A Two-Day Getaway:
Travels in the Mayan Interior, 02/11


We glanced at our reservation book for our B&B, La Selva Mariposa, located off the Cobá Road near Tulúm, with mixed emotions.

There were two days with no bookings coming up, so we decided to take the more positive approach, block off the dates and plan a spontaneous road trip.

We needed to have some paperwork for our title process checked, so we could go south to Chetumal, take care of business, and see one of the ruins in southern Campeche. Our last night could be spent at Lake Bacalar. I reminded Lou how much we liked the kayaking on the gorgeous turquoise lagoon. Within minutes, our plan changed when we decided we did not want to get bogged down with the redundancy of pushing papers at a government office, and decided to head west toward Uxmal instead.

After serving breakfast to our B&B guests, who would soon be departing, Lou took them on a tour of the property to see all the plants, water features and progress on the cenote we were digging, while I reviewed our maps and tour guides. When Lou returned, I showed him a possible route. I imagined he would think it was way too ambitious for a two-day journey but, on the contrary, we were on the road within an hour heading west toward Mérida.

I read historical and geographical information out loud to Lou about the sites we would soon be visiting, as he drove effortlessly down the cuota or toll road. Before we reached Mérida, we noticed signs directing us to the Mayapan ruins and decided to take a chance on this road, which was not evident on our map. We followed the signs and at km 43, a mere 2¼ hours from home along a well-maintained road, we were pulling into the entrance of Mayapan ("Banner of the Maya").

A busload of tourists was leaving as we parked in the small parking area. We noticed a few young men playing cards at the counter across from the ticket booth. We speculated that they might be guides; after all, this was siesta time.

The cashier greeted us with a smile, informed us that there were no guides, took the $3 US each entrance fee, and gave us a detailed map in English, Spanish and French of the 16 groupings of structures. The map was produced by a local hotel/restaurant and distributed as a form of advertisement for them (Na lu'um Hotel and Restaurant) and a godsend for the tourists.

We walked along the short path toward the stone walls and the towering structures beyond. Our first impression of the ruins was that we were in a mini-Chichén Itzá, with a well-preserved pyramid that was a small replica of the Castillo de Kukulcán. This 45-square-meter walled city, once a great Maya capital, has approximately 4,000 structures. The interesting thing about this site is that six of the structures are in different stages of advanced restoration. However, the crew of archeologists was nowhere to be seen, unless the card players were part of the team. As we glanced off beyond the manicured paths, we could see many untouched mounds that had been taken over by jungle growth. I began to visualize just how large the city might have been in the Post-classic Period (1200–1450 A.D.). It is believed that it once had a population of 12,000 inhabitants, and here we were, alone in the midst of an ancient treasure.

We marveled at the constructions in the Main Square built over foundations of rows of columns with temples and oratories, with an altar at the back and benches along the side. Signs in English, Spanish and Mayan, allowed us to be our own guide.

The round observatories caught my eye and I wandered over to take some close-ups, while Lou climbed up and went inside this structure, which was in the process of being reconstructed. He found evidence of carvings preserved behind rough screening.

We walked back over to the castle past the Platform of the Dancers that shows evidence of three phases of construction, which you also see in the other buildings in Mayapan. Jutting off to the side of the tallest pyramid, we noticed low palapa roofs built to protect the remains of carvings and drawings, typical of the Post-classic Period. The murals, painted red, yellow, and blue with black border lines, rest on a low-lying platform inside the Room of the Frescos and show scenes of war, along with evidence of the cultural links with races like the Toltecs from the high plains of central Mexico.

We could see that the large quantity of reconstructed sculptures made of modeled-stucco reveals that the art of the ancient artists was of very high quality. We found it strange that many of the faces on the sculptures had been removed or cut out, almost as if they were a separate part of the work. Later on our journey, we saw representations of the faces from these sculptures in an art gallery.

Lou was drawn to the Temple of the Cenote, but was disappointed that he was not able to enter what looked like a cave below. The hole, which is dry during this season, has been transformed into a home for a few banana trees and other tropical plants.

