Date: Fri, 28 Feb 1997 16:55:49 -0500
Copyright (c) 1997 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 36 - Feb. 3 to Feb 23 Merida, Yuc to Chetumal, QR 22,654 KM (14,045 MI) cumulative
We returned to Merida just in time for the start of their carnival week, which is essentially their equivalent of Mardi Gras. Events were scheduled from Feb 5 to Feb 12 including a running and bike race the first day, nightly enterntainment at various locations, costume balls, and parades. We found the town bedecked with bleachers, chairs, barriers all lining the parade route for more than 3 miles winding through town. One thing we have to admit, the bleacher people in Merida sure have their act together. One night they'll have a stage, bleachers, chairs, sound systems, and food concession stands set up in one location for some late night event. The next morning, they'll be gone and another group set up somewhere else. They work magic night after night all year and really strut their stuff during carnival. We decided that whatever these guys are getting paid just isn't enough.
We'd noticed during our prievious 6 day visit people seemed to really put a lot of effort into making costumes. Fabric shops sported elaborate costumes in their windows that you could make with a little cash, a bit of material, and lots of talent. Sewing notion shops on the same street displayed patches, sequins, feathers, beads, masks, silk flowers all in every conceivable brilliant color. Crowns, red capes, and scepters were sold at the bridal wear and sewing notion shops. The crowns were made from an elaborate sculpture of white, silver, and clear beads strung on stiff wire and bent into a variety of shapes Some were discreet tiarras and others were these foot tall monstrosities that looked like overkill. These were all for the various kings and queens that are to be crowned for any possible reason.
Finally, on the first night we got to see the results of some of these preparations. In front of city hall the opening show was presented. It started with a skit about the Mayans which ended with fireworks being set off in the crowd, and I do mean literally right there safety not being much of a concern I guess. We scrambled away as smoldering embers fell from the night sky into the crowd and smoke caused our eyes to burn and lungs to choke. Then some of the kings and queens were presented, I guess the ones for that nights show. Last the dancing began. Children from 3 separate dance groups came out to perform, the first group the youngest the last the oldest. Music and dance ranged from broadway tunes, reggai, calipso, rap, and the latest rage, The Macarena. These kids were really good. They wiggled, tapped, strutted, leaned, pointed, and dove with movements much like talented but immmature Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. The crowd was a swaying and clapping along with them.
Most amazing were the costumes. The girls usually wearing some sequin covered leotard with colorful mesh skirts and the boys coordinating pants and jacket. Sometimes the look was very, very formal, boys in satany white tux with the girl in a long flowing white gown. Other times they looked rather wild, girls wearing multicolored grass skirts and boys with bright green trowsers. But the thing to watch was their heads. Each was crowned with the most amazing headpieces certainly rivaling anything you could find in folly shows at Las Vegas. In some cases a plume of feathers emanated from one point loking like the crown of some fancy bird. In most cases they had glitter covered cardboard attached to headbands with additional touches of feathers, beads, or satan. Colors were blue and green, white and black, orange and yellow, blue and white. I started thinking, it really wouldn't be all that difficult to make up something like that for a halloween costume. Just get a bunch of sequins, glitter, feathers, cardboard, mesh material, leotard and tights and you're all set. It doesn't have to represent anything real, just be colorful, big, and sparkle a lot.
Followign the show a band played on until the wee hours of the morning. We chose to skip it and head back to our hotel, the worst hotel we've seen so far. It's the bottom of the barrel, almost as bad as the rat infested hotel we once stayed at in Paris. Only in this case it cost just $7 rather than $40, so we at least felt we got our money's worth. Hotel La Paz is located on Ave 62 not more than 2 blocks from the main plaza. Intricate trimmings on the outside, large vaulted ceilings and a curved marbel staircase hint at some of its ancient grandeur. As with most of the old homes, additions were added and added resulting in an uncoordinated architectural mess. Then it was left to essentially decay. The inner courtyard was basically cement, only a few potted plants broke up the blaring reflected sunlight. Plaster walls were cracked, paint was peeling, tile floors were warn. Rooms on the second floor had ceilings a good 20 ft tall and ceiling fans dangled precariously from the center, wobbling madly when in use. The bathroom was separated from the rest of the room by just a short wall and as is the norm in the less expensive Mexican hotels, no toilet seat, no shower curtain, crummy tile, dirty floor, questionable sheets, lumpy pillows, and you had to ask to get more than one towel. We tried one room, the toilet leaked and didn't flush properly, the bed sank to the middle causing me to shift position all night and the mosquitos had a feast. Trying another room the next night we suffocated under the smell of something rotting, the wood walls perhaps. Now we're pretty flexible on our accomodation requirements, reasonable bed, reasonable bathroom, and clean is enough. Hilton hotels just aren't necessary. But this was just a bit too much. We had made two fatal mistakes, expecting we could get a good hotel in a big city for under $60 NP and paying for 2 nights up front. No more.
