A Yucatecan Road To Ruins

For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here

Christ Redeemer, Colosseum, Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Petra, Taj Mahal and Chichen Itza; the New7Wonders of the world. With both my parents and Justin waxing lyrical about the visual might of Machu Picchu it was with eager anticipation that I awaited our arrival at Chichen Itza. It may come as no surprise to hear that when a monument is classified to be a world wonder, people want to see it. Our passage to Chichen Itza took us via the smaller coastal Mayan site of Tulum where we encountered an attraction overrun with fellow tourists. Fear derived from this infestation shaped our attack on Chichen Itza, an encounter that was a joy, disappointment, privilege and story of unfulfilled potential, all rolled into one messy ball of confusion. A few days after the event I consider Chichen Itza a box ticked as opposed to a place explored and culture experienced, still, well worth the trip though.

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El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulcán) in the morning light at Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza marked the mid-point in a run coast-to-coast across the Yucatan peninsula from Cancun in the east over to Campeche to the south-west. Before setting out on this leg I first needed time to catch up with various things and generally reacquaint myself with reality having arrived back in safe and homely old Mexico with my head a whirl from our month in Cuba. This process took longer than anticipated so we ended up staying in Cancun for eight nights; seven busy days of journaling, sorting photographs, organising a newly transformed load and a very fleeting look at the dubious delights of the city itself.

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The Shermster and new friend Luci… fully armed, fully loaded and fully dangerous

It was to my great delight that Justin arrived in Mexico armed with a plethora of goodies. The opportunity of a cheap reliable and free courier service from the material world of the USA proved too much for me to resist. Eighteen months of travel had worn holes in my clothes, my assertion that I was carrying the right gear and my ability to endure life without a good quality cup of tea. Justin might as well have arrived in Cancun clad in a red velvet suit and sporting a natty grey beard for the delights he delivered. Under the tree this year young Mr. Haley found a nice shiny new camera to replace the one he foolishly lost to the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, a pristine and odor free down sleeping bag to replace a much loved but bulky synthetic one, a Schwalbe Marathon XR tire, some Rohloff bits, a replacement cycling jersey, some rehydration tablets, etc, etc… all the way down to vegetable stock cubes and the finest present anyone could think to bring a thirsty Englishman, two tubes of very fine Earl Grey teabags. When you get closely followed by security guards in every shop you visit and spend more time sewing up your clothes than actually wearing them it’s probably time for a change. Leaving the clothes that had formed my visual identity for a year and a half heaped up on the floor of a Cancun hotel room helped mark the beginning of a new chapter in the tour; a return to the almost forgotten southerly quest and emergence out the other side of the rainy season.

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Looking north towards the Pyramid El Castillo (The Castle) at Tulum

A short day south from Cancun and a night amongst the ‘beautiful’ people in Playa Del Carmen set us up for another short hop down to Tulum and the start of our Mayan ruins tour. The pre-Columbian Mayan ruins at Tulum are by no means the most architecturally exciting nor of an impressive scale, it is instead their positioning on a bluff above the emerald Caribbean sea that stirs tourists to smother the site. Growing up as a significant trade hub for the region, the city of Tulum blossomed late by Mayan standards (only about 600 years ago) and survived for an admirable time after Spanish conquest, before eventually succumbing to European diseases. What remains is significant enough to give an idea of what was there but  information is too fleeting to bring clear understanding of life in the living city. Trotting around the site at the end of another busy tourist day as the shadows lengthened and masses started to depart was fun for the photographer in me yet frustrating for the anthropologist and historian. We rode away from the ruins at Tulum contemplating the photographs we had taken but with no real comprehension of what we’d just been battling the other visitors to see. Pictures gained, an opportunity lost.

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Justin (left), Nathan (right) and a building of Tulum (top)

From Tulum our road charged north-west up to the picturesque yet standard colonial city of Valladolid. Our first long day back on fully loaded bikes for over a month was typically easy Yucatecan riding but also a reminder of the intensity of the sun. The humidity and temperatures have undoubtedly fallen considerably since my first foray across the peninsular but the body is a machine that quickly adapts, ours had quickly reverted to enjoying an air-conditioned Cancun hotel room. The next day we voyaged the 180 across to Piste, the jumping off point for Chichen Itza.

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We love taking photos so much that sometimes we even take photos of each other taking photos… Justin here snapping the observatory at Chichen Itza

The guide books always suggest visiting the Mayan sites either first thing in the morning or last thing before closing. Since our late arrival at Tulum had failed to relieve us of the crowds, the plan for Chichen Itza was to hit it up as early as possible. Thus we arrived exactly on 8am as the site was opening to visitors. 166 pesos later and we were feverishly prancing around the iconic El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulcán) reveling in the opportunities afforded by the fleeting pleasures of a deserted site and lost to a photographic orgy. Stimulated by clear blue morning skies and fearful of the arrival of the first tour buses we blitzed the site in an intense three and a half hours of shutter snaps and admiration. On our way out we fought against the tide, the flood of walking wallets had started to leak out of their coaches and had commenced the daily tourist inundation.