As we walked together across the dry grass courtyard toward the Room of the Masks, we were not surprised to see that giant, well-preserved stone-carved masks were dedicated to the rain god, Chaac. The next structures, with names like Room of the Turtles and Temple of the Fishermen, made us realize that the sea was also an important element in the lives of the indigenous people who made their home at Mayapan.

Photo: Chaac masks

As we walked out of the ruins, a small group of cyclists was entering and told us that they were on a 30-day bicycle tour of the Yucatán.  I could see the longing in Lou's eyes as he examined their touring bikes, and knew he was remembering his two-and-a-half-month-long bicycle journey through the western United States and Canada 13 years ago.

We discovered later that Mayapan, together with Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, formed a triple alliance with a similar centralized form of government. Mayapan was destroyed, burned and abandoned in the mid-15th century. We knew we needed to do more research on the Internet to see what surprises the later excavations had uncovered, but that would have to wait.

We drove off on the Convent Route passing turn-offs for the towns of Tekit, Mama, Chumayel and Maní. Each had a Catholic church with a bell-globed façade in various stages of repair. We stopped to photograph the one in Mama, which is thought to be the oldest church on this route. As Lou drove and I read the travel guide, it was easy to see that there are many historical sites in the area and we would not have time to see even half of them … at least not this trip.

We followed the signs through Ticul until we saw one leading to Santa Elena. I remembered a friend had stayed there at a B&B and called him in Tulúm to find out where it was located. Oh, the beauty of a cell phone!

We found the signs for the Flycatcher B&B, www.flycatcherinn.com located off the main road leading to Uxmal, only 15 minutes away. Rosa, the receptionist, showed us to one of the tastefully decorated rooms with a furnished patio outside. We were delighted to see that we had a view of the jungle paths beyond from our room and the patio.  We asked about the loudspeakers in the distance, and Rosa explained that a local ejido meeting was in progress and the leader was calling out the names of each member. She told us that tonight we would hear fireworks for a few hours as this was the last week of the town's fiesta. We asked if it would be appropriate if we walked into the pueblo tonight to see what was happening. She gave us a map and encouraged us to explore the neighborhood.

For a spontaneous trip, things were certainly falling into place and the day was not over yet. I grabbed the camera and we set off down the well-marked paths beside our room and wandered through the two-and-a-half acres, observing the tropical birds above us, interesting limestone formations, trees with twisted trunks, pottery shards found in the area and mounds suggesting that this too was perhaps a ruin site.

We remembered how we loved the manicured and beautifully detailed ruins of Uxmal and could not resist going to the sound and light show ($6.50 US) for a second time. We were entranced with the detail on the well-lit Magician's Temple as we passed by. Lou recalled that it was under reconstruction when we visited over five years ago, but tonight it could not have been more spectacular. We took our seats on the balcony of the Nun's Quadrangle and it was not long before the show began. With the help of a headset, we were able to enjoy all the details of the story in English.

The short drive back to the Flycatcher B&B was dark and lonesome, but not uncomfortable. We drove past the B&B to see what was on the road ahead and spotted a restaurant with an interesting name, The Pickled Onion, and decided to stop in for a beer before going to the hotel. The owner, originally from Canada, was following her dream, immersed in a foreign culture.

Back at the B&B, we sat on our patio enjoying the sounds of the jungle until the firecrackers got more pronounced and began pulling us toward the pueblo to check out the local scene. The crowd, mostly young people, was enjoying the foosball games and music blaring from the brightly decorated party bus. Young children, with their moms and grandmas nearby, were taking turns on the trampoline enclosed with a safety screen. A few takers were sampling the items for sale from the many carts and food stands around the square. The fireworks were scheduled to take place at 9:30 at the base of the church and when there was no sign of the event happening an hour later, we started walking home and passed families just emerging from their casas. We decided to keep walking, and took in the sounds of the fiesta from our patio outside our room. Before settling in for a restful night at the B&B, we talked about all the colorful and historical sites we had encountered on the first day of our journey.

Breakfast was full and delicious, and the conversation with owners Christine from Portland, Oregon and Santiago from Santa Elena made us feel at home. We were reluctant to leave such a lovely setting, but the road was calling.