I found the riding in the Yucatan quite interesting, nice towns, friendly people, flat, and for once warm, too warm in fact. But not Brian. He thought it was boring because there were no grand vistas, the towns all look the same after a while, and it was too hot and humid. His three day stomach bug did nothing to improve his opinion either. Se we had a long discussion about our objectives for this region. Our primary reason for coming to the Yucatan, apart from escaping the northern cold for the winter, was to see the temples of Mesoamerica. So, to do it more efficiently and then to get us to a location where the riding is prettier, we rented a car in Merida and drove it to Cancun. We must have made quite an appearance, squeezing our bikes, bags, and us into a Chevy Joy which is only slightly larger than a VW beetle.
Our first stop were the runis of Mayapan, just south of Merida. This site was the main commercial center in what they call the "post-classic" period, 1200 AD, which occurred after the fall of the great civilizatons that built Chichen, and Uxmal. It was home to anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 people and the archeological site is as large as Chichen. However, the construction techniques were decidely less sophisticated. Building faces were plain having virtually none of the intricate carvings found at other sites. Most interesting is the fact that this is a site currently undergoing major restoration on 6 structures. This gives one an opportunity to see what it takes, at least in Mexico, to put these buildings back together. Most of the work was now concentrated on the top level of the main pyramid. A wood pole tripod was set up on top with ropes slung to the ground. Buckets of water and sand were hand wenched up to the top. We wondered if this were the U.S. if an electric motor would be used and perhaps a hose run to the top. Even though the work was mostly hand labor, it does provide good, steady employment for a large group.
Our next stop was Labna. Occupied in the late classic time, 800 to 1000 AD and home to 1,200 to 2,500 people. Yet despite this small population they managed to build a pretty impressive palace and pyramid. Here we started seeing some of the strictly Mayan architecture. Typically a palace type building will consist of one or several connected large rectangular block buildings with multiple doors. The overall building height is about 20 ft. The bottom half, containing the doors, usually does not have any decoration. The top half houses the vaulted ceiling and is usually loaded with intricatly carved stone. The carving usually has a geometric quality, blocks, triangles, squared off spirals, Xs. There are also carvings of the rain god Chac with its long curled nose, snakes, serpants, human figures, some birds and animals, and often a representation of the typical oval home, called a na, graces many a door header. The carving is very, very deep and the figures are fairly simply. There's few attempts to carve detailed feathers and such. But because the carving is so deep the figures are easily identifiable even after years of erosion.
Our next two stops were Uxmal (pronounced ush-mal) and Kabah. Uxmal was important in the Late Classic period, (600 to 900 AD), is almost as large as Chichen, and has almost as many visitors. The style is mainly PUUC Mayan, PUUC being the Mayan name for the hills of the western Yucatan penninsula. Its most prominant feature is the great pyramid. 39 meters tall, it is taller and steeper than the great pyramid of Chichen. There's little carving on the pyramid except for at the top. It's just its shear size that is so intriquing. Climbing to the top yields a nice view of the surrounding buildings. But, my heart just about stopped as I turned to head back down. The steps have the height of a normal step but only about half the width. They did this on purpose to force you to climb sideways and slowly in respect to the gods. One wrong step, or slip and you'll tumble to a painful demise. Steel chains have been strung along the steps for balance, but getting down definitly gave me the shudders.
The more interesting buildings were the casa de monjas (nunnery) so named by the Spanish because of its resemblance to a convent in Europe, and the large government palace. These buildings had top level frescos that were simply amazing, prime examples of Mayan art at its best. Despite all the carvings found at Uxmal I personally found the site of Kabah to be the best. Occupied at the same time as Uxmal it was a small satellite city of Uxmal. Currently only about 3 buildings and an arch over the end of the road, sacbe, leading to Uxmal have been restored. One of those buildings called the Palace of Masks or Codz Poop is about 100 ft long and has one side covered with over 300 masks of Chac. The other side is covered in Xs next to the doors and has human warrior figures above the doors. The amount of carving required to produce that entire wall of Chacs must have been enormous. Many of the masks have been rebuilt, but still many more lay in pieces scattered all over the grounds. Parts of the cheeks, nose, eyes, ears are lying sometimes in an ordered fashion and sometimes just random, almost as though someone started to put it together but never finished. I can see this would be a puzzle lover's dream to have the opportunity to reassemble the entire wall.
