to the beaches of the Maya Riviera.
One of the reasons so little is mentioned about the Mayan ruins of Cancun — a ‘golden snake’ in the Mayan language — is that it never played any part in Mayan culture, only tourist culture (www.cancunmx.com, www.go2cacun.com), which conspires to make it the most ‘first time’ visited destination in any foreign country. Shopping, shopping day and night: every ‘almost real’ silver jewerly shop seems to be wedged in between a Senor Frog’s, Carlos ‘n’ Charlies, Dady ‘O’s, as well as the Hark Rock and a shoppers paradise like Luxury Avenue with everything you’ve seen at home and more that are even more expensive. The hothot CoCo Bongo is still the place to be seen — along with 3,000 other revellers — and the exclusive Bling is open after 6:00 pm, nightly: try the terrace bar with your sushi. The glitzy Plaza Puerto Avenmturas is both a marina and nine-hole golf course on Chakalal Bay south of Cancun.
There are beaches galore, some natural, most part of a $70-million recovery project that makes them feel a little like white sand sprinkled over cement. Stick to the north end of any beach. Think Bahia de Mujeres and Punta Nizuc for underwater-gazers of the Gran Arrecife Maya, second largest in the West — but the undertow can, literally, be a killer.
The relative calm waters of the Nichupte lagoon boast water toys and games. Hotels range from the only nudist resort on the beach, the Hidden Beach Resort au Naturel Club which has 42 rooms to the fully clothed El Dorado Maroma Beachfront Resort which has 72 suites and gourmet cuisine. There are Big Box Marriotts next to bigger Hiltons and El Presidentes as well as the all-inclusive, spa-centric resorts like Grand Velas further along the Caribbean coast (the cuisine in Frida is a modern chef’s take on ancient Mayan delicacies complimented by over 85 brands of tequila on its menu, and a tasteful $1,000 Tequilas Premium Clase Azul popsicle with gold flakes — all very private, all very well-guarded, all deliciously close to the Cenotes of the Yucatan.
The largest cenote to date has been uncovered a mile-and-a-half west of Tulum, en route to Coba, a new ancient site discovered in 1997.
Cenotes and underground rivers are the only source of fresh water in the Yucatan. You can buy all the land you want, and whatever you find on it is yours, but everything under it belongs to Mexico: there are at least 460 miles of underground rivers and caves, caverns and cenotes, freshwater holes in the ground that lead to this netherworld of Rio Secreto.
Major Maya settlements needed adequate water supplies, and whole cities were built around these natural wells. The Cenote of Sacrifice in Chichén Itzá (the Well of the Itzaes) played an important role in Maya religious rites from its birth in the 4th century because they believed the Cenotes were gateways to the afterlife. An American diplomat to
Merida (and Harvard Professor) had bought the Chichén Itzá site in 1904, where he began dredging the Sacred Cenote. He recovered Peruvian gold sandals, a crystal skull and human skeletons (both adults and children) which confirmed the local legend, the Cult of the Cenote, involving human sacrifice to the rain god (Chaac). All of these artifacts are in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology — and, naturally, Mexico wants its booty back.
The Quintana Roo Speleological Survey maintains a list of the longest and deepest water filled and dry caves within the state boundaries.
Now that Chichen Itza has been made a New World Wonder, the ancient city is more clogged with tourists than ever: there’s as much going on under ground at Chichen as on top of it: beneath El Castillo, down about 60 feet (accessible by steps along the westernmost part of the north wall) is a room dominated by a jaguar with jade eyes. On the Spring and Autumnal equinoxes, March 21st and September 21st, seven rings of sunlight surround the jaguar: the source of which has yet to be discovered (open daily 11a.m. to 3p.m. — try your luck!) in this double layered pyramid. On the exterior, an optical illusion is set in motion by the setting sun on the northern stair, as if a snake is undulating down the monument. The outer structure was built with the Mayan calendar of four stairways of 91 steps each which totals the 365 days of the solar year. Along with the 18 terraces on the face of the building mirror the months in the Mayan religous calendar (they contain 52 panels), at the convergence of the religious and solar calendars. Near the Sacred Cenote is the Platform of Venus (represented by a feathered serpent with a human head: the tomb of the Chaac-Mool as Venus was both the powerful morning and the evening star). A 584-day Venus cycle was also maintained: many events in this cycle were astronomically inauspicious, and occasionally warfare was timed to coincide with stages in this cycle.
The oldest discoveries there include the famous Templo de los Inscripciones Iniciones (Temple of the First Inscriptions), and early archaeologists working for the Carnegie Commission wrote extensively about it and the Templo de los Dinteles (Temple of the Lintels). Now you can stay in one of their beautified encampments: the Hacienda Chichen Resort — the small, but expensively facelifted original 1923 bungalow.