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The crazy architectural world of La Iglesia, Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is as much a world wonder for the story it tells of an advanced and now sadly depleted society, as for its up front buildings and material exhibition. A variety of distinct architectural styles are exhibited over a large 2.5 square mile site through various temples, a ball court, observatory and nunnery, amongst others. Everything revolves around the grand centre piece of El Castillo. Standing  just under 30 meters high and 55 meters at base, the creation is heaped with calendrical symbolism and reveals quirky plays on shadow and light as the days turn through weeks to months and the year comes around. The city as a whole could be as old as the 4th century but only came to prominence as the Yucatans dominant settlement in the 10th to 12th centuries. Political maneuverings led to a halt in the Chichen Itzas growth after the 12th century with complete decline rubber stamped by the 16th century coming of the Spaniards. From here the jungle started to reclaim the area before the 1920’s when archeologists got to work, a continuing project that has gradually led to extensive restoration of the ruins.

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The Observatory at Chichen Itza

We had intended to revisit the site in the afternoon and stay on for the light and sound show in the evening. In the end we devoted our afternoon to reorganising our loads before walking out to be disappointed by the light show. It is a measure of my thoughts on the place that having essentially devoted a day to exploring one of the seven new wonders of the world I lay in bed that night and thought only of the benefits of my rearranged load. Granted my new sleeping bag has opened up packing possibilities beyond my previous wildest dreams but surely Chichen Itza should have hit me with enough emotive charge to linger in my thoughts for a good while. My interest in history is supported by my university degree in the subject, a course that saw me specialising in pre-Columbian Latin America and more specifically the anthropology of the Maya (my focus being the village of Chankom just 8km from Chichen Itza). I was expecting fireworks but instead was left a bit cold by the visit. Don’t get me wrong, the place is incredible, but to my mind overly restored and with too much emphasis on tourism. The site is drowning in stalls all selling the same souvenir crap and access to many of the most interesting areas forcibly restricted in defense from the huge numbers of feet that tread through daily. More information, less marketing and a more obvious respect for the place, its history and significance within the world we’re visiting could turn what is for many (and became for us) just a fantastic photo opportunity into a moving and memorable experience. Chichen Itza may well be a genuinely first class wonder of the world, but for me, the experience of visitation popped its bubble of mystical awe.

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Another photo of El Castillo at Chichen Itza… plenty more where this came from

I’m hoping that my appreciation for our Chichen Itza visit will increase with time and have reason to suggest it will since my admiration for Cuba is growing with each day I move further from the everyday difficulties of being there. With Chichen Itza I now feel I have a reference point to understand more fully what I read. This was however not enough to save the similarly scaled ruins of Uxmal being struck from our itinerary. Fearing ruin overload we decided to give Uxmal a miss in view of our plans to visit Palenque and Tikal further down the road. This decision also saved us a logistical difficulty and route complication, leaving our path through to Campeche clear and simple.

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Not a bad place for a temple… the Castle at Tulum

From Piste we cycled three longish but simple days on the bike, punctuated with overnights in Oxkutzcab and Halacho, to Campeche. It is rare that I get to visit one place twice so it is quite surprising that a town as outwardly unassuming as Oxkutzcab should take such an honor. I enjoyed returning to the same simple hotel I stayed in on my previous journey north up to Merida and after a sunny 80 mile day delighted in the simplicity of knowing where to sleep, shop and ride. By this visit I had also mastered how to pronounce the town’s name! This achievement probably ranks second in excitement for these three days behind something far more fleeting: On the day into Oxkutzcab whilst riding a bit ahead of Justin I noticed movement on the road up ahead. I only managed to focus quick enough to see a set of large muscular hind quarters and long thick and powerful  tail disappear into the bushes. The dark brown coloring and distinctive tail leave me in little doubt that I saw a Jaguar, only a glimpse but still very exciting nonetheless.

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The tourists of Chichen Itza… El Castillo gets shamelessly pimped out to people like her, him and me in the evening sound and light show

Having secured a three nights for the price of two deal in Campeche we’re enjoying a couple of days in the city before moving south towards Palenque. In a day out of Campeche I’ll be dropping out of the Yucatan peninsular and shortly after that leaving Mexico for the third and final time. Thoughts are already turning towards an emotional end to my time in Mexico, an exciting return to Guatemala, a country I adored first time around, and a welcome, long overdue return to the tent.

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