One thing I noticed about Chac is it looks an awful lot like a representation of an elephant. Its long curling nose curls up or down very much like an elephant's trunk. It seems to have big round teeth, big eyes and ears, and even some look like they have a representation of a tusk. I can't help but wonder it this rain god isn't actually some long ago memory of the mastadon. Also, there are few reprentations of war and none of human sacrifice among the Mayan carvings. Unlike the Toltecs the Mayans were not as warlike and did not participate in the blody practice of human sacrifice. This came later when the Toltecs arrived.
Our final stop was at the most famous site of Chichen Itsa. This is the site that is so often shown in the travel brochures, with its large pyramid and interesting statue of Chac mool (water god) lying on its back with head held up, its large ball court and astonomical observatory. It's closer to Cancun and much more crowded than any other site. It does provide a good opportunity to compare the differences in the carvings of the Mayans and the Toltecs. It was occupied and abandoned several times, 500-900 AD and again 1000 Ad, which gave rise to the different styles found in one location.
The carving style of the Toltecs seems to be more a base relief form. Representations of humans, animals, plants, and the planet Venus (god of war) are carved no more than about 1 to 2 inches deep on the stone, much like a picture. These were often subsequently painted in red, yellow, green, blue. The figures are much more intricate than the Mayan style. There are detailed carvings of warriors wearing feathered head dresses and body armor carrying clubs and arrows, or similar carvings of ball players, and carvings of eagles with all the feathers carefully defined.
There are a lot of images of death and violence. In the large ball court are frescos showing 14 players lined up on either side of a ball decorated with a human skull. One player holds a knife in one hand and a human head in the other. The player on the other side of the ball is decapitated and blood gushes out on to the ground. The punishment for losing the game is losing your head, an interesting twist to add to today's championship games. One temple has the sides covered with representations of skulls stacked on poles, presumably the heads of prisoners, and eagles and panthers holding human hearts. There's also one large cenote where excavation has uncovered remains of many skeltons, young and old alike, clearly showing it was used for sacrificial victims. Scenes of death, sacrifice, and war seem to manifest themselves in every one of the Toltec buidings. Yet this is almost nonexistant in the Mayan architecture.
There is also a lot of evidence of the Mayan and Toltec mathematical skills. The pyramid, El Castillo, was entirely designed around the Mayan calander. There are 4 stairways with 91 steps each. That plus the top level makes 365 days for the Mayan year. There are 18 levels on each side, 9 on each side of the stairway, which represent the 18 months. On each facad are 52 flat panels which represents the 52 year cycle of Mayan life. It is said that the Mayans renewed their life every 52 years. They would take all the old stuff, buildings, furniture, etc, break it apart, cover it with cement, and build anew. Most amazing is the shadow effect that happens only on the spring and autum equinoxes. The shadows aganst the northern stairway give the appearance of a serpent slithering down the stairs. This effect happens only on one day and lasts only 3 hours and 22 minutes. Evidently it's quite a crowd attractor. We settled to look at a postcard.
Sattered around all sites are numerous rubble covered mounds peaking out of the dense jungle undergrowth. Looking at them you could tell that certainly something grand had been there once. The hint of a staircase or the curve of a corner may show. But for the most part they look simply like piles of broken rocks. How in the world do the archeologists ever come up with their detailed drawings without having to reassemble the whole thing. I guess they use descriptions from previous explorers along with a comparison with other similar buildings. I'm always fascinated with how the professionals can deduce so much from just bits and pieces of scattered information. Maybe in my next life I'll come back as an archeologist.
>From the jungle surrounded Mayan ruins of an age long ago we descended into the ultra modern world of Cancun. Until the mid 60s Cancun was just a sleepy fishing village frequented by only hippy surfers. The Mexican government decided to create a resort and the modern Cancun is the result. Take the super expensive hotels of Miami Beach or Las Vegas, beat in a pinch of overpriced shopping malls, double helpings of any kind of American restaurant chain you can imagine, and lots of grocery stores filled with American products. Gently fold in a bit of Mexican language and that ever present Mexican sales tactics, bake in massive sunshine and decorate with swaying palms, clear blue water and live reefs and you've got a perfect recipe for a resort town. This is absolutely unlike any other place in Mexico. For anyone to go to Cancun and then claim they've visited Mexico is ludicrous.