The ball game — called pok-a-pok — was, literally, life-or-death: Chichen’s nine ball courts are the best preserved in the Maya kingdom; only Bonampak has no ball courts (but they’re the only site besides Tulum that has the same frescoes). On both walls of the long court are scenes of Mayan figures dressed as ball players, covered in protective padding. A headless player kneeling, with blood spurting from his neck (to form the nourishing waters for the corn) is next to another player holding the severed head. The objective was for both teams to put the ball (the first were human heads, followed by hard rubber) through one of two stone hoops (not horizonal as basketball hoops, but vertical), but is still not known whether the winner of game or the loser pleased the gods with the forfeit of his life.
Famous ruins are being rediscovered throughout the Yucatan on an ongoing basis. Along the road from Merida to Chichen was Valladolid, one of Spain’s first strongholds and the best mercado for Yucatecan dresses en route to the small, ancient city of Ek Balam (Dark Jaguar). Archaeologists didn’t get their picks in until 1997, but when they did they uncovered El Torre (the Acropolis), that put other, more popular sites, to shame. The Maya pilgrimage center of Izamal was dedicated to the worship of Itzamna, patron of learning, science, and the arts, healing and medicine and was converted to a Christian pilgrimage site by the Franciscan order after they arrived in 1549.
Archaeologists Stephens and Catherwood visited Uxmal (which means “Thrice Built”) first in 1839, then again during their expedition of 1841. Describing his first view of the ruins, Stephens wrote: “We came at once upon a large open field strewed with mounds of ruins, vast buildings on terraces, pyramidal structures, grand and in good preservation, richly ornamented, without a bush to obstruct the view, and in picturesque effect almost equal to the ruins of Thebes… ” Uxmal is in Puuc (Maya hilly country). During the 11th and 12th centuries, this was the most populated area of the Peninsula, and the major city was connected to the second largest, Kabah, (and its fascinating Palace of the Masks) by a nine-mile stone causeway, the Maya’s preferred form of transport.
Near the famous ruins of Palenque is the Colonial city of Campeche, most recently rediscovered by Francisco de Cordoba who spent just enough there time to say Mass before he sailed away. Had he stayed, he would have seen one of the Yucatan’s most impressive sites, particularly at night during the light-and-sound-show.
Bonampak’s unique importance comes from the vivid portrayal of Classic-era court life in its murals — the finest mural paintings outside Tulum (and, incidently, the Maya signed their art). Discovered by an American, Giles Healy, in Chiapas in 1946 when the Lacandon took him to the ruins, then overgrown and unknown to archaeologists. He lit a torch in a temple and discovered the interior paintings.
From its beginnings in about 600 B.C., the small and beautiful Edzna had a canal system that probably took decades to complete before the town went fully urban in 30 B.C. The Great Acropolis — and its five pyramids — was probably constructed in A.D. 500 and became the regional capital a century later.
There is still more underground — and under water — to discover in the Yucatan.
About the Mayan Prophecies: “There are no ancient Maya writings containing prophecies of any kind,” says Todd Smith of AdventureSmith Explorations, “They were, however, extraordinary time keepers and their 5125-year calendar is coming to an end.”
Introduced by the deity Itzamma, Mayan time began August 11, 3114 BC. The calendar — not time itself — ends December 21, 2012, after which a new calendar would have gone to “the next b’ak’tun (cycle),” says Sandra Noble, executive director of the Mesoamerican research organization FAMSI. “For the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle,” which occurred every 52 years.
Box: Sites and Sounds:
The largest and most historically important archaeological sites include:
(seats) Bacalar (Bacalar) · Cozumel (San Miguel de Cozumel) · Felipe Carrillo Puerto (Felipe Carrillo Puerto) · Isla
Mujeres (Isla Mujeres) · Othón P. Blanco (Chetumal) · Benito Juárez (Cancún) · José María Morelos (José María
Morelos) · Lázaro Cárdenas (Kantunilkín) · Solidaridad (Playa del Carmen) · Tulum (Tulum)
Points/Sites of interest:
Akumal · Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park · Banco Chinchorro · Chacchoben · Coba · Isla Contoy · Isla Holbox ·
Kohunlich · Mahahual · Muyil · Puerto Morelos · Punta Allen · Punta Sur · Riviera Maya · San Gervasio · Sian Ka’an ·
Tulum · Xcalak · Xcaret · Xel Ha · Yo’okop
*The only other Mayan frescoes — which depict blood sports, torture and war-like rituals — are found at Bonampak, the only site that never had a ball court.