Christine mapped out a "back-door" route to Chichén Itzá by way of Mayapan pueblo (not to be confused with Mayapan ruins) that was in contrast to the well-maintained tope-free route we took the day before. We bumped along through one little village after another and could not help but chuckle and get the camera out for some unusual, out-of-character sites we saw on our journey.

After a detour to Ticul to buy some locally made pottery pieces that were fired in large, stone ovens, we were back on the road. We pulled into the Mayaland Hotel parking lot three hours later and walked toward the back gate to the ruins of Chichén Itzá. The hundreds of tables manned by pirates, posing as Maya, selling identical souvenirs, overwhelmed us.

We had both visited Chichén Itzá before and chose not to take a guide, as our mission today was to photograph the pyramids, ball court, stone carvings and cenote of this new addition (2007) to the Seven Wonders of the World. When I was here almost 30 years ago, what I remembered most was the climb up and down the Kukulcán pyramid, which is no longer allowed. I also recall the heat and lack of shade, but today we were blessed with clouds and cooler temperatures.

Something we did not remember from either of our first visits to the ancient city was that the Chichén Itzá ruins are divided into three parts: the main grouping that is the most photographed and is distinctly Toltec; the central group, from the Classic Period before 1000 A.D.; and lastly, the area known as Old Chichén. We found the older sections very interesting and wished we had hired a guide to learn more about the early history of the Maya before they were invaded by the Toltecs, who changed their lives and culture forever.

We walked back to our car through the Mayaland Hotel, grounds and admired the towering trees and artistically manicured grounds that have always been an inspiration to us, but tonight we would be sleeping elsewhere.

The 30-minute drive to Valladolid is well marked and the road is in good shape. We knew we wanted to stay at El Mesón del Marqués Hotel, so we drove directly there and checked in. Our bellman told us that a local fair and cultural celebration was beginning tonight at the fairgrounds a mile or so away. Because of heavy traffic, he suggested that we take a taxi and leave our car in the safe parking lot of the hotel.

El Mesón del Marqués has a lovely atrium–style restaurant with delicious Yucatecan food. We have enjoyed their cuisine many times and chose a table in the courtyard. After a light meal, we walked across the street to the zocalo.

To our delight, hundreds of local men, women and children, dressed in their favorite traditional costumes, were gathering in the street in front of the town hall. Led by a group of drummers, the procession moved toward the fairgrounds for the initiation of the 2011 fiesta. The Yucatán Governor and other dignitaries spoke to the crowd of hundreds before the spectators moved on to the midway games, rides, music and dance performances, and even a bull fight in the arena at the fairgrounds.

When we had our fill of Mexican culture, we walked out to the street and hailed a taxi to our hotel beside the zocalo, and fell asleep to the sound of fireworks in the distance.

In the morning, we examined the many attractive shops and restaurants close to the main square before checking out of our hotel. We were delighted to see that so many of the buildings in the central part of the city had a fresh coat of pastel paint, and that new businesses were popping up on every corner. We made one last stop at the public market to pick up some fruits and vegetables for the next morning's breakfast. This brought us back to the reality that we had guests arriving that afternoon at our B&B, La Selva Mariposa, only 45 minutes away.

On the Cobá Road, not far from home, we were pulled over by the Mexican military, who asked where we were going and where we had been. The friendly young soldier checked our luggage. He noticed that our car had Texas license plates and let us know that he had gone to the Colorado School of Mines near Denver and had also lived in Texas. He had unfortunately traded his textbooks for his job in the army. Back in the car, Lou and I noted that never for a minute on the 275-mile, two-day journey into the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula did we feel unsafe or see signs of the drug chaos that plagues the border towns of Mexico.

We know there will be many more road trips in our future as there is so much we still have not explored, even after living in the Yucatán Peninsula for seven years.

Mari lives with her husband, Lou, at the elegant jungle B&B, La Selva Mariposa, that they own and operate off the Cobá Road near Tulúm. To read more stories by Mari, see Sac.Be.com archives or order her first book, Embarking on the Mariposa Trail, on www.amazon.com.

Akumal Villas