With a bit of searching it is possible to find a good deal on both hotels and food. First say "no, no, no" to all those hawkers. Then head away from the beach for the best restaurants. But, best of all, make a reservation for a cabana at the youth hostel. Huge rooms with 4 large beds, refrigerator, full bathrooms, and air conditioning (if it works) right on a white sandy beach all for just $154 NP (about $20 U.S.). Everyone else is paying well over $200 U.S. for the exact same location, although better rooms.
One comes to Cancun to sit on the beach and, if your crazy, to shop. But, apart from those few items that are uniquely Mexican I can't see the purpose. A pair of shoes, pants, dress, purse, or whatever from Cancun is no different than one bought at home. Except that you have to deal with the pushy salesmen standing outside yelling "Amigo. Come see my store. Mas barato prices. You don't have to buy. Where ae you going." Going through this once or twice is tolerable. But out in hotel row you have to run an entire gauntlet of them. No thanks. I'll sit out on the quiet beach behind the hostel, far far away from the hawkers.
We were rather surprised at what seemed to be a distinctive lack of crushing crowds in Cancun. Considering it had something like 20,000 hotel rooms back in 1994, when our Lonely Planet guide was written, and could easily house probably up to 50,000 visitors the streets, beaches, and shops seemed remarkably crowd free. Yes, there were quite a few tourists, but not shoulder to shoulder, nose to nose. Even the youth hostel seemed so empty. We think Cancun is both overbuilt and has such a bad reputation for being so costly that people have started going elsewhere. That elsewhere, as we soon discovered, was further down the coast.
We did have to endure shopper's row for one purpose. Back in San Diego we had made what proved to be a bad decision. The trouble with bike touring is you always are making trade-offs for weight and space. We had thought we could get away with just our bicycle tour books and the AAA Mexico guide book. Almost immediately upon our arrival we began to regret that we hadn't purchased the Lonely Planet guide. Over the years we have found that the only series of guide books worth their salt for budget travelers are those published by Lonely Planet out of Astralia. They are the most comprehensive covering some of the smallest towns, give lots of history and points of interest information, have lots of city maps, have tips for traveling by bike, bus, train, plane, car, and hitch hiking, and include bottom, middle, and top priced accomodations and restaurants. But, all this makes for some pretty heavy books. After going without for 5 weeks, we finally broke down, endured the hawkers of Cancun, and found one for a very premium price. We expect it will pay for itself in no time.
We kinda dilly dallied around Cancun for about 4 days not really doing much of anything except swim and walk the beach. Of course that's because there really isn't all that much to do in Cancun except swim and walk the beach. But, at long last we did have to concede that it was time to head on. So we loaded those heavy bikes and rode on. We stopped at a gas station at the edge of town to fill our tires and giggled at the attendent's comment about our very Mexican looking cat, Nermil (Nermil bought himself a sombrero so he could impress all the girl kittens in Mexico). From there to Playa del Carmen we had a nice leisurely ride along the finished section of the new 4 lane highway that cars are not yet allowed to drive. The construction crew cheerily waved us onward.
We stayed one night in what seemed to me to be the atypical rustic tropical accomodations at, unfortunately, the east coast's correspondingly high prices. Several small buildings housing up to 4 rooms each were generously interspersed between tropical palms, hibiscus, banana and other plants and vines. Lots of plastic tables and chairs ideal for cooking dinner were scattered among the multi leveled terraces between both buildings and plants. Our particular domocile was a 2 story bunglow made from small, dark logs from local trees placed vertically and spaced about 3 inches apart. A white plaster was used to fill in the gaps yielding a very zebra appearance to the building. Two rooms, ground floor and upstairs, were positioned on either side of a small central courtyard just large enough for one of those plastic table and chairs. Stairs leading to the top rooms were simply constructed from those same skinny, dark logs. The ceiling was vaulted and even the walls of the rooms did not go to the roof. Odd decorations adorned the walls and ceiling of the courtyard, wooden masks, woven hats with wide brims and red and yellow cloth ribbons, a simple pendulum clock, four small bells attached to a circular frame that could be turned by a small mechanical man turning a handle much like a minature mechanical ferris wheel. A bamboo birdcage, paper Japanese parasol, and reed woven light hung from the ceiling. The door to our room was not much more than 5 ft 5 inches tall, latched with just a hook on the inside and a padlock on the outside. In the room was a small table, 2 chairs, small cupboard, and a bed with pale blue mosquito netting gracefully draped across it. Cold showers were outdoors and had short walls any one over 6 ft tall could easily peek over and the shared bathrooms were kept spotless. It truly was my ideal of a tropical home.
We spent the afternoon relaxing in our tropical paradise and wandering around the town of Puerto Moralos. Currently this town's only claim to fame is that it is the one port that services the island of Cozumal with a ferry large enough to board semi trucks filled with supplies. The ferry leaving from Playa del Carmen is more a hydroplane and cannot take much more than a few autos. But, Moralos is starting to be discovered by the overflow crowds from Cancun. Three brand new moderately sized hotels now grace its streets, a few small and expensive restaurants tempt the gringo tourist, and there are even 2 stores specializing in the T-shirt and postcard industry. Right now it's still a quiet, Mexican looking port but soon it will probably take on the appearance of the next town we visited, Playa del Carmen.
Ah Playa. We first heard about this supposed quiet fishing village on the coast of the Yucatan penninsula way back in Haines Alaska from the English cyclist we met right after descending from our long ferry ride. She told of us this quiet Mexican town where you could rent a hammock under a palapa and a storage locker for something like $3 or $4 U.S. per day. As she whistfully talked about rocking away lazy winter days in that hammock by the aquamarine blue waters of the Caribean we could just imagine this being a place we could live in for a while.
We were in for quite a disappointment. Right upon our arrival we were greeted by a couple of rather frustrated looking English backpackers who told us their horror story. "We spent 3 1/2 hours looking for a hotel room yesterday", they moaned, "and that was after a 15 hour bus ride. We finally wound up in that awful hostel. Today we spent 2 hours waiting in a hotel lobby for one person to check out so we could have the room." "Don't spent too much time looking," they advised. Their words ringing in our ears, we headed down to the beach to have a look at the campground. Tent city was what we found. Tents squeezed into every conceivable corner of the tiny campground. The streets were packed with tourists, trinket shops and restaurants lined the pedesrian street paralleling the coast, prices all were sky high. All those backpackers and tourists that weren't in Cancun have evidently migrated to Playa. It was absolutely awful. We stayed just long enough to find a comida corrida for $10 NP and headed down the road.
We finally stopped for the night at the Fide Caribe national park campground of Chamuyl. Now here is a quiet, laid back place. There's room for about 30 RVs, about 15 cabanas with hammocks you can rent, a small but pricey hotel, or for a mere $24 NP per person you can pitch your tent under the coconut palms on the cool white sylica sand beach. We had discovered the hideaway place for people looking for a cheap place to spend the winter. Tenters come down every year in late fall and stay through to spring. Now, the beach is beautiful, the snorkeling by the rocks yielded pleasant surprises, and food was cheap over in the town of Chamuyl. But, unless I was a fully certified diver, had my own equipment and boat, perhaps was even into fishing, I just couldn't see coming to this rather isolated beach every year to sit, swim, and play volleyball. Maybe a few weeks would be nice. But, I would quickly be itching to see some more of Central America.
It was at Chemuyl where we ran into one of the bike tourists we had previously seen up by Heasrt Castle in California, Mike. He came up to us and said, "You guys are sure a long way from Hearst Castle." We were dumbfounded. It took us a few minutes to recognize him as he had changed his hair and who would have thought we'd run into someone we knew. We spent much of the next evening catching up on where we each have been. Mike rode hard through Baja to La Paz. Taking the ferry to Mazatlan, he then slowed his pace as he continued along the coast. He came through Oaxaca, Tuxtla, San Cristobal, and then down to the Yucatan where he rode from Merida to Valladolid, caught the bus to Cancun, and then rode down to where we met. He was headed into Belize and in the next year plans to continue on down to Tierra del Fuega one of those Alaska to Tierra del Fuega riders. In Tuxtla he met a German woman rider to spend a few weeks with. Ute had flown into Mexico City, took the bus to Oaxaca, and was now riding into Central America until her money runs out. In general it sounded as though Mike's experience in Mexico mirrors our own, people are nice, rumors of bandits are overblown, terrain described in our biking Mexico book is not that bad, costs are about 40 to 50% higher than in the Lonely Planet guide, drivers are great, and the Yucatan riding is dull, flat, and hot. As Mike and Ute left in the morning to head onto Tulum we couldn't help but wonder if we'd see either of them again and when we'll run into the other tourist we know who was headed this way, Randy.
We chose to stay in the park one more day to get a little more use out of our snorkel equipment before having to give it up. A short 3 mile hike south along a back calle blanca (white road referring to an unpaved road in the Yucatan that looks white due to the limestone) we found ourselves at the lagoon park called Xel-ha (chel A). This is a beautiful, aquamarine inlet with rocky shores and reefs that are ideal for snorkeling. Over the years it's become a bit of a Disneyland type of attraction. Entrance is rediculously expensive, $10 US, there are overpriced restaurants, bar, and snorkel rental. It was debatable whether that was worth it.
Floating under one of the blue Xel-ha inner tubes, my breath coming out somewhat ragged from the snorkel, I tried to remain as quiet and motionless as possible. Thousands of colorful, but blurry looking to me, fish floated, swam, danced, and played effortlessly around me. Small 2 inch fish with yellow and black stipes warily kept their distance, fish that looked like irredescent rainbows pecked at the rocks under my feet, big 2 ft fish with red, gray, and blue swam past me just out of reach, white ghost like and pale yellow fish blended in with the sand or grass covered rocks, a sting ray circled the sand below me going around, around, and under, a school of silver fish swam up, around me, and back out of the bay as if to say "we're not afraid of you, just checking you out." My reverie was broken only by the occasional inconsiderate thrashing of someone who hadn't grasp the concept that the quieter you are the more fish you'll see. For this brief moment in time I became part of a seaquarium, wishing I could swim, or more aptly fly, with the fish in this spectacular ocean environment. I also couldn't help but wish I could see it better. For a person who can't see the chart, much less the E on the chart, I suppose I didn't do too bad.
The gringo tourist trail continues only as far south as the tiny town of Tulum. Tulum seems to have gradually become the place that people go to find quiet beaches to spend the winter. An interesting eclectic and international crowd of tourists mill around. From the ritsy Cancun hotel type who've come down to Tulum only to visit the Mayan ruins to many rather beach bum looking people who camp on the beach or rent, for a long time, a rustic cabana. Volleyball nets are standard equipment at every cabana and hotel.
It was at Tulum where we solved one of those strange mysteries of our travels. Back in June when we were in Anchorage, AK shopping at the REI we saw three identical white vans in the parking lot. They are the extra long passenger type van, have a large rack on top, carry one blue and one red cooler on top, and a big blue tarp covering luggage in front of the coolers. To our amazement we've seen these vans in BC, Oregon, California, Baja, and now way down here in Tulum. Curiosity killing me, I went up and asked, "Were you guys in Alaska this past summer?" I got a big smile and "No, but someone from my comapny was." Turns out to be an organization that specializes in adventure camping for 18 to 83 year olds. They cover the entire west of North America from Alaska to Tical in Guatamala. Their name, Chek America. Now we know.
The ruins of Tulum are much smaller and less impressive than any we'd seen so far. It's main attraction is its location, perched on cliffs overlooking that incredible aquamarine ocean. Tulum was the last of the great Mayan cities to be built and was inhabited in the 15th and 16th century. When the Spanish came it was in its full glory, imposing rock structures painted in white, red, blue and green. Upon close inspection it's easy to see that it was built when the Mayan civilization was in decline. There's almost no carvings and a wall enclosing the city indicates striff between the existing Mayan city states. It was a bit of a disappointment. Not many buildings are restored and you aren't allowed in or on most of them. I guess I'd say if you happen to be going by, stop in. If not, skip it.
Heat and humidity seems to really take its toll on Brian. On a day when we needed to ride 96 K to the town of Felipe Carrile Puerto we managed to get within 2 KM of town when Brian got really dehydrated. We pulled over, found a tiny bit of shade, and started pumping him full of water. Over 2 liters later he was still drinking and nothing was coming out. We've decided there has to be a new rule. Every 10K we pull over for a long water break and Brian should drink a miniiiimum of 1/2 liter each stop. For some reason I don't seem to be quite as affected.
Route 307 passes by the most amazing lake, Laguna Bacalar, also known as the lake of 7 colors. The blues of the lake change from a dark, dark green, a light blue, aquamarine, to a light, light green. The colors change and coalece like a huge blue opal. We took a campsite right on the pretty lake the first night and I couldn't resist an early morning dip while the waters were calm. Afternoon winds gave my opal lake a rugged appearance and we moved into a hotel to avoid losing our fragile tent.
Bacalar was one of those towns that will not bring great memories. The road fronting the lake is lined with some really nice, expensive homes, weekend homes for the wealthy. Each home has a small cottage in front for the hired help who seem to stay around full time. Some of the servents had real nice little block style houses with their own bath, electricity, and TV antenna. Others had little more than a stick shack. I think if I had one of these nice houses I'd build a nice, small house for my servents. I couldn't stand the idea of my hired help living in just a shack.
The rest of the town seeemed to be a mixture of very poor and middle class. Very nice 2 story block homes with spotless yards sat next to shacks with pigs and chickens running in the yard. For a town of 7,000 there were very few shopping opportunities, only small abarrotes, very few clothing stores, just a few restaurants. The children also seemed to be a bit impolite, as though they resented any gringo intrusion. Many laughed as we passed, pointed their fingers, yelled clearly derrogatory comments, and one even kicked a soccer ball in Brian's way. We did not feel overly welcome, at least by the kids. The adults were fine.
Only one small boy seemed truly interested. A little 13 year old, slightly on the chubby side, with the usual dark hair, big eyes, and lots of street savey. Manual was his name and he's making money for his family selling frozen treats from a small push cart. He doesn't get to go to school. He was extremely curious about our little computer so I let him try his hand at a little typing. I got the impression he can hardly spell and has little understandling of what a computer can do. It's too bad he won't have much opportunities beyond being a pushcart sales person. But, that's the way things work in Mexico. There's no wellfare, yet no one goes hungry. They just work longer and harder. It's a tough life, but there are fewer drug and alcohol problems. People are too busy working to put food on the table.
The next morning we sweated our way the last 38 KM into the last town before Belize, Chetumal. Chetumal is the capital of the Quintana Roo state and is located on Chetumal bay right across from Belize. It's not a tourist town, has almost nothing worth visiting, the water is murky from sand churned up by the waves eliminating possibillities of snorkling, and shop keepers tend to ignore the few gringos that happen to find their way here. It is a good place for tired, hot bikers to stop, clean clothes, resupply, rehydrate, and rest.
For us it was also an opportunity to prepae for our travels in Guatamala and Belize as consulates for both are located in Chetumal. Guatamala's consulate is located in what looks like a large, pink stucco house in a residential area. The only thing giving away its purpose is the blue and white flag, definitly different from the red, green, and white of the Mexican flag. The gentlemen inside were friendly and curious about our travels, provided lots of brochures and a country map for free. But, when we asked about possible perils on the roads of Guatamala they gave us the official line of , "no problema." Now we happen to have heard from several sources that armed robberies by men dressed as both police and army regulars happen in some of the remote and tourist frequented areas, like the road to Tikal, with sufficient frequency to warrent extra caution. So we immediately discounted their assurances and decided we'd continue asking local citizens as we get closer as to the security conditions. The locals are more apt to give a truer account.
We happened to mention that we were traveling by bike and wanted to know if there might be any visa or tourist requirements. We were quickly told that no tourist card was required and no fee at the border had to be paid. It's supposed to be a new law. However, we'll see if the border guards have gotten the same message. I kinda doubt it. They did say that we'd need papers for the bikes which is where our sort of joke comes into play. While in San Diego I sat down with a copy of my birth certificate and using it as a template created a phoney Certificat of Registration from the Commonwealth of Wyoming for each of our bikes. It's got a fancy border, seals at the top and in one corner, and some official sounding language that states the bike has beeen registered in our names with the Office of Vital Statistics in Wyoming. I whipped this out, showed it to the consulate official. He smiled and said, "Es bueno." I bit my tounge until we could get out of ear shot and then let go with a good laugh. As far as Wyoming is concerned they don't know and could care less if we ever owned Trek mountain bikes. But, I doubt most officials in Latin America have ever heard of Wyoming much less know where it is or whether they even have a bike registery. As long as they accept our phoney document, who cares. This was one tip from our Biking Latin America book that may prove to avoid a lot of hassle.
The Belizian consulate was much harder to locate. First, it's not at the address listed by Lonely Planet. It's street number seems to be 226 rather than 266 which places it 4 blocks closer to the center. Second, it' just a teeny, tiny store front painted dart blue over the door indicating it's the consulate. Finally, there's no flag which is usually a dead give-away. We literally walked past it 3 times before we realized this grubby looking store was what we were looking for. Staff inside seemed to be less than happy to see us and literature was scarce. No free maps here. I guess as far as economic status goes, Belize must be wors off than Guatamala right now. Surprisingly, they did not speak English or even the odd Belizian style of English.
The one and only item worth a visit in Chetumal, and well worth it, is the Museo de Cultura Maya. It's a brand new, orange and gold stucco building with a prtty garden in the center, several rooms for traveling exhibits, an extremely well done main exhibit, and it's airconditioned almost to the point of being freezing. We were there for hours.
In the garden is a replica of the ancient version of the oval home called "na". It's constructed of vertical poles woven over several smaller vines wrapped horizontally around the two semi circualar halves of the oval. The steep roof is thatched with palm fronds and there are open doors on both flat sides of the oval. Best of all there's an explanation as to why this construction technique developed. The oval shape gives it strength in hurricanes. The high, thatched roof allows heat to rise and escape in the summer and quickly sheds rain during the rainy season. The oposing doors give cross ventilation and divide the interior into two areas, kitchen and sleeping/living area. Keeping in mind that people typically sleep in hammocks which can be unstrung and put away during the day. So there's plenty of daytime room available. Typical size is only about 8X4 meters, so they're not that large. Nas are still quite common in the small towns of the Yucatan. However, it seems that as soon as a family has greater financial resources they build a more modern, block and stucco rectangular style home. I suspect sometime in the future the "na" will only be seen in museums.
The main part of the museum is chock full of displays showing aspects of everyday Mayan life. Intersperced among an artificial representation of one of the dense jungles are scale models of many of the pyramids as they would have appeared in Mayan times. Displays of both physical items and computer programs discussed their use of the treasures provided by nature for food, ceremony and medicine, and every day life. I got a chuckle out of the computer cartoon showing the Mayans clearing the forests using the slash and burn technique and then the little stalks of maiz sprouted and grew. Upstairs is a really educational display of the Mayan calender, numerical system, and hieroglyphic writing. Again, extremely well done computer programs taught us how to create, add, and subtract Mayan numbers. They had a system of base 20 that included a sort of eye looking glyph for zero, a dot for one, and a bar for 5. Combinations of up to 3 bars and 4 dots would give you 1 to 19 ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, etc.
Even the calender is based on 20, 1 day, 20X1 days in a month. The only exception is their 18 months in a year with 5 days tacked on to get 365 days. Those 5 days were considered unlucky and bad things happened during that time. I found my birthday was 7 yax in the 365 day calender of haab. There's another calender used for religious purposes, the tzolkin, that give it the day 13 lutun. This calender is based on 13 months with 20 days so that it has just 260 days in the year. Both run simultaneously so that any given day has two sets of names and numbers. Every 52 years a day will repeat the same set of names and numbers which, coincidently happens to correspond to the estimated life of a person. Also, there is a long count of days that is based on some estimate of day zero when the Mayan world began. It's something like August 12, 3114 BC. So you actually have 3 calenders, 365 day haab, 260 day tzolkin, and the long count.
One final computer program shows some of the Mayan hieroglyphic definitions. So far over 700 glyphs are known, but most are currently undefined. They tend to look sort of square in shape with miscellaneous curved lines portraying swishes, sworls, dots, and lines. Sometimes you can make out the appearance of a face or animal. But more oftn the glyph is an idealized represenation. There are glyphs to represent names, titles, places, events, relationships, numbers, days of the calenders, and gods. With a little work one could begin to recognize some and maybe start to read the writings in stone.
The museum was well worth the $15 NP entrance fee as it finally puts a more practical light onto those amazing, but rather impersonal ruins we'd been looking at for days. But, otherwise Chetumal was just a stepping stone for our trek into Belize.
Appendix A - Route
Rental car to ruins of Mayapan, Labna, Xlcahl, Kabah, Sayil, Uxmel, Chichen, and on to Cancun, RT 307 and 186 to Chetumal
Appendix B - Campsites and hotels
Hotel La Paz in Merida 2 nights ($), Motel Cerro in Ticul ($)
Hotel Don Luis in Valladolid ($), Youth hostel in Cancun ($), Hotel Alux in Cancun 2 nights ($), Causa Joven IYH in Cancun 2 nights ($), Posada Amor in Puerto Morelos ($), Camp Chemuyl 3 nights ($), Hotel Cacera in Tulum ($), Hotel Faison & Venado in Felipe Carrile Puerto, Coquitos campground in Bacalar ($), Unamed hotel in Bacalar ($), Hotel Casablanca in Chetumal 3 nights ($)
($) indicates fee camping
First, we'd like to thank my father, Charles Johnson, whose diligent mail forwarding and other logistical support made this journey far more easier than it would have been otherwise.
We'd also like to thank the following folks for their generous support:
JANDD Mountaineering Inc for donating great bike bags and racks Wendy Strutin for archiving the newsletters on her WWW site, http://www.ot.com/~strutin Coleman Inc. makers of fine outdoors equipment White Lightning, makers great self cleaning chain lubricant TREK Bicycle Manufacturing Inc, makers of sturdy MTBs